SOMETHING’S going badly wrong in the place I’m from. “Scotland’s Birthplace” is emptying out, dying off.

The latest census revealed that nearly 4000 people left my home region of Angus last year and another 1500 people died.

Only 918 births were recorded. The native Angus population of my home county is absolutely plummeting.

Depopulation is linked to the severe flooding which has washed Brechin up onto the UK front pages.

Culture is also negatively affected when the population dies too. The economy, too, stutters and slows. These impacts combined can easily send a ­region into terminal decline.

Curiously, Aberdeenshire to the north has a ­population increasing faster than the Scottish ­average, despite the downturn in oil since the last census. The rest of the east-coast berry-belt seems to be thriving, too, with Fife and Perth posting positive population trends.

Yet in Angus, not only is the population in decline, but it’s also ageing. The migrants moving to the region tend to be older, perhaps looking to retire.

The towns are winnowing away, and greying.

The National: A garden in Brechin destroyed by Storm BabetA garden in Brechin destroyed by Storm Babet

To uncover what could be behind the emptying out of Angus, and how that decline impacts lives beyond the statistics, I turned the bonnet of my wee red Polo towards the hills that I used to call home and roared into rural Angus.

The quiet streets of Angus

Out the back of Forfar, on a long hump-backed hill covered in trees live Karen and Ernie.

They both grew up in Brechin, and got together young: Ernie secured them a labourer’s cottage tied to a farm when Karen was a pregnant 17-year-old, and he was just two years older. Their family trees have roots deep in the Angus loam. And they are now grandparents themselves.

I went to visit them in their home, a tied cottage Ernie gets as the head gardener on an estate. Karen works as a cleaner at the Big Hoose.

They have six dogs rescued from Romanian streets. Three I can meet, and they yelp and scatter and bark erratically as I enter their kitchen. Another three are kept out the back, for my protection.

“Diesel would go for ye, like,” Ernie laughed when I asked if I could meet them. “He’s no great wi new people.”

For the next hour, over an egg roll and a mug of tea in their dog-circus kitchen, Karen and Ernie told me about the Angus they inherited from their ­grandparents; how it changed in their time, and what they make of the decline. Diesel roared savagely throughout.

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Do they notice Angus being a quieter place now than in their youth? “Oh aye,” Ernie says.

“One big example is Brechin. You walked up that street on a Saturday morning, and the place was ­buzzing. The hail high street. You go up now and you’ll not see four people.”

Families were big. Ernie’s mum was married at 20 and had six bairns before she was 28. “There was a few big families about, another couple wi six, and I knew an eight, as well.”

Housing and employment were all secure. “­Naebdy bought houses in thae days,” Karen said. The pair have never owned a house, or even ­conventionally rented. For five decades they’ve flitted between ­houses tied to Ernie’s roles in farms and estates. ­Ernie’s mum was in the same council house in Brechin for 60 years.

Every farm soaked up workers in a diversity of roles. Ernie explained that on each wee farm “ye’d hae five guys at least. Three tractormen, the grieve [supervisor] and the orraman [odd-job man], and they’d aa hae families in cottages.

“Now the three farms here [on the ­estate] are worked by one farmer and about four men. None o them live here.”

All that dense humanity inhabiting the land meant the towns, and the towns’ pubs, would absolutely bounce come the weekend.

The National: Emergency crews on the streets of Brechin during Storm BabetEmergency crews on the streets of Brechin during Storm Babet

Ernie counted about 14 pubs in old Brechin, all packed across the entire weekend. And then the discos in ­function halls, where Karen would sneak half ­bottles inside in her handbag. That was when the population was young and abundant. Now the pubs are quiet or closed, and Brechin is full of “old folk coming home to die”.

We gathered the three dogs of the six that didn’t want to eat me and headed out for a walk. The estate roams a ridge: Forfar to the south, the broad fertile ­valley of Strathmore to the north west that separates Highland from Lowland.

In the distance, on the far side of Strathmore, the Highland fault line kicks up the first ridges of the Cairngorms, known locally as the Braes of Angus.

It is from these glens that the torrents poured during Storm Babet. Around 200mm of rain fell overnight. The ­rivers, in furious spate, roared downhill through Brechin, through Monifieth, ­flooding them. In some parts of Angus, lives were lost.

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The depopulation of the glen, and the Lowlands, is partly to blame. Upland Angus had its own Highland Clearances. Famine rocked the region in the 1780s.

Many of the most ­impoverished turned to manufacturing illicit whisky to raise cash for rent and to obtain a ­tradable commodity. Dragoons came up the glen to stop them distilling, once even burning their homes in the night. The ­lifeline industry was extinguished, and the poor left the glens in huge ­numbers.

Glen Clova, one of the most visually stunning of the glens, lost 75% of its ­population in the century from 1741 to 1841.

Now these areas are mostly grouse moors, sheep farms, or clear felling and monocrop forests. This landscape is extremely vulnerable to flooding, as on grouse moors there is nothing ­stopping the water from thundering downhill and ­turning the burns into torrents.

Language and loss

LOWLAND Angus is not natural. It was heavily engineered in the agricultural revolution. The old muirs and lochs were drained, the land reclaimed for arable. Forfar Loch is a mere one-third of its original size.

Many of the water ­courses have been straightened by previous ­generations. All of this combines to pour huge amounts of rainfall at great speed ­towards the sea, flooding and eroding as it travels downhill.

Karen and Ernie led me out to a ­viewpoint, and we looked out over Strathmore. It is bonnie, but it is also bare. Few clumps of trees break up the right angles of fields. The main sight and sound today is the hard left-to-right line of the A90 dual carriageway ruled across the landscape, with its endless low roar of freight in transit.

As the towns quieten and the villages atrophy, much is lost.

There’s the folk knowledge. Over many centuries we lived within our ­environment. Simple human things emerged. Recipes, fishing spots, routes through woods.

There’s the language. Angus has been a heartland for the Scots language for many centuries. Even today, about 40% of us speak it. But with so few young ­people growing up and living here, who are we going to pass it on to?

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There’s the stories. Angus has played central roles in repulsing the Romans, supporting the Picts, and peopling the armies of the Jacobites. Folk memory of these events, and the stories connected to the land, all pass with the population.

But I cannae see this as eternal. Angus has much to offer – folk simply dinnae get friendlier than those that live in rural Angus. The food culture, in fruits, jams, whiskies, bannocks and bridies, the steak and fish, is such an outstanding offering.

The economy, too, has bright spots. Montrose Port, for example, is bang at the centre of the renewables gold rush. I toured the port recently and learned of the huge increases in revenue as they ­diversify from oil and gas supply ships to supporting the huge wind farms being built in the waters off Angus. These wind fields are vast, and the need to build and maintain them will employ many.

Other positive stories, like new ­distilleries opening, and tourism hubs being developed, point tentatively at a ­future of growth and opportunity.

I asked Karen why she thought so many young people left the region.

“The kids of today,” she said “they want bigger and better than what our communities can give them. They see the opportunities in the world, and they go after them.”

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I see that. I left myself, chasing work in Dundee, then adventure overseas. I ­wanted more than my quiet village life could offer. I don’t want anyone stuck somewhere they don’t want to be.

Karen and Ernie recall a recent time when Angus thrived. It would not take a significant shift to see it thrive again.

The growth of the renewables industry brings hope of abundant skilled work. The ­tourism sector has much room to ­expand.

The uplands could stand to quickly ­benefit from changes in land ownership structure. Scotland as a whole would ­benefit from a thriving Angus and is ­reduced by its current travails.

Let’s hope that this census wake-up call is heeded.