From the outside, life on a Scottish island might seem like a common experience. How different could living in Burray be to living in Barra, you might wonder? How much difference is there really between neighbouring islands like Coll and Tiree? Viewing the islands from the mainland, they may appear very similar. Yet, when you live in the islands, the day-to-day realities can be very different - even between those a stone’s throw from each other.

The problem is, these differences are often overlooked, especially when islands are grouped together for policy, administrative or research purposes, and this can mean whole island communities get left by the wayside. I’ve felt the frustration of this first hand over many years living, working and volunteering in the islands.

Because the truth of the matter is, there are stark differences between Scotland’s islands across areas such as population levels, economic base, education provision, ferry connections and infrastructure.

Which means that considering Arran and Fetlar as the same kind of place is no more sensible than doing similar with Helensburgh and Thurso. And ignoring this can have tangible impacts.

In my local area the neighbouring, but very different, islands of Islay, Jura and Colonsay are often lumped together for reporting and administration. A few years back, when assessing the success of home energy efficiency installations in the local authority area, statistics from the three islands were combined in reports. This fairly standard practice painted quite a rosy picture where, in reality, the majority of installations were in the larger island and the the smaller, more difficult to reach islands were nowhere near meeting their targets.

This example highlights how the way that we choose to group islands can have a very real impact on how policy and service provision are experienced and evaluated in those islands. Sitting at a distance it could appear that these areas are benefiting from government support in an equitable way, and it would be easy to think that the associated policies were being effective in helping solve a problem.

However, the basis on which the interventions were being measured and evaluated masked the fact that the policy suited some islands much better than others, which causes problems not only with immediate targets, but can also compound wider issues, creating a complex web of problems for the future.

The Herald: Participants in the Ba' game in Kirkwall, a New Year tradition unique to OrkneyParticipants in the Ba' game in Kirkwall, a New Year tradition unique to Orkney (Image: Getty)

Considering new ways to group Scotland’s islands was sorely needed. It’s something that I started mulling over when the first National Islands Plan consultation sailed into town in 2019 and have since developed as part of my PhD research exploring sustainable futures for Scotland’s islands.

In 2023, I started presenting a new islands categorisation system, or “typology”, and the idea was picked up by the Scottish Government who asked me to develop it further as part of an internship. I’m happy to say that a modified version of this has now been adopted by the Scottish Government as the Scottish Islands Typology (2024).

Developing the typology meant thinking differently about the islands, including what makes island life distinct from life on the Scottish mainland, but also what makes islands different from each other.

It covers Scotland’s 89 inhabited, offshore islands but, instead of being based on geographical location, the typology looks at factors of capacity and reliance which affect daily life in each island.

This includes examining what capacity an island has to meet its day-to-day needs and facilitate the future plans of its inhabitants within the island space, and how much it must rely on those beyond its watery boundary to do so. For example, the huge range of population sizes across the islands (from one to over 21,000) impacts an island’s ability to function. As an indicator of human capacity, population levels can indicate the pool of people available to deliver key services or provide volunteer support. It also highlights the potential market size in an island, which will affect the willingness or ability of others to deliver goods and services to resident communities.

Access to basic amenities -schooling, GPs and hospitals, grocery stores, and vehicle fuel - is also covered. These areas were chosen not only because they might be seen as key aspects of daily life, but also because their provision is extremely variable across the islands.

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Finally, ferries are crucial to island life, not only for the transport of people, but also of goods, trades and services, in both directions. A ferry service reflects an island’s ability to interact with and rely on those beyond its watery boundary to fill gaps in local capacity. Even on a good day, ferry service levels from and to the islands vary markedly. So, in order to assess this, I looked at crossing times, crossing frequency, mainland port location and the insularity of each island - that is, how many other islands you must travel via to reach mainland Scotland.

Mapping the differences and commonalities in this way clearly illustrates that there can be a great diversity of islands within local authority areas that is too often overlooked, as well as links to be made across our six island local authority areas.

The importance of considering the diversity of Scotland’s islands is clearly noted in both the National Islands Plan and in guidance for Island Communities Impact Assessments, which are designed to allow those developing policy to consider differentiated impacts of policy on islands. Yet, until the publication of the Scottish Islands Typology, there was little official information available to help people understand this diversity. The typology creates a new tool to help fill this gap.

There are many ways for policy makers and researchers to understand the incredible diversity of Scotland’s islands - including by talking to islanders. The Scottish Islands Typology is just one tool, but it’s a unique one amongst official categorisations in being developed from an island-centred perspective in an attempt to reflect the realities of daily life in our islands.

Kirsten Gow is a doctoral researcher at The James Hutton Institute and the University of Aberdeen