HOUSING in the Highlands and Islands is at crisis point. Locals are being outpriced and outcompeted in a skyrocketing residential market.

However there is also a wealth of space, as one depopulated island can attest.

Ulva, which sits at the mouth of Loch Na Keal off the west coast of Mull, has a population of just six - having said goodbye to 99% of the 6-700 people which called the island home not two centuries ago.

When the island’s population has reached such lows, even small things can have a big impact, and in 2018 Ulva saw a massive change, being brought under community ownership.

“The rationale behind the community buy-out was to repopulate and regenerate the island”, explains Wendy Reid, who in September 2019 became the island’s sixth resident.

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“Even 20-odd years ago there were between 20 and 30 people that lived on Ulva, and at its height in the 1800s it had a population of between 6-700 people. It’s not that people can’t live here. It’s that over the years, for various reasons, the population has declined and declined and declined and we’d like to reverse that,” she says.

“The community felt that the way to reverse that was to take control of its own future, rather than leaving it down to the whim of one person. It has the potential to be more than somebody’s playground.”

Working with the North West Mull Community Woodland Company (NWMCWC) as development manager for Ulva, Reid already has plans to increase the island’s population by 33%.

“I should probably say there’s eight of us”, she says. “There is a cafe business on the island and we’ve got new tenants running that business, but until we can provide them with accommodation on the island they have to leave as there’s no housing for them.”

The call for new tenants to run the boathouse was put out in 2020, months after the island announced it had received more than 500 notes of interest from people looking to move there.

Providing that needed accommodation is one of the several projects ongoing on Ulva with the goals of repopulation and regeneration in mind.

Reid says there are currently six residential properties earmarked for renovation. They will later be rented out by the NWMCWC at affordable prices - a rare commodity in the Highlands and Islands.

Rents for these properties will be set against housing benefit rates, ensuring that someone who had to claim that benefit could afford the rent. This means prices will range from around £340 a month to the most expensive rate of £510 a month for a four-bedroom house, Reid says.

The cash for the renovations has come in part from the Scottish Government’s Island Communities Fund. But unlike other projects involved in making Scots island economies more sustainable, Ulva is looking to go in the other direction.

“For a lot of islands they’ll be looking to reduce their carbon footprint”, Reid says. “On Ulva it will always be going up because we are reintroducing economic activity and people to the island.”

The National: Ulva has electric vehicles and a small solar array, helping the island's green regeneration Ulva has electric vehicles and a small solar array, helping the island's green regeneration

She says that Ulva is working to regenerate in a way that “minimises as much as possible” any increase in carbon emissions that might come along with regeneration activities, but adds: “The issue for us on Ulva is the logistics.

"We’re an island off an island with no tarred roads, just farm tracks, and only a small passenger foot ferry, so the logistics are quite tricky.”

Reid goes on: “It’s private water system, private drainage, there’s no roads, the council don’t come and collect any waste - there’s nothing. Everything is managed by and the responsibility of the company and the residents that live there.”

But the few residents aren’t resting on their laurels, working as part of the European Small Islands Federation (ESIN) with communities in Croatia, France, Greece, Finland, Italy, Sweden, and elsewhere, to create an agenda for a clean energy transition.

With a few electric vehicles and a small solar array already on Ulva, the island’s green regeneration is already underway.