Where are all the women?
For all their rugged beauty, the Western Isles face an agonising future – unless islanders can somehow reverse the exodus of women of child-bearing age. Steve Boggan reports
If you have ever been to Gheiraha beach, a few miles north of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, you might have seen Susan Rabe and her seven-year-old son Haran playing on the white sands, leaning and laughing into the westerlies. This is their favourite place on the island. Beyond the white spume of the breakers you can often see porpoises and whales in the clear blue water. Behind you are mossy banks and dramatic cliffs, pristine in their isolation. Above the beach, the single-track road peters out over a folly of a crossing called the Bridge to Nowhere.
‘I can’t imagine leaving it behind,’ Rabe says. ‘Haran doesn’t want to go, but it looks like we’ll have to. It’s a terrible feeling to have to leave your home against your will, but there are lots of us in the same situation.’ The problems facing her and many people of working age in the Outer Hebrides are a lack of opportunity, expensive housing, limited educational choices and, for the young, a dearth of excitement. None of that is news; small communities everywhere – island or landlocked – endure similar difficulties.
What is happening on the Outer Hebrides, however, is different. A year-long study of migration to and from the islands has shocked the fiercely proud residents. On Lewis, people had believed their community and its Gaelic-speaking culture was recovering after years of decline; in recent years, numbers had been increasing. But what the study found was that most of the newcomers, the ones who had swollen the population, were mature in years while the people leaving were young. In particular, researchers discovered that twice as many young women than men are leaving the Hebrides, so that by 2019 there will be too few of child-bearing age to sustain the population. If nothing is done, the communities of Lewis and the other islands in the group could shrivel and die.
The populated Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, comprise the Isles of Lewis and Harris, North and South Uist, Benbecula, Scalpay and Barra. Stornoway, the main population centre, is on Lewis, two hours and 40 minutes by ferry from Ullapool, or a one-hour plane ride from Glasgow. In 1901, the population of the islands was 46,172. By 2001, the date of the last census, that had fallen by 43% to 26,502. The latest estimates from the General Register Office for Scotland, from June 2005, put numbers at 26,370 – fewer than in 2001, but 110 more than in 2004.
This apparent upturn had looked hopeful until the Outer Hebrides Migration Study, commissioned by the local authority and enterprise agencies, found that the figures were masking a very different reality. Researchers from the Glasgow-based regeneration consultancy Hall Aitken predicted a decline in the number of women of child-bearing age from 4,500 in 2004 to 3,500 by 2019, a fall in the numbers of primary school-aged children from 2,100 to 1,800, a secondary-school population drop from 2,100 to 1,900 and an increase in the average age of the population from 42.4 to 45.3.
The findings were treated lightly in some sections of the media. The Sun sent up two page-three girls to show the men of the islands just what they would be missing. ‘Urgent,’ screamed another paper, ‘lassies wanted for laddies.’ But among islanders, there was a real sense of despair. Politicians admitted they had been caught unawares, but there was less surprise among women. ‘We had all been noticing that many of our friends who left the islands, either for work or to go to mainland universities, were not coming back,’ says Rabe. ‘It wasn’t that they didn’t want to come home. It’s just that there weren’t opportunities for them to come back to.’
For a time, Rabe, 40, was lucky. Like many women on the islands, she had left to experience life away from the solitude, fully intending to return. She set up a tourism business in Egypt after marrying an Egyptian. When that collapsed after 9/11, her marriage broke down and she returned to Stornoway with Haran. Like more than one-third of the working population, she landed a public-sector job – hers funded with EU money, to establish walks and pathways as part of a countryside stewardship scheme. It was a three-year contract, and when it ends in a few months it is unlikely she will find any other work to suit her skills.
‘When I told Haran we might have to go to the mainland, he appeared OK about it, but then I found out he had told my parents he was upset. He doesn’t want to leave them. But if I want to support us, I’ll have to work elsewhere, and that will break my heart. The mainland is full of people who want to come home, and the reality is they simply can’t.’ At the same time, there are young people on the islands who reluctantly feel they must leave if they want to get on in life. And that sometimes involves uprooting entire families.
Kirsteen Macarthur, 28, will this year come to the end of a BA course in business management at Lews Castle College, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, in Stornoway. Ten years ago, the college had 300 full-time students; now it is down to 170. Her partner, Alexander Peck, works as a lecturer at the college and they have two sons.
‘This is such a beautiful place to live,’ says Macarthur. ‘It is a safe environment for our children and the community is very closely knit and extremely supportive of one another. The only problem is that there are very few opportunities here for women, and women are more ambitious than they used to be. It seems pointless to earn a qualification if you can’t use it. But the only major employer of women here is the council and they insist on employing people with experience. How do you get experience if the only major employer won’t give you a chance? Very reluctantly, we’ve accepted that if I can’t find satisfying and well-paid work here, we will have to move to the mainland.’
The public sector plays a huge part in island life. According to official figures, of the working population of 9,908, 4,081 are employed in public administration, health, education, ‘other public services’ and ‘other services’. Only 164 make a full-time living from agriculture or crofting and around 600 from fishing and sea farming, though several factories have closed because of the cost of transporting fish to the mainland. The other main sources of jobs come from construction, distribution, transport and production of textiles, mainly Harris tweed.
Seeing the results of the migration study, one member of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the Western Isles council, mooted paying a bounty to women for each child they bore. That spawned rumours that women would be paid cash to stay on or move to the islands. Neither is true, although at some point financial incentives in the form of grants for women to relocate from the mainland or set up new businesses might be considered. The council, in conjunction with partners in the private sector, education and enterprise agencies, is setting up a working group to search for ways of saving the community.
On paper, it doesn’t look too difficult. The migration study says: ‘In order to stabilise the number of women of child-bearing age and the primary school roll by 2019, the model suggests the need to increase in-migration among under-45s by 40% on 2004-05 levels – this would equate to an additional 185 people each year. At the same time, the numbers of 16- to 24-year-olds leaving the islands should be reduced by around a third. This would mean trying to retain 40 females and 20 males from this age group who currently leave the islands each year.’
Angus Campbell, vice-convenor of the islands council, believes that renewable energy could provide opportunities, and his council has just approved the siting of 180 wind turbines on Lewis. Financial incentives for young people and families, better childcare, cheaper housing and encouragement for entrepreneurs will all have to be considered, he adds. ‘People want to live here because of the quality of life and the wonderful environment in which they can bring up their children. But none of that is sustainable without an economic base. The economy is so fragile. If a fish farm and factory closes down, then the factory that produces the polystyrene boxes to pack the fish closes. The haulier who transports the fish is affected, and the ferry service that transported the fish becomes less viable. Everything here is linked.’
Across the islands, the aspirations of young people, women in particular, are stifled by other factors too. There is a terrible lack of cheap housing, with 7% of the stock owned as holiday homes. Land used to be locked up in crofts handed down from one generation to the next and owned by a handful of landowners on the mainland. In recent years, 65% of such land on the islands has been bought by communities, so there is some fresh optimism there.
Over on the western side of Lewis is Uig, a tiny community of fewer than 400 people, with a peerless sense of togetherness, which is struggling to survive. Among the residents are incomers who have decided to make the island their home. Two of them are Gillian Dykes, 30, and her partner, Richard Davies, 35. They have been on the island for more than eight years and wouldn’t live anywhere else. After years of trying to find land to build on, they are finishing construction of a new home overlooking the bay of Uig and the mountains bordering Harris, and they are expecting their first baby in May.
‘This is a wonderful place to live,’ says Dykes. ‘Everyone helps each other, without asking and without expecting anything in return. You can leave your doors open and children can play safely and enjoy the countryside and the sea. There are problems with schools and jobs and childcare, and they are the things that I believe could attract young families here if they can be improved. Everybody wants the island communities to survive and I believe they will.’
If you look at the rolls of the 40 primary schools dotted across the Western Isles, you often see years with no children in them. Others have one, two or three, while the largest in the more built-up areas can have up to a healthy 50. There will be five babies born in Uig between May and August this year, says Dykes, ‘and we’re all very excited about that. We asked the local midwife, Todag Mackenzie, when was the last time there were five children in the same class, and she found it was 1981.’ The test will come when those children decide whether there is anything to stay for.