Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Berneray population

As a previous statistician (my first degree and summer work), and being admittedly geeky, I'm obsessed about subjects such as the demographics and populations.

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".


  1. I remember a friend of my mums moving to Berneray from Yorkshire. This was years at least 10 years ago and the only identifying information I can remember about them was having a rabbit and a guinea pig called Tristram and Shandy.

  2. So the real reason you suggested I should move to Berneray was to win a bet! Shame on you!

  3. Katherine: A rabbit? Called Tristram? On Berneray? Hmmm, I'll ask around but suspect this is a rather late April Fools Day joke...Les: If you and family take the population to just over the threshold, I'll cut you 20% of my winnings.

  4. Daniel and Catherine Peters2 April 2008 at 23:26

    I agree that there are house hunters. As we are two of them! I must say, when you live and work on the mainland it is exceptionally difficult to hunt for houses on the islands. We viewed a number of properties, predominantly in Lewis, that turned out to be in major need of refurbishment or repair. But we really need to move into somewhere habitable quickly if we purchase. On three occasions, good houses have come onto the market, but by the time we have gotten to view so have many others. On one occasion, the house we were going to view was sold before we reached the islands!!! On several occasions, we have met other couples, sometimes repeatedly, trying to buy the same type of property as ourselves. This makes for awkward conversations, as no-one wants to let slip even informal information to a potential rival.It's costing us the proverbial arm and a leg to quickly fly over to the islands to view a property, and get a surveyor in. We may have to stop looking for a while, at least until the island property market cools. There has to be a better, cheaper, way for people such as ourselves to purchase the right kind of house??

  5. This is a really interesting posting. As regular visitors to the Islands over the past few years were are now well aware that in the long term it's where we want to be long term. We're consciously putting no time limit on the move - at some stage the time will just be right and we'll go for it. I hadn't realised that the school on Berneray had gone - outwardly it still appears to be a school building doesn't it. As for the fire station - you're reliant on the engine coming from Lochmaddy then I assume? That must take some time, not ideal in an emergency.Catherine - have you thought of looking to sell up where you are and move over in the Autumn, renting a place until you can buy? At least you'll be on the spot when property comes up, and the Autumn and winter months are good times to be able to rent holiday accomodation for knock-down rates. Might be worth considering?

  6. I'd like to move to the west coast of Scotland, or a Scottish Island. But the Scottish house purchase system, of "offers over", is abhorrent and immoral. Bid too little and you've wasted hundreds of pounds on solicitor and survey fees. Bid too much and you've paid over the odds and risk -ve equity.Is this system designed to dissuade English people like myself from buying a house in Scotland?

  7. Someone please spare a thought for the young folk here who would like to stay on the island of their birth, have to cope with making a living in this fragile, lurching economy, don't have a house down south [south meaning anywhere outside of the Western Isles e.g. Sussex, Newcastle, Munich, Toronto, Edinburgh, Perth, Aberdeen, Glasgow etc.] to sell, and can't get on the property ladder here (actually there is no ladder - they just want somewhere to live) because of this overheated market driven by you lot! You get no sympathy from me.

  8. Sarah: I wasn't looking for your sympathy, or anyone elses. Juat an answer to my question. Local people could just sell their land and property directly to local "young folk" if they wished, I assume, instead of putting property on the open market? It's therefore questionable about who is really driving the "overheated" market, and ultimately benefitting from it. No-one is forcing locals to sell. If you can somewhat hysterically call the prices, which are tiny compared to those in many of the cities you listed, "overheated".

  9. Morag, Stornoway4 April 2008 at 04:31

    The more "incomers" the better as far as I'm concerned. New people bring new energy, new perspectives and ideas, new markets and services, new businesses and jobs. One of them employs me. And children, as the Comhairle seem intent on closing or merging every school at every chance. There's plenty of building land, and thousands of houses in states of disrepair, if only there were more builders here.

  10. No more comments on this post. Anyone wanting to start an anti- vs pro- flame war about incomers can do it somewhere else and not bore me with it. For the record, the vast majority of the many hundreds of Outer Hebrides residents I've met (as an incomer) in the last decade are warm, friendly people.Some of the more reasonable or well-put issues mentioned in the comments, and the original post, will be discussed in forthcoming posts.More importantly than silly squabbles, the previous owners of Tristram and Shandy have been located. She (the previous owner) has been living on Berneray for 15 years now.End of.