Housing, repopulating Scotland’s islands and remote working – three challenges for our rural communities

How can we repopulate and keep communities strong on Scotland’s islands, how can we make sure there is adequate access to housing in rural areas and could remote working be the boost needed to create rural resilience?

These are knotty challenges to which there is no simple solution or short answer. But they’re also important challenges to address for a country where 98% of the landmass is classified as rural and forms a major part of Scotland’s identity, culture, economy and social landscape.

They’re themes that are important areas of focus for us here at the Hutton as part of our social, economic and geographic sciences research, which helps to underpin policy and thinking around how to protect and enhance rural communities in Scotland.

We took time out with three of our current staff – Marcus Craigie, Kirsten Clarke and Christopher Murray (pictured, left-right) – who are all working towards PhDs focusing on different aspects of rural and island communities, to find out more about their work and what it means for Scotland. 

Addressing depopulation

For Marcus, who is working on his PhD with the University of Aberdeen, the challenge is addressing depopulation. “By 2043, all Scottish island local authorities are projected to decline in population,” he says. “Some are more significant than others. For example, in Orkney, the projected decline between 2018 and 2043 is 1.64%, whereas in Na h-Eileanan Siar, it is 15.98%.

“When you look further into these statistics, you see a clearer view of the geographic nuances of population change. Although the Orkney local authority has one of the lowest projected population declines, the islands around the Orkney mainland are significantly depopulating. Between the 1961 and the 2011 census periods, the ferry-connected islands lost 28% of their population.”

Impacts depend on location

The impacts of this drain on local populations differ depending on the location, he says. For some areas it can increase community vulnerability, negatively impact community confidence (Scottish Government, 2019b), lead to loss of culture and language (Atterton et al. 2022) and changes to public infrastructure such as the closure of a school (Lehtonen, 2021), he says.

It’s not as easy a task as it might seem. “The challenges and opportunities for retaining populations and attracting new populations can sometimes be portrayed as very generalised, for example, transport, housing and jobs,” says Marcus. “These factors, in reality, are geographically nuanced both in terms of their significance and the factors that come under these headline challenges and opportunities. To successfully apply policy for population change, we need to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach and understand our island communities’ individuality.”

The big question for Marcus is figuring out what a sustainable population looks like – according to the communities living there – and how policy can help address the challenges and harness the opportunities on islands, without employing blanket approaches.

“How does policy need to adapt and flex to address ever-changing crises facing islands, for example, transport, energy and cost of living?” he says. It’s ongoing work with the next step being to delve into some communities in Shetland through a household questionnaire to see what they think.

For Kirsten, the focus is looking at how rural communities might benefit from the increased opportunity to work remotely that the Covid pandemic created.

“The pandemic fundamentally changed how and where people go to work,” she says. “But it’s still unclear what the longer-term dynamics of this change on rural communities are. “A recent study by recruitment agency Hays found that 39% of Scottish employees are now hybrid working, while 22% of professional employees work remotely full time. These trends have important implications for the resilience of rural areas. In particular, people may be more or less mobile, both in terms of daily commutes and where they choose to live.

“These changes will have impacts on community resilience, such as new groups of people potentially moving to rural areas, second-home owners using their properties differently and changing commuting patterns evolving the use of public transport.”

These are issues Kirsten is tackling with her PhD, through the University of Gloucestershire. “I am interested in how to create resilient rural communities that are prepared to respond to 21st-century challenges and shocks,” she says. “Post-pandemic remote working provides a fascinating way to examine how communities can adapt to change in a transformative way.

“So far, through mostly desk-based research, I have identified five types of mobility that may be impacted by post-pandemic remote working: counter urbanisation, multi-locality, commuting, digital mobility and immobility.

“I am particularly interested in how people are using their second homes. Literature from Scandinavia shows that people have been spending more time in their second homes since the rise of remote work. This has important implications for rural-urban relations and community dynamics. However, there are still questions around how long-term these trends might be.”

Kirsten is now keen to find a way to adequately understand how all five types of mobility are changing. “I also need to look at how these trends may vary within and across communities,” she says. “I also need to find appropriate methods to capture the opportunities and challenges these changes are creating and ensure voices from all community groups are valued.”

However, a key challenge to both repopulating islands and other rural areas and communities is housing and a shortage of affordable good quality housing.

“The impact of this shortage is felt not only by households lacking accommodation, but also by wider communities,” says Christopher, who is doing his PhD with the University of St Andrews. “That’s because jobs go unfilled and working age people leave/or are prevented from returning due to a lack of suitable housing, making places less habitable. The knock-on impact is a threat to community sustainability.

“I’m really interested in how housing and its politics. For example, where, why and how housing gets built, how it’s managed and who benefits from the way things are at present. On a wider level I’m interested in inequality, in how it affects people and places and how it can be combatted.

“So far, I’ve found out a lot about the complex links between housing and communities, how housing can change places – for better and worse. This is often tied to tourism and the use of housing for short-term letting and as second homes.”

Christopher Murray

“All the communities I’m working in are dealing with issues of depopulation, so I’ve been investigating how this intersects with housing stress. Common sense would suggest that as the number of people living in an area declines housing would get cheaper, but this doesn’t seem to be happening.”

A big question, he says, is how more could be made out of the housing stock we have already. “Building new housing is becoming more and more expensive and government housing budgets are being cut,” he says. “So is there a way to make more out of the existing stock?”

This brief dip into Christpher, Kirsten and Marcus’ work gives just a glimpse of the wider work we’re doing here at the Hutton across rural and island communities.

It’s work that will help provide at least some answers and direction to aid national policy around maintaining and even repopulating some of our more remote areas. It’s work that will help guide how to keep communities strong and point to way to ensure there is adequate access to housing in rural areas.

Importantly, it gives visibility and voice to those communities living on that 98% of Scotland’s landmass classified as rural and the Scottish culture, identity and economy bound up in it.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.