A heavenly kind of hell

North Uist is trying to tempt young people back to its remote shores. Even the EU thinks it needs help

The young receptionist at the Dark Island Hotel couldn't have looked more horrified if I'd asked her where I could score some crack cocaine. Perhaps it was an outlandish request. This is Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides after all. "Nightlife," she repeats the word slowly to herself, still perplexed. "Where young people meet ... ummm." A long pause. "No, that doesn't really happen around here. It's been quiet for the last couple of years. A few people drink here and there's a local pub that way," she points out of a rain-lashed window towards an infinite expanse of brown moorland and angry black sky. "But you'll find it's empty this time of year."

Even by Hebridean standards, it seems. Nothing really prepares you for the ineluctable bleakness of these Scottish islands where even the sheep look melancholic. The views are starkly beautiful, endlessly flat and achingly devoid of human life. Howling wind and the odd seagull's cry punctuate an otherwise interminable silence that can seem suffocating at times. Paradise for some, perhaps, but enforced hell for others.

The notion that one person's misery can be another's lifestyle choice is taken to stark extremes in these remote reaches of the British Isles. While the local people move away, that hardy species, the middle-class professional, is ready to take their place.

The outlook for the former is gloomy; according to recent reports three areas of Scotland in particular, including North Uist, Benbecula's close neighbour, are rapidly losing their local populations, especially their young women. Many of them leave for higher education and choose not to return. It's not hard to understand why. Once you've got used to the scenery the reality hits home. Job opportunities are scarce, to say the least. The local men can follow in their fathers' footsteps as crofters, fishermen, electricians and plumbers, but if you're ambitious the horizons are limited. And if you're an ambitious female, they're non-existent.

So the economy here faces extinction; the situation is desperate and North Uist has just received pounds 700,000 from the European Life Environment Programme to help create opportunities that will tempt young people of both sexes to return. "The place really has relied on crofting and fishing," says Caitriona McCuish, a researcher for the project. "Now something needs to be done or else young people won't come back. People want a cinema (there still isn't one), decent pubs, more work and more to do. It's quite a split, though. Some people love it for the reasons that others can't wait to leave."

It's a similar story in the remoter parts of Wales. Last week, the Welsh Development Agency, again with European funding, launched an initiative to find out why young people had left certain areas over the past 30 years. Like the Scottish Isles project, they too are desperate to tempt young people back. To do what exactly remains a mystery.

One option, a not particularly fulfilling one, would be to service a generation of professionals who have gravitated to these areas in search of that ubiquitous Nineties idyll "quality of life". Small schools, no crime and a sense of community are seen as desirable alternatives to high culture, high incomes and a Harvey Nichols credit account. In other parts of the Scottish Highlands this pattern of migration has come full circle. On the island of Easdale, for instance, where there are about 120 inhabitants, most work from home via the Internet. The local population migrated years ago when the traditional jobs ran out.

Significantly, the fantasy that pulls a new generation in pushes the former one further away. It's much easier to revel in the isolation and tranquillity of somewhere like the Uist isles after 10 years of urban stress, after all. Appreciation of one comes from suffering the other. But you're lucky if you have the choice.

Jon Hollingdale, 35, now a woodland and countryside officer in North Uist, used to live in Oxford, London and Glasgow. "I lived recently in Glasgow. To come here feels like coming from the ridiculous to the sublime. Even though there aren't many people here, you don't feel alone. There's nothing worse than feeling lonely in a crowded city."

Helen McDonald, 48, who moved to Benbecula from Edinburgh 20 years ago with her architect husband, also found city life too isolating. "People treat you like an individual here. They look you in the eye and always know you by your first name. I like the fact that you can't be anonymous here and that you know everyone you see."

A dismal prospect indeed for Laura (not her real name), 18, and her group of friends. Their desperation for teenage kicks in the gloomy confines of the Dark Island Hotel bar is tangible. Every time the bar door opens three heads flick round expectantly. And every time they look crestfallen - they've grown up with every man who walks in. "Of course we want to meet more men," says Laura. "This lot aren't interested. All they want to do is get drunk with other men. Maybe they're too fussy but they're quite happy being bachelors - they prefer their drink to anything else."

While teenagers in towns, even villages, complain that there's nothing to do, what they usually mean is nothing except hang out in McDonald's, the local pub or park. Here nothing really does mean nothing, save the odd local dance, outdoor "pursuits" and evening classes. You can't even hang out at local bus shelters. There aren't any and besides the weather is too bloody awful. One of Britain's wettest and windiest areas, it has an annual rainfall of 1,171 millimetres.

Some typical adolescent pursuits still persist, though. According to Laura, it's not too difficult to buy drugs on the islands - although she's never tried. "You can get hash, speed and acid." What about Ecstasy? "Yeah, you can, but there's not much point - where can you enjoy it? Sometimes you see someone dancing for ages at the local disco and nodding their head, and it looks a bit sad really."

Understandably, Laura can't wait to move to Glasgow and taste a different sort of freedom. Downing her third vodka and Irn Bru, she says: "Everyone knows your business here. You can't escape. Worst of all, you can't do anything without your mother finding out."

Darren Graham, 25, also finds certain aspects of the island stultifying. "If you're young and single, it can be the worst place on earth," he says. Darren left the Uist isles a few years ago to study at Aberdeen University and returned briefly to work in his father's hotel. He's going travelling soon to Thailand and then hopes to settle on the mainland. "Unless you want to do menial jobs, there's nothing here for young people. I don't want to settle for second best - I want more out of life than this. I think a lot of us feel the same way."

Kath Andrews, 19 and a nurse, moved from the islands to Glasgow last year. "There's so much more here for young people. More nightclubs and more shops, I'm surrounded by friends. I used to feel isolated on the island; there weren't enough people. I'm living a life now that I couldn't possibly live at home. It's so different. You can do anything you want down here."

Which is exactly why an older, professional generation of what the Scottish locals sometimes like to refer to as "white settlers", are moving in the opposite direction. As Helen McDonald says, "The first thing I felt when I left the city for Benbecula was a fantastic sense of freedom." And the pursuit of that same freedom is precisely why the younger locals are less likely than ever to return.

SPLENDID ISOLATION

Remote places that locals are leaving:

1. North Uist

2. North Skye

3. North Sutherland

(Scottish Highlands)

4. Powys, Mid-Wales

5. Blaenau Ffestiniog -

rural Wales

6. South Gwynedd - Wales

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