the real love islands: finding romance in a hopeless place

It’s tough looking for love when hook-ups spread like wildfire and Grindr matches are separated by seas.

by Kyle MacNeill
05 July 2019, 11:20am

“I guess it’s similar to Love Island in the sense that words pass from person to person insanely quick,” says Simon, a 20-year-old who lives in Lerwick, the Shetland Islands’s only town. “The drama is like a wildfire.”

With 7,500 residents, Lerwick makes up a third of Shetland’s population. Swirling herring are caught by pastel flecked fishing boats, identical to the miniature ones shelved on coastal gift shops. There are plenty of fish in the North Sea, but less proverbial catches to hook-up with.

Overall there are 136 permanently inhabited islands in the British Isles. About 100,000 live on Scotland’s isles, 140,000 on the Isle of Wight, 84,000 on the Isle of Man and several thousand on smaller territories like Hayling and Anglesey. A few thousand people may sound like a decent sized pool, and a much bigger pool than the Love Island contestants are in. But considering the average human can recognise 5,000 faces, you’re likely to remember -- and, in Love Island lingo, “get to know” -- everyone on your island, very very quickly.

Tabitha from Guernsey, an island with a population of approximately 60,000, is all too aware of this phenomenon. “Everyone pretty much does know everyone, particularly within our age group,” she says. “Whenever I meet someone at uni who says ‘Oh I know someone from Guernsey!’, it goes one of two ways: I know them or they actually meant they know someone from Jersey.” And if it’s someone new, you’ll still know one of their mates: “Even if you’ve never heard of them before, your friends will all have different stories to tell of things that person’s done and who they used to date. No one’s ever really a ‘new’ person.”

"The only people on Hayling that come up on the apps, you probably went to school with and you don’t want to date them.”

A population of 60,000 might be challenging, but it has nothing on an island of 60 inhabitants. Fair Isle, half-way between Orkney and Shetland, is known for its intricately made knitwear. It’s for this reputation that French jumper designer Marie moved there in 2016. Considering it homes fewer people than a half-decent nightclub, there’s not a lot of choice. “When there’s only six people under 40 at a party you do just get to know each other. When I made the decision of moving to Fair Isle, I was a bit apprehensive. It is a radical life change to take alone and I knew well that it would be difficult to meet someone.”

Against all the odds, though, Marie got lucky. While playing darts on Fair Isle, a group of eight contractors arrived to work on a winter construction project. One of them, Thomas, joined in. “We started seeing each other late in the evenings, after his work, going on walks, texting; normal dating.” After his contract ended, he decided to stay. They’re not the only couple, either: “Funny story is that out of his group of five workmen sent from Aberdeen, another friend of his stayed on Fair Isle and settled with our friend and neighbour. So, actually, maybe Fair Isle is quite a good place to look for love.” Her neighbour, Chloe, is trying to convince her long-distance boyfriend to move too. “It’s not always easy,” she says, “but probably easier than finding love here...”

While it may be difficult enough for straight islanders to find love, it’s even more of a challenge for LGBT+ residents. Ignored by the heteronormative unreality created by Love Island, LGBT+ communities on UK islands are, unsurprisingly, often without dedicated groups, venues or safe spaces. Archie*, an 18-year-old gay man from the Isle of Lewis, faces views long swept away on the mainland. “Attitudes are definitely less progressive. The local church still has an influence on daily life, such as nothing is open on a Sunday,” he says, meaning there’s no gay dating scene, leaving LGBT+ islanders isolated and local community pressure often preventing them from being openly out.

For most islanders, though, dating apps prove to be barren. “I’ve tried a couple of them,” says 20-year-old Kes, who identifies as bisexual and lives on Hayling Island, near Portsmouth. “But the only people on Hayling that come up on the apps, you probably went to school with and you don’t want to date them.” Despite the statistical improbability, Archie managed to find love through more modern means. Even if the Outer Hebrides may not be famed for its Wi-Fi connectivity, he discovered a partner via Grindr -- though the tiny population meant he automatically linked with mainlanders. “There is Grindr in a sense,” he explains. “I met my current boyfriend on it; he is on the mainland. But the fact there are so few people here using it meant that I could talk to someone who was 66 miles away onshore. If I remember correctly he was like fifth on the grid.”

That’s not to say attitudes aren’t showing signs of change. Shetland’s queer community, for instance, has benefitted greatly from a dedicated LGBT+ group. Run by 71-year-old trans woman, Kerrie, Shetland LGBTQ was launched last September and organises safe meet-ups, mental health support and trips to Aberdeen gay club Cheers (just a 12 hour boozy ferry at 18 knots away). Previously running Hastings Haven -- a similar LGBT+ support group in Hastings -- for 11 years, that saw people “flying into Gatwick and coming to see us”, Kerrie and her wife Diane moved up to Shetland. The couple are now looking to expand the socials into a bar due to the group’s success.

Simon from the Shetland Islands, who we met earlier, finds the group invaluable: “The Shetland LGBT group is absolutely amazing, it gave me a safe and secure way to communicate and befriend people like me locally.” He’s also managed to find love. “I met my partner through a youth group we both went to, and we clicked instantly.” As with many other islands, it’s the small population that creates the real issues. “There’s no big hassle about getting to know other people on the island,” Kerrie tells me. “The biggest issue is that Shetland is a very small island with a very small Shetlander community. If you speak to someone on Shetland and were gossiping away -- they’d say so-and-so is my cousin, so-and-so is my uncle.”

Shetland LGBTQ have already participated in the island’s annual carnival with a float twice. “It was nothing but smiles and chuckles and kids coming out, giving out the little flags, great stuff,” Kerrie reminisces.

Brody, who works at an American themed bar, Scottish Honky-Tonk, helped organise the first Pride event on the island of Bute (population 6,498) and was, somewhat encouragingly, too busy to speak due to this year’s preparations. Miss Lily Minogue, the first year’s star drag queen, told me more. “The pride event was set up after it was noticed how hard LGBT+ people had it on the island with it being such a small secular community where they struggled to connect with others,” Lily says.

Of course, many young people are still moving away from their remote, moated hometowns to find love. Archie’s move to Glasgow helped him be himself: “It lifted a lot of pressure that I felt. I could be open around my friends. It was life-changing in a sense.” Jack, who’s from the Isle of Man but went to Salford for university, also found a change in attitudes that he could take home with him. “Coming to Manchester and seeing so many people be free to live how they want has been great,” he says, “and has allowed me to do the same, which I now also do back home.”

It’s this in-and-out tidal swell of more accepting ideas, drag queens, young incomers and boosted internet signals that are helping islanders of all orientations find love. While Love Island may last just a few weeks, an unreality set around a swimming pool rather than stretching seas, UK islanders face the true challenge of searching for soulmates on a daily basis. Sure, there are the problems of everyone knowing everyone, of whispered gossip breathed through the coastal breeze. But, even islands like Fair Isle, with less than 60 residents, can be a fertile ground for relationships to blossom. “I don’t know if we’ve been lucky to find each other,” Marie says. ‘Or if our love for the island brought us together.”

*Some names have been changed to protect the individuals’ identities.

Love Island