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Impact of Coronavirus on Rural Scotland – A contribution from the SEGS Group: Part 3

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Blog picture: Impact of Coronavirus on Rural Scotland – A contribution from the SEGS Group: Part 3
Access to digital technology can support ongoing communication between people in rural communities and embed the value of virtual tools in the longer-term

3. Addressing the Challenges from Coronavirus: Insights from recent research

With contributions from: Dominic Duckett, Mags Currie, Carla Barlagne, Claire Hardy, Leanne Townsend, Sharon Flanigan, Ruth Wilson, Jon Hopkins, and Annabel Pinker.

During this period of global crisis, many of us are concerned about the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on rural Scotland. In our first post, we considered the key factors that underpin community resilience. In the second, we explored the virus’ potential impact on aspects of Scottish agriculture.

Here, we focus on the how the virus outbreak may open up opportunities and instigate advances in technology that could lead to positive changes in rural Scotland. What do we know already from our social science experience? How can this knowledge help rural communities and policy makers respond?

Provision of services to rural communities, particularly those in more sparsely populated parts of Scotland, has long been recognised as a challenge and in recent years that challenge has increased as local authority budgets have fallen, with several key service areas seeing substantial reductions, as reported by SEGS researchers Ruth Wilson and Andrew Copus (1). The Coronavirus crisis brings some of the consequences of this into sharp relief. For example, healthcare facilities in these areas have limited capacities and may be some distance from the patients that require them, while healthcare workers are often in short supply within the local population (2). At this time of crisis, additional resources directed to these areas will almost certainly be required to respond to demand.

Access to digital tools (such as the ‘DigiCroft’, to be developed through the H2020 DESIRA project) during this period of crisis will be vital to maintain communication within and between communities. It is hoped that planned events and training could thereby take place through virtual means. The everyday use of such tools is likely to help embed them as accepted practice after the crisis.

Digital technology offers some solutions, enabling – for example – face-to-face medical appointments without physical proximity and online education for school pupils. Its potential to keep people connected socially while physically separated is arguably a facet with which some rural residents are already familiar (3). However. this is not always straightforward. Research by Mags Currie and colleagues has illustrated challenges around the acceptance of technologies, such as eHealth solutions for older people, especially where older adults are not as comfortable or adept at using communications technology (4). Furthermore, levels of digital connectivity are lower in sparsely populated areas than elsewhere in Scotland, although efforts are being made through the Scottish Government R100 initiative to connect those currently without broadband access (as reported by Ruth Wilson and Jon Hopkins (5)). A study being undertaken by SEGS PhD student Rachel Creaney is also examining the concept of ‘smart homes’ (i.e. homes where data can be collected in the home and monitored remotely), and how this technology impacts the wellbeing of older people living in rural areas. These types of homes could also prove useful for caring remotely for older adults.

Previous research by Leanne Townsend and colleagues has shown that social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are powerful tools for rural communities and businesses to connect with local and practice-based networks, building both bridging and bonding social capital (6). Current responses online to the social impacts of the Coronavirus crisis demonstrate that rural communities make innovative use of social media platforms in order to maintain social bonds (e.g. quiz nights conducted over Facebook instead of in the village hall) and to care for community members through online groups which share information about vulnerable community members, or services and supplies available in the local area.

Research on demographic change in remote areas by Andrew Copus and Jon Hopkins (7), as well as on socio-economic and wellbeing outcomes across Scotland (8), has illustrated the diversity of assets, strengths and challenges faced by rural areas and towns. These include concentrations of wealth and population growth in rural regions surrounding some major cities (Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness), accompanied by major issues in housing affordability. Many sparsely populated rural areas are threatened by steep population decline, and are challenged by a centralisation of economic activity, despite appearing to have a high quality of life in many respects. More remote small towns in former industrial areas are often marked by out-migration and low incomes. This evidence could be used to inform the design of place-based or place-sensitive regional interventions (9).

However, inequality and rural diversity in Scotland has raised further questions around how the Coronavirus crisis is experienced by different regions, and whether all communities have the resources and local human capital to respond effectively. While larger urban areas are evidently vulnerable due to high population density, they also have the benefit of very good access to healthcare. 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.

Researchers at the James Hutton Institute have been examining the concept of spatial justice in the European-wide H2020 RELOCAL project. Spatial justice is about the fair and equitable distribution of resources in the spaces in which we live. Different opportunities affecting wellbeing exist from place to place and there is a need to focus on ways that equality between communities and regions can be promoted. Research that seeks to understand such place-based responses (also examined in the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme 2016-2021) will be instrumental in ensuring that opportunities for rural communities are equitable and overcome the impact of a post-virus global recession.

Wilson, R.; Copus, A. (2018a) Services of General Interest (SGI) in the Scottish Sparsely Populated Area (SPA): Exemplar services., RESAS RD 3.4.1 Demographic Change in Remote Areas. Working Paper 7 (Objective O4.2i)

(2) Wilson, R.; Copus, A. (2018b) Services of General Interest (SGI) in the Scottish Sparsely Populated Area (SPA). Introduction, classification by delivery mode, and selection of exemplar services., RESAS RD 3.4.1 Demographic Change in Remote Areas. Working Paper 4, Objective O4.1i

(3) Wilson, R.; Wallace, C.; Farrington, John H. (2015) A virtual geography of the Scottish Islands. Scottish Geographical Journal, vol, 131 pp. 228-244

(4) Currie, M., Philip, L., and Roberts, A., (2015) “Attitudes towards, use and acceptance of technology: a case study of older adults living with chronic pain and implications for rural healthcare” BMC Health Services Research 15(1):162 · April 2015.

(5) Wilson, R.; Hopkins, J. (2019) The changing shape of Scotland's digital divide., European Countryside, 11, 563-583.

(6) Townsend, L., Wallace, C., Fairhurst, G. and Anderson, A. (2016). Broadband and the creative industries in rural Scotland. Journal of Rural Studies.

(7) Copus, A. and Hopkins, J. (2018) Demographic change in the Sparsely Populated Areas of Scotland (1991-2046). Available at

(8) Hopkins, J. and Copus, A. (2018) Can we measure wellbeing at the community scale? Identifying indicators for Scotland. Available at:

(9) Iammarino, S., Rodriguez-Pose, A., Storper, M. (2019) Regional inequality in Europe: evidence, theory and policy implications. Journal of Economic Geography, 19(2): 273-298.

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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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.