IT was always a place where outsiders dreamed of staying. But which local youngsters had to leave.

For generations Scotland’s Highlands and Islands have being losing some of their best and brightest.

Just three years ago more than half of its school leavers expected they too would go - sometimes unwillingly because the did not think they would get the job, course or house they wanted close to home.

Not any more. A landmark new survey has found 54 per cent of Highlanders and Islanders aged between 15 and 30 see themselves in the region for at least a decade. Some 46 per cent, moreover, said they were committed to staying. That is up from 36 per cent in 2015.

These number are from a study of more than 3000 young people carried out for regional economic development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE). And they are going in exactly the direction the agency hoped.

Carroll Buxton, HIE’s director of regional development, said: “Young people are vital to the future prosperity of the Highlands and Islands.

“Creating conditions that make the region attractive to them has always been challenging, and one of our key priorities. It is therefore very heartening to hear that increasing numbers of young people appear to be feeling more positive about the region as a place to live, study and pursue rewarding careers.”

The Highlands and Islands are not shrinking. The 2011 census suggests its population is growing faster than the Scottish average. But the proportion of 15-30-year-olds is only 17 per cent. Well below the Scottish average. So younger Scots who leave are being replaced. With older people.

This, admit leaders, can hurt community cohesion, breaking down family and peer support groups. So keeping more youngsters in the Highlands is seen as crucial to the region’s sustainability, especially of those areas described as fragile by researchers.

The report on the survey, called Enabling Our Next Generation, is not all good news. Over 89 pages researchers detail how 40 per cent of young people said they had to compromise on the job they do and 27 per cent on the homes they could have.

Employment is strong in the Highlands and Islands. More young people are in work than in the rest of the country. But that does not mean you can get the job you want. Or that pay will match your expectations.

One youth from either Caithness of Sutherland told researchers: “Young people who live in the Highlands and Islands currently face that their salaries are going to be lower than a Scottish average and the cost of living is going to be higher than a Scottish average, for some significantly.”

Youngsters reported problems finding a home - some saying a lack of accommodation was a barrier to them studying in the region.

One Orcadian, aged 25-30, said: “In Orkney at least, the vast majority of people own their home, and the rental market is quite small…I think rental property in the Highlands and Islands in general is hard to come by for the most part, especially in small towns, villages, and rurally.”

Holiday lets, meanwhile, are booming, helping to create the tourism industry providing jobs while simultaneously denying homes to local youth.

Online letting agency Airbnb on Tuesday named the Outer Hebrides as one of the world’s top travel destinations to seek out in 2019. It said bookings had increased by 147 per cent in a year.

The islands have claimed ninth place in a global league table of “must-visit spots”, alongside destinations in New Zealand, China, Mexico, Argentina and Japan. Airbnb praised the “beautiful but rugged natural splendour” of the islands.

The report mentioned Airbnb in less flattering light. “Despite the increasing high-profile nature of the housing challenge, stakeholders are not convinced that there has been significant progress in this area.

“Anecdotally there have been suggestions that increased tourism through attractions such as the North Coast 500 have made the rental market even more challenging as properties are being used as Airbnb/holiday lets rather than offering long term leases.”

The reporter praised the University of Highlands and Islands for its role in keeping youngsters in the region. UHI also supports Gaelic higher learning. A third of those polled said they knew some of the language and seven per cent said they were fluent

Professor Wilson McLeod of Edinburgh stressed more youth staying would help the language.

He said: “It’s encouraging that young people in the Highlands and Islands are becoming increasingly optimistic about staying in the region. This is essential for sustaining fragile communities, including Gaelic-speaking communities”