STRONG community bonds came to the fore as rural Scotland faced up to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A new report by SEFARI researchers at the James Hutton Institute and Scotland’s Rural College has looked into the impacts of, and responses to, the pandemic in rural and island areas of Scotland.

The research aimed to understand the experiences of the pandemic in rural and island communities, and to identify which factors supported and promoted resilience in Scottish rural and island communities. A further objective was to consider potential routes to a medium to long-term recovery in these areas.

Researchers found that Covid-19 posed an extra challenge to these communities due to their ageing populations, in-migration of retirees, low availability of affordable housing, peripherality issues and limited economic diversification. The perceived slow response to the pandemic by local authorities was also criticised.

Lead author of the study, Dr Mags Currie, a social scientist at the James Hutton Institute, said: “Rural and island communities have all felt the impacts of Covid-19. Specific factors that have increased their vulnerability include reliance on limited employment sectors; being located far from centralised services, for example hospitals; limited digital connectivity; and an ageing population.

“The pandemic has brought rural vulnerabilities into sharp focus; however, the people we interviewed were optimistic that novel approaches used in responding to the pandemic should be continued and enhanced in the future. Strategic and joined-up partnerships between community, public and private sector organisations will remain important, as well as flexible funding mechanisms to enable place-based and context-specific responses.”

SRUC rural policy researcher Rob Mc Morran added: “Communities with a more resilient response have some or all of the following features: a strong sense of community; community organisations and local businesses that are responsive to local needs; the existence of strategic partnerships between community organisations and the public/private sector; and good digital connectivity.”

To maximise the chances of rural and island communities thriving, the researchers recommended building on new partnerships and supporting community anchor organisations; capitalising and rewarding community spirit; encouraging young people to move to rural areas; retaining and enhancing digital connectivity opportunities; strategic partnerships which deliver place-based solutions; supporting adaptable local businesses; supporting diversification of the rural economy; enhancing the knowledge base on local-regional vulnerabilities; and retaining a flexible, targeted and responsive approach to financial support.