Population Growth and Decline on Scottish Islands – 2001 to 2020 – SPICe Spotlight

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A flurry of island-related activity during the last parliamentary session culminated in the 2018 Islands Act and Scotland’s very first Map of national islands. One of the main aims of these efforts is to combat depopulation trends and “to ensure a healthy and balanced population profile” on the Scottish islands. This week sees the release of the second annual report on the National Islands Plan, and later this year the Islands Act’s four-year progress report will be released. During the current session of Parliament, the Committee on Rural Affairs, Islands and the Natural Environment will examine the effectiveness of the Scottish Government’s island policies.

National Archives of Scotland Statisticians forecast population reductions for all island local authorities in Scotland over the next 20 years. However, this blog post focuses on the pass two decades and shows that the depopulation story has so far been true for some islands but not others.

A word about data…

The data for this blog is based on two sources:

  • data provided by Highlands and Islands Enterprise that identifies small island geographic areas called data areas
  • Population estimates in small areas from the National Records of Scotland (NRS) which provide population estimates for these data areas.

Population data are estimates, so there are a few caveats we should note. The figures discussed here are based on births, deaths and migration. While data on births and deaths are based on the mandatory civil registration system – administered by the NRS and local registration offices – migration data is more complicated. There is no comprehensive system that records migration to the UK, nor travel to or from the rest of the world, nor travel within the UK. Therefore, the data used is mainly based on International Passenger Survey data, for international migration, and NHS data (National Health Service Central Registry and Community Health Index (CHI)), for travel within the UK.

What has happened since 2001?

Population estimates show that in 2020 there were 2,800 more people living on the Scottish islands than in 2001, an increase of 2.6% over the period. However, at the same time, Scotland’s population as a whole grew at the much faster rate of 7.9%. Much of this continental growth has taken place in the Central Belt, as well as in the Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and Highland Council areas.

Most of Scotland’s island population growth since 2001 has occurred in the council areas of Orkney, Highlands and Shetland Islands. The island communities of Argyll and Bute and North Ayrshire, on the other hand, have seen significant population reductions. The population of Na h-Eileanan an Iar – the most populous island local authority – is more or less the same as in 2001.

A line graph showing the growth of the Scottish island population broken down by local authority area between 2001 and 2020.

Which islands have seen the most significant changes?

Data is available for individual islands, areas within islands or groups of islands, allowing us to see population changes at a fairly localized level. The following graph shows that almost all of the Argyll and Bute Island Data Areas have experienced population reductions over the past 20 years, with the Isle of Bute having seen the most dramatic reduction. On the other hand, almost all of the island data areas in the Highland Council region – mainly the areas of Skye – have seen their population increase. The most striking increases since the turn of the century have been seen in the eastern and western parts of the Orkney mainland, as well as in the Broadbay and Lewis Point areas of Nah-Eileanan Siar.

A horizontal bar graph comparing population growth in intermediate areas that contain islands, grouped by local authority, between 2001 and 2020.

Scottish Island Age Profiles

The population of the Scottish Islands, like the rest of Scotland, has aged significantly over the past 20 years. The proportion of people aged 65 and over on Scottish islands has risen from 18% in 2001 to 26% in 2020, while the proportion of the island population under 25 has risen from 28% to 24%.

A horizontal bar graph comparing population growth by age group in the Scottish Islands and Scotland as a whole between 2001 and 2020.

The majority of people living on the Scottish islands are now in the over 45 age group. This is not the case for mainland Scotland, where the under 45 age bracket is still the majority (albeit fair). Of course, people living longer is not a bad thing; however, an aging population can put pressure on some public services, while the long-term viability of communities can be threatened if there is a shortage of young families, young adults and children.

A stacked area chart comparing the proportion of the island population of Scotland and the overall population of Scotland by broad age group, between 2001 and 2020.

As the Map of national islands (see page 18) points out that many Scottish islands are expected to see a significant decrease in the number of children and working-age people living there. He cites the example of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, who could see a 20% decline in the working-age population and a similar level of decline in the proportion of children over the next 20 years.


One of the main information-gathering exercises of recent years has been the commissioning of the National Islands Plan Survey in 2020. This gathered information about people’s perceptions and experiences of island life and was completed by 4,347 people on 59 islands. One of the clear findings of the survey is that experiences of island life can vary greatly between island groups; The Scottish islands should not be treated as a homogenous group. This is also the case when looking at the experience of depopulation over the past twenty years, with some island communities expanding while others have experienced significant population decline.

Recognizing this, the Scottish Government annual report on the Plan des Iles (published today) highlights work with the Highlands and Islands Convention exploring action to address depopulation in the region, particularly in the local authority areas highlighted in this blog.

Greig Liddell and Andrew Aiton, SPICe Research, March 2022

Cover image: Pixabay

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