Published 25th September 2019, 10:09

    HEADING to Mull this weekend for the second big finish of the week, the penultimate step to a hills Full House.

    The Donalds were wrapped up with a gentle walk to the grassy top of Hudderstone on Tuesday. Now the attention turns to the Grahams and the more energising and exciting summit of Beinn Fhada.

    With the weather forecast predicting sunny, settled conditions, it's a great opportunity to continue from my final peak over A' Chioch and Ben More, a circuit which has proved elusive on several occasions.

    It seems fitting to be finishing the Grahams on an island, and particularly Mull. At the start of the year I had 28 Grahams still to be climbed. The fact I am now just one away from 'compleation' is thanks mainly to an unseasonably warm few days in February which allowed a block ascent of the Mull hills.

    This kick-started a wonderful series of island trips over the next few months, taking in Rum, Islay, Jura, Arran, Harris and the Uists. Remarkably, the weather proved kind on virtually every one. Maybe someone up there does like me after all.

    There is always a heightened sense of adventure when heading to tackle island peaks, the romantic notion you are visiting foreign lands, temporarily cut adrift from the daily routine. There's the preparation, the travel arrangements, the sense of anticipation boarding the ferry, and finally the big reveal as the ship pulls closer and closer to its destination.

    My first visit to Rum was a prime example. The distant horizon was filled with the backlit wall of the Cuillin, and for the next hour they grew and grew in stature, until I felt I was in danger of cricking my neck as they towered over the incoming vessel.

    Each island has its own character, its own beauty – and its own problems. Their histories may be rich and complex but our fascination with them often overlooks the harsher realities of life and logistics for those choosing to live and work there. 

    The story over the last couple of centuries has been one of steady population decline. The brutality of forced clearances is well documented but even many of those who did manage to cling on eventually fell victim to the consequential drip effect of the lack of opportunity.

    It seems strange to think that in the mid-1800s Mull was regarded as over-populated with 10,600 souls living there. That led to some voluntary re-settlement, before the landowners decided things weren't moving fast enough and resorted to other methods. The population today is just under 3,000.

    Some areas were hit much harder than others. The figures for Orkney and Shetland, for instance, remain similar to those of 1841, in some cases even showing an increase. Lewis has also been steadily rising over the past few decades, although at 21,031 it is still a fair way off the 1891 high point of 27,045.

    Still, Lewis is an anomaly in the Hebrides. Many of these islands have seen massive percentage falls over the years. Islay is one of the most dramatic examples, from a high of 15,772 to today's total of just over 3,000, and there seems to be no real indication of any reversal of fortune.

    Mass emigration was responsible for Coll's depletion from its one-time total of 1,442 (there is now a population of 195), while the figures for the likes of Tiree (4,450 to 653), South Uist (5,093 to 1,754), Rum (400 to 22) and Iona (496 to 125) tell similar tales.

    There have been some success stories. The historic buy-out on Eigg has seen a modest but consistent recovery, although it is unlikely it will ever reach the heights of its 19thCentury proportions.

    Skye, which once boasted a population of more than 23,000, has also been seeing a steady increase since 1971 and in 2011 it passed the 10,000 mark, albeit that number pales when compared to the tourist hordes descending on it every year. It was also encouraging to read recently that there are more widespread signs of growth on the Scottish islands, including Colonsay and Harris. 

    Research carried out by the James Hutton Institute, Scotland's Rural College, Community Development Lens and Community Land Scotland showed that one of the main factors was that more young people choosing to stay or return to their communities. Local control of land and marine assets were also highlighted as key drivers of positive population change, and it's hoped this can be a blueprint for future success.

    Colonsay has seen a rise from 106 in 1991 to a current 132, while in Harris, work by the West Harris Trust community group, which includes building affordable homes, has been credited with increasing the population from 119 in 2012 to 151, with a target of 170 for next year.

    It's often said that where there's life, there's hope, and while we are unlikely to ever to return to the high figures of the past, the hope is that our islands can secure a healthy future.