I recently returned from my first trip back to America since moving to Scotland in August 2019. As you can probably imagine, this trip was emotionally and physically overwhelming, as I hadn’t seen any family or American friends in person since before the pandemic. I spent a week in Maine, visiting two of the islands where I used to live: Georgetown and Mount Desert Island (MDI). For all you hikers and campers out there, MDI is home to Acadia National Park and the town of Bar Harbor.
Rural Maine can be a challenging place to live. It’s cold and snowy for half the year, cell phone and internet access can be spotty, stable economic opportunities are few and far between, and you need to be prepared for constant power outages (goodbye indoor heating when it’s -30° C in January!) But when you return home for the first time in years, you see everything with a fresh perspective. During the week I spent in Maine, I was reminded of how frequently islands and rural communities are undervalued. Georgetown, Maine has only 1,060 residents and Bar Harbor, the largest town on MDI, has 5,500 year-round residents, yet each community punches far above their weight in terms of:
- Resourcefulness – When you don’t have a lot, you make do with what you’ve got. With few local stores to shop at, island and rural residents learn to repair what they own and DIY what they don’t. Everyone learns something new – from basic plumbing and knitting to making your own sea salt. Some skills may be just for personal use (like my friend Paige’s penchant for making her own furniture), but others become small businesses that power the local economy. For example, in 2017 Jon started Fogtown Brewing, which serves beer and pizzas to tourists and locals on and off the island.
- Creativity – Perhaps it’s not surprising that many island businesses seem to involve the arts. Georgetown is famous for its local pottery and the Passamaquoddy community in Downeast Maine creates truly stunning woven baskets. Paige and Anna often attend art nights at our local library in Bar Harbor. Not only is learning to paint a great evening’s entertainment, but the finished products can be used to decorate your home!
- Sustainability – When you live so close to nature, you see the effects of climate change first-hand. All my friends on MDI have switched to hybrid or electric cars in the last two years. They order food in bulk to reduce packaging waste, buy fresh veg from their local famers’ market, and plan meals carefully. Many restaurants aren’t open in winter, so takeaways aren’t an option. My friend Chris makes clothes for her family and repairs whatever she owns so she doesn’t have to make unnecessary purchases. You simply can’t afford to be wasteful when you have limited access to materials in the first place.
- Resilience – Maine has some of the worst power outages in the US. Old homes are often poorly insulated with no upstairs heating. Add in the occasional blizzard which knocks out your heat and power entirely, sometimes for days at a time – well, all of this makes you tough.
- Personal relationships – Without the distractions found in cities or big towns, you spend a lot of time talking with the people around you, forging very deep connections. These intense relationships can make islands seem insular to people from away. But once you live on an island, the friends you make will be in your life forever. In fact, friends from both Georgetown and MDI flew to Edinburgh in fall 2019 to help me settle into my new community.
People tend to be surprised that I chose to spend my twenties on small, rural islands. As a society, we tend to assume that the best way to challenge yourself and grow as a person is to live in a city. But it’s simply not true. While I’ve lived all over the world, I was “perfected in Maine,” to paraphrase the motto of a local gelato company. Any business can learn a lot from rural communities, especially in regards to tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit. If you have the chance to hire a remote employee based on an island, do so. If you can invest in or collaborate with an island business, do so. The creativity, resourcefulness, and resilience found on island communities rivals that of any urban centre.
After two years of lockdown, I’m finally planning to visit a Scottish island. I’ll be traveling to Skye with one of my best friends from Georgetown. Time will tell if Scottish islands are as amazing as Maine islands, but I’m very optimistic. Many thanks for the travel recommendations, Catriona!