As I have walked around Europe in the past three years, being away from home half of the time, I have been much concerned with notions of home, what makes for a sense of belonging, and what constitutes a sense of national and community identity. Language has been a key topic as I have sought to understand and be understood. Coming at a time of great change, as the UK first voted to, and then has left, the European Union, and when countries have either become considerably more or less right- or left-leaning, I have had many exchanges and considerable dialogue around these issues.

The image used by the Audacious Women Festival 2019 Travellers’ Tales

In 2019 I was part of the Audacious Women Festival’s Travellers Tales. A small panel of us debated, discussed and presented with each other and an audience of perhaps 40 women, the reasons why women may travel, how they settle, establish friendship and support structures and negotiate language and cultural differences. It was an unexpectedly lively and moving event with women of all ages taking the stage to speak about their experiences in moving and travelling around the world.

Map of the archipelago of Shetland

At the time of writing, I am on a virtual visit to Shetland, north of the mainland of Scotland. I am having a series of fascinating chats with women who live there, or who were born there and now live elsewhere, on these topics. I have also been stimulated to reflect on my own and my family’s stories around identity. Women travel for many reasons:

To obtain work

The start of the oil boom saw families moving to Shetland, or young couples settling who then had children there. This was good for the community in many ways, enabling integration and expanding the community. Even when the adults moved away again, some of their grown-up children stayed and continued to build lives on the Islands. Nowadays this happens far less, partly because the trend is for individual workers to come for a spell of weeks before returning to their families, and partly because the oil industry is in decline. Many local people who have worked at Sullem Voe, for example, lost their jobs just before the Corona virus hit, and job hunting has of course, been hard during this time. Will there be an exodus as a result?

Some join the armed forces and the Merchant Navy and travel across the globe. Often they return to Shetland, but others do not, settling in other countries and establishing families and support structures there, their accents and habits changing over the years. In the past, men were Press Ganged (1755 – 1845), which had a considerable impact on the way of life, not least that at one time there was a ratio of 3:1 women to men on the Isles.

When I travel, I am usually asked where I am from. Scotland, where I have lived for 30 years, and our First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, are popular on the continent so there are smiles when I answer. However, there is usually a pause after that. With a puzzled expression, they say, ‘but you don’t sound Scottish’. My parents and grandparents were very keen that I spoke ‘good’, or ‘Queen’s, English’ and it hasn’t rubbed off after all these years, much to my disappointment. It betrays my origins!

My maternal grandmother, Violet Elizabeth, known as Liz who went back and forth to Africa during World War II on the Banana Boats

Marriage and relationships

The Marriage Bar was still in place when my grandmother married just before World War II. She had trained at college to be a PE teacher and secured a position at Benendon College, a school for girls, but on marrying my grandfather, she was required to give it up and travel with him to Africa where he worked. The expectation that she should be at his side extended to the children. She travelled back by ship to have each of her daughters, but had to leave them behind in the UK (in 1937 and 1941) in order to return to him.

The main problem was undoubtedly the attitude of senior officials, but the Marriage Bar also deterred ambitious women from entering the civil service and/or ensured that, once recruited, they were forced to leave. 

Women in the Civil Service

Seeking education

Young Shetland girls / women (15 years and over) attend boarding school or stay in a hostel, Monday to Friday, if they want to continue their education past Standard Grade level. There are two high schools: Brae in the north west Mainland and the other in Lerwick, further south on the east coast. After that, although many now choose to stay on the Islands and attend the Highland and Islands University (which has 13 colleges and research centres, over 70 local learning centres, as well as online tutoring), like many other young people they also choose to leave home and go to Aberdeen, other Scottish cities or further afield.

Other reasons for leaving home and returning that I am going to be looking into are:

  • Wanderlust – stimulation – inspiration – curiosity
  • Seeking asylum or otherwise escaping injustice or abuse
  • Looking to provide one’s children with a particular environment to grow up in which is often linked to happy childhood memories
  • To be with family
  • Illness
  • The landscape and community

I will be examining the challenges to stability and identity that are involved in travel

Language: The Shetland dialect is distinctive and a strong part of people’s identity. There are variations which are closer or further away from Scots and English, and modulations are naturally made depending on who is talking. I will be writing much more about this soon.

  • Winning independence in another culture
  • Facing the cultural assumptions you grew up with
  • Settling and belonging
  • Making a home
  • Never quite settling down

I have already discovered, personally and through speaking with other women, that a sense of a new identity can emerge from moving to another country, and be liberating. This may surprise both the woman and her family, even disrupt relationships as parts of oneself changes in response, either being emphasised or stymied. A set of different religious or cultural values may feel liberating or constricting; a change of temperature, climate and daylight (or lack of it) may have a positive or negative effect; opportunities may be greater or fewer, leading to enrichment or a blocking of possibilities. Crossing oceans and borders sometimes requires courage and daring, and other times is easy and natural because of a sense of coming home.

St Ninian’s Isle, in the south west of Shetland, connected to the mainland by the largest tombolo or ayre, meaning gravelbank in old Norse. (source: Wikipedia) (not my own photo)

Special thanks to Geraldine Wooley who initiated a meeting between the different presenters, prompted us to think about the topic in alternative ways, summarised the discussion and then chaired the live session.

Emigration Records can be found on the Scottish Archive Network website

The building in the title photo is Lerwick’s Textile Museum. Thanks to Isobel Cockburn for her permission to use it.

4 thoughts on “Home, belonging and a sense of identity

  1. Hi Tamsin, I absolutely love your research, it’s fascinating. Bringing different reasons for migration together, the issue of belonging, and us in this! There are so many stories hidden, and this has layn dormant for so long, it’s amazing how taken for granted the silence around this is. I look forward to hearing more on this.


    1. Thank you Ursula, I am rather passionate about this and am simply loving hearing the stories women have been telling me about their lives and those of their families, past and present.


  2. That’s all very interesting, I can identify with a lot of what you’ve written here. I see now why you would like to speak to my daughter in law, who, like her brothers left the island to go to university on mainland Scotland and never went back to live. She thinks Edinburgh is great and so light in the winter! However, I myself moved all my life as I was a child of a British serviceman and only ended up in Scotland because I am the wife of an oilman! I have never really felt at home except in places that are wide open. Deserts, mountains, empty places although I love love love the cultural aspect of living in a big city (definitely what I’m missing now). My feelings about home and belonging are very complicated, your article has definitely struck a chord.

    Liked by 1 person

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