Lack of homes described as threat to way of life on Western Isles

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Steven Macdonald
Image caption,
Steven Macdonald says he may have to leave the islands again to find a home

Island life could be under threat if young islanders continue to struggle to get access to housing, it has been claimed.

People living in the Western Isles say they face having to leave to find homes - and work - on the mainland.

They say a lack of new-builds, high costs and homes being used as short-term lets are parts of the problem.

Community landlord Stòras Uibhist says more affordable homes are needed to halt depopulation.

Stòras Uibhist, which manages the 93,000-acre (37,636 ha) South Uist Estate, is working with Rural Housing Scotland on plans for a small new community at Lochboisdale on South Uist.

Called a Smart Clachan, the idea is a modern twist on a traditional clachan - small communities which comprised a few houses with residents sharing land for raising livestock and growing vegetables.

It is hoped similar schemes could be developed in other parts of the Western Isles, and potentially elsewhere in Scotland.

One of those interested in the project is Steven Macdonald, whose family has lived on North Uist for generations.

Image source, G+GA Architecture
Image caption,
An illustration of a Smart Clachan community which would offer islanders affordable homes

He said: "I moved away from home for five years and my dream was always to come back here to raise a family myself.

"Myself and my fiancée have been searching for a house for a good year and a bit now."

Mr Macdonald said available homes were few and far between, and often expensive, while there were long waiting lists for social housing.

"My dream would be to build my own house but again costs for materials have gone through the roof and land is through the roof as well," he said.

"If we aren't able to find something long term then we are going to have to sadly move away again."

It has been a similarly frustrating experience for musician Paul Burgess. He left the Western Isles for Glasgow when he was 18, but like many other islanders later wanted to return to the isles to live and work.

Image caption,
Paul Burgess returned to the Western Isles to live and work

He said holiday homes were important to the islands' economy, but would like to see a greater provision of properties for people who want to live and work in the isles.

"I have just turned 29 and I am still living at home," he said. "I want a place of my own in Uist but I'm finding there is nowhere even to rent.

"Anything that gets built has people waiting to get in - it's just really hard to find anywhere to live here."

Mr Burgess said that because he is a first-time buyer he cannot get a mortgage for certain types of properties in Uist, further limiting his options.

The Registers of Scotland, which keeps public registers of land and property, reports that the volume of residential property sales in the Western Isles in 2021-22 was 423 - the third lowest level of Scotland's 32 local authority areas after Orkney and Shetland.

There were also no new-build homes sales in the Western Isles last year, and just five in 2020-21. The peak period for new-build sale was 2007-08 with 18 properties.


The Registers of Scotland's newly-published Property Market Report said the value of residential sales in Western Isles had more than doubled over the last 19 years.

The average house price was £144,880 in 2021-22 and, according to the report, the islands saw the highest proportion of cash sales of all Scottish local authority areas at 54%.

According to recent Scottish government research into short-term lets, there are 397 homes and 113 private rooms run as holiday accommodation in the Western Isles.

According to local authority, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the islands' population is projected to decline by more than 6% from 26,830 in 2018 to 25,181 by 2028. The isles' have also been forecast to see Scotland's greatest decline among people of working age.

Image source, Modular West
Image caption,
Modular homes would be constructed in Barra for the proposed Lochboisdale site

Community-owned company Stòras Uibhist, which manages the 93,000-acre South Uist Estate, is working with Rural Housing Scotland on the Smart Clachan plans for Lochboisdale on South Uist.

Chief executive Darren Taylor said a lack of housing posed a risk to island life.

"I think it is really no exaggeration to see housing posing an existential threat to island life and if we don't address the problems, particularly the ones young people are facing, depopulation will continue," he said.

"People will move to the mainland, not because they want to, but because they are faced with no alternative."

Smart Clachan development officer Donna Young said the project offered hope.

Modular homes - a type of prefabricated property - would be constructed on Barra by Modular West for the proposed Lochboisdale site.

Ms Young said: "Smart Clachan is a 21st Century revival of an old clachan on the islands where we hope to create a community through housing and through shared spaces, such as gardens, and shared work spaces."