It is 5:35pm on a warm spring evening in Inverness and, as a 16-year-old, I have spent my time after school window shopping in the town centre. But now, noticing the time and getting a sense of how Cinderella must have felt, I hurry to the bus stop for my transport-imposed curfew. With a month to wait until I am 17 and able to start driving lessons, I yearn for the freedom of not being confined to the last bus heading in the direction of my rural home at 5:42pm.
Now after almost four years living in Glasgow, I realise how lonely growing up in the beautiful Scottish Highlands could be at times. With the population dispersed widely and most social activities held in larger towns, there was a heavy reliance on unreliable public transport’s limited timetables. For those living more rurally, there was simply no option for evening socialising.
New research on young women’s experiences of social isolation in the Highlands of Scotland has been published by Young Women Lead (YWL). A project by the Young Women’s Movement, YWL is a feminist leadership programme for women and non-binary people between the ages of 16 and 30.
Through 24 young women’s testimonies, the analysis explored the multi-dimensional aspects of social isolation, its core causes, its effects and recommendations to tackle the prominent issue many young women are facing.
Unlike previous reports on social isolation, which typically focus on the social isolation of older people in rural communities, YWL wanted to extend the research to other groups, and this is explored in the report, written by Arrate de la Cruz – and accompanying zine.
Speaking about the issue, Jenni Snell, CEO of The Young Women’s Movement, said:
“It’s widely evidenced that there is a significant issue in relation to social isolation in rural communities in Scotland. This new report sheds light on the heightened social isolation faced by young women and offers a platform for them to share the experiences that are unique to them. I am grateful to the young women who bravely and openly shared their experiences. Their creativity evokes raw and powerful emotions of what it means to feel socially isolated for a young woman in the Scottish Highlands.”
Using a social media-based survey, which posed the questions, ‘What does social isolation mean to you?’ and ‘What makes you feel socially isolated?’, they categorised the three core causes of social isolation into: physical barriers; setting barriers; and psychosocial barriers.
The breathtaking Scottish Highlands, advertised by VisitScotland, Scotland’s National Tourist Organisation, as one of National Geographic’s ‘Best of the World’ destinations in 2023, is often recognised for its rural beauty and isolated landscapes.
The Highland Council serves the most ‘remote and sparsely populated parts of the United Kingdom’, with the Scottish Highlands having the lowest population density of any other local authority in Scotland with less than 10 persons per square kilometre. For individuals who call it their home, this isolation can lead to a loss of social connection and immense loneliness.
The responses to YWL’s survey showed that young women in the Scottish Highlands felt various physical barriers to social connectedness such as the lack of social activities catered towards individuals who are not children, mothers or elderly and the lack of reliable public transport. Issues such as poor broadband services in rural settings also restricted social connectedness at home.
The Highlands see many out-migrating youths leaving their homes in the Highlands to pursue higher education or more employment opportunities. This means that young women living in the Scottish Highlands face the loss of friendship, familiarity and acceptance as a reduction in community diversity is created. This can lead to young mothers and those in the LGBT+ community with a lack of support around them.
An emphasis on the lack of social activities for young women was stressed by respondents who concurred that activities which did not revolve around alcohol drinking were lacking.When describing the effects of the lack of social activities, one respondent said:
“It leads to feelings of loneliness associated with a lack of sense of belonging and the inability to connect with others”.
Pressures exacerbated through social media create a social expectation to not be “wasting your 20s” and leave many women isolated, feeling as though life is passing them by. This sense of disconnect from other young women within local communities leads to loneliness which was described as: “relentless, embarrassing and cruel”.
The domino effects of loneliness, which are catalysed by a lack of reliable transport, out-migration and lack of diversity within communities, are various health issues mental and physical. It has been found that loneliness is a predictor of suicide and that women in particular report a stronger correlation between loneliness and suicide than men.
Sydney Henderson, a participant of the study spoke about overcoming the stigma around loneliness:
“There was a power in the simple act of admitting feeling lonely and hearing other people say, ‘I feel the same’. Our shared understanding of loneliness brought us together and we wanted to take the opportunity to draw attention to the issue, and in doing so, hopefully show people they are not alone in their feeling of social isolation.”
The report acknowledged the need for ‘gal pals’ to enjoy life with , putting a strong emphasis on the need for more social activities aimed at young women and proposed that the improvement of transport infrastructures would not only be an investment in the local communities but also in the well being of Highland women.
If you are struggling with issues like loneliness and do not know who to talk to, there are people you can contact at any time who won’t judge you. Samaritans have a free, anonymous helpline and are always open. Call 116 123 (UK-wide) or visit www.samaritans.org.