“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.

Welcome to Islands Revival

The Islands Revival project is raising the profile of “green shoots” of demographic recovery by gathering observations and evidence of positive population change from across the Scottish islands and beyond. By doing so, we aim to identify ways to support revival of the islands in the future, through policy and practice. The project comes at an important time for the islands, with the development of the National Islands Plan, and provides an opportunity to share experiences and practice with other island communities, policy-makers and international experts.

We are currently inviting contributions to the Islands Revival blog. 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.

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.

Keep an eye on Twitter (@IslandsRevival and #islandsrevival) for updates.