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).

Population Levels

Depopulation 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 are each projected to lose 2.2% of their population by 2041 and Eileanan Siar 14%.[20]

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 child-bearing age group seem likely to lead to a spiral of decline, unless counterbalanced 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).”

We recognise the valuable contribution that older people make 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 of our island communities are projected to see significant decreases in the numbers of children and working-age people. Eileanan Siar, for example, is projected to see a 20% 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% in the last seven years from 34 to 68, including 19 children: 25% 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. Respondents from some Scottish Islands, such as North Ronaldsay, said that 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 limited population. Although most of those who contributed to the consultation highlighted current population trends – both depopulation and an aging demographic, as being a key challenge to ensuring the sustainability of island life, some islands feel 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, and is developed 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 six outcomes, including increasing the population of rural areas of Scotland.

Strategic Objective 1

To address population decline and ensure a healthy, balanced population profile

In order to help address population decline and to ensure a healthy, balanced population profile, the Scottish Government will:

  • Identify islands where depopulation 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; and
  • 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.



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