Overview

The most recent mid-year population estimates (2019) for the Outer Hebrides gives a population of 26,720. This shows a decrease of 0.4% (110 persons) from mid 2018 to mid 2019.

This decrease can be attributed to the low net migration (50) but is mainly due to  the negative ‘natural change’. Deaths (341) continued to exceed births (189) over the period. The median age in the islands was estimated to be 49.5 years (Scottish average 42 yrs) in June 2019.

Over the last ten years (between 2009 and 2019) in the Outer Hebrides there has been a decrease of 700 persons (-2.6%). Over the same period, Orkney saw an increase of 6.4%, Shetland an increase of 0.5%, while Scotland overall saw an increase of 4.4%. Figure 1 below plots the estimated population of the Outer Hebrides over the last ten years (2009-2019).

Figure 1: Estimated Population in Outer Hebrides 2009-2019

In 2019, the ‘median age in the Outer Hebrides was estimated to be 48.7 years for males and 50.3 years for females with the following age group breakdowns by sex: Males (17% under 16 years; 60% of working age; 23% of pensionable age); Females (15% under 16 years; 58% of working age; and 27% of pensionable age).

The estimated decrease in the population of the Outer Hebrides from 2018-2019 can be attributed to  low net migration (more in-migration than out-migration) which was estimated to be 50 but is mainly due to  negative ‘natural change’. The graph below illustrates the net migration and natural change estimated for the population between June 2009 and June 2019.

Figure 2: Natural Change and Net Migration in the Outer Hebrides 2009 to 2019

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 was  negative since then but has been positive since 2017.   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)

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 18.8% of the population in 2009 to 15.9% in 2019). The greatest increase by age group has occurred in the 65-74 category (from representing 11.3% of the population in 2009 to 13.7% in 2019).

Figure 4: Age structure of the Outer Hebrides, 2009 and 2019

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 2019 the average age of residents in the Outer Hebrides was over seven years older than in Scotland (49.5 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.