For Vicky Schofield, an advanced nurse practitioner at the Lerwick Health Centre, moving to Shetland for her dream nursing job four years ago also meant moving the family of four up from Chester.
“Of course, there were a lot of questions,” she says. “Would we fit in? Would we like it? Was there a brass band? Charlotte, her daughter, was really worried that we wouldn’t have the same furniture. We spent a lot of time reassuring her that it would still be the four of us together, that nothing would change — and that, yes, we’d have the same furniture.”
Four years later, we’re sitting at Vicky’s old dining room table in Lerwick as she makes a post-work bacon butty and a mug of tea, served in a Union Jack tea cosy. Jeffrey and Golden Batman, the two goldfish, are vacantly doing their thing in their tank (Reuben, Vicky’s six-year-old son, gave Golden Batman his name because he likes Batman but alas the goldfish isn’t black. No one seems to know why Jeffrey is Jeffrey, or how to spell his name). While the beloved family dog, Rocky, passed away recently, Vicky has plans to get a new black labrador puppy for the family.
Reuben and Charlotte, nine, are at school, and Vicky’s husband Martin is working at the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, at Shetland’s beautiful southernmost tip, as a conservation officer for RSPB Scotland. “They’ll stop meetings to watch humpback whales, and through the summer he’ll be out doing bird surveys all across Shetland.”
Vicky and Martin met 12 years ago in Derbyshire, through a mutual friend in Vicky’s brass band. Vicky plays the cornet and Martin plays the tuba; and the rich, mournful sound of the brass band is the background music to their family life. When Vicky saw the job advertised for an ANP in Shetland, the first thing she Googled was: ‘Shetland brass band’. It turned out that not only was there a brass band but that it contained a disproportionately high number of NHS workers.
So, after arriving on a Tuesday in early 2014, by the Friday Vicky found herself marching with the Lerwick Brass Band at the Up Helly Aa fire festival at Bigton, in the south of Shetland. “I was marching along this beautiful beach in the dark, sight-reading music and dodging sparks from the fires, and just thinking: Where am I?”
Vicky and Martin still both play for the Lerwick Brass Band, though child duties mean they take turns to attend Tuesday band practice. On the weekend before we meet, Vicky played the Last Post at Shetland’s largest remembrance service, at Lerwick’s Clickimin Leisure Complex. “The service was better than my performance,” she notes, possibly selling herself short.
The family live on a cul-de-sac just off the road out of town, and life is busy. While Martin supports the coaches at the mini rugby team, both of them help out at the swimming club, and Vicky notes that “we spend an awful lot of time baking for charity”.
The children are busy, too, with Beavers, Brownies, rugby, swimming and lots of haring up and down the street on bikes and scooters. “Sometimes I’ll have seven children in my house, sometimes I’ll have none,” says Vicky. “You don’t actually know which house they’re in, but everybody looks after everybody, and they’ll send the kids home at tea time. It’s the childhood that I had, and it’s so nice that my kids have it as well.”
All of this seemed a long way away when Vicky and Martin were watching TV in Chester, and Vicky saw an advert on the NHS Scotland website for an ANP in Lerwick. “At the time we were spending a lot of time commuting,” says Vicky. “We just fancied a change, and originally I was looking at the Highlands, when I saw this. I said to Martin: Shall we move to Shetland? And he said: Hmmmm, I don’t know, really.”
If the newly-created role was perfect — offering the potential for study, career development and more time with patients — Vicky’s preparations for her interview weren’t. Reuben had been up sick all night, and she had to do the phone interview in her pajamas, exhausted. “I still don’t know how I got the job,” she admits
The NHS’s relocation package included all moving costs and scouting trips, so that the family could see if life up here might suit them. “On my first visit to Shetland, I was amazed by how much it looks like North Yorkshire,” says Vicky. “I rang my husband and said, it’s fine, you’ll like it, it looks like North Yorkshire. And he was like: Well, that’s fine then.”
And while the package would have been partially repayable had the family left before two years, their two year “trial” has become four. For Vicky, the job that looked perfect “is still perfect”. She walks along the seafront to work, where she says “there’s always lots of tea, banter and laughter in the staff room”. Though she doesn’t, many of the GPs work in offices with big windows that look straight out to the sea.
Working as an ANP, which means that she can treat and discharge a patient without a GP, she now sees patients in 15-minute slots, compared to ten minutes where she used to work. “That extra time is really crucial for getting to the root of issues, and you really get to know your patients here: not just what’s wrong with them, but who they are as people and what stresses they might be under. Being a nurse in Shetland allows me to do the things in nursing that I really enjoy, the reasons I went into it 20 years ago.”
The NHS here also sponsored her to do a Master’s in professional practice, with distance learning from Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University and training from local GPs. “I’ve asked for it every job I’ve had, and it’s never happened, so to finally have the opportunity happen is just amazing.”
From Vicky’s point of view, the relative shortage of NHS staff in Shetland means even more reason to come. “There are so many chances to develop, and grow your career here,” she says. “It’s absolutely the best job I’ve ever done.”
While Martin worked as an ecologist in Chester, he’s also found his way to a dream job, albeit more circuitously. When he first moved, he attempted to be a house husband, which Vicky says “just wasn’t him”. So he took a job at the local post office, then worked in the control room at the Coastguard, before the job with RSPB Scotland came up. Having studied ecology at university, it was everything he wanted it to be.
“I think our work-life balance is a lot better now,” says Vicky. “We spend a lot less time driving, and stressing about work, and we have more time to spend with our children. In summer, the days are so long that sometimes it’s ten o’clock and you forget that the kids need to go to bed.
And, slowly but surely, they’ve come to see Shetland as home. “We have been really really happy with how we’ve been welcomed into the community. Everybody’s always been very happy to see us, and very happy that we’ve come as a family. This is our home now.”
Certainly, there have been some changes. Vicky says that Charlotte is starting to talk with a slight Shetland accent; and while Reuben still sounds more English, he’s starting using words like “peerie” (small) and “breeks” (trousers). Vicky was surprised on a recent visit back to England that Reuben had never seen an escalator before.
On a Saturday morning a few days later, we drop in on the family for a few more shots. There are three children in the house that don’t belong to Vicky and Martin, all happily playing, though one young child seems to have forgotten to wear trousers. Soon, they’re spilling outside, with scooters, bikes, helmets (and trousers) seeming to appear from nowhere for what might be described as cul-de-sac drag racing.
Then, four of the children head towards the nearby Broch of Clickimin, an Iron Age fortress overlooking a small loch, which historians think may have been a farmstead as early as the seventh century BC. Today, this collection of circular stone structures is simply the setting for an unusually evocative game of hide-and-seek. Despite the late autumnal chill, Charlotte doesn’t want to wear a jacket, while her parents argue that this is not a good idea. Soon, Charlotte is off, hiding from both her would-be captors and the requirement that she wear a coat.
It’s a normal family on a normal Saturday. At home.
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