My journey through the Highlands & Islands so far…..


The Growth at the Edge project (aka ‘the rural one’) is all about building a picture of the health and wellbeing benefits of social enterprise activity in the Highlands & Island of Scotland. As I have journeyed to some of the most remote and rural communities in Scotland in the past few months, I have been keeping a photo diary of my adventures….

I’ve met the most amazing community spirited people dealing with major transport issues, lack of services and issues that us urban folk may take for granted, such as access to fresh fruit and vegetables, or being able to reach a doctors surgery. Some rural inhabitants see themselves as the ‘forgotten people’, with ever depleting populations and a lack of vital infrastructure.

A run down filling station in Helmsdale, the only one in the area


In spite of such challenges, the people of rural communities are defiant and resilient, both making the most of what they have and continually fighting for more. They are coming together and building new community centres to create meeting places and to provide activities for all ages…….

 Atlantic Centre, Isle of Luing and the Seaboard Centre, Balintore

They are encouraging people to curate their heritage, and are fiercely proud of their history….

The Mermaid of the North and Fish Sculptures, celebrating the fishing folklore of the Seaboard Villages

They are bringing education, arts and crafts to their communities, utilising and nourishing the skills that they have in their populations…

Art projects and handmade woodwork at Cantray Park, Cantray

As well as offering employment to people in the local community, including vulnerable groups and those in need……

Shetland Soap Company, Lerwick and The Elgin Youth Cafe, Elgin

They are encouraging people to ‘grow local, eat local’, with many communities investing in land for traditional crofting and market gardens and education to promote healthy living….

Blooming polytunnels at Cantray Park, Cantray and healthy living education at Elgin Youth Development Group, Elgin

And they are also investing in renewable energy and the recycling of materials to aid the sustainability of their communities for the future of their generations……

       Wind Turbines and a brand new ReStore furniture upcycle workshop at Cothrom, South Uist

I have met some very interesting service users along the way…….


Some happy ducks and geese using the pond at the aviary at Cantray Park, Cantray (some had flown all the way from Canada just to use their service)

And I’ve literally been to the very edge of civilisation…..


Views from sunny Lerwick, Shetland

But what is most exciting is that this is only the beginning of my project and I’m looking forward to uncovering so much more! My journey will be taking me to many more remote and rural communities, all with their own stories, of which I hope to share with you along the way!

Introducing ‘Project 8’

Submitting my PhD this week marked the official end of the ‘Passage from India’ project and so I have started to turn my attention to the question of ‘what next?’ Gill and I will be working on ‘Project 8’ over the next two years and sat down to talk about the specifics of work. It has has always seemed like the far off project in the distance, answers to many questions over the past couple of years have been; ‘Well that’s for project 8 to address’ and now it’s time to grapple with some of those questions…

The research conducted throughout the CommonHealth programme is designed to explore some of the concepts included in the following model (based on a paper you can find here):

conceptual model

This looks complex, but in its simplest form shows the variety of mechanisms through which a social enterprise might improve health and wellbeing. Although this is based on a variety of  existing theories and concepts, there are very few studies that relate specifically to social enterprises. As CommonHealth researchers our job is to contributeevidence to refine, develop some of the assumptions behind this model. This will be an important aspect of project 8 as we look at some of the emerging themes from projects 1, 2 and 4 and ask how these might relate to various aspects within the model.

One such theme relates to the value of work which has been an important consideration of all the projects thus far. In project 1 Gill noted that Scottish community businesses were often concerned with ‘recruiting people who had been unemployed for many years due to the economic crisis of the 1970s and dramatic changes in the infrastructure of the Scottish economy’. In his work on project 2 Bobby undertook a case study of a work integration social enterprise and interviewed people who placed a huge amount of importance on on their work, knowing that they may not find employment elsewhere. Often their answers related to a sense of purpose and belonging. In my own work on ‘Passage from India’ I have been considering the value of work and whether it lies in the monetary reward or if there are other aspects of work that make it good for health and wellbeing? Perhaps this is one of the key mechanisms by which social enterprises can impact on health and wellbeing?

Watch this space as we start to address this and other important questions about health, wellbeing and social enterprises.

Clementine Hill O’Connor

The ‘rediscovery of public health’?


Studying the history of public health in Scotland and the UK since the 1970s I’ve been struck by periodic references to the ‘rediscovery of public health’. The 1976 report Prevention and Health: Everybody’s Business was hailed as one such rediscovery. However, the rediscovery was perhaps related to the idea that investing in public health was a cost effective means of public service delivery -a theme present in discussions of funding for public health since the allocation of Poor Law relief in the 19th Century, but also very familiar to us today. While the report did acknowledge the importance of structural factors in health inequalities, it also introduced a trend of highlighting a set of individualised ‘risk factors’ in understanding the health of the population and the promotion of ‘healthy lifestyles’ as a way of improving public health; suggesting that individuals should take more responsibility for their own health –sound familiar?

This debate between the importance of addressing health inequalities and the material structures that they are based in: poor housing, low incomes, lack of access to education and community resources, versus the need to encourage individuals to take responsibility for their own health characterised the content of public health reports throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 2004 the Choosing Health white paper dropped explicit reference to health inequalities in what Elizabeth Dowler has described as a retreat ‘back towards lifestyle and behaviourist approaches’. Again public health was hailed as cost effective, but no systematic approach was implemented, despite this recommendation in the earlier Wanless review.

In Scotland, there have been signs of a different approach. Sir Harry Burns, appointed as chief medical officer, Scotland in 2005 has supported the role of asset-based approaches to public health. Asset-based approaches look at what existing resources people already have and seek to support them to sustain health and well-being rather than solely identifying good health as the absence of a list of ‘risk factors’. However research from the Scottish Public Health Observatory has warned that this approach could potentially widen health inequalities rather than reduce them.

What has struck me is not just the repetitiveness of the discussion and comment on public health from the 1970s, but how much it fails to take into account what we know about how people make choices about their health. In 1990 anthropologist Mildred Blaxter published her research on Health and Lifestyles. She concluded that if people lived in good circumstances ‘healthy’ behaviour had a strong influence on health, but that if circumstances were bad, then adopting ‘healthy’ behaviours made little difference. Moreover, few people’s lifestyles were either totally healthy, or totally unhealthy; some people smoke, but takes lots of exercise, while others may not smoke, eat well, but not do exercise. Thus an approach to health promotion that simply advocates a list of health do’s and don’ts is limited in its effectiveness, because it doesn’t take into account the realities of people’s lives.

I’ll leave you this week with this thought from pioneering social researcher Richard Titmuss, who established Social Policy as an academic discipline: 

‘when we study welfare systems we see that they reflect the dominant cultural and political characteristics of societies.’ 

-What kind of culture does our current system of care reflect?

Rambling and subjective -the stuff of History?

A pioneering study in oral history and the recovery of ordinary people’s memories
A pioneering study in oral history and the recovery of ordinary people’s memories

My previous post may have suggested that I spend all my time in archives working on my academic pallor, this was slightly misleading, occasionally I venture out into the world and talk to people…

 Recently I’ve been recording oral histories with people who have made their careers in the field of social enterprise. Recording someone’s personal memories and experiences so they can be stored and revisited by subsequent generations is a daunting task for both researcher and participant. Participants often worry about how valuable their testimony will be for historical research, which has left me wondering how best to reassure them that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers.

Oral history is the process of recording someone’s life story so that it can be stored as a historical record. This technique was established in the latter decades of the twentieth century as groups of historians turned increasingly to social history and the study of the lives of the working class. It has often been advocated as a useful technique for capturing the testimony of those whose lives are overlooked in the great sweeps of History and has been an important part of the development of women’s history and studies of migrant people.

Today, oral or life history interview techniques are not only used by historians but by many other researchers interested in collecting qualitative interviews. The appeal of this form of data collection to researchers is its aspiration to let participants talk as freely as possible, for them to lead the interview, and have the opportunity to have their views and experiences recorded. I use the term aspiration, because the researcher always has a role in shaping this encounter and pointing the participant in certain directions. Researchers are likewise aware that interviewees want to do a good job and that may also shape their responses on tape.

This brings me to my recent work. I do my best to reassure oral history participants that I’m interested in their experiences that an oral history interview is not a test of how well they remember recent history. However this often does not put people’s minds at ease. One participant, on reading the transcript of their interview replied that it was ‘difficult to understand how something so rambling and subjective can be of value’ to research. In turn I replied that rambling and subjective was perhaps a good description of History.  Upon reflection, it may have been more accurate to say that I think historians should take more notice of the rambling and subjective. That the most valuable testimony for researchers is not succinct answers to the questions posed, but the answers that meander and deviate and ultimately open up new questions. It is precisely the point of doing oral history, that we don’t yet know what will be important for the telling of history in the future, but we should have access to a range of voices in order to being to piece together the story.

Perhaps this tells us something of people’s perception of History, that it remains in their minds the story of kings and queens, and lists of dates, rather than the story of people just like themselves that we can all claim to be part of and even direct.

The archive and the rabbit hole

When Alice famously fell down the rabbit hole she entered a world of continually altering perspectives. Her journey of discovery and wonder is in some ways like the best archival research.

There’s a little bit of magic in the archival research process…


Picture this: I’m on the train to Edinburgh with Sociology-beau. This is unusual because I normally drive to Glasgow for work, but today I’m headed to the National Archives of Scotland so we have the opportunity to talk about what we’re going to do that day. When I tell him I’m going to the archive he fakes a yawn –this makes me laugh, but reminds me that there’s a massive gap between my experience of archival work (joyous exploration) and others perceptions of it (dusty yawnsville).

As I sit down in the archive I’m struck that this is the first time I’ve been here since I did the research for my undergraduate dissertation (on Domestic Service in 18th Century Edinburgh) and the memories of that first research experience come flooding back. Then I was untying little packets of women’s correspondence, deciphering spidery handwriting and peeking into women’s diaries. The nature of the material was highly personal and opening up these parcels the lives of these women suddenly became immediate and tangible. All the background reading I’d done started to make sense.

From that first experience I’ve been hooked on archival work ever since and have worked with a huge range of materials, letters, film, newspapers, lace patterns to name but a few. For my post-doctoral research I’m working with the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland). What’s especially exciting is that as it’s the first project to make use of the material, so there’s massive potential to open up the boxes and uncover a myriad of events, people and ideas that our present-centred society has too hastily forgotten.

But I digress, back the NAS I’m looking at material related to multi-purpose co-operatives in the Highlands and Islands in the 1970s and 1980s. In the newsletters there’s great optimism and enthusiasm and I’m struck by the diverse activities of the groups that were establishing themselves across the Region –some were more successful than others, but even in failure there’s energy generated from the learning experience. I think this is what is special and perhaps misunderstood about archival research, finding data in this way not only challenges you to think again about your subject (all good data collection methods should do that), but it transmits something of the energy of the past, and that energy becomes part of the historians interpretation of that time.

The archive isn’t just well-organised stacks of paper; it’s a portal to an abundance of human experiences. Follow the white rabbit this Easter people, embrace the archive!