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island conversations
podcast series

Kirsten GowIsland Conversations
00:00 / 57:02

"Island Notes" composition in Cretan Flat Mandolin by Christophoro Gorantokaki @"Melody Box"

Welcome to SICRI’s “island conversations” podcast series.

The aim of these podcasts is to highlight the work of island studies scholars and practitioners who make a significant contribution to islands’ research, arts, and culture landscape.

The podcasts are accompanied by a curated transcript that is edited to read as an independent piece.

Jens Westerskov Andersen

Hello and Island greetings. Welcome to the SICRI Network's Island Conversation Podcast Series. My name is Jens Westerskov Andersen, and I'm a PhD student at the Department of Sociology at Lund University in Sweden. I am also a convener for the Young and Emerging Island Scholars Network within SICRI. 


I will be today's guest host for this Island Conversation, so thank you for tuning in.  Today, I have Kirsten Gow from the Scottish island of Jura with me. Kirsten is a PhD researcher at the University of Aberdeen and the James Hodden Institute, and today, she will share with us some insights from her fascinating research in in-country island diaspora. So, hello or good morning, I don't know what we should say, it is 11 here in Sweden now.  

Kirsten Gow at ruin of family house.jpg

Kirsten Gow at the ruin of her family house. Credit: Kirsten Gow

Kirsten Gow

Well, madainn mhath would be the Gaelic. But yes, good morning! Lovely to speak to you again.  


How are you?  


I'm good, thank you very much. Yes, you mentioned that I'm here in the Isle of Jura out in the southwest of Scotland, and it's a slightly grey day here, but it's not raining. So that's a win for us. 


So it is perfect, I guess. Thank you for being here online with us today, and we hope that the sound and everything will be okay. I have a short introduction here to some of your work. So, Kirsten is an islander and an island researcher, jointly supervised by the University of Aberdeen and the James Hutton Institute.


Her research focuses on creating sustainable futures for Scotland's inhabited islands. She has a background in community development and the third sector, including supporting community-led housing projects across rural Scotland, in community, energy and climate change initiatives, and projects managing a national community-led island tourism project. Kirsten was shortlisted for the 2022 John Byrne Award for the installation "Remote / Far Away", which challenged the perceptions of remoteness and peripheral reality. In this project, she coined the beautiful phrase: ‘It's only remote if the things that matter are far away.’ We should get back to that at some point because it's really genius. 


Kirsten was the recipient of the best student presentation at the SICRI Island Conference in Japan last year, and she serves on some different boards also. I guess what I'm trying to say is that you are more than just an island researcher; you are an islander, you are an activist, and so on and so on. It's really fascinating! And I want to hear more about how you combine all these different roles. But first things first, what is your personal island connection? You are in Jura now. Why are you in Jura?  

Well, sometimes I ask myself that question [laughs] - No! So I live in the Isle of Jura. And for those familiar with accents, you might pick up that it doesn't sound like I've been here all my life, and you would be correct. This is a little island, it has about 220 odd people in the southwest of Scotland. And I've got long-term connections here through my family. My grandmother's family are from here. So it's actually my grandmother's mother who first moved away and lived on the neighbouring island before moving to the mainland. My gran was evacuated back here during the war. My family moved back en-masse in the early 80s, including me, and we lived here for a few years as a child. 


When my parents decided to move away again, I remained going back and forth. I've always had these dual aspects of my life. There's always been Jura and another place. So yes, there's been this long-term kind of relationship with the islands. It's partly to do with my family that is here, but actually, it's also to do with the wider friendships and networks that I've built up here over the years. It is the place I call home. I find it very difficult to explain what that means to people - there is a concept, well there's a word in Gaelic, and I am going to apologise to any Gaelic speakers out there because I will probably not pronounce it brilliantly, but it's 'dualchas', and that's about, my understanding of it is, it's about a connection to place, that is about the place but also the people and also the landscape, and also the things that have gone on before, and the things that you want for the future. And that feels very much relevant to my feelings towards Jura.


It might sound quite morbid, but the thing that gives me great comfort is, hopefully in many years from now, when I've reached the end of my days, and I am buried, I will be buried here and my bones will become part of this landscape. And that just feels right to me. So, you know, there are lots of different things about island connections in there. It's a very personal connection that I have, and it's not always easy to explain, but that's what fascinates me; that's why I like speaking to islanders, to try and understand those different connections people have to these places.

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Craighouse Pier Jura. Credit: Kirsten Gow

Wow, amazing! So you are both an islander in the deep sense, the heartfelt sense, as well as a passionate island researcher. That is really interesting. So, how did you get into island studies? I mean, we can go back to Jura and your island connections today, but how did you make the transition into not only academia, of course, but also this particular brand of academia, which is island studies?

I think I came to Island Studies in quite a different way than a lot of people do. But that's partly because I came back into academia in quite a different way than a lot of people do. So, I did my undergraduate degree back in the mid-90s, in the last millennium, and it was an entirely unrelated subject. Then I went off, and I worked and did various things over the years. You’ve talked about the work I've done in communities and things like that, and that was part of part of my career. And, latterly, I ended up working in the Rural House of Scotland, and the convener of the Rural House of Scotland, Annie McKee, Dr. Annie McKee, whom I have great respect for, turned around to me one day and said, these Ph.D. positions are coming up, and I think you should think about applying, and I was like, well, I'm very flattered, but, I don't have a master's degree. And I am like, no, that's not necessarily a problem. I said I can't afford it, and she's like, no, no, these are funded PhDs, which, to me, was absolutely mind-blowing. 


And I know you were asking specifically about islands research, how I got into island studies, but I think it's really important to note that part, in terms of: I was a fairly intelligent, fairly independent, fairly curious person, that was doing work actively on many levels within the community, and I did not know such a thing existed as these funded PhDs. And so I think about it in terms of, this is really what got me into island studies.  I think about it in terms of the fact that, if we're serious about understanding islands 'on their own terms',  that's a really crucial step, is allowing people in islands to understand that this thing is accessible to them.


So, I began the PhD and I am supervised by three geographers and a sociologist and that's great. I’m learning a huge amount from them, have a huge amount of respect for them. And then I rocked up in a very windy and wet Shetland one summer, a couple of summers ago, and bumped into Jens on the road in Lerwick whilst we were trying to figure out if we could get a ferry or not, and that was for the SICRI conference. That was really my first immersion into island studies, a kind of culture, and meeting people from such a wide range of disciplines who were all connected by their fascination and their interest and their passion for islands.


So that was really my first introduction, and I just really felt at home. I loved listening about other people's research in a really wide and diverse range of areas that people were researching. But I also just really loved chatting with people from Aruba and Easter Island and yourself, Jens, from Denmark, and lots of different people, about their island stories. And I just immediately felt at home and I felt it was great to be able to walk into a room and not have to explain why islands are important. Why are islands important to you. Why are they important to research. And so, really that was my introduction to Island Studies, generally, and it's been great. It's been a brilliant experience. I've met so many great people doing amazing research all across the world on islands through that. So yes, I definitely think my PhD and my life are richer for having that experience of that interaction within the Island Studies community.  

I want to echo what you're saying. It was a great experience in the Shetland Islands, and I really enjoyed meeting both you and our other colleagues across the globe really. That was so cool, really it was.  

I think I want to hear some more, ask you some more about how to manage a life, both as an islander and as a researcher, I mean, when you are living on an island, because most often, we think of academia as something you need to go to the larger cities in your home country and stay there. Possibly there can be a conflict between going into academia and also being locally attached. I mean, academics are supposed to go out into the world and live in a lot of different places. So, how is it working out for you? What is your current attachment? Do you stay permanently in Jura or do you stay there for one week and then you are somewhere else? How is it?

I think there's two questions there, isn't there? There's about the kind of urban-centricness of that academia and also about what the experience of living as an islander and being an island researcher is. So, in terms of a practical level, I live in the Isle of Jura. That's where I live. I study from here. I'm in my small back bedroom at the moment. I can see the hill, there's stags roaring on the hill behind me, and, this is where I sit and work most days. So, I'm at a distance, from the University of Aberdeen and the James Hutton Institute, which are potentially the furthest possible university and research institution I could get from where I live [laughs]. But hey, […] these things happen. And yes, I think it's really interesting because,  I think my ability to live and work from here has been… I don't know how to phrase it actually. It's not my ability to live and work from here, but actually, the fact that other people accept my ability to live and work on Jura has been largely impacted by the pandemic.


Before the pandemic, I was working on European projects and national projects from my home or from the neighbouring island of Islay, using Zoom, using all of these remote kinds of working practices. I knew I could do it, but there was a bit of a cultural shift when the pandemic came along and urban-centric, able-bodied people suddenly went -Oh, maybe there are intelligent people that could be doing things kind of in these more far-flung areas, and maybe we should think about the practices, maybe we don't have excuses for not including them as we maybe could. 


That's been a really interesting opportunity, and I often reflect on the fact that when I was at primary school here,  I was in the school down the road, and there were maybe about 20 pupils in there, and I was at primary school here in the 80s. And as a girl in the 80s, in terms of thinking about the opportunities for me to work back here, I could have been a cleaner in the hotel, I could have been a teacher, I could have been a doctor if I was clever enough and not so squeamish about blood, but there were quite limited options for a girl to be coming back and moving back here.


And yet I remember during the pandemic running a conference of a thousand people from several different continents, from the office next door to the primary school that I was in as a child and being like, this would have been mind-blowing to my seven-year-old self, to understand that I could come back and live in an island and do this kind of thing.  So, I think my story is really relevant because it's not unusual. I'm not unusual in having the brains to be able to do this. I'm not unusual in having the motivation for wanting to do something like this. I'm not unusual for living in an island. And I think we can learn a huge amount from that in terms of when we think about the way that we engage with islands both as researchers and as policymakers and that kind of thing as well… I've gone a little off topic there. 


No, but that's okay. 


Yes, I live and work here, mainly. I have relatively frequent trips out to the mainland, up to Aberdeen to meet supervisors or to go and engage with other events and that kind of thing. But I have made an effort to be utilising online methods of connecting with people, throughout my studies and just more generally as well. I think it works really well for me because I wouldn't be able to do that without fully utilising those methods. Because I do live on an island of 200-odd people. 

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Dog walking above the croft. Credit: Kirsten Gow

I was going to ask questions about your research, but how is it to live on an island among other different kinds of people, you know, and be that one? Are you that one... the researcher, the not ivory tower researcher, but the funny guy, I don't know how to phrase it, but how is it in that mosaic of people,  you know? 


Yes, I think people are kind of used to me by now [laughs].


Well, of course, you have stayed there since the 80s.


Yes, so I think, ‘How is it?’ It's interesting. It can be a lot sometimes, spending your days studying islands. And on, especially on challenging days, when you spend your days working with stuff, working on my research, interacting with policymakers, interacting with other researchers, teasing out the issues, doing challenging things within your own research, and then you finish work at the end of the day… and there are challenges about living in the island. And so some days, it can be a lot, in terms of, you feel like you've dealt with some significant problems in your working day and then you finish work, and there are no ferries or, we have to fight for something very specific, within our own community.  I think it gives me a lot of context and motivation for what I do. And I have to be a little bit careful about that because I'm aware that the context I have is my personal context of this particular Island. And so I can't make assumptions that the things that I know about my own island are relevant to everybody else here let alone every other island that's out there.


It's interesting, people don't treat me differently. One of the things that comes up quite often in my research is Islanders talking about the fact that people here, there’s very little distinction between kind of socioeconomic groups, in who you mix with. Everybody mixes with each other. So I'm not treated differently because I'm a researcher. I'm not treated differently... People are proud of what I do. People, well some people, are really interested in what I do, others couldn’t give two hoots [laughs]. And people like having discussions about the islands generally. It's just something we would do on a daily basis, or maybe not a daily basis but…I had folk round on Saturday night and we were talking about various things that are connected to how people belong to the island and the contributions people make. And that's just part of the conversations that I have with islander friends anyway.


So I think it is something that people acknowledge that I do and are interested in here. I'm really aware that I feel a responsibility to my fellow islanders to be doing island research that serves them well in terms of keeping their voices at the centre, and in terms of, helping people engage with the research as well. And I think that's part of the reason why my research is relatively well received both here in Jura, but also in the wider island community within Scotland. And I think that's a really important part of my research processes is maintaining those connections, understanding what is important to people in the islands, in order to develop my own research. And I think that helps kind of maintain those healthy relationships as well.  

That is very interesting. I think we can go back to this on positionality and how to give a voice to the people and communities. But I think we should go on to the primary thing about your research: island diaspora, in country island diaspora.  Tell us about it. And what is the current situation in the islands of Scotland right now? Why is it important to talk about a diaspora?  

My research is carried out in the context of supporting strategic objective one of the National Island Plan in Scotland, which is to seek to ensure balanced and sustainable populations for our islands. And that comes against the context of years of out-migration from the Scottish islands. Histories of people, particularly young people, leaving either for work or education and opportunities elsewhere. And this has become quite a critical problem in the island and rural areas, but I specialise in islands within Scotland. And there are efforts to address this at the moment. One of the fun things about coming back into academia after 22 years is that you discover things that other people take for granted. I had this kind of general title for the PhD, and then I discovered I could specialise further within it, and I thought, that's cool, Okay, that's great. I've become even more niche. And so what I've chosen to look at is I've chosen to look at continued connections that people have to Scotland's islands, even when they're living elsewhere, and what those can potentially contribute to the futures of these islands, particularly via return migration. 


And that's important for a couple of reasons. Number one, we have had long-term out-migration from these islands, which means there is a whole chunk of people with potential connections to Scotland's islands living elsewhere at the moment. And as an islander, and islanders that I speak to are also aware of this, we're aware of the fact, that just because you no longer live in a community does not mean that you are not, that don't continue to be part of that community. Some people do. Some people choose to leave and never look back or only keep contact with their family, for example.  But I was really aware of a strong kind of ongoing relationship that members of the diaspora have with the islands. And I was aware of this through a couple of things, through my own personal experience of living within the diaspora for many, many years and also my friends' continued connections to islands while they were living elsewhere. And I was aware that this was something that people weren't necessarily thinking about when it came to policy making or research around how we tackle depopulation. 


I think it's important to think about because when we talk about tackling depopulation in Scotland, there is a recognition, and I think it was Copus and Hopkins at James Hutton Institute that noted that, actually these areas of depopulation are going to require in-migration of all sorts in order to kind of tackle the long-term depopulation that has been happening in these areas. We need to look at lots of different methods for encouraging people to live on islands. We live in a country that has a declining birth rate anyway, a below replacement birth rate. We couldn't simply … we'd run out of people if we just started moving people around the country. We're going to need to look for in-migration from lots of different places.


So, the reason why it's important to think about the diaspora is for two reasons. Number one, because actually that in-migration from lots of different places is important, but if we think about the diaspora in particular, people with connections to islands, research has shown that people-place connections, social capital, and local knowledge really do contribute to, the resilience of rural and island places.  And so actually, if we want to not just have more people in these islands, but we want to build resilience and sustainable futures for these islands, it's important to consider the people's place connections, the social capital, the local knowledge that takes time to build up. And if we do have a section of potential in-migrants that come with that, then they can add additional benefit when thinking about repopulation of the islands.


The other reason to think about it is that even if these people don't return, even when people are living away, they do continue to keep contact with the islands and potentially contribute to the islands. They contribute to the islands in a number of ways. They may turn up for social events. They may volunteer for events. They might volunteer as part of a committee. Some of them will respond to government consultations on behalf of the island. Some of them will do fundraising or support fundraising for the island. So, these people are already stakeholders and influencers within their community, even though they live elsewhere. So understanding what power they do have and the potential to use that to help build sustainable futures is also really important.


And it moves away from this idea that geography was looking to move away from in the 90s about the idea of stasis and sedentarism, if I've got the pronunciation of that correct, being kind of the norm and understanding that actually, in general, there is, there is movement and mobilities that we need to understand better within our communities at a global scale, at a national scale, and at a local level, to understand how people interact with each other, and how those connections can build positive futures or even kind of be negative in some ways as well.


It's important to think about it from all of those different perspectives, and the more I dig into it, the more I understand about, the fact that these islands have a really long history of mobility, and it is often painted as a negative thing. And there are issues, obviously, associated with those mobilities, like depopulation, but actually, if we stop being scared of those mobilities and stop, getting scared off at the point where we say people leave and we need to stop that. If we start saying, okay, people leave, and this can be part of a healthy life course, it can be part of just naturally what happens in a community, but then what happens next?  We can start to understand the value of those people that are away from those communities and how they can actually help us maintain and develop the community, their communities of origin.


Ferry to Mainland with Jura in distance.jpg

Ferry to Mainland with Jura in distance. Credit: Kirsten Gow

When I analyse the Danish archipelago where my research is, I think that the idea of a diaspora is true. But I can say that in a Danish framework, we have completely given up on the diasporic population. We think they are lost forever. They cannot be reintegrated. They will not come back. But when I do my fieldwork, I see many young people teaming up in the city, going back on vacations, and so on and are members of local organizations. Some of them have never lived on the island, but their parents did, or their grandparents did, and are trying to get back to the island. So, there is something here with this concept.  


Absolutely, and for a really long time there's been a couple of key things around the narrative about tackling depopulation in Scotland's islands. One of them has been 'young people leaving; we need to stop all young people leaving'. And I am fully supportive that, if a young person wants to be able to stay on an island, then they should be, we should be looking at opportunities to allow them to stay. Whether that's education or employment or housing, whatever we need, that's great. But we also have to accept that actually, leaving home is, can be, a natural part of the life course. You know, going off to university or going off to work, exploring yourself, discovering your own identity a little bit more, understanding your relationship back to your home place. That can all be an important part. And we wouldn't turn around to people in Manchester, for example, and say, 'Oh, you can't possibly leave Manchester to go to university or work, you must stay here'. So why would we say that to people in the Islands? So, as I say, it's really important to allow people to say if they want to, but let's not write off the people who leave.


I think there has been a tendency to be like, oh well, they're lost to us, what can we do?  And then there's also this narrative around repopulation, about families and young people. Now, I fully embrace the idea of bringing families and young people back to the islands and rural places in terms of tackling depopulation, and I think that's an important element. But I actually do think we forget that there are people who are single, who are childless couples, who have children who have flown the nest, and who can and still contribute in many, many ways. And so actually, when thinking about return migration, in terms of - at what point do people start thinking about return, at what point does return become a realistic prospect for them, maybe we're going to find that actually, it's people who are childless couples who maybe will have kids in the future and want to come back. So maybe it isn't family homes we should be building. Maybe it's starter homes we should be building. Maybe we're finding that there's a whole bunch of single people out there that just want to live on an island but there are no kind of opportunities for them to do so without renting a four-bedroom house, for example.


So, I think return migration, the work that I'm doing around return migration, looks at this in terms of, well, who is the diaspora made up of? What connections do they continue to have to the islands? What are their aspirations for return? What are the opportunities and barriers that stand between them and that return?


And I am finding some really interesting stuff. I ran a survey at the end of last year with people self-identifying as part of the Scotch Islands Diaspora, so having connections to one or more of Scotland's islands for various reasons. And 65 percent of those people show some form of aspiration of return. These are people from across age ranges, from across relationship statuses, from across different employment sectors, and different jobs and other things. So really, trying to understand that potential can really help us target and think about kind of what we need to be doing in order to make those returns possible if we are looking at utilising that in terms of repopulating our islands. 

Yes, that's interesting. I’ve come to think that... a few weeks ago, I was appointed the chairman of the local historical association on my home island.




Yes, thank you… I mean, the old chairman didn't want to continue and they had to find someone and then they asked me and that was okay. And I don't live in my home island right now.  I know that there's another small island in Denmark where there was a young woman and she moved away. She was born on the island. She started a community newspaper for the island while she was away. So I even came to think that this, first of all this diasporic theme is not as dramatic or tragic as one would maybe think, but also, of course, repopulation is good. Return migration is good, but in itself, this diasporic population has something to offer. Even if they don't move back, they can still go back and add something to the organisation or makeup on a voluntary basis. I really think that is interesting. 


A hundred percent. I think the other thing to bear in mind is a lot of the islands that I am looking at have really relatively small populations, so lots of islands are kind of 200 or fewer, several islands with fewer than a hundred people. And increasingly, this ‘help yourself,’ community-led housing kit, community-led first aid response, volunteer firefighters, all of that kind of thing, there's all of this, voluntary, this expectation on communities to be serving and looking after themselves already. And if you're talking about a community with 50 people, they're already struggling. And it's really interesting... There was a paper by Ahia and Johnson, that came out recently, which looks at the Hawaiian diaspora. And what they talk about is the fact that the diaspora, when viewed through a settler or colonial lens, is often seen as a form of abandonment or disconnection. Whereas actually, mobilities were traditionally always part of, Hawaiian culture. That's how Hawaiian people got to Hawai'i in the first place. It's part of their origin story. 


And feel that's a lot of similarities with the Scottish islands, that people have always moved around between these islands and to the mainland and back again. And actually, if we stop looking at the diaspor in terms of abandonment and kind of a second-rate culture and dislocation, and start looking at them, as Ahia and Johnson point out, there is the potential for doubling your capacity to deal with things – then actually that's really interesting. Because in these small islands, you might need volunteer directors, for your shop board or for your community land buyout, and there just literally aren't enough people to fill those roles with the capacity on the island, and so let's start looking at the diaspora and what they can continue to contribute. 

Yes, cool. I think now we have discussed this diaspora and painted it quite positively and so on. But I’ve also come to think maybe this may have some negative sides. I mean, in many small islands in Denmark, we see that the diaspora and the descendants of the diaspora are so attached to their ancient home, the old country, that they will take over a family house, a family farm, and not use it permanently.  Sometimes, they are also pushing forward a negative trend where you are making a dislocation of current inhabitants, and so on. I wonder, has your research dealt with that sort of attachment? I can also see it's quite okay; you can contribute tremendously to your island community without staying there permanently, so I can also see it's very difficult to either celebrate or criticise. It's not black and white.

It's not black and white at all. It's very, very nuanced. And actually, I think it was Nagel and Boyle, who wrote a paper that talks about Mexican hometown associations. These are people from Mexico who travel to America to work, and they actually make donations back to their hometowns via these hometown associations for infrastructure projects and various other things. And, wow, that sounds amazing that these things can happen. However, they point out that, actually, it's really important to think about power balance in these dynamics. Who is making the decisions about what gets funded? Is it actually… are people who no longer live in the community the ones who are deciding how that community should be developed? And does that lessen the voice of local people in the local democratic process? So it's definitely really important to think about that power balance there.


It's been quite interesting talking to islanders, so as well as the survey that I did, I did a series of focus groups with people with aspirations to return and also a very interesting focus group with people who maintain connections to islands that didn't want to return, which was incredibly interesting. And housing often comes up as one of the barriers to return. Obviously, as you say, there are very directly threaded impacts on people who maintain family housing and no longer live on the island and how that impacts other people's ability to live in the island. But at least one participant has said to me, I would like to move back, but I can't use the family house because it's used more widely by the family - so I can't be the one that takes it over.   I'm also aware that other people in the community are struggling for housing at the moment and I don't think it's fair that I would take a house that came up over and above somebody else that's already living there, being able to move into that house that's maybe living in a caravan or something like that.


So there is a bit of a, as you say, it's a dual-sided coin really, in terms of, yes, there are issues around housing that are exacerbated by ownership of properties that people don't live in all year round. But at the same time there is an awareness of these issues amongst a lot of the diaspora and in terms of wanting to address them and not be seen to be part of the problem.


I do think that islands and rural spaces do suffer more generally from being billed as these places, marketed as these places of escape, and to use the r-word, remote, and you know far-flung and escape from daily life. I am really interested in this idea about our rural island places being repositories for our culture and tradition.  So that's where, you know, people that make whisky and people that speak Gaelic, and people that do weaving, they live in these places, so we can't change them too much. Because that's where we keep our culture and our heritage. And I don't think that is confined to the diaspora. In fact, I think there is a fairly nuanced view. Some people may have this idyllic image of times gone by, but actually, the people who are interested return that I speak to tend to talk about a very realistic picture of island life. They are more than capable of talking about what the challenges of island life would be, and the challenges of return would be as well as the benefits of return as well.


So, I think it is a really nuanced picture, which makes it absolutely fascinating. I think things like the housing crisis over here is not going to be solved by a single issue, for example, people with second with additional properties making them available. I think there are multiple strands that need to be addressed in order to tackle that. 

Jura Primary School.jpg

Jura Primary School. Credit: Kirsten Gow

That's an interesting subject, and I would love to discuss it further with you and ask you more questions, but I think we have to move on. First of all, I think this island diaspora of Scotland is really a thing, and it's also a title for some monographic work. I just want you to continue with this because it's so interesting, and I will have to look up some of the work so I can cite you in my own paper because it's genius, I think.

I want to ask you a little bit about the future, but first of all, could you please tell us a little bit about this beautiful phrase, "it's only remote if the things that matter are far away." How did you come up with that? It's such a beautiful phrase, really, and true.


So, yes, that originally came about because I was working over on the Isle of Islay, which is our neighbouring island, and had to get the ferry over there every day. And the ferry terminal is about eight miles from the village, and there's nothing else really there, except there's this big, empty, vacant signpost. Rusty old signpost and I was like, oh, I desperately want to put something in there. So I had a lot of time sitting at the ferry and thinking about this and I guess there were thoughts about this being a place where people come and go from Jura and also the fact that when you're sitting at Port Askaig on Islay looking over at Jura,  you're looking at the ferry port, you can see two houses and then just a big expanse of open space, with three very kind of imposing mountains.  If you don't know Jura, that's a very interesting impression that you'll get that basically it's this place where no one lives.


So it came about really from that point of view, wanting to fill that sign and put a message in there. And the message that felt most relevant was about ‘place,’ challenging people's perceptions of what they were looking at. I'm really aware that I am very lucky to know the stories of this landscape.  I know a lot of people come and visit Jura for a day from Islay, for example, and they will get off the ferry at the bottom of the island and drive for 25 or whatever it is miles to the north of the island and drive back down again. And if they know nothing else about the island, they could think they are driving through these empty spaces. And they're not empty spaces. They are full of stories. They're full of settlements that are there now or were there previously. They're full of potential futures as well as rich pasts.


And so I wanted to try and communicate that in some way. In terms of making people rethink what they think about the island. And also challenge the repeated mantra that these places are remote. Because, in order to consider something as remote, you have to consider something as central. And who gets to decide what's central?  And even if you decide something is central, even if you decide, say, Edinburgh is central, are you right? Is that the approach that we should take?  


So, the phrase, ‘It's only remote if the things that matter are far away’, just came really naturally to me. And I thought that's perfect for that kind of position in that signpost. It's been picked up quite a lot, actually. It was just picked up in a newspaper article the other weekend.  And it seems to really chime with islanders as well. There's been a lot of these debates around the fact that these islands they're not remote places. They are places of daily life for people. 


People ask me all the time - isn't it quite remote living there. And I'm like, are you kidding me? I am surrounded by my family. Some days, I wish I was more remote from them [laughs]. And remote is very different for different people. I lived in Glasgow and on the mainland for a very long time, and living by myself in Glasgow, I could feel very isolated sometimes. You can feel isolated sometimes here, but I just need to actually go down to the bottom of my hill and walk along the road, and five people will talk to me. So it's challenging this perception of who gets to decide what central is? And what does that mean? And actually, what impact does that have on places that you consider are remote? Does that mean that they should get less attention? Does that mean that they are a problem? Does that mean that actually, we should consider them differently?


And the final thing really to say about that is, that my thoughts on what that phrase means have developed over time. It's only remote if the things that matter are far away.  Well then, if you're feeling remote, I've discovered over time, then that means that the things that matter aren't within your reach. So if I feel remote from decisions that are made in a certain place, whether that's Lochgilphead or Edinburgh or Westminster, then that's because there's not the lines of communication or the things that I need to feel that connection with that place. If I feel remote from access to a university course or a particular job, that's because there isn't assistance in place in order to do that. That's because those things seem too far away for me. But being far away isn't just about physical distance. We can combat the physical distance in a lot of aspects. Things, just because they're distant, don't need to be far away.


And so yes, it's all really tied up with that kind of perception of what do we mean by remote? What do we mean by central?  And actually, is there a way of reframing how we think about places in order to make these connections stronger so that remote becomes a bit of a redundant term?

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'Its only Remote if the things that matter are far away' signpost. Credit: Kirsten Gow

Thank you for telling us about this wonderful phrase and, I think, I guess sometimes it can also be like a virtue to be remote. I mean, if you want to write a book or something, you would like to be remote from all the things that in your daily life would prevent you from doing that. 

Hundred percent and I would say, though that... because I'm trying to write some papers at the moment, and actually what I'd really love to do is I'd love to go to a city and sit in a hotel room where people will bring me room service three times a day. Because that would make me remote from everything I have to deal with on a daily basis here. So it's a very personal kind of concept of what remoteness is, but yes, I think at the very least people should acknowledge that we can't just use that word without thinking about it. 


True, and I know exactly what you mean. When I go back to my home island and try to work or try to write and then there is a hundred different people and things that want to interact with me and are tempting me to do something else, go fishing, go hunting that day and stuff like that. So it can be quite difficult. Yes, but how about the future, Kirsten? This is my last question. How about the future? Why would you go with your island research? Will you continue with it? What’s the plan?

So since I started my PhD people have kept asking me what I plan to do with my PhD. And the honest answer to that is, I don't really know. Because I didn't even understand that this was a possibility for me to do this before I started. So in terms of the kind of direction that I want to go I think it's about considering the things that are important to me in my current research. The principles behind what I currently do.

And that's about a few different things. It's about amplifying voices of small islands in particular. So, as well as my diaspora research I've created a typology of Scottish islands which categories them based on ideas of reliance and capacity. One of the reasons for doing that is to be able to group smaller islands in a meaningful way that allows maybe things that they share between them to be reported within research without affecting anonymity. Because this is one of the reasons why these voices get left out of research, or get drowned out because they are appended to larger islands, for example. So ensuring that the voices of smaller islands included in research and policy making, in national debates, in our national life, I think is really, really important. And also with the work I do I want to make sure that we recognise the diversity of the islands that are out there. You know, even with the islands that I work with, which are a fairly niche group of inhabited, offshore islands in Scotland that aren’t connected to the mainland by a fixed link, there’s incredible diversity within that, of language and culture and infrastructure and population. So reflecting on that is really important.

But I think what it really comes back to is, I want to be doing research that matters to islanders. I think it comes back to the fact, that the question that people often ask about is what people contributed to an island. I often get asked in my research about the friction between islanders and outsiders. And what's interesting about that is, it's not really islanders that asked me that question, it’s mainlanders that ask me that question. And what's interesting to think about with that is, well what do islanders talk about then? What islanders generally talk about is the contribution somebody makes the community. And I'm aware that there are nuances and there are differences in the experiences that people have, but broadly when I talk to islanders about members of their community, what they value is the contribution that people make. And that contribution can come in lots of forms. It could be an older person who has vast knowledge of the island that can share that with the generations to come. It could be that you do particular job within a community. It could be to do with volunteering in community.

And so really, all the work I've done, and the voluntary work that I’ve done around islands, that’s been a central question to me - about what I'm contributing to my community. And therefore it's really natural that that's part of my consideration when I'm thinking about the future I want my research to take. How is it contributing to the community? My community but also the wider island community, and the wider rural and national community as well. Because I think one of the things that's important about looking at islands is the fact that, actually, I think there’s huge potential in these places which is under recognised and undervalued. And so contributing is about contributing at an island level, at a regional level, also about contributing to the nation and society more generally by saying - hey look, if we don't pay attention to these places we're missing out of this potential here.

So it's about that contribution and about doing research that matters to the island communities. Because otherwise I'm just becoming a bit of a voyeur, and that's not what I'm in it for. I’m in it because I am an islander and I want to be doing work that matters to islanders.


Very good. I wish you the best of luck. It sounds like we're not going to talk again, but I'm absolutely sure that we will meet again in the future and talk about islands and our home islands and stuff like that. I want to thank you for participating here in this  Island conversation.  


It's been a pleasure. Thank you. 


Thank you a lot for sharing with us this island diaspora concept I really think that's It's just genius. And, of course, thank you to the listeners for joining us today, listening to this island conversation between Sweden, Denmark, and Scotland. It has been a pleasure to be your guest host today, so that's all for now. Thanks a lot, and island greetings.

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Craighouse Jura. Credit: Kirsten Gow

Gow’s Typology of Scotland’s Islands: Technical notes. Kirsten Gow1, 2 with Margaret Currie1, Paula M. Duffy2 , Ruth Wilson1, and Lorna J. Philip2. November 2023

Gow, K., Philip, L., Wilson, R., Duffy, P., & Currie, M. (Accepted/In press). Uncovering attributes of an internal Islands Diaspora: Connections and Aspirations to Return . Shima, 18(1).

Reliance and Capacity: A typology for framing research and policy in Scotland's islands. March 2023, DOI 10.5281/zenodo.7782265

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