A mercifully calm overnight ferry journey and we – my partner Tim and dog Beinn were keeping me company again – arrived weary but excited to the heart of the Shetland Isles, Lerwick. This was the first time I had visited Shetland and I had in mind two things – puffins and beer. And our Manifesto events of course…
After bumping into Sue Beer, one of the SRA directors who lives on Shetland, at the Co-op, we settled into our wee flat, hosted by the lovely Sophie. One glorious nap later, and we headed into town to set-up for our first event.
An enthusiastic group gathered at the Market House, and we discussed a huge range of issues. It was clear that there is a strong sense of pride in Shetland, and the arts and social activities were particularly praised, but there are some challenges too.
Concerns were expressed about hidden levels of poverty and poor mental health on the islands, with unreliable and disconnected transport services being held responsible for sometimes severe social isolation. Communities on Shetland are disperse, with collections of just a few houses dotted all across the landscape. There are 16 inhabited islands, with a population of 23,000, of which around 7,500 live in the main town of Lerwick. The suicide rate is 40% higher than the national Scottish average, and residents were critical of the mental health support services available.
We were pleased to be invited to Sue’s house for dinner that evening, where she lives with four generations of her family. Her grand-daughter, Rachel, an articulate and passionate advocate for social justice, was willing to be filmed during the evening talking about life on Shetland for young people. Rachel will soon be moving to Edinburgh to continue her studies, and was open about the challenges of living in Shetland, again linking transport shortages with social isolation, a heavy drug and alcohol culture, and limited psychiatric services.
We enjoyed a gorgeous drive back to Lerwick, grateful for a home-cooked meal and good company. A long, but deeply interesting first day – which meant I really deserved my Shetland beer at the end. Item one – tick!