Engaging with Scotland’s diaspora – the Scottish Connections Framework

Reading Time: 9 minutes

On 11 April 2023, the Scottish Government published the Scottish Connections Framework, which sets out the Scottish Government’s approach to engaging with Scotland’s diaspora.

On 23 May 2023, the Scottish Parliament will debate the Scottish Connections Framework.

This blog sets out why engagement with the diaspora is important and the potential size of the Scottish diaspora. It then summarises the proposals in the new Scottish Connections Framework.

We’ve added a contents pop-out to help with navigation:


The new Scottish Connections Framework proposes a definition of diaspora which goes wider than the traditional perspective of Scottish heritage or ancestry. The Framework also includes a number of commitments from the Scottish Government setting out how it will seek to engage with Scotland’s diaspora.  Some of the proposals are informed by the experience of other countries, in particular Estonia and Ireland.

However, the Framework is less clear on what measurable benefits Scotland will see from this engagement.  Whilst there is a commitment to review the Framework every two years and a number of specific commitments are included, there is no articulation of what the Government hopes will be achieved in economic and cultural terms from deeper engagement with the diaspora.  This may make Parliament scrutiny of the impact of the Framework more challenging.

The importance of diaspora

A diaspora is understood to refer to “a group of people who spread from one original country to other countries”.

A diaspora can provide a potential economic and soft power benefit and generally be an asset for their country of origin.  For example, the diaspora can seek to promote trade and economic development opportunities, as the GlobalScot network has done for Scotland over the last 22 years. 

The diaspora can also help project soft power around the world.  David McWilliams, an Irish economist, writer, and journalist has described soft power as:

“the power of imagination and creativity, which can be expressed in arts, culture and branding. Soft power exists inside the heads of other people; it’s what people of other nationalities think of that nation. It’s a way of getting other countries on your side.”

A large diaspora, such as Ireland and Scotland have can provide advantages, Ireland’s President, Michael D Higgins has described the value of the Irish diaspora:

“Our diaspora is one of Ireland’s greatest resources: through the contribution our people make to the nations they migrate to; through the bonds they forge with the peoples of those countries, our migrants have allowed Ireland to have global connections far beyond our size.”

Scots around the world

The number of people around the world who claim Scottish ancestry is many multiples of Scotland’s population today.  A Scottish Government paper on the diaspora in 2009 put the number of people across the world claiming some sort of Scots ancestry at between 28 million and 40 million people.

Whilst putting a definite figure on the size of the Scottish diaspora is impossible, we can look at the number of people who declare Scottish ancestry as part of their home country censuses.  The image below provides some examples of countries with the numbers of people who either claim to have Scottish ancestry or, in the case of England and Wales, claim a Scottish identity.  In the case of the United States, in addition to the just over five million who claim Scottish ancestry, a further four million identified themselves as having a Scots-Irish ancestry.

The Scottish Government’s new definition of diaspora

The Scottish diaspora is traditionally viewed as those people around the world who have Scottish ancestry.  The Government’s new Scottish Connections Framework widens the diaspora definition stating:

“But our diaspora goes beyond bloodlines. We value anyone who has, or wants to have, a connection with Scotland. The Scottish Government’s definition of “diaspora” is therefore broad and welcoming.”

The Framework sets out that the following people can be considered part of Scotland’s diaspora:

  • People of Scottish heritage.
  • People who have lived in Scotland in the past.
  • People who have been educated in Scotland.
  • People who simply have an affinity for Scotland. 

This wide definition of diaspora is similar to that employed by Ireland.  Global Ireland Ireland’s Diaspora Strategy 2020–2025 defines the Irish diaspora as:

“Ireland takes a broad and inclusive definition of the Irish diaspora, one that reflects the rich diversity of our global community. The contemporary diaspora is composed of individuals of every background from communities in every part of the world. It includes Irish citizens living overseas, both those born in Ireland and those born abroad to Irish families, as well as the heritage diaspora, those many millions of people of Irish descent around the world. It also embraces the reverse diaspora of people who have lived, studied or worked in Ireland before returning to their home countries as well as the affinity diaspora who hold a deep appreciation for our people, places and culture. Together, these groups form the Global Irish.”

The new Scottish Connections Framework – what’s in it?

The Framework covers a lot of ground setting out how the Scottish Government and its public bodies will build on existing activity to create an international network of Scottish connections. It sets out how, in the Government’s view, Scotland can better engage with its diaspora. 

The Framework highlights actions in sectors that the Scottish Government regards as success stories – culture, higher education and tourism.  In all these areas, the Framework seeks to develop Scotland’s international focus.  In the area of trade, the Framework highlights a key role for the Global Scots network and Trade and Investment Envoys

The Framework also highlights the need to work with the Scottish global network including Scottish Development International, Visit Scotland and the Government’s own network of nine international offices.  It also highlights the importance of working with the UK Government, the other devolved administrations and the British Council

The Scottish Government’s international offices are given a key role in delivering elements of the Framework.  The offices will be responsible for engaging with the diaspora, including university alumni, in those countries. This will be supported by including a diaspora objective in all the Scottish Government’s international offices business plans. 

To promote the aims of the Framework, the Scottish Government will pilot a Scottish Connections Fund which will:

“support initiatives that bring together those with a connection to Scotland, promote Scotland’s reputation and interests, and build greater connections back to Scotland itself.”

The Framework does not indicate how much the Scottish Connections Fund will be worth, instead indicating details will be made available this year. 

The next section of the blog provides further information on some of the areas covered in the Framework.

Engagement with the diaspora

A key section of the Framework focuses on how Scotland can engage with its own diaspora. 

Citing the importance of engaging with people with Scottish heritage, the Framework sets out that:

“the National Records of Scotland will continue to prioritise developing online and digital resources to help people from around the world engage with their records and services”.

The Scottish Government also commits to expanding its engagement with the diaspora and to support this by establishing a dedicated “Scottish Connections contact point” within the Scottish Government for diaspora engagement.

A key element of the Framework is a recognition that connecting with the diaspora using digital methods presents an opportunity to increase the depth of engagement with the diaspora right around the world.  This recognition leads to a number of commitments in the Framework including the creation of dedicated content within Scotland.org for the Scottish diaspora.

The Framework also recognises the value of social media and proposes the creation of a digital directory which contains a list of organisations around the world affiliated with Scotland.


Learning the lesson from Ireland, the Framework sets out a number of measures to better recognise the contribution of Scotland’s diaspora including the launch of a diaspora recognition award.

Based on Estonia’s approach, the Framework proposes working to increase the appeal of Scotland to young people.  This will be done through the appointment of youth officers and the establishment of scholarships and youth exchanges.


The Framework recognises the value of Scotland’s culture sector and commits to ensuring that all the Scottish Government’s global network will promote Scotland’s cultural offer internationally.

The Framework also commits to the publication of an International Culture Strategy during 2023.

Living and working in Scotland

The Framework proposes to engage with members of the Scottish diaspora to promote business and employment opportunities in Scotland, and to offer a pathway for those seeking to make Scotland their home either permanently or as a student.

Education and alumni

Recognising the contribution to Scotland of international students, the Framework includes a commitment to the publication of an International Education Strategy for Scotland in 2023.  The Strategy will seek to promote and enhance Scotland’s education and research offer internationally.

Along with seeking to attract a diverse international student population, the Framework also makes proposals to appeal to Scotland’s university alumni based abroad.  The key commitment will be to work with Scotland’s universities and the British Council to connect and engage with the international alumni. 

Returning tourism

The Framework illustrates the value of tourism to Scotland and sets out the opportunities presented by tourism where those with Scottish ancestry wish to come to Scotland to explore their heritage.  Referred to as ancestral or diaspora tourism, the Framework sets out a role for Visit Scotland in engaging with, and encouraging, the Scottish heritage diaspora to come to Scotland. 

Economy and business

To support Scotland’s business and trade, the Framework identifies a key role for the Global Scot network. The Government will seek to grow the number of Global Scots in countries and sectors of strategic importance such as Canada and the United States, Asia Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East.  And the aim will be to increase the number of companies the Global Scots network is engaging with.

The Framework also recognises the role of the Trade and Investment Envoy programme which is currently eleven persons strong, and also the role of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce in engaging with the diaspora. 

How do other countries use their diaspora?

The qualitative research undertaken to inform the development of the new Scottish Connections Framework looked at how four other places – Canada, Estonia, Flanders and Ireland – engage with their diasporas.  The reason these four places were chosen was set out in the research:

“Ireland has often been seen as a key comparator for Scotland, with a well-developed diaspora strategy. Indeed, previous research for the Scottish Government has explored the lessons which Scotland might learn from Ireland’s strategy. Our second case study was Canada, not least because of its having an extremely large Scottish diaspora presence but it is also a country which is beginning to develop an engagement with its own citizens abroad. Our third comparator was Estonia. We believed that there was a value in considering an eastern European country, as these countries, once they had achieved independence and democracy during the 1990s, have been able to develop diaspora strategies. In some respects, their progress is similar in both timeline and manner to that of Scotland’s trajectory, post-devolution. Finally, as an example of a sub-state with a devolved administration, but also one developing an active engagement with its citizens abroad, we selected Flanders.”

The research suggested that in Canada the emphasis was not so much on engaging with Canadians abroad, but rather focussing on the integration of other diasporas into Canadian society.  As a result, engagement with the Canadian diaspora abroad is less formal and at arm’s length from the Canadian Government.

The research highlighted the development and identification of an Estonian diaspora took place before Estonia had regained its independence in 1991.  Before independence, “the diaspora had played an important role in the maintenance of Estonian culture”:

Upon independence, the Estonian government’s diaspora engagement was initially focussed on language and culture, but in recent years the engagement has become more focussed on trade and business.  A key focus of the Estonian Government’s Action Plan for the Estonian diaspora for 2022-2025, is an increased engagement of the diaspora in Estonia’s public life and development, with a key element of this being engagement with young Estonians living abroad. This engagement is in part in an effort to encourage return migration to Estonia.

In Flanders, the research highlights the outsourcing of diaspora engagement from the Flemish Government to an independent body, Vlamingen in de Wereld (Flanders in the World).  Flanders in the World seeks to coordinate contacts with Flemish expatriates around the world and helps to social events and celebrations.  As a result of Flanders in the World’s work, there are some Flemish clubs operating around the world, with one in London (Vlaamse Club London).”

For Ireland, the research identified that the diaspora is to some extent a functioning part of Irish society with most families in Ireland having a connection with somebody living in the Irish diaspora.  The research highlights the five aims of the Irish diaspora strategy:

  • ‘Our People’, whereby Ireland seeks to ensure that the welfare of Irish people abroad is at the heart of diaspora support.
  • ‘Our Values’, whereby Ireland will work with its diaspora to promote Irish values and celebrate the diversity of the diaspora.
  • ‘Our Prosperity’, involving the building of mutually beneficial economic ties with the diaspora.
  • ‘Our Culture’ with Ireland supporting aspects of Irish culture within the diaspora.
  • ‘Our Influence’, in which Ireland seeks to extend its global reach.

Emphasising the importance of the Irish diaspora, the Irish Government has a Minister for the Diaspora who sits within the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Irish Government’s focus is on both cultural and economic issues when it engages with the Irish diaspora.


The new Scottish Connections Framework will be subject to debate in the Scottish Parliament on 23 May 2023.  From a Parliamentary perspective, scrutiny of the Framework may be challenging due to the lack of measurable targets and outcomes included. 

The new Framework forms another strand of the Government’s external affairs policy which should contribute to the measurable outcomes in the NPF.  The Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee will shortly begin an inquiry into whether the measurable outcomes contained in the National Performance Framework (NPF) which are used to evaluate the Scottish Government’s external affairs policies and the role of its international offices are appropriate. 

Iain McIver, SPICe Research