Rural areas make up 98% of Scotland’s landmass and 17% of its population, a new report has shown.

The Rural and Islands Report 2023, launched by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), is the first report to be released of a series of annual reports funded by the Scottish government.

Researchers at the college have extended the Scottish government’s urban rural classification from eight to 10 unique categories to help gain accurate and up-to-date evidence about the characteristics of Scotland’s rural communities and businesses.

It is hoped this new information will help with more tailored and accurate policy.

The SRUC said the country’s islands and very rural mainland areas, which are defined as settlements with less than 3,000 people, have come under a “more nuanced lens” in a bid to better understand the challenges facing these communities.

The report found that rural and island economies and communities are diverse, with issues faced in one community not always found in the next.

However, in general, very remote mainland areas and islands are experiencing challenges such as slow population growth, ageing populations, high levels of vacant and second home ownership, lack of affordable housing for locals and higher fuel prices.

Rural Affairs and Islands Secretary Mairi Gougeon said fully understanding the challenges faced by rural and island areas is crucial to addressing their specific needs.

“The insight and recommendations from this research, combined with hearing directly from rural and island communities themselves, will be valuable as we develop the plan, which will ensure that a rural lens is applied to all ongoing policy,” she said.

Rural Scotland

While remote Scottish mainland areas and islands are experiencing growth challenges, accessible parts have been experiencing rapid population growth which has led to an increase in housing developments and pressures on local services, the SRUC said.

The college’s new classification guide divides ‘very remote’ regions, which are defined as being more than a 60-minute drive from population centres of over 10,000 people, into ‘very remote mainland’ and ‘very remote island’ categories.

This, the SRUC said, will help Scotland provide a better focus on the most peripheral communities.

The report uses these new classifications to compare performance in key areas including:

  • People;
  • Transport;
  • Housing;
  • Workforce and earnings;
  • Business and economy.

Lead researcher Steven Thomson, a reader at SRUC, said: “The use of the NISRIE (novel insights on Scotland’s rural and island economies) classification allows for a much more nuanced picture to be generated of the socio-economic trends across accessible, remote and very remote rural mainland and island communities.

“The report also demonstrates how using different geographical classifications can generate quite different pictures of these trends.

“Building up a holistic picture of these trends will enable us to better and more accurately inform policy formation.”

It is hoped the information gained about the characteristics of, and challenges and opportunities facing, these communities and the businesses within them will support them to become more sustainable and resilient.

This is something that is critical to the Scottish government’s ambitions of achieving its target of net zero by 2045.

Rural Affairs and Islands Secretary Mairi Gougeon said: “The Scottish Government is committed to continuing to build vibrant, sustainable and inclusive rural and island communities, now and for future generations.

“This report will help to inform the Rural Delivery Plan which is an opportunity to set out the actions government and public bodies are taking to improve policies that impact rural communities – such as agriculture, marine, land reform, transport, housing, repopulation, social justice and digital connectivity.”