Scotland’s most sparsely populated areas in the Highlands and Islands could have “untapped potential” that could reverse falling population trends, it has been suggested.

Repurposing empty homes could be one of the key policies that could reverse current migration trends that are the key driver of falling populations in these areas.

The Western Isles, Argyll and Bute, Shetland and Orkney have the highest percentage of unoccupied premises, according to figures released by

These figures, calculated with data from 2020, state that 13% of dwellings in Na h-Eileanan Siar are empty, one in ten in Argyll and Bute are vacant while both Orkney and Shetland Islands were claimed to have 9% of all homes empty.

While that data includes all dwellings that are vacant such as long-term empty houses, unoccupied exemptions and second homes, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides remain in the top three on the list when homes officially empty for six months or more are counted.

According to the latest Scottish Government data covering up to September 2021, 4.88% of homes have been left empty in Shetland for over six months and 4.01% were empty in the Western Isles.

“Our island communities do have higher percentages of empty homes,” said Shaheena Din, the national project manager at the Scottish Empty Home Partnership.

She added: “There's a lot of work being done around our island communities. They do still have large percentages of empty homes and we recognise that there are larger numbers in rural communities.

“That is simply because a large percentage of Scotland's population lives around urban areas.”

READ MORE: Airbnb swindler scams desperate renters out of deposits amid rental market concerns

The population of Scotland is projected to decrease by 1.5% by 2045, compared with a projected 5.8% increase for the UK as a whole, according to projections by the National Records of Scotland.

However, research from the Hutton Institute has previously suggested that the drop in total population could reach 25% in sparsely populated areas.

Researchers claim this would not necessarily be the case if migration could happen without current economic constraints as well as limits “by things like housing availability and affordability”.

“It is obvious that migration is the critical issue for growing population on islands,” Dr Jonathan Hopkins said.

He emphasised that a declining and aging population is an issue expected to affect the whole of the country.

“The whole of Scotland has got this demographic issue which is confronting it but it is more acutely felt in sparsely populated areas and islands,” Dr Hopkins added.

“Population projections we've had in the past are based on kind of what we see as realistic migration assumptions – assuming trends that we’ve seen in the past can continue.

“We’ve carried out a separate modelling of population change in sparsely populated areas, but assuming that migration can happen freely.

These projections show that a falling population in the islands and other rural areas is not a sealed fate – and in fact shows there is “potential for repopulation if migration was easier”.

One of the aspects that would need to improve is housing with the researcher pointing towards the Island Survey as giving “clear evidence of dissatisfaction over housing availability”.

Around 60% of islanders strongly disagreed or disagreed that there was enough housing to meet the local demand, according to the Scottish Government questionnaire.

Over one in five people (44%) did not believe there was affordable housing in the area – an issue councils taking ownership of homes left empty.

MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar Alasdair Allan stated the council had taken “good” strides towards doing that by employing an empty homes officer.

He said: “Across many parts of the Western Isles, there is a real housing crisis, which the Scottish Government has recognised in the £45m allocated to social housebuilding in the islands. “We desperately need more young people and more working age families. Despite this, it’s increasingly difficult for young islanders to get on the housing market.

“Getting empty homes back into use has a role to play. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has done good work on this front by employing an empty homes officer who has helped bring 120 empty properties back into use.”

Mr Allan emphasised that short-term lets have skyrocketed and that second homes occupy many of the dwellings.

The Western Isles have the second highest proportion of second homes of any council in Scotland making up for 5.65% of the available housing, behind only Argyll and Bute at 6.10%.

READ MORE: Gaelic communities have 'deteriorated considerably' since lockdown, rise of Airbnb

The MSP added: “However, we do need to recognise that many properties classed as vacant will not be in a suitable condition or will be prohibitively expensive to bring up to standard.

“Meanwhile, the number of short-term lets has increased by 137% over the last decade and the Western Isles retains a large number of second homes. These are issues that we need to tackle too. “Finally, there also been a trend of urbanisation within the islands, with house building projects focused in the past around Stornoway and far fewer units built across the rural areas, despite the need there.

“Tackling the islands’ housing issues will means coordinated action across all of these fronts.” The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership aim is to encourage long term empty homes back into use – and reported 1152 properties were brought back into use over 2021/20.

However, the work had been stunted by Covid restrictions and is only “getting back to normality”.

Shaheena Din described “significant challenges” which were caused during lockdowns.

She said: “There was a huge rise in the cost of materials. It was a weekly rise. You would go one week to look at materials and the cost just kept increasing.

“It was quite difficult to put budget on renovation projects. There's also supply chain issues, things that would normally take a week to arrive were taking three months to arrive.

While they are not “pretty much up to capacity”, materials “are just more expensive” amid a cost-of-living crisis and soaring inflation.

“Empty house work is a no brainier,” Ms Din said. “It helps revitalize communities, it can help sustain communities.”

Empty Home Officers are crucial to this work according to the national project manager.

“Two thirds of our councils have empty home officers,” she added. “They do proactive work, where they look at council tax records that show the empty properties that have been empty for six months or more.

“Argyll and Bute have got an excellent service which has been ongoing for many years as do the Western Isles and Orkney - we would probably hold them up as quite exemplar officers.

“With councils that don’t have an empty homes officer, I would welcome a conversation with any of them.”

Not only could the repurposing of the vacant homes boost populations, but it can have a significant impact on neighbourhoods.

Ms Din said: “Recently, just in the winter months we have been dealing with a number of burst pipes.

“These are in properties that have been lying empty, there's no heating on and the owner has just disappeared, and the pipe burst into a shared flat.”

One case had forced a disabled man to leave his home as the owner of a neighbouring property with a burst pipe could not be found.

“It shows the impact one empty property can have,” she added.

Speaking on population levels, Dr Hopkins said: “You can either make an effort to address population decline, or you can kind of accept a population decline and support people’s access services and their quality of life.

“In a lot of parts of the islands, it's essentially very likely that populations will decline but that’s based on current migration continuing.

He added: “We do get this impression that there might be this potential for repopulation if migration was easier.”