By Jackie DarbyshireSeptember 21st 2022

Shetland ticked all the boxes for one family wanting to escape the rat race and enjoy a slower, safer and happier life in the country. Sam Belokon-Dennis and husband Mark have embraced island living since moving with their daughters in 2019 and haven’t looked back.

When Sam Belokon-Dennis moved to Shetland with her family three years ago it felt like she had found her forever home at last.

Sam, husband Mark Dennis and their two teenage daughters Ellie-Mae and Emily have thrown themselves into life in Shetland since relocating from Lincolnshire and Sam’s only regret is that they didn’t make the move sooner.

“I absolutely love it,” Sam said. “I’ve moved around all my life and I’ve never really felt anywhere has been home due to being a Forces child and relocating regularly.

“Now this definitely feels like home. I’ve been off-island a couple of times and I can’t wait to get on the ferry to come home.

“As soon as I see Sumburgh I’ve cried, I don’t know why, but I know that I’m home.”

Sam, 47, has previously worked in community nursing and, before that, in hospital roles in the NHS.

She loves her work as an associate practitioner in the Outpatients department at the Gilbert Bain Hospital, in Lerwick.

It has seen her complete a two-year Open University course in order to gain a promotion.

“I’ve gained a lot more skills which I’m happy with and I wouldn’t have gained them down in England,” she said.

“We’re such a small hospital so you have to know a bit of everything so every day is very, very different and I really like that.

“One day I could be running the eye clinic, the next day it could be the gynaecological clinic, the next day the surgical clinic or minor operations.

“I get to meet so many people and work with great colleagues, even visiting consultants. I love it - and I don’t take my work home with me anymore.”

It is a huge improvement in her work-life balance: “It just felt like I was taking my work home with me every day. I wasn’t getting time to finish my paperwork in work hours, I was bringing a lot of it home with me and was working until 9-10pm. I was extremely tired, would go to bed and then it would all start again the next day.”

The family were able to make the move in April 2019 after Mark secured his job as an architectural technician with Richard Gibson Architects, now known as Nee Gibson Architects, in Lerwick.

He started in architecture working with Anglesey Borough Council and Bangor University, then joined the Army as a Draughtsman (Architectural) and travelled the world, before working for 15 years for architects in Lincolnshire.

He faced an hour-plus commute to Peterborough and worked long hours: “The free time wasn’t there.”

Mark, aged 46, has worked on a mixture of commercial and domestic projects across Shetland, including in the isles of Yell and Unst.

He has had to learn the Scottish building and planning regulations as well as familiarise himself with timber frame builds, which makes up all of his work.

Mark said work is more “buoyant than ever”, but he has had to get used to a different pace.

“People get back to you when they get round to it,” he said. “I was used to the high demands of the mainland. When you asked for something you’d get it within a day or a week. Here, things are at a slow pace and take a little longer.”

The more relaxed attitude extends to his office: “If the sun is out, the boss isn’t frightened to occasionally finish early and say: ‘Let’s go and enjoy the sun.”

Mark’s goal was to build their dream home, but the cost proved prohibitive. Instead the family lives in a traditional Shetland cottage in Semblister, on the West Mainland, which he described as “the next best thing”.

“Steeped in local history, with original family members still as neighbours it's been brilliant,” he said.

Sam’s craft skills and green fingers have been put to good use outside the front of the cottage. It’s adorned with planters, bunting and ornaments made from upcycled buoys, wellies and sea glass.

They also have an honesty box at the side of the house in which they sell eggs and surplus vegetables from their polytunnel.

Mark’s Covid project saw him lovingly convert a former boat shed/henhouse at the back of the house into a one-bedroom cottage for visiting family members and tourists.

After two years’ work, nearly all done by Mark, the cottage is now finished and they’ve welcomed their first guests.

Their next project is to plant out a meadow with native species to attract wildlife.

Their eldest daughter Ellie-Mae, aged 18, completed her final two years of secondary education at the Anderson High School (AHS) in Lerwick, and is about to start her second year studying English and History at the University of Edinburgh.

“She does quite often say that she misses Shetland - the views, the sea, the quietness of the place and the friendships she made,” Mark said.

If the sun is out, the boss isn’t frightened to occasionally finish early and say: ‘Let’s go and enjoy the sun.'

Emily, aged 17, and her parents are full of praise for the supportive staff at the AHS.

And Emily said she received a warm welcome from her year group.

Under a buddy system for new students, Emily was introduced to a classmate to help her settle in.

But two of her friends also went along to meet Emily and by the end of her first day she had made three friends.

“I made friends with that entire group and have been with them ever since,” she said. “They’re just so welcoming.”

It was those friends who first introduced Emily to yoal rowing, when they needed someone to complete their Burra team for the Yell regatta.

She now takes part in regattas representing Aith in the under-21s and ladies teams. About to start her final year at school, the University of Aberdeen is high on her list to attend because of the course and its boat club.

The wildlife and the Northern Lights have been a big draw for Sam and Mark. They have seen pods of Atlantic white-sided dolphins in the voe in front of their home and there is a resident otter nearby. And they only need to open their front door in the winter to be able to take fantastic photos of the Mirrie Dancers.

The couple also enjoy pulling on a wetsuit and going for a swim in the voe before jumping into their hot tub.

They are both trained volunteers with Shorewatch, which involves looking out for whales and dolphins from specific sites around the Shetland coastline.

Sam helped to monitor a sperm whale, which was trapped in the narrow Whiteness Voe for several days in April, before it was guided back into deeper water in a huge community effort.

“I was there the day it went out and it was absolutely amazing,” she said.

Following that, Sam has been invited to receive training from the Scottish Marine Association as part of its marine animal stranding scheme.

The couple are looking forward to getting involved with more community events. They are already regulars at the quiz night held at Skeld Public Hall and recently hosted it for the first time.

Mark and Sam also took the top two spots at the Shetland Crabby Line Championships in Scalloway with 42 crabs between them.

The family are enjoying living in a tight-knit community which sees their neighbours occasionally leaving fresh food on their doorstep, helping each other out and inviting them round for tab nabs and a dram.

The couple do miss friends and family back in England, but looking back at all the highlights of the last three years, Mark said: “Our time in Shetland has been everything we were looking for and more.”