Scotland's islands: proposed national plan

The proposed National Islands Plan provides a framework for action in order to meaningfully improve outcomes for island communities. It was replaced by the final National Islands Plan (published 27 December 2019).


One cannot think of Scotland without thinking of Scotland’s islands. Islands and island communities are an integral part of Scotland as a nation and they have helped define how many international audiences see Scotland. They are something that all people living in and from Scotland should be immensely proud of. Islanders enjoy a strong sense of community, freedom and safety that contribute positively to living on islands in Scotland. Add to that their important economic role, their spectacular natural environment and rich cultural heritage, and you can start to understand why people from all around the world visit and have a special affection for islands in Scotland.

Islands and island communities in Scotland are not only resilient, but also often innovative. Whether it is in the field of community-based solutions in estate management, energy or digital connectivity, health delivery, or in the arts, in culture or language, island communities in Scotland are often paving the way for ideas and solutions that can be then exported to the mainland.

Against this background, there are 96 inhabited islands in Scotland,[1] and many more that have been inhabited but now only have the remains of what were once thriving and busy communities.[2]

While islands in Scotland are great places to live, they have been, and in some cases remain, challenging because of a number of circumstances – not least their geographical location. Most islands in the past experienced a much stronger population. Towards the end of the
19th century, many people from the islands emigrated around the world in search of a better life, although many did not leave through choice. The clearances have also marked the islands and island communities with some scars still not completely healed. What history tells us is that islands and island communities have often felt on the periphery of public policy. Island communities have felt that decisions, which would end up affecting them, were taken by people not living on the island, who were completely detached from the reality of life away from the mainland.

The adoption of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 should be hailed as a historic piece of place-based legislation that carries the promise of improving island governance in Scotland.

The genesis of the Act is a reminder to the many people who have worked hard to reach this historic point. In June 2013, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (the Western Isles Council), Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council launched the Our Islands – Our Future Campaign,[3] with the aim of ensuring that the needs and status of island areas in Scotland were clearly recognised.

In June 2014, on conclusion of the Island Areas Ministerial Working Group’s work, the Scottish Government published the Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities prospectus.[4] This was based on three underpinning objectives:

1. Promoting the voice of island communities;

2. Harnessing island resources; and

3. Enhancing the wellbeing of island communities.

As a result, the UK Government adopted a Framework for the Islands[5] where it developed ‘island proofing’ as a principle, whereby policy and legislation must take into account islands’ circumstances, although this was not on a statutory footing. Following the Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities prospectus, the Scottish Government consulted on provisions for a future Islands Bill. A key focus of this consultation was the aspect of ‘island-proofing’, with a focus on its inclusion as a principle within any future Island Bills to formalise the approach in legislation. As a result, the Bill for the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 received Royal Assent on 6 July 2018. The first Commencement Regulations were laid on 20 September and came into force on 4 October 2018.

The Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 introduces a number of measures to underpin our key objective of ensuring that there is a sustained focus across government and public sector to meet the needs of island communities now and in the future. One of the first provisions introduced was a duty on Scottish Ministers to prepare a National Islands Plan (the Plan). This Plan should set out the main objectives and strategy of Scottish Ministers in relation to improving outcomes for island communities that result from, or are contributed to by, the carrying out of functions of a public nature .[6]

The Plan sets a direction of travel for the Scottish Government and provides a framework for action in order to meaningfully improve outcomes for island communities. Development of the Plan has been informed by the legislation itself, by what people told us was important to them, what partners told us, and also by wider Scottish Government policy and strategy. As required by the Act, it includes proposals in relation to:

  • increasing population levels;
  • improving and promoting sustainable economic development;
  • improving and promoting environmental wellbeing;
  • improving and promoting health and wellbeing;
  • improving and promoting community empowerment;
  • improving transport services;
  • improving digital connectivity;
  • reducing fuel poverty;
  • ensuring effective management of the Scottish Crown Estate; and
  • enhancing biosecurity.[7]

Reflecting feedback from the consultation that we carried out between April and July 2019, the Plan also includes other issues that are important to our island communities: housing, climate change, energy, education and our cultural heritage.

The Plan has a duration of five years with a requirement for annual reports on progress and a review at the end of the five-year period. In accordance with the Islands (Scotland) Act[8], we have started the development of appropriate quantitative and qualitative measures to allow us to evaluate our progress against the 13 Strategic Objectives and the short-, medium- and long-term aims provided for in the Plan. From spring 2020, the Plan will be accompanied by an Implementation Strategy that will detail the actions and set-out in full, these measures and indicators. The Plan and its indicators will build upon the National Performance Framework (NPF) outcomes and indicators and upon the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The Plan is not the only document that deals with island issues, but it is a means of focusing on islands and considering the opportunities and challenges in the round, drawing in relevant parts of Scottish Government, our partners and agencies and the wider public sector. The Plan also, where relevant, aligns with and provides a distinctive islands communities focus, to existing policies and strategies that affect the lives and wellbeing of islanders. Implementing a Fair, Integrated, Green and Inclusive National Islands Plan will require strong collaboration and partnership between Scottish Government, local authorities, island communities and all other stakeholders involved – including through community planning.

In order to develop the Plan, the Scottish Ministers undertook a wide consultation with island communities. However, this was not simply a way to meet a procedural requirement in the legislation,[9] but an essential means to properly develop the National Islands Plan in a way that truly responds “to the distinctive geographical, natural heritage and cultural characteristics (including the linguistic heritage) of each of the areas inhabited by island communities”.[10]

The consultation process was undertaken using a combined World Café and open space technology methodology format that enabled participants to engage in a wide discussion about what works well on their island and what needs to be improved.[11] The consultation saw more in-depth discussion on several aspects important for island participants at the events.[12] Below you will find how many times participants discussed specific areas in more depth:

how many times participants discussed specific areas

During the consultation, the Scottish Government’s Islands Team visited 41 islands and organised 61 events which allowed them to engage face-to-face with almost 1,000 people.
The live events were complemented by an online consultation where participants could provide their views electronically. Three-hundred and ninety-four online responses were received. In addition, young people were invited to attend specific events that allowed them to share their input to the development of the National Islands Plan.

Islands Visited
1 Arran 22 Mainland Orkney (Kirkwall and Stromness)
2 Barra 23 Mainland Shetland (Lerwick)
3 Benbecula 24 Muck
4 Brae 25 Mull
5 Bute 26 North Ronaldsay
6 Canna 27 North Uist
7 Coll 28 Raasay
8 Colonsay 29 Rum
9 Cumbrae 30 Sanday
10 Easdale 31 Seil
11 Eigg 32 Skye
12 Gigha 33 South Uist
13 Harris 34 Stronsay
14 Hoy 35 Tiree
15 Iona 36 Ulva
16 Islay 37 Unst
17 Jura 38 Vatersay
18 Kerrera 39 Westray
19 Lewis 40 Whalsay
20 Lismore 41 Yell
21 Luing

The Plan outlines how objectives and strategies to improve outcomes for island communities are underpinned by four key values: fairness, integration, environmental protection (green) and inclusiveness. With this approach at the forefront, the Plan then highlights 13 Strategic Objectives of the Scottish Ministers. The last two chapters refer to the implementation of the Plan and the role it should play in relation to Scotland’s global reputation.

Strategic Objectives

The creation of the Plan is taking place in the context of continuing uncertainties around Brexit and a growing body of evidence, which suggests that there could be potentially damaging impacts for our rural and island communities. Brexit casts a shadow of uncertainty on the application of the EU cohesion policy to Scotland. However, the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 and the Plan align themselves with the spirit that has driven the EU cohesion policy over the last decades.[13] Hence, the approach and policies to rural regions in Scotland and to island communities, as envisioned in the Plan, will not change dramatically. Understandably, our island communities are already anxious about what the future holds and whilst the Scottish Government will do what it can, the continuing uncertainties over funding streams may well have implications for what can be delivered in the future.



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