IT is unsurprising but reassuring that the number of people living on Scotland's islands has increased over the past 10 years.
It is unsurprising because we know Scotland's population as a whole has been rising over the years (at the end of June last year, it stood at 5,313,600 - the highest it has ever been). It is reassuring because it is another reminder that the doom-laden predictions of the 1990s that the population would drop below five million by 2010 did not come true.
So why is the population rising? Clearly, some of it is due to the arithmetic of births exceeding deaths rather than an influx of incomers, but there are also signs that thousands of people are coming to Scotland because they see it as an attractive place to bring up a family (around 10 per cent of births are to parents who both come from outwith the UK). This is particularly true on the islands, where there are no long commutes to work, and school class sizes that are smaller than on the mainland.
However, some caution is needed before we start celebrating the rise in island populations too vehemently. First, most of the increase is concentrated on the four biggest islands, with the population declining on many of the smaller ones. Secondly, there are still a number of factors that make it difficult for families to make a life on the Scottish islands - factors that could exert considerable downward pressure on populations in the future.
The first is house prices, which continue to pose a problem for young people in particular. For at least two generations, many young people in the Highlands and Islands have been forced to move out of their communities either to find work or because they cannot afford a house or flat. Ironically, this is partly due to the rise in population because much of that rise is fuelled by wealthy incomers with money to spend on houses.
The second factor is the cost of living, and here the picture is mixed. The Coalition Government deserves recognition, for example, for introducing the 5p reduction in duty on fuel for island communities. On the other hand, ferry travel remains expensive and it is regrettable that the Scottish Government has removed the subsidy for some fares, driving them up.
The rise in population on the islands also masks a problem that Scotland has yet to tackle. Much of the recent population growth is concentrated among the over-75s while the most recent census shows a 9% drop in the 30-44 group. To redress this, Scotland will have to continue to attract more young people of working age in years to come. In other words, the population growth on the islands and throughout Scotland is good but it is still not good enough.
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