Investing in small island recovery

Adam Grydehøj introduces a conference on supporting rural island communities, due to take place in Shetland next year.

Those of you with long memories may recall my name having appeared before in these pages as the organiser of an academic conference in 2009 called “Taking Shetland out of the Box”. Those with even longer memories may recall me traipsing about Shetland in 2007, asking people what they thought of trows and njuggles – but we’ll let that rest for the moment.

“Taking Shetland out of the Box” featured 50-odd talks on island societies worldwide. In fact, the conference was such a success that, after it ended, we renamed it the “1st Island Dynamics Conference”. In May 2011, what started in Shetland will continue in Malta, and the “2nd Island Dynamics Conference” will involve 100 presentations on island cultures and economies. We’ve even begun planning the “3rd Island Dynamics Conference”, which will be held in Åland.

So, Shetland sparked a significant ongoing inquiry into how island communities function. Much as I enjoy continuing this inquiry overseas, I’m excited to bring it back to where it all began. On 18–22 April 2012, the Island Dynamics organisation will be putting on a conference entitled “Investing in Small Island Recovery: Archipelagic Approaches to Sustainable Living”, co-sponsored by the Harris Centre at the Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Scottish Centre for Island Studies at the University of the West of Scotland. The conference will be based at Saxa Vord in Unst.

“Investing in Small Island Recovery” has a theme that is of immense significance to Shetland as a whole. Islands face special challenges, including distant government, vulnerability to depopulation, and fluctuating demand in the global markets. The conference will take a close look at various ways of confronting these problems. For instance, in a place like Shetland, what are the benefits and drawbacks to economic development projects focusing on a single village, an entire island, or the archipelago as a whole? Similarly, what are the advantages and disadvantages to initiatives led by community groups, local government, and the private sector respectively?

The first three days of the conference will be devoted to visiting businesses, public facilities, and infrastructural developments in Unst and Fetlar. Then, on the last two days of the conference, our visiting delegates and local speakers will have the chance to give presentations on small island development. This will offer our visiting experts and the communities of the North Isles and Shetland in general the chance to learn from one another.

Certainly, the participants coming from overseas are eager to see how Shetlanders are working together to save their most vulnerable communities. I suspect, however, that there will be a degree of scepticism as to how much Shetland itself can learn from having a bundle of island experts over for a week. After all, every island is different, and folks in the peripheral islands of, for example, Australia or even the Hebrides have different problems to solve. It’s also true though that islanders share many of the same problems the world over.

Shetland is a diverse place too. Even within Unst itself, the various villages need to be considered individually. A lack of shops in Uyeasound and Haroldswick mean that folks there have to shop mainly in Baltasound or off the island completely. This means that although money comes into these communities, much of the money goes directly out of the communities as well. Without a retail sector, virtually the only way for investment to take place is in the form of specific projects; community facilities can’t just emerge on their own as offshoots of pre-existing businesses.

With the emergence of a commuter culture in Unst, it’s also become more important how far one lives from the Belmont ferry terminal. The opportunity to commute to work helps retain residents locally at the same time as it decreases the importance of the home community. No one would advocate making commuting more difficult, but the prevalence of commuting helps conceal structural problems in the local economies and societies.

Given that there’s only a limited amount of money available, what’s the best way of strengthening the resiliency of the North Isles? Do Fetlar’s community-led initiatives hold as much promise as private developments like Saxa Vord Resort? Or is direct SIC and Charitable Trust investment in infrastructure (harbours, community centres, etc.) the best way to attract new businesses and residents?

An excellent example of why it’s important to take a specifically archipelagic perspective is the case of truly peripheral communities like Fetlar, Foula, Fair Isle, and Papa Stour. I heard often enough in Yell and Unst that it would be for the greater good just to cut off the support these communities receive and to let them die natural deaths by depopulation. The assumption, I suppose, is that there would then be more funds available for vulnerable communities with better chances of survival – places, coincidentally, like Yell and Unst.

This topic is a nuanced one, and like everyone else I have my own opinions. The key is that this argument doesn’t just end in Yell and Unst. There are those in Lerwick who are concerned about funds being spent on propping up Yell and Unst themselves. Similarly, to take a step further back, in this age of government cuts, not everyone in Scotland is pleased with the idea of subsidised ferry routes to and from Orkney and Shetland. If some communities are expendable, where do we draw the line?

No one has the answers to these questions. As far as I’m aware, these questions have never really been asked from an internationally comparative perspective. This is why the Investing in Small Island Recovery conference has attracted the attention of some important international researchers on island economies.

Among the conference delegates will be Philip Hayward (Southern Cross University, Australia), one of the world’s foremost experts on island cultural and social preservation. I asked him what he thought made “Investing in Small Island Recovery” particularly worthwhile, and his reply was that “International consideration of small islands has too often been conducted at an abstract level. The conference will provide an invaluable opportunity for researchers to learn about private, public, and community-led initiatives ‘on the ground’. This will, in turn, assist the development of broader policy and theory initiatives.”

The development of those policies and theories isn’t something that Shetland should have to do alone. All things considered, I feel that the SIC and many of Shetland’s communities have done superb jobs of promoting Shetland’s culture and economy. In fact, at the “2nd Island Dynamics Conference” in Malta in May, I gave a presentation on this very topic, holding Shetland up as an example of just what can be accomplished by a smart, committed local government. I don’t think anyone would deny that there’s room for improvement however.

In April 2012, Shetland will have a chance to teach the world about its successes (and failures too), and hopefully, the world will be able to teach Shetland something in return. Anyone who’s interested in these issues is welcome to attend “Investing in Small Island Recovery”. We’d be delighted to have local delegates, particularly during the presentations held on 21–22 April.

To learn more about the conference, visit its website at

Also, if you’re based in the North Isles and feel that your business, group, or institution should be featured in the visits taking place on 18–20 April, please get in touch. We’re eager to present our delegates with as great a variety of organisations as possible, including shops, museums, schools, export businesses, cafés, and visitor accommodation facilities. If you have any questions about the conference, feel free to e-mail me at


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