In Scotland, more and more islanders are migrating to the mainland. What drives people to flee – seclusion, quiet, loneliness – is what prompted Helen Strong and Rudi Distel to move from Ingolstadt to the Scottish island of Lewis.
Helen Strong can still vividly remember that one house. “A typical stone cottage with a thatched roof and two fireplaces,” says the 52-year-old. At that time she was on a motorcycle tour with her husband Rudi Distel through the Outer Hebrides, a chain of islands on the west coast of Scotland. “I had the feeling that one day I would live in a house like that,” recalls the British woman. Nine years later, she turned her dream into reality.
Scotland is struggling with population decline in the islands
The couple, who had previously lived and worked in Ingolstadt, bought a house on the Isle of Lewis in 2018 and emigrated there a little later. Helen, who hails from the north of England and came to Germany in 1999 to teach English, has long felt drawn to Scotland. “The landscape, the solitude, the climate,” she lists. “In summer it was much too warm for me in Germany, so I always fled to Scotland.” Her partner Rudi, who had worked in the automotive industry, was becoming increasingly frustrated with his work environment. “It was hectic and the employees were always dissatisfied,” he says in an interview with the star.
Both longed for more freedom, peace and a life close to nature. The move to the secluded island seemed a logical consequence. For the islanders, the opposite is the case. Rapid population decline in the Scottish islands has become a critical issue for many communities. A government survey as part of the “National Island Plan” has revealed that residents see constant emigration as the greatest threat to the future of their communities. The parish of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, which includes the Isle of Lewis, has experienced one of the highest population declines in recent years, according to the National Records of Scotland. The authority expects an additional loss of up to 14 percent by 2041. For the entire Outer Hebrides island chain, the estimate is 16 per cent. A “pretty gloomy” forecast, as the daily newspaper “The Herald” calls it.
Wind and sea instead of car horns
There are two reasons for the negative trend. On the one hand, the number of deaths is significantly higher than the number of births. On the other hand, many people migrate to the mainland, but hardly anyone moves to the islands. Helen and Rudi are among the exceptional cases. What puts many off is exactly what the couple was looking for: seclusion and tranquility. When she was young, Helen really appreciated life in the big city, “but as I got older, I wasn’t interested anymore,” she says.
She found the crowds and the noise increasingly annoying. “I wanted to hear the birds and the sounds of the wind and the sea instead of car horns and loud people,” says the Briton. Their new home is on Great Bernera, its own small island connected to the larger island of Lewis by a bridge. On Great Bernera there is a beach, several lakes and some sights, such as the Callanish Circle, a stone formation reminiscent of Stonehenge. The landscape in Lewis is flat, while the island of Harris, which adjoins it to the south, is very mountainous. “When you drive up these serpentines or hike along them, it’s gigantic,” enthuses Rudi.
“We work for ourselves”
The couple decided to live as self-sufficiently as possible. They produce their own electricity, grow fruit and vegetables, keep chickens and go fishing. They describe house and garden as their full-time job. “Before we worked for other people, now we work for ourselves,” says Helen. Her husband adds: “Every day we can decide anew how we want to organize our everyday life.” The first two years the emigrants renovated the house and part of it into a bed
Most of them come for the nature, cycling or walking the Hebrides Way. Rudi describes the visitors as “people who want to explore the island”. The 59-year-old likes to show his guests hidden places. “It makes me happy to see people’s enthusiasm,” says the Ingolstadt resident. Tourism is the most important industry on the island, followed by lobster fishing and agriculture. In addition, the job market looks bad. One of the factors fueling population decline. “There are no jobs for young people,” says Rudi. A problem that affects almost all Scottish islands and has now also been recognized by the government. Measures have been defined in the “National Island Plan” to improve living conditions on the islands.
Islanders support each other
The “loss of labor force” is identified as one of the key challenges to the survival of the island communities. Due to a lack of future options, young people are moving away, there are hardly any young people and the population is getting older. According to the municipality of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the proportion of islanders over the age of 65 is already 26 percent. This can also be felt on Lewis. “The island is overaged,” says Rudi. “For example, our neighbors are all over 80.” The couple has also observed the lack of young people over the past three years. The fire brigade has problems recruiting young people. A school that used to have ten children now only has five students and was therefore recently closed. “Now the parents sometimes have to drive their children an hour to the nearest school,” reports the German emigrant.
The islanders try to compensate for the crumbling infrastructure as best they can – by supporting each other. In the beginning, Helen and Rudi were “the strangers”, but now they are part of the community. “The locals are even proud that we came here from Germany,” says Helen. The cohesion and the willingness to help are exceptional. Rudi tells how he helped a neighbor fell a tree. They would then divide the wood among themselves, after which there would be snacks – nobody asked for money.
First aid for the whole village
Nevertheless, there are always “political tensions”. Both can hardly resist laughing when they talk about the little squabbles. “Your sheep jumped my fence,” for example. Nevertheless, the consensus prevails. “You have to stick together here,” emphasizes Helen. This also applies to emergencies. Since the emergency doctor needs three quarters of an hour to get to the couple’s home, the village has organized a first-aid course for everyone. About 40 of the hundred residents attended. “Until the rescue service arrives, we’ll march there ourselves and help together,” reports her husband.
The “National Island Plan” speaks of a “long-term development strategy”: “Politicians must work with the help of the islands to encourage people to either stay on the island, return or move to an island,” it says Document. In order to achieve this goal, the government has defined the most important core issues in the “National Island Plan Annual Report 2021”. Accordingly, work is being done to create more living space and jobs, as well as to improve the infrastructure and access to public services.
The “Island Bond” was also created to attract young people. Families who choose to relocate to one of the islands can get up to £50,000 from the government. A decision that is controversial. While island minister Mairi Gougeon speaks of a “really positive step”, Liberal Democrat Liam McArthur in the daily newspaper “The Times” calls for the money to be used for measures that benefit the communities as a whole.
“You can’t solve the problems on the island by giving money,” agrees Rudi. Helen mentions the “crofting commssion,” which she says is another problem. The authority administers small, agricultural units, so-called “Crofts”. The owner can host the land himself or rent it out. On the one hand, the “Crofting Commission” protects the rights of the “crofters”, but on the other hand, it also imposes certain obligations on them.
“It’s no longer up to date,” says Helen. Because some people who come into possession of a “croft” through inheritance, for example, do not want to work in agriculture. On the other hand, anyone who wants to acquire a “Croft” must either have it overwritten – with the approval of the commission – or buy it from the owner. Both parties need a lawyer for this, but the costs are borne by the buyer. These financial and bureaucratic hurdles make it difficult to get access to this type of land. “And if you don’t get a country, you can’t move here either,” concludes the Brit.
Nature is the island’s greatest wealth
In her eyes, permanent incentives are needed to attract people to the island. For the couple, it was personal freedom and a life in harmony with nature. “My body adapts to the natural rhythm,” says Helen. In summer, when there is more daylight, she has more energy and stays awake longer. “In winter, on the other hand, I sometimes sleep twelve hours because my body needs it,” she says. The two are dependent on the weather, so you have to remain spontaneous, flexible and relaxed. “We don’t stress anymore,” emphasizes Rudi.
On some days, the couple simply enjoys the scenery, sitting on the beach and watching dolphins or white-tailed eagles. “I can now do the things I used to only dream of,” says Rudi. For the emigrants, nature is the greatest wealth the island has to offer. They are therefore critical of plans for an ammonia factory that is supposed to create new jobs. “One should preserve the beautiful idyll,” says the Ingolstadt resident. The two believe that innovative ideas are needed to attract young families and that old traditions, such as the “crofting” rules, should be broken away. In addition, despite the remote location, you can lead a “normal life” on Lewis. “Amazon works wonderfully here,” says Helen and laughs.
Quellen: “Citizens Advice Scotland”, “Comhairle nan Eilean Siar – Socio Economic Update”, “Crofting Scotland” (I), “Crofting Scotland” (II), “Crofting Scotland” (III), “National Island Plan”, ” National Records of Scotland “,” National Island Plan Annual Report “,” The Herald “,” The Times “