The impact of Coronavirus on rural Scotland

A contribution from the Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences (SEGS) Group at The James Hutton Institute

Written by Annie McKee, with contributions from: Dominic Duckett, Mags Currie, Carla Barlagne, Claire Hardy, Leanne Townsend, Sharon Flanigan, Ruth Wilson, Jon Hopkins, and Annabel Pinker

As a social science research group, we spend much of our time undertaking social research in rural communities and with land managers across Scotland, and internationally. We get to know people and community groups, and follow their progress with interest. During this period of global crisis, many of us are concerned about the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak (‘Coronavirus’) on rural Scotland.

Through a series of blog posts, we have shared some our social science experience to consider how rural Scotland can and might respond to the Coronavirus crisis. We considered first the key factors that underpin community resilience, followed by the impact on aspects of Scottish agriculture, and finally the potential for positive change post-virus. For each blog post, we collectively posed the questions: what do we know already from our social science experience, and how can this knowledge help rural communities, businesses, and policy makers respond? Here we summarise this blog series and provide links to the underpinning research.

Many rural communities already have resilience groups to respond to storms and flooding

As described in Part 1 of this blog series, many research projects in rural communities across Scotland have sought to understand the key factors that underpin community resilience. ‘Community resilience’ is understood as a community’s capacity to adapt to change, whether as a result of an emergency or cumulative, long-term transformation. Long-term rural decline (e.g. depopulation, ageing, unemployment, etc.), as well as more sudden disruptive change, can particularly affect the resilience of communities in remote and rural areas of Scotland. Underpinning resilience in rural communities therefore relies on shared understandings of what ‘community resilience’ means in practice, the existence of positive community capacity and social capital, as well as local community resilience groups and social innovation. These features of community resilience will be vital to support rural communities during and after the Coronavirus crisis.

In Part 2 we turned to the impact of the Coronavirus crisis on aspects of Scottish agriculture, in particular the value of collaboration and peer-to-peer learning in farming communities. Research has demonstrated that machinery rings represent an opportunity for farmers to circumvent concerns relating to loss of independence and autonomy by accessing collaboration as a form of service provision mediated through facilitators. Examples of facilitation skills and networks being mobilised to provide immediate support for citizens and businesses experiencing economic impacts associated with measures to limit the spread of Covid-19 are already being seen.

Farmer collaboration in action at the Lothians Monitor Farm meeting, July 2018

It is clear that the Coronavirus outbreak has given rise to greater public awareness and interest in where our food is produced, food supply chains, and therefore arguably, how land is used for food production in Scotland and beyond. In post-virus Scotland, we anticipate more people seeking to access locally-grown food and a revival of small-scale food production to meet this demand. It may be necessary to consider incentivising landowners to provide access to land for smallholders and other new entrants to agriculture.

Finally, in Part 3, we focussed on the how the virus outbreak may open up opportunities and instigate advances in technology that could lead to positive changes in rural Scotland.

Provision of services to rural communities, particularly those in more sparsely populated parts of Scotland, has long been recognised as a challenge and the Coronavirus crisis brings some of the consequences of this into sharp relief, not least access to healthcare facilities. Solutions arise with digital technology, including eHealth and online education opportunities, although these are not always easily adopted by older people.

Many or Scotland’s new gins are produced by rural entrepreneurs and sold online

Access to digital tools may help to maintain communication within and between communities, supporting the maintenance of social bonds. The greater everyday use of such tools will help to embed them after the crisis. However, it is important to identify inequality and rural diversity in Scotland, and whether all communities have the resources and local human capital to respond effectively. Critically, we may therefore underestimate the vulnerability of some more remote rural areas with an aging population profile, a relatively high proportion of self-employed workers and small businesses, and poorer access to services and online connectivity. This is an important consideration in the promotion of ‘spatial justice’ and wellbeing in rural communities, ensuring that opportunities are equitable and overcome the impact of a post-virus global recession.

The SEGS group at the James Hutton Institute seeks to continue to share relevant research experience and develop new research that will support all communities in rural Scotland in light of the Coronavirus crisis. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with research suggestions or questions.

Working together towards a better understanding of Inclusive Growth in the Highlands and Islands

Contributed by Jonathan Hopkins (The James Hutton Institute), Andy Sarjeant (HIE) and Eilidh MacDonald (HIE)

As part of a project funded by the SEFARI Responsive Opportunity Initiative, researchers from the Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences Group at the James Hutton Institute and Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland have begun working with researchers, economists and policy staff within HIE’s Planning and Partnerships team, to create new knowledge about the characteristics of inclusive growth within the Highlands and Islands.

Inclusive growth is of high policy interest in Scotland. It is one of four priorities within the Scottish Government’s Economic Strategy and “…delivering inclusive growth across all of Scotland” has been highlighted in the Economic Action Plan for 2019-20. It is the key aim of Regional Growth Deals, and is an objective of City Region Deals and the Government’s strategy for island regions. More broadly, the UK is marked by major and growing regional inequality which will require widespread effort and considerable policy change to address. However, a recent review has noted that while a growing focus on inclusive growth by governments is a positive development, and its broad concern with the distribution of economic benefits is understood, it remains “…conceptually fuzzy and operationally problematic” and how it can be achieved is not well known. This is reflected by experiences in Scotland, as a report published last year for the Poverty and Inequality Commission described uncertainty among practitioners over the meaning and measurement of inclusive growth, noting bluntly that there “…is a lack of a clear, consistent or applied definition of inclusive growth”. The need for improved evidence and data around inclusion within rural Scotland is also apparent.

It is in this context that Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE): the economic and community development agency for the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, are interested in better understanding how their place-based activities and investments are contributing to inclusion. Discussions with social scientists at the James Hutton Institute with a collective experience in place-based policy and research in remote and island communities, as well as indicator-based analysis and an interest in measuring inequality, led to the ToWards Inclusive Growth (TWIG) project which started at the start of February.

A key aim of the project is to support HIE’s development of a set of typologies for the Highlands and Islands that groups areas with similar characteristics in terms of inclusion and prosperity. Outputs from the project will include detailed area profiles reflecting local characteristics, informed by specific challenges and opportunities facing communities. Set against a wider economic context, the typologies and underpinning evidence base will provide a more granular picture of inclusive growth in the region and importantly will inform the interventions required to support inclusive growth over the long-term. To inform this work, and to support strategic research on place-based policy, a new cross-institute research and information-sharing network has been created between HIE, the James Hutton Institute and BioSS, and an engagement workshop was held on the 3rd March. During the workshop, facilitated discussions took place on participants’ current understanding of inclusion and inclusive growth, characteristics and frameworks needed to measure the concept, issues with data gaps and measurement, and the challenges presented by the geography of the Highlands and Islands. From these discussions, we collectively prioritised issues and identified key ‘SMART’ tasks to take forward within the project, in order to produce inclusive growth-based area profiles. The ‘after lunch’ session involved a planning activity, in which we defined a logical order for the tasks, and discussed how we will work together in the next one and a half months.


Further engagement will take place in March. To formally conclude the project, the Highlands and Islands area profiles and ‘lessons learned’ from this work will be shared and discussed at an online event (timing and format to be finalised). This will benefit from the involvement of the Rural Policy Centre at SRUC and stakeholders and practitioners with an interest in inclusive growth; community and regional development organisations will be invited to participate.

The team are encouraged by a very positive and constructive workshop in Aberdeen, and we hope that our work will contribute to a greater understanding of inclusive growth in the Highlands and Islands, as well as across Scotland more widely, and inform improved policy and investment decisions. Further updates on the project will appear on, but if you would like to discuss this project or would like any further information, please contact and or

Can interactive maps help you understand your local community?

Jonathan Hopkins from The James Hutton Institute invites your feedback on an interactive map showing local-level indicators of wellbeing. Explore the map here, read the information sheet here, and take the survey here.

There are several reasons why access to detailed information about places and communities – for small areas well below the national level – is hugely valuable. In the context of inclusive growth and wellbeing, researchers at the OECD have made three relevant observations: firstly, the location where people live has a considerable influence on their quality of life and opportunities. Secondly, government policies are not implemented in the same way in all areas, and the decisions and investments of local policy makers (including Scotland’s councils) have a major impact on residents. Thirdly, country-level information often masks major inequality between regions.

The last of these three points is particularly salient, as issues of economic and social inequality are rightly high on the policy agenda, partly due to the correlation between regional decline and political populism. In February 2020, an independent academic inquiry into spatial inequality in the UK – the UK2070 Commission – published its final report. This highlights the cost of the extreme regional differences in wealth and investment within the UK, with strong development in London and urban areas in the south, contrasting with consistent difficulties experienced by northern cities and several smaller towns in older industrial areas and more isolated (often coastal) locations. In the context of threats and opportunities presented by future population growth and the urgency of reducing carbon emissions, the Commission has recommended radical and broad changes in areas such as governance, transportation, investment and housing policy.

Researchers in the Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences (SEGS) group at The James Hutton Institute are involved in research on place-based policies – development approaches designed for different local contexts through collaborative knowledge creation. As described by Jane Atterton, place-based policies in Scotland are not new, as urban regeneration schemes took place in the 1960s, but they have increased in popularity in the past decade. Modern place-based policies acknowledge the diversity of rural areas, and focus on improving several aspects of wellbeing. Place-based policies need to be designed and evaluated using a quality, spatially detailed ‘evidence base’: however, this is not always present in rural Scotland. More nuanced ‘place-sensitive’ policies have also been recommended more recently, which are “…tailored to the structural prospects of different kinds of European regions”: the need for these approaches to be informed by information and intelligence is clear.

As part of research funded by the Scottish Government’s RESAS Strategic Research Programme 2016-2021, we have evaluated how multiple dimensions of wellbeing (defined based on an established OECD framework) can be measured at the ‘local’ or ‘small area’ level, as part of our aim to understand the inequalities in socio-economic outcomes in rural Scotland. It is possible to represent a number of concepts via indicators at the Data Zone level, either through existing statistics or by calculating new indicators, although this is more difficult for concepts such as life satisfaction and environmental wellbeing. However, we have recognised that it is crucial to ensure that socio-economic data is usable and accessible to the diverse communities, practitioners and stakeholders engaged in place-based activities, as access to data supports informed decision-making and community empowerment. Our stakeholder survey, launched in winter 2018 following a workshop at the Scottish Rural Parliament, found that the current online resources for accessing and analysing data are not fully meeting the needs of end users, calling into question whether the benefits of ‘OpenData’ are reaching everyone. 

Last year, following the valuable engagement described above, we published an interactive mapping tool in ‘beta’ form which enables end users to produce maps of indicators developed during this research project for regions of their choice, and explore local characteristics. This application does not aim to compete with mapping resources such as the excellent SIMD tool. However, we would like to produce an effective and informative template for publishing multiple indicators and socio-economic datasets. The application was produced using open source software and an improved version could be adopted and developed further by other groups.  

In order to improve the tool, we’d be delighted if anyone would like to test the application and fill in a short, anonymous feedback form ( If you are interested, please take a look at the information sheet and explore the tool before providing feedback.

If you’d like any other information, or have any questions about our research, please contact

ESPON ESCAPE – Reflecting on the Scottish experience in a wider European context

Contributed by Andrew Copus

The James Hutton Institute is a partner in an EU-funded ESPON project about “shrinking” rural areas. The consortium is led by the University of Eastern Finland, with partners in Sweden, Austria, Spain and Hungary. We are a little over half way through this 18 month project, and have completed a range of initial tasks, together with Inception and Interim Reports. At the heart of the project are eight case studies of shrinking rural areas in Finland, Germany, Spain, Greece, Croatia, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria.

One of the strongest impressions so far is of the diversity of shrinking rural areas in different contexts across Europe. Of course, there are common features; most obviously overall population trends, and ageing. However, digging a little deeper we find that there are many differences, in terms of chronology, the relative importance of migration and natural decrease, the drivers behind out-migration, current opportunities and potential, and longer-term prospects for the future.

Despite this variety, much of the academic literature, and policy thinking, seems to mostly reflect the twentieth century experience of Western European countries, – in which remoter rural areas are drained of the young and better educated, who migrate to cities for higher education, or to further their careers, leaving their birthplaces with unbalanced age structures, low fertility rates, high death rates and a dwindling working age population. This mechanism is often embedded in regional development assumptions about cities being the engines of growth, with rural areas dependent upon hypothesised “spread effects”. Such assumptions are important because they tend to condition the choice of solutions and policy interventions.

This Western European, and urban-driven, bias, is quite ironic, given the reality that, since at least the turn of the century, rural depopulation has been much more serious and widespread in the South and the East of Europe. Here the process of shrinking has often followed different paths. In the former socialist Member States of the East it has been associated with the transition from planned economies, and EU Accession, triggering international migration, which was often temporary, and involved low skilled workers as well as the better educated. In Mediterranean countries the push of reduced labour requirements as agri-business superseded traditional agriculture has been a key driver, and not so much the lure of urban industrialisation.

Here in Scotland it is hard not to notice the increasing attention paid to rural demography by the Scottish Government in recent years, cross-referencing both to the discourse on access to land, and to the focus upon inclusive growth within the National Performance Framework. With a wider perspective, it is very interesting to see that it is also rising up the agenda in EU circles, (including the Commission and the Committee of the Regions). The creation of the RUMRA (Rural, Mountainous and Remote Areas) Interservice Group perhaps reflects a shift in the composition of the European Parliament after the elections of May 2019. Publication of ESPON ESCAPE’s final report in the autumn will be timely. It presents an opportunity to reconsider some of the assumptions of the academic and grey literature, and to explore, in a pragmatic, evidence-based way, the implications for policy intervention logics.

For example, there are a whole set of assumptions about the precise objective of interventions to counter negative population trends. For instance, in the context of long-established shrinking, driven more by age structure than by current migration, is it realistic to talk about “growth”? Would the required scale of in-migration be acceptable to the local community? If, as in the recent draft National Island Plan, terms such as “healthy, balanced population profile” are preferred, how are these defined in practice? If they imply something short of reversing the population trend, is there a role for policies which help communities to adapt to demographic decline? If so, can the objective be articulated in terms of the well-being of the remaining population?

Digging deeper, along with clarification of demographic objectives goes the need to be explicit about motivations for policy approaches to service provision, both public and private, which have a very substantial role in driving, or responding to, rural population trends. For many years now neo-liberal and new public management principles have held sway in the UK, and across much of Europe. Economies of scale and cost-effectiveness have been primary considerations. More recently a rights-based perspective has entered the discourse. For example, Scotland’s National Islands Plan states, very clearly, that “every member of society has a right to live with dignity and to enjoy high quality public services wherever they live.” This principle can be traced back to the importance of inclusion in the National Performance Framework. Elsewhere, especially in the Nordic countries the principle of “territorial equivalence” (that you should not receive a lower level of services just because of where you live) has been influential for much longer.

Thirdly, there are a range of questions which relate, in one way or another, to the geographic scale of intervention. We need to think carefully about the assumption that local communities know best how to respond to population decline. Uncoordinated place-based interventions may have drawbacks. We know that the vast majority of changes of address are short-distance relocations, either associated with moves up the property ladder, or with stages of the family life cycle. The main result of local incentives to migrate into shrinking rural areas would likely be the diversion of some of these short-distance moves, resulting in what the regional policy evaluation literature would term “displacement” over boundaries, and (from a regional or national perspective) a “zero-sum game”. Perhaps a national spatial strategy could ameliorate this effect. Furthermore, in the context of the national demographic decline which Scotland is facing, perhaps we should be looking to recruit migrants from outside Scotland (or outside the UK)? On the other hand, the capacity and readiness of remote rural communities to fully embrace the consequences of globalisation are important considerations, with which an emphasis upon self-reliant community-based development perhaps sits less comfortably.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind the way in which terminology which was originally intended to be neutral becomes normative, or “loaded” with either positive or negative connotations. The term “shrinking” is a classic example. Already it is perceived by many as a negative label, which has potential to offend. Perversely, in the light of the current interest of the policy community, we need to beware that it does not become a “badge of honour”, in much the same way as GDP per capita became the key which unlocked EU Cohesion Policy funding. These are some of the issues which the ESPON ESCAPE research team seeks to address from a Europe-wide perspective. All of them, however, have considerable resonance in the Scottish context too.