New research suggests changing times in Island population

The new research suggests an upturn in births and more families with young children settling in the local area.
The new research suggests an upturn in births and more families with young children settling in the local area.

For many years it has been reported that the Western Isles are losing their population to the mainland, whilst the age of those remaining is ever-increasing.

These statistics have been pored over as authorities seek to manage resources in the best service of the population and its requirements.

However a new piece of research conducted in the Uists seems to suggest that perhaps this may be changing.

Conducted by members of the Uist community, who had in recent years noticed a change in the make-up of the population, the research highlights an upturn in the number of births in the area, as well as families choosing to settle in the Islands over the last decade.

Information from a report on the draft research states: “It is a striking fact that the registered births in Uist for 2015, 2016 and 2017 show a 67 per cent increase compared to a decade ago (2005/06/07). There were 13 registered births in December 2017 alone, compared to just 19 registered births throughout the whole of 2007.

“And a recent study of 469 young people on Uist shows a trend with young economically active Uibhistich returning or staying, and young people new to Uist settling on the islands.

“In fact, of the 469 young people surveyed, most in their 20s and 30s, half of them are returners or newcomers.

“Just as significant, many of these young people have children. Between them the 469 young people have 253 children. Four out of 10 of these children live on Uist because both their parents have chosen to return or settle on Uist.

“So not only has the number of registered births on Uist gone up by two-thirds in the past decade. Young people returning or settling on the islands are bringing additional children registered on the mainland.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that these young people, and these young families, are changing the feel of Uist.”

The report continues that local people have noticed that groups such as Mums and Tots have ‘doubled’, whilst the new school on North Uist has close to 90 pupils rather than the 70 expected when it was being built in 2015-16.

It has been noted that the average age of both South and North Uist Agricultural Committees is a generation younger today than a decade ago and when the recent survey put out a facebook message looking for young people between leaving school and turning 40, the survey quickly received 146 responses.

At least 1 in 10 of the young people in the survey have set up their own businesses.

The report continued: “Often these changes have gone unnoticed because Uist is now very different from the rest of the Outer Hebrides. The number of registered births has declined by 15 per cent in Lewis and Barra over the past decade, while Harris has seen a modest increase of 10 per cent.

“With additional young people and families returning or settling, it is possible that population decline on Uist is finally bottoming out, and Uist communities are noticing a new dynamism and optimism.”

One islander who has been involved in the research, Thomas Fisher, said: “Policy throughout the Outer Hebrides has been based on the premise of managing decline.

“If population trends on Uist are changing then that basic premise may have to change.

“Reducing cuts and increasing resources would seem to be obvious responses.

“Remember that each additional school pupil automatically brings additional resources to the council.

“The current S1s in Sgoil Lionacleit were born in a year that say only 27 registered births on Uist, but there are in fact 62 pupils in S1. Clearly this needs to influence policy and resource investments.”

The reasons in the recent surveys for young people and families wanting to stay, return or settle on the islands are because of the environment, safety, peace and quiet, and strong sense of community.

At a meeting of young returners, participants commented: “Social life here on Uist is so much better than in Glasgow. In Glasgow we just went to the local pub, here we end up going to ceilidhs and community events, and get involved in helping out in these activities.”

The quality of education is another important factor for families, as a local newcomer parent noted: “My child has made more progress in the first few months in school here than in whole year in Glasgow. And school children on Uist now have a huge choice of affordable activities and clubs outside school: football, athletics, swimming and kickboxing, music and instrumental classes, Highland and Irish dancing, drama.”

Although the draft research has not yet been widely distributed the information is known by some Comhairle nan Eilean councillors, with one responding to the research team, that this was the best news that they had heard for 10 years.

The research will be released to the community in the first instance, so that local Uist communities can understand what is happening.

Contributing to the community based survey were Theona Morrison from Grimsay, who first saw the need to look at the profile of young people on Uist. Thomas Fisher, formerly of Cothrom, contributed a lot to the data analysis, while Gemma Steele, the Project Manager of Caraidean Uibhist, the befriending organisation on Uist, is herself a young returner to Uist.