Scottish Sweet Sixteen by Sophie Gerrard

What is it like to be sixteen now? This work began in 2014 as an exploration of the lives, hopes and dreams of 16 year olds across Scotland. At that time they had been granted a unique responsibility, for the first time in a UK political vote, 16 year olds could vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum.

The project then expanded in 2018 to become part of a UK wide project, ‘Sixteen’ a collaborative project by 16 leading UK contemporary photographers further exploring what it meant to be 16 now.

Photographed in homes, bedrooms, public places and parks across Scotland, the Sixteen projects introduce us to young people of voting age in Scotland and the spaces they spend time in. These adolescents share their views on being 16 in Scotland today and what, if anything, having this vote means to them. They talk of their hopes and fears, their families and their homes. Some describe the referendum as motivating them to become interested in politics for the first time in their lives. Others are unsure and nervous of how to vote, uncertain of what to think or of whether they will vote at all.

Stacey, Kirknewton, aged 16, 2014 from the series “Scottish Sweet Sixteen” © Sophie Gerrard 2014 all rights reserved.

Stacey, 16 “I’ve had a chat about independence and the referendum and I understand what it is, it’s about Scotland being its own country. But it’s complicated. I do want to vote, I do want to learn about it, because it could make Scotland a different place. I don’t go to school anymore, I left. I’ve been in 3 different foster homes, this one for the longest. At 16 I feel I’m just starting to come into the world, and be old enough, I’m a young adult now.”

Charlotte, Edinburgh, aged 16, 2014 © Sophie Gerrard 2014 all rights reserved

Charlotte 16, “I think it’s a privilege to have this vote now that I’m 16. Especially for something so close to me, it’s really important that I have my say. I had no idea about politics before the independence referendum, I wasn’t interested, then my dad became more involved, my friends started to have conversations about it. I decided to inform myself and I found it was something I felt really strongly about. I’m passionate about independence, I’m voting yes and I want people to know that. I feel it’s vital for our country, it’s an opportunity to really make a change, to take a stance. It’s so important for my life, for the people around me and for my future and that’s why it’s important to me.”

Kirsty, on her paperround in Edinburgh, aged 16, 2018 © Sophie Gerrard 2018 all rights reserved

Kirsty 16, “I do a paper round before school everyday. I think my generation will be the last to do a paper round, I usually start at about 7:30 AM and it takes me about 30 to 35 minutes, I have been doing it for about a year, I don’t really know anyone who gets a paper now, most of my friends read their news online the only person I know who reads a paper is my grandmother, she’s 75.

The paper round earns me a little bit of money and also it’s quite nice to get up early and feel like I have done something before the day starts. I’m saving for a couple of trips next year, I’m going to Mexico with girl guides and to Mexico and South Africa with the school. Outside of school I do trampolining 10 hours a week and I compete in competitions around the UK, I play the guitar, I am part of the Edinburgh schools ensemble and I am also a girl guide. All my friends are quite busy doing sports and clubs and things after school and I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t do those things.

I think older people look at us teenagers as if we are just trying to cause trouble and don’t want to try hard. But I think people who were younger understand us a bit better. I want to do well in my exams in May hopefully I want to get straight A’s and I want to keep doing trampolining and compete in Telford and Sheffield in the spring. I also want to keep getting better at the guitar and hopefully go to a good university and maybe do medicine or paramedical science.

In the future I’d quite like to find a nice husband who I could have a nice house with in a nice neighbourhood somewhere hot. I like Edinburgh but because I know it well and I like travelling and seeing different places I don’t think I’ll stay in Edinburgh forever. My parents have lived in the same house for 30 years I don’t think I’ll ever do that I think I’ll travel and hopefully find different jobs overseas.

A lot of things are changing in Scotland and in the UK, Brexit and Scottish Independence and I am a bit worried about what that all means for the economy and for the future, really I don’t know what’s going to happen, and a lot of people don’t. I live in Edinburgh and it voted 75% remain in the Brexit referendum. We didn’t get to vote in any of the referendums but we are the ones that are going to have to live with it and pick up any pieces that were caused by the older generation.

When I watch the news I see people in bad situations and I feel bad. It motivates me because I feel I’ve got to work really hard so that I don’t end up like that. But some people do have bad situations can end up in an okay situation, and vice versa. I think I’m well informed, I watched a documentary recently and someone who was homeless talked about how they had a job and a good situation and then suddenly something happened and they had to leave their house, then everything spiralled out of control. I think I’m quite privileged, I live in a good area and go to a good school, I’m lucky. I think about those less fortunate than me when I see people living on the streets, I know it’s bad. I wish everyone could have enough money to have a house and a good chance but some people don’t have that.”

Callum at National Portrait Gallery, November 2018 from the series “Sixteen” © Sophie Gerrard 2018 all rights reserved.

Callum 16 “We took this portrait at the National portrait Gallery in Edinburgh today because I am completely mad about art, I am an art junkie. I am really interested in pursuing a career in the arts and right now I’m starting an interesting project looking at mental health and people’s engagement with art in the gallery. I am interested in looking at how art and mental health effects young people.

I’m not a scientist I am not a mathematician but I love the humanities and art history is where all the humanities converge. It’s where you can bring so much together and I find it kind of funny when people say that art history is quite a frivolous thing because it is actually quite a complex discipline. You can gather so much from the physical work of the painting, the aesthetics and the historical information. Each painting, each work of art is a historical source, a distillation of culture. I think it tells us even more than books or diaries written at the time.

I think that galleries and curation or working in an auction house is just a perfect job because you really are providing context to works of art. It’s just like art history, you’re applying context to the works of art and looking at the information that could bring that piece to life. It’s about trying to make it accessible and make the brilliance of each work of art obvious to whoever looks at it.

Change sometimes scares me so I don’t know what that industry is going to look like by the time I want to get a job. It is kind of worrying, and I am thinking a lot about what kind of role museums will have in the future. Will they be dwindling? Will they have public funding? What kind of role will curators have? How will people engage with art? If you look out all the new mediums that have exploded in the past hundred years the things artists are experimenting with then I wonder what art is even going to be like in 10 years.

The whole art world could be completely different, also social media and the internet and the way people engage with art is very different to how it used to be. The future will, I hope, be a brilliant thing, although I do have a soft spot for the way is now. We shall see.

Hopefully I am going to apply to Cambridge then I’d really like to go to the Courtauld Institute in London and focus on that because that is just the best place for art history, after that some kind of job. I also think a job in the arts would be very interesting because working somewhere like Sotheby’s or Christie’s must be so varied. There are so many different aspects linked together from commercial work curation to more academic stuff. I can’t think of many jobs that have so many different things you do. I definitely need lots of different things, I get bored if I am doing the same thing for too long.

I suppose I’m quite scared about politics and the world of politics and looking at how comfortable as a society we are with the rising far right. I mean Brazil just elected a terrifying candidate. So that is one of my fears. On a smaller scale I am scared of what our world will look like for young people in 10 years time when I’m leaving uni, plus silly things like houses and the job market, so I suppose it’s the uncertainty that I’m fearful of – however – I mean it could all be brilliant though.”

Alejandro, Edinburgh, 2018 from the series “Sixteen” © Sophie Gerrard 2018 all rights reserved.
Goalpost © Sophie Gerrard 2014 all rights reserved.
Milly, Portobello, aged 16, 2014 © Sophie Gerrard 2014 all rights reserved.

Millie 16 “I think it is really important for sixteen year olds to have the opportunity to vote in the referendum. It affects our future – in many ways more than our parents generation. However, usually when you vote in an election, the results last for 4 years and there is potential for change. It’s a daunting idea that my first vote could have permanent consequences.”

Elsa, June 2018, Isle of Skye, Scotland from the series “Sixteen” © Sophie Gerrard 2018 all rights reserved.

Elsa 16 “I’ve lived here for 5 years. This morning at 6 o’clock I woke up when went wild swimming in the sea with my cousin, it was freezing cold. My cousin lives in London and she was here in Skye on holiday, we went swimming at this lovely spot on the beach just five minutes walk from my house. Wild swimming is something I do often just last week me and my friend went to the beach and we jumped off these big rocks into the sea it was amazing, so refreshing.

In the morning I feed the animals we’ve got sheep and chickens on this croft. Some people on the island have thousands of sheep, we’ve only a few. A lot of people on Skye have crofts but most of them don’t use them. I have lived here on sky for five years.

I moved here from Chester when I was 10 or 11, it was quite a big change, life is so different here. I lived half an hour away from Manchester in the suburbs, here I live down a track off the main road in the middle of the countryside it takes me 20 minutes to get to school on the school bus but for some of my friends it takes over an hour each way to get to school in Portree from different parts of the island.

People are more friendly here, I know everybody, in Manchester I only knew 2 neighbours on either side but here I know everybody. I think it’s nicer living here. When the weather is bad it’s just black and windy but sometimes I like those days because you can just be cozy inside.

Some of the challenging things of being a teenager living here are that so many of my friends live quite far from me so it is just me and my sister most of the time. I can meet up with people in Portree but there is not always that much to do most of the things are tourist things. But it is good because when we do meet up at the end of school the holidays are great we have barbecues go to the beach swim in the sea that kind of thing. The thing I love most about being here is just to be able to do what you want so there is literally nothing holding you back from going to the beach you don’t even have to tell your parents you’re going out. If they come back from work and you’re out it’s fine, there’s a lot of freedom here.

I think I am going to have to move away to study. Most people go to either Glasgow or Edinburgh which is five or six hours away. It is exciting to think about. I have got a friend who just went to Glasgow I think she’s 14 and it’s quite a big thing. She’s gone to Glasgow to do dancing and musical theatre at a special school. She was excited about going but also really nervous she’s been there for a few weeks now and I think she’s liking it.

I am going to get my driving licence as soon as I turned 17 because there is no public transport here so I need that to get about. Even to get a pint of milk you have to drive 20 minutes. I have a friend on the island of Raasay, just over from my house. I have to take the ferry there, but always joke about kayaking out to the middle to meet each other, we’ve never actually done it. We have a kayak but I don’t really use it. My dad also has a little boat but it is not in the water right now.

The subjects I’m doing are maths music English and modern studies. I like modern studies, I do well at school. 16-year-olds are important and should be listened to. So my fellow friends yeah they might be on their phones some of the time but when they actually think they can make important decisions. Like for example Brexit, we’re going to have to live with that and the consequences of that for the longest so we should have a say. So we talk about it but we can’t do anything and that is really annoying.

Politics doesn’t come up in conversation that much though with me and my friends at the moment though, when it was the independence referendum it did but now it feels like it’s old news. On social media my friends share their views, and I do that too. I’m friends with my Skye friends on social media but also friends with people from all over the UK who I met on dancing or music trips.

I started playing the cello when I was 6, I play classical and when I moved to Skye I started playing traditional music. There was session last night in the pub which was really good. You can just join in with the tune, my sister was there too, playing the accordion she’s 14. It takes quite a lot of confidence to do it , it does make me a bit nervous but it is nice playing in sessions because it is quite chilled and it’s different to playing in a concert or something. I didn’t used to be confident but I’d say I’m more confident now. I think because on Skye I got to know a lot more people so that makes me more confident”.

Logan, from the series “Sixteen” © Sophie Gerrard 2018 all rights reserved.

Logan 16 “I’m an assistant gamekeeper, I help with the beating on a shoot day. We all get in a line and walk through the woods to push the birds up to the flushing point where they fly out over the guns’ head and the guns shoot them. My hopes for the future are that I can work hard at this and eventually become a head keeper. I enjoy everything about this job really, being out in the wilderness not being locked up inside.

I’ve been doing this since I was 11 years old and since then I’ve stuck with it, it’s all I want to do. I work mostly on the weekends when I am not at school and in the summer. I’ve applied to college and will hopefully go there next year to get the qualifications I need for this. At Borders College you to 3 days on the theory side of things and then you’re on an estate for the other days working on the estate.

Being 16 isn’t easy, it feels sometimes like no one understands you. I don’t find school easy I don’t like being in classrooms I’d always prefer to be outside, I love being outside.

In the future, I’d like to have my own estate and do all the stuff that the head keeper does here. Doing this kind of work is something I have thought since I was a young age. My plan is that I will go to college and study everything that I need. I don’t many think about much about the world, and big issues like politics and climate change. I just focus on what I have got to focus on.”

Trees © Sophie Gerrard 2014 all rights reserved.
Robbie aged 16, Caithness 2018

Robbie, 16 “We are at a nature reserve in Forsinard in the flow country which is pretty much at the top of Scotland. And I am here for a week’s volunteering to get some experience of conservation and see a bit of the area. It is quite a special area because it is the biggest blanket bog in Europe very special habitat so it is an amazing place for wildlife and geography which I’m very interested in.

We have a 10 week holiday at the end of our GCSEs and thinking forward to that I thought well I’m excited but I am not going to have much to do if I’m just sat around at home so I thought I need to get something organised to do in that 10 week break.

I saw an advert for this placement and I’m really interested in conservation and geography and I thought yeah this sounds good. I did GCSE geography and I am interested in it but it wasn’t the most exciting course because it was very fact-based and it was just memorising facts and the fun was kind of drawn out of it from me. Some of it was really good but some of it was a bit heavy on the memorising facts of all these case studies that we did.

This week has been really good getting out and doing some practical work on the peatbog which is fun and satisfying because you feel like you’re achieving something practical. Rather than just ticking boxes in exams or whatever.

This week we’ve been doing some practical work on the reserve we did some measuring of peat depths just to see how the peat is coming along.

What happens was in the 70s and 80s they planted a lot of trees on the peat bog and that dried up the area and damaged the natural habitat. And now the RSPB who own the reserve are doing a lot of good work to try and bring the peat bog back to its original  condition. So we were measuring the peat bog depths to see how the peat is coming along and we were clearing and pulling up the regrowth trees that have appeared after they felled the forest.

I plan to do A Levels and then after that go to uni, it is a traditional route I guess but after that yeah I’d like to do more volunteering like this and then just do some thing geographical or environmental. I am quite interested in water management and the science side of that but also the land management side of it and how it ties in socially to lots of different issues surrounding water supply, the use of the land and conservation.

I much prefer being outside in my free time rather than inside, I quite like doing cycling and things like birdwatching which are centred around the land.

It is really interesting to me how much human history and natural history and science and geography has shaped the landscape. I think humans can be part of the landscape in a way that is balanced and doesn’t damage it, in ways that work with the land.  Humans are a sort of an animal so they should be part of the landscape but we need to stop putting human needs before animal needs and the needs of the landscape because purely from a selfish point of view if we continue to ruin the planet then it is just going to come back to damage us.

Politics is necessary but there’s other hands-on ways of being useful.

In 10 years time I’d like to feel as if I was part of a movement towards a more sustainable future for my whole generation, I think it would be really cool to be part of a new era of the way humans interact with the world around us.”

Sign on the towpath © Sophie Gerrard 2014 all rights reserved.
Eddie, Musselburgh, aged 16, 2014 © Sophie Gerrard 2014 all rights reserved

Eddie 16 “The referendum is a really important thing for me, it got me into politics, I’ve joined a political party now, it’s had a real effect on my life. When you’re 16 you can work, you can get married, you pay taxes, you contribute to society. I think a person who pays their taxes should be allowed to vote, they’re doing their bit for the country. I would like to get a job as a politician. People say politicians are out of touch with society, I feel I’m more in touch, I’d like to be a voice for the people.”

Shoe tree, Saughton © Sophie Gerrard 2014 all rights reserved.
Maarja, Edinburgh, aged 16, 2014 © Sophie Gerrard 2014 all rights reserved.

Maarja 16 “I’ll be applying to university before I’m 17, I’ll be going to university before I’m 18. I am looking forward to voting. I haven’t made a decision on how I want to vote yet. My dad is quite strongly on one side but the rest of my family are on the other side. I’m glad they extended the vote to 16 year olds but it does worry me too. I think people need to research it properly before they go ahead. Not just listening to their parents. I think whatever happens it will be such a big effect on the affect of Scotland for the rest of our lives so we should vote.”

Rachel, Carys & Lindsay, aged 15 & 16 Bonnyrigg, 2014 © Sophie Gerrard 2014 all rights reserved.

Rachel, Carys & Lindsay, aged 15 & 16 “At this age we’re inbetween being adults and being kids. We’re not always treated the age we actually are. We’re given freedom but not too many responsibilities, that’s the best thing about being 16. We talk about voting, and what to decide, I think 16 yr olds are just as able to make an informed decision on the referendum as quite a lot of adults, I think the teenagers who vote will be the ones who have done their research and know what they want, otherwise I don’t think they’ll bother to vote at all.

Neil, Linlithgow, aged 16, 2014 © Sophie Gerrard 2014 all rights reserved.

Neil 16, “I’m really excited about voting, there’s nothing that’s been so important for our generation. My generation are the ones that will live with independence, it it happens, for the longest time. We’re the ones that will deal with whatever’s decided. I think that’s a really exciting thing. Some young people might be influenced by their parents but I’d say I’ve definitely got different views from mine. I’ve not been influenced by them. I want to show my family that I’m capable of making a decision. I hear the argument that at 16 we’re too immature and we wont be able to make the right decisions but I think you can find that at any age. There are so many younger people that I’d trust with political decisions than older people.”

Sean, aged 16 & William, aged 16, Saughton, 2014 © Sophie Gerrard 2014 all rights reserved.

Sean, 16 “What’s the referendum? Oh, ok, I’m going to vote for us not to be independent. I don’t know why, that’s just what I think.”
William, aged 16 “I started thinking about it properly in about April this year. I’ll vote because it’s my opportunity to show my view of what I want the Scottish future to be. I’ll be voting no to independence. I’m voting to keep the union because I think the country is fine being run the way it is now and I don’t feel a need for change.”

Cameron, North Uist, Hebrides, Scotland, 2016 © Sophie Gerrard 2022 all rights reserved.

Cameron 16, “I spend 3 months working on the croft on Uist then travel by plane to Glasgow to go to agricultural college for 3 weeks where I’m studying for my apprenticeship in agriculture and mechanics.

It’s a good experience but being in Glasgow isn’t very fun, I don’t like being in a city much, it’s too busy, there’s too many people. I prefer being on the island. If I didn’t have to go I wouldn’t choose to. I go because I want to get my qualification. it’s a 4 year course. There are 12 of us on the course, no one else from Uist, but people from all over Scotland, Shetland, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Ayrshire.

It’s really good growing up here, as long as you’ve got something to do, It can be boring for folk, because they don’t know what to do but if you can find work to do like working on a croft or on a farm then it’s good. In the summer with the long nights, I tend to just work later, and in the winter you kind of have a break, at 5pm it’s dark already, the day ends there. I really enjoy working on the croft, the best bit? Probably driving tractors.

I’d like to own my own big farm or croft when I’m older, it appeals to me, I’d like to be my own boss, thats’ why I go to college. Hopefully this will lead me towards running my own business. Angus, who I work for teaches me a lot, and my father and my uncle are crofters, they have a small holding so they teach me too.

Climate change is something I worry about, it’s definitely getting warmer here, you can tell that because the crops are a lot dryer. It still rains a lot, but you can definitely tell it’s warmer. If the sea level rises too much then there won’t be an island left. It’s not something I talk about with my mates really.

The future of crofting is also something I worry about, hopefully the future of crofting will continue, if we leave the EU then the subsidies could stop and that would be bad for the island, it would be the end of crofting really. I hope that doesn’t happen, the subsidies are vital to keep crofting alive. My mates on Uist work at the fish farm, some have moved to the mainland for their careers.

The best bit about Uist? Well it’s just great really, there’s no hassle, there’s fewer people. I like the quiet, the fresh air, you can see the stars, it’s just a much better place to be, there’s more atmosphere, the people are nicer, just everything, it’s a totally different place than the mainland. I see myself living here and growing old here if I can. But you never know what happens in the future.”

Stairway 2014 © Sophie Gerrard 2014 all rights reserved

Scottish Sweet Sixteen (2014), and Sixteen (2018) – were exhibited all over the UK in London, Belfast, Glasgow, Cardiff, Derby, Birmingham, Hull, Whitby, Liverpool, Shetland and Manchester. Here are some installation images…

Sixteen, Derby Format Festival 2019
Sixteen, Derby Format Festival 2019
Sixteen, London Bridge, 2019
Sweet Sixteen, Cardiff, 2016
Sixteen, Birmingham, 2019
Sixteen, Salford, 2019

These projects involved meeting with, talking to and photographing as many young people as I could find who wanted to talk about their feelings about coming of age in unique times.

Working alone and then collaboratively, it was a challenge and a privilge to meet with these yound people who allowed me into their homes and lives and gave me their thoughts.

I used social media extensively to find my subjects for this Scottish Sweet Sixteen – you can follow me here on Twitter @sophiegerrard_

This is a collaborative project, and my thanks go to all those who agreed to take part and allowed me to come to their homes and interview and photograph them. A longer set of interviews exists of this project which is on show at Streetlevel Photoworks as part of Document Scotland’s exhibition “Common Ground” from 26th August – 19th October 2014.

Scottish Sweet Sixteen also appears in the Document Scotland limited edition book “Common Ground” which you can purchase here.

See more of Sophie Gerrard’s work at her website

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