Sadly the population of Islay is in decline. The most recent census, taken in 2011, recorded 3,228 residents in 1,541 households. This was down 7% from the 2001 census, which recorded 3,457 residents in 1,479 households. This translates into a population density of around 14 people per square mile. For comparison, Eden in Cumbria, the least densely populated district on the mainland, has over 40 people per square mile.
Unaffordable housing and a lack of job opportunities have been the driving forces behind Islay’s depopulation and it is the young that are being forced out. Argyll and Bute council has been trying to address the former problem by building properties for rent in Port Charlotte, Port Ellen and Bowmore. After farming, whisky distilling is the island’s second largest employer and there are no fewer than eight active distilleries, with a ninth planned. Bruichladdich itself employs over 70 people now, making us the largest private employer on the island.
Islay’s population peaked at 14,992 in 1831. By 1900 it had halved, partly thanks to the enforced evictions of the so-called Clearances when estate-owners realised that farming sheep would be more profitable than acting as feudal overlords for indigenous farmers, and the decline has been remorseless ever since. Canada and the US were the most popular overseas destination for Islay’s emigrants.