Population growth and decline on Scotland’s islands – 2001 to 2020

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A flurry of islands-related activity during the last parliamentary session resulted in the 2018 Islands Act and Scotland’s first ever National Islands Plan. A central aim of these efforts is to address depopulation trends and “ensure a healthy, balanced population profile” on Scotland’s islands. This week sees the publication of the second annual report on the National Islands Plan, and later this year the four-year progress report on the Islands Act will be published. Over the current parliamentary session, the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee will scrutinise the effectiveness of the Scottish Government’s islands policies.

National Records of Scotland statisticians are forecasting population reductions for all of Scotland’s island local authorities over the next 20 years. However, this blog post focusses on the past two decades and shows that the story of depopulation has so far been true for some islands but not others.

A word on the data…

The data in this blog is based on two sources:

  • data supplied by Highlands and Islands Enterprise which identifies the island-based small area geographies called data zones
  • Small Area Population Estimates from the National Records of Scotland (NRS) which provide population estimates for these data zones.

The population data are estimates, so there are some caveats that we should note. The figures discussed here are based on births, deaths, and migration. Whilst the births and deaths data are based on the compulsory civil registration system – administered by the NRS and the Local Registration Offices – migration data is more complicated. There is no comprehensive system which registers migration in the UK, neither moves to or from the rest of the world nor moves within the UK. Therefore, the data used is mainly based on International Passenger Survey data, for international migration, and NHS data (National Health Service Central Register and Community Health Index (CHI)), for movements within the UK.

What has happened since 2001?

The population estimates show that in 2020 there were 2,800 more people living on Scotland’s islands than in 2001, a 2.6% increase over the period. However, at the same time, Scotland’s population as a whole grew at the significantly faster rate of 7.9%. Much of this mainland growth took place in the central belt, as well as in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and Highland Council areas.

Bar chart comparing the population growth in the Scottish isles and Scotland overall between 2001 and 2020.

Most of the growth in Scotland’s island population since 2001 took place in the Orkney, Highland and Shetland Islands council areas. Island communities in Argyll and Bute and in North Ayrshire, on the other hand, saw significant reductions in their populations. The population of Na h-Eileanan an Iar – the most populated islands-only local authority – is more or less the same as it was in 2001.

A line chart showing the growth in Scotland's island population broken down by local authority area between 2001 and 2020.

Which islands have seen the most significant changes?

Data is available for individual islands, areas within islands or island groupings, and this allows us to see population changes at a fairly localised level. The following chart shows that almost all island datazones in Argyll and Bute saw reductions in population over the past 20 years, with the Isle of Bute seeing the most dramatic reduction. On the other hand, almost all island datazones in the Highland Council area – mainly areas on Skye – saw increases in population. The most striking increases since the turn of the Century have been in the East and West Mainland areas of Orkney, and in the Broadbay and Point areas of Lewis in Na h-Eileanan Siar.

A horizontal bar chart comparing population growth in intermediate zones which contain islands, grouped by local authority, between 2001 and 2020.

Age profiles of Scotland’s islands

The population of Scotland’s islands, like the rest of Scotland, has aged quite a bit over the past 20 years. The proportion of people aged 65 and over on Scotland’s islands rose from 18% in 2001 to 26% in 2020, whilst the proportion of the island population under the age of 25 fell from 28% to 24%.

A horizontal bar chart comparing population growth by age age group in Scotland's islands and Scotland overall between 2001 and 2020.

The majority of people living on Scotland’s islands are now in the over-45 age group. This is not the case for mainland Scotland, where the under-45 age group is still the majority (albeit just). Of course, people living longer is no bad thing; however, aging populations can put pressures on certain public service, whilst the long-term sustainability of communities may be at risk if there’s a shortage of young families, young adults and children.

A stacked area chart comparing the proportion Scotland's island population and Scotland's overall population by broad age group, between 2001 and 2020.

As the National Islands Plan (see page 18) points out, many of Scotland’s islands are projected to see significant decreases in the numbers of children and working-age people living on them. It cites the example of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, which could see a 20% decline in the working-age population and a similar level of decline in the proportion of children over the next 20 years.


One of the major exercises in information gathering in recent years has been the commissioning of the National Islands Plan Survey in 2020. This collected information on people’s perceptions and experiences of island life and was completed by 4,347 people on 59 islands. One of the survey’s clear conclusions is that experiences of island life can vary considerably by island group; Scotland’s islands should not be treated as one homogeneous group. This is also the case when we look at the experience of depopulation over the past twenty years, with some island communities growing whilst others have witnessed significant population decline.

Recognising this, the Scottish Government’s annual report on the Islands Plan (published today) highlights work with the Convention of the Highlands and Islands exploring actions to tackle depopulation in the region, particularly in the local authority areas highlighted in this blog.

Greig Liddell and Andrew Aiton, SPICe research, March 2022

Cover image: Pixabay