Reversing population decline in the Scottish Highlands and Islands will require governing bodies to "move heaven and earth", according to one business leader who lives in Sutherland - an area at the sharp end of the crisis.

The situation was laid bare in a new report by Highland Council, following last year's Census, that shows areas including Caithness and West Lochaber are being drained of people.

Population growth in the Highlands between 2011 and 2022 was 1.4% - less than half that of Scotland overall, while the Western Isles is expected to experience a 6% decline by 2028.

The Herald: Parts of the Highlands are experiencing 'rapid' population decline Parts of the Highlands are experiencing 'rapid' population decline (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

The number of over-75s in the Highlands rose by 60.% over this period, the sum total of an increasingly ageing population and the area's attractiveness as a retirement destination.

More light can be shed on the gravity of the situation by secondary school roll forecasts which are predicting a 12.5% decline over the next 15 years when Inverness is taken out of the equation.

Kinlochbervie school in the north west of Sutherland has capacity for 182 pupils but currently has 33 children and numbers are forecast to drop to 21 by 2032.

Today, The Herald launches a new series that will get to the heart of the issues and challenges that are stymying population growth in the Highlands and Islands.

We will be travelling to areas identified as most at risk to hear from the communities who are best placed to explain the challenges of rural life in modern-day Scotland. 

The Herald: Fort William was promised a new hospital by 2002 Fort William was promised a new hospital by 2002 (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

Our series will also include exclusive interviews with politicians and policy makers and leading voices on demographic change taking in transport, housing, health, connectivity and education, all key to population resilience.

One leading industry figure said the severity of the situation was "not recognised by the movers and shakers in the Central Belt".

We will explore what is perceived to be going wrong in government and local authority policy.

The New Highland Clearances - Day One:

A plan to pay people to move to the islands was later abandoned by the Scottish Government while islanders say proposals to ban fishing in 10% of Scotland's waters (later rejected) are yet more proof that policymakers are not listening. 

Highland Council said in its December report that the latest census figures suggest that efforts by the Scottish Government to stem population decline are having little effect in terms of altering the current trajectory and doing more of the same is unlikely to deliver a different outcome.

The local authority is funded per head of population but say its service provision is more costly than other areas due to the geographical expanse of its authority area.

In today's coverage, we travel to Kinlochleven, in Lochaber, a village that is still feeling the effects of the loss of one of Scotland's last remaining aluminium smelters 23 years ago.

The Herald:

Nothing about their situation is clear-cut, however. The village benefits enormously from tourism but this in itself presents challenges which are explored in depth in today's long-read article.

We will also hear from an academic who moved back home to the  Highlands with his family and says his relocation meant putting his career ambitions on hold.

Later in the series Professor David Bell, an expert in demographics, will argue that renewables were held up as a huge opportunity for the Highlands but don't actually create many jobs for local people.

SNP MSP Kate Forbes says housing is the single biggest issue hampering population growth. In our exclusive interview tomorrow she shares her thoughts on the single legislative change she believes could help reverse population decline.

The Herald: Kae Forbes, SNP MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch is interviewed by Herald reporter Caroline WilsonKae Forbes, SNP MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch is interviewed by Herald reporter Caroline Wilson (Image: Colin Mearns/Newsquest)

We will also hear from her political opponents including Labour's Rhoda Grant who has come up with her own solution to help address housing shortages.

Tomorrow's coverage will also focus on the mothers who are saying no to more children in one part of the Highlands that is in sharp decline because of maternity service provision. 

Later this week will hear from villagers in the history-making community who took matters into their own hands when they were told their primary was under threat of being closed.

In 2018 a Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) survey of young people found that for the first time, more young people wanted to stay in their home towns after leaving school but this was dependant on decent jobs with prospects, having somewhere nice and affordable to stay, and digital connectivity.

"Reversing population trends will require moving heaven and earth to retain more young people and attract younger people and families to move in by focusing on making rural Highland the best possible place to live, work and play for people their age," says David Richardson, development manager for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in the Highlands and Islands.

The Herald: 'All voices must be heard - not just the powerful few''All voices must be heard - not just the powerful few' (Image: FSB)

"This is about appropriately priced accommodation of the right sort in the right places; decent transport and digital links; childcare facilities and schools; leisure facilities; and so on."

He says the staffing shortage affecting many Highland businesses has developed into a crisis, and is damaging businesses and the reputation of the region as a tourism destination, a major employer.

"Quite simply, there are too many job vacancies chasing too few job seekers," says Mr Richardson.

"In August 2016, an FSB survey of Skye businesses found that a third were short-staffed, and we thought that that was bad. Subsequent surveys have shown that the situation is steadily worsening, our most recent survey finding that 57% of businesses were short-staffed in 2022, with around 8 in 10 having to cut back on hours, services or both as a result. 

He mentions that one leading hotelier will be unable to serve lunches in his hotels this year because they are required to focus staffing resources on resident guests. 

"Visitors come to the Highlands to enjoy the world-class scenery, natural and cultural heritage and activities, and they expect to find businesses open and providing great service wherever they go," he said.

"If operators can’t do so because there are no staff to recruit, it not only damages their incomes and local economies now, but the great fear is that it will reduce the desire of visitors to return in future, and to recommend the Highlands as a holiday destination to others."

He says community development is vital, and the more fragile a community the more vital it becomes.  

"However, ‘community’ means everyone," he added. "Not just a few loud voices with powerful interests. All views must be taken into account."