Today’s hot housing market means rural areas have overtaken the likes of London as favourites for home movers, but who would have expected the Outer Hebrides to become the location of the most dramatic house price boom anywhere in the UK?
Government data, analysed by finance firm IVA Advice, shows the average cost of a house there in February this year was amazingly low at just £132,397; yet this was a huge 51.32 per cent above the level just five years ago, when the typical home there cost a mere £87,494.
For the uninitiated, the Outer Hebrides covers about 200 interconnected islands off the west coast of Scotland.
Wild at heart: The village of Aird Asaig on the Isle of Harris. The Outer Hebrides covers about 200 interconnected islands off the west coast of Scotland
Only 15 or so are inhabited and collectively they are famous for rugged coastlines, epic mountain landscapes and a rich Gaelic culture of music and art.
Yet the Outer Hebrides, or Nah-Eileanan Siar in Gaelic, buck the usual ‘location, location, location’ check-list of must- have amenities.
They are far from big cities: for example, a drive from some islands to Edinburgh involves a ferry crossing of more than two hours followed by an eight-hour drive.
Travel is memorable but not always for the faint-hearted: flights to and from the island of Barra use the beach for take-off and landing.
But it’s that sense of relative isolation, peace and unhurried pace that may be the making of these beautiful islands where in total just 27,000 live.
This year the Outer Hebrides has been named the best place in Britain for work-life balance by finance website Money.
‘Maintaining a good work-life balance is important however, it is often easier said than done, especially right now,’ says Salman Haqqi, Money’s personal finance expert.
‘Juggling the pressures of home and work life during a pandemic is not easy, but making time for yourself and reducing the amount of demands you put on yourself is key.’
Coronavirus has given more people in the past year a hankering for a slower pace of life, with space for families, wildlife nearby — and inexpensive homes.
Houses on sale include a two-bedroom cottage on the Isle of Lewis for £82,500, a six-bedroom family house on North Uist for £255,000 and a three-bedroom modern house complete with boathouse overlooking the South Uist coast for £350,000.
‘The Outer Hebrides have miles of sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters,’ says Phiddy Robertson of the estate agency Galbraith.
‘Home with direct access to the shore or beach frontage and those with sea views attract a premium.’
Property sales are relatively rare, but those that have occurred show how hot the market has become.
The Forest House, a modern four-bedroom detached house with stables and five acres of land just a short stroll from the beach on the Isle of North Uist, went on the market last year and had ten offers in excess of the £325,000 asking price; a couple from London eventually bought it.
Robertson says: ‘This sense of being wild and unspoilt chimes with an increasing interest in nature; several of the islands are havens for a variety of bird species including eagles and owls while some have otters, deer, seals and dolphins.’
There are downsides, of course.
Big city shopping involves ferry journeys and some say facilities for younger people are limited — even a humble visit to the cinema may involve an overnight stay.
And there are worries that the population of the Outer Hebrides may be falling too much.
The official National Records of Scotland predict a 16 per cent decline in residents across the islands by 2043 while Scotland’s population as a whole is set to go up 2 per cent.
There are attempts to reverse the flow. The Scottish National Party has pledged £50,000 to help people to relocate from mainland Scotland to the islands, and publicity from the Outer Hebrides council emphasises the excellent broadband.
‘The population challenge is clear: we need more younger, working age people to move here or to stay here to support and grow our economy,’ says council leader Roddie MacKay.
So will the pandemic, forcing a once-in-a-lifetime rethink on so many people, save the islands? The answer could be yes.
Phiddy Robertson says: ‘There’s been strong demand for properties in some of the more remote parts of Scotland over the past year.
‘Buyers have reassessed their arrangements and the chance for a better work-life balance. With good broadband links, coupled with flexibility from employers, island living is a real option.’