SCOTLAND’S workers could stay put in rural communities in the post-lockdown world - boosting countryside economies and cutting commuter traffic, a Holyrood cabinet secretary has suggested.

With Scotland’s army of office workers mostly confined to their own living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens as the economic shutdown continues, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham believes keeping some elements of the working from home culture alive as businesses recover could have huge benefits for the Highlands and other rural parts of the country.

In the Highlands, the population of under 15s and those of working age are expected to decline over the next two decades - amid a trend of people leaving their rural communities in search of employment opportunities in Scotland’s towns and cities.

Highland Council predicts that the population of Caithness is due to fall by 21.1%, that of Sutherland by 11.9% and Skye and Lochalsh by 11.8%.

But the culture shift to home working could help revive rural economies if it continues as Scotland comes out of the lockdown.

Writing exclusively in the Herald on Sunday, Ms Cunningham has pointed to workers logging on from home as “largely successful” as well as “a lifeline for many businesses”.

She said: “When lockdown ends, I suspect more companies will think seriously about continuing with a home working option now that they can see it is doable.”

“If fewer people do choose to travel to work daily, this could mean less traffic on our roads and more people living rurally,” she added. 

“I wonder if, in time, this could make a life and career in Scotland’s rural towns and island communities a more viable option for all, especially for our young people who so often feel they have to leave their hometowns for employment in the larger towns and cities.”

READ MORE: Roseanna Cunningham MSP: ‘A life and career in rural Scotland will become more viable’

Scotland’s rural economies are set to be devastated by the pandemic - with the tourism sector grinding to a halt. The lack of visitors trekking along the North Coast 500 route could leave a £22 million hole in the north Highland economy.

Declines in other industries have seen fishermen being forced to turn to food banks and support organisations as demand for seafood plummets. According to the charity, the Fishermen’s Mission, lobster and crab fishermen in Scotland’s south-east and west coasts have been particularly hit - as well as “pockets of need” in Shetland.

SNP MSP Gail Ross has campaigned previously to safeguard Scotland’s remote rural economies.

She warned that “the feelings of isolation and being left behind urban centres of population are still prevalent”.

Ms Ross announced she was to step down from her role at next year’s Holyrood election “to be able to spend more time with my family, to watch my son grow up and to be more involved in local issues".

READ MORE: Warning of dire death rates in rural communities

But she has now suggested she could reconsider her decision if she is able to permanently be an MSP working remotely, instead of spending so much time in Edinburgh.

Major cities across Scotland have seen toxic nitrogen dioxide levels plummet during the economic shutdown with commuter traffic all but disappearing as workers instead stay at home.

But the air quality improvements are set to be temporary.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), which estimates global levels of carbon emissions will fall by almost 8% in 2020, in the biggest drop in history, has urged governments to embrace the opportunity.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Scotland: Plea to keep home working and cut air pollution

IEA executive director Dr Fatih Birol said: “If the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis is anything to go by, we are likely to soon see a sharp rebound in emissions as economic conditions improve.

“But governments can learn from that experience by putting clean energy technologies – renewables, efficiency, batteries, hydrogen and carbon capture – at the heart of their plans for economic recovery.

“Investing in those areas can create jobs, make economies more competitive and steer the world towards a more resilient and cleaner energy future.”  

The Scottish Government is taking the opportunity to rebuild the economy in a different way after the pandemic, seriously.

Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that the recovery will be an opportunity “to think about whether we want to do things differently”, adding that “I think that’s an opportunity we should certainly take”.