‘It was a gamble’: switching from inner-city social work to the Outer Hebrides

Andy McNicoll hears from a social worker who swapped life in a central London substance misuse team for a job as the only social worker on a remote Scottish island.

All pictures: Abigail Treffry photography

As commutes to a social work office go, Ed Lowe’s is pretty special. “Sometimes I can see basking sharks or dolphins. On the drive home last night some deer were waiting for me to pass. It’s not for everybody, but for me this is place is starkly beautiful,” he says.

Ed is the only resident social worker on Barra, an island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides and home to a 1,200 strong, largely Gaelic-speaking, community.

Ed, along with three social work assistants (“who work magnificently well”) on his team, is responsible for coordinating care for adults with physical disabilities, learning disabilities and mental health support needs. The team’s caseload covers Barra, the linked island of Vatersay and parts of the neighbouring Uist isles.

He also provides an out-of-hours service (in effect he is Barra’s out-of-hour service) and, as a trained Mental Health Officer, carries out statutory duties under Scotland’s Mental Health Act and adult safeguarding legislation.

In short, there’s “plenty” to keep him busy, but Ed explains that 15 years ago the island’s social worker also acted as a de facto housing officer, probation officer and registrar on top of providing “cradle to grave” social work.

“So she housed you, birthed you, buried you and assessed you. Really, I’m getting off lightly!” he says.

View picture slideshow: a day in the life of a Barra social worker

While some of Ed’s casework is on Barra itself, as the team’s only qualified social worker he also handles the riskier cases that crop up across the various isles the team covers.

Typically, he’ll make the 80 minute round trip on the ferry from Barra to south Uist two or three times a week for cases or team meetings. The installation of a videoconferencing system has helped cut down the need to travel for the latter.

These kind of demands are a world away (or, according to Google Maps, 597 miles and a 14 hour drive and ferry ride away) from the dilemmas that faced Ed in his last social work job in the London borough of Hammersmith.

So how did he end up moving from social work in London’s urban sprawl to one of the UK’s most remote corners?

A ‘huge gamble’

Ed admits that the move felt like a “huge gamble” at the time. He’d been working in London after qualifying in 1998. He really enjoyed being part of a “very progressive and creative” inner-city substance misuse team and the mix of clients they worked with.

But, in 2006, a series of changes in his professional and personal life – not least the news his partner was expecting a child – left him facing “a big decision”.

“The main thing was not having the resources to live in London with a child in a way that made sense in terms of our work/life balance and travelling to work,” says Ed. “Eventually, the choice was that we’d either commute from somewhere like Croydon or Luton, or we’d move to Barra or Donegal, where I’d seen jobs advertised.”  

Ed opted to apply for the Barra post – he’d been to the island once before for a short holiday and liked it. He got the job. 

To his surprise, at the interview he found out that the role came with a house too. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar council had made a decision to provide a housing association property for the island’s social worker after previous incumbents had struggled to find accommodation on an island where housing (or the lack of it) is a significant issue.

The house in Eoligarry, a crofting township near Barra airport (the only airport in the world where scheduled flights use a beach as the runway), has been home to Ed and his family for the past seven years.

“I was very fortunate. It’s probably one of the most stunning locations in Scotland. The aeroplanes land on the beach and you can see the tide coming in and out. It’s pretty much the only place in the UK where it’s a pleasure to live underneath the flight path,” he says.

Creative solutions

So what is life like as Barra’s only social worker? The Outer Hebrides has one of the oldest population profiles in Scotland. When combined with the fact that the community is scattered across a number of isolated settlements, there are “significant challenges” for social care, says Ed.

The best part of the job is coming up with “creative solutions” for service users on an island where support options are more limited than the mainland. Ed also enjoys working with community projects, such as a horiticulture scheme for adults with all different kinds of care needs that is run in partnership with local charity Garadh a Bagh a Tuath.

“They’ve got five polytunnels, three wind turbines and sell £10,000 worth of produce in a year,” he says. “It’s a magic, magic wee project. It’s an example of how the community supports itself here. Obviously there is still a need for social work, for nurses and the likes. But the community here is very, very strong.”

Aside from the day job, Ed has embraced Barra’s “very different, very alive culture” and its rich traditions. He and his wife are “slowly but surely” learning Gaelic and they both volunteer with local community groups. Their kids are also schooled in Gaelic and take part in traditional Scottish dancing, music and singing.

Working in such a small community brings challenges too. Ed admits that social workers – and other professionals like teachers, or police officers – have to accept they won’t have the same anonymity in their personal lives as you might have in a big city. The idea that you will bump into people you support on a daily basis is not just likely, it’s “inevitable” on such a small island, he says.

But, for Ed, any downsides are vastly outweighed by the positives of island life. He values the “positive relationships” he has built up in the community.

He also remembers the warm welcome that greeted his family on arrival. “Small things” made a huge difference in helping him adjust to island life – the friendliness of the office staff and, particularly, his first meetings with service users when he was tasked with reviewing their home care packages.

“I was talking to guys in their 70s and 80s who had been round the world twice over with the merchant navy. They had amazing stories to tell. They were interested in me, and where I was from too,” he says. “I realised I’d been romanticising the idea of Barra for good reasons.”

Serving the community

As a social worker, Ed has always believed in serving the community you live in too. When he worked in London, he lived in the borough where he worked.

“I remember working in one of the big Glasgow housing estates years ago. The agency I was with at the time had a car park full of 30 cars in the morning, but by the end of the day all 30 would be gone. Not one person was local, “ he says.

“It suits me ethically to live where I work, although I realise it might be easier because I don’t work in child protection.”

Before we end our interview, I have to ask Ed about one thing – the weather. I’ve been to Barra once, in an ill-fated attempt to run the ‘Barrathon’ (the island’s annual half marathon).

I remember being struck that there were virtually no trees. Presumably any that had been standing had been battered and beaten down by the kind of fierce storm that led to my ferry home being cancelled that weekend. Was my experience a one off?

“The wind is not really describable in its ferocity. Car doors can become a weapon that take your shin off as the wind slams them shut, and that could be at any time of the year at all,” says Ed.

“I love the weather. I love the storms – I mean it gets a bit much after 14 days of storms, but that only happens occasionally. But today, for example, I’m just looking out at a flat, calm sea. It can be stunning.”

is Community Care’s community editor

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