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21 November 2023

Rural and/or urban: how we talk about our place-based identities

By Nina Joynson, communications manager

Earlier this month, Alice and I attended the Scottish Rural and Islands Parliament in Fort William. 

The Parliament brought together people who live in diverse rural environments and work in an array of sectors to share learning and shape the Scottish Government’s work in rural spaces.  

We came away with new knowledge to support our work going forward and, unexpectedly, new meditations on our own place-based identities and what exactly is encapsulated in the word ‘rural’.  

Discussion at the Parliament extended beyond those living in Scotland to consider the diaspora of rural Scots living across the globe and their impact and experiences in Scotland and abroad. 

We should talk about this rural Scottish diaspora on a local level too – those of us who have moved from remote areas to urban ones. Rural depopulation figures highlight just how many people fit within this category. 

This local diaspora has insights and rural experiences that should contribute to discussion and change on a national level. While I consider myself to have lived in cities for the last seven years, with that I have spent summers and almost an entire pandemic (luckily) ‘back home’ in Argyll, and maintain rural connections through family and friends, well aware of the issues faced by living where they do.  

It’s an experience well-represented amongst my peers – we still hold these rural identities and experiences close, they don’t exist only in the past tense.  

So, within the 83% of the population that the census considers urban*, how many have rural roots that are key to how they live and work in Scotland? How many have an impact on, and are impacted by, the area considered to only comprise 17% of the population?

I am lucky to have lived largely in a remote rural area. I am also lucky to have lived in Scotland’s cities. I know the benefits and issues that accompany each. It’s a discussion Alice and I had as we returned from Fort William; neither is worth more than the other. Compromise comes with both.  

The Parliament was hugely important for sharing innovative solutions to key issues and for discussing rural policies and support needed. However, conversation often held undertones of an imagined hostility built into the identity of the other, and at points felt like a discursive showdown: rural vs. urban. Who sacrifices more for where they live?  

We should be cautious when embedding these categories in our identities, that it does not also create rivalry or competition against the other. It can mean that ideas, innovation and solutions that could share the weight of a problem are withheld, and development is hindered.

We learnt from many new perspectives at the Parliament, many beneficial to our work and own lives in Glasgow. We also heard ‘rural-specific’ issues being discussed that we knew to be more broadly experienced, or ones where urban solutions could help in rural circumstances. 

Policy, funding and attention that is specific to rural Scotland is absolutely vital for communities to thrive in these areas, and events like the Parliament are important for sharing ideas towards that. I do not argue otherwise.  

However, we need diversity in these discussions, with views from across the spectrum to prevent groupthink. The language we use can, without caution and care, create an in-group (great! a community of people with shared experiences!) and an out-group (people who are not like ‘us’, and in fact may be competition).

This rhetoric is harmful to progress and creates battle in a landscape where we need cohesion and cooperation.

How do we change this? By making the distinction less black-and-white in discourse. Rural issues are diverse and many will mirror urban ones, and discussion that centres ‘rural’ as a homogenous group competing with ‘urban’ does nothing to bridge the gap in knowledge and solutions between the two.  

* From the Scottish Government’s Urban Rural Classification in Rural Scotland Key Facts 2021. 

Rural Scotland is defined as any settlement with a population below 3,000. We can further distinguish between accessible rural, for those within a 30-minute drive of the nearest settlement of 10,000+ people, and remote rural, for whom the drive is longer.  

 98% of Scotland’s land is rural (remote: 70%, accessible: 28%), and 17% of the population (remote: 6%, accessible: 11%). 

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