On a chilly Saturday morning in November, Kaylee and Emma Stevenson have just done what they do most Saturday mornings: the five-kilometre Park Run on Bressay, the island of 360 residents across the water from Shetland’s capital, Lerwick. As always, they’ve travelled across on the ferry with their dogs, and running partners: Hugo, Kaylee’s large and fluffy Akita, and Nell, one of Emma’s two boxers (the other, Keira, isn’t such a fan of running). “Hugo comes everywhere with me,” says Kaylee, with her post-run coffee and bacon roll outside Bressay’s little cafe, in the former school. “He’s basically like a human, but quite a lazy one.”
“She’s a crazy dog lady,” points out Emma.
“So are you, though!”
Kaylee and Emma make each other laugh a lot, which makes them tricky interviewees when we later sit down in the cafe at Mareel, Lerwick’s arts and culture centre. It’s been that way since they met at the age of 12 at Lerwick’s Anderson High School, and instantly hit it off. “We were those girls,” says Kaylee, raising an eyebrow. Back then, they both ran in the cross-country team at the local athletics club. Kaylee might have been quicker then, but Emma reckons she’s got the edge now. “I don’t even care,” says Kaylee… “Okay, I care a little. I’ve got the big fat dog, though…”
While people sometimes mistake them for sisters, especially now that they share a surname, they’re actually sisters-in-law, after Emma married Kaylee’s brother Gordon, an air traffic controller, earlier this year. If they are perhaps soul sisters, they share unselfconscious musical tastes. When Kaylee got tickets for the Abba tribute concert that’s happening tonight at Mareel, most of her friends “were too cool for it. But I could rely on Emma.”
Still, while they struggle to keep straight faces on a Saturday, and frequently commentate on each others’ performance during our interview, they both have very serious day jobs in Shetland’s emergency services. Emma works as a specialist paramedic, while Kaylee works as a senior maritime operations officer at the Shetland Coastguard, which means she’s often the first port of call in an emergency. Both have recently appeared on Island Medics, the BBC programme about Shetland’s health and rescue services. The first episode shows Kaylee helping to coordinate the night-time rescue of a teenage boy trapped on a cliff; the fourth episode sees Emma escort a heart attack patient from Lerwick’s Gilbert Bain hospital to the airport at Sumburgh.
Both talk about how the job is different in Shetland to other parts of the UK. “Down south, they might have more small incidents,” says Kaylee. “But if we have a job it tends to be quite serious, and it can be miles and miles offshore. It can be really challenging, and incidents do drag out longer here.”
Emma agrees. “In a way, the geography of Shetland makes it harder,” she says. “We can be an hour and a half from the hospital with a really ill patient, and there’s nobody but us to look after them. At the same time, the care for people in Shetland is excellent, and the team at the hospital is really, really good. You have to be good here, and the fact that you might know the patient adds to the pressure. I’ve walked into houses and, just from the pictures on the wall, I’ve figure out that it’s my pal’s granny.”
Emma always wanted to be a paramedic, and did her nurse training at Glasgow’s Caledonian University, before moving to Oxford for a year to work as an ambulance care assistant. When she saw a post as an ambulance technician come up in Shetland in 2013, she jumped at the chance. “I knew eventually we’d end up back here,” she says. “If we ever have a family, we’d want it to be here, just because it’s so safe and family-oriented, and because the education’s so good.”
Kaylee’s route to her current role was more circuitous. Having done a Skill Seekers apprenticeship after leaving school, she landed a job as an administration assistant for the Shetland Islands Council. “But it felt so final and so certain,” she says. “I decided I wanted to go and see the world.” She worked as a chalet host in the winters in Sweden, and in the summers was a yacht trainer and flotilla mate around Greece’s Ionian islands. “I would train people for a week, then go on the yacht and basically organise the parties. It was a great job.”
The call of home became increasingly persistent, though. There were the obvious reasons — missing family and friends — but also more intangible ones, too. On one visit home, she went to the post office to post a letter, but it was closed. An old lady, facing the same problem, offered to hand-deliver Kaylee’s letter in Scalloway, six miles up the road. “I’d realised that things like that don’t happen everywhere,” she says. “People here are always so willing to help.”
The job at the coastguard came up in 2015, and Kaylee hasn’t looked back. But while both she and Emma’s jobs have their stressful moments, both are keen to play up the fact that life in Shetland is good. “There’s someone who’s just moved up working for the coastguard, and he’s really keen into his photography,” says Kaylee. “His mind has been blown by the nature and the Northern Lights. He’s just fallen in love with the place. Not everyone has that reaction — it can be a Marmite place — but I think especially if you’re outgoing and willing to get involved, whether it’s with music, craft, sports, anything like that, then you’ll fit right in.”
For Emma and Kaylee, life involves going to the gym and running together, and dog walks along the beautiful tombolo beach to St Ninian’s Isle, on the south of Shetland’s Mainland. Like a lot of Shetlanders, Emma plays the fiddle, and occasionally joins in the live jam sessions at The Lounge, the cosy Lerwick pub famous for hosting ‘Peerie’ Willie Johnson and other 20th-century traditional Shetland musicians.
But they also say that Lerwick has more options than ever. “Mareel was a big thing when it opened a few years ago,” says Emma. “And this summer has seen new places open, like The String and The Dowry, where you can get a cocktail and good food, and see live music. It’s been this sort of domino effect.”
“It’s definitely become more competitive,” says Kaylee. “There’s more of a sense that things are happening, and people are going out more.”
Another big social benefit of life in Shetland, they say, is simply that people tend to be available. “I found when I lived in Oxford it was like two weeks planning to go for a cup of tea,” says Emma. “If I’m in town, going to Tescos or something, I’ll just go to Kaylee’s flat and just walk in and she won’t think anything of it. And there’s a lot of friends I can do that with. People are often around, and just up for doing stuff.”
Like a lot of Shetlanders, though, they’re keen to emphasise that it’s not a cliquey place, either professionally or personally. “Not at all,” says Emma, who also points out that the islands are keen to welcome more paramedics, as well as doctors, nurses and care workers. “As soon as you got off the plane or the boat, you’d be able to see how welcoming it is. And anything you want to do, there’ll be a club or a group of people into the same thing. Before you know it, you’ll be part of the community and wandering into places without ringing the doorbell.”
With that, Kaylee delivers her final piece of commentary on Emma’s skills as an interviewee. “Nailed it.” And then, pointing to her friend, “She’s good at this, isn’t she?”
After our interview at Mareel, we film Kaylee and Emma drinking Cosmopolitans at The Dowry, on Commercial Street, which opened in the summer and has an airily greyscale Scandi vibe. It’s 4pm, an hour earlier than the planned cocktail hour, but they’re made up and ready to go out, set for dinner at The String, the seafood restaurant a few doors down, and then the Abba tribute band (unlike many Shetlanders, they’ve chosen not to dress for a 1974 disco). As various family and friends appear and join their table, the volume of the laughter only increases. As we head out into the dark, we look back to see them bent over double with laughter. ‘Abba’ had better watch out.
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