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Residents rolling out the isles

9 August 09 23:16 GMT
By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Scotland's island communities face growing challenges maintaining their populations as they prepare to celebrate life in the isles.

The Convention of Highlands and Islands, which involves the Scottish Government, agreed last year to make 2011 Islands Year of Culture.

Islanders told the BBC Scotland news website depopulation and ageing communities remained a serious issue.

External affairs Minister Michael Russell said he shared their concerns.

The past few weeks have seen a call for government action to regenerate peripheral areas of the Western Isles.

Councillor Catherine Macdonald's plea came after it emerged that there were now no children under the age of seven on the island of Scalpay.

Plans by the Ministry of Defence to axe 125 defence jobs in the Hebrides have led to concerns that more people will leave the islands.

According the last major census in 2001, Scotland's inhabited islands were home to 99,739 people.

The Hebrides have the largest islands population, but census figures show how it has declined from 30,711 in 1981 to 29,600 in 1991 and 26,502 in 2001.

Between 1998-2008, according to the General Register Office for Scotland, the population declined by almost 5%.

And the organisation's estimated figure on the current number of islanders is 26,300 - highlighting a continuing fall.

John MacAulay, who works with Harris Development Ltd, said various factors contributed to rises and falls in resident numbers.

He said: "Depopulation is an ongoing struggle - it's been going on for centuries."

"People are leaving, but thankfully others are moving in to take their place. But it's is a different kind of exchange.

"Young families are leaving for the mainland or abroad, while the people replacing them used to live on the islands in the past and are retiring here or it is younger single people moving for opportunities with the local authority or health board.

"But these young professionals are not currently raising families so you have houses with one or two people in them."

Ian Gillies, of the Scottish Islands Federation, said distance from the mainland made no difference to whether an island could maintain a healthy population.

In Argyll and Bute, he said Kerrera in the mouth of Oban Bay has struggled and its school closed in the late 1990s. According to census figures, it had a population of 42 in 2001.

Coll, a three hour ferry trip from Oban, has fared better. Its population grew from 131 in 1981 to 172 in 1991 before dipping to 164 in 2001.

Mr Gillies, who lives on Tiree, said islands faced a problem attracting new residents.

He said: "Today, people want to live close to good infrastructure and a high level of services.

"Islands offer a certain kind of lifestyle - you can't expect to have attractions such as the Burrell Collection on your doorstep."

He said the islands of North Ayrshire, Argyll and Bute and Highland with their smaller populations tended to struggle more than Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles which have a representative in the European Union.

The former local authority councillor said there has been a long standing call for islands to have their own dedicated minister.

Mr Gillies said: "Ireland have Eamon O Cuiv who is very influential and strong advocate for islands."

On the Islands Year of Culture, he said: "You always hope that these events leave a legacy and it may change people's views of the islands."

Fair Isle in the Shetlands has seen its population grow from 58 to 69, according to official statistics.

Crofter and the island's weatherman, Dave Wheeler, said it had a thriving community.

He said its primary school has nine pupils, while eight older children travel to mainland Shetland for secondary education.

The isle can be reached by plane, or by the ferry called the Good Shepherd.

Mr Wheeler said: "The Fair Isle has a thriving tourist industry, with many visitors coming to the island's bird observatory.

"I think the kernel of the thing is that the Fair Isle is outward looking and very welcoming to visitors."

However, he added: "The only slight concern is that the majority of the population are now in their 30s, or approaching their 40s.

"It is a fairly ageing population with young folk leaving for further education and not returning for a few years.

"But we rather like the young people going off to study or to do apprenticeships, giving them worldly experience before coming back."

On North Ronaldsay - the most remote of the Orkney islands - the number of islanders have fallen from 109 in 1981 to 70.

Lighthouse keeper Billy Muir said in its heyday there were 550 residents in 1832.

People made a living from crofting, fishing and making kelp, the product of burning seaweed washed up on shore.

The ash produced was rich in potash and soda, substances sought after by the glass and soap industries of the time.

Mr Muir said: "Ideally, the island should have 100 to 130 people."

He said 15 years ago a living could be made working 15 acres of croft and doing additional jobs.

But he went on: "The world has changed and nowadays that is just not viable.

"Crofts have been amalgamated to make them profitable and in turn people have left."

Mr Muir added: "North Ronaldsay is not unique. Most islands have the same problem."

Migrant workers

Minister for External Affairs Michael Russell said during the Scottish Cabinet's visit to the Western Isles last week many residents raised the issue of population decline.

He said: "The Scottish Government shares that concern and we are doing all we can - with the powers we have - to address this issue."

Mr Russell said the introduction of road equivalent tariffs (RET) on ferry routes to the Western Isles was having a positive effect in trying to reverse decline.

Launched October last year, the scheme bases the cost of travelling on the equivalent distance by road.

The minister added that the UK government's new points-based immigration system had seen migrant workers flood the south-east England, but was not flexible enough to benefit areas of Scotland that needed people.

He said: "We will continue to press UK ministers until they recognise that Scotland has distinct needs and that flexibilities in the immigration system are essential to address those needs."

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