A group of Uist islanders say homes should be the main thrust of economic development policies aimed at encouraging young people to stay in the islands.

And they say making sure that island youngsters can get a foot on the property ladder will serve the even more urgent need of protecting the survival of Gaelic language and culture.

The Uist-born campaigners, all in their twenties and early thirties, are behind an open letter which yesterday (Monday 7 September) earned national headlines. Signatories from Uist, Skye and Mull said the prevalence of second homes and holiday accommodation was creating a threat to the continuity and even the survival of small, Gaelic-speaking island communities.

The letter, addressed to anyone concerned about sustaining Highland and Island communities, said that the struggle to find somewhere to live in their home islands 'is of widespread and urgent importance' to young people.

Signed by Uist islanders including crofters, fish-farm workers, student researchers and veterinarians, it said: "As young and active members, mostly of the Uist community, we would be willing to see a trial carried out in Uist, in an effort to find a suitable solution for all of the Highlands and Islands.

"We have first-hand examples of local young people putting in offers for houses and, despite communicating to sellers the importance of population retention, cash-rich buyers often jump in front and buy houses which often have not been viewed. In the worst examples, the island has not yet been visited."

As well as losing potential accommodation for young families and local workers, the signatories said: "The cultural and historical continuum of these buildings has so often been broken: the opportunity for the community to reciprocally gain ... often lost to the unlit rooms of the part-time residency."

The letter's writer, 24-year-old musician and crofter Pàdruig Morrison of Grimsay, said today: "Coronavirus and the interest in living in rural and island locations has exacerbated an existing situation.

"Changing demographics and a break in Gaelic culture are totally intertwined. We must ensure that there's a native-speaking Gaelic community and keep it alive, which means people speaking Gaelic at home, at the shop and at school.

"There's actually a growth in jobs in the islands, with many businesses starting up, including the distilleries in Harris and Uist, and with broadband it's possible to work from home for many more companies, something that is very much in demand after coronavirus.

"So the jobs picture has now become much more optimistic – housing is the main barrier to staying here. I have many friends in their twenties who want to stay here and work but struggle to find a first home."

Grimsay is a good example of the changing picture Pàdruig describes, with the expanded busy harbour, the shellfish factory, Uist Wool spinnery, Ceann na h-Àirigh community centre and the recently launched Grimsay Boat Haven maritime heritage centre.

It's part of the reason why the group of young people are proposing Uist as a test-location for a radical approach to protecting home availability for local young people.

Pàdruig said: "There are two main streams of development that we need to look at: new-build housing and the availability of existing housing stock. We need to see some kind of regulation on the sale of houses and who they go to.

"We want people to consider, when they are selling their house, who might wish to buy it locally and we want Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Scottish Government to put policies in place that protects a certain percentage of the homes to stop them becoming holiday homes or second homes.

"It would be great if we could trial a system like Denmark and the Channel Islands have, where first refusal on homes for sale goes to young or local people."

The idea was trialled recently when a property in Uist was gifted to a local community association, which has ensured that it remains a full-time residence with a local family living there.

Pàdruig said: "If I think of all the houses sold in Grimsay in the past five years, if they had all been sold to families there would be a much bigger community here, with more kids and more people of working age."

This week's open letter said: "Home - dachaigh and dualchas - are as important as ever; but just as the infrastructural disparity between rural and urban areas is being reconciled, finally opening up a huge array of work opportunities in the Highlands and Islands, a new barrier is halting this progress."

Pàdruig said: "This is a discussion for everyone to consider, but it particularly has to be discussed by local authorities and by government. A lot of organisations say they are interested in finding out what young people think and this issue, in particular, needs to be youth-driven.

"We have enough evidence on the projections of what is happening to Gaelic and what is happening to island demographics to make the case for an initiative like this being put in place. It's worked in other places and it could work here."

The picture shows Kallin harbour in Grimsay, as busy as ever (Pàdruig Morrison).