"is". Current tense. Means "now". Not "in the future".
Frequently heard and read stuff. But is it accurate?
Since moving here, I've had elected politicians from both Labour and the SNP in my kitchen (SNP politicians prefer chocolate, Labour politicians cake btw), who have both said (or admitted) that the Outer Hebrides population is rising. As there's more chance of hell freezing over than getting those two to agree on something - anything :-) - there's possibly something in that. Labour themselves used upturn in population in recent election materials.
Where is the evidence for this crash? I can't see it, but there's plenty of evidence that the population has stabilised and may even be increasing:
- The Comhairle's own website has data that show a levelling out of the population and gradual rise; for example:
- The prices that houses are getting on the open market are constantly going up, due to the supply/demand balance. And compare the wildly different prices for plots of land for building houses on them a decade ago, to now, especially in areas such as the west coast of Harris. Tied in with that, compare pictures of some parts of the Outer Hebrides from just a decade ago with now and you'll see a lot of new houses.
- Flick through the local planning application system and note the frequent applications going in to build new houses, or redevelop old ones. From the Comhairle's socio-economic updates (a good read for residents, and would-be residents doing their research, alike):
- At the micro level, there's numerous evidence, both factual and anecdotal, of an upwards pressure. I mentioned recently about the number of people wanting to move here. In addition, the recent "North Uist baby boom" means that the newly opened CK centre on the west side of North Uist, amongst other places, is going to be doing an increasingly busy trade in providing education and other services for younger kids and the under 5's.
- More hard statistics. The General Register Office of Scotland show that the population of the Outer Hebrides declined in the five years between mid-2001 and mid-2006 by ... 100.
Immigration is exceeding emigration. And that's why there's a balance; the number of deaths is significantly exceeding the number of births, as it's done for many decades. However, the number of incomers, erm, incoming(!), even taking into account the number of residents leaving, is plugging the gap.
So, why do many people insist that the Outer Hebrides population is in, and has been, rapid decline?
- Because it used to be true, until recent years. The "constantly falling population" was a fact of life until recently. If you trawl through the archives of the Stornoway Gazette in the library, you'll see the population crisis discussed in letters pages frequently over previous decades.
- Some people hear it so often from other residents and the local media and take it as fact.
- Some people mean native population i.e. people born here, when they say population.
- Drive around out of the big city (Stornoway) and mile after mile of derelict and un-lived in housing gives the impression of a population always dying or leaving, and not being replaced.
- The "Everything is broken" syndrome inherent from watching e.g. ITN News regularly. Something for another post, but increasingly the relentlessly bad / negative / crash / fall / doom torrent of news pushed out by much mainstream UK media correlates to why many people take to the ran dan, happy pills, et al. As David Mamet puts it, the "Everything is always wrong" world view. It's part of the British disease that everyone likes a good moan. Optimistics in the UK are increasingly seen as eccentrics, realists increasingly the same. But, that's something for another post.
- Selective statistics. The phrase:
"Islands such as ... Berneray have seen a particularly marked decline in population in the last 50 years."
...from the Comhairle's website is technically correct. However, pretty much all of that decline happened in the first ten years of those fifty, and there hasn't been a decline in the most recent fourty. But the headine "particularly marked decline in population" phrase is the one that people will remember.
- A predominantly elderly population, with a remarkably - possibly for the UK uniquely - inter-connected social and family network, results in a large number of very well attende, visible, funerals. The community stops. When I lived in Nottingham a decade ago, I attended the funeral of my neighbour, being 1 of 7 people there (and that included the vicar, who read out a template impersonal service probably due to the lack of personal information). Most of her relatives didn't show, for whatever reason. Here, on islands with only a tiny, tiny fraction of the population of Nottingham, the smallest funeral service I've attended had over 80 people. The passing away of a generation is both a personal, but at the same time very visible and connected aspect of island life; whereas back in Nottingham, my other next door neighbour only knew of the death two doors along when the "for sale" sign went up outside the now-empty house. Here, many residents attend funerals of people in their greatly extended social and family networks frequently, and it's an inescapable reminder of a declining demographic.
- A fundamentally mistaken perception that the falling rolls of some schools is directly correlated to an overall currently falling population. These are not the same thing.
- Big grant or development money. "Population is falling, we'll soon be like St Kilda, we need to fund project X to revitalise, keep people here, attract more people." It's a powerful emotional reason to lay on funders; fund our project and you save a community - don't fund it and, as you are - were - the last hope, the community dies.
In a nutshell - there isn't a population crash now, and there hasn't been one in recent years. The crash is a myth.
Lurking in the data are demographic changes and other population shifts which will have a great influence on the Outer Hebrides. Plus other external factors, many highly unpredictable, all of which makes any kind of prediction of population trends both messy and very risky. That's something for another post.