Chris Cope examines the dilemma that he and other graduates face after college or university: return to Shetland or stay away?
Shetland is a home like no other, with vast swathes of deep blue sea enclosing the islands in a gentle stranglehold, making it feel at times like a world away from the UK mainland.
Within these walls of sea there’s a distinct way of life – the dialect, the produce, the pubs, and everything else. It is island life at its very best, with community at the core of every heartbeat.
A large number of young Shetlanders head away from the island every September for university or college, leaving behind friends, childhood rooms, pets and grieving parents. But not all of these young people will come back. Some do return with their badges of honour, resplendent with a new title draped over their shoulders, but many decide to dip their toes into the mainland job market and to launch their careers in pastures new.
I am one of these people, having stuck to the Scottish mainland post-graduation after spending my whole life in Shetland. I lived for four years in Glasgow at university, and though I enjoyed a few summers at home during that time, the thought of moving back to the islands rarely graced my mind.
Why? There are a plethora of push and pull factors for graduates considering their options after university. On the surface, the attractions of staying in Scotland are career prospects, a varied social life, warmer weather, a different way of life. It is fast paced and changes direction like a speeding Vespa weaving through twisting urban landscapes.
For some though, Shetland has indeed been their destination – returning to where they feel most at home. Duncan Tait, 23, studied computer science at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and returned to the isles upon graduation. He made his decision after being offered a work placement. “Deciding to come back to Shetland wasn’t a very easy decision for me. Actually, I flipped a ‘lucky’ 50p coin to decide whether to live in Glasgow or Shetland,” he said. “I really couldn’t decide whether to stay south, where I had a better choice of jobs (not to mention all the cinemas, pubs and gigs) or to come back to Shetland where I had friends I’d known since I was five years old. I should also point out that the coin actually told me to stay in Glasgow, but then I got offered a six month placement in what is now my full time job and decided the coin was stupid anyway.”
Lucky coins or not, Duncan is pleased with how his career is spanning out in Shetland. “I also ended up with a job that is higher on the career ladder than the posts I was applying for in Glasgow before I moved back north, so I can’t complain.”
Duncan believes that, after spending their childhood ensconced in the isles, people will inevitably feel the itch to try out life on the mainland. “If anything, people tend to spend 18 years on the isles surrounded by Shetland dialect and Shetland music and by that time they are excited to get out and experience something different. But I reckon you could ask any Shetlander who has left for the mainland and they would say they still consider Shetland ‘home’. It’s a possibility that I might move south again, depending on if I really want to start climbing up the career ladder. Although, I would have to really want to because I’m far too happy in Shetland just now, not to mention incredibly lazy.”
But he also thinks that, despite most Shetlanders wanting to sample mainland lifestyle, certain ways of growing up – including living in a hostel at high school – contributes to the pull of Shetland. “I would say a lot of us who ended up moving back to Shetland were probably influenced by having stayed in the hostel. It was almost a stepping stone to living away from home and I reckon we got it out of our system and didn’t feel as desperate to ‘get away’ from Shetland”, he said. “Even in first year it was easy to tell who was going to come back to Shetland after they’d finished uni.”
Another Shetland returner is Bryan Peterson, who studied in Glasgow and who in recent years has taken over the position of music development officer at Shetland Arts. But Bryan says he thrived in higher education. “The best thing about full time education is the environment and mindset of learning. Having access to a well-stocked library, knowledgeable lecturers and time to think, and being surrounded by other students, was a revelation. It also allowed me to indulge myself in a range of academic areas additional to my qualification and I often sneaked into lectures on other subjects.”
But despite living south, Bryan never felt disconnected to the Shetland lifestyle. “I suppose I never really left Shetland. I used to come back north to work at the grasscutting each summer, something I’d been doing for years before I moved south – the grasscutting season works in well with the academic year. I also started the Shetlink website when I was on the mainland, which kept me up to speed with what was happening in the isles. And Mam never failed to send me a pound of saucermaet and a Shetland Times each week. But I moved back to work for Shetland Arts. It’s a great job – very varied – and although it might sound cheesy it’s heartening to be able to do positive things for the community that gave so much to me.”
But what about those who seek refuge in the big city after graduating? 25-year-old Andrew Goodlad has launched a new career in Glasgow after studying graphic design in Aberdeen. It wasn’t an instant transition however. “I returned to Shetland for one year to save whilst I decided what to do next. Friends from Aberdeen had moved to Glasgow to continue studies while I got a design job in Shetland. I kept visiting them and really liked Glasgow and moved to find a job there. I felt I had more options on the mainland and found the pay to be greater.”
He also believes that there should be equilibrium between the amount of “home” that is encouraged in schooling. “I was born in Shetland but was told never to speak Shetland dialect. I think it should be encouraged but also make sure there is a strong grasp of English. Children can learn to do both. I don’t think that contributes to people aspiring to leave Shetland. Most of the people who I am friends with from Shetland have returned to make a move later in life or to stay there for the future. I myself may return to raise children as it is a great place to grow up.”
There are, of course, those teetering on middle ground – about to start higher education or in a purgatory state in the middle of their time at university or college, unsure where their future lies. Jenny Heubeck, 17, is due to start studying art in Dundee in September, but her mind is already set in stone about her post-graduation plans. “Shetland was an incredible place to grow up, and I had an excellent childhood here, but I’ve always felt more at home on the mainland,” she said. “Living on such a small island with such a small population has its merits, but at times can be very isolating. Pursuing art as a career will also be very demanding, and there’s a limit to the opportunities here. It’d feel like giving up moving back straight after graduating. I recognise that my opinions and values could change a lot after moving away, but if they don’t, it’s very unlikely I’ll move back to Shetland. I’d love to travel and to experience living in new places – whether I get to is an entirely different matter, but it’s certainly an aspiration.”
And whatever happens, Shetland will always hold a vast place in her heart.
“Wherever I end up I’ll be proud to have come from Shetland, and I’m definitely planning on coming back to visit. It just boils down to some people being suited to island life and some not. . . Most of my friends can see Shetland somewhere in their future. I know a lot of people who want to kick start their careers on the mainland and want to move back when they’re ready to settle down and have children of their own.”
There are also those who come back to Shetland after university, but who only enjoy a short-lived stay before returning to the mainland. One of these is Jonathan Sutherland, who is now a broadcast journalist for the BBC. “To be honest I didn’t think very seriously about my options after I graduated, I didn’t really feel interested in embarking on a career,” he said. “I did odd jobs in Shetland and just spent the summer enjoying myself – it was 1999, during the Tall Ships event. Only once summer had ended did I try and get a job, and that was in Shetland. I guess I was always unsure about what career to go for, but I always had a notion for journalism and I suppose I always thought I could pursue this in Shetland.”
When asked if he would ever return to live in Shetland, Jonathan’s mind seemed focused on one direction. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I would like to have a second home there, as I will always want to go back now and again. But I think that if I ever get to a stage where I can have a second home it will be on a slightly hotter island. I think that my work makes living in Shetland not so easy. Plus I don’t think my wife would like it, being a city girl I know she would find it too dull frankly. The fact is living on the mainland gives you easier access to lots more things. For example we can just hop on a cheap flight to Italy or take a train to see a concert at the O2 in London fairly easily – the sort of things that are a lot harder and more expensive to do when you live in Shetland. And let’s face it, you graduate, get a job and work hard so you can have the opportunity to do the things you want to do.”
As for me, I never really thought I would return to Shetland to live, but I am still unsure as to reasons why – is it my background, my interests or my education?
Maybe I’m not the most apt person to comment. My parents were not brought up in Shetland – they both travelled up from the UK mainland – but they have now spent half their lives in the isles and are closely attuned to their community and the way of life.
But why is that pull factor, which was so strong in the past, apparently not so evident now among many new graduates and young people? Some may point to society educating the “Shetland” out of Shetlanders. With local dialect in education of apparently less importance than it has ever been – and allied with the proliferation of centralised media – there’s the growing concern of school children losing touch with their roots.
There will always be a merry-go-round though of Shetlanders heading to and from the isles to university. Back and forth like a fearsome yo-yo, some come back to roost in their cosy, familiar nest, whilst some inevitably jump ship and furrow their own path in life on mainland soil.
But Shetland will always be a special place. It’s a thriving arena of sights, sounds, people and places. It means a lot to different people. To me, it’s drawn-out summer nights, lapping sea, open roads, rounds in Da Wheel Bar and news reports on SIBC – but it’s still home too. My future lies elsewhere, but a chunk of my heart will always find a place to lie amongst the heathery hills and salty beaches.