Scottish Alliance for Geoscience, Environment and Society

Marcus Craigie

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PhD title: Growing Scotland’s Islands: can the National Islands Plan stimulate a population turnaround?

For almost two centuries, depopulation has been the dominant demographic trend across many of Scotland’s islands (Atterton et al., 2022; Caird, 1972). More recently, some signs of the long-term depopulation trend reversing have been identified. Between 2001 and 2020 it was estimated that the overall Scottish island population increased by 2.6% (2,800 individuals) (Liddell and Aiton, 2022). Importantly, this growth varies between and within island groupings and significant growth has been experienced in larger settlements e.g. Kirkwall in Orkney mainland and Lerwick in Shetland mainland. Despite this overall trend, population projections suggest that over the period mid-2018 to mid-2043 population decline will continue in many local authorities serving island populations (National Records of Scotland, 2023).

In the late 2010s, the issue of island depopulation in Scotland attracted attention at the national level as part of the consultations which ultimately led to the passing of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. The Act legislates for several provisions for improving life in island communities, the first of which is to address depopulation. The Act mandates the development of a National Islands Plan. The plan sets out “the main objectives and strategy of Scottish Ministers in relation to improving outcomes for island communities that result from or are contributed to by, the carrying out of functions of a public nature” (The National Archives, 2018, Online). The plan was published in 2019 and the first objective sets out an aspiration of ensuring a healthy, balanced population profile in Scotland’s islands (Scottish Government, 2019b).

The purpose of this project is to better understand the term ‘healthy, balanced population profiles’ in the Scottish islands context and to evaluate policy measures designed to stem island depopulation and encourage island population growth during an era of multiple crises. The research problem, therefore, combines two related concepts, as set out below.

The first concept, my doctoral research explores is how a ‘healthy’ and ‘balanced’ population profile might be conceptualised: what does it mean for a population to be healthy? What is a balanced population? Is it based purely on the number of residents? Does it also include demographic or other attributes, i.e., the ‘right people for the community’ (Wilson, et al. under review)? Across public, private and third-sector stakeholders, and amongst island communities, there are likely to be many interpretations and examples of what constitutes a healthy, balanced population. Without understanding diverse interpretations of what ‘healthy’ and ‘balanced’ populations are, realistic policy interventions to help achieve objective 1 of the National Islands Plan cannot be designed.

Second, my research explores how aspirations to achieve healthy, balanced population profiles are influenced by the various types, strengths and accumulation of crises facing governments, communities, and individuals. Indeed, some places are now experiencing several crises at once and are always in a state of crises, for this project, this is referred to as ‘perma polycrisis’. Crises facing islands may include or be triggered by COVID-19, cost of living, climate change, energy costs and security and housing market-related issues. Singularly or in combination, the impacts of such crises are likely to influence population dynamics and mobilities, but to date, their impacts in the context of islands are poorly understood.

The overall aim of the project is to better understand the term ‘healthy, balanced population profiles’ in the Scottish islands context and to evaluate policy measures designed to stem island depopulation and encourage island population growth during an era of perma polycrisis.

This aim will be achieved by exploring the following research questions:
1.) What constitutes a healthy, balanced population profile in the Scottish islands?
2.) What is perma polycrisis, how does it affect island communities and how does it influence aspirations to achieve a healthy, balanced population profile?
3.) Within the context of islands experiencing a perma polycrisis, how could policy interventions support the creation and maintenance of a healthy, balanced population profile?

Overall, the project is likely to provide broad benefits to island and rural communities. Beneficiaries will include island and rural communities, local authorities, policymakers and the Scottish Government’s Islands team, as well as the academics and research communities interested in population, rural and island studies. The impact of the study will be three-fold. It will: 1.) Bring new knowledge to the fields of island studies and rural geography, relating to Scotland but having wider relevance to international rural and island contexts. 2.) inform policy makers regarding island repopulation by disseminating findings to them; repopulation is a stated ambition of the Scottish Government. If policymakers understand what healthy, balanced population profiles are and what they mean to communities, the application of policy interventions will likely be more appropriate and successful. A better understanding of the impact of perma polycrises on islands and mobilities to and from islands could lead to a more robust, resilient policy which has greater longevity and ability to withstand the impacts of future crises. 3.) Provide a platform for islanders’ voices to be heard, and to share experiences across geographies. A greater understanding of repopulation approaches created by communities living there may lead to more successful applications of policy interventions.

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