Britain's most northerly man and otter stories

Malachy reflects on the vulnerability of rural communities during a visit to Unst and meets some of

I am currently in Unst, Britain’s most northerly island, proud home to Britain’s most northerly shop, house, church, chocolate factory, brewery and person (which, at some point this weekend, was quite possibly me). The island has also been home, since January, to my brother, Rory.

Reaching Unst is something of a trek. From Lerwick it is nearly an hour’s drive, then a 15-minute ferry journey to the island of Yell, a further 20-minute drive across Yell, and a final, 10-minute ferry ride to Unst. Beyond this island there is nothing except water – a lot of water – and then ice. The Arctic Circle is only about 400 miles north of here, not much more than the distance from London to Glasgow.

Unst, like most of Shetland’s outer islands, and indeed like rural areas all over Britain, has suffered from depopulation and a lack of employment opportunities over recent decades. In Shetland, as elsewhere, people tend to gravitate towards the largest centres of population – in our case, Lerwick – and this inevitably makes it difficult to retain employment, and to attract new people to live and work in more remote areas.

Here though the problem has been made even more severe by the recent closure of the RAF base, Saxaford, and the subsequent loss of jobs and families from the island. Although the closure was carried out in a gradual process over a number of years, the change has been dramatic all the same. In the last decade the population has decreased from around 700 to 500 people – a serious dent by any standard.

Rural communities are vulnerable to any changes in population and employment, and they can feel seriously threatened when problems occur. Much thought has gone in to finding a sustainable way forward for Unst, and the desire to create opportunities for young people and newcomers is paramount. Here, as in other remote parts of Shetland, many people are looking to tourism to provide the answers, and certainly a healthy supply of visitors is important for any area. But I am not convinced that the tourist industry, fickle as it can be, is where the solution should be sought. A community must first serve itself before it should begin to serve others.

* * *

Rory and I spent most of Saturday driving through Unst and Yell in the rain with no particular place to go. We had rather optimistically taken fishing rods with us, though the weather didn’t look too promising. I had also been hoping to see an otter or two while I was here. They are relatively common in the North Isles, although, as we stopped to look out at one empty shoreline after another, Rory was quick to explain that “You never see them when you’re looking for them”.

As evening approached we headed back towards his house in the north of the island. The rain had eased considerably by then and we decided to take the rods and try a few casts from the beach beside the house. Rory had caught a good sea trout here the day before I arrived, so we were fairly hopeful of our chances.

Down at the beach, we had hardly begun to fish when out of the water appeared a pair of otters, just 100 yards to our right. Entirely unbothered by our presence the pair lollopped slowly up the sand, pausing here and there to examine items of interest along the way. We watched until they disappeared into the grass above the beach, and then returned to our fishing, as the light rain became a steady downpour.

Postscript: Sunday 4th March
Driving back to the ferry this morning in wonderful sunshine, we passed a family of otters swimming in the sea beside the road. As we watched, the mother came out of the water and up onto the road in front of us. She looked over at us for a moment and then, perhaps hearing the cries of her cubs, retreated to the sea again.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”