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Councillor Emma Macdonald: Getting to Know You

Councillor Emma Macdonald is an Independent politician

Councillor Emma Macdonald: Getting to Know You

What were you like at school?
I was never particularly academic. I wasn’t interested and never had that sense of what I wanted to be when I grew up, and even now I still don’t know. My sister Lynsay was much more academic than I was, and she has gone on to be a teacher. 

Where did you go to school?
My dad was in the army, so we moved around a bit when I was young. We moved to Shetland when I was eight and I went to Mid Yell Junior High.

How would you sum up a Shetland childhood?
It’s the freedom; you were able to go out with your sister and play and there was no worrying about where you were and what time you’d be back home because it was so safe. You had quite a free life, and of course in summer it never gets dark so you can play for hours.

What’s your greatest fear?
Probably being late. I hate it, and I hate when anybody else makes me late. If my husband’s driving or somebody else contributes to my timekeeping, I can’t stand it.

What’s the best holiday you’ve been on?
I’ve been to New York, which was pretty cool, but quite often when you live in Shetland, holidays are more about going to visit family than going on a trip. My daughter Shannon lives outside Glasgow in Blantyre, so going to visit her and her little boy Jacob is a proper holiday for me. Over the pandemic, she was studying so she came home and studied from here, and so we spent quite a lot of time together then. 

Until recently, you owned a cafe in Lerwick. How did you get into business?
I had children when I was really young. I had my daughter when I was 19 and my son Jordan, who is an apprentice joiner, when I was 20 so I’ve done everything backwards. As I got older, I decided I needed some qualifications so studied with the Open University and did a degree in health and social care. I did that for a little while and did baking as a hobby and set myself up to do farmers’ markets and events, then decided to open a coffee shop. We closed because of Covid in 2020, and I was sad about how it closed, but not because it closed. I felt like I’d been there and done that by that time, so it was time to move on, and I had council responsibilities. I’m now studying again, doing a Masters in Strategic Services and Planning and Delivery in Health and Social Care. It’s about how you change things in care and do it in a sustainable way, taking in everything including finance.

Who is your dream dinner date?
Friends and family, because I’m not very great at making an awful lot of time for my personal life. Having my kids and my husband with me is as good as it gets because it’s rare that we are all around at the same time. 

What is your most treasured possession?
Probably photos because I love to look back on them. I’m not very good with jewellery and I’ve managed to lose my wedding and engagement rings, and I’m not big on things, but I do keep a gratitude jar and I fill it every year. Every time anything good happens or you go to an event, you write a note and put those memories into it, and at the end of the year you open it out and read all these little post-it notes and it’s nice to remind yourself of all the good in your life. That’s the kind of thing that matters to me – good memories.

What skill should every person have?
The ability to listen, really listen, to people is so important. You need to really listen to people and try to apply what you hear to things that you do because people share so much information and you can pick it up and use it. That’s something I really believe in because everybody has different things that they bring to the table, and you have to pay attention. I would never have thought of myself as a politician, and when people call me that I think, ‘I am not’. I know that technically I am, but I think of politicians as being very different than me. 

Is that why you’ve worked on encouraging more women into politics?
When I was knocking on doors the first time I stood, I got lots of “you can’t be a councillor, you don’t look like a councillor”. The meaning is that it’s the man who has done it for years who looks “like a councillor” and there’s a belief that we have to look and behave in a certain way, but we need more women, and we need people who have individual perspectives. You don’t have to change to become a councillor. I’ve been involved in quite a few things and there are really good initiatives like Cosla’s Barriers to Elected Office group. 

Shetland is facing fuel poverty levels of 96 per cent. How big a challenge is this?
Covid had so many impacts around business and vulnerable people, but this is potentially worse than Covid for us. We have got so many things we are currently trying to deal with, and we have some real challenges ahead. Our council services are costing more and more to run, and people are really starting to worry.

You’re an independent councillor. What are the benefits of being outwith party politics?
The good point of being an independent member is you get to make decisions you feel are the right thing to do, you don’t have to stick to the party line. The downside is it’s quite isolating because you don’t have the support of a party behind you, it’s just you. In an independent council, the challenge is trying to get everyone in the same place on things. Everyone is there because they want what’s best for the community but it’s about trying to focus that because there’s no way to make people do anything as there’s no system of whips. I don’t know how parties work because I’ve never been a member of one. I have in a previous life looked at it and thought it might have been good, but since I’ve been in local government the only time I’ve done so is when I’ve felt I’ve missed that wider support network. 

What is your favourite binge-watching material?
It’s really embarrassing but when everybody else is out of the house, I quite like stuff like Below Decks. It’s a reality show and you don’t need to think about it, you just put it on and switch off. If I’m watching proper telly, it’s stuff like Silent Witness

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
It was probably my mum saying be yourself and don’t try to be what people think you should be. If you don’t quite fit in, so be it.

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