Depopulation has cast a long shadow over the Outer Isles for well over a century and looks likely to do so for the foreseeable future.
Almost half a century since the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (succeeded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise) to boost the social and economic development of such fragile areas, the National Records of Scotland predict that the total population of the Outer Hebrides will fall to 23,220 by 2035.
This is a projected decline of 11.3%, or 2,567 people, between 2010 and 2035. The equivalent figure for Scotland over the same time period is an increase of 10%.
The islands’ loss will be down to “negative natural change” - put simply, more deaths than births.
Indeed the islands are also projected to see a large percentage decline in annual births between 2010 and 2035 at -50.8%. Births are set to fall from 252 in 2010/11 to 124 in 2034/35. In Scotland, the percentage decrease in annual births is projected to be just 3.8%.
Now, in one of those cruel twists of statistical fate and finance, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (the Western Isles Council) is going to have £6m less to help keep its people or attract others with child-bearing potential over the next two years, in no small part because it already has fewer people than it used to have.
While the overall cash funding for local government in Scotland will remain at the same level from 2012-2015, in the Comhairle’s case the falling population means that its share of government funding is reducing by £2.2m in each of the thre years.
Inflation is expected to add £3.4m to the cost of providing Comhairle services over the next two years, of which £1.2m is a provision for a 1% pay award. The main cost pressures are in respect of welfare reform, landfill tax and change funds and are expected to add £0.5m to the Comhairle’s budget over the two years.
Having managed to realise savings of over £10m in the last three years these further budget reductions represent a real challenge for the Comhairle and the communities it serves.
To make the necessary changes the authority is looking at its use of assets, its human resources strategy and its arrangements for joint working.
However, the bulk of the savings will have to come from budget reductions. To manage this, each department has had to identify how it could save 10% of their operating costs. Around 120 proposals have now been identified that could save up to £8.5m. As this is higher than the savings needed, this will allow some debate.
On Thursday November 1, Western Isles councilors will be asked to agree which proposals will be put forward for public consultation and these will form the basis of the meetings scheduled across the Islands between November 12 to 22 across Barra, the Uists, Harris and Lewis.
Comhairle leader Angus Campbell said: “This is probably the most challenging budget process we have faced. There are real and severe pressures on our budgets and we have to manage a process which will allow us to meet our budgetary obligations whilst continuing to provide high quality services for our communities.
"We are embarking upon a period of community consultation and I would urge everyone to make their voices heard – either at the public meetings or online on the Comhairle’s website.”
BBC staff making the news
Four senior Highland journalists employed by BBC Scotland in Inverness are waiting to hear their fate after boycotting interviews being held by their bosses to decide which of them will be sacked.
The meetings, which had been due to take place at a hotel in the Highland capital, were styled “Interviews For Retention” by management. But at the end of the process, bosses are due to decide which of the four will be made redundant.
At the end of August, BBC management announced that two of the four would lose their jobs, as part of what the BBC calls “Delivering Quality First”. Highland MP Charles Kennedy labelled it “Dumping the Highlands Last”.
It is part of the programme of cuts confirmed by the BBC that was to see a reduction of 35 staff posts in BBC Scotland by the end of March - 17 in news and current affairs, eight in Radio Scotland, six in marketing and communications and two in New Media, Learning & Outreach and the same in Gaelic.
After an intensive campaign by the Inverness journalists and their union, the NUJ - supported by MPs, MSPs, councillors and other listeners and viewers - management conceded earlier this month that they would now seek only one redundancy.
The journalists at the centre of the row told management they wouldn’t be attending the interviews. “They have their own in-house name for these interviews,” says NUJ spokesman at Inverness, Iain MacDonald.
“But essentially it means the journalists will be interviewing for their own jobs. The only change is that one journalist will be sacked now, rather than two. We understand there will no longer even be a news editor based at Inverness, which means the Highlands and Islands news agenda will be set elsewhere.
“We believe that, even with a mere 25% cut, as now proposed, the system will offer a much poorer service to the Highlands and Islands, at least in English. And that there is no need to make these cuts so fast, especially with the Commonwealth Games and the Independence Referendum on the horizon.”
On track to new paths at Culloden
Inverness residents and visitors will soon benefit from five and a half miles of new paths connecting Balloch and Culloden Woods to the historic Culloden Battlefield, where Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite army were defeated by the Duke of Cumberland and the army of the Hanoverian government in April 1746.
Work has started on the £230,000 project which will create a new link from the Cumberland Stone to the battlefield.
The Cumberland Stone is an enormous boulder which has long been associated with the Duke in the folklore of the battle. This holds that he directed his troops from on top of it during the battle. However, he was also reported to be on horseback between his first and second lines during the engagement, so exactly what he was doing on it is not entirely clear.
That notwithstanding (or sitting), the National Trust for Scotland, Forestry Commission Scotland, Highland Council and Balloch Community Council have collaborated to develop circular network of paths linking Balloch and Culloden House with Culloden Battlefield through Culloden Wood.
The paths will lead people to the more remote parts of the battlefield where tales of the battle and the people involved can be read as an extension to the educational job the NTS visitor centre does about the battle.
The paths will reach out to incorporate the lines of the Hanoverian Government troops and where the last canon was fired. As part of this process, the NTS is working with celebrated Gaelic poet Aonghas MacNeacail (still known to all as Black Angus despite a head of white hair and beard) to bring these stories to life.
Highland home potential
If you have any ‘Grand Designs’ on a Highland haunt in some location or another, you could do worse than keep an eye on what Highland Council has to offer.
There is a former council office building in Victoria Road, Brora, which the council believes “may offer an investment or development opportunity.”
Then there is the former residential care home – Graham House, Dornie in Lochalsh - which the council says provides an “exciting opportunity to redevelop a very unique site” because it is located just 200 metres from the world famous Eilean Donan Castle.
A village hall, at Hill of Fearn in Easter Ross, presents an opportunity to purchase a detached stone and slate building with modern extensions. The former village hall dates back to 1887.
In nearby Tain, a detached, one-and-a-half-storey cottage is for sale.
Meanwhile, back over on the west the former school and schoolhouse at Diabeg in Wester Ross, is also on the market.
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