By Adam CivicoMarch 28th 2023

Newly qualified GP Jacqueline Gray says Shetland’s strong sense of community both professionally and away from work make the islands an ideal place to work in medicine. And with easy and spectacular commutes, excellent schools and many opportunities for outdoor adventures Shetland is also a great place for a young family to thrive.

There’s an intriguing Shetland dialect word, swidder, meaning a moment of indecision. That’s not something that’s normally associated with medical practice. But Swidder is also an acronym for the Shetland Wide Inter-Disciplinary Doctors’ Educational Resource.

It is the latter that GP Jacqueline Gray highlights as an excellent example of the medical community in Shetland, and the way primary care and clinical professionals work closely together.

While collaborative working is not unique to the islands, Jacqueline believes that closer relationships can develop here more than they do in many larger mainland health boards.

“Swidder and other shared learning in the medical community has definitely helped in forming connections and in making clinical discussions easier.”

Something as simple as recognising the different professionals makes a difference, says Jacqueline.

“The feeling is that you can pick up the phone and just have a chat. You know the working environment they are in, and you can picture their setting. I feel that makes professional life easier and more pleasant.”

The Swidder group, set up around a decade ago to make the medical community “even closer”, is a demonstration of that. Members meet regularly to share knowledge and gather for a meal afterwards.

Because the meetings are informal, the benefits go beyond shared learning. With attendees representing primary and secondary care including GPs, consultants, and psychiatrists, it builds “that sense of community”, and “peer support”, Jacqueline says.

I have a great commute in the morning without any worries about traffic or parking. I can work in Lerwick but at the end of the day I get to come away to a really beautiful spot.

She believes that the smaller size of NHS Shetland compared to other health boards, makes that “comfortable” level of support possible.

Combined with a flexible approach to working, and living in a beautiful part of Shetland, she can’t think of anywhere better to be.

Jacqueline grew up in the West Side of Shetland, where she now lives with husband Bryan, originally from Unst, and their two boys Sonny, seven, and Isaac, five. Their self-built home is surrounded by fields, with a burn running past the house, and the sea is just a couple of minutes away.

From the idyllic home setting to her work in Lerwick, Jacqueline’s commute is a spectacular and stress-free 25-minute journey.

“Lerwick is a decently sized practice, with probably more of an urban feel to it. It’s a busy practice, with plenty opportunity for exposure and experience. But you can still live rurally.”

“I have a great commute in the morning without any worries about traffic or parking. I can work in Lerwick but at the end of the day I get to come away to a really beautiful spot. I love that, and it would be much more difficult to get that if we lived on the mainland. I am living in the area where I grew up as a teenager and where there’s a great sense of community.”

As well as being beautiful, the West Side gives Jacqueline’s boys unrivalled opportunities for outdoor play, and a great sense of freedom.

“Sonny is only seven, but he can leave school and go directly to the leisure centre across the road on his own before I go over to meet him. Both boys spend lots of time there, and have the chance to do swimming lessons, play football, or try out the climbing wall, to name a few. The safety of the local community and close proximity of the leisure centre to the school, allows Sonny so much more freedom than if we were living in an urban area.”

West Mainland Leisure Centre is one of eight dotted across Shetland, used by schools and the wider community. With primary, junior high and high schools around the islands, classes sizes tend to be small, and the standard of education is high.

“I feel so lucky that there are no concerns about having to apply for schools or worrying about where you have to live to get into a good school. The boys will be able to stay at the Aith school until 4th year, and after that they can choose to go to Lerwick to the Anderson High. Both schools are excellent and I feel really confident about their education.”

Having gone through Shetland’s school system herself and completed much of the practical elements of her medical training in the islands, both at the Gilbert Bain Hospital and in primary care settings, Jacqueline believes there’s nowhere better.

“Doing my training here meant I was secure in my location, without the need for long commutes or having to move house. There is a lot more stability than there is for trainees on the mainland. That definitely helps. The benefit of working in Shetland is that you get well known within the medical community by the time you finish training.

“You develop a lot of professional relationships. You know the consultants in the hospital. You have worked in the hospital, which I think makes it easier to have professional conversations once you’re working in different areas.”

I feel so lucky that there are no concerns about having to apply for schools or worrying about where you have to live to get into a good school

As a working mother, Jacqueline says NHS Shetland has also been extremely supportive and flexible, allowing her to develop her career, while spending precious time with her young family. Especially important, as Bryan spends time away at sea through his work as an engineer on one of Shetland’s pelagic fishing boats.

The flexibility means Jacqueline gets to spend quality time with the boys, exploring the countryside near the house.

“They have a beach to play on and burn right on our doorstep. We’re surrounded by fields and have recently got our own flock of sheep, as well as hens. They spend a lot of time outside.

“We bought a boat with friends last summer, and in the better weather would often enjoy heading out to fish at the weekend or in the evenings.

Boating is not Jacqueline’s only watery pursuit. She often takes a paddle board out after work, and she is also no stranger to wild swimming – including a dip on New Year’s Day… “definitely wet suits on!”.

It’s undoubtedly a great balance between working and family life. And the flexible approach to working has also enabled Jacqueline to take on a “portfolio career” role as the GP lead for cancer and palliative care with Macmillan, focusing on service improvement.

“The flexibility in my GP job has allowed me to develop a non-clinical role, which really adds to the diversity and interest of my job as a whole.”

“It’s great.”

And there’s no swiddering about that.