Creating connections: Supporting the social side of online learning

With lockdown restrictions affecting campuses across the world, 2020 has shone a spotlight on online and blended learning techniques. However, education is about more than the transfer of knowledge. Social interactions are an important part of the student experience, vital for providing support and developing skills such as team working. We asked staff, graduates and our students’ association how they help to create digital learning communities.

Dr Iain Morrison, Dean of Students

The pandemic has had a profound impact on the ways higher education operates, with many universities having to adapt quickly to an environment where learning and teaching delivery is predominately online. Pedagogical skills have had to be rapidly developed, online infrastructure invested in and student expectations managed.

Less visible have been the rapid changes in the ways professional services are being delivered to ensure processes work smoothly for students and their support needs are met.

All universities are now moving into the online space to support their students and, at the University of the Highlands and Islands, we are finding ourselves the subject of multiple requests from colleagues elsewhere keen to learn from our experiences. Although nothing could have prepared us for the recent challenges, we have found that we possess significant strengths.

Based in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, our partnership of 13 colleges and research institutions covers the largest geographical area of any campus-based university or college in the UK. We have the largest student population in Scotland, with nearly 37,000 students studying with us each year. Our blended learning approach combines video conferencing, online technologies, real time support from lecturers and local staff and face-to-face teaching.

Although we have the advantage of world-class technology, the focus is not on the technology itself, but how we use it to support our students and to create a sense of belonging and opportunity during this challenging period.

Emma Robson, Activities Manager, Highlands and Islands Students’ Association

The Highlands and Islands Students’ Association had to adapt quickly to the ‘new world’ during a crucial time for both new and returning students.

Clubs and societies started to use social media and communication platforms in place of physical meet ups and arranged social events such as quizzes for their members. Students also set up new ways to recruit members, taking part in induction programmes at local colleges to ensure engagement is as high as possible.

HISA student reps coordinated virtual tours of campuses and local areas across the Highlands and Islands and organised online social events like ‘dungeons and dragons’ which proved very popular. There have also been student competitions, including a treasure hunt in Lerwick to encourage students to individually find their way around their new town! Many other campuses also hosted events, such as live DJ sets, music bingo and virtual drop-in sessions with senior management.

Throughout lockdown, HISA has put on a range of events which are open to all students, including ‘cuppa and chat’ sessions to allow students to get to know people from different campuses. We also arranged a ‘HISA-lympics’ for students to keep fit.

We introduced an online freshers’ programme this year too. The event included a quiz hosted by Mark Labbett from ITV’s ‘The Chase’. Our students took on Fife students and, naturally, our students won! We also had a music event which celebrated women in traditional music across the university partnership which reached almost ten thousand viewers. Our most popular freshers’ event was a comedy night with four comedians, including headliner Iain Stirling. It was a fantastic comedy exclusive for Highlands and Islands students!

Anna-Wendy Stevenson, BA (Hons) Applied Music Programme Leader

Our applied music programme has pioneered delivering creative online residentials to students since 2014, allowing participation from even the most remote locations. As a result, despite the current restrictions due to Coronavirus, our students could meet as usual this September through a virtual residency.

We are living in a time where community has never been so important. The value of community for collaboration and learning underpins the curriculum design and delivery of our applied music degree.

Our face to face residencies are rites of passage and reflect many aspects of the professional music world, from long, intense days full of learning, to working with musicians of different backgrounds and expertise. Shifting to fully online as a result of COVID, we consciously retained the intensity of schedule and expectations, engaging students in collaborative tasks which are often creatively and academically challenging. 

We begun our academic year by focusing on our programme values and ethics, discussing themes of ‘community’, ‘collaboration over competition’ and ‘belonging’. We created a range of in-course support groups, both in and across year groups, through a study buddy system and by spreading students who are confident with technology throughout groups. Bringing the university’s creative writing degree into our residency allowed students to meet with peers on another programme. Engaging with external organisations such as the Scottish Music Industry Association and XpoNorth to shape opportunities for response and resilience has also been a key factor. 

Video conference presentations with simultaneous chat functions have enabled more discursive and meaningful interactions between students and staff. We have found there is stronger attention and investment as part of the evolving discussion process. One second year student explained: “I feel noticed, encouraged and valued.”

To develop performance skills, musicians need to isolate and practice for hours on end. Yet rarely is the performative side a solo venture – it usually relies on intensive collaboration. To facilitate this, we create opportunities for social engagement such as ‘a chat and a tune’ on Friday lunchtimes and an ‘applied music bake-off’ which went global on social media. We have also organised evening events such as ‘desert island discs’ which encourages staff to share their musical inspirations, experiences and life stories.

This holistic approach to support collaboration, community and wellbeing both in curriculum and in social spaces has been incredibly successful. Contrary to staff and student concerns, engagement in the online environment was actually been higher and more sustained during the online residency week than the equivalent face to face activity. New friendships have been forged from Spain to Shetland through a carefully curated community of practice which values collaboration over competition.

Fraser Szymborski-Welsh, PGDE (Primary) graduate

There were lots of opportunities to build relationships with fellow students on the PGDE (primary) course, both online and in person. At the start of the year, we met at Badaguish Outdoor Centre for a three-day residency where we collaborated with students from across the university partnership. We met our classmates for the first time and formed seminar groups which would meet online during the course.

Being online helped massively with the social elements of student life. We used chat groups to keep in contact with our classmates and seminar groups for document sharing and collaborative work. The benefits of using online chats for advice, reassurance and support cannot be understated. There was always somebody available who had experienced the same problem or asked the same question before. An issue from a student in Inverness could potentially be resolved in just a few minutes by a network of students from as far away as Shetland or the Borders.

Our online collaboration increased greatly when classes went online during lockdown. Classes and meetings were held in virtual classrooms and assessments were submitted online too. We also adapted to socialising in this way. Where we would have met up in person before, we used online facilities to host informal chats. We even held a ‘spring break’ party where some of us wore fancy dress on the last day of term!

Now our class has graduated, we still keep in touch via WhatsApp groups. It’s fantastic to hear how everyone is getting on and to have a network of new teachers around the country we can call on for advice throughout our careers.

Top tips for preventing digital eye strain

With many of us spending more time than ever at our computer screens, Alison Macpherson, Programme Leader for the University of the Highlands and Islands’ optometry BSc (Hons), highlights the issue of digital eyestrain and how to avoid it.

When the clocks go back at the start of winter, optometry practitioners often see an increase in patients reporting difficulty with reading small print in the darker nights.

We often forget that the human eye is a finely tuned instrument which works best in natural daylight conditions, so reading outside on a bright summer’s day (with protection from UV rays of course) is a very different visual task to sitting in front of the fire on a cold winter’s evening reading the latest release from a favourite author. Similarly, the use of digital technology as a means of communication can have an impact on our visual system.

The COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to cause challenges to our daily lives. Many of us are still working remotely from our kitchen tables or spare rooms and the format of our working day is considerably different from how it was before lockdown.

Our day to day lives have become dominated by technology. Our working days can consist of virtual meetings requiring long spells in front of a screen and, even away from work, our social interactions are now also facilitated via Zoom, Facetime or other virtual means. This means that large portions of our lives currently centre around display screen equipment.

Using a screen or computer can be visually demanding and may cause symptoms which are not apparent when you carry out other work. Asthenopia (eyestrain) associated with screen use can manifest with a variety of symptoms including eye fatigue, discomfort, blurred vision, pain or generally sore eyes. Visually related symptoms can also be caused by factors such as ergonomics.

How to help these symptoms

  • Take regular breaks
  • Look away from your screen periodically and allow your eyes to refocus on an object at a different distance. A good technique is to use the 20-20-20 rule by focussing on an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds, every 20 minutes.
  • Adjust the settings on your screen including brightness, contrast and font size so it’s easier to see
  • Consider the distance you are sitting away from the screen – arm’s length is optimal for most people.
  • Regular eye examinations with an optometrist can help to identify any underlying causes that may be contributing to symptoms.
  • Optometrist, Nicola McElvanney, from Optometry Scotland, also recommends switching off screens at least half an hour before you go to bed, as this may upset the Circadian rhythms that help to control sleep patterns.

For more information about the University of the Highlands and Islands BSc (Hons) optometry, visit

Responding to the pandemic – insights from an infection prevention and control graduate

Sofie French, a senior infection prevention and control nurse who graduated from our infection prevention and control MSc in 2018, talks about responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and the benefits of online study.

Tell us about your experience of studying infection prevention and control

I completed the infection prevention and control MSc online whilst in full-time employment as an infection prevention and control specialist nurse.

The course linked directly with all aspects of my clinical practice. It gave me a deeper theoretical knowledge and understanding of infection prevention and control and allowed me to apply this to my daily practice e.g. when managing incidents or outbreaks in healthcare facilities.

Through completing this course, I have not only gained promoted posts in my field, but I have had the opportunity to present at national and international conferences.

When I started studying with the university, I was working as an infection prevention and control audit and surveillance nurse. I am currently a senior infection prevention and control nurse, working at a national level within the Antimicrobial Resistance and Healthcare Associated Infection Scotland team.

What does your job involve?

My role is incredibly diverse. One day I can be filming educational videos, the next I’ll be providing specialist advice and support to Health Boards on outbreak management. I manage a planned programme of work, which includes the ongoing development and maintenance of the National Infection Prevention and Control Manual, a resource to support board-level infection prevention and control across NHS Scotland.

Within infection prevention and control, my passion is delivering education. I enjoy developing educational materials and this was the focus for my dissertation. Throughout my career I have gained extensive experience in face to face teaching and have also had the opportunity to develop educational content for NHS Education for Scotland.

Some of our work is also reactive in nature, such as supporting the national COVID-19 pandemic response. The pandemic has completely changed the way we work, as the situation is continually evolving, meaning we need to react swiftly. I was also deployed to the NHS Louisa Jordan Nightingale Hospital to assist with the operational phase of opening. This was a once in a lifetime experience that will stay with me forever.

How have you been involved in the COVID-19 response?

I’ve been at the forefront of the COVID-19 response, providing support and guidance, reviewing outbreak and incident data and working closely with stakeholders such as NHS Boards and the Scottish Government. Antimicrobial Resistance and Healthcare Associated Infection Scotland is leading the national agenda for infection prevention and control in Scotland.

I continue to work and collaborate with NHS Education for Scotland as part of my role and we have recently developed COVID-19 supporting educational materials.

How did you find studying online?

Distance learning can often be perceived as challenging, but if the recent lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that it can be done! Throughout my time at the university I felt that all of the tutors and lecturers were fantastic. They were available to provide guidance and support throughout the modules and kept the momentum of the module going through ongoing engagement on the university’s virtual learning environment.

The benefit of distance learning is that you have the opportunity to engage with individuals from all over the world, virtually. There were people from many different countries on my course and we all participated in discussions. It was interesting to understand the infection prevention and control challenges that colleagues faced in other countries, such as extensive antimicrobial resistance.

It also gave us the ability to share and discuss how we would manage issues within in our own areas. This is a level of discussion that other students may not experience in a face to face learning environment and I feel that it was beneficial and allowed me to reflect on my own clinical practice.

You can find out more about the University of the Highlands and Islands Infection Prevention and Control MSc

Satellites, artificial intelligence and COVID – How University of the Highlands and Islands researchers are advancing our understanding of diabetes

To mark World Diabetes Day on Saturday 14 November, Professor Sandra MacRury and Professor Ian Megson from our School of Health, Social Care and Life Science highlight some of the projects our researchers are undertaking to further our understanding of diabetes and its treatment. 

Diabetes and COVID-19

Professor Ian Megson

One of the most puzzling aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the wide range of outcomes for infected people: some experience no symptoms at all, while others are admitted to hospital, can require artifical ventilation or can die as a result of the disease. Amongst the factors that we now know to increase the liklihood of severe symptoms is pre-existing disease in infected people. Diabetes is understood to be one such disease.

At the outset of the pandemic, one of our students switched his project to investigate the link between pre-existing diabetes and severe symptoms in COVID-19. Jacob Roberts is investigating how the virus can trigger changes to cells that constitute the capillaries in our lungs to cause them to become leaky and inflamed, leading to breathing diffiulties. The team believes that these cells in patients with diabetes are particularly prone to such harmful changes, which might contribute to the severe symptoms experienced in COVID-19. Mr Roberts is funded through the Eastern Corridor Engineering Centre, supported by the European Union’s INTERREG VA Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body.

Links between diabetes and cardiovascular disease

By far the biggest impact of diabetes is on the heart and blood vessels, markedly increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, visual impairment and problems associated with the lower legs and feet. However, the underlying mechanism by which diabetes drives blood vessel disease is not yet fully understood.

In a recently completed PhD project funded by the European Social Fund, Maria Luisa Fiorello found that high sugar caused the cells that line all our blood vessels to stop producing substances that protect against cardiovascular disease and blood clots. The work has been published in the journal Scientific Reports. Dr Fiorello went on to show that a particular type of sugar (fructose) found in fruit and soft drinks has a very profound effect on these cells. These findings have important implications with respect to limiting our intake of refined sugar in our diet.

Remote monitoring of diabetes

Professor Sandra MacRury

The usual test for monitoring overall diabetes control requires regular blood samples. In rural areas this can involve considerable travel. Our research has shown that a method of carrying out this test using dried blood from a finger stab sample which can be carried out in the person’s home and posted to the local laboratory gives comparable results to conventional methods. This has considerable benefits not just for people living in remote or rural areas, but for the wider population of people living with diabetes in the post-COVID environment. Further trials are planned to explore integration of this method into routine practice at scale.

Another new approach to monitoring glucose levels in diabetes is the use of flash monitoring of glucose sensors applied to the arm which can provide a continuous stream of glucose levels over 24 hours. There is mounting evidence for benefits in people living with type 1 diabetes in the community. People with diabetes tend to spend longer in hospital than those without and our rural health and wellbeing research team are working with partners in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to lead a European Interreg project to explore the feasibility of using these sensors for people with diabetes in a hospital setting and to determine if they can help to reduce time spent in hospital.

This is part of a wider project around unscheduled care in diabetes and the team recently published an article on the role of ambulance staff across Scotland in transporting people with diabetes-related problems to hospital. Further analysis is taking place to examine differences in remote and rural communities.

Supporting foot health with satellites and artifical intelligence

‘Reducing amputations in diabetes’ is a technology-enabled project which has developed and evaluated a new service pathway for people living with diabetes-related foot ulceration in rural Highland areas. The trial uses satellite technology in remote primary care settings to improve connectivity and allow remote consultation for patients and community staff with the specialist diabetes foot team in Inverness. The study, supported by an Innovate UK and European Space Agency grant, involves a consortium of academic, NHS and commercial partners.

Highland has also been selected for exploring the use of artifical intelligence with large health datasets for the prediction of diabetes-related foot problems. If successful, the technology could aid earlier prevention and intervention strategies to reduce ulceration and amputations.The project is funded by the Small Business Research Institute and is being run in conjuction with NHS Highland.

Screening is also an important aspect of prevention in diabetes foot disease. One of the early manifestations of diabetes foot problems is a change in foot pressure which can been an indicator of potential ulceration. As foot pressure measurement is not routinely included in the foot screening process, we have been exploring the use of a Footscan mat to assess pressure measurements in people with diabetes with a view to conducting further trials as part of foot screening in a rural community setting.

Lifestyle and type 2 diabetes

Lifestyle is an important factor in the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes. 

Being overweight or obese can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes and, with the increasing prevalence of these problems nationally, the prevention of diabetes has become an important strategy in Scotland. The use of very low calorie diets has proven to be effective in reversing type 2 diabetes in overweight individuals. We are conducting a study in conjunction with NHS Highland of a very low calorie diet in the prevention of type 2 diabetes for people who have been diagnosed with pre-diabetes.

We are also undertaking a study with High Life Highland which involves exercise trainers supporting a programme to increase physical activity for people with type 2 diabetes in the Highland region.

To find out more about research at the University of the Highlands and Islands, visit

Revealing the ‘spirit of the highlands’


Head shot of Prof David Worthington smiling
Prof David Worthington

Professor David Worthington is the Head of the Centre for History at the University of the Highlands and Islands.  He shares his delight in the seeing the spirit of the highlands project come to life and explains how to get involved.   

It was a bright, sunny Saturday morning in September when I saw the vibrant red hoardings around Inverness Castle for the first time. I took my time to absorb the drawings, photographs and text which combine  to tell the story of the Castle Hill area, and detail the inventive plans for the conversion of the former courthouse and prison into a modern visitor attraction over the next four years.

Despite many projects having halted due to the impact of COVID-19, this Highland Council initiative managed by High Life Highland – a delivery organisation which provides cultural, leisure and learning services on behalf of the Council – continues to advance. It is entitled ‘Inverness Castle – Spirit of the Highlands’ -and is the biggest single heritage development in the Highland region of the last century. 

It was exciting to see the hoardings – for which myself and a colleague at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Professor Hugh Cheape, were text advisors – in place. I was also proud to see references on them to the university’s innovative approach to education and research, as “encouraging new ways of living, working and learning in the region”.

Writing and images on a large permenent exhibition with Inverness Castle building in the background
A view of a part of the ‘Spirit of the Highlands’ hoardings

The university is a proud project partner, with aligned aims to support economic growth in the region, and we are an active contributor towards ensuring the creation of a sustainable, viable and ‘must-see’ attraction that will show the spirit of the Highland past, present and future, including its creativity, culture, and natural environment.

After centuries of being marginalised, the communities that the university serves in the Highlands and Islands, Moray and Perthshire, while still experiencing some massive social and economic challenges, have begun to see signs of cultural renewal.

Towards this end, the university signed a memorandum of understanding in 2016 with High Life Highland and we’ve now worked together on several significant projects.   

For the Dornoch-based Centre for History, where I work, this has involved a range of collaborations and co-productions on public history projects of various types. To highlight a few: a collaborative PhD with Highland Folk Museum; our part in the inspirational ‘Inverness Rare Books’ project; public exhibitions at the Highland Archive Centre, and several other book launches, lectures and joint events held at High Life Highland museums, libraries and archives.

It is immensely gratifying that one of the outcomes of our research and teaching collaborations with them is to show the agency – the resilience and, sometimes against all odds, vitality – of Highland communities, and to help inspire the ‘Spirit of the Highlands’ concept.

A view of a part of the ‘Spirit of the Highlands’ hoardings

Ultimately, the ‘Inverness Castle – Spirit of the Highlands’ development, is one of the largest cultural projects to be undertaken in the Highlands, and our staff, students, graduates and communities have a unique opportunity to engage with it from now until 2024 and beyond.

Many of our students have had the opportunity to work on this ‘live’ project in some shape or form already. We’ve seen architectural technology students based at Inverness College UHI presenting digital and true-to-scale physical models of their initial concepts for the Castle Hill area, a student studying BA (Hons) art and contemporary practice on placement with the Creative Director of the Castle Hill Project, Bryan Beattie and a BA (Hons) contemporary film making in the highlands and islands student supporting the ‘call for stories’ promotional video, which is narrated by Julie Fowlis, the university’s alumnus of the year in 2013.

Myself and Katie Masheter, Curriculum Development Employer Engagement Officer and many others at the university are fortunate to be working with, and learning much from, the dedicated Castle Hill transformation project team.  Together we continue to nurture a range of new and exciting plans that we trust will see this link strengthen further.

Uncovering your story

Talking with Bryan Beattie, Creative Director, he sums up why it is so important :

“The whole project is intended to reflect the Spirit of the Highlands, a fantastic challenge that ranges from intangibles like the warmth of the welcome or beauty of a landscape, to specifics like the type of food and drink from the area. Story will bind all aspects together – not a conventional history but a crowd-sourced one, using the authentic voices and lived experience of contemporary Highlanders and those who’ve chosen to make the area their home.

Personal story is a direct way of connecting the visitor with the local, finding your own experience reflected in the life of another. It’s a typically bold Highland statement – looking for the connection with friends, neighbours and visitors, and then exploring those links in an entertaining way in a special environment.

The geographic location of the Castle – a striking red sandstone Victorian building overlooking the river – make it a natural magnet for visitors. This development will build on that and create something that locals will also use regularly. A venue has to earn that type of loyalty from its community, but by trusting them to provide the stories that are interpreted within it the `Spirit of the Highlands’ project is making a clear statement of intent.”

Your turn. How do I get involved?
Everyone has a story to share. What kind of stories? Stories about people you might have heard at a ceilidh: the uncle or aunt who worked on the hydro schemes from afar and decided to stay; the sibling that set up the local fèis, the neighbour that kayaked the Great Glen in record time…
The stories of each community too, large and small: the local events that shaped it;  how it has become involved or entangled in global histories; about its singing sands or Viking graffiti, the things that give it a distinctive fingerprint.

Material collected will become an ‘Autobiography of the Highlands’, a unique collection of stories held in a digital archive, all told by the people who live, work and visit here. If you have any ideas you feel could help, or questions about the project do contact the dedicated team at

You can also follow and share the projects advancement through social media channels, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.   With thanks to the Inverness and the Highlands City Region Deal and The Highland Council for their support of the Inverness Castle redevelopment and to Creative Scotland for the Spirit:360 project.

Prof David Worthington is a University of the Highlands and Islands representative on the Inverness Castle Project Delivery Group and chairs the separate University of the Highland and Islands and High Life Highland advisory group to the project.

Halloween, the time of witches, is upon us yet again

As coronavirus restrictions impact many modern day traditions on 31 October this year, like ‘guising’, costume parties and ‘apple bobbing’, we can still tell spooky tales at home, visit haunted attractions (online) and remember a time when witchcraft had deadly consequences for many!

Dr Ragnhild Ljosland a researcher of Orkney’s culture and heritage at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Sigurd Towrie, marketing manager at the institute, share a few witches tales from Orkney.

Halloween is a special time of year that is particularly magical and sinister

On the Orkney Islands, between 1594-1708, islanders tried and found guilty of witchcraft were put to death at an execution site on Clay Loan, Kirkwall.  In March 2019, as part of a research project commissioned by the by the Orkney Heritage Society with the University of the Highlands and Islands a memorial to the victims was placed at their Kirkwall execution site to commemorate the victims.  

Memorial site, Kirkwall, Orkney

Who were Jonet Rendall and Janet Forsyth, two of the 80 victims of the Orkney witchcraft trials?

Jonet Rendall was an Orkney woman tried for witchcraft in 1629. She was poor and relied on ‘alms’, food or money given to poor people from others, for her survival. When someone refused to give her food or a bed for the night, she showed her disappointment by mumbling. People thought she was mumbling spells to harm them and that she was responsible for their cows producing thin milk.

Surely it was the Devil himself who had taught her to do this? And to do it on Halloween to make it more effective?

It was believed that that witches met with the Devil on certain nights, including Halloween, in specially chosen locations. In her confession, Jonet Rendall said she met with the Devil on a hilltop in the parish of Rendall on the Orkney Mainland. Or perhaps she never thought of him as the Devil, perhaps only her accusers made that connection.

Jonet said she had met a man in white clothes, with a white head and white beard, whom she called Walliman. He taught her to heal, so that people would give her food, and to harm those who refused her.

She might have thought he was a fairy – one of the “hill-folk” well known in Orkney folklore. In her trial, she points to Walliman as the originator of the various crimes she was accused of committing by witchcraft. Walliman caused cattle and horses to die. Walliman caused illness and death to people in the parish.

Victorian folklore

A similar name for the Devil was used in a spell written down by the Victorian folklore collector Walter Traill Dennison in the 1880s.

Dennison, from the Orkney island of Sanday, says that to become a witch, and pledge yourself to the powers of darkness, first wait for a full moon, then go alone to the beach, turn three times against the sun and lie down between the high and low water marks. Place stones around your body and over your heart.

Then recite a spell which Dennison recounts, in Scots, where the would-be witch implores the “Mester King o’ a’ that’s ill” to come and “tak me noo” in the name of “de muckle black Wallowa!” Then rise up, taking care to turn to the left, and throw the stones, one by one, into the sea.

Like many others, Dennison was familiar with the widespread belief that witchcraft was particularly rife in the north. When visiting a port on the Scottish mainland, the young Dennison was asked by one of the sailors where he was from. Upon replying “Orkney”, the man “shrank back” muttering: “Oh, my lad, you hail from that lubber land where so many witches dwell.”

The Westray Storm Witch

Another Orkney witch accused of practicing witchcraft on Halloween was Janet Forsyth, better known as the Westray Storm Witch. Forsyth was believed to be able to save a ship in storm, and for generations afterwards was regarded as someone who could take sailors’ lives in her own hands.

Today, the story of the Westray Storm Witch is told and retold in Orkney.

In the folk story, Janet warns her sweetheart, Ben Garrioch, not to go fishing on a certain day because she has dreamt he will perish. Garrioch ignores the warning and goes anyway, never to be seen again. Janet becomes a recluse and her reputation grows for having the ability to control the wind and the fog.

Two years later, she is taken to Kirkwall to be tried for witchcraft. But on the day of her verdict, as she looks out at the assembled crowd she spots a familiar face and cries out: “Save me, Ben!” before being dragged off to be kept overnight in a cell in St Magnus Cathedral.

The following morning, however, when the executioner went to fetch her, Janet Forsyth was gone. Her sweetheart, as the story goes, had not died at sea but had been kidnapped by the Press Gang to serve in the navy. He had returned at just the right moment to spirit his beloved away. The happy couple were never again seen in Orkney but lived a happy life together in England to the end of their days.

Sadly, the true story does not have a happy ending and Janet Forsyth’s court record paints a very different picture. In November 1629, she was brought to trial accused of slaying four pigs, which subsequently caused illness in a woman who ate the pork. She also faced accusations that she bewitched two men – making them ill and then healing them; magically taking the fat from the milk of other people’s cows and the food out of their grain, and putting curses on those who refused to give her food or drink when asking for alms. She also allegedly bewitched a man to fall ill while at sea before healing him again the same evening by washing him in salt water.

Janet Forsyth was sentenced to have her hands tied and be taken to the Kirkwall execution site, where she was to be fastened to a stake, strangled, and burned.

International collaboration

Dr Ragnhild Ljosland’s witchcraft project included contributions from researchers from as far afield as Finnmark in the extreme north of Norway, Warwick in England and Perth in Australia.

The University of the Highlands and Islands has a strong research and knowledge exchange collaboration culture, which together with the technical resources available to staff and students has enabled continued interaction locally, regionally and internationally with the academic community during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Visit the Archaeology Institute to find out more about current research projects and the range of undergraduate, postgraduate and research courses available.

Dr Ragnhild Ljosland is a co-editor of a new publication ‘New Orkney Antiquarian Journal Vol9: Commemorating the Victims of the Orkney Witchcraft Trials’, with James Irvine at the Orkney Heritage Society.  Readers can find the stories of many others who were also tried for witchcraft in Orkney, explored and analysed in their historical, political and folkloric context. Sigurd Towrie, an alumni of the University of the Highlands and Islands, also works at the Ness of Brodgar.  

Five top tips for writing your personal statement

1. Have a clear beginning, middle and end

There is no set way to write a personal statement, but having a clear beginning, middle and end will help your personal statement to flow naturally.


Get straight to the point and begin with an opening sentence that will capture the reader’s attention. Course selectors are looking for someone who sounds interested in their subject and they want to hear why you are interested in it too. Clearly explain your reasons for wanting to study the course. If you are applying for an academic degree, such as geography for example, think about why you want to spend a long time studying this subject in detail and write about what you’ve enjoyed so far and what you want to learn more about.


Focus on your academic studies, work experience and extra-curricular activities here to show how you meet the selection criteria. This will also allow you to demonstrate your transferrable skills to show your suitability for the course. Consider what topics you have studied at school and how they relate to the course you are applying for. If you are applying for a history degree, for example, you could talk about specific topics within this subject area or demonstrate how you have gone above and beyond the curriculum by highlighting books you’ve read or taster sessions you’ve attended.

If you are applying for a vocational course such as nursing, you may find you focus more time talking about work-related experiences which demonstrate the skills and abilities you have which are relevant to the course. These experiences will enable you to write confidently about what you like about the profession and why you think it would be the right career for you.

Universities want to see that you are committed to university study. Show them that you are prepared to work hard. If you are interested in a vocational course, such as teaching, they will want to see that you have undertaken work experience in an appropriate setting. Having classroom experience allows you to decide on the year groups you would like to teach and will help you to write confidently about your observations in the classroom.

Universities are also keen on hearing about your transferrable skills from work experience or from extra-curricular activities: time management, coping under pressure, interpersonal skills, decision making and team working. To help you write about your transferrable skills in depth you can use the ABC model (action, benefit, course). This model allows you to describe an activity or role (A), detail the transferrable skills that you gained (B) and how these relate to the course (C).

For example, playing a sport requires dedication, determination and focus. These skills are useful for university when working towards varying deadlines and studying for exams each semester. Another benefit from playing a group sport is the teamwork skills that you will develop. Teamwork teaches you to communicate effectively and to be a good listener. These are important skills for participating in groupwork, for example, on a social sciences degree, as you will already have the skills to express ideas and opinions confidently during groupwork.


The end of your personal statement should summarise all the key points and talk about what you expect of yourself when you finish the course. If you have a specific career aspiration, tell the reader all about this and how your course will help you to reach that goal.

2. Consider your course choices carefully

You can only submit one personal statement for all courses so you should consider your choices carefully. When applicants apply for different courses which are specific to different vocations, such as nursing and teaching, it shows admissions staff that they may not be committed to either subject. This could harm an application, especially for competitive courses, and your place could be given to someone else who shows more commitment and passion to one subject.

3. Set a schedule

Many students worry about writing their personal statement because it could be the first time that they have had to write something personal about themselves. Writing something that shows your personality and enthusiasm for the course may take longer than you think. Don’t worry about the word count on your first draft. By setting yourself a schedule, you are giving yourself time to tease out what you want to display centre stage.

4. Ask for feedback

Ask people you trust to read through what you have written. They may think of something important to include which you may have overlooked.

5. Remember you have a lot to offer!

You just need to communicate what sets you apart from the competition by selling all the skills and experience that you have.

Kathleen Moran, Schools Recruitment Officer

For more information about courses at the University of the Highlands and Islands, visit

Nature and nurture: Why being outdoors is helping us through lockdown

With many of our usual pastimes affected by Coronavirus restrictions, people across the country have been finding solace in nature to help them through these challenging times.

Students and staff from some of our outdoor-related courses explain why they feel being in nature and looking after our environment is important for both our physical and mental wellbeing.

Dr Raeanne Miller – Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Scottish Association for Marine Science UHI

“This is where we live!” exclaimed a close friend and colleague many years ago, expressing the joy of living and working in a beautiful place, with endless opportunities to run in the hills, swim in the sea, cycle anywhere and everywhere, and pursue many other outdoor activities. It is a saying that stuck with me, shouted from the top of a mountain climbed after work or shivered between shaking teeth after a butter-smooth swim in the sea on a sparkling winter day.

Like many environmental scientists, I love to be outdoors (even when it’s wet). I could say that this is because I can see in nature the very principles that I study in my work or that because of my training I see greater detail in the plants, animals and landscapes around me. Or perhaps, at the intersection of working in environmental science and loving the outdoors, is a deep-rooted fascination and curiosity about the natural world. The latter is probably the most accurate statement, but in reality, it just feels really, really good to exercise outside in the wonderful highland landscape right on our doorstep.

In normal times I would be one of a handful of people washing away a stressful morning with a swim in the sea at lunch, looking out for local seals that following our progress. Or I would pound away a day’s ruminations while running up a local hill after work, leaning into the incline, feeling the wind on my skin and laughing as I sink a foot into a deep bog. During lockdown, our worlds suddenly become squeezed by the added stresses of uncertainty and homeworking, combined with a government-mandated travel restriction. We could no longer escape to the office for a change of scenery and we could no longer escape from the office to the sea or to the hills to clear our heads.

In my case, I know that outdoor swimming, running and cycling are essential to my wellbeing. In the final year of my PhD thesis I signed up for a challenging triathlon, which provided a different focus away from the stresses of work. The expansive views from mountain summits, on the other hand, are where I find seek comfort when the world feels like it is spinning – this was particularly true after my father died in 2013. But in lockdown, it felt different. Suddenly the small things mattered more.

Since March, I’ve watched frogspawn turn to wriggling tadpoles, the gorse flower and die back, jellyfish bloom in the nearby sea loch, and the bracken shoot up across the mountains.

I’ve discovered countless new paths, leading to intriguing ruins, waterfalls or hidden oak groves in the middle of plantation forest.

I’ve explored the five mile radius of my village more deeply than ever before and, after every excursion, I come back with some new finding, some treasure that makes me smile – a welcome relief from so many hours spent working in the home.

With lockdown easing, it has become clear to me that the mental health benefits of outdoor exercise don’t come from aching muscles and burning lungs (although for some people that helps!) Perhaps it is the scientist in me or maybe it’s mindfulness, but I think noticing the detail and richness of what is around you, from vast landscapes to the tiniest of garden insects, can help us to feel happier, more relaxed and grounded in our surroundings.

Anne Marie McPhilemy – BA (Hons) equine business management, North Highland College UHI

Living with someone who is shielded in these strange times is a worry, but we are very fortunate to have horses.

Horses do not judge – you can tell them anything and they always understand.

Once you are in the saddle and on the move, worries melt away, even pulling ragwort and clearing the field of dung for their welfare is therapeutic in itself with the sounds of nature singing in your ears. Grooming and caring for these gentle beings is an absolute joy for which we are thankful and grateful for every day.

Dr Euan Bowditch – Researcher, the Scottish School of Forestry, Inverness College UHI

Trees are always around us, working away, communicating, forming numerous relationships and living.

I am lucky enough that one of my passions and my professional life intersects. As a forestry researcher and former practitioner, I have had the fortune of visiting and working in some beautiful biodiverse-rich places, including jungles, rainforests, virgin forests and mountain forests, which introduced me to a new world each time and scale of life unseen before. I have learnt the names and characteristics of thousands of tree species, many of which I have forgotten and constantly need to become reacquainted with. In my mind, I am constantly planning tree trips around the world or ethnobotanical expeditions to seek out new species of oak. However, one thing about trees and forests strikes me above all others, the fact that they are, to me, time machines or organisms that navigate time, very differently from us.

I walk in forests at least twice a day as I have a young dog that needs to run and run and run – it never gets old. I have purposely planted up my garden with around 11 different species of trees, not counting the ones inside the house. When I enter a forest, I am always struck by the majesty and diversity of the forest environment, and how different it can be from day to day. Right now, fungi are blooming all over the place, some bloom and deteriorate within a single day.

For me, it’s not only the sight, the aromas, the texture to hand and underfoot that grabs me – it is the fact I can look at both the whole forest ecosystem and the individual trees, and see them grow 50 or 100 years into the future. I also find myself winding back the clock on a tree to a seedling and tracing the influences that have shaped its growth. They are guardians of memory, recording climatic events and personal traumas, stored within and throughout their woody body.

Walking in a forest or messing about in the soil never ceases to elevate my mood or enable me to work through a problem.

My muscles and mind are stretched, and wandering with my feet mirrors the wandering of my mind, thoughts meander easily and I stumble upon small epiphanies and somehow my posture improves and my eyes adjust to the pleasing palette of colours. Forests, trees and the living environment they enrich are always a source of solace and stimulation, and my ability to access this resource on a daily basis is indispensable to not only the continued maintenance of my health, but also enables me to thrive and gain much needed perspective.

Marie Stonehouse – BSc (Hons) sustainable development, Argyll College UHI

My journey with the University of the Highlands and Islands began with the hope that it would lead to exciting new challenges. Having a background in business, I eagerly sought a career change that would have a positive socio-environmental impact. In reflection, my time studying sustainable development was a fantastic experience.

The modules highlight the fact that humanity is in crisis, faced with a rapidly changing world. Changes due to issues such as anthropogenic climate change, species extinction and deforestation. Zoonotic diseases, such as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), have emerged in the last 100 years because of our encroachment on nature.

The sum total is global ecological collapse which will continue to impact economic stability, causing socio-political unrest and increase social inequality. These and many other global stressors demonstrate the need for global cooperation and sustainable solutions, now more than ever. The modules offered a holistic approach to understanding the colossal problems we face today, following the UN Sustainable Development goals, helping to equip students with the knowhow to move society forward.

This background knowledge and my desire to help make a difference at the local level, inspired my stewardship at Coves Local Nature Reserve. My volunteer work began in autumn 2017. Students were asked to create a pamphlet representing a local designated site, my choice was Coves Local Nature Reserve. While researching this site, I noticed that The Conservation Volunteers were responsible for land maintenance. I contacted the organisation and began to volunteer with the group. A long story short, The Conservation Volunteers funding for work at the reserve came to an end in December 2018 and, by March 2019, the friends of Coves group was constituted.

As Chair, I have led our group following the principles of sustainability, emphasising that our conservation work is an inclusive experience, seeking to empower the community, disseminate and advocate for this urban green space for long term resilience. It also follows the ethos of ecosystem services which identifies that healthy ecosystems equal healthier societies. Cost-effective economic benefits will be gained through clean air, water and improved food provision whilst reducing health care costs.

Caring for nature and giving it it’s place, improves human health, wellbeing and improves economic outcomes.

I organise weekly land maintenance events, monthly litter picks, safety inspections, plan special events, manage the social media platform, maintain equipment, fundraising and funding applications, plan meetings and liaison with the council, third sector and other organisations. As a group, we are part of Inverclyde Reforestation Project in which we have been planting trees since November 2019 and seek to become more involved in schools and with social prescribing.

Since the lockdown, volunteers have slowly begun to re-emerge onto the scene.  Although we are an outdoor group, restrictions still apply and social distancing measure are observed.

Now more than ever, my work sourcing help with path widening is needed, as visitor numbers have increased by approximately 400%.

A large part of what I do is to engage with outside agencies and organisations to ensure continued and long-term resilience of this urban green space.  

Kirstie Cownie BA (Hons) equine business management, North Highland College UHI

Over the last few months of lockdown, I could not have been more grateful to have had my ponies to keep me healthy, both physically and mentally.

The lockdown meant I had gone from being an active, outdoor person who was barely in the house to being inside most of the time.

Being able to go outside and ensure my horses were still safe and well was essential for my wellbeing. I enjoyed the peace and quiet, this was a place to forget about everything which was going on across the world.

I found myself in a lucky situation as my ponies are in a secluded field next to my parents’ house which meant they had to be managed daily. I heard stories from several friends who have horses stabled at livery yards and weren’t allowed to see them for weeks on end, I really felt for them.

I often took my two year old daughter out to the ponies with me as I felt it was important for her to also get out of the house and have a change of scenery, be able to spend time with the ponies and interact with them.

I generally find my ponies to be a place where I can de-stress and, through this awful situation, they have been a blessing in disguise. I feel these last few months have allowed me to appreciate them much more than I perhaps have in the past.

To find out more about the University of the Highlands and Islands’ courses, visit

My First Graduate Job In Lockdown

Graduating was an exciting time of celebration with my friends and family, finally letting out a breath of relief and reflecting on all my hard work over the past four years. For me, this also meant it was time to start thinking about my career path and searching for my first graduate job, whether it was in my field of study or something completely new.

Applying for jobs

WHAT IF I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO NOW THAT I’VE GRADUATED? I was uncertain which career path I wanted to take upon graduating. I knew gaining experience, rather than saying ‘here’s my degree’, would be key for my CV to stand out to employers so I decided to apply for internships at first. This allowed me to experiment in different career fields, gain knowledgeable insight, create contacts for the future, collect reference letters when applying to jobs, meet like-minded people and most of all – have some fun. I used my university’s careers service resources for their advice on cover letter writing and their CV templates. To search for positions, I used Indeed, Erasmus opportunities, word-of-mouth, attended career fairs, looked at adverts on social media and asked event organisers if there was any way I could get involved in volunteering. My internship positions varied from an English teacher in Spain to an interviewer with Scottish Hockey in Glasgow.

Working from home

MY FIRST GRADUATE JOB. It felt absolutely fantastic after 6 months of daily job searching, CV updating, travelling to interviews, cover letter writing, and working part-time to build up funds to get a call back confirmed I had got a job as a Digital Marketing Assistant with the University of the Highlands and Islands! I was delighted to get my first ‘adult’ job. No matter how many rejection letters you receive, you will often find they are a blessing in disguise. Although they are disappointing, it’s important to keep your hopes up and the right opportunity will find you with perseverance and hard work. Although I studied history at university, my research, analysis, writing and technological skills were transferrable to this new role.

AND THEN CAME LOCKDOWN. Two months into navigating a new full-time job, lockdown was announced due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Thankfully, I had a work laptop with all my work resources easily accessible online, allowing me to work from the comfort and safety of my home. My employer also ensured I had materials needed to carry out daily tasks. I use a range of communication tools to keep in touch daily with colleagues including Skype for business, Cisco Webex Teams and Meetings, Microsoft Teams and email.

Small herb garden

HOW TO STAY MOTIVATED. I have found it a smooth transition moving to working from home and without the usual office company. I know it is important to maintain a routine and to always get dressed for ‘the office’, I also give myself at least one goal a day to stay motivated. For example, going for a new walk route at lunchtime, cycling, baking, meeting up with a friend at a social distance, calling my family, Zoom calling my grandparents, online gaming, woodworking, embroidery, growing a herb garden, attending online Gaelic lessons, online shopping just to have something to look forward to in the post, book swapping and making plans as lockdown restrictions continue to relax. A break from an office environment has been good and allowed for a relaxed, comfortable work zone at home. I have also had more time for activities I’ve always wanted to try and don’t have to travel to work, turning my attention towards better relationships with friends and family.

Hutch constructed in lockdown

SUPPORT. A support system is key. It can be easy to feel lonely or isolated in lockdown. It helps to talk to family and friends when looking for career advice or try to find a mentor who can offer advice on the next steps in your career. If you are a current student of the University of the Highlands and Islands, you also have access to the Careers Team via the FutureMe service. Graduates can also take advantage of the Graduates for Life offer and join our Alumni benefits.

Sophie Macfarlane

Digital Marketing Assistant

Is Clearing for me?

Still considering your study options for September 2020? Clearing could be open to you…read on to find out more.

What is Clearing?

Clearing is a service where universities and colleges (like us) fill any places they still have on their courses for the next academic year.

From July 2020, you can apply for a course using Clearing if you’re not already holding an offer from a university or college, and the course still has places.

Do I need to use the Clearing system?

The Clearing system is your route to find a suitable course at university or college if:

  • you are not holding any offers from universities or colleges you have applied to
  • you didn’t meet the conditions of your offer
  • you are applying after 30 June. While Clearing is usually associated with school leavers looking for a place after exam results, from the end of June, it is the pathway into university for everyone including mature and late applicants.

Clearing is not necessary if you have used the UCAS application system to apply before the 30 June; have been made an active offer from a university or college and have met the conditions made in the offer and you wish to accept it. Remember to check the acceptance process to make sure that your place is secured.

Want more information? Speak to one of our dedicated Course Information Line team on 01463 279190 or message us.

UCAS also offer a Clearing advice line to candidates: 0371 368 0468 (UK callers) or +44 330 333 0230 (if you are calling from outside the UK).

How do I find out which courses have places available?

Whether you know exactly what you’d like to do or you’re still unsure, there is help available to support you to find the right course.

Do some research. Find courses that interest you.

You can:

  • use the UCAS search tool to find live vacancies
  • view our courses at the University of the Highland and Islands
  • talk to universities and colleges directly to find out if they have places and if they will make you an offer
  • find out about open days. Come and see us
  • ask for help and information about which of our courses are available and what qualifications are needed for entry. Contact our dedicated Course Information Line Team on 01463 279190 or send us a message
  • read more about Clearing on our ‘What is Clearing’ guide.

More info about us:

The University of the Highlands and Islands, the only university within our region with our partnership of colleges and research institutions, want to let you know WE’RE HERE FOR YOU and we are ready to help you find your own unique learner journey.

We continue to offer a full range of courses for school leavers right through to adult learners, whatever your entry point. You can start where you need to and pause or exit with a qualification when the time is right for you.

By putting you in control of your journey and enabling you to study from wherever you are, you can fit learning around other interests and commitments. Whether you can join us on campus, online or a combination of both, you won’t feel alone as our staff will support you every step of the way.

Our students are at the heart of all we do. Our blended learning approach has connected our student community here and across the world for over 20 years, and we can connect you to fellow students, lecturers, and support services through our:

  • video conferencing and online technologies
  • face-to-face teaching and support (when and where it is safe to do so)

Visit our website for more information.