MINISTERS have pledged to inject extra cash into some of Scotland's most fragile rural communities in a bid to reverse depopulation. 

Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop said a special task force is examining ways to protect small towns and avoid Edinburgh distorting the national picture in a similar way to London.

Advisers are also looking at using targeted advertising and a separate Scottish visa system to encourage migrants to move to struggling and remote areas.

In an interview with The Herald, Ms Hyslop said the goal was a “well-balanced population across all of Scotland”.

She said: “That means that we have to take a decision, well perhaps we don’t necessarily want everything to be based and focused around Edinburgh as London is, for example, in the south-east of England, in terms of everybody moving to that one area for jobs.”

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Ms Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, said a task force made up of eight different government ministers is examining Scotland’s population challenges.

She said one of the aims is to encourage families and migrants to move to struggling towns and villages, but insisted there is no "instant solution" to depopulation.

She said: “That’s the purpose of the task force, is to identify that. And if that means we have to increase an activity in one area, that also lends itself therefore to what funds need to be available to do that, and helps us to make strategic decisions across the piece.”

She added: "Bringing together all the different portfolios is to identify what the priorities are, and that means collectively, as Government, we can say, 'Well that's the priority – so therefore we'll put funding there'." 

And while stressing Edinburgh is a “great asset to the country”, she said some “rebalancing” might be required in terms of where businesses are encouraged to locate.

Citing centralisation as an issue, she pointed to HMRC moving jobs to new hubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

She said: “So there are things that government can do – whether it’s our government or other governments, to say actually if you’re locating, encourage people to locate in other areas.”

Ms Hyslop said ministers will work “right across government” to find solutions to Scotland’s demographic challenges, which include rural depopulation, a falling birthrate, an ageing population and a shift from west to east.

She said one of the starkest statistics is that the number of births in Scotland for the fourth quarter of 2018 was the lowest since records began in 1855.

She added: “So that’s why it shows that we’re so reliant on inward migration, much more so than the rest of the UK.

“A lot of that goes back to the period in the 1950s and 60s.

“In the 1950s and 60s, England and Wales had considerable in-migration – people coming from the Commonwealth, the adverts to the Windrush generation.

“And in that period during the 50s and 60s, almost 6 per cent of the population of Scotland left.

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“That’s my relatives – [going to] Australia, Canada. A lot of people left in that time. So we not only lost them, but their children and their grandchildren.

“And that’s why there’s quite a difference between the demographic shape of Scotland and England.

“So even without the pressures of Brexit, we would still be having to do this.

“But what happens with Brexit, if their aim is to reduce the EU population by 50% in terms of those who are coming, then that will push us into negative population growth."

Ms Hyslop said there had been “deliberate interventions” in the past to try to boost the population of the highlands and islands.

However, the south of Scotland is also struggling.

The Cabinet Secretary said a new public body called South of Scotland Enterprise, which will be up and running by early next year, is a “21st century response to similar challenges that were faced by the highlands and islands”, and aims to boost economic regeneration.

She added: “We want to make it a very attractive place for young families to live, and those that were born and brought up in the south of Scotland to stay there.

“But also to welcome people from all parts of Scotland and the rest of the UK, and indeed internationally, to see the south of Scotland as somewhere they would want to bring up their family.

“The quality of life and the experiences there are fantastic – we just have to make sure that everything else, whether it’s health, housing, infrastructure, is there as well.”

Ms Hyslop insisted ministers will “look very carefully” at calls for a £90 million-a-year fund to boost resilience in the 479 towns across Scotland in which two out of three people live.

The Federation of Small Businesses said Scotland’s rural towns are struggling to survive and governments must make a "generational commitment" to revitalise them.

She said: “The task force covers all different portfolios. We will be looking at solutions.

“The issue is actually about looking at small towns, villages, coastal communities, and what we can bring together.

“I don’t think it’s all about retail. There can be other aspects and other economic drivers.

“We’re open to any solutions that can be put forward. We’ll look at that one very carefully.”

Ms Hyslop also said targeted advertising and a differentiated immigration system for Scotland could be used to encourage migrants from the EU and elsewhere to move to struggling areas.

She said she had written to Home Secretary Priti Patel to push the case for a post-Brexit Scottish visa system.

She said: “That’s part of why we need to have that differentiated visa system – a Scottish visa that would allow us to have a different emphasis and focus, because of our particular demographic needs.

“We’ve got a migration advisory council that we’ve established with experts, and that’s one of the areas they are looking at – what other countries have done to try to target and encourage people.

“So the migration advisory committee that the Scottish Government has established, one of their current pieces of work is looking at what other countries have done to try and target migrants to go to a particular part of the country.

“Part of it is selling and promoting it, these assets, but also in terms of what support people might have in being able to locate housing, jobs etcetera. These are all the sort of things that are open for this group to look at.”