Reasons to smile in the Queen of the Isles
What do you think of when you hear ‘Scottish Island’? There’s various things you can pretty much guarantee you’ll get: spectacular scenery, culture and heritage sites, quality local produce, and wildlife aplenty.
The first in our Island of the Month series, is Westray at the very north-western edge of the Orkney Islands. While scenery, sights, bites, and birds are certainly in plentiful supply, Westray has a lot else going for it. With a population of around 600 on 18.2 square miles of land there are a multiplicity of local independent businesses that compliment the traditional industries of farming and fishing.
Westray Development Trust (WDT) has a strong reputation across Orkney and beyond, for delivering on a wide variety of projects for the benefit of the local community.
Like most Scottish Islands, Westray has struggled with depopulation. It was this concern among others that led to the creation of Westray Development Trust back in 1999 following a community conference meeting. However, it was the decision ten years later to purchase a 900kW community wind turbine that was a gamechanger for Westray.
A key moment for the island, WDT Development Operations Manager Isobel Thompson explains, was when they got the 900kW wind turbine. She mentions the fact they got it “at just the right time”, unlike some other development trusts in Orkney, in that the turbine isn’t curtailed and they can sell all the energy generated.
“That’s been huge for us. As a community we’re not chasing grant funding all the time. We can cover our core costs, do our own projects and do our own grants but also attract grant funding. We’re really maximising what we’re able to do. That’s key to us being able to achieve as much as we have done.”
She’s not kidding! Fast forward to 2021 and WDT have an impressive track record of delivering countless projects in the community from health and social care projects, business, third sector, transport and education to a community run golf-course. At present, they have no less than 13 live projects ongoing: affordable housing, quarry feasibility study to tackle haulage costs, community fundraising shop, youth centre, home help service, community garden, broadband, phone box re-purposing, public bins, office premises development, community learning, website re-development, defibrillators, and an online media library to help businesses promote Westray to the world (phew!).
It’s clear that Westray has punched above it’s population ‘weight’ in delivering for the community, but has this resulted in signs of the depopulation trend being reversed?
On population, Isobel was optimistic: “The 2011 census was the first time in over 100 years that the population had gone up in Westray. Estimations [based on measures like GP registrations] are that it has gone up again since then.”
“The  census was at 588 – we’re pretty confident that we’re over 600 now. But the key way the community measures how well the population is doing is how many kids are in the school. If we’ve got a healthy school, then everyone is okay. In Spring 2020 Westray Nursery had the largest intake of children enrolled since 2014.”
These green shoots of optimism can’t be underplayed in small island communities like Westray, and it’s clear that WDT are acutely aware of the fact that some neighbouring islands aren’t in the same position yet.
“We’re all pretty pleased! We’re relieved we’re doing so well because it can be a fragile balance, some other islands in Orkney aren’t in that same position in terms of population unfortunately. “
When asked about whether the wider community in Westray recognise WDT’s contribution to slowly reversing the population decline, Isobel is cautious, but there’s clearly a sense of achievement and optimism for the future:
“It’s harder to draw the direct link with reversing decline and the trust because so many things are also part of it. But I think you can show how improving the quality of life here has made an impact on population. We’re also working on things like a housing project, to help stop depopulation.”
“We’re a really active community, we’ve got a lot of stuff happening so we just set things up ourselves.” “If you can think of it, there’s a community group for it in Westray.”
WDT supports the community from the youngest to the very oldest – from fruit snacks for the nursery to supporting the Friends of Kalisgarth group. This group supports the wellbeing of the elderly residents of the Kalisgarth Care Centre with projects such as pottery classes and the creation of a garden.
When island depopulation is discussed it’s often in the context of young people moving away to work and study. WDT are trying to support the next generation with schemes to improve access to music tuition, as well as support paying for tuition fees to study at Orkney College UHI. A diversified economy is also a crucial environment to support young people getting quality jobs in Westray. Isobel was frank about the reality of young people pursuing opportunities on the mainland or elsewhere in Scotland and joked, “If they want to move away that’s fine, but as long as they come back at some point”.
The working-age population are crucial to any island community, but the older generation are central to a well-rounded and supportive community atmosphere. WDT were at the forefront of a local campaign to persuade Orkney Council to set up a care centre in Westray. The Kalisgarth Centre was successfully set up in 2005 and it is clear how much it means to Westray to have this facility:
“It means we can keep our older folk here, because at that point folk would have to go to the mainland and some folk had never left Westray in their entire lives. For them to be able to stay in Westray, to be visited regularly by their family, and just be in their community with familiar faces, they look out the window and it’s the views they’ve known for their whole lives. It’s huge.”
So how did Isobel become involved in WDT?
Originally from Newcastle, Isobel came to Westray on a year-long research placement as part of the ScotGrad scheme. One year became three, and Isobel is now the Operations Manager. “You sometimes find the dream job that isn’t in the dream place, or the dream place without the dream job, but I was lucky to find both in Westray”.
Isobel was quick to praise the welcoming nature of the community: “the community here is very welcoming of new islanders, there is that understanding that you need people to come in to keep the island sustainable.”
“I have really taken to the lifestyle too, I’m one of those islanders who has multiple jobs. I’ve got my full-time job at the trust, I’m a coastguard, I’m an airfield attendant, and I also do odd shifts at the hotel bar when they are short staffed. And then I’m on the SIF Board on top of that!”
“Something I tell my friends from Newcastle is that, there’s this idea that there’s nothing happening in remote and rural areas, but in reality there is so much to do, and it’s not just about having multiple jobs. I’m learning all these new skills that I wouldn’t have had before: I’m part of the sailing club so I’ve learnt to sail a skiff… It’s really musical here so I’ve taken piano lessons, I’ve learnt all the Orkney dances, I joined the netball team for a while.”
A heart-warming contrast to the usual perception of islands being simply remote and lifeless – islands are full of opportunities for people who want to be part of the community and contribute.
Like with any island, there are still huge challenges in Westray, and Isobel cites the main three as being transport, housing, and access to services like healthcare. Challenges aplenty, but through effective partnership working, so many island challenges can seem less daunting when they have a development trust like WDT at the centre.
When the pandemic hit in spring 2020, WDT ran a ‘Reasons to Smile’ campaign on social media with a daily post for the first 100 days of lockdown – daily reminders that despite the difficulties of lockdown, there were reasons to smile.
It seems that the community in Westray truly do have plenty reasons to smile in the months and years ahead.
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