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Commuting patterns in rural Scotland

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Commuting is one of the main, and most visible, forms of integration between rural areas and surrounding small towns and urban areas; it allows workers to access urban employment opportunities while at the same time satisfying preferences for a rural residence. In this post I explore visually the patterns of out-commuting from rural areas to small towns and urban areas and how they have changed between 2001 and 2011. 

My first two maps show the proportion of out-commuting flows from rural to urban areas, where urban areas are defined by the Scottish Government as settlements of 10,000 or more people. There are 10 colours ranging from red-to-yellow-to-green; the red corresponds to the areas with the highest rates of out-commuting (i.e. high flows to urban areas) and the darkest green corresponds to the areas with the lowest rates of out-commuting (i.e. low flows to urban areas). Unsurprisingly, the proportion of out-commuting falls with increased distance from urban areas, resulting in a nice ring-type pattern of fading colours around urban centres. As you can see, the rings suggest that the lure of urban areas as job creators can extend far into the hinterland. This is especially evident for the regions with large cities at their core (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee), where the spillover effects of urban jobs can reach well beyond 50 km, up to areas that are at about 1 hour away by car.
Comparing the maps from 2001 and 2011, it appears that rural-to-urban commuting increased during this period. The change is especially evident around Inverness but also in the north east of Scotland and below the central belt. This trend may have resulted from one or a combination of factors, including changes that make longer commutes more feasible – such as improved transport network and travel times, and a reduction in the relative cost of motoring and vehicle purchase – and also other factors such as an increased concentration of jobs in urban areas and/or loss of jobs in rural places, increased housing costs in urban versus rural areas, or a greater preference for a rural lifestyle.

Out-commuting from rural to urban areas in 2001 (left) and 2011 (right). Source: Author using census flow data.

My second pair of maps show commuting flows to urban areas and smaller towns (defined by the Scottish Government as settlements of 3,000 to 9,999 people). These show that commuting connects many rural areas to nearby small towns. Therefore small towns, not just larger urban areas, play an important role in supporting their rural surroundings through the provision of jobs as well as providing certain goods and services. Moreover, commuting ties between rural areas and small towns also appear to have strengthened over the 10-years to 2011, particularly in Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Islands. The importance of small towns to supporting large parts of rural Scotland is reflected, for example, on Scottish Government’s efforts towards the development and implementation of The Town Centre Action Plan and the financial support given to the work of Scotland’s Towns Partnership in meeting the objectives set out in the action plan.


Out-commuting from rural to urban areas and small towns in 2001 (left) and 2011 (right). Source: Author using census flow data.

A final look at the maps shows there is a group of ‘isolated’ rural areas (in dark green) outside the reach of the ‘pull’ effect of employment opportunities in either urban areas or small towns. These areas are predominantly located in the west isles (Outer Hebrides, Skye & Lochalsh, Mull & Islay, Lochgilphead) and the Highlands (Ullapool & Gairloch and Badenoch).
I recently analysed the relationship between distance to the nearest small town and/or urban area and the rate of population growth across rural areas in Scotland, over the same 10-year period, and found a negative relationship between these two variables: growth rates of rural populations tend to be lower when they are farther from urban areas or small towns. This result, and the commuting patterns highlighted in the maps above, suggests that supporting rural areas through labour market integration will have a more pronounced impact on rural areas that are more accessible to cities and towns. By contrast, in more remote rural areas, other types of interventions may be required to stimulate growth. The idea of promoting regional and national growth through strong city-regions, as described in the Scottish Government’s Agenda for Cities, might be suitable for accessible rural areas but is unlikely to deliver growth for the more remote parts of Scotland.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



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Printed from /blog/segs/commuting-rural-Scotland on 28/02/24 05:03:13 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.