Japan island depopulation: lessons for Scotland

This research report - commissioned from a team based at Scotland's Rural College - explores policy approaches to depopulation on Japan's islands, and proposes a series of recommendations to the Scottish Government which may help inform the development of future island depopulation.

3. Scotland's Islands – Overview and Policy Context

3.1 General overview of Scotland's islands

Scotland has over 790 offshore islands, with 93 of those inhabited. Most of Scotland's islands are found in four main island groups, each of which consists of a number of smaller and larger islands: Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides, divided into the Inner and Outer Hebrides, and there are also smaller island groupings, such as the Small Isles. A large proportion of the population can be found on a small number of islands, and there are many islands with very low population levels.

Many of Scotland's islands (and remoter rural areas) have a long history of out-migration and depopulation dating back to the clearances in the 18th and 19th centuries when the land was cleared of people to make way for sheep. This period in history is very much part of the national consciousness and popular culture in Scotland (McMorran and Glendinning 2022). For some islands, this depopulation trend has continued, whilst in other islands the depopulation is more recent. For others, the trend is one of an overall population increase, although this is most often the case in small localities within islands, or island groupings, rather than for island groupings as a whole.

Taken together, population estimates show that in 2020 there were 2,800 more people living on Scotland's islands than in 2001. The population of Scotland as a whole grew at a much faster rate than this over this period (7.9%), with some parts of the mainland experiencing particularly significant growth, including Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire in the North East, and the Highlands (SPICe 2022).

However, the differences between Scotland's islands are significant, with most population growth since 2001 taking place in the Orkney (which saw the largest population growth), Highland and Shetland Islands local authority areas. In contrast, Argyll and Bute and North Ayrshire saw significant reductions in their populations (Argyll and Bute in particular), with the population of Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles), the most populated islands-only local authority, remaining relatively stable between 2001 and 2020. It is important to also note that there are significant differences in population trends within islands and island groups. For example, even in Orkney which saw the largest population growth between 2001 and 2020, some communities experienced population decline. The same is true of the Shetland Isles, Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Argyll and Bute (SPICe 2022).

As is the case for Scotland as a whole, the population of Scotland's islands has also aged during the last 20 years. The proportion of people aged 65 and over on Scotland's islands rose from 18% in 2001 to 26% in 2020, whilst the proportion of the island population under the age of 25 fell from 28% to 24%. The islands have also seen a bigger decrease in the younger age populations than Scotland as a whole between 2001 and 2020, and so the majority of people living on Scotland's islands are now in the over-45 age group. In mainland Scotland, the under-45 age group is still in the majority (although this is only just the case). Despite the many benefits older people bring to the communities in which they live, population ageing can place pressure on public services and threaten the long-term sustainability of communities if there are few families living locally with young children. For example, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (the Western Isles Council area) could see a 20% decline in the working-age population and a similar level of decline in the proportion of children over the next 20 years. Scotland's islands and remote rural areas are not unique in experiencing depopulation, as this has been a trend experienced in many remote rural regions of Europe since the 1950s (ESPON 2019), in both northern and southern Europe. Research has demonstrated that depopulation resulting from the out-migration of young people may be a result of a number of different factors, including a movement out to access improved education and employment opportunities and land abandonment. As argued by Valdiva (2018), this rural exodus has resulted in parts of Europe facing the threat of 'demographic desertification', with rapidly ageing and dependent populations, limited employment opportunities and declining services.

Despite these (in many cases long-standing) challenges, there are also opportunities for some regions that have been experiencing depopulation to reverse this decline. These opportunities relate to a variety of factors, including improving the speed, reliability and adoption of digital technology and communications, the use of cultural, arts and heritage assets to build growth, specific initiatives to attract in-migrants, including international migrants, such as improving education and housing provision, and supporting innovation and smart specialisation based on local assets. The results of the National Islands Plan Survey undertaken in 2020 provide further detailed information on a range of economic, employment and social characteristics of Scotland's islands.

Recent work by the James Hutton Institute, as part of the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme 2016-22, explored population trends in Scotland’s Sparsely Populated Areas (SPAs). Accompanying this work, SRUC researchers have explored trends in Scotland’s SPAs compared to SPAs elsewhere in two recent pieces of work - international responses to depopulation and demographic change in remote rural areas and case studies of repopulation initiatives in island contexts.

It is important to note that not all rural and island communities in Scotland (or in Japan, or in other countries in Northern Europe) are experiencing depopulation. Recent work led by the James Hutton Institute, and reported on the Islands Revival website, notes that some island and remote rural locations are experiencing population growth, even if this is at the level of individual villages and communities. In many instances, this population turnaround has been achieved through locally driven, 'bottom-up' initiatives, often involving the community taking over the ownership and/or management of local assets including housing, land or renewable energy installations (the Isle of Eigg is often cited as an example of successfully reversing a prolonged period of population decline on the island). In some instances, population growth has been prompted by arts or music related initiatives or by improved digital connectivity. These positive population trends in Scotland and beyond are also explored in more detail in a recent CoDel-led Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme funded project exploring the impacts of Covid-19 on island and rural communities.

3.2 Population and Island Policy Context

The Scottish Government's first Population Strategy 'A Scotland for the Future: the Opportunities and Challenges of Scotland's Changing Population'was published in March 2021 by the Government's Ministerial Population Taskforce. The Strategy frames Scotland's demographic trends, their future implications and 36 cross-Government actions to be delivered across four thematic pillars: an attractive and welcoming country; a family friendly nation; a healthy living society; and a more balanced population. The vision set out in the Strategy forms the building blocks for a cross-cutting programme of work focused on demographic change and population sustainability across Scotland. One of the key trends framed in the Population Strategy is local depopulation.

As mentioned earlier in the report, the Population Strategy sets out an ambition to ensure there is a robust and up-to-date evidence base to inform future policy approaches to achieving a sustainable population. This evidence building is supported by the independent Expert Advisory Group for Migration and Population (EAG), which provides advice and analysis to the Scottish Government in relation to population and demography, as well as NRS.

Appraising the evolution of policies and strategies for rural Scotland since devolution, the Scottish Government has advocated a holistic and place-based approach to strengthening the resilience and sustainability of Scotland's rural communities.[2] Such an approach includes ensuring that local communities have a sustainable population, with a particular focus on retaining or attracting back young people by tackling housing, employment, poverty and infrastructure-related challenges in a holistic way. The diversity of rural Scotland has been recognised with the resultant need for locally tailored policy approaches to be taken which are shaped by local circumstances. This is in the wider context of a move towards reflecting the specific issues faced by rural Scotland in mainstream policy development in the areas of housing, transport, economic development, rather than having a dedicated rural policy or strategy.

Islands are key to Scotland's identity and central to external images and perceptions of the country, helping to drive its tourism sector. Those people living on islands tend to have a strong sense of community and there are very positive and innovative examples of vibrant 'bottom-up' community-led activities on many of Scotland's islands, including relating to the ownership and management of assets such as land. Islands also tend to have important cultural and heritage resources and high-quality natural environments.

However, living and working on Scotland's islands brings particular challenges due to their locations and remoteness; additionally, island residents have often felt detached from public policy in Scotland, which resulted in the passing of the historic place-based Islands (Scotland) Act in 2018 to improve island governance and policy.

The Islands (Scotland) Act 2018

The Island (Scotland) Act 2018 was designed to ensure that the challenges and opportunities facing Scotland's islands are high up the policy and political agenda, and was granted Royal Assent on 6th July 2018. According to the Act, 'island' in Scotland means a naturally formed area of land which is: "(a) surrounded on all sides by the sea (ignoring artificial structures such as bridges), and (b) above water at high tide." According to this definition there are 93 inhabited islands in Scotland.

The Act introduces a number of measures to underpin the Scottish Government's key objective of ensuring that there is a sustained focus across Government and the public sector to meet the needs of island communities, now and in the future. Most of the provisions of the Act came into force on 4th October 2018, including the development of a National Islands Plan, a Shetland mapping requirement, a duty to consult island communities, and the development of a scheme under which requests by local authorities for devolution of functions and additional powers may be made.

As part of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, the Scottish Government also committed to introduce Islands Community Impact Assessments. This is a duty to ensure that relevant authorities must have regard to island communities when carrying out their functions.

National Islands Plan 2019

The Scottish Government's first National Islands Plan was published in December 2019. The Plan sets out 13 Strategic Objectives critical to improving the quality of life for island communities over the next five years. Strategic Objective 1 relates to population: To address population decline and ensure a healthy, balanced population profile. During the consultation for the Plan, depopulation was the top priority issue identified by respondents as a real threat to the sustainability of many of Scotland's island communities.

Other Plan Objectives address a range of issues, including improving and promoting sustainable economic development, environmental wellbeing, health and wellbeing, and community empowerment; improving transport services and digital connectivity; reducing fuel poverty; and enhancing biosecurity.

The commitment to address population decline and ensure a healthy, balanced population is underpinned by a range of actions, including:

  • Developing an Action Plan to support repopulation of rural and island communities and working with partners to test approaches using small-scale pilots;
  • Identifying islands where population decline is becoming a critical issue in order to ensure that these islands have their needs addressed;
  • Work with young islanders to identify actions to encourage them to stay on or return to islands;
  • Ensure that policies aim to retain and attract Gaelic speakers to live and work in Gaelic speaking communities.

In Autumn 2020, a National Islands Plan Survey was sent to 20,000 residents across Scotland's (permanently inhabited) islands (Scottish Government 2021). The objective of the Survey was to improve understanding about living on Scotland's islands and to gather baseline data against which to measure the success of the Plan. Over 4,300 people responded to the survey from 59 islands (a response rate of 22%) and a range of issues were raised including a lack of support for young people to remain in, move or return to the islands; a lack of employment, training, higher education and appropriate childcare; a lack of affordable housing and a poor variety of housing types, sizes and tenure to meet peoples' needs; mixed experiences with accessing healthcare services; the speed and reliability of internet connections; and inadequate infrastructure provision to meet tourism demand. The Survey also highlighted the need to challenge some traditional assumptions about Scotland's islands. For example, in contrast to the common assumption that many people rely on more than one job in the islands, the survey found that this was only the case for one in five respondents. The survey also found that the majority of respondents planned to stay on their island for at least the next five years.

The data from the Survey confirmed the need for future recommendations or policies to recognise that life is considerably different in each island group and that different age groups have distinct experiences of island life. Therefore, tailoring to each island group and different age groups is appropriate.

In March 2022, the second annual report on the National Islands Plan was published and the four-year report on the Islands (Scotland) Act will be published later in 2022. During the 20212-22 session in the Scottish Parliament, the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee has been scrutinising the effectiveness of the Scottish Government's islands policies and the (draft) report of the Committee's debate on the National Islands Plan Annual report has been published online.

Other island related policy initiatives

A range of other related policies and initiatives are under development or have been introduced by the Scottish Government which link closely to the National Islands Plan and further focus on addressing issues facing island communities.

The Scottish Government is working with Youth Scotland to create the Young Islanders Network, building on the earlier Young Islanders Challenge. The aim is to build a network and community of young people who will play a meaningful part in making the National Islands Plan work for young people on Scotland's islands. It includes:

  • Young Islanders Champions to keep learning together and take part in activities.
  • Supporting young people to increase their understanding of the National Islands Plan so that they can offer genuine and meaningful contributions to its delivery.
  • Bringing young people together to implement change through community challenges and social action funding opportunities in their local areas.
  • Young Islanders Champions 'providing the youth voice' to implement changes in policies and outcomes, working with Youth Scotland and Scottish Government.
  • Improving the confidence, skills and knowledge of young people across the islands to support their mental health and wellbeing through training opportunities and youth awards.

Young people on Scotland's islands often say (see for example the findings of the National Islands Plan Survey) that they feel safe and enjoy a life that is rooted in their communities with access to the outdoors and beautiful scenery. However, challenges include a lack of things to do; the higher cost of living (including travel on/off/around the islands and in terms of housing); poor connectivity (online and in person) and fewer opportunities and specialism in terms of local education.

The Scottish Government has also launched a number of island-specific funding initiatives. For example, the community strand of the Islands Green Recovery Programme (managed by Inspiring Scotland) provided green funding for 21 initiatives including businesses, charities and community groups across island communities. The funding was for capital expenditure projects that contribute to green recovery, reduce carbon emissions as well as improve the resilience, health and wellbeing of island communities. Wider funding was also available for low carbon transport, food sustainability and zero waste projects.

The Island Communities Fund launched in July 2021 and 35 projects across 55 islands have been funded. The projects support employment and community resilience through activities that deliver green economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and a transition to net zero and to climate-resilient living on the islands. They are also linked to the National Islands Plan and to wider policy goals around inclusive growth and Community Wealth Building approaches. Finally, in line with its ambitious climate change targets, the Scottish Government will shortly announce six new Carbon Neutral Islands, which will help to deliver key commitments in the National Islands Plan, create jobs and protect island environments from climate change, and contribute to the Government's ambitious 2045 net zero commitment.

In summary, in recent years, the issues, challenges and opportunities facing Scotland's island communities have been brought into sharper focus through the passing of legislation in 2018 and the subsequent National Islands Plan, and related survey and review work. These island communities are incredibly diverse in terms of their geographical location and distance from the mainland, transport and digital connections, economic, employment and social circumstances, and their environmental characteristics. While some islands, and areas within islands have been experiencing population growth in recent years, this is not the case for all areas, with some experiencing long-term population decline and ageing, putting pressure on services and the local economy. Initiatives and funding have been provided to Scotland's islands to tackle some of these challenges and build on the opportunities, but there is scope to usefully learn lessons from approaches tried elsewhere, including Japan.


Email: population@gov.scot

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