Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Berneray in 2008: keeping the Post Office

A review of the year on Berneray. Thanks to eight other Berneray residents who have, through several evenings of blathering and alcohol, helped with this.

For Berneray, 2008 has finished in pretty much the same way that it started, demographically, with 125 residents. The number of births, deaths, and people moving away from/to Berneray has been surprisingly small in the last year. The average age of residents, as best as can be estimated, is around 58 (give or take 1.5 years either side to be sure); however, the age profile of the island is very uneven, with clumps of residents around the 45 to 55, and 75 to 85 age points.

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.

Will the population of Berneray change much over the next few years?

At least three houses will be renovated next year, and a new build completed. That should help increase the figures in some way, in addition to other developments which will occur. The Berneray school building, currently being turned into three flats and a three bedroom house by Hebridean Housing Partnership, will also affect the demographics. Like many other residents, I'm hoping that the general talk of sustainable communities e.g. enabling younger people to get their own place, privacy and independence, will be borne out by the first residents of the refurbished building. Otherwise, Archie our councillor who also sits on the board of HHP will have to contend with some unhappy residents :-)

School building

On the negative side, deaths and people moving away will pull the population figure down. What happens to these houses will, of course, affect the demographics. It is also possible, especially in the 2009 year of "homecoming", that overseas visitors may purchase property. Certainly, with the weakness of the pound against both the US dollar and the Euro, property in the Outer Hebrides is very attractively priced for Americans and Europeans alike.

There are many other factors and variables, but overall I feel it is much more likely that there will be an overall rise in the resident population than a fall between now and the end of 2010. In two years time, I would be surprised if the population was not somewhere in the 130’s. There are still many people who wish to move to Berneray, and places like Berneray; a constant flow of them contact me through my blog and the Berneray website with an extremely varied range of questions. If suitable property is available (and that’s the number one problem), then new residents will come.

What else happened on Berneray in 2008? Almost unnoticed, the fishing industry declined further. Just 3 or 4 residents now earn most or all of their income from fishing. Several of us worked out the figures last night; here is a ranking, by the number of residents in each 'trade' (not all trades lists), of how Berneray residents earn most or all of their income:

1. Teleworking (working from home online).

2=. Ferry crew.

2=. Education.

4. Crofting.

5. Fishing.

I thought teleworking being the “largest” industry would happen eventually, but am surprised it’s happened this quickly. (“Largest” is in quotes as we are still talking about a single digit number of people for each of those trades). That will probably surprise other people, especially as fishing and crofting are high visibility industries and working from home is practically invisible, but the math bears out. More of a surprise is how quickly the fishing industry has declined, which is really sad; the harbour, especially in summer, is now more of a pleasure boat arena.

Teleworking is crucial to Berneray and other islands for several reasons; one of which being the demographics. Remove the teleworkers and their families from the spreadsheet of Berneray data and (a) the average age of a Berneray resident becomes 61.5, while (b) several children are lost. Generally, teleworking is something done more by people of family age, so it's pretty obvious what needs to be focused on to make the Outer Hebrides an attractive (sustainable, realistic income) place to live for many families.

Speaking of teleworking, more people on Berneray had broadband installed. By the end of the year the majority of residents had broadband access at home (which is excellent and progressive), though some residents are still awaiting this upgrade. Out of the 125 residents, 64 have home-based broadband, with another 22 remaining on dialup. Even though you can now buy a good PC or laptop for less than the cost of a ton of coal for the fire, few of the remaining 39 will get Internet access, so the island will have an internet take-up rate of around 70%.

Anything else? The shop and tearoom came under new ownership from people new to the island. The prospect of the Sound of Harris fixed link receded. Sue continued to diligently build an impressive database of Berneray ancestral data. It became possible to visit a Tesco (in Stornoway) without leaving the Outer Hebrides, and quite a few residents did so. Tourism was statistically and visually quieter on Berneray, as it was across the Uists and the Outer Hebrides. The weather was generally good, apart from some nasty autumn storms. Several residents watched Obama’s acceptance speech on TV or online; one resident was there (smug).

The normal cycle of events: first footing, Calluinn night, sheep being moved off the island, Berneray Week, annual ferry refit, sheep being moved onto the island, the Christmas meal, the market in Lochmaddy, continued. More people got into growing their own, and making their own foods. No new groups were formed, though most of the existing groups had changes of officers. In a partnership between Andy and Berneray Community Council, the island finished the year with an excellent Christmas tree, sleigh and Santa.

And, of course, everyone got a little greyer and/or older.

The most significant Berneray event for me personally (and it is loosely connected with the population figures) is something which didn't happen. And that is – Berneray did not lose the Post Office.

I heart Berneray Post Office.

Berneray Post Office: picture by Flickr user radarsmum67

List all the services, facilities and amenities on the island (there’s actually quite a few) and focus on each one. What would it be like if it was gone. With most of them, I wouldn’t be bothered if they were lost (apart from the excellent Grenitote Bus Service), but the thought of losing the post office panics me.

Lose the post office and it’s a ridiculous 20 mile round trip to buy stamps, or send a parcel, or post things overseas or that are not a regular size. And on buses, that’s a large chunk of the day gone.

And it’s not just stamps and parcels, as Berneray post office offers a very wide range of services; in fact, everything except drivers licences. You can even withdraw cash from your Bank of Scotland bank account free of charge. Do not be deceived by the small size of the post office; it’s very well equipped and is pretty much the hub of the island. Minutes of meetings are kept in a box by the window. Mary the Post Mistress is one of the friendliest and most helpful people you will ever meet. It’s open 9:30 till 1 on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

So it was with huge relief that Berneray Post Office avoided the last round of cuts. Especially looking at remote communities on the mainland. In my home county of Worcestershire, many rural post offices have been axed, some in villages much larger – and with much worse public transport – than Berneray.

Even if you are not visiting Berneray but are passing through e.g. to get the ferry to Harris, then the Post Office is useful. Waiting at Berneray ferry terminal? The Post Office is just over a mile, about 20-25 minutes walk, along a pleasant coast road. There aren’t many other places in Britain where, as you walk to the Post Office to buy stamps, you have a chance of seeing seals, otters and porpoise (all seen recently here). In fact, more often than not you’ll see seals from outside the post office.

I use Berneray Post Office generally in bouts of ebay sales, for stamps, for sending stuff overseas, and for paying some bills. If I got more organised, I’d use it more and that’s one of my resolutions for 2009. Some things are more important than others in a place like Berneray and, for me, keeping the local, friendly, useful and efficient Post Office is one of them.

Wishing all blog readers a healthy and prosperous 2009; John.

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