“There’s nothing else for kids to do round here”: alcohol use in rural and islands communities.
By Emma Roddick, MSP for Highlands and Islands
As Parliament returns for a new term, Emma Roddick reflects on the role of alcohol in rural and island communities in Scotland.
Over parliamentary recess periods, I have countless conversations with constituents. Hundreds are recorded in entries to my case management system; scribbled notes for taking back to Parliament; and hurried emails to my team, typed en route to the next train or bus. A few, I’m sure, will stick in my mind long after I’m an MSP.
One of those conversations which I have thought about a lot since having it was with a young constituent, probably the youngest community councillor I’ve met: a teenager, still in high school. He was talking about drug use in island communities: how easily it takes hold, how hard it is to shift, and the apparent lack of alternative ways for his peers to kill time. He told me: “it starts with alcohol.”
We talked about how alcohol use – harmful, excessive alcohol use – is so prevalent and normalised in some communities that children grow up thinking they’ll become a real adult when their life revolves around fitting in the next dram, or five.
“There’s nothing else for kids to do” almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s acceptance, it’s normalisation.
“There’s nothing for kids to do round here” is a complaint I hear often. Often it seems true. More rarely, it almost is.
This summer, I heard the following conversation:
“They run down the street in the afternoon, jump off the banks, throw sticks in the water and climb the trees because there’s nothing else for them to do.” The response? “There’s plenty for them to do, then.”
But, growing up in a rural or island area, where all the adults around you say “there’s nothing for kids your age to do, that’s why you all drink”, well… young people don’t want to be the odd one out. Many will feel they have to do what “all the bairns” are doing.
It's when you grow up and stop finding throwing sticks in the water quite so amusing that society seems to revolve around alcohol.
I led a debate in the Scottish Parliament earlier this year on SHAAP’s report into alcohol abuse in the LGBTQI+ community. Their findings were both shocking and, suddenly, completely obvious to me – of course this is a particular issue for my community. Where do we hang out? Gay bars, clubs, Pride. All places filled with the most creative alcohol use you can find.
It’s the same for many rural communities. Community groups, social activities, sometimes the only ones available, take place in the local pub. Even many of those I’ve attended in community centres are Bring Your Own Bottle – usually more of an instruction than an invitation. I struggle to think of any non-work-related, alcohol-free spaces used for socialising in the rural areas I know well.
Being a Highlands and Islands MSP, I’ve been to more than my fair share of agricultural shows this summer and grew up attending the Black Isle Show every year. I didn’t notice the prominence of alcohol at these events when I was wee, presumably helped by the fact my mam drove us there and didn’t partake in that aspect of the day. I love the shows. But, when I excitedly told my best friend that I was on my way to the Black Isle Show for the first time in a few years, thinking about the food, the music, the general wonder, he groaned. All he knew them for was the excessive drinking and the mess those heading home on the train afterwards made.
I’ve also been to my fair share of distilleries. Places which are important to our cultural, economic, and social activity, and which are doing innovative and important work to move towards Net Zero. But which exist to create, sell, and market alcohol.
When one distillery director, during a conversation about the justification for negative environmental effects of distilleries, pointed out that whisky is a luxury, not a necessity, I even found myself jumping to disagree. Many of us feel that it is. It’s our culture.
Tourists come to my home, the Highlands, to admire the idyllic views, seek out wildlife, and escape from their own busy lives. For locals, socialising means drinking. I tell visiting friends and family to Inverness to walk down the river – the Ness Islands are gorgeous, the Castle is beautiful, and the local herons are a sight to behold. When all of those are a daily occurrence, you fill the time by meeting friends in one of the three dozen pubs along that route. For friends who attended school in Inverness, the islands are where illicit underage drinking happened.
With the caveat that I rely entirely on my own anecdotal, qualitative evidence here; COVID probably takes some blame for current high alcohol use by rural residents. I’ve heard from constituents that they were shut in and felt they had to drink – whether because they were alone and lonely, or with family, and, well, stuck with family. I’ve heard that people have lost local places to drink socially, and even that they are now too anxious to travel or be around so many people after two years in solitude. Habits have changed, people have built bars in their homes and gardens, and the free-pour, 24/7, cheaper-than-a-fiver-a-pint booze is flowing. There are no bouncers to turf you out or bar staff to declare that you’re done for the night.
With my region being so large and diverse, I deal with a caseload which is large and diverse. Viral campaigns and national policy announcements aside, the constants you can expect to come into your inbox every week are different depending on the postcode. Rural constituents always raise serious transport issues and problems accessing healthcare far more than anywhere else. I wasn’t, then, surprised when SHAAP’s research into alcohol in rural areas showed a high number of responses recognising lack of access to support services as a top issue alongside stigma – with each making the other worse.
Most people who learn about available healthcare support for problem drinking and alcoholism in rural areas learn about it too late – when they have to access it themselves. That’s assuming they have overcome the fear of social stigma for seeking support and been able to get a referral to a service which they are able to travel to. These simple actions are more of a reach for many than you might think, and I will continue working with the Scottish Government and local organisations to address this – underpinned, of course, by the invaluable research done by SHAAP.
SHAAP Blogposts are published with the permission of the authors. The views expressed are solely the authors' own and do not necessarily represent the views of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP).