PhD Studentship Opportunities in Island Migration

Growing Scotland’s Islands: Can the National Islands Plan stimulate a population turnaround? 

An opportunity has arisen for two fully funded PhD studentships on the topic of contemporary migration to Scotland’s islands. Building on existing research on rural migration, resilience and mobilities, the successful candidates will undertake in-depth studies of the aspirations and lived experiences of working age, in-migrant islanders (whether new or returning) to explore the opportunities and barriers they encounter. Framed within the aspirations of Scotland’s National Islands Plan which include a desire to increase population levels in the Scottish islands and to ensure a healthy, balanced population profile, the studentships will provide academic insights and evidence of relevance to policy-makers and others seeking to influence the demographic fortunes of remote and island communities.

The successful candidates will be jointly hosted by the Department of Geography and Environment, School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen and the Department of Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences at the James Hutton Institute. One studentship is funded by the ESRC through the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS) and is open to both home and international applicants.  One is funded by the Macaulay Development Trust and may be awarded to a candidate eligible for home fees.

Further information about the project is available via the SGSSS at The link includes information about how to apply.  All applications submitted via the SGSSS application system will automatically be considered for both the ESRC and MDT funded studentships. Informal enquiries to the supervisory team are encouraged in advance of submitting an application. 

Eligibility: Applicants must hold either a Masters degree or a first or upper-second class Honours degree in Geography or a cognate discipline (such as Sociology, Anthropology, Rural Planning). Home and international candidates may apply.

Closing date for applications: 31st March 2021

Start date: October 2021

Duration: +3 or 1+3 depending on prior research training (as set out in ESRC guidance)

Stipend: UKRI rate (£15,609 in 2021/22)

Supervisory team: Dr Ruth Wilson (, Dr Paula Duffy (, Dr Lorna Philip ( and Dr Margaret Currie (

National Islands Plan Survey

Contributed by Ruth Wilson (The James Hutton Institute)

Over the next few days a survey will be landing on the doormats of 20,000 islanders across Scotland. The survey was commissioned by the Scottish Government and developed by researchers at the James Hutton Institute to measure the effectiveness of the National Islands Plan. It follows on from extensive island consultations held last year to develop the plan, and aims to gather perceptions of key aspects of life in island communities.

The questions included in the survey are wide-ranging and ask about housing, jobs, digital connectivity, health care and transport – aspects of island life that we know are vital in enabling people to live and work in island communities. It will provide baseline data for the thirteen objectives of the National Islands Plan and enable the impact of the plan to be measured consistently across the islands in future years.

The survey is being sent to individuals in all the islands for which we were able to obtain residents’ contact details. It’s important that the person named on the envelope answers the questions (with, if needed, the help of someone else); this will mean that residents of different age groups and genders are represented in the study.

Recipients can complete the survey on paper, online or by telephone, in English or in Gaelic, following the instructions on the front of the paper copy.

Thank you to BioSS, our Research Advisory Group, the Scottish Islands Federation and our cognitive testers, all of whom have contributed time and expertise to this project.

Rural representation and belonging: thoughts from Great Blasket Island

Contributed by Christina Noble (The James Hutton Institute)

Cottages on Great Blasket Island

Earlier this year in a pre-Covid-19 Ireland, a job advert for working and living on a remote island for six months off the coast of Co. Kerry went viral attracting over 24,000 job applications from around the world. The advert was pitched as a ‘dream job’, advertising a unique once-in-a lifetime opportunity to be caretaker(s) of the few holiday cottages available for visitors and the café on the Great Blasket Island. The previous couple who had taken up the post cautioned that there was a notable downside to the position [1]. Their decision to share photos and videos from their time on the island was largely well received, but was sometimes met with negative feedback from those who felt the couple were commercialising the island and risking increasing tourist numbers when they had no apparent ‘claim’ to do so. The comments also spoke of the couple’s lack of Gaelic language skills which strongly suggested they had less right than a native Gaelic speaker over sharing their images and posts of the island. The Blasket Islands were home to a Gaelic speaking community that was disbanded in 1953 due to a diminishing population, aided by increasing emigration.

Moving and relocating to a remote island for a certain time I’m sure is not something one usually does without some research or realisation that maybe this might be a challenge? This is no doubt partly the appeal, a desire to escape everyday life for a time, but for those who live and work more permanently in not only island communities but other remote and rural places, that sense of ‘escapism’ probably seems a world away and what places mean for some will be different to others. This also serves as a reminder that within rural places, movement of whatever kind whether incoming or outgoing is perhaps felt more keenly as numbers here matter.

View from Great Blasket Island

My PhD research took me to the western and southern counties of Ireland, including Co. Kerry, meeting with return migrants who were individuals who had grown up in Ireland, emigrated, and returned back during the mid-90s and 2000s. The majority too, importantly returned to the villages and rural areas where they grew up. I was keen to explore what return migration actually means for those who move, their sense of belonging and identity and this in turn led me to think more about the importance of rural Ireland to their reasons for return. Nearly all of the participants interviewed after being back in Ireland felt they were caught between different places and times, and it took a few years to feel that they were belonging to that place once again. Often the images and their ideas of the places that they were returning to didn’t match up neatly with the reality, and often in less tangible ways such as the rhythms of daily life. The participants themselves reflected that they were Irish alright but within a specific place or community sometimes not local enough, nor, fully a newcomer.  Being caught between two different places was unsettling and any idea of an easy return was swiftly quashed. It also threw into question our tendency to imagine a return as permanent, removing the potential to move again.

A study in Whalsay, Shetland in 1980, saw Cohen reflect upon what it means to belong to a place, to be a part of the community, which he summarised as being part of a jigsaw puzzle. Everyone is part of a whole, so that if one piece is missing, it is felt by everyone. Whilst the jigsaw analogy can get sticky when we think about new pieces and changes over time, it does help to think how a singular act can have further reaching consequences. For the Blasket Islands, and a lot of rural Ireland so deeply affected by the legacy of emigration, movement of any kind can evoke deeply emotive feelings.  Yet, there is a marked difference between a visitor for a day or two and someone planning to relocate for the foreseeable future. Furthermore rural places are themselves never static to begin with, and you can be certain of change regardless, it just may come about at a different pace.

[1] Job advert was placed on Facebook before going viral. Article from Boland, R., (2019) Six months on the Blasket: ‘People accused us of ruining it’ in the Irish Times, available at [Accessed 26.02.2020]

A 2030 Spatial Justice Scenario for Lewis: Which future for Strengthening Communities and its goal?

Contributed by Simone Piras (The James Hutton Institute). The RELOCAL methodology and the scenario for Lewis have been developed by Andrew Copus, Margaret Currie, Dominic Duckett and Simone Piras (The James Hutton Institute).

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Source: Currie, M., Pinker, A. and Copus, A. (2019) Strengthening Communities on the Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles, United Kingdom. RELOCAL Case Study N°33/33. Joensuu: University of Eastern Finland.

The European project H2020 RELOCAL (“Resituating the local in cohesion and territorial development”), of which the James Hutton Institute is a partner, studies the issue of spatial justice across Europe by analysing 33 case studies of place-based interventions. One of these case studies focuses on Strengthening Communities, implemented in the Isle of Lewis by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

Besides the Lewis case study, Hutton leads the RELOCAL effort to compare the logic of the interventions and identify how these will contribute to achieving spatial justice in 2030 scenarios for the 33 case study localities. A systematic methodology was developed for this purpose. The intervention logic is illustrated though a so-called “theory of change mechanism map”.

Lewis was selected as a case study because it is an island with a largely dispersed population, far away from large metropolitan areas, and with comparatively low levels of service provision. In the RELOCAL terminology, it is a case of spatial injustice driven by “territorial disadvantage”, which makes it more difficult to achieve the same level of wellbeing as elsewhere. Other types of injustice identified in RELOCAL include “neighbourhood segregation”, more common in urban areas, and “place disempowerment”, typical of areas that have been declining for several reasons. However, in Lewis a large share of the population (72%) lives on community owned land, which is higher than anywhere else in Scotland, making it an interesting point to build upon.

Strengthening Communities consists of two interrelated “actions”: supporting groups of residents (constituted as Community Land Trusts) in the process of community land purchase in the context of the Scottish Government’s land reform; and legally assisting them as they explore and develop opportunities for land-based economic activities (Community Account Management). As such, it aims at achieving a broad equivalence of wellbeing and opportunities for Lewis as can be achieved in more geographically advantaged areas. The first action focuses on distributional justice (fair access to resources), and is expected to trigger additional economic activity and employment and thus demographic sustainability though the innovative exploitation of land. The second, “soft” action focuses on procedural justice by developing community and individual capacity to act within the existing administrative framework. The pathways towards spatial justice activated by the actions rely on a number of assumptions: that the Trusts can identify sustainable revenue streams (which has been problematic for one of them after the end of energy subsidies); that opportunities to generate revenues from local assets exist (e.g. recreation, housing); that enhanced wellbeing leads to demographic sustainability; that the governance framework is responsive to local actors; and that “adequateness” of wellbeing is defined by stakeholders relative to local constraints. However, such assumptions derive from contextual conditions which may change in 2030: the presence of valuable environmental assets, primarily the landscape; a strong relationship with a local customer base as a replacement for economies of scales; cultural uniqueness (Gaelic language and the Free Church); and continuity of HIE support and of the Scottish Government’s inclusive growth approach.

The 2030 scenario was developed by Hutton researchers in consultation with local stakeholders. A trend which stood out is the enduring demographic depletion. This is closely linked to a persisting neo-liberal economic paradigm at global, European, and national level which promotes centralisation and rationalisation, favouring agglomeration, and thus large cities. This will be only partially counterbalanced by the Scottish Government’s progressive response to decline, improved rural digitalisation, and the opportunities generated by a milder climate (e.g. a longer grazing and tourist season). The unique identity and the commitment of local citizens are thus expected to become even more focal points to build upon.

The dynamics identified in the scenario exercise will lead to less favourable contextual conditions: limited opportunities to create value from environmental assets compared to more accessible places; lower institutional responsiveness to local actors; and loss of EU funds. As a result, the Trusts will have difficulties in achieving financial sustainability and triggering economic activity, and the intervention will need to adapt, underpinned by different assumptions. The new, “softer” path towards spatial justice will likely centre on a renewed sense of belonging rather than on economic growth, and the final goal will need to be downscaled. The limited employment and self-employment opportunities will help retain only a share of young people: out-migration of the rest of them will be driven by an aspiration to urban lifestyles which cannot be overturned through job availability alone. In turn, this will result in adaptation to demographic depletion underpinned by a locally-defined sense of “adequateness” and “autonomy”. The future intervention logic is illustrated in the theory of change mechanism map below.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Theory of change mechanism map

The scenario for Lewis echoes the story of many remote rural areas which must compete with places benefitting from agglomeration effects (i.e. cost savings thanks to closeness of many businesses, services, and people) in the framework of an economic model favouring the latter. Similar patterns of population decline and shrinking financial resources were identified in most rural and sparsely populated places studied in RELOCAL. While place-based interventions are definitely required to improve wellbeing there, these are not enough if spatial justice goals are not decoupled from economic growth and efficiency, particularly in the context of population decline. Strategies of “territorial branding” centred on cultural and environmental uniqueness also suffer from increasing competitiveness, with more accessible places better placed to exploit them. The Coronavirus pandemic, which broke out when the scenario had already been elaborated, has also shown the vulnerability of development models centred on tourism. A different narration of rural life, targeted primarily at (current or potential) young residents, is thus needed.

What makes up ‘Inclusive Growth’? Developing a framework for Scotland’s Highlands and Islands

Contributed by the ToWards Inclusive Growth team, including Jon Hopkins (Hutton), Andy Sarjeant (HIE) and Eilidh MacDonald (HIE)

The village of Cullen in Moray

Places in Scotland have often been defined as disadvantaged or vulnerable based on an “in or out” classification, often using a threshold level. Small areas in the north and west of Scotland, for example, have been classified as fragile based on a score calculated from recent population change, access to services, income and unemployment. Although this definition is well-used, binary classifications are inevitably limited. For example, they don’t capture variation in the extent of fragility, describe how different indicators interact, or identify challenges faced in areas which don’t reach the fragility threshold. Broadly, they inhibit a more targeted and balanced approach to intervention based on opportunities and needs.

Another widely-known indicator, the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), provides a ranking of all Data Zones in Scotland and considers seven domains. However, reporting of the SIMD regularly emphasises the extremes – such as ‘top tens’ and the most deprived 20% of Scotland. In this project, our aim is to produce a more nuanced typology of small areas in the Highlands and Islands, representing areas with similar characteristics related to inclusive growth. To provide a framework for data analysis, it was vital to consider which characteristics and themes are most relevant.

While inclusive growth is a fuzzy concept, attempts have been made to operationalise and measure it. The increasing policy interest in Scotland is evidenced by the production of an outcomes framework by Scotland’s Centre for Regional Inclusive Growth (SCRIG), consisting of five outcomes  (‘5 Ps’ of productivity, population, participation, people and place) to “…provide a consistent structure for analysis and understanding of inclusive growth performance”. The framework includes two key contexts: people and place, emphasising the need to consider the outcomes from the view of different groups and locations. This framework is accompanied by an Inclusive Growth Outcomes Framework Dashboard, an attractive online application enabling access to data for 26 indicators. However, no indicators are available for areas smaller than local authorities. This is not a criticism, as the developing inclusive growth research community in Scotland has prioritised the development and improvement of the evidence base. However, for the purposes of creating a small area-resolution typology, we decided to consider other frameworks.

Broadly, inclusive growth aims to address two elements – “…the pace and pattern of growth” – at the same time, by supporting higher quality employment across the economy rather than redistributing income. Similarly, a review for the Poverty and Equality Commission summarised inclusive growth as “…about delivering an economy that combines fairness and prosperity and about economic growth that narrows inequalities by design” before welfare intervention. The assumptions behind this view should be challenged, of course – however the focus on ‘pace’ and ‘pattern’ (or ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’) of development are extremely useful themes to frame the concept, and other analyses have used similar approaches. These include the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Inclusive Growth Monitor for English regions, which uses a series of indicators structured within two themes of inclusion and prosperity. The same two themes are also included within the Metro Monitor, an annual analysis by the Brookings Institution of the largest 100 cities in the USA.

The framework for analysis in this project reproduces the themes and dimensions of the Inclusive Growth Monitor. In our framework, prosperity consists of output growth (potentially measured by business activity and earnings), characteristics of employment, and human capital – the skills and abilities of people. Inclusion can be defined through evidence of (low) income, living costs (for instance, housing affordability) and labour market inclusion, potentially measured by employment and economic activity rates. In addition to representing these dimensions with suitable indicators, measuring local-level spatial variability is crucial in understanding inclusive growth, as residents’ local experiences and knowledge of nearby regions influence their perceived quality of life (see: report, article).

However, in order to increase the relevance of this framework to the Highlands and Islands, we have concluded that it is crucial to include two additional contextual themes which describe a location’s geographical and social characteristics. Increasing inclusion and prosperity can be the focus of interventions and investments (potentially guided by a suitable small area typology), but the additional contextual factors of geographical and social characteristics represent elements which can be less easily influenced by local-level actions (although they are not necessarily ‘static’). They can be major assets or challenges to communities, or factors which influence community resilience, capacity, or vulnerability.

The River Ness passing through Inverness

The Highlands and Islands contains the city of Inverness and several towns, but also extensive sparsely populated areas and the vast majority of Scotland’s inhabited islands: access to services, digital connectivity, and the quality of transport infrastructure vary considerably. In addition, the landscape contains major environmental assets which may deliver community benefits: forests and peatlands, protected areas, and high potential for renewable energy.

Additionally, the strength and cohesiveness of communities and the availability of ‘social infrastructure’ (e.g. community centres, libraries) may affect local-level outcomes. We also feel that a greater understanding of potential social vulnerability: possibly indicated by the local population’s age structure, health outcomes, selected protected characteristics, and the availability of transport for those without cars, is crucial; as sustainable community development and genuinely inclusive growth needs to account for the needs and experiences of vulnerable groups, in addition to considering the availability of ‘human capital’. As inclusive growth can be conceptualised as addressing both regional and social inequalities, additional contextual indicators add important detail.

Our framework of inclusive growth in the Highlands and Islands, under consideration as a structure for data analysis.

This framework, following review, will be used as a basis for indicator selection, and data analysis, which will be used to develop a set of typologies for the Highlands and Islands that represent areas with similar characteristics in terms of inclusion and prosperity, set in the context of the landscape and society and accompanied by a clear narrative description. The framework is aspirational, as ‘fine grained’ data, for small areas, is not likely to be available for all twelve dimensions: some compromises and adjustments will need to be made. We aim to develop and publish the typologies soon.

Note: this is the second blog from the ‘Towards Inclusive Growth’ project, funded by the SEFARI Responsive Opportunity Initiative. Through this project, researchers from the Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences Group at the James Hutton Institute and Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland are 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. This is our second blog from the project – the first followed  a workshop in Aberdeen at the start of March. Since then, discussions and knowledge exchange have been necessarily online.

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.