Housing – Part One


Hannah Thaxter, a former newspaper editor who moved to Port Charlotte in 2019, has been researching aspects of island life for us this year. In the first in a series of essays, she looks at housing.

The shortage of housing is an issue that affects many people here, and therefore affects us a business looking to grow sustainably on the island.

She starts by looking at some history, then talks to some of our team about their first hand experiences, then looks further afield for perspectives and possible solutions, in this two part article. 

Hannah Thaxter [HT]: Since man first walked onto Islay in the Stone Age, the population has risen and fallen like the waves and the winds which batter its shores.

There have always been many challenges for those who wanted to make it their home. Today the island is wrestling with how to balance its growth and success with the demand for affordable places to live.

The last 200 years have seen dramatic changes in the number of permanent inhabitants. Official records (the Census of 1831) show the island’s population peak at 14,992. In the 30 years between 1801 and 1831 census figures show the population of Islay went up by almost 80% – a rise attributed to the introduction of staple food source, the potato, and improved medical care. Back in1742 the population was just 4,000, meaning in less than a century it had quadrupled.

Today there are fewer people permanently living here than in 1742. The last census was in 2011 and shows a population of 3,228.

The recent resurgence of the whisky industry and accompanying interest in Islay malts, coupled with the enduring appeal of the island as a tourist destination, presents a different challenge – there are jobs here, but where will the workers live, and how can we sustain the growth?

According to a report called the Islay Strategic Housing Overview, published two years ago, which was the result of a survey of Islay businesses and community organisations, more affordable housing is required to attract and retain a skilled workforce. It’s the lack of local affordable housing which is restricting growth and expansion. One business responded: “We have five staff living in rooms in other peoples’ property, desperate for accommodation of their own.”  People with the right skills either leave the island for the mainland or can get work here, but cannot find places to live.

But it’s not a lack of actual houses – there are more properties than families on Islay. Second homes represent 22% of the housing stock of Islay, Jura and Colonsay according to the last census – much higher than the 1.5% of Scotland as a whole.

Port Charlotte c.100 years ago

With average house prices here standing at £159,930 but average household incomes at around £30,000 buying your own home is becoming financially out of reach of many.  Holiday homes and second homes generally push up house prices and decrease available housing stock. The more popular Islay becomes as a holiday destination the more facilities and services and workers will be needed to service that need – almost half the population already work in jobs related to tourism – but the more difficult it becomes for them to find somewhere to live.

Registered holiday homes account for over 10% of the housing stock on Islay, but the true figure for this area is over 20% as the census showed, according to that Strategic Housing Review. This could be because many holiday lets can be unregistered for example, through Airbnb. It’s something Argyll and Bute Council is keenly aware of and has commissioned further research into the impact of short-term lets.

The Islay Strategic Housing Overview quoted local estate agents as saying: “The Islay housing market is a micro-climate that has been uninterrupted regardless of UK mainland economic climate. Furthermore, purchasers are often from England that relocate in pursuit of a different lifestyle and who are in a financial position to outbid first-time local buyers on Islay.”

The pretty conservation village of Port Charlotte, a collection of whitewashed cottages hugging the shore at an inlet of Loch Indaal, is a prime example. There have been one or two changes to the village since it was built – a couple of houses have gone, some byres turned into small cottages and a couple of houses split into flats – but the historic houses, which are at the core of the village, remain the same. [You can read more about the planning of the original Georgian village here The Buiilding of Port Charlotte. ]

A quick headcount reveals just a quarter of the older houses are occupied full time, the rest are second homes or holiday lets. The population in this little grid of streets is around 40 people. 

A three bedroomed terraced house in the village will go for between £250,000 and £350,00.

According to Rightmove the average house price in this area is £244,333 and prices have shot up by 20% since 2019.

The village has expanded a little on all sides and in its entirety is home to about 200 people – enough to support a shop and Post Office, a primary school and a medical centre.

Social housing has been built at the edges of the original village, some are still rented and some privately owned. And there are plans approved for more.

Frederick Street Port Ellen

The Strategic Housing Review said many properties on Islay were sold through ‘word of mouth’.

Last February, 24 year old Ashley Harrison who works in the digital team and her partner Sam, 29, became the proud owners of a beautiful house on the sea front in Port Ellen, looking out over the bay.  Buying has been a long journey and a destination they might have never have reached if they’d had to bid on the open market.

Ashley Harrison moved to Islay as a small child, went away to university, returned, and has worked at Bruichladdich for 3 years.

Before buying, she and Sam had rented privately but even in this sector it was a case of who you knew. Ashley explains that houses would be advertised for rent but, when they enquired, they found someone else – with connections to the family or a family member – had been given the lease. “I do not know anyone on Islay who has bought a house on the open market,” she says. “We bought the house from Sam’s cousin and we would not have got a look in if that had gone on the market.” 

“If we sold our house down the line, I would like to sell to someone like us, to give them a chance.” 

Having said that, she understands why people rent out holiday homes – it’s a need and it’s a job. “When you come to Islay as a visitor you want somewhere to stay. It’s very good money and it’s fulfilling a need and providing a job and an income,” she says.

Talking to people on Islay I hear that a lot. One person said holiday lets were her stable income – a familiar story – which allowed her to do other part-time jobs as well. In a place where a lot of jobs are seasonal, be that in farming or tourism, having that reliable income is vital to surviving all year round.

So what’s the solution, and who needs to make it happen? Part Two published tomorrow.


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