The SNP government is 'too interested in gimmicks and quick fixes" to tackle depopulation in Scotland's islands, an MSP has claimed.

Liam McArthur, Liberal Democrat MSP for Orkney, said some of the smaller isles were experiencing "marked depopulation".

He said turning this around required a "patient and determined commitment" to investing in infrastructure including jobs, housing, transport and broadband rather than announcements and "pots of cash" here and there.

He said the Islands Bond scheme was a classic example of the Scottish Government getting it wrong.

SNP ministers scrapped a manifesto plan to give families £50,000 to move to islands with falling populations after a backlash from locals.

Some islanders described it as a "sticking plaster" and those in favour were largely non-islanders, the government said. 

The idea, which had previously been branded a “bribe” by critics, was included in the 2021 SNP manifesto for Holyrood but a year later Mairi Gougeon, Rural Affairs and Islands Secretary, announced the plan would not be taken forward.

"I think she [ inherited it as a manifesto commitment and after a fairly quick survey it was hastily dropped but I think it's symptomatic of the government that somehow thinks there is a quick solution to this and there is not," said Mr McArthur.

The Herald: Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said reversing depopulation required a 'patient approach'Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said reversing depopulation required a 'patient approach' (Image: Getty)

"The Scottish Government seems to be too interested in gimmicks and quite fixes. 

"Rather than announcements and little pots of cash here and there, actually a patient and determined commitment to investing in the infrastructure - whether that be ferries, whether that be fixed links, broadband roll-out. 

"That's what is necessary to build resilience in rural communities and either retain population or attract in people from elsewhere."


The Western Isles is expected to see a 6%  drop in population by 2028, according to projections, one of the biggest decreases in Scotland. 

At the same time, the imbalance between working-age islanders – particularly women – and more elderly age groups will continue to grow.

"Some [of the islands] are doing a bit better but there is always a fragility to it," said the MSP.

"I think there is more that could be done to recognise the costs of building in rural areas, the figures being quoted to me before the cost-of-living crisis is that you would pay a 30-35% premium between mainland Scotland and the Orkney isles and once you get to the smaller isles you could add 20 to 30% onto that.

"It's difficult managing those costs and keeping things affordable. It's hellishly difficult."

The Herald: Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon

Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon  said the Islands Bond scheme was "never intended to be a silver bullet" to address island population challenges but one element of a wider plan to support communities.

She said the Scottish Government was investing £8.3 million to deliver the National Islands Plan and critical infrastructure projects based on local priorities.