Highland youth in the pink

17th October 2008 at 01:00
While many of her friends are still in the classroom, Highland's new youth convener will be out canvassing the views of young people across the region. Jean McLeish went to meet her

It is a thought for any newcomer, taking a seat alongside a room full of much more experienced councillors and council officials. But it's impressive when you're just 17 and fresh out of college.

Catriona Burns is Highland Council's newly-appointed youth convener and has already mastered some skills in diplomacy and public relations. She is accustomed to attracting attention with her bright pink hair and piercings, but also knows how to handle it, even when people are rude and intrusive.

"People will touch me, touch my ears, take pictures of me or point me out to their children. But the thing is, I always have to be polite to them, because people don't interact with people who look like me very often, I know that. And if I am rude back, then I am just re-enforcing their negative stereotypes," says Catriona, who has just started her new job at council headquarters in Inverness.

When she was 10, Catriona became involved with Skye and Lochalsh Young Carers Project. "My younger sister is severely autistic so I had to care for her a lot," says Catriona, who joined the support group for young carers with a friend who was also a carer.

Her experience meeting other children with caring responsibilities has made a profound impression. It has also been a significant factor in prompting her to take up this post, representing young people's views and working for better support and life chances for disadvantaged youngsters.

Highland is the only local authority in Scotland to employ a youth convener who has full voting rights on the council's education, culture and sports committee and the joint committee for children and young people. The Pounds 10,000 bursaried post was created just last year and is unusual, because it combines a council official's duties alongside a councillor's voting rights.

The hair may be loud, but Catriona is reserved on first meeting. She was brought up on Skye until the family moved to Inverness when she was 14. Her parents are not Gaelic speakers and she went to the Gaelic-medium unit at Portree Primary and then Portree High, before the move to Inverness.

After a brief spell at Inverness Royal Academy, she switched to Millburn Academy to allow her to pursue her interest in Gaelic. "I've been learning since before school. I am fluent now," she says.

Catriona left school at the start of sixth year and went to Inverness College to finish her studies. She has two Highers, in modern studies and politics. "I think studying those kind of subjects just comes naturally to me. I've always been interested in current affairs and making things better for people."

She's seen how caring responsibilities can impact on all areas of children's lives, their educational attainment and future aspirations. "It doesn't set you up for the right life in a way if things like that happen to you when you're really young. You're not as likely to do what you want to do in life, so I just want to give everyone the opportunity."

Her friends back in Skye are delighted to hear of her success and describe her as a hard worker who raised the profile of young carers by her efforts, and through her art and creative writing.

"She is a go-getter and very focused. She loves to debate and look at different viewpoints and is very articulate. It is wonderful to see her achieving like this and we wish her the very best of luck," says Marjory Jagger, manager of the Skye and Lochalsh Young Carers Project.

Catriona has no party political ambitions or affiliations, but is driven by her early experiences. "It's more that, working with young carers projects, you see how badly things can go for some people, and you just really want to make things better. That's what I want - more opportunities for young people and just to make things better for them."

In her spare time, her interests include music and film and spending time with friends. "Body modification - which is like piercings and tattoos and things like that - that's really my passion in life. The way I explain it is that some people have sport, some people have music; everyone has their own thing that makes them really happy and is what they love to do and this is mine. I just love piercings and things like that."

Over the next year, Catriona will be canvassing the views of young people in schools and youth groups across the Highlands. "I think you need young people themselves to say what they need and what works best for them, rather than other people deciding. That's what I really want to do with this - give all groups of young people the chance to speak for themselves really."

Highland Council convener Sandy Park says he is looking forward to working with Catriona. "She is a very bright individual and I think she'll bring a different approach towards our youth. I think we've got to be very inclusive on Highland Council and I'm very impressed with Catriona."


There's a widespread network to encourage youth representation in the Highlands, including Highland Youth Voice, the Highland's democratically elected Youth Parliament for 14 to 18-year-olds.

Each of Highland's eight areas has a youth forum open to those aged between 14 and 25. The region's 29 secondary schools all have pupil councils with youth development workers attached to each school catchment area.

The youth development workers support young people in the area and encourage them to become involved in the youth forum and the Highland Youth Parliament, particularly those who are typically excluded from school activity.

Catriona will work alongside the education, culture and sport youth development team, representing the views of young people at the council and other partner organisations.

She'll act as a sounding board for youth issues in the Highlands with a direct line into the policy makers and decision-makers.

Catriona recently attended her first council meeting and is very positive about the experience. "It was really interesting because it's something that affects everyone, but most people don't get to see it in action.

"Everyone's been friendly," she says, "and it's been really good actually. Everyone has taken me seriously and let me get on with what I have to do."

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