Arctic Connections: Scotland's Arctic policy framework

A prospectus for cooperation, knowledge-exchange and policy partnerships between Scotland and the Arctic.

Scotland Looks North

Scotland's northernmost islands are closer to the Arctic Circle than they are to London. Connections between Scotland and the Arctic, however, go much further than geographical proximity. Our communities share deep cultural and social links as well as similar challenges and outlooks. Arctic countries represent important trading partners for Scotland and we have long worked together through European Union (EU) programmes.

As a good global citizen and a trusted neighbour, Scotland is ready to build bridges that can reinforce our role as a European gateway to the Arctic while encouraging a peaceful and well-governed future for the region.

Scottish-Arctic journeys: A people's history

Cooperation between Scotland and Arctic nations dates back centuries. Our northernmost archipelagos were part of the Norwegian-Danish Kingdom until the end of the fifteenth century. Shetlandic and Orcadian dialects are still replete with Norse words and Norn - a Germanic language bearing a strong resemblance to Faroese, Icelandic and Norwegian - was widely used in the north of our country before being slowly replaced by Scots.

The origin of many town names in the Highlands and Islands can still be tracked back to Nordic roots. Similarly, Arctic toponymy has many locations named after Scots who voyaged through the region. Scotland has a proud tradition of Arctic explorers. In 1854, by tracing the final link of the Northwest Passage, John Rae changed the history of the North American Arctic, charting a commercial sea route that many before him had failed to uncover. A few years earlier, Aberdeenshire-born Thomas Abernethy had distinguished himself as a valiant polar explorer, earning a total of five Arctic medals.

Defining the Arctic

While widely considered as a distinct region, there is no universally agreed definition of the Arctic. The most frequently adopted definition places the Arctic Circle line at 66° 33' 44" North latitude, which marks the point at which the sun does not set on the summer solstice or rise on the winter solstice. Another widespread definition identifies the Arctic as the area within the 10 degree July isotherm, where the temperature does not rise above 10 degrees in the summer. Others point to the area within the Arctic tree line, the northern limit for tree growth. The Arctic Council consists of eight countries with land areas north of the Arctic Circle: Norway, Sweden, Denmark (with the Faroe Islands and Greenland), Iceland, Finland, Russia, the United States of America and Canada. These will be collectively addressed as "Arctic countries."

John Rae was an Orcadian and, like many of his fellow islanders, was employed by the Hudson's Bay company. He was well known for the care he took to take account of the views of indigenous communities, which was not always the case amongst his European contemporaries. At the turn of the Nineteenth century, three-quarters of the company's workforce originated from Orkney. The North West Company, headquartered in Montreal, was also formed and largely run by Scots.

Together with Loch Ewe and the Clyde, Orkney also served as the departure point for Arctic convoys that, braving heavy bombardments, transported food and other crucial supplies to the North of Russia during the Second World War. Likewise, the Shetland Bus - a clandestine special operations fleet of fishing boats and submarine chasers - ferried agents, refugees, ammunition and radios between Shetland and German-occupied Norway.

Substantial west-bound Scottish emigration has created lasting connections with Canada and the United States. In the 2016 census, 4.7 million Canadians reported themselves to be of Scottish origin. People of Scottish descent made up 14.8% of respondents in the Northwest Territories, 23.3% in Yukon and 9.2% in Nunavut. The Scottish diaspora remains active in the celebration of their heritage as Highland Games, Burns Suppers and St Andrew's Day celebrations occur widely across both Canada and the United States.

Scotland has also been the end point of countless journeys made in the opposite direction. As an open nation that appreciates the importance of multiculturalism and diversity, Scotland has welcomed thousands of people from Arctic countries who have chosen to work, study, live and do business here.

Scotland's census 2011 - Country of birth

Country of birth Number
United States of America 15,919
Canada 9,435
Russia 2,180
Denmark (inc. Faroe Islands and Greenland) 1,808
Norway 1,797
Sweden 1,748
Finland 1,099
Iceland 264

Source: National Records of Scotland

Scottish expeditions to the Arctic region are far from being a thing of the past. The Polar Academy charity works closely with Scotland's secondary schools to train "invisible" students with low self-esteem for a life-changing expedition in Eastern Greenland that helps young people boost their confidence. Scotland-based scientists and artists pay frequent visits to the Arctic, strengthening our reputation for academic and cultural excellence. The Scottish Arctic Club has been active for more than 40 years and its members have travelled extensively across the region. The Club provides support to young people who wish to explore the Arctic for educational, scientific or artistic purposes. In April 2019, the Arctic Return expedition trekked across Boothia Peninsula in Nunavut to celebrate John Rae and the importance of indigenous knowledge to his endeavours.

Scottish-Arctic cooperation and the European Union

Membership of the EU has greatly benefited Scotland's cooperation with Arctic countries. Long-standing Scottish-Nordic participation in European Territorial Cooperation programmes, in particular, has made a strongly positive difference to our communities and has provided vital funding for local development. Looking at the last five years alone, Scottish organisations have secured a total of €6.8 million through the Northern Periphery and Arctic (NPA) programme, with a positive impact on community resilience and business growth[1]. This programme has created opportunities for engagement with not only EU countries but also Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, North East Canada and North West Russia. To date, over half the projects funded through the NPA programme have involved a Scottish dimension. Since 2014, Scotland has also been granted €12.1 million through the North Sea Region programme, in which Norway, Denmark and Sweden are also active participants.

By working with their Nordic counterparts, our entrepreneurs and institutions have secured financial support for a wide variety of projects, ranging from innovative recycling solutions to the delivery of psychiatry services in remote areas.

Thanks to Horizon 2020, the European funding programme for research and innovation, EU membership has helped Scotland enhance its research and higher education ties with Arctic countries. Furthermore, the Erasmus+ programme has encouraged the exchange of students and staff, helping us strengthen our bilateral relationships with Arctic academic institutions.

Since the early 1990s, the LEADER programme has provided vital financial support for community-led development in Scottish rural areas, building social and economic capital while opening new avenues for Scottish-Arctic partnerships.

These are just a few examples of the many collaborations which have taken place through EU funding. The UK's exit from the EU poses a serious risk to Scotland's domestic and international interests, including around Scottish-Arctic relations. If continued access to these vital programmes cannot be negotiated, Scotland risks being deprived of a fundamental platform for collaboration with the Arctic at a time when the EU is developing its own Arctic policy and increasing its engagement with the region.

Case study

Funded through the NPA programme, W-Power is a €1.3 million project that aims to support female entrepreneurship in sparsely populated communities and develop gender-aware business support. As well as Scotland, project partners include Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Iceland and Canada (New Brunswick). Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Shetland-based Pure Energy Centre lead on Scotland's participation in the project, which is coordinated by Finland's Karelia University of Applied Sciences. All participating countries experience challenges as a result of rurality, youth out-migration and a lower rate of entrepreneurship by women compared to men. W-Power looks to encourage learning across the Nordic and Arctic region to support new women-led start-ups and help underexploited business potential in rural communities flourish. Argyll has been chosen as the pilot area for Scotland, with a view to developing ideas which can be transferred to other parts of the Highlands and Islands. In June 2019, Argyll hosted a W-Power international conference that gathered delegates from all partner countries.

A European gateway to the Arctic

In "All Points North: The Scottish Government's Nordic Baltic Policy Statement"[2] we set out our commitment to working closely with Arctic, Nordic and Baltic states in areas of mutual interest. Since then, Scotland has hosted the Arctic Circle Forum and has become internationally recognised as a significant contributor to Arctic dialogue. Ministerial participation in Arctic conferences such as the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavík and Arctic Frontiers in Tromsø, has contributed to promoting Scottish expertise and emphasising Scotland's appetite for international exchanges, in line with the principles of Scotland's International Framework.[3]

By increasing its proactive involvement in these conversations, Scotland is reshaping the map. Rather than geographically peripheral at the north-west corner of Europe, Scotland is strategically positioned - and has the capability - to serve as a link between the Arctic region and the wider world.

The Scottish Government's external network of offices, including Scotland House London and Scotland House Brussels, has been actively involved in fostering Scottish-Arctic cooperation by expanding our international outreach and providing a base for engagement outside Scotland. Two of our international offices - in Ottawa and Washington - are located in Arctic countries and are forging new relationships with Canadian and American Arctic groups respectively. Our Beijing office's participation in the Shanghai Arctic Circle Forum in May 2019 demonstrates how Scotland is making wider international engagements and showcasing its expertise through Arctic forums.

Our Arctic work provides further momentum to the Scotland is Now campaign,[4] which seeks to project Scotland as a progressive and dynamic nation that does not hesitate to take the lead on key global challenges. By shining light on our strengths and joining forces with international partners to address common problems, we want to encourage people from across the world to look at Scotland as a great place to work, live, study, visit and do business with.

Going forward, we will:

  • Ensure that Scotland continues to be represented at appropriate Arctic conferences to promote our expertise, listen to others' experiences and identify new opportunities for collaboration. This includes attracting Arctic forums to Scotland, with a view to ensuring that our civic society is as closely involved in Scottish-Arctic dialogue as possible. In 2020, we will host a spin-off event of the Arctic Frontiers conference.
  • Advocate for sustainable and peaceful governance of the Arctic, showing support for initiatives that have inclusivity, equality and dialogue at their core and reflect the views of those who live in the region.
  • Engage bilaterally and multilaterally with Arctic countries and institutions on matters that fall within the remit of the Scottish Government to maximise coordination and ensure that our Arctic policy reflects and influences the priorities pursued by cooperation forums operating in the region.
  • Continue to lobby the UK Government to maintain participation in European Territorial Cooperation programmes, including NPA and North Sea Region, as well as Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 regardless of what scenario we will find ourselves in post-Brexit.



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