Arctic connections - Scotland's growing links with the Arctic: Ministerial speech

Speech by Angus Robertson, Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, in a debate at the Scottish Parliament on 2 March 2023.

Today’s debate provides a welcome opportunity to highlight the importance for Scotland of continuing to collaborate with the Arctic region.

Scotland is in fact the world’s most northernly non-Arctic nation.

Unst in Shetland lies further to the north than Cape Farewell in Greenland, Juneau [Joo-know] in Alaska and Whitehorse in Yukon.

Scottish waters stretch 200 miles into the Norwegian Sea – well into the 63rd parallel north – and similarly into the North Atlantic Ocean.

So from an Arctic perspective, Scotland’s location at the edge of Europe is far from peripheral. Quite the opposite. We are in a key strategic position connecting the European Arctic with central Europe and North America.

And there is growing international recognition of the constructive role that Scotland can and is playing as a close sub-Arctic neighbour.

Cultural links and similarities

While our geographic proximity is a key asset, there is much more to Scotland’s developing collaboration with the Arctic region.

Indeed, present-day links build on centuries-old ties that remain visible across Scotland – in place names, in heritage, in architecture and in culture.

Scotland’s compass has long pointed north in search of beneficial partnerships and knowledge to realise opportunities and now increasingly, collectively address global challenges.

Scotland’s largely rural profile, sparsely populated regions and abundance of natural resources are akin to the Arctic.

This creates similar opportunities, such as those concerning blue economy and green energy production.

But there are also shared issues, arising from remoteness in particular – for instance in relation to connectivity, to resilience, to climate adaptation, depopulation and public service delivery.

Scotland has developed a wealth of expertise on such issues that is relevant to our Arctic partners.

And for that reason, Scotland was a valued contributor to the European Union’s Northern Periphery and Arctic programme. More than 40% of the projects in the 2014-2020 round had at least one Scottish partner.

The UK Government’s choice to step away from the NPA and from other European programmes is yet another practical example of the harm caused by Brexit.

The Scottish Government continues to explore channels to associate with the NPA and with other programmes in the future.

Arctic policy framework

To reflect the strategic importance of collaboration with Arctic partners, the Scottish Government published Scotland’s first Arctic policy framework back in 2019.

My colleague Fiona Hyslop launched the document in Stromness, in recognition of the historic ties between Orkney and the Arctic.

Our framework sets out how we will co-operate and share knowledge with Arctic partners. It’s an invitation to pool expertise to unlock wellbeing and prosperity for Scottish and Arctic communities, with a distinctive hands-on approach and strong community focus.

Unlike other narratives which often focus on taking from the Arctic, our framework sets out “Scotland’s offer to the Arctic” and focuses on offering and on sharing.

Since publishing the framework, we have intensified engagement with domestic and international stakeholders to open new avenues for Scottish-Arctic cooperation.

The engagements I’ve undertaken recently make clear that Scotland’s expertise is increasingly warmly received and warmly sought after .

Recent engagements

Last October, I addressed the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik and was joined by a large Scottish contingent of researchers, third sector and cultural organisations.

At the Assembly, I opened a session on rural mental health organised by the Scottish Government in partnership with the Research Council of Canada and the University of the Highlands and Islands.

And exactly one month ago I was in Tromsø for the annual Arctic Frontiers conference where I was invited to join a panel discussion on rural repopulation in a session with the Norwegian Prime Minister and US Senator Lisa Murkowski, from Alaska.

And later this month, on 17 March, we will partner with Arctic Frontiers to host a one-day forum on Scottish-Arctic collaboration at the Aberdeen Science Centre. And I hope that colleagues from across the chamber will consider attending the event.

Arctic Connections Fund

Our framework commits us to support Scottish organisations to pursue deeper and broader collaboration with Arctic partners.

With this in mind, in 2021 we launched a new Arctic stakeholder fund.

And to date, the scheme has supported 20 innovative and value-adding projects and work is now underway on a new round of the fund.

Many of the projects work with Indigenous organisations, including to promote and protect Indigenous languages.

One of the brilliant projects that we’ve supported this year is led by the Polar Academy, which is a West Lothian charity that works with young Scots experiencing mental health challenges.

After a rigorous training programme, the Academy takes them on a life-changing polar expedition in Greenland.

This year’s expedition will set off in the coming days and I want to wish all the participants an exciting but safe trip.

Academia and research

Perhaps the best examples of the pace at which Scotland’s collaboration with Arctic partners has progressed has come from the academic sector.

When our policy framework was published in 2019, Scotland had two members in the University of the Arctic, an international network of institutions producing research in and about the Arctic.

Today, nine Scottish universities are members of UArctic and I am confident more will join. We have more members than Sweden and of any other non-Arctic nation with the exception of China. Something which we should be proud of.

In recognition of our growing status within the network, UArctic chose St Andrews to host, with government support, a leadership conference last May.

We’ve also helped fund the establishment of a Scottish Arctic Network, bringing together academics and researchers from across Scotland with expertise in the Arctic.

And I am very pleased to inform Parliament that, on behalf of the Network, the University of Edinburgh will host Arctic Science Summit Week in 2024.

This is one of the world’s largest gatherings of Arctic research organisations.

Climate and energy

Supporting research and making best use of available scientific evidence is critical to tackling the dramatic changes that the Arctic is experiencing.

Melting glaciers, sea level rises and the escalating pace at which the region is warming is illustrative of the devastating effects of climate change. These changes do not stay in the Arctic; they reach our islands and our coastal communities too.

As a pioneer of renewable energies and decarbonisation, Scotland can offer expertise and help catalyse international efforts.

Tackling the climate emergency has become the single most important element in Scotland’s partnership with Arctic nations. 

And as we know, the green shift is also an economic opportunity, particularly for our partnership with Arctic nations and with Arctic regions. Together, they represent more than a quarter of our exports and there is ample potential to increase this.

Our Draft Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan further underline the opportunities to work with Northern neighbours to create shared strategic advantage and establish regional infrastructure to meet domestic and international renewable energy demand.

In addition, our Arctic policy framework and the new National Planning Framework 4 highlight how Scotland can create a near-Arctic marine transport and logistics hub.

The University of Strathclyde hosting the 27th Conference on Port and Ocean Engineering under Arctic Conditions, the first time in the UK, is further evidence of that.


In conclusion presiding officer, Today’s debate has created space to set out all that Scotland is already achieving in our partnership with Arctic nations and to demonstrate our ambition to grow these powerful links further.

We are strategically located and have a wealth of relevant experience to make Scotland not only a key partner in the Arctic but also a shareholder in its future.

And in moving the motion in my name, I hope that Parliament will support and welcome these ambitions for Scotland and for our Arctic neighbours too.

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