The National Plan for Scotland's Islands

The National Islands Plan provides a framework for action in order to meaningfully improve outcomes for island communities. This replaces the proposed plan published in October 2019.

Population Levels

Population decline is a real threat to the sustainability of many, although not all, of Scotland’s island communities. Over the last 10 years, almost twice as many islands have lost populations as have gained. Future population projections suggest that islands are at further risk of depopulation with Orkney and Shetland both projected to lose 2.2 per cent of their population by 2041 and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar 14 per cent.[17]

A trend towards urbanisation is being experienced globally. Tackling the drivers of this is complex, but provides an opportunity to consider innovative approaches. Depopulation has an adverse effect on community confidence and service sustainability, increasing the vulnerability of communities already experiencing higher costs of service provision and market access. The key demographic issue for sparsely populated areas is not an excess of older people, but the relatively small number of children and young people, which in the years to come will translate into a shrinking working-age population. This will have serious implications for the workforce, the economy, and the capacity for demographic regeneration. The relatively small cohorts in the childbearing age group seem likely to lead to a spiral of decline, unless counter-balanced by substantial net in-migration.

"Having lived away for a few years and maybe wanting to come back with my boyfriend later on, we would have to realistically consider what it would do to our careers to have no opportunity for growth in a job – or to maybe not even get a job in that field."
(Consultation participant, Lewis).

Older people make a valuable contribution to our island communities and the wider island economy, whether that be through caring roles, volunteering or simply by continuing to work. However, depopulation, and more particularly, altering the currently aging demographic on many of Scotland’s Islands, is evidently intertwined with ensuring sustainable economic development. Island communities need to attract and retain families. Many are projected to see significant decreases in the numbers of children and working-age people. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, for example, could see a 20 per cent decline in the working-age population and a similar level of decline in the proportion of children between 2016 and 2041.

The Isle of Kerrera has seen positive improvements in its demographics. The population has grown by 100 per cent in the last seven years from 34 to 68, including 19 children. 25 per cent of the population is under 16, with an increase in the number of multi-generational families living on the island. The feeling of vitality is being supported by the recent purchase of the old school (funded by the Scottish Land Fund) which is to be turned into a multi-purpose community centre.

National Records of Scotland report on analysing the data from the 2011 census:

  • There were 93 inhabited islands in Scotland at the time of the 2011 Census. Their total population was 103,700, which was 2 per cent of the population of Scotland.
  • In 2011, half (50 per cent) of all island residents aged 16 and over were married. While this was slightly lower than the 2001 figure of 52 per cent, it was higher than the 45 per cent reported for Scotland as a whole.
  • In 2011, 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 proportion of island residents aged 16 to 74 who were in employment increased from 63 per cent in 2001 to 67 per cent in 2011.

Depopulation was the top priority issue identified by respondents to the consultation. Those from some islands, such as North Ronaldsay, told us they had suffered such extensive population decline that the survival of the island community is at risk. This issue is also challenging in terms of employment levels and workforce availability on islands with a limited population size. 

Although most of those who contributed to the consultation highlighted current population trends – both population decline and an aging demographic – as being a key challenge to ensuring the sustainability of island life, some islands told us that they are at capacity in terms of population as they do not (for example) have enough available housing.

Ensuring that legislation and policy affords a supportive environment to encourage economically active people either to stay, return or move to an island – with input from local communities is of the utmost importance. The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 requires the National Planning Framework to include a statement on how the long-term development strategy will contribute to a number of outcomes, including increasing the population of rural areas of Scotland.

SG Strategy - Our new Young Islanders Network will involve young people from all Scottish islands to ensure their interests and priorities are reflected in the delivery of this Plan. A particular focus of the Network will be how best to address population decline. As a priority, we will co-develop ideas and actions to support and encourage young people to remain on, move to or return to the islands. 

Crofting: Scottish Government values crofting and recognises the value-added contribution that crofting makes to the rural economy and the sustainability of island communities. We will ensure that crofting continues to support the population in island areas, provide a secure base for the development of small and diverse businesses; and maintain and support a range of unique habitats, biodiversity and iconic landscapes, through low impact high nature value practices. 

Strategic Objective 1

To address population decline and ensure a healthy, balanced population profile we will:

  • Identify islands where population decline is becoming a critical issue in order to ensure that these islands have their needs addressed.
  • Understand the impact of Brexit on islands and island communities.
  • Develop an action plan to support repopulation of our rural and island communities and work with partners to test approaches using small-scale pilots.
  • Work with young islanders to identify actions to encourage them to stay on or return to islands.
  • Fully consider policy developments, such as the findings of Scottish Government research “rural planning to 2050” when ensuring that the needs of Scotland’s islands are taken into account by the Ministerial Task Force on Population.
  • Ensure that policies aim to retain and attract Gaelic speakers to live and work in Gaelic speaking island communities. 
  • Work with policy colleagues to produce a National Development Plan for crofting which will set the long term strategic direction for crofting – highlighting the core elements necessary to ensure crofting remains at the heart of our rural and remote communities. 
  • Work with the Crofting Commission to encourage a healthy turnover of croft tenancies on our islands to create opportunities for new people into crofting. 
  • Continue to provide support for island crofters to make improvements to their crofts and help to sustain their businesses, these will include: Croft House Grant Scheme, Cattle Improvement Scheme and other crofting support mechanisms.



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