Zoe Paterson Macinnes, Lewis

I made Cianalas as part of my final year at University. We were given a brief to create a ten-minute film, and we could choose what it was about. 

The idea first started when I was actually applying for university and had to come up with a folio of some short films. I’d never made a film before and had no idea where to start. So I thought I should start with what I knew. The first thing that sprung to mind was my home in the Isle of Lewis, so I made a couple of minutes of film explaining that there is more to island life than what you first see. That theme followed me throughout uni (or I followed it) and when the time came to start pitching our final projects, there was only one thing that made sense to me. 

Living in the city did change my views on home. It became more than this exciting place where I grew up. All the comments I got about why it made sense that I moved to a city etc. only made me more passionate to show people that the Western Isles of Scotland are different yes, but not in the ways that people assume. It’s different because of the passion that we have for where we live, it’s different because of how connected we are with our history and our future, it’s different because so many people get all they need from these islands, without the need to travel further afield. Not because it’s isolated or out of touch. 

I move between the city and home all the time, because no matter how exciting my jobs are on the mainland or how much family I have there, I can’t seem to last more than a few months with only short visits to home. But it comes down to more than just homesickness, and I really wanted that to come through in the film, which is why I decided to name it after cianalas, the only word to describe that pull towards the islands. However, I didn’t want the film to only be my perspective of home because so many also feel that way. One thing that got me through missing home when I was studying was listening to music from the islands. Music is a large part of the islands heritage, and the fact that the music scene is growing rapidly and reaching to the other side of the world is the perfect connection between past and future that I wanted to showcase through Cianalas, which is why I chose to have the musicians from the Hebrides tell us their version.

So I interviewed various musicians from the Isle of Lewis, where I am from, about their views on island life and that feeling of cianalas. I decided to accompany the interviews with shots of the island that I first notice when I am home, which isn’t the wide beaches or the highland cows, it’s the colours in the ground, the sound of water running and the people hard at work; and that’s how Cianalas came to be!

Beartas de Fèin-aithne (A Wealth of Identity)

Pàdruig Morrison, Uist

Tomorrow, I head off from Uist to perform at another music festival. A few weeks ago, I was at the incredible inaugural Beò festival, an all Gaelic music festival which took place in the south end of Skye. In a few weeks’ time, I will be at the Heb Celt Festival in Lewis, as well as Ceòlas and the Eilean Dorcha Festival in Uist. The west coast is now jumping with festivals all year. The more we have, the more it boosts our music and culture; the more we strengthen those, the more we strengthen our cultural identity.

Also taking place in July is the award winning Tiree Music Festival. Consider the island of Tiree: what is the island’s cultural value? Beware not to simply read that while interchanging ‘cultural value’ for ‘economic value’ or ‘tourism industry’. Tiree may have put more into the Gaelic and west coast music industry than any other island, in terms of its output of bands, musicians, and instrumental teachers, as well as a festival which has helped solidify a love for the music, the language, and the culture.

All of this is culturally priceless. That is part of what is seeing the Tiree community maintain a young demographic and encourage more young people to return, and now we see, amongst other things, Tiree Gin expanding and the island continuing to be a surfing hotspot.

Similarly Uist – which also has a Gin distillery – has a music college, summer schools, and festivals all year round, all embedded within a crofting heartland and statistically the highest Gaelic speaking islands in Scotland: culturally priceless. And the young people keep returning.

The same is happening, and will continue to happen, in other island communities. The sense of cultural identity is strong, and it is a strong link in the chain that will anchor young people to the place they are from.

I often try and promote a strengthening of Gaelic identity and island identity. However, there is an inherent strength and resilience to these identities that isn’t going anywhere.

It has been shown through research that identity formation often requires a sense of crisis – an open door with several paths, and a particular path has to be chosen. A crisis point for many is leaving home and moving to university – young Gaels go through this, with many leaving a strong Gaelic island community and going to the city.

This is nothing new. But why is it that today we are seeing more return to their island homes? And why are so many longing to come back only a few years after university?

From research into identity theory, we know that “the best way to achieve a stable and well-developed identity is to make one’s own choices based on previous experience.” Having a strong sense of Gaelic and island culture before going to university helps that particular identity become the strongest when one is having to choose which identity to hold onto the most. Young people returning, and wishing to return to our islands, is evidence of how strong this cultural identity is in people, and how it stays with them if they leave for the cities.

These music festivals have a crucial role to play, and indeed are helping our Gaelic/island cultural identities: “musical preferences are established during adolescence and youth, a period of identity construction, and are fairly stable over time.” Our festivals are very important to the young people in our island communities, and for many, they are at a time of forming their musical identity, which feeds into their whole sense of identity. The sense of identity which comes with music is also long lasting, which may contribute to why many Gaels in the cities are regularly at festivals and gigs listening to traditional and Gaelic music. Our music therefore has the power to strengthen cultural identity; it has a part to play in revitalising our language, and the communities and islands of the Gàidhealtachd.

A lack of affordable housing for rising island populations

Isobel Thompson, Westray Development Trust

In the 2011 census, for the first time in 110 years since our island records began in 1881, the Westray population increased. Now categorised as a stable population, with marginal growth, the island of Westray once again feels like it is thriving. Looking around our island home at the northern edge of the Orkney archipelago as we get closer to the 2021 census we can feel the change around us. As of May 2019 there were 84 children at Westray Junior High School and Nursery with a further 6 Westray youth boarding in mainland Orkney to complete their 5th and 6th years. This means that 15% of the island’s 588 population is under 16 years old.

Despite expanding employment and economic opportunities in Westray including the establishment of Kalisgarth Care Centre in 2005 and Cooke Aquaculture expanding a Salmon Farm off the Westray coast, the availability of affordable housing has not kept up. Westray has managed to retain many of its young folk born on the island but is now facing difficulty in its ability to attract more to move here without increased housing provision. Much of the already limited social housing was bought by tenants many years ago and little was done to replace them. As a result while there are properties available to buy there are very few to rent long-term. Those that are available are quickly snapped up by incomers looking to rent before they commit to buying on the island or by young people who can’t afford to get on the housing ladder. An example of the housing issue is single young people renting 2-3 bedroom properties leaving nowhere for incoming families because there are no 1 bedroom properties for young people to go to instead.

With the local council underfunded and struggling to deliver services across 20 inhabited Orkney Islands the task has fallen to island communities to answer their own housing needs. Development Trusts across Orkney have benefitted from Scottish Land Fund and Rural & Islands Housing Fund grants to develop community-owned housing projects. However community housing projects take a very long time to get going as often inexperienced volunteers work to apply for funding, struggle to purchase land, engage lawyers and manage a housing development. The housing that communities need now will not be seen for several years. Once these community housing projects across the islands begin to be completed one by one will we see another population boost? Then we might just be able to confidently say, the tide of depopulation has turned and it is not turning back.

Evidencing population change on Scotland’s islands

Andrew Copus, Jonathan Hopkins & Ruth Wilson, The James Hutton Institute

Population trends in remote and sparsely populated areas of Scotland have recently been attracting attention: on the one hand, the potential impact of post-Brexit immigration policy is giving rise to concerns regarding the availability of working age residents; on the other hand, the creation of the National Islands Plan offers opportunities for reinvigoration and revival.

A new SEFARI case study, published today, examines trends in the Scottish islands to try to understand the nature of recent change and its implications for local and national policy. The study notes the shortcomings of official data sources: population projections assume the continuation of existing patterns and do not consider sudden changes in the conditions that attract or drive away local residents; and the risk of inaccuracy of intercensal estimates increases over time. Alternative indicators, such as school roll records and GP patient lists, offer localised and up-to-date data but can be difficult to interpret in a meaningful way.

One source of data that is often overlooked by policy analysts is that of the observations of local residents. Members of the local community are usually sensitive to changes in the way migration is affecting the population, and often have a sophisticated understanding of the complex factors at play in population change.

The Islands Revival project is exploring the potential of this local knowledge, by collecting observations of “green shoots” of population turnaround from across the Scottish islands and showcasing them through this blog. This comes at an important time for the Scottish islands, with consultations on the National Islands Plan currently under way, and offers a chance for island communities to inform local action and national policy.

We are currently inviting contributions that highlight aspects of positive population change from across the Scottish islands and beyond. If you have an observation or evidence that you would like to share, see here for further details or get in touch with any questions. Keep an eye on Twitter (@IslandsRevival and #islandsrevival) for updates.

Islands Revival is funded by the Scottish Government-funded SEFARI Responsive Opportunity Initiative. It is a knowledge exchange project between The James Hutton InstituteCoDeLSRUC and Community Land Scotland.

Lessons from the Caribbean islands: leveraging the diaspora for growth

James Ellsmoor, Island Innovation

The Scottish Islands and the Caribbean might not have much in common at first glance. Yet both regions have long been sources of emigrants, sending many of their best and brightest off-island to areas with greater economic opportunities. Historically, the diaspora has been a key pillar for growth in the Caribbean, and island nations carefully built strong relationships with their overseas communities and leveraged them for their expertise and investment potential.

The diaspora is particularly important in Jamaica, with some estimates indicating that as many Jamaicans may live off the island as on it. Remittances from those abroad represented US$2.45 billion USD in 2017, approximately 16.6% of total GDP. The proportion of remittances in Haiti and the Pacific Island nation of Tonga are even higher, at 32% and 37% of GDP, respectively.

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are acutely aware of the importance of this monetary flow and many have long-established diaspora engagement programs. This may consist of specific government ministries that engage overseas communities through events, conferences, exchanges and youth programs designed to encourage a sense of ownership and belonging. There are even “birthright” programs modelled on Israel, where young people born overseas can win the opportunity for a fully-funded trip to ‘return’ to the country of their parents

As The Caribbean Council points out, bringing a diaspora together means dealing with a range of social issues:

“defining the nature of the very different communities on either side of the Atlantic, let alone accommodating their multifaceted social identity, attitudes, political divisions, and variable connections with their former homelands, is becoming ever more complex. For the most part, the Caribbean seems not to have accepted that its communities overseas are now far from homogeneous; are rapidly fragmenting into quite different component categories that require much closer analysis given their quite different needs, and are slowly losing interest in the region from where their grandparents came.”

The techniques needed to engage the diaspora are changing with digital technology providing opportunities to engage those overseas without them even physically returning. Improved communications allow for more rapid transfer of knowledge and information (in both directions) while also increasing opportunities for people to return and establish international businesses from their islands. It is vital to think of diaspora engagement beyond just economic terms and benefit from the skills, knowledge and representation of communities abroad. Innovative approaches such as creating local institutions specifically to foster these relationships and even island “consulates” to represent their needs could also be an opportunity in Scotland.

Opening ceremony of the Biennial Jamaica Diaspora Conference in Montego Bay

The experience of the Caribbean may be something that Scottish islands can learn from and adapt to work in the local context. By seeing emigrants as key stakeholders in their islands’ futures, communities could make a concerted effort to engage them at all levels. There are, of course, key differences between these regions such as the higher birth rates in SIDS generally meaning depopulation is a less pressing concern than in Scotland. However, both island regions see the need to retain skills and engage their communities. With virtual technology redefining what it means to be a “community”, involving island diaspora could be a resource to all islands. Diverse islands around the world may have surprisingly similar experiences and learning from successful programs in other regions could bring big benefits to Scotland.

Further Reading:

“Trust us. We need homes”

Cameron Anson, Our Island Home

As the Our Island Home Development Officer, my role is to deliver Rural Housing Scotland’s work across the Scottish islands. Originally, this meant the Hebrides but it now takes me from Arran to Orkney.

As our name suggests, our focus is on housing in rural Scotland but the name of our island project helps explain a bit more about the ‘WHY’ of Rural Housing Scotland: Homes. Houses without inhabitants are meaningless. They are devoid of life. Life makes them a home and homes make our communities.

Living in the Isle of Mull, I have seen the positive impact that housing has had across the Sound in Iona and in the North West of Mull. Both the Iona and Ulva Ferry housing projects are great examples of how delivering housing should be used to meet a community need, not seen as a target to be met.

The Iona Housing Partnership, a sub-committee of Iona Community Council, was formed in 2003 following the growing demand for secure, permanent, good quality accommodation for residents in Iona. After a long fundraising campaign a site was purchased from the Church of Scotland in 2011. Following housing needs surveys, feasibility studies and community planning workshops to fundraising through BBQs, ceilidhs, ‘Buy-a-Brick’ andboat trips and then a huge boost when the council awarded a substantial investment grant, the build began in 2014.

Three two-bedroom and two three-bedroom units providing homes for families were delivered by West Highland Housing Association in 2016. This has resulted in the primary school role on Iona growing by such an extent that they have had to recruit extra staff and build a new pre-5 unit.

After the Ulva Ferry primary school was threatened with closure in 2010, Ulva School Community Association ran a successful campaign to sustain their area and keep the school open but it became clear that without addressing the root cause for the threatened closure – a lack of children – this issue would continue. The answer? Affordable housing to secure families.

Four years of hard work and fundraising later, this joint venture between the Ulva School Community Association and Mull and Iona Community Trust was fully funded. Two three-bedroom homes were built right next to the Primary School. Amazingly, thanks to local firm Thorne Wyness Architects’ low energy design, the heating bills are around £350 per YEAR.

The homes were officially opened in November 2017 and are now home to two families. Together,they have contributed 6 children to the local primary school role.

Creating the opportunity and security for young, working aged adults to set down roots and to build families has, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to growth. Either in overall population figures or in that working aged demographic that we often see leaving our islands.

Without those living in our communities, these projects would never have happened. Both communities had to argue again and again that they needed housing. In the end, both communities demonstrated the value of ‘lived experience’ over ‘big data’. The message is simple: Our communities know what they need. We need to trust them. And we need to support them.

Finding your way through Lost Map

Camille Dressler, Isle of Eigg

Since the community buyout of the Isle of Eigg in 1997, the resident population of the island has risen from 65 to almost 100, with young people in particular settling on the island, as well as some former residents. Here is a post from resident Camille Dressler at Eigg’s latest festival.

I am writing this blog as the 6th Howlin’ Fling, Eigg’s” boutique” indie festival is under way.  300 people are converging to the island for a weekend of music which is attracting people as far afield as Baltimore, USA. There is a real buzz on the island, despite the rain, and the pier café is heaving with good humour banter, as people dry up after setting their tent in the steady Hebridean drizzle. 

As an extra hand this weekend, 18-year-old islander Struan is handing out coffees and the twice cooked chips which the pier café is famous for. He is looking forward to the bands playing tonight when he will be off. Early on this year, as part of his High school’s Foundation Apprenticeship in S5, Struan helped design and develop the online donation page for the well-known Lucky2BHere website which provides defibrillator location information. This experience of  online apprenticeship which helped promote the Highland-based charity to a global audience, has consolidated his ambition to work in the digital world, and after the summer he will be off to University of Dundee to study computer science. He is the next generation of young folks that are off to try their luck in the big wide world. In the meantime, he thinks that living on an island is cool, especially one where Eigg based Johnny Lynch from Pictish Trail gets to invite so many bands you’d have to go far to see. 

Johnny is lucky, there is a bunch of folks here he can depend on for the logistics, online promotion and the all the work associated with running such an event. The creative industries have made a big difference to those islanders who chose to return after a spell on the mainland to bring up their families. Eigg’s own Community Interest Company providing them with better broadband than in many other places on the mainland makes it easier to make a living from graphic design, music, writing or photography. The marketing and mentoring programme devised by Eigg Box made all the difference in getting the island entrepreneurs to where they are now. Johnny’s Lost Map record label is a perfect example. This year, his sweatshirts with the label’s logo will go like hot cakes. 

Johnny’s partner Sarah is working on the family farm with her parents. They are heavily diversifying into small scale tourism and just finished their third holiday bothy in time to host Arthur King, the Californian experimental 4 piece band who will be projecting their footage of the island landscape whilst improvising with digital sampling including the island sounds they recorded earlier on in the week. “I really look forward to their performance” enthuses Johnny, “it will be amazing, and the best is that we will release it all on Lost Map later on this year.”  Johnny runs Lost Map from the home he built with Sarah after a long enough spell in a caravan, using the island’s community Trust’s shared equity scheme. By enabling islanders to return or settle on the island and build their own home on one of a number of designated plots of land, each within reach of a spring for the water supply and the island’s self-maintained electricity grid, the scheme is one of the biggest factor in Eigg’s growth and success. To this and the success of this year’s festival, I am raising my glass of “Session Ale”  brewed to perfection on the island

Turning the tide on Uist

Thomas Fisher and Theona Morrison, CoDeL, Uist

This blog in effect emerged from research that the founders of CoDeL did on Uist. Uist refers to the seven inhabited islands, from Berneray to Eriskay, all linked by causeways, in the Outer Hebrides. Census data showed these islands had suffered a decline in population between 2001 and 2011. 

But that is not how it felt to those living on Uist in 2017. It was not just that the population of less than 5000 across Uist continued to sustain a highly active community and cultural life. As the decade progressed, there also seemed to be more children and young people around. The new primary school on North Uist built in 2016 now had more pupils than the combined roll of the three smaller schools it replaced. Parent and toddler groups with lots of babies seemed to be springing up across Uist. The average age of the agricultural committees had dropped radically from somewhere in their 60s to include crofters in their 20s who were now Chair and Vice-Chair of the North Uist committee. And we kept coming across young people in their 20s and 30s who had returned or settled, some of whom were setting up dynamic businesses in sectors from IT to dog-grooming. Take the tiny island of Berneray for example, with the Berneray shop and Bistro and also Coralbox now finalist in National Family Business Awards in London and shortlisted for the Young Women in Tourism Awards 2019.

So we decided to launch community-based research, following the principles of participatory rural research, to determine how many young people there were on Uist, and what they were doing. This methodology tapped into significant support from within the community and we soon had a huge sample of 469 young people, including many who had responded on social media wanting to be counted in the group. Three out of 10 of these were returners. The cohort of 469 young people (from school leavers to people in their 30s) also had 215 children and 38 babies. Moreover returners were parents of 42 per cent of these children or babies, suggesting that returners were bringing back significant numbers of children who had not been registered on Uist. And one in ten of the cohort were running their own business. The research was a cross-sectional analysis, not longitudinal research which could have determined trends over time, but it confirmed very much what members of the Uist community were noticing on the ground.

So why would more young people and families want to return, settle or stay on Uist? With the deep understanding of their own community, the researchers point to a range of factors:

Uist is a tiny part of a global shift in aspirations among young people who no longer automatically migrate to cities to be connected to economic, social and cultural opportunities, but are choosing the far higher levels of well-being that they can often achieve in rural areas, and at a fraction of the cost of living in a city. This has been underpinned by far better connectivity, including on Uist.

An essential component of well-being on Uist is the close-knit and dynamic community life that can be found here. In the case of Uist, the community is also experiencing a cultural revival, as the heartland of Gaelic, with strong cultural organisations like Ceolas, and a boom in young musicians and bands.

Then there is over a decade of investment in promoting enterprising and economic opportunities for young people, including workshops for senior pupils to generate enterprising ideas that could be realised on Uist, coaching and mentoring for enterprise, and not least the development of vocational courses at the local secondary school that link directly to opportunities in the local economy, in crofting, maritime studies, health and social care, and so on.

And driving much of this investment have been dynamic community groups, including large and sustainable social enterprises like Cothrom, Tagsa Uibhist, Taigh Chearsabhagh and Urachadh Uibhist, a myriad of smaller community groups, and Storas Uibhist, the largest community land owner in Scotland. Even in 2012 the Third Sector was generating 10 per cent of all jobs on Uist outside the public sector. Our community-based research demonstrated that the Third Sector is now generating 10 per cent of all jobs for young people in our cohort.

Recent investment by the Third Sector has been striking, with large investments like the wind turbines on South Uist (with another going up on North Uist shortly), a new £10m marina in Lochboisdale, a new training centre and a new recycling centre for Cothrom (each close to £1m), the extension of various facilities (such as the Eriskay Coop and Kildonan Museum), the start of a multi-million pound cultural centre which Ceolas is just starting to build, and a host of smaller projects. Of 117 development projects (67 of them in progress, 50 planned) identified on Uist in 2012, 111 were being led by or involved community organisations. And these organisations delivered over 30 different types of services within the local community.

So what insights or lessons can we draw from this? We would highlight two.

First, tap into the shift in aspirations among young people, and do things to make it easier for the many young people who want to return or settle on islands to do so. If all of those who want to come were able to do so, the population tide would indeed turn very rapidly.

And, building on this trend, invest in the future to attract more people, abandoning the typical council approach, often enforced by austerity, of managing decline, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more lights you turn off in a community, from health services to post offices, the less attractive they become. And while the public sector must maintain services, it is often local communities themselves that are best placed to drive new investment.