Scottish exports in the first quarter of 2021

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HMRC have published data on trade for the first quarter of 2021. This allows us to see how Scottish exports have changed between the first quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021.

About the data

Before looking at the trends it is worth looking at the data itself. Key points about the data are:

  • The data is for goods only.
  • The data is for goods which leave the UK and does not relate to trade between regions of the UK.

The first quarter of 2020 largely predated the disruption as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, whilst the UK left the EU at the end of January 2020, it immediately entered a standstill transition period where the rules for exporting to the EU remained the same.  In contrast, by the first quarter of 2021, the effects of COVID-19 on trade were apparent and the UK’s trading relationship with the EU changed with single market and customs union membership replaced by the provisions of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement.  

With the UK leaving the EU, the way the data on exports is collected has changed.

Before 1 January 2021, UK to EU export statistics were collected in a way which required traders to declare the value and volume of goods exported to EU Member States within the relevant month of physical goods movement.

From 1January 2021, exports from Great Britain, including breakdowns for the regions and nations, are compiled directly from customs export declarations. The customs declaration requirements are more complex and can result in differences between dates of declaration and actual movement of the goods out of the country. The data for Northern Ireland is collected in the same way as before due to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

How have exports changed?

Exports are affected by seasonal variation. This means it would not be a fair comparison to look at Quarter 4 2020 (i.e. October to December) and Quarter 1 2021 (i.e. January to March). Therefore, we have compared the first quarter of 2021 with the first quarter of previous years.

HMRC provides data for both the volume, mass by kg, and the value of exports. Between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021 Scottish exports:

  • overall fell by 15%, or £1,103 million in monetary terms, and the volume of exports fell by 25%
  • to the EU fell by 18%, or £675 million in terms of value, and 19% by volume
  • to non-EU destinations fell by 12%, or £428 million, and 39% by volume.
Scottish exports, by value and volume, fell from the first quarter 2020 to first quarter 2021.

What is Scotland exporting?

Scotland’s most exported goods by value are “mineral fuels, lubricants, and related material”. Within this, “petroleum, petroleum products & related materials” make up the majority. In the first quarter of 2020 the “mineral fuels, lubricants, and related material” exports were worth £2.1 billion, but one year on they were worth £1.4bn. This is most likely linked to the fall in demand for petroleum and petroleum products caused by the pandemic with demand in the UK falling by a quarter between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021.

Mineral fuel, lubricants and related material are by far the largest Scottish goods export. This is mainly petroleum and petroleum products.

Change in value of exports by subsector

As discussed earlier, exports from “mineral fuels, lubricants, and related material” fell significantly between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021. Within this sector “petroleum, petroleum products & related materials” fell by £826m, or 41%, to the EU and by £356m, or 48%, to non-EU destinations. However, exports from “natural & manufactured gas” increase by £155m overall, up £160m, or 179%, to the EU and down £5m, or 50%, to non-EU destinations. This increase is likely linked to increased gas consumption in the EU in the first quarter of 2021 with widespread remote working identified as a potential reason.

“Fish and shellfish” exports to the EU fell by £33m, or just over a fifth, between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021. If we look at the volume of exports, we can see it fell by 45% over the same period. Exports to non-EU destinations increased in value by 15%, or £5m, and by one third in terms of volume.

Not all subsectors saw falls in exports. “Chemical material and related products” increased by £150m, up £80m, or 103% to the EU and £70m, or 92%, to non-EU destinations. “Non-ferrous metal” exports increased by £62m, up £16m, or 37%, to the EU and £46m, again 37%, to non-EU destinations.

Other significant exports:

  • Beverages, mainly whisky – Between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021 total beverages exports fell from £858m to £833m, by £25m, or 3%. Most of the fall came from a £23m, or 9%, decrease in exports to the EU, while it fell by £3m to non-EU destinations.
  • Power generating machinery & equipment – Between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021 total power generating machinery & equipment exports fell from £611m to £440m. While exports increased by £56m to the EU, they fell by £226m to non-EU destinations.
  • Office machines and advanced data processing machines saw a significant decrease in exports – Total exports fell by 50% or £29m, with most of this fall, £26m, from EU exports. This is probably linked to increased home working due to the pandemic.
  • Medical and pharmaceutical products – exports fell by 12%, or £23m, between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021. However, exports to the EU fell 34%, or £38m, while exports to the rest of the world increased by 21% or £15m.


This data paints a complex picture of what has happened to Scottish exports between Q1 2021 and Q1 2020. Exports have fallen significantly over the year. While there is some evidence of the impact of Brexit on specific sectors such as fish and shellfish, some sectors have seen increases in exports to the EU, such as natural and manufactured gas. This is likely linked to increased demand for gas due to home working during the pandemic.  

The pandemic has had a significant impact on exports. This has made it difficult to clearly see the immediate impact of Brexit. As more data becomes available we will be able to see the impact of both Brexit and the pandemic on Scottish trade.

Andrew Aiton, Data Visualisation Manager