One of the main attractions to visiting (and indeed living) on a Scottish island is the sense of community. Whenever I am asked why I love visiting Scottish islands so much, I explain about how I constantly witness a sense of community that seems lost on the mainland. I also explain that this is not just on the smaller islands, where everyone knows each other, but also on larger islands such as mainland Shetland. this is compared to mainland UK where these seems to be a definite lost sense of community.
Below are some examples of community spirit that I have certainly never seen or been involved in on the mainland. They highlight that among the islands, community spirit is still alive and kicking.
On my first visit to Shetland, I stayed at a B& B on the outskirts of Lerwick. As the owner showed me around she said (and I’ll always remember it), “there is a bar in the lounge. If you want a drink, there is a price list on the wall, just put the money in the Honesty Box”. This was the first time that I had ever heard the term ‘Honesty Box’. After the short tour of the house, I reflected on the Honesty Box conversation. I could not imagine this happening in many other places around the UK and showed to me that not everyone needs to be treated as a potential criminal. This is not the only place where I have seen Honesty Boxes around the islands. The last time was at ‘The Green Shed’ on Muck and at the Canna Community Shop.
Another example that relates to me is when I was on the Isle of Mull, waiting for the ferry back to Oban. There is a payphone near to the Tourist Information Centre at Craignure. Being the conscientious employee that I am, I rang work to see if everything was OK. My wife had loads of change in her purse, so I took this in with me. We then boarded the ferry and set off back to the mainland. After about 15 minutes, my wife asked for her purse back. Panic ensued when I realised that I had left it in the phone box. My wife went and spoke to one of the crew members. They then radioed through to the Tourist Information Centre and asked them to send it over on the next Ferry. Which they duly did! Also on Mull, but the first time I had visited, I went to catch the Bus from Craignure to Fionnphort, to catch the ferry to Iona, as we had booked accommodation for the night. I distinctly remember asking the Bus Driver how much the fare was and he said, “Don’t worry about it, just pay me when you get off”. Again, a new experience for me!
When I was staying at the Pierowall Hotel on Westray, one of the Orkney islands, there was also another example of community spirit. The bus that took me to the Ferry made a special detour to pick up an elderly resident on the outskirts of Westray. The bus struggled to get to the house as the roads were quite narrow. However, the passenger was able to board with help and our journey continued. However, after about 10 minutes the passenger realised that he had forgotten his wallet (which he obviously really needed). He informed the Bus Driver who then proceeded to return to his house for it. The bus was going to be late for the ferry, but when we got there, the ferry was waiting for us and everyone descended the bus and onto the ferry without any recriminations or scowling face from the ferry staff.
One final example is when I was travelling by bus from Lerwick to Levenwick on mainland Shetland. One of the passengers on the bus burst into tears. A lady who was sat a couple of rows back, immediately went to comfort the lady and calm her down. Other passengers approached the passenger and checked that she was alright. At Levenwick, I was staying at a Bed and Breakfast that I had stayed at the previous Saturday. I asked the owner if I needed to be back at the accommodation for a specific time. She explained that she was going out for the afternoon on the day of my arrival, but that she would leave the door unlocked and to make myself at home! For someone who is used to locking every door in their house and being very wary of strangers, this was quite an eye-opener.
On the negative side, there are occasional stories in the press of incomers to small island communities who find it very difficult to integrate with the other islanders and eventually they leave to try elsewhere. The culture shock of having everyone know your business, must be very difficult to overcome and for some people may prove to be insurmountable.
As an outsider, I found all these examples of positive community spirit were unusual to me and they very rarely, if ever, happen where I live. Apart from the fantastic scenery and pace of life, the great sense of community is another great reason to visit the Scottish islands.