SWALLOWS herald the arrival of summer. In Caolas, in the east end of Tiree, there are two types of swallow. The feathered kind, and the kind with a well-feathered nest.

Arriving with their boat trailers, their horseboxes and their Land Rovers, their houses are the classic holiday homes. They can afford for them to sit empty, and they wouldn’t want “just anybody” staying in them.

Their presence over the years has seen Caolas nicknamed “Millionaire’s Row”, or – only a little more politely – the “dinner party end”, with helicopters occasionally dropping off evening guests.

Of course, one should always avoid discussing money, religion and politics at a dinner party. In Tiree, you can add second homes to that list of social faux pas.

If we’re going to be uncomfortably frank, however, it is a simple fact that around 46% of houses here sit empty most of the year. And the reality is that if we keep being too polite to talk about it, we will shortly reach a point where it is too late. Tiree is already desperately short of working-age adults.

Teachers and carers have no option but to turn down jobs that badly need doing, and families are planning to leave because of a lack of suitable housing. The tourism and hospitality industry is crying out for staff and caravans are fast becoming the only viable option for too many.

Meanwhile, all through winter, islanders drive past empty houses

It’s easy to point fingers, but we can’t just blame the swallows in their delightfully feathered nests. The second home issue is way more complicated and nuanced than that. In order to discuss the issue, it is virtually guaranteed that someone, somewhere, is going to be offended – taking a deep breath, however, I propose that owners of second homes can be broadly put into one of four buckets.

In addition to the classic holiday home used solely by the family which owns it for a few weeks a year, there are second homes which function as a combination of holiday home, holiday letting business and investment.

These owners live elsewhere and don’t have an island connection. All but the most business-minded say they truly love this place.

Things get steadily more complicated as we move down the list. There are houses which belong to families whose roots are in Tiree. They may have been directly or indirectly inherited.

Often, practicalities mean they are unable to make island life work, but their heart – and their heritage – remain here and they return as often as they can. These legacy homes are often the subject of much soul-searching and guilt.

The National:

My own father battled for years to keep a house and croft in Tiree. It has been in the family since the dawn of crofting. After my grandmother moved on, it sat empty for 25 years. It was a millstone, not an asset, and we worried constantly about it.

The need to keep the link with our language, our land and our culture won the torturous mental debate, and despite the cost and anxiety associated with ownership from afar, my father persisted in keeping the house wind and watertight.

In 2013, I moved back to the family home, and have worked hard, as all islanders do, to make a sustainable living here.

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Should we have sold it? I am aware of at least one couple who wrote to my father asking to buy it, and got no response. I am glad we didn’t but I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel guilty every time I bring up the topic of second homes.

Sometimes, feeling equally guilty, are the final group – those who live in the islands, and who own holiday-letting properties. Basic economics dictate that letting to tourists for lots of money in the summer is a better bet than letting affordable-to-islanders rent year-round.

In places where multiple jobs are common – and seasonal – letting a property in summer to help subsidise winter costs makes sense. I am also in this bucket.

Facing these economic realities of island life, freeing up property for permanent residents is much easier said than done. Everyone has their own good reason for owning multiple properties, and after all, there’s no law against it.

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If you can afford to buy a property in cash, far out-stripping the assumed market value, why not? If you can get a few weeks of blissful peace in a beautiful place where you have no responsibilities, why not? If you can grip onto your family heritage as it threatens to slip through your fingers, why not?

If you need an investment to get the kids through uni, why not? And if you have no reason other than having more money than sense, why not?

The vast majority of people with second homes in Tiree are perfectly pleasant individuals. If they live here, they are positive additions to our island community. Sadly though, the cumulative effect of 46% of homes sitting empty most of each year is nothing short of catastrophic.

Housing surveys across other islands are showing a similar trend. Argyll and Bute have officially declared a housing crisis, and across the Hebrides and beyond, Community Development Trusts – with minimal staffing and over-stretched volunteer boards – are forced to build houses in order to solve a problem which is not of their own making.

However, equally disastrous would be to suddenly force a large percentage of these houses out of the short-term letting market.

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The uncomfortable truth is that we need these second homes. We need the people who stay in them, the friends and family, we need the weekly visitors. These islands need their money because without it we threaten to undermine one of the key pillars of our economy.

There is a real risk that an unintended consequence of the new short-term letting legislation will be some holiday let owners simply deciding not to bother hiring out their houses. If they sell, the chances are that the property will be bought in cash by someone who wants a classic, six-weeks-a-year holiday house.

Worst case, we further inflate the property market. Best case, a glut of properties takes the heat out of the market and residents can afford to buy – unlikely, however. In all cases, we lose tourist beds.

Some problems feel intractable. Everyone who lives in a fragile place cursed with natural beauty will recognise the challenge. How then can communities begin to address the problem?

Building is a long-term ambition. Some of our islands need solutions now.

First of all, we need to accept that we are all complicit in this one way or the other. And once we have got over ourselves, a good start would be to leave defensiveness at the door and to talk about the thorny issues openly, and constructively.

This problem cannot and should not be solved only by those who are worst affected.

Those with empty properties have to take some responsibility for addressing the problems their ownership creates.

As does the Government, whose blinkered approach to tourist economies in fragile places has entirely missed the complexity. The doomed £50,000 island bonds are a good example of that.

So, what if we offered glamping pods to islanders with second homes so that their additional property could go into long-term rental, but they could still earn from tourist accommodation? What if communities bought up houses for families as they came onto the market, and added a glamping pod to make sure there was a return?

What if the community owned the majority of tourist accommodation? What if the wealthy second homeowners donated a pod, or invested in a house to be used as a long-term rental? What if we slapped a local tax on people with second homes and put the money into a community chest to help buy community-owned homes? What if second or holiday home-owners volunteered to be taxed or gave up their island holiday for a few years so the property could house a family?

It’s time to stop being so polite. Because if we mind our manners, one day we will be left with no more than a pop-up summer community, and it won’t just be the swallows leaving at the end of a season.