The most recent mid-year population estimates (2018) for the Outer Hebrides gives a population of 26,830. This shows a decrease of 0.45% (120 persons) from mid 2017 to mid 2018.

This decrease can be attributed to the low net migration (20) and the negative ‘natural change’ . Deaths (353) continued to exceed births (210) over the period. The median age in the islands was estimated to be 49 years (Scottish average 42 yrs) in June 2018.

Over the last ten years (between 2008 and 2018) in the Outer Hebrides there has been a decrease of 450 persons (-1.6%). Over the same period, Orkney saw an increase of 6.9%, Shetland an increase of 3.3%, while Scotland overall saw an increase of 4.5%. Figure 1 below plots the estimated population of the Outer Hebrides over the last ten years (2008-2018).

Figure 1: Estimated Population in Outer Hebrides 2008-2018

In 2018, the ‘median age in the Outer Hebrides was estimated to be 48 years for males and 49 years for females with the following age group breakdowns by sex: Males (17% under 16 years; 58% of working age; 26% of pensionable age); Females (15% under 16 years; 57% of working age; and 28% of pensionable age).

The estimated decrease in the population of the Outer Hebrides from 2017-2018 can be attributed to   low net migration (more in-migration than out-migration) which was estimated to be 20 and negative ‘natural change’. The graph below illustrates the net migration and natural change estimated for the population between June 2008 and June 2018.

Figure 2: Natural Change and Net Migration in the Outer Hebrides 2008 to 2018

Following the 2011 Census, National Records of Scotland (NRS) produced revised population estimates for 2002 to 2010.

Natural change has been consistently over -100 for most years but reached its highest in 2015 at -176. However, net migration which had been positive up to 2012 has been negative since. However, this year net migration was positive.  This highlights how important it is to have positive net migration to counteract the negative natural change.

On census night in 2011 the resident population of the Outer Hebrides was 27,684; in comparison this figure was 26,502 on census night in 2001. Thus over the period 2001 to 2011 the Outer Hebrides experienced a population increase of 4.5%, the 18th highest in Scotland, while 4 Council areas experienced a decline. Looking back further from 1901 to 2011 the population of the Outer Hebrides has declined by 40% (46,000 in 1901).  The population change from 1901 to 2011  is illustrated in figure 3 below.

Figure 3: Outer Hebrides Population recorded by the Census (1901-2011)
Figure 3: Outer Hebrides Population recorded by the Census (1901-2011)

Demographically, the population of the Outer Hebrides is ageing. As figure 4 illustrates, the greatest decline by age group has occurred in the 30-44 year category (from representing 19% of the population in 2008 to 15.9% in 2018). The greatest increase by age group has occurred in the 65-74 category (from representing 11.1% of the population in 2008 to 13.7% in 2018).

Figure 4: Age structure of the Outer Hebrides, 2008 and 2018

The continuing trend is for young adults to leave the islands for further education or employment purposes.

The situation in the Outer Hebrides is however more marked than elsewhere in Scotland. The Outer Hebrides population also has a higher percentage of individuals in the older age groups and correspondingly less in the younger age groups. In 2018 the average age of residents in the Outer Hebrides was seven years older than in Scotland (49 to 42 years).

The only large town in the Outer Hebrides is Stornoway (Steòrnabhagh) with approximately 6,953 people in the Stornoway settlement Laxdale (Lacasdal), Sandwick (Sanndabhaig) and Newmarket. The remaining population is scattered throughout over 280 townships. Stornoway is the only settlement, which can really be described as having any 'urban' characteristics.