I spent much of the time in the run up to September 2005 dreaming about getting away...gaining some independence, setting out on my own, leaving behind a place I had long since outgrown. I couldn't wait to leave the island where I had been born and raised and go to university – the ultimate rite of passage.
After fifth year, one friend decided to apply through clearing to study law. He got a place and off he went. I was jealous. I wondered if I could do the same – I was desperate to leave – but, having been conditioned into thinking that you had to complete sixth year at school to succeed, and being a bit unprepared practically and financially, it was one more year at home for me. I can't imagine how I would have reacted then if somebody had tried to make me stay on the island after finishing school but that is the approach that is being taken now – encouraging young people not to move away.
Getting young people to stay put won't solve our problems. Yes, the islands need more people, especially younger people. In the last 50 years the population of Uist and Barra has dropped by more than 15%, and the school roll in my former secondary school has dropped from almost 400 when I attended to 250 today. But we need to consider quality, not just quantity.
For some people, staying put will be what they want to do and the right thing for them, but for many that is not the case. We can't grow our economy and population in a sustainable way by asking people to give up on their dreams and ambitions for the sake of boosting the numbers. Young people should be encouraged to leave the islands, at the very least for a few years, and then supported to return, bringing with them new knowledge, ideas, experience and skills, as well as partners and families.
People gain so much from leaving the islands. They learn new things, meet new people, travel to interesting places and broaden their view of the world. They get to do these things away from the microscope that is life on an island. They aren't watched and whispered about at every turn, they can make their own choices and be themselves. The opportunities at home are much more limited than they are on the mainland and further afield. Further education is in art, Gaelic or music; jobs are in tourism and hospitality, social care, retail or trades; and then you have to wait for people to retire, die or move away so that you can progress in your career. It isn't for everyone.
The Outer Hebrides community planning partnership recently published its local outcome improvement plan. As part of its aim for a sustainable population it wants young people to be knowledgeable about the opportunities afforded by remaining on the islands. Elsewhere the plan refers to using branding of the Outer Hebrides to attract people. But young people already know about the opportunities available, and still choose to leave. Branding is nothing more than lip service – the pictures and taglines might look and sound good but there won't be much in the way of results.
After being so desperate to leave in my teens, I did something I had never expected and in 2012 returned to live on the islands. Coming back wasn't an easy choice – it meant giving up my career in finance and leaving the buzz of Glasgow. My choice was driven by family life – wanting to raise my son somewhere safe, with smaller class sizes. It wasn't easy in practical terms either: we managed to find a house to rent but it had single-glazed windows and the only heating was provided by some radiators on the ground floor powered by a back boiler, heated by an open coal fire. Jobs for those with degrees (outwith teaching) were mainly in the third sector and on short-term contracts. Childcare was limited.
Things did improve. My partner got a secure job, we found somewhere better to live, my son started school. After three years and a string of temporary roles I got a job at Highlands and Islands Enterprise. But then we hit a hurdle. My partner enjoyed his job and was good at it but there was no scope for progression if we stayed put. The next person in terms of seniority was in his 40s and the next person up again was in his late 50s and neither of them was going anywhere. A suitable opportunity arose on the mainland so my partner applied and got the job. After four years back at home we were off again.
More effort is needed to make the islands an attractive place to return to – a place where educated, experienced and ambitious people can move with their families to take on high-quality, well-paid jobs or set up businesses – and more work still is required to enable returners to stay. In other places, like Poland, New Zealand and Hungary, young people have been offered financial support and help to find housing and employment if they return or move to an area that needs them, and they are supported to stay.
Young islanders are motivated to return home, largely by family and lifestyle factors, but lots of barriers need to be removed and a more proactive and innovative approach needs to be taken to make returning a sustainable option. We need better connectivity, improved transport links, higher quality jobs with room for career development, better housing options, financial incentives and more support for business start-ups. Current plans and strategies are not bold enough.
In the meantime, young people should get away, see the world and learn new things. They will be able to contribute so much more when they get the chance to return. And who knows, maybe one day I will join them – again.
Gemma Campbell presented this paper at the recent Young Scotland Programme