National Islands Plan Survey: final report

This report presents the findings from the National Islands Plan Survey. The research explores perceptions of island life in relation to the strategic objectives set out in the National Islands Plan.

Executive Summary

The Scottish Government developed the National Islands Plan following the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. The National Islands Plan aims to improve life in Scotland's islands. This plan sets out 12 objectives for improving outcomes for island communities across Scotland. The National Islands Plan Survey gathered data relating to these objectives, with a view to:

  • improving the availability of data held about Scotland's islands
  • measuring aspects of the National Islands Plan consistently within and across Scotland's island communities
  • providing baseline data against which to measure the effectiveness of the Plan

The National Islands Plan Survey gathers the views of island residents to improve the islands' evidence base and help measure progress towards the Plan's strategic objectives.


In October 2020, 20,000 surveys were posted to adult residents of 76 permanently inhabited islands, with options to complete it on paper, online or by phone, and in English or Gaelic. A total of 4,347 people responded to the survey from 59 islands, giving a response rate of 22%.

General observations

Survey findings highlight that experiences of island life vary considerably by island group. Differences are particularly striking between residents of Orkney Mainland and Outer Isles, and Shetland Mainland and Outer Isles, with "mainland" islanders generally more positive about a range of measures. These differences may be attributable to proximity to a small town (associated with access to services and more diverse economies) and direct access to mainland Scotland from the "mainland" islands, unlike in the outer islands.

The findings show that different age groups, too, have distinct experiences of island life, and a young person's views can contrast with those of an older person living in the same island group. This is especially true of perceptions of opportunities for population growth and economic development, about which younger respondents are more positive.

A number of the survey findings appear to contradict assumptions that are sometimes made about Scotland's island residents. Just one in five island respondents works in more than one paid job or business, Scottish Gaelic and Orkney and Shetland dialects are spoken more widely among young respondents than older respondents, and the majority of respondents plan to stay on their island for at least the next five years.

More detailed findings on each of the main topics are below.


Most islanders say they plan to stay on the island for the next five years but report that it is not easy for young people to live and work in their local area, with some variation between island groups. Perceptions are more positive in Orkney and Shetland Mainlands and substantially more negative in Skye and the Small Isles, and Arran, Bute and the Cumbraes. Younger islanders tend to be more positive than older islanders, although the majority of all age groups perceive that it is not easy.

Access to crofting is generally felt to be difficult, with low availability of croft tenancies and dissatisfaction with the support available for crofters.

Sustainable economic development

Perceptions of the availability of jobs in fishing, agriculture, forestry, tourism and renewables, as well as support to find and keep jobs, varied greatly between the island groups. There were large differences reported between Orkney Mainland, Shetland Mainland and their Outer Isles counterparts, with Outer Isles residents generally feeling less positive. Tourism is the sector that islanders feel most positive about.

Younger island residents are more positive than older island residents about the availability of job opportunities across all sectors.


There was large variation between island groups with respect to the accessibility of island transport, with patterns of use dictated by island location and infrastructure. For example, residents of Shetland and Orkney Outer Isles make greatest use of inter-island ferries, while residents of Mainland Shetland and Mainland Orkney make most use of flights to and from mainland Scotland. Compared to other measures, residents express least satisfaction with fares for both residents and visitors.

Access to buses was reported much more favourably in Orkney Mainland, Shetland Mainland and Lewis and Harris than in Orkney Outer Isles, Shetland Outer Isles and Uist and Barra.

Different patterns of transport use are notable between different age groups, with older people making greater use of local buses and mainland ferries, younger people flying to and from the mainland more often, and middle-aged residents (aged 36 to 50) making more use of inter-island ferries. Older people were more likely to express dissatisfaction with roads, paths and pavements.


There is strong evidence of dissatisfaction with housing among respondents, with perceived poor availability of housing – and affordable housing – in many islands. In contrast, the majority of island groups reported high proportions of holiday and second homes.

Fuel poverty

The majority of island residents reported that their heating bills had increased in the past year. While most said that they could afford to keep their home warm, a significant minority could not and some had to choose between food and heating.

Digital connectivity

The majority of respondents could access the internet from home. However, speed and reliability of internet connections are an issue for many, particularly in Orkney and Shetland Outer Isles. Mobile signals vary, with particularly poor reports from Orkney Outer Isles.

Islanders are generally confident in using the internet for most tasks, but slightly less confident in using the internet to attend online health and social care appointments.

Health, social care and wellbeing

There are striking differences in reported levels of access to health, social care and wellbeing services between the island groups. Almost all residents of Orkney Mainland and Shetland Mainland report that they can easily access a hospital, a dentist and a pharmacy. However, substantially fewer residents of Orkney Outer Isles and Shetland Outer Isles report this. Argyll Islanders report notably lower satisfaction with local sports facilities than other island groups.

Perceived access to mental health services is low, with a large degree of uncertainty about what services are available.

Environmental wellbeing and climate change

Islanders rate their local environment very highly, and high proportions engage in pro-environmental behaviours, notably buying food locally and generating their own renewable energy, which is particularly common in the Orkney Outer Isles. Lower proportions of residents report that the local environment is clean and litter-free, however, and the ability to dispose of bulky household waste is a particular issue in the outer islands of Orkney and Shetland.


Islanders, particularly young islanders, have a greater sense of empowerment within their own communities than they do at regional or national level. Island residents generally have a strong sense of belonging to their local area, but sense of community is stronger in some areas than others.

Arts, culture and language

Experiences of culture and language vary considerably across island groups, age groups and genders, with different patterns of cultural participation and perceptions of the extent to which island culture is supported. Of note, residents of Orkney Mainland and Shetland Mainland are most likely to feel that there is investment in cultural and historic places, and that islanders' creative talents are supported and nurtured.

Those who speak Gaelic have mixed views on how much they are able to use the language in their community, with residents of Lewis and Harris most likely to report that they can use Gaelic in a range of situations. Younger people are more likely to speak and understand Gaelic than older people.


Perceptions of the quality of education available locally are very positive with regard to primary education but decrease notably in some islands in relation to secondary education, likely due to limited subject availability. Agreement rates with respect to college and university education and professional qualifications are successively lower, with more positive perceptions among those living in island groups where there are small towns.



Back to top