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What can young people's social connections tell us about their migration patterns in rural Scotland?

What can young people's social connections tell us about their migration patterns in rural Scotland?

Social Interaction Infographic

Youth out-migration in Scotland’s rural communities remains a significant concern, and increasing levels of youth retention, in-migration, and return are seen as key to longer-term population sustainability. While youth out-migration in rural places is often linked to limited employment and housing opportunities and constraints of services in rural places, evidence also shows that experiences of belonging, and family connections are important in shaping young people's migration patterns.

Our new Gateway funded project therefore, seeks to generate novel insights into the level of social networks among young people (16 – 24) as community-based assets supporting their economic, social, and health needs and their impact on shaping migration patterns of young people in rural Scotland.


While migration is an integral part of rural communities, little is known about how social networks and community relations shape mobility decisions (e.g., return, outmigration, or stay in) and more widely the experiences of rural living. Such understandings are important in the case of young people who remain central to demographic and social changes and their role in rural livelihoods is crucial to rural futures.

Framed within the National Islands Plan (2019), Scotland’s Population Strategy (2021) along with Action to Address Depopulation (2024), our project explores the level of young people (age 16-24) social networks as community-based assets supporting the fulfillment of their economic, social and health needs and wellbeing along with their desire to stay or return to rural Scotland.

In particular, this project will:

  • Provide improved qualitative evidence on patterns of social networks among diverse young people in rural places and their role in facilitating or hindering staying or returning to rural places
  • Generate a greater understanding of the role of young people’s social connections in supporting their economic and social needs, access to social services (e.g. health, education, housing, leisure), and emotional well-being
  • Assess barriers in developing social networks among young people and how these impact their sense of belonging and desire to stay in or return to rural areas


The Project:

The study will focus on one accessible rural area in Scotland: the Inner Moray Firth area of the Scottish Highlands, and one remote rural area: Orkney. To recognise the policy attention on differences within island groups within Orkney, workshops will be held in both smaller non-linked islands and the mainland, recognising that concerns with population sustainability vary significantly by the size of the island.

To generate the data, 6 participatory workshops (3 in each location) with diverse young rural residents aged 16 -24 will be conducted. Each participatory workshop will include up to 6 participants to allow in-depth discussion. The design of the participatory workshop will adopt an innovative methodology for mapping social connections that combines participatory activities and group discussions.  

Following from data collection, the project will conduct four online workshops with rural stakeholders including local service providers (first workshop) and community organisations working with young people (second workshop) in each location. The workshop will discuss the project briefing papers and feature the exhibition of images of maps of social connections to inform participants about the project findings and create an opportunity for discussion.


Impact and Contribution:

The project findings will provide insights into the relations between the level of young people’s social networks in local areas and their desire to stay in or return to rural communities. Such knowledge will contribute to addressing depopulation in rural and island areas.

The maps of young people’s social connections will illustrate how participants perceive certain networks as a resource. Such illustration will provide qualitative evidence on community-based assets, in particular, how and which social networks are important for young people’s social integration, employment, housing strategies, sense of belonging, and well-being. This will be relevant to the case study communities in bringing a youth perspective to community-led local development and place planning. In the case of Orkney, it will contextualise several objectives of the National Islands Plan and the development of Island Community Impact Assessments. At the national level, such knowledge will contribute to the Rural Movement and Levelling Up agendas, support the implementation of the Community Empowerment agenda, and inform the Local Governance Review.

Finally, this project will add novel and important insights into the patterns of social networks and exclusion amongst young people in rural Scotland. Project findings will provide qualitative evidence on facilitators and barriers in accessing and maintaining social networks among young people. Such understanding is important to address social exclusion in rural communities to ensure that all young rural residents have equal opportunity to contribute to Community Wealth Building.

The data collection for the project will be completed by the end of April 2024, with number of knowledge exchange events planned including symposium at the Moving, Being and Belonging Conference in June 2024, Orkney Research symposium in September 2024 and final dissemination event in September 2024.


Dr Emilia Pietka-Nykaza (Project Lead), University of the West of Scotland.


Image sourced from: (free licence)