Saturday, 5 April 2008

The myth of the Outer Hebrides population "crash"

"The Outer Hebrides population is crashing. People are leaving in boat loads for the mainland. Schools are rapidly closing. We'll soon be like St Kilda." 

"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:

  1. The Comhairle's own website has data that show a levelling out of the population and gradual rise; for example:

  2. 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.

  3. 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):

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  5. 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. 

  6. 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.


  1. Cheers. Like others, we are "house hunting" too. With two children (2,3), grandparents are being dumped on with short notice childminding while we look! Tony job means we can't decamp until we find somewhere.Our concern is the school issue, which is very worrying. We would like to move before Ashley starts primary, so a change of school doesn't disrupt him. Education stats in the Hebrides are high, and the schools seem safe. Also, the nearest two primary schools here in Edinburgh are not the best start in education.News reports mention schools closing or merging in the Hebrides. Does this mean that Stornoway is the only place where we can be assured that there is a choice, with no threat of school closure?

  2. Anna: there's no guarantees anywhere, though Stornoway has the largest population so is more secure than most. Will cover this in a later posting, but the future of the school system here is a very complicated mess for quite a varied bucket of reasons.On the plus side, parents here consistently say that the schools are very good. Certainly down this way the kids seem bright, smart and happy, and not battle-scarred.

  3. Something we have commented on is how nicely brought up the kids in the Hebrides seem in comparison with elsewhere. They smile and say hello when you pass, they don't seem to have the skulking shiftiness of many elsewhere. I'm unsure whether this is to do with bad behaviour being more noticeable (and thus harder to get away with) when there are less people about, or simply that standards of behaviour are still higher there than elsewhere?

  4. Dad of two in the nicolson Stornoway. Kids getting good grades. Canteen needs sorting. Apart from that theyr happy woth the place.

  5. This is a good place to start.

  6. Come to the Western Isles people. Its not as bad as made out, and people here are friendly and mostly honest. We do have our faults but we are less faultless than some. It is a really beautiful place and it will grow on you. The future is bright here, believe me.Building a home here is not a problem, finding a space is all you need.Welcome to the islands that will soon be open to all.

  7. That was a well made case. Though I feel you are more optimistic than realistic :-) The crash will come, and it will be soon, and it will be hard.

  8. I don't see there being one big housing crash, but rather a series of smaller corrections which nevertheless could affect those who borrowed heavily for new builds.As for the behaviour of the children here I'd say they aren't much different to those on the mainland. They can be rude, loud and intimidating when in groups but more polite and friendly when talked to by themselves. I try to avoid Stornoway at lunchtime during term-time because of the college students flooding into town looking to buy junk food, and not caring who gets in their way or respecting the queues.And come Friday and Saturday night it seems there are too many young adults in town getting drunk, getting into minor fights and generally being disruptive.

  9. Your analysis is spot on - I worked for the Council and it is openly admitted (and celebrated) that population is growing (albeit slowly).But (and there is always a but). The make-up of the population is changing in type. Many UK migrants (with or without a local connection) are retiring here. That presents difficulties for Social Services, who need to fund and provide services for longer-living, increasingly frail people; and it presents problems for communities, which need younger people to sustain schools and youth services.The 'new EU' migrants are mostly younger, and more likely to bring or beget families - but the have no local ties and may have different value and aspirations to those held by indigenous people. They may also be more transient, which makes it hard to plan forhousing, services and schools for them. Hopefully intermarriage with local kids will keep some of the here.

  10. Donald ness lewis7 April 2008 at 02:34

    helen is right. it is good that people relocate here. without them the townships would be smaller and the post office would have ripped out more offices, what do the post office care about the islands, obviously nothing. but if there is not enough intermarriage or intergration as helen says then as indigenous people die the cutlure dies with them. so then the hebrides is then what? a windy version of dorset by the sea. not the hebrides.

  11. Saw your blog reviewed on Scottish Roundup. Nice blog.

  12. I look forward to the next posting. One of the "lurking" problems I hope you discuss is the transient nature of migrant workers from the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. See Helens post. Did you see the recent television programme showing many returning to Poland because wages have risen there? The population here is 26 thousand. But it takes just a few coaches of migrant workers to leave and that is a noticeable fall in the population. "Stable" though the current level is, relatively little things like two coaches leaving has a large effect which greatly affect housing, local shops and services. And employers trying to find employees. We're a small pond. The tiniest stone thrown in makes big ripples.

  13. Your point concerning attendance at funerals highlights the enduring social bonds within Hebridean communities, contrasted with the systemic collapse of society and the family unit elsewhere. You may be interested in this article: we discuss this further?

  14. Berneray in 2008: keeping the Post Office « Silversprite31 December 2008 at 21:13

    [...] The population has stayed remarkably stable over the last four years, being within the band of 121 to 131 between 2005 and 2008. That pretty much mirrors the Outer Hebrides, where very recent years have shown a levelling-out, and a slight rise, in the overall population. The statistics show that the myth of an ever-plummeting population figure is just that: a myth. [...]