Population of Scotland’s islands on the rise

The CalMac ferry moored at the jetty at Tarbert Harris.
The CalMac ferry moored at the jetty at Tarbert Harris.
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High quality of life is leading to more people joining the 103,700 permanent residents on Scotland’s main islands.

Scotland’s islands offer an unparalleled living experience with their strong communities, stunning landscapes and sense of self reliance.

Hundreds of fossils have been found on Skye. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Hundreds of fossils have been found on Skye. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

While they may be not for everyone, the islands of Scotland have consistently been hailed as some of the best places to live in the UK.

Orkney recently topped the poll for quality of life for the third year in a row thanks to its low unemployment, lack of traffic - and even its dry weather.

Now it would appear that some of Scotland’s 93 islands - home to 103,700 permanent residents - are enjoying something of a renaissance.

READ MORE: Orkney ‘best place to live in Scotland’ for third year

The ancient Ring of Brodgar on the Orkney mainland. Orkney has been named the best place to live in Scotland three years in a row.

The ancient Ring of Brodgar on the Orkney mainland. Orkney has been named the best place to live in Scotland three years in a row.

POPULATION

Latest research shows that the population increased by some four percent in the 10 years to 2011.

This comfortably reversed a period of decline in the decade before when the islands lost some three per cent of their people.

While some of the growth may be down to ageing - 21 per cent of residents are aged 65 and over compared to 17 per cent nationally - island leaders will point to new businesses, new affordable housing and new opportunities as ways of keeping hold of natives - while drawing in new recruits to island life.

A Loganair flight lands on the beach at Barra

A Loganair flight lands on the beach at Barra

The four largest islands recorded the biggest population rises, with mainland Orkney recording the biggest increase at 12 per cent.

Resident numbers increased by six per cent on Lewis and Harris, seven per cent on mainland Shetland and eight per cent on Skye.

Smaller islands with population band of 50 to 99 residents and 100 to 499 residents increased over all,

But the tiniest places - where fewer than 50 people live - did experience a drop in numbers, as did those with population of between 500 and 9,999.

However, in the latter group, numbers in Barra went up by nine percent, Benbecula by seven per cent, South Ronaldsay by six per cent and Mull by 5 per cent.

Seven islands lost their people altogether and became uninhabited, including Papa Stronsay, which had 10 residents in 2001, according to the analysis.

The island, off Orkney mainland, is now home to an order of Catholic monks which bought the island in 1999.

Meanwhile, three islands became inhabited once again in 2001 and 2011 with residents returning to Eilean da Mheinn, just off the coast at Crinan, Knapdale; Dry near Gairloch and Holm of Grimbister, which also sits off mainland Orkney.

READ MORE: The remotest villages in Scotland

WHO ARE THE ISLANDERS?

The research, carried out by National Records of Scotland, also created a profile of those who live on Scotland’s islands.

More people who class themselves as having an “English only identity” (five per cent) live on the islands, compared to the country as a whole (two per cent). In both the islands and Scotland, the proportion of people born in Scotland was lower in 2011 (79 per cent and 83 per cent respectively) than in 2001 (84 per cent and 87 per cent respectively).

The proportion of island residents who were born in England increased from 13 per cent in 2001 to 16 per cent in 2011. Meanwhile, the proportion of island dwellers who were people born in Scotland fell from 84 to 79 per cent over the decade, which in broadly in line with the Scottish picture. Just over a fifth (23 per cent) of island residents aged 3 and over had some knowledge of Gaelic - a decrease from the 26 per cent recorded in 2001.

Meanwhile, the proportion of island dwellers who were people born in Scotland fell from 84 to 79 per cent over the decade, which in broadly in line with the Scottish picture.

Just over a fifth (23 per cent) of island residents aged 3 and over had some knowledge of Gaelic - a decrease from the 26 per cent recorded in 2001.

The highest incidence of Gaelic speakers was on the island groups of Scalpay (76 per cent), Eriskay (73 per cent), South Uist (65 per cent).

Meanwhile, an estimated 10 per cent of islands households are classed as holiday or second homes, compared to one cent for Scotland as a whole.

The highest proportion of holiday homes were found in Raasay (43 per cent), Colonsay (42 per cent), Cumbrae (40 percent) and Tiree (34 per cent).

Those who live on the islands full time are most likely to work in the services industry (74 per cent) with higher than national average numbers working in agriculture, forestry and fishing (seven per cent) and construction (11 per cent).

CHALLENGES FACING THE ISLANDS

Mike MacKenzie (SNP), MSP for Highlands and Islands, said overall the research created a positive picture but that challenges in island life remained.

He pointed to a fall in the proportion of younger island residents aged under 16. Numbers fell from 20 per cent in 2001 to 17 per cent in 2011.

Mr MacKenzie “The findings are broadly welcome but there is still this worrying trend where we are always exporting youngsters from the island and importing older people.”

Mr MacKenzie lives on Easdale, in the Firth of Lorne and rowed to the mainland for the Scottish Government meeting in Oban during the summer.

“To me good education is the key for people to bring their children to islands. Rural schools can outperform their urban counterparts by around 20 to 30 per cent. Local authorities always want to close rural schools, buy they really don’t understand they are killing the Golden Goose if they do so.

“People in Edinburgh would pay double for a house to get close to a school that had the same standards as you would get for free at many rural schools.”

A spokesman for The Western Isles Council, better known as Comhairle nan Eilean Siar said: “Whilst the population increase in the Western Isles is to be welcomed, there is still a significant demographic imbalance putting pressure on services and particularly causing an increase in demand for services for older people.

“The Comhairle has also worked collaboratively with partners in Orkney and Shetland on the Our Islands Our future initiative which seeks to increase the powers for island areas for the benefit of local communities. A key part of this initiative is to provide sustainable jobs, decent housing, good ferry and air transport links, increased connectivity and to continue to provide good services which will help to retain and attract economically active people to the islands.”