Scotland appears to be moving closer to Arctic affairs. The First Minster has addressed the annual Arctic Circle Conference in both of the past two years, and Edinburgh will host an Arctic Circle Forum event later this month. But what is the next step for Scotland? John MacDonald considers the case for a dedicated Scottish Arctic strategy. 

Following a successful address to the Arctic Circle conference in 2016, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appeared once more at the conference in Reykjavik this year. She spoke of Scotland’s progressive efforts in addressing climate change, its willingness to share knowledge with northern neighbours, and – with Brexit looming – the need for Scotland to expand its links with regional partners and work more closely with “like-minded nations.”

In addition to this second consecutive appearance at what is the world’s largest gathering on Arctic affairs, it has been announced that Scotland will be hosting an Arctic Circle Forum event entitled ‘Scotland and the New North‘ in Edinburgh, later this month. The Arctic Circle Forums are a series of specialised spin-off events from the main Arctic Circle Assembly. Scotland’s hosting of this event marks a significant step forward in its engagement with Arctic affairs.

An Arctic Circle plenary session in Harpa’s Silfurberg Hall. Image: Tbkaji [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The First Minister’s emphasis on climate change, sustainable energy solutions, and regional cooperation are entirely appropriate since climate change – and the need to find collaborative responses to its impacts – is one of the key reasons that Arctic affairs are now an international concern.

However, there are many developments associated with Arctic climate change which are significant for Scotland, but which have not appeared in the First Minster’s public speeches. What the First Minster has discussed at the Arctic Circle conference doesn’t represent in its entirety Scotland’s interests in an evolving Arctic agenda.

A key consideration for Scotland at this juncture is how it goes about earmarking those interests, and how it might optimise its engagement with them. This prompts a question which has been asked before: should Scotland develop a dedicated Arctic strategy?


Temperatures in the Arctic region have risen two or three times faster than the global average in recent times. Northern landscapes are projected to experience more pronounced climate-related changes in habitat and ecological diversity than most other regions.  Whilst the effects of Arctic warming are being observed locally, they are also evidencing themselves far from the Arctic region. Arctic warming has also been linked to recent extreme weather events in locations as far afield as Europe, the eastern United States, and India.

The Arctic thaw will mean change for the livelihoods of the roughly 4 million people who live across the Arctic region. Changing weather patterns, rising sea levels, melting permafrost, and diminished ice cover will impact heavily upon physical infrastructure, communications, and food security. There is already talk of Arctic climate refugees as communities face the prospect of relocating away from previously habitable areas. Fresh infrastructure, and new opportunities in education and employment, will need to be developed.

Changing weather patterns, rising sea levels, melting permafrost, and diminished ice cover will impact heavily upon physical infrastructure, communications, and food security.

Accumulated scientific data measuring ice coverage in the Arctic Ocean may have galvanised scientific opinion that the Arctic is locked into a course of continually shrinking sea ice. The retreat of Arctic sea ice has exposed large tracts of the Arctic Ocean for longer periods of the year. Whilst it is difficult to predict future patterns, some scientific models forecast that by 2050, it may be entirely ice-free during the summertime.

In accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the international community has the right to various uses of the high seas of the Arctic Ocean. It is expected that these rights will be increasingly exercised in years to come as Arctic ice continues to retreat, creating new areas for energy extraction, energy generation, commercial fishing, and marine tourism.

Changing oceanic ice patterns in the Arctic have prompted speculation that commercial ships will soon be able to transit the Arctic on a regular basis. It is thought that if the Northwest Passage (NWP) and Northern Sea Route (NSR, sometimes referred to as the ‘Northeast Passage’) were to become regular international shipping routes in the future, commercial shipping companies could save time and money shipping goods between Asia and western Europe (principally the port of Rotterdam). This prospect, whilst riddled with uncertainties, may provide major opportunities for northern nations with the appropriate infrastructure to host and service transiting vessels.

A helicopter view over an area of Tasiilaq, Greenland. Image: Christine Zenino [CC BY 2.0]

The warming of northern seas has changed the distribution of plankton communities in ways which may impact marine ecosystems well beyond the Arctic Ocean. Fish stocks and fish migration patterns already appear to be affected. In 2012, Faroese experts publicly acknowledged ‘recent dramatic changes in fish stocks’, asserting that there was ‘no doubt’ they were related to climate change.

As a greater area of the central Arctic Ocean remains ice-free for longer periods, we will likely see the further northward migration of commercially harvested fish species. This is likely to have a substantial impact upon the structure and functioning of as yet unexploited marine ecosystems. Such a development will expand opportunities for commercial fishing, bringing the risk that existing species not currently harvested will become a bycatch of new trawling operations.

Once viewed as distant and peripheral, there is now considerable international interest in the opportunities and risks associated with a changing Arctic.

Greater demands may be placed upon fishing fleets (both in terms of risk and financial expenditure) if they are to successfully pursue and harvest commercially viable fish stocks farther north. New fishing opportunities will attract both sanctioned and ‘rogue’ fishing vessels, something which may carry safety, political, and security implications.

Once viewed as distant and peripheral, there is now great international interest in the opportunities and risks associated with a changing Arctic. Efforts to understand, and respond to, these changes have prompted a demand for knowledge, technical provision, and collaboration. There are significant concerns over how commercial activity might impact the ecological integrity of the Arctic region.


As developments in Arctic affairs have gathered pace, the question has been asked of where Scotland stands. As a non-sovereign nation within the UK, Scotland is ‘covered’ by the UK government’s Arctic approach, as encompassed by the 2013 UK Arctic Policy Framework. Despite this, it has been observed that Scotland should be far closer to what is happening to its north, perhaps even formalise its own dedicated approach to the Arctic. These observations have not been made with regard to any of the other nations of the UK. What makes Scotland a special case?

The answer lies in a variety of factors, notably Scotland’s geographical and socio-economic proximity to the Nordic region, the strong relationships that this proximity has fostered, and a transformation in Scotland’s political landscape which has coincided with Arctic climate change becoming a major topic of discussion. The combination of these factors has seen an increasingly autonomous and north-facing Scotland drawn – even encouraged – into discussions about what Arctic change means for the northern nations, including Scotland.

As the impacts of Arctic climate change have become clearer, it has become obvious that Scotland is more directly exposed to these impacts than any of the nations of the UK.

Jutting into the North Atlantic, Scotland is the next most northerly nation to the Arctic Circle, outwith the eight Arctic Council states. The Shetland Islands sit just 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle (London is located nearly 600 miles to Shetland’s south), on the same latitude as St Petersburg and Anchorage. Scotland’s sea area is more than five times larger than its land area, comprising 60 percent of total UK sea area. Its highly indented coastline – comprising around 61 percent of the total UK coastline and extending to over 11,000 km – is longer than China’s.

Like the Nordic nations, Scotland’s economic and social integrity are heavily reliant upon the marine environment and what it provides. As the impacts of Arctic climate change have become clearer, it has become obvious that Scotland is more directly exposed to these impacts than any of the nations of the UK. Scotland counts fishing, energy, and maritime activity – three areas of great significance to a changing Arctic landscape – among its key economic interests.


Amidst concerns over how changing sea conditions may affect the offshore fishing industry, the movement of some mackerel stocks into Icelandic and Faroese waters has already drawn Scotland into a debate over whether quota rights to catch them should be modified accordingly. Marine harvesting – both shellfish and salmon farming (salmon is not just Scotland’s but the UK’s top food export) – is also a key interest that Scotland shares with some of its northern neighbours, notably Norway. These industries may well be impacted by warming northern waters.


Maritime safety and emergency preparedness are core topics of discussion among the Arctic states. The prospect of increasing shipping traffic (industrial and tourist), the development of new oil and gas fields, coupled to the increased prevalence of adverse weather events and sea conditions, has generated concern about human and environmental safety in northern waters.

Scotland has clear interests in this discussion. It is the most directly exposed of all the nations of the UK to maritime accidents in the northern region. Pollution arising from maritime accidents in northern waters would likely have the most immediate – and greatest – impact upon Scotland.

An unmanned underwater vehicle being used in a simulated oil spill recovery exercise in the Arctic. Image: Grant DeVuyst [CC]

Scotland is the closest part of the UK to the northern shipping routes and its harbours will often be the closest ‘safe havens’ for ships in distress. Scottish-based vessels will often be the primary responders to accidents, supported by Scottish port authorities and agencies. It might also be observed that northern Scotland is the most logical ‘launch-pad’ for UK participation in maritime safety and search-and-rescue activities in northern waters.  It is likely that any addition to the UK’s provision in this sphere would manifest itself most fully in Scotland.


Given that the Scottish government has devolved control over ports and harbours, considerable environmental powers, and tourism, it is also relevant to note the significance of Arctic-related regulatory change. For example, the Polar Code – the international code of safety for ships operating in polar waters, adopted by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) – entered force on 1 January 2017, banning the discharging of oily and noxious wastes, sewage, and garbage in polar seas.

These provisions mean – among other things – that vessels travelling through the northern routes in future will require additional discharge facilities at ports of call along their route. Any Scottish ports wishing to attract and host such vessels would have to construct facilities appropriate to the new rules. Given that it has legislative authority over ports and harbours, it would fall to the Scottish government to ensure that Scotland’s ports and harbours are upgraded and maintained, in keeping with the new regulations.

It is UK government representatives who engage with the IMO in redrawing regulatory frameworks for international shipping. However, IMO regulations can have direct consequences for areas which are the responsibility of the Scottish government.

Regulatory changes such as this illustrate why the Scottish government must stay attuned to a broad range of Arctic-related developments. It is the UK and not Scotland that is party to, or bears duties under, the IMO treaties on navigation, including the SOLAS and MARPOL conventions that are the legal basis of the Polar Code. It is UK government representatives who engage with the IMO in redrawing regulatory frameworks for international shipping. However, IMO regulations can have direct consequences for areas which are the responsibility of the Scottish government. Regulatory developments affecting the Arctic tourism industry – something Scotland is well-placed to take advantage of – would also have implications for Scotland but would likely be signed into force at the UK level.

Scotland’s interests in the developments associated with Arctic change (and the issues covered briefly here represent just some of them) thus seem quite clear. The question is: what steps should the Scottish government take in order to safeguard and promote those interests?


In asking this question, it is important to note that Scotland is hardly disengaged from northern affairs. The interests that Scotland shares with the Nordic nations in particular – economic and social reliance upon the marine environment, social and infrastructural development in rural and dispersed areas – have long provided the basis for collaborations which continue to this day.

In the early 1990s, the Scottish Office responded positively to requests from Finland, Sweden, and Norway to assist in their preparations for EU membership. The areas where these governments were keen to learn from Scotland – agriculture, the environment, EU structural funds, and fishing – demonstrated a recognition of shared outlook and interests between them and Scotland, and an acknowledgement that the ‘Scottish experience’ might closely reflect their own.

Across the past 20 years or so, these commonalities have continued to underpin Scottish collaboration with the Nordic – and the Baltic – states on EU-funded initiatives to address issues such as rural infrastructure, maritime industrial challenges, and renewable energy development.

Scotland is currently a partner country within the EU-run Northern Periphery and Arctic 2014-2020 Programme. The programme area encompasses the Euro-Arctic zone, parts of the Atlantic zone, and parts of the Barents region, neighbouring on Canada in the west and Russia in the east. The aim of the programme is to: ‘help to generate vibrant, competitive and sustainable communities, by harnessing innovation, expanding the capacity for entrepreneurship and seizing the unique growth initiatives and opportunities of the Northern and Arctic regions in a resource efficient way.’

In 2017, the Scottish government published an updated version of its Nordic Baltic Policy Statement (first launched in 2014) which offers an expanded view of Scotland’s interests and foci in dealing with the Nordic and Baltic nations, but also (albeit briefly) Scotland’s interests in Arctic affairs.

It has been suggested that a fuller, more explicit, expression of Scotland’s interests may be required.

However, the question remains as to whether these commitments are sufficient to address, and communicate, Scotland’s interests in an evolving Arctic agenda. As it has increasingly come under the gaze of Arctic-focused scholars, and the strength of its interests in Arctic change have been more fully discussed, it has been suggested that a fuller, more explicit, expression of Scotland’s interests may be required.

Rachael Johnstone is one such commentator. She observes that whilst Scotland is not an Arctic nation, it has distinct historical, social, economic, and political links to the Arctic, the strongest of any of the four nations of the UK. Having acknowledged these interests, she asserts that ‘some kind of coherent approach to the Arctic is wanting in Scotland’.

Observations such as this may galvanise the sense that the Scottish government should consider developing a dedicated policy on the Arctic. In the absence of any such commitment at this point, it may be instructive to look elsewhere to see what other small nations (both sovereign and non-sovereign) and regions are doing on this front.


It should be noted from Scotland that whilst sovereign states as far afield as Germany and China have declared, and acted on, their interests in Arctic affairs, smaller nations and regions have also been doing so. For example, despite being ‘covered’ by the United States’ own Arctic policy, the American state of Alaska recently set out its own official policy in order to highlight and pursue what are seen as distinctive Alaskan interests and concerns in the Arctic.

Similarly, the Canadian province of Québec has produced a development strategy for its northern regions – called Plan Nord – and it has stepped up its engagement with Arctic fora such as the Arctic Circle and the Nordic Council.

Closer to Scotland, the government of the Faroe Islands has developed a distinctive Arctic policy of its own, despite the fact that it exists as a non-sovereign nation within the Kingdom of Denmark, and is already signed up to the Danish government’s Arctic strategy.

The emergence of a dedicated Faroese approach reflects the fact that there can be distinctive regional interests in Arctic affairs which are not necessarily addressed by a unitary state approach. This is clearly the view of the Faroese authorities who have examined the various developments associated with Arctic change, looked at how the sovereign ‘parent’ government in Copenhagen has approached these developments, and decided to draw upon Faroese legislative competences to sculpt a strategy which better meets Faroese interests and aspirations.


Given its proximity to Scotland, and the constitutional arrangements under which it is governed, the decision of the Faroese government to develop its own Arctic strategy can hardly be ignored as an instructive example. Whilst it certainly does not dictate that Scotland should follow suit, it does earmark what might be possible if the Scottish government decided to go down this route.

Whilst there are obvious differences between Scotland and the Faroe Islands, there are also many similarities. Both the Scottish and Faroese governments have a vested interest in sectors likely to be affected by Arctic change. Both nations have devolved competence – and recognised expertise – in sectors which are relevant to an evolving Arctic agenda.

One of the key imperatives underpinning the Faroese government’s Arctic commitment is to make clear to regional partners – and indeed the wider international community – that Faroese interests in Arctic affairs are so pronounced and so distinctive that they merit the development of a formal strategy. This represents a clear statement of intent from Tórshavn, one which will surely be recognised in Edinburgh.


If Scotland might look to the Faroese example as something to ponder, it might also look at how the small nations of the north are increasingly cooperating to optimise their response to a changing Arctic. The emergence of a dedicated Faroese Arctic strategy has coincided with a notable increase in Arctic-focused cooperation in Scotland’s ‘northern neighbourhood’, in what is known as the West Nordic region. The nations of this region are made up of Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland; the latter two are non-sovereign nations.

The West Nordic Region.

All three of the West Nordic nations recognise their significance to a changing Arctic. They are rich in various resources; they are also the only three Arctic island nations in the North Atlantic Ocean, strategically located at the crossroads between Europe, North America, and Asia, and to the Arctic shipping lanes potentially linking them.

Intent upon optimising their strengths and geographical location, the West Nordic nations are now intensifying cooperation through the West Nordic Council, established in 1995, which meets biannually. They are developing joint guidelines on Arctic policy cooperation, and establishing a West Nordic free trade area with the aim of building the regional economy and enhancing export capabilities to global markets. At the 10th Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, in May 2017, the West Nordic Council was admitted as one of seven new Observers to the Council.

The future trajectory of the West Nordic Council will be worth watching. The growing momentum of activity within this organisation will bring about a more cohesive West Nordic approach on key Arctic-related issues such as maritime affairs, fisheries, energy development, trade, and tourism.

It is interesting to note that the West Nordic Council is one of the few venues where Greenland can engage in international cooperation without Denmark’s supervision. The developments we are seeing will result in Greenland having a separately articulated Arctic policy for the first time. This will leave Scotland as the only nation shown in the map above without a publicly-declared approach to Arctic affairs.


Why go down the route of announcing a formal strategy which expresses Scotland’s interests in, and intentions towards, the Arctic region?  Scotland could quite easily continue to engage with the Arctic agenda without doing so.

The development of a Scottish Arctic strategy would achieve several things, currently absent. First, it would develop Scotland’s awareness of Arctic-related affairs to a different level. This process would not only generate a greater public understanding of the relevant issues; it would also facilitate greater business, academic, and third sector awareness of how the Scottish government is approaching the Arctic agenda, and which areas it seeks to prioritise.

Second, the development of a publicly declared approach would make clear to Scotland’s regional partners what its key interests are in the Arctic, and what it can contribute to the Arctic agenda. Sending this message beyond Scotland is important. It was observed to me a couple of years ago, as I was preparing work on an Arctic project, that if a dedicated Scottish Arctic approach had been announced perhaps a decade ago, it might have been regarded as a fairly big issue by the northern community. But with far-flung nations now declaring their Arctic interests and intentions, the prospect of ‘new Arctic arrivals’ is now pretty unremarkable. Thus, as one senior Finnish academic put it to me: “concrete actions will be important if Scotland is to be taken seriously in this sphere.”

The developments associated with Arctic change continue to throw up novel scenarios and opportunities – it is important that the Scottish government keeps pace.

Third, the development of a formal strategic approach would act as a platform on which the Scottish government could keep pace with an evolving Arctic agenda. The developments associated with Arctic change will continue to throw up novel scenarios and opportunities – it is important that the Scottish government keeps pace.

The process of developing and maintaining a Scottish Arctic strategy would provide the Scottish government with a proactive working mechanism for earmarking where developments in this sphere are relevant; notably where they may have financial, legal, or legislative implications for Scotland. This would be of value in Edinburgh’s dealings with the UK government’s own Arctic approach, as well as with its more northerly partners.


Nicola Sturgeon has made clear to the Arctic community some of the areas where Scotland wishes to work with its northern partners. But as has recently been acknowledged with regard to Theresa May’s speeches to EU partners around Brexit, there is only modest substance in a speech. A declared Scottish strategy would send a clear message to the Arctic community: Scotland is a nation of the north and is committed to engaging with developments there.

For a non-sovereign nation like Scotland, the evolving Arctic agenda offers much. This sphere is well-represented by smaller sovereign and non-sovereign nations, all of which share common interests with Scotland. And since the dynamic of Arctic affairs is – somewhat uniquely – characterised by rules, collaboration, and restraint, smaller actors have traction. It is interesting to note that the current Chair of the Arctic Council is Finland – population 5 million. If there is one important area of international affairs where Scotland’s interests, competences, and ‘brand’ may be most welcomed and carry the most weight, it is in the Arctic.

If there is one important area of international affairs where Scotland’s interests, competences, and ‘brand’ may be most welcomed and carry the most weight, it is in the Arctic.

Scotland is well-regarded in this sphere. It is widely accepted that it has authentic interests in a changing Arctic. And it is acknowledged that Scotland has a different outlook and approach to that of the UK. Indeed, government officials and academics I have spoken with who live and work in the Arctic region have expressed surprise that Edinburgh has not expended greater efforts on this front at an earlier stage.

As such, the presence of the First Minister at Arctic Circle in the past two years, and Scotland’s hosting of an Arctic Circle event in Edinburgh later this month, represent very positive – and quite natural – developments.

But what next? As we look northwards, Scotland is emerging as the only nation in its neighbourhood which does not have a dedicated strategy towards the Arctic. Addressing this deficiency may represent the clearest and most sensible expression of Scotland’s Arctic ambitions.

John MacDonald is the Editor of CABLE.

Feature image: an iceberg between Langø and Sanderson Hope, south of Upernavik, Greenland. Image: Kim Hansen [CC]