When I moved here near the end of 2004, the permanent resident population (PRP) of Berneray was 119 (including us). In the 1,242 days between then and today, there has been a net gain of 7, making a PRP of 126. This net gain comprises:
- 6 bereavements.
- 3 births.
- A few people moving away.
- Obviously more people moving to Berneray permanently.
One family moving on or off the island can make a big difference. When one particular family moved back to Berneray, that added 4 to the PRP. In other words, if that one family hadn't have moved back, then the net population gain in over 3 years would have been less than half of what it is (assuming the house remained empty in their absence). That's how much one household can alter the figures.
As to the future figures; this is an ongoing topic, probably since the first people inhabited Berneray several thousand years ago. Views are split. There is the largely negative collection of views:
- The number of local facilities has fallen, and the last three years has seen the closure of the last school, one of the two shops, and the fire station.
- Most of the children are in the age range 13 to 16, and only a small number are younger than 10. This doesn't bode well for a sustainable cohort of primary school children.
- The average age of a Berneray resident is 56; most are therefore elderly.
- Television, globalisation, the Internet, [insert phenomena of modern life here] and/or the causeway have adversely affected Berneray.
- There are only a small number of women resident on the island of child-bearing age.
- Through lack of numbers, the potential partners in the area for young men are limited. Late teen and twenty-something men are tempted to move to mainland cities such as Glasgow to get some, erm, "action" (as one of them put it).
- Most of the people moving here are older.
- The overall population of the Outer Hebrides is perceived as relentlessly spiralling downwards (I'll come back to this intensely annoying point in another posting).
- Career prospects for girls/women are not good, being mostly in the lower-paid areas of the seasonal tourist industry. So they won't stay, and don't move, here.
- Outer Hebrides islands are full of houses not lived in, as they are second homes, holiday homes, self-catering units, or have been left to deteriorate.
...and there's the largely positive collection of views:
- The amount of local facilities has only fallen if you take a very selective, slanted, view. Taking the last few decades, the fishing harbour, causeway to the Uists, improved ferry service and the partial implementation of broadband have made it "easier" to live and work here. Some services, such as the Post Office, continue while in other more "fragile" communities they close.
- The fishing industry continues, as more Berneray people move into it. The harbour is increasingly busy every summer with this industry as well as tourists and other boatie people.
- That demographic of Berneray children in the age range 13 to 16 will be having families et al within the next decade.
- In the rare occasions when property comes onto the open market, even property not in walk-in condition, it is usually snapped up quickly.
- Berneray holds it's own. As the census figures show, the PRP of the island hasn't changed significantly in nearly 40 years. 1971:131. 1981:134. 1991:140. 2001:136.
- In fact, there is an upwards pressure on the population, by the number of people who would like to move to Berneray and live here but cannot due to a lack of property.
- Unemployment or lack of work are practically zero here; the fishing industry stays sustained, and there's more than enough opportunities for school-leavers.
- The core set of Berneray traditions - the Christmas meal, Calluinn and Berneray week - continue.
- An increasing number of tourists year-on-year will result in an increasing number who want to move here.
As ever, there are more complex factors behind many of these issues. For example, one of the residents had an interesting letter in the Gazette a few years ago about Berneray school closing, pointing out that it wasn't a classic case of being "closed against the wishes of parents". Indeed, in Scotland, there are schools remaining open with even smaller roles.
Overall, I'm in the "largely positive" camp . I have a bet with another resident (who is in the "largely negative" camp) that the PRP of Berneray will be 140+ in three years time, by Easter 2011. Why positive? Because:
- The positive reasons above outweigh the negative ones.
- The "flight from the mainland cities" appears to be gathering pace. And when you read stuff like this ("In one particular area of Manchester - Mosside - the life expectancy of youngsters is below the age of 30."), who can blame any parent for wanting to a completely different environment?
- Several properties have recently been sold. The school is being converted into flats. More property transactions will take place this year. One house is being built from scratch, several more refurbished, and more houses (plural) will be built on Berneray over the next few years.
- Economically, it can be cheaper to live here than on the mainland, especially if you have a mortgage. Though fuel is more expensive, and delivery charges are a constant thorn, overall costs pale compared to mainland costs. As an example, one of my ex-work colleagues and his partner have a one bedroom flat in London (no sea views, no beaches), for which they pay over £1,300 a month in mortgage alone. Plus exhorbitant travel costs (a single ticket on the Underground is four quid, for which price I could travel most of the length of the Uists).
- The majority of the male schoolkids and those who've recently left school are heading for boat-related careers that they can pursue while remaining residents of Berneray.
- I've got a gradually increasing list of e-mail addresses of househunters interested in knowing when a Berneray house comes on the market. Though house sale prices in the Outer Hebrides continue to rise, at a guess most of those on the list will be selling for more than they're buying.
It's not all utopia and guaranteed population increases. There's counter arguments against population increases (e.g. effects on the Earths resources, "quality" is better than "quantity"), and also socio-economic issues that hinder population rises. More on these another time, but in the next posting I'll cover the annoying myth of the Outer Hebrides population "crash".