By James Hookway
Few places are farther from the beaten track than the
wind-lashed Outer Hebrides off Scotland's northwest coast. But they
are also now the prize in a tug of war over who should be able to
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, a surge of buyers
have bought up many of the available houses, far from Covid-19 hot
spots on the British mainland such as Glasgow or London. Many homes
overlook sites such as Luskentyre Beach or the prehistoric standing
stones at Callanish.
Local leaders say new arrivals could be a lifeline for the
fragile communities that have long struggled to reverse declining
But younger islanders worry the influx is pricing them out of
the market -- and, ultimately, the places where they grew up and
their families still live.
"Lockdown has become a double-edged sword," says Pàdruig
Morrison, a 24-year-old musician and researcher from the island of
South Uist who has begun campaigning for more housing opportunities
for younger islanders. "People are being left with few other
options but to leave at a time when it is becoming more widely
accepted to stay and work online from home."
The pandemic has upended the property market in many countries.
In the U.S., home sales rose to a 14-month high in October as
families left large, crowded cities in search of more space in
places such as the Hudson Valley, where earlier this year house
prices were rising faster in the town of Kingston than in New York
City or San Francisco.
Mortgage approvals in the U.K. hit a 13-year high in September.
Real-estate agencies say there has been a surge of interest in
buying properties outside London with gardens and more space for
But in Scotland's Western Isles, where the number of cash sales
is up 50% from last year -- a sign of mainlanders swooping in to
buy up second homes -- residents worry an influx of new money will
radically alter the makeup of the area and jeopardize its unique
Gaelic-speaking culture and ancient traditions.
"The free market doesn't always lead to good outcomes," says
Martin Baillie, an architect and Gaelic activist who lives and
works on the Isle of Skye. "Sometimes we need government to step in
and take action."
Some property listings, such as a two-bedroom cottage
overlooking Luskentyre Beach in Harris priced at 385,000 pounds,
equivalent to $510,000, are being offered at a third or more than
what similar properties were sold for before the pandemic began.
The sums are far in excess of what many local people can afford. In
some areas, more than half the properties are now second homes.
Steven Dòmhnallach and his girlfriend recently decided to leave
their home in Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, and return to North
Uist, where he grew up. He already had a job lined up in the
salmon-farming industry and it seemed to be a good time to go.
"We're homebirds, really. I just wanted to get back to nature and
the lockdown played a part in that," he says.
Finding somewhere to live is proving more difficult. His family
and friends have been looking on his behalf and he posted inquiries
to local Facebook pages. For now, Mr. Dòmhnallach, 27, has a
long-term let on a holiday chalet owned by a family friend.
"Buying or renting is really difficult. The houses that do turn
up on the market are whipped straight away by people from further
south with more money," he says. "There is one near us. The people
who own it are really nice, but it is empty maybe 90% of the
Mr. Morrison, an accomplished accordionist, is helping to
organize a grass-roots group pushing for new measures to provide
islanders with a stronger foothold on the property ladder, such as
advertising new homes locally before on the mainland. He points to
how political groups in Wales are now proposing to cap the number
of second homes there.
Other countries have also taken steps to cool overheating
property markets, even before the pandemic.
New Zealand banned overseas sales of existing homes in 2018 to
arrest what was then one of the world's fastest-growing property
markets. In Canada, Vancouver and Toronto introduced new taxes of
up to 20% on overseas sales to cool their property markets and
provide locals with a toehold after a wave of Chinese
Islands in the English Channel, including Jersey and Guernsey,
have long reserved some housing for people who were born there,
while London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, has promoted a scheme to limit
sales of all new-build homes in the capital valued at up to
GBP350,000 to Londoners for the first month they are available.
The Scottish government says it recognizes the problem. Kevin
Stewart, the housing minister, says advertising properties locally
could have a positive effect, but would have to be voluntary. "The
way in which an owner chooses to market their property is a matter
entirely for them," he says.
Instead, the government has allocated GBP50 million to build
low-cost homes in Scotland's rural and island communities and is
giving local councils more leeway to set higher taxes on second
The rising demand is a boon to some islanders, however. Isabel
Macleod, director at the Hebridean Estate Agency in the islands'
largest town, Stornoway, says many had been waiting years to sell
their properties before the pandemic struck. "It's either a buyer's
market or a seller's market, and the shoe was on the other foot for
a long time," she says. "But if things don't settle down, the
government may have to step in and do more to help first-time
Alasdair Allan, the islands' representative in the Scottish
Parliament, says a delicate balance needs to be struck.
"Nobody is saying we don't want new people to come here -- we
want new people," he says. "But if you don't get a variety of
people living here, then there won't be a school and then younger
people can't stay. The extreme situation is that you could get to
the stage of not having any working-age population at all. You
can't trust the market on this. You have to get this right."
The clock is running, though.
"If people can't afford to stay in the place where they grew up,
then their culture leaves with them," says Mr. Baillie, the
architect. "It's not like gentrification. We can't just move to the
next town along; we'd end up in the sea."
Mr. Dòmhnallach worries that if no measures are taken, then the
Hebrides could share the fate of St. Kilda, a small outcrop of
islands 40 miles west of North Uist that was largely abandoned in
1930 after many of its people left for the mainland.
"If nothing is done, I really think that in 50, 60 years from
now, the same could happen again," he said.
Write to James Hookway at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 21, 2020 10:14 ET (15:14 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.