Volunteering in Scotland: Free for the Taking

It ain’t all about helping grannies and plush trips to Thailand y’know. <strong>Gail Tolley</strong> talks you through the most exciting volunteer opportunities across Scotland.

Feature by Gail Tolley | 11 Sep 2009
  • Volunteering in Scotland

Student life can sometimes be an insular experience, one that revolves around regular lectures, familiar halls, the same bars and the same people. Living in a student bubble can be fun but if you’ve got a nagging feeling that there’s more to the world than sambucca shots, essays and microwave chips you might want to get involved in an activity or project that takes you outside of your comfort zone. The word volunteering might conjure up thoughts of delivering meals on wheels or helping elephants in Africa but it can actually involve pretty much anything. And whilst all the clichés about the benefits of volunteering sound a bit naff, they’re usually pretty accurate too. Budding media hacks will have to start at the bottom and volunteering in student radio or local press is a good place to start. Equally those wanting to work in the charity sector will be wise to get as much experience as necessary. And if you’ve got a political streak and are passionate about social justice you’ll find like-minded souls volunteering for charities, think tanks and protest groups. Even for those who aren’t thinking about job prospects, getting involved in something outside University life is a great opportunity to meet different people. There’s also that nice warm feeling you get inside when you’ve done something nice for the world. In the pages that follow we’ve outlined a few of the many ways you can get involved in volunteering. For a more comprehensive list of opportunities have a look at www.volunteerscotland.org.uk

Media and the Arts

If you fancy hearing your own dulcet tones wafting over the air waves then get yourself involved in student radio. In Edinburgh, Fresh Air (www.freshair.org.uk) can give you access to studio training and the chance to present your own show. You can get involved with their music team who review gigs, albums and carry out interviews or their news and arts team who compile features and review comedy and theatre events. In Glasgow, Subcity Radio has a reputation for pushing the boundaries of student radio and has been doing so for over ten years (www.subcity.org) and in Aberdeen Shmu (www.shmu.org.uk) is a community based media organisation offering training in all aspects of traditional and digital publishing.

Have you heard about The Skinny? We’ve been told it’s pretty good. It’s a monthly, free, culture and listings magazine with interviews and features aplenty and a comprehensive listings section for clubs, gigs, theatre and art events. You can pick it up free in cafes, bars and at your student union. If you like us enough, perhaps you’d like to get involved in what is one of the UK’s, nah make that the world’s, most exciting publications. You can volunteer for a week or two in the office (just email interns@theskinny.co.uk) or if you’d like to contribute on a more regular basis why not send your best writing to our section editors (see our contact page for details).

There are also numerous opportunities to get involved in festivals across the country. If you’re fancy getting access to a heap of free films before anyone else than think about volunteering for Edinburgh International Film Festival (www.edfilmfest.org.uk), held each June, or Glasgow Film Festival (www.glasgowfilmfestival.org.uk) in February. You might even spot Sir Sean Connery wandering around (it’s been known). The Fringe (www.edfringe.com – it’s in August, you knew that, right?) and Glasgay! (www.glasgay.co.uk) in September and October, also advertise volunteer positions – keep an eye on their websites for more details.


You can’t help but love an organisation that calls you sweet cheeks, hey? That’ll be the fun folk at Project Scotland (get called sweet cheeks yourself at www.projectscotland.co.uk) who organise work placements for 16-25 year olds. Their placements vary from getting involved in conservation projects, to working for an arts organisation to getting experience in the charity sector. Their only requirement is you have to have lived in Scotland for over a year. If you spent all your student years dossing, didn’t get any work experience and have no idea what to do next, a wee chat with the Project Scotland people will get you headed in the right direction.

Working at a charity shop might sound a little dull (and yes that smell can get a bit much sometimes) but avid bargain hunters, fans of vintage fashion and textiles students may find them a treasure trove of delights. And of course volunteers often get access to all the best items first and at a discounted rate. Music and book fans might also want to consider volunteering for a couple of hours a week in Oxfam Books or Oxfam Music. There’s a story that Stuart Murdoch (of Belle and Sebastian fame) once dropped a whole box of demos and unreleased material off at the Oxfam music on Byres Road in Glasgow. And I’m guessing an eagle-eyed volunteer might have got first dibs on some of that stuff.

…and Abroad

There are plenty of organisations out there who will happily take a considerable amount of your money for you to have a ‘volunteering experience’. We’ll not name them here as you’ve probably heard of them already. Many people feel that it’s worth spending money on a trip abroad to experience another culture, however there are other opportunities which don’t require you to save up for months in advance. We’d recommend VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) who offer a one year volunteer placement in one of 44 developing countries. They will even pay for you travel and expenses, you’ll just need to fundraise £900 before you go which they’ll even help you with. This is a great scheme for people who have a serious interest in overseas development. Don’t expect a year long holiday, do expect a genuine insight into another culture and society and the opportunity to carry out work which is hugely beneficial to a local community.

If you want to combine short-term volunteering with the chance to travel you might want to consider wwoofing. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) (www.wwoof.org.uk) keep a list of organic farms across the world who are happy to take in volunteers. You’ll be required to work for a few hours each day on the farm (no prior experience required, although a willingness to get stuck in is) and in exchange your host will provide you with accommodation and food. And when you’re not working you can enjoy wherever it is that you find yourself – perhaps rural Tuscany or even closer to home in the Scottish Highlands.


Students these days are an apathetic bunch, so our elders tell us. Well they obviously haven’t met the members of Plane Stupid, who stand up against the aviation industry (and the impact it has on our climate) through non-violent direct action. You might remember Peter Mandleson getting gunged a little while ago, yep that was them. They’re looking to expand their student network, so if you’re passionate about stopping the expansion of the aviation industry get in touch with these guys and gals at info@planestupid.com You’ll spot them at your freshers fair too.

You might also want to consider People and Planet, a student network that exists across the UK to campaign and raise awareness on world poverty, human rights and the environment. Look out for their events throughout term time (http://peopleandplanet.org).

Almost all campaign groups, charities and not-for-profit organisations are on the look out for volunteers, so if there is something you’re particularly passionate about it’s worth finding out more at your local branch/group and seeing how you can get involved.