Dr Rosie Alexander reflects on issues of youth migration in the Scottish Islands and what can be learned by taking a longitudinal perspective on young people’s pathways.

Ferry, and view to Hoy, Orkney Credit: R Alexander

“Young people and Scottish Island Migrations: A career perspective”

by Rosie Alexander

Population sustainability is a longstanding concern in island communities in Scotland and across the world. Indeed, population sustainability appears as one of the key objectives in the recently published Scottish Islands Plan.

Thinking about island populations the main concern is typically youth depopulation, as the Scottish Island Plan points out:

“The key demographic issue for sparsely populated areas is not an excess of older people, but the relatively small number of children and young people, which in the years to come will translate into a shrinking working-age population.” (Scottish Government, 2019, p. 18).

Seeking to retain and attract young people in island communities is therefore often seen as the key means of addressing population sustainability.

The focus on young people, and concern with how to encourage young people to stay, return or move, to island and remote communities has been the focus of a string of recent reports in the Highlands and Islands (Highlands and Islands Enterprise, 2009, 2015, 2018), and the Islands Revival project. Wider literature reviews on the drivers of youth outmigration (Jamieson & Groves, 2008) and on the factors influencing migration decisions in rural Scotland (Crow, 2010) have also been published, alongside two reports on population change in the islands of Orkney and the Outer Hebrides (Hall Aitken, 2007, 2009). Very broadly speaking, these reports typically identify that work and study are key drivers of out migration, with lifestyle and family factors being a key driver of in- and return migration. As a result, increasing opportunities for work and study in island communities, as well as addressing housing costs and shortages, are identified as key priorities for reducing youth depopulation. Similar findings and policy recommendations have also been found in the literature relating to other rural and island communities across the globe.

This is where I have an interest. I have been a career adviser working in Orkney and with people based across the Highlands and Islands for almost fifteen years. I have also recently completed a PhD looking at the career and migration routes of young higher education students from the islands of

Orkney and Shetland. A big question for me is: is it that simple? Why do some young people stay in their islands while others leave? Why do some return and others remain away? Understanding how decisions are made in practice, I think, helps us to contextualise some of the research which has focused on push and pull factors to island communities. Further, I think understanding decision making and lived experience is critical if we are to really identify effective policy solutions to address population sustainability in islands.

With this in mind, and drawing on my PhD work, I recently published a chapter on young people and migration in the Highlands and Islands in the book Scotland and Islandness edited by Burnett, Burnett and Danson. My starting point in this chapter is to really interrogate the statistical evidence as we have it surrounding youth migration and Scotland’s islands. This demonstrates a number of important points:

Island experiences vary:

· Although the overall island population in Scotland appears to be stabilising, this masks variations between islands.

Young people’s experiences also vary:

· Some young people stay in their islands.

· Leaving is strongly associated with entry to Higher Education, the evidence around leaving for employment is much less clear

· There is net in-migration of young people in the older age groups (e.g. over 20), this corresponds with the ages at which young people would typically leave higher education.

Therefore, I argue in this chapter that it is important to avoid generalisations about island communities and about young people, and instead suggest that a much more nuanced and context-specific approach is important.

To explore the experiences of young people in more depth, in my PhD I interviewed 23 young higher education students from the island communities of Orkney and Shetland, exploring some of their decisions around mobility, employment and education. From this work, a number of important findings can be identified which help to contextualise pathways and decisions.

The first key point to highlight is that in line with the statistical evidence although many young people do leave their island communities, this is not necessarily a permanent leaving. Leaving is associated particularly with entry to Higher Education, but after graduation many students return, or wish to return at a later date. The significance of potential returns has also been noted in other island communities. Indeed some island scholars have argued that rather than thinking about “brain drain” of young people from island communities, alternative models such as “brain rotation” may be a more effective way of conceptualising island movements and potentials (Baldacchino, 2006; Crescenzi et al., 2017)

In my work one of the things I have been particularly aware of is the significance of career routes in migration patterns over the life-course. To give an example, young people who were interviewed could typically see a range of potential career opportunities in their island communities. These included careers in different building trades, childcare, healthcare, education, retail, hospitality, renewable engineering, oil and gas, and other industries. However, they also recognised that to enter some of these careers they would need specific qualifications: to be a vet requires a degree in veterinary medicine; a nurse, a degree in nursing; a career adviser, a postgraduate qualification in career guidance and so on…. And many of these qualifications were not available or were very difficult to access on the islands. Whether mobility was necessary to undertake training depended both on the career sector of interest, and their island location – so for example, even though some education is provided in the islands, this provision is still typically based in the larger islands rather than the smaller islands of the region.

Thinking about development over time, another important feature of many young people’s trajectories in my research was that they associated leaving the islands for higher education with other forms of personal development – building confidence, meeting new people, gathering new experiences. Leaving while they were young was seen as the “normal” thing to do, and this was especially the case for young people in social groups where most of their friends were going to university. Interestingly for those who engaged with local higher education provision, the desire to potentially experience living in other communities or to move away at some point was also apparent. However, for many students, leaving was seen as part of a life stage and they either expressed a desire to return at a later point in life (typically to settle down and have children) or foresaw that they may need to return in the future.

The proportion of graduates who returned to or stayed in their islands immediately after graduation was notable in my research (approximately a third). It is notable that these movements were generally prompted by returning to settle down with a partner based in the islands, or returning to live with parents (in order to save money). Some, but not all, of the returning graduates found work that suited them in the islands. Some felt quite settled, and others felt frustrated with the lack of opportunities to build on their skills and interests. Thinking about the future, many graduates could visualise returning to or staying in the islands, and significantly they typically did not reflect on the need for an ideal job in the islands, but something that was “good enough” – enabling them to earn enough money to afford a reasonable standard of living, and that had opportunities for professional development and learning.

So, what does my work offer to the debate about population sustainability and youth migration? Well, the short answer is, it’s complicated. My main argument is that rather than thinking about migration decisions in terms of “opportunities” (work or educational) at one point in time, the concept of “career” gives us a lens through which to understand the role of education and employment as they are lived over time. A career lens also helps us to recognise the importance of specific employment and training routes – some careers can be developed in the islands, others require mobility, and this varies by career and by island. Further, I would argue (although it could be debated) that thinking about “career” offers a more holistic way of thinking about employment, recognising that people have different motivations and aspirations for their working life, and not all are motivated simply by higher status or higher salaried jobs. Thinking from this perspective potentially offers slightly different policy implications, some of which are noted below.

Firstly, notions of career highlight the importance of specific training and career routes in migration trajectories and futures – this helps us to ask questions like, if we expand educational opportunities in islands, is it ever possible for islands to provide access to all forms of education and training necessary for the roles in the labour market (given the very small labour markets in some islands)? Do we need to accept perhaps that some forms of rotational mobility are necessary to enable people to get the qualifications they need to work in island jobs?

Secondly, given the evidence that many young people do not leave islands (particularly those who do not progress to higher education) and that some return with degrees but without clear employment routes, the focus on “career” also raises questions about how these young people could be supported. Although employment opportunities are important, other forms of career support may also be valuable, for example providing support with training or development, providing opportunities for volunteering or community engagement, providing access to career development coaching, or professional mentoring. These opportunities may provide the resources for individuals to feel that they have “good enough” options in the islands.

To summarise then, in this blog I have argued that adopting a “career” lens on youth depopulation and population sustainability offers significant potential for understanding youth migration: recognising the diversity of individual choices and ongoing trajectories, and highlighting the ways that specificity of career pathways have specific spatial and longer term migration potentials. Such a perspective also offers different ways of imagining potential policy interventions that could support island young people and population sustainably more widely.


Alexander, R. (2020). Young people, out-migration and Scottish Islands – surveying the landscape. In K. A. Burnett, R. Burnett, & M. Danson, Scotland and Islandness (pp. 143–168). Peter Lang.

Alexander, R. (2021). The Impact of Island Location on Students’ Higher Education Choices and Subsequent Career Narratives: A Case Study of the Orkney and Shetland Islands. [PhD thesis] University of Derby

Baldacchino, G. (2006). The brain rotation and brain diffusion strategies of small islanders: Considering ‘movement’ in lieu of ‘place’. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 4(1), 143–154. https://doi.org/10.1080/14767720600555202

Crescenzi, R., Holman, N., & Orru’, E. (2017). Why do they return? Beyond the economic drivers of graduate return migration. The Annals of Regional Science, 59(3), 603–627. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00168-016-0762-9

Crow, H. (2010). Factors influencing rural migration decisions in Scotland: An analysis of the evidence. Scottish Government Social Research. https://www.gov.scot/publications/factors-influencing-rural-migration-decisions-scotland-analysis-evidence/#:~:text=Factors%20Influencing%20Rural%20Migration%20Decisions%20The%20%27push%27%2C%20%27pull%27%2C,others%20to%20move%20into%20or%20return%20to%20them.

Hall Aitken. (2007). Outer Hebrides migration study: Final report. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, in partnership with Western Isles Enterprise and Communities Scotland. https://www.cne-siar.gov.uk/media/5597/ohmsstudy.pdf

Hall Aitken. (2009). Orkney population change study: Final report. Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise. (2009). Young people in the Highlands and Islands: Understanding and influencing the migration choices of young people to and from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Highlands and Islands Enterprise. http://www.hie.co.uk/regional-information/economic-reports-and-research/archive/youth-migration.html

Highlands and Islands Enterprise. (2015). Our next generation: Young people and the Highlands and Islands: Attitudes and aspirations. Research report—June 2015. Highlands and Islands Enterprise. http://www.hie.co.uk/regional-information/economic-reports-and-research/archive/young-people-and-the-highlands-and-islands–attitudes-and-aspirations-research.html

Highlands and Islands Enterprise. (2018). Enabling our next generation: Young people and the Highlands and Islands: Maximising opportunities. https://www.hie.co.uk/media/3007/youngpluspeopleplusandplustheplushighlandsplusandplusislandsplus-plusmaximisingplusopportunitiesplus-plusreport.pdf

Jamieson, L., & Groves, L. (2008). Drivers of Youth Out-Migration from Rural Scotland: Key issues and annotated bibliography. Scottish Government Social Research.

Scottish Government. (2019). The national islands plan / plana nàiseanta nan eilean. The Scottish Government. https://www.gov.scot/publications/national-plan-scotlands-islands

Dr Rosie Alexander is a lecturer in Career Guidance and Development at the University of the West of Scotland. Her doctoral research focused on career development and migration pathways of young people from the island communities of Orkney and Shetland. Prior to her academic career she worked as a career adviser with young people in schools, community settings and universities for over 15 years. www.rosiealexander.co.uk