By Bill Heaney
The lure of rural life on one of Scotland’s 90 islands became even more attractive as the country locked down.
However, a reported surge in interest from middle-aged mainlanders is fuelling soaring property prices on the islands and making it even harder for young people to find a home.
Argyll and Bute Council is looking for a buyer for the former Port Ellen Schoolhouse on Islay.
Situated close to Port Ellen Primary School, the property is for sale at offers over £95,000 and will appeal to buyers keen on a renovation project.
Built in 1965, the schoolhouse is a single storey, detached four-bedroom bungalow. Port Ellen is the second largest town on Islay after Bowmore and amenities include a supermarket, hotels, restaurants, bistro and pubs as well as its three world famous whisky distilleries – Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.
Alongside beautiful scenery and wildlife and its appeal for lovers of Scotland’s national drink, Islay offers a wide range of outdoor pursuits and cultural activities.
The island is a popular choice for golf, cycling, fishing, horseriding and hillwalking and plays host to a variety of annual events including a jazz festival, a rugby festival and the Islay Festival of Malt and Music.
It is also home to a number of successful hand craft businesses including Persabus Pottery, Islay Woollen Mill and Islay Quilters as well as the island’s only brewery, Islay Ales.
Due to the current Covid restrictions, viewings for the property are being carried out online – a ‘Virtual Tour’ is available at https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/property/former-port-ellen-schoolhouse-islay
The Council are seeking expressions of interest which should include the prospective purchaser’s contact information and an outline of their proposed development. Full details are available at the above link.
Councillor Alastair Redman, pictured right, Policy Lead of Business, Regeneration and Commercial Development, who also lives on the island:
“The lifestyle on Islay epitomises everything that is good about Argyll and Bute with easy access to the mainland for those who want to enjoy what the area has to offer.
“There is a genuine community feel about the island and a real sense that people enjoy a good work/life balance, all of which is complemented by excellent schools, great amenities and a rich cultural and leisure appeal. ”
Meanwhile, as islanders fear a future of dwindling, older populations, the Scottish Government has announced it would pay young people and families £50,000 to relocate, promising to spend £5 million over the coming years.
The scheme has failed to impress islanders, however, who say more practical investment is needed to encourage more people to live and work there.
Iain Stephen Morrison, editor of Western Isles news and information service Am Pàipear, has lived on Uist pretty much all his life and says the Government money would be better spent improving life on the islands for existing residents and new ones, too.
Port Ellen Schoolhouse on Islay, the harbour and ferry and a beach to rival Barbados.
“The answer to our problem isn’t so much incentive as creating opportunity,” said Morrison. “We have fantastic incentives. It’s beautiful, safe, great schools, a caring community.
“But there are challenges and we need support to help with the challenges. Housing is a huge one, as is jobs. The internet signal is patchy, the phone signal is patchy, the transport system is breaking down…we need to look at all of that.”
Morrison said improving infrastructure and transport, creating jobs and making more land available for affordable housing should be the priorities.
“The number of visitors in recent years has grown considerably and people on the islands have responded with new campsites and homes becoming holiday rentals and Airbnbs,” he said.
“But there is a huge housing crisis and challenges getting on to the property ladder. With so many holiday homes, there are very few long-term rentals and property prices are going up year on year.
“With the onset of the pandemic, there is much fiercer competition when properties come on to the market. Families from here looking to bid on a house are being blown out by people on the mainland snapping them up.”
Jim Hunter, senior researcher and emeritus professor of history at the University of the Highlands and Islands, says affordable housing needs to be made a priority – because there is little point in encouraging families to the isles if they can’t find a home.
“The fundamental issue is the growing impossibility for people on modest incomes to have any hope of buying a house on the islands,” said Hunter, a former chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
“And it’s not just confined to the islands, it’s anywhere rural all across the country. The house prices and land prices are astronomical and it has worsened in the last year with property prices sky-rocketing. And it’s nothing to do with the economy, it’s to do with people buying second homes or holiday homes.
“It’s all contributing to the fact that young people can’t live here even if they want to. Surveys have shown young people either in the Highlands and islands now want to continue living here and others elsewhere wish to live their lives in places like these.
“I grew up in the north part of Argyll in the ’50s and ’60s and at that time the people in my generation just took it for granted that moving away to the bright lights of the city was something that would happen.