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.

2 Replies to “Turning the tide on Uist”

  1. Pity you missed out on a mention of Urachadh Uibhist – in North Uist – the most important employer and social enterprise in the local area.

    They are also the organisation which has provided all year round childcare since 2000 – which supports young families to return to the islands and settle thereby supporting population retention

    1. You are correct Ada. Urachadh Uibhist is such an important contributor, as you say in providing local jobs and in helping families to return, settle or stay by providing invaluable nursery care all year round. We have added UU to the list of critical social enterprises in the post.

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