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Community / New research suggests population growth over last two decades

Lerwick. Photo: Jim Mullay

SHETLAND’s estimated population has increased over the last 20 years – but some areas within the isles have suffered a decline, according to new research.

Estimated figures from the Scottish Parliament Information Centre show that Lerwick North, the North Isles and the North Mainland have all suffered slight population declines since 2021.

But Central Shetland, Shetland South, the East and West Mainland and Lerwick South have all seemingly grown.

The data is included in new research in the growth and decline of populations in Scotland’s islands over the last two decades.

Orkney, Highland (mainly areas in Skye) and Shetland have shown the largest growth, although locally it appears to be modest, while the Western Isles have remained steady.

Island communities in Argyll and Bute and in North Ayrshire have experienced “significant reductions in their populations”.

Overall the islands have grown in population by an estimated 2.6 per cent since 2001, but this is well behind the national 7.9 per cent average.

Meanwhile the proportion of people aged 65 and over on Scotland’s islands rose from 18 per cent in 2001 to 26 per cent in 2020.

The figures in the study are based on births, deaths and migration, but a reminder was made that there is no comprehensive system which registers migration in the UK.

Depopulation has been a worry for the islands for some time, and the Scottish Government is proposing a scheme which could give people up to £50,000 to stay in or move to an island community.

National Records of Scotland statisticians are forecasting population reductions for all of Scotland’s island local authorities over the next 20 years.

The research on population was published alongside the latest annual review of the Scottish Government’s national islands plan.

Cabinet secretary for rural affairs and islands Mairi Gougeon said a “number of commitments have either been fulfilled or are on their way to being met”.

Speaking in response to the research Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said depopulation was a “complex issue”.

“When too many people leave a place services are lost and it becomes less viable for others to live there,” she added.

“Islanders need employment, reliable transport, digital connectivity, access to local amenities and public services, just like other places. In other words, the modern infrastructure and job opportunities  that will support island living and keep them vibrant.

“I have repeatedly called on the Scottish Government to tackle underlying issues which contribute to depopulation such as a shortage of affordable housing, especially for younger people who want to stay in their island communities.

“In February this year Alistair Carmichael and I hosted the Tunnel Vision event where we heard from the Faroese experience of fixed links and their contribution to tackling depopulation.”