`Islandness’ – a contributor to island sporting success?

By Stewart Donald, graduate of Institute for Northern Studies.

Orkney, other archipelagos and individual islands are often thought of as `living on the edge’ of mainstream activities – none more so perhaps than in the world of sport. Does such remoteness inhibit sporting participation? Perhaps it makes little difference? Or could involvement in island sport actually be enhanced by the close community spirit which might appear to be more prevalent in island and rural communities than in mainland towns and large conurbations?

The dissertation for my recent Master of Letters (MLitt) degree from the Institute of Northern Studies looked at the concept of `islandness’  as a consideration towards the success of island sport, more specifically towards off-island representation as at the Island Games and also drawing on the model of Orkney Rugby Club’s frequent sojourns to the Scottish mainland to compete in a league of a pretty high standard - a necessity for participation above a certain level in many other sports too.

What constitutes `islandness’?  I suspect that the majority of native islanders or those who have come to settle on islands will have given little thought to such a concept, as instinctively they will just get on with the day-to-day practicalities of living there. Many might acknowledge nevertheless that islandness enhanced by boundedness does potentiate a sense of pride of place and drives the honour of island representation.

I considered islandness from three perspectives – to look at island identity as motivation for taking part in the Island Games, how the realities of island living prevailed in the interaction of the various islands’ teams socially at the Games, and the value, materially or otherwise, of the legacy of holding, or even being present at, the Island Games. The research included interviews with various representatives of island sport in Orkney, Guernsey and the Falkland Islands, all stalwarts of the Island Games.  I reached a number of conclusions but what struck me most along the way was not just the dedication of the elite but also the importance of intra-island participation by more modest sports people coupled with a massive contribution by the community at large as volunteers, supporters and fundraisers.

Personal ambition and pride for their island are massive driving forces for team members, not only on the sports field but also in holding their heads high as representatives of their island in the enthusiastic and very sociable integration that takes place with other competing islands at the Island Games even though they are rivals. Many of these islands have a lot in common and, of course, are also living on the edge, some much more so than Orkney.

It’s clearly a huge honour for islanders to be selected for representative teams but this works back to the grass-roots which fosters ambition and competition not only within clubs but also between the smaller islands of the archipelago where rivalry is often intense. An example is the annual North Isles Inter-Island Sports which thrives on intense but friendly competition between the islands and communities, without them ever having to leave Orkney.

Input from the community plays a part every bit as important as the training commitment by the participants. It’s very expensive to get to the Games as some of the host islands are off mainstream transport links. Fund-raising initiatives are therefore essential, but this can encourage a two-way enhancement of the relationship with the community at large – those who are non-participants but still want to see the island do well and feel that they also are playing a part. Club members too endear themselves with the community by also getting involved in fund-raising, in addition to their rigorous training commitments. Sponsorship by local businesses enhances their profile commercially while providing a feelgood factor for business owners from the satisfaction of their support.

The spin-offs for the community from their involvement towards and at the Games, not just the sports clubs but for volunteers and supporters are fantastic, and are part of the legacy, perhaps more so than any tangible sports facilities. This, in turn, nurtures further community input. So much so that Orkney has had the drive to successfully bid for the 2023 Island Games. This much-anticipated event will create excitement throughout the community and will involve much of the Orcadian population, not just sports people.

For an island of only 20,000 people, there are many clubs in Orkney catering for a wide variety of sports, some such as the gymnastics club having a sizeable waiting list. Participation in island sport may well be greater than on the mainland although this is a hunch which was not tested in my research. All my interviewees professed this nevertheless, those in Guernsey and the Falklands also. The community element is probably tighter and possibly stronger, and there is no doubt that the pride in representing even a small geographical entity such as your parish or isle is enhanced by natural boundaries on islands.

There are few mono-sports participants in Orkney, and indeed in the other islands I investigated. It’s may be part of the island community spirit to have a go at everything, and that extends to inclusion of the arts – tangible and intangible heritage and culture which again may be a pride thing, or just the fact that interest is infectious. Such an association between sports clubs and arts societies is an interesting area for further research. Mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind in a healthy body?

In their local development plans, the local authorities of Orkney and Shetland have seen to it that most of their more remote islands have adequate sports and community facilities. These are well-used and of course encourage community spirit and social cohesion beyond the actual sport. A new initiative on Orkney Mainland is the Sports Hub – a sharing mechanism – not just pitches, facilities and equipment but the red tape of risk assessments, child protection etc.

It was gratifying to hear from all my interviewees that social cohesion and inclusion appear strong on their islands. Only one academic paper which I read suggested otherwise – on this particular Canadian island incomers were welcomed on the surface but deep-down they didn’t feel hugely part of it. However, with sports and other clubs, perhaps it’s because an incomer has to get stuck in and contribute (as well as being a valuable team member) that they are more readily accepted– as long as they don’t try to take over!

Clubs do seem to try to find ways of funding and encouraging talented youngsters who may not have the luxury of parental input - financially, inclination or time-wise. Local development trusts sometimes help for example.

As with all remote communities, there is much travel involved, particularly if the level of sport involves fixtures and events throughout the mainland and beyond. This is also time-consuming and is perhaps not ideal for those with young families at home. By necessity, much use is made of public transport – which would be running anyway, and it could be argued by the `use it or lose it’ adage that sports teams travelling are an asset.

Few could argue that the health benefit of taking part in sport is not a good thing, so carbon footprints from movement on and off islands towards sporting pinnacles can be justified as it encourages an active population. This leads to a feelgood factor amongst participants bringing contentedness and a sense of achievement and so the opportunity to travel to compete might be a factor in retaining a young population who could otherwise drift off for what they might perceive as a more exciting lifestyle elsewhere. A UHI researcher in Inverness has interests which include connections between health, wellbeing and (importantly) place, including the use of the outdoor environment to promote health and the link between community activities and wellbeing.

Conversely, visiting teams will receive Orcadian hospitality and will hopefully experience an island vibrancy which might in turn encourage some individuals to become incomers who will integrate and help to reverse depopulation. Such new blood might be attracted to jobs being created by the developing industries in Orkney particularly in the field of renewable energy.

In summary therefore, I do feel that `islandness’ is a factor in fuelling the pyramid of sport which is founded on the strong grass-roots of clubs and community, extending towards representation and participation beyond these island shores towards the Island Games and other prestigious events and fixtures, boding well for sport and society here in Orkney and islands elsewhere.


Published in The Orcadian 24.01.19

Stewart Donald