After navigating the rough seas of Brexit, Scottish exporters are now well placed to bounce back

Analysing Scottish exports without reference to the politically contentious impact of Brexit would be a little like ignoring the elephant in the room. So, let’s start with a look at the facts.

Scottish exports to the EU fell by up to 25 per cent two years after Brexit as trade with the rest of the UK rose, according to the Scottish Government.

“I hear from our members that there are challenges with exports to the EU following on from Brexit, for example for the salmon sector, but also issues that need to be addressed in relation to services exports and the mobility of people that are barriers for a number of our international businesses,” said Gareth Williams, head of policy at Prosper (formerly SCDI).

“Following Brexit, the UK now has its own international trade policy and Prosper’s international business committee works with both Scottish and UK governments to look at the issues facing exporters and how we can break down barriers through free trade agreements.

“We’re quite clear that governments can’t do everything in this space and there is a significant role for businesses and trade associations to support peer-topeer learning around exporting.”

Jan Robertson, director global trade at Scottish Development International (SDI), acknowledged that recent years have been challenging for exporters who have had to deal with Brexit, Covid and the effects of the Ukraine invasion but pointed out that while Scotland’s exporting levels remain below pre-pandemic levels, they are improving as markets reopen. 

“Exporters are incredibly resilient and innovative,” she said. “They tend to be more resilient than other companies, which is why we want more of them. They’re more productive.

“Scotland is particularly well-placed to bounce back from these exporting challenges because we have a wealth of products and services, from the traditional industries, food and drink and textiles to innovative industries such as science and technology, particularly the space and life sciences sectors.”

Another area where Robertson forecasts export growth is energy transition. “Over the next five years there will be a ‘green sprint’ – a race to move our energy to renewables and Scotland is well placed for that because many of our oil and gas skills and technologies are transferable into renewable energies,” she said.

“And because we have those credentials and proven technologies, there is demand around the world for our products, particularly in offshore wind and hydrogen. That makes Scotland well-placed to grow our exports.”

Williams notes that it is five years since the Scottish Government published its export growth plan – A Trading Nation – and that while this year’s review of that plan may herald some changes in terms of priorities, the fact that the statistics show a degree of stability around the leading export markets for Scotland suggests that there is unlikely to be a significant change in priorities.

“That said, the Scottish Government recently published an international education strategy alongside sector plans for renewables, life sciences and technologies while the end of last year saw the Department for Business and Trade consult about the extension of the International Trade Advisor support programme that operates in England to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland,” he said.

Robertson says that SDI’s focus is on three sectors – science and tech, consumer industries and energy transition – and it seeks to work with those companies it sees as having the best potential to export more to those markets it believes Scotland’s products have the best opportunity to export to.

“Ninety per cent of the companies we support are SMEs and we focus on those with the biggest growth potential,” she said.

“We focus on where we believe we can achieve the best return on investment and where we have the skills and expertise to make that real difference.”

While most of Scotland’s exports currently go to the US, France and Germany, Robertson sees huge export opportunities in emerging markets such as Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.

“We recognise that South Korea is a market that’s increasingly hugely important to Scotland across energy and food and drink, and last year we put a person in Indonesia because we could see the huge potential for food and drink,” she said.

Williams and Robertson agree that collaboration is at the heart of Scotland’s exporting effort, with Robertson citing as an example the Team Scotland approach adopted at last November’s Cop28 UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai where SDI worked alongside Heriot-Watt University, the Chambers of Commerce, the Scottish Government and trade associations.

“There are two aspects to trade: selling products and services, but also selling Scotland. And that’s why that collaboration is particularly important,” she said. “What it boils down to is that we want to create resilience for the economy and growth and good, high paid jobs. And exporters, by their nature, are much better placed than other companies to deliver that.” 

Whisky provides export cheer

The Scotch Whisky Association’s latest global export figures show the value of Scotch exports topped £5.6 billion in 2023. The industry’s economic impact report showed that the contribution of the Scotch whisky sector to the UK economy reached £7.1 billion annually, supporting 66,000 jobs across the UK.

The export numbers show a decrease on 2022 exports for both volume and value, which the industry says was a ‘bumper’ year for exports as global markets reopened and restocked following the pandemic, as well as the full reopening of global travel retail.

The SWA says that the 2023 figures represent a more normalised picture of the current state of global exports, with strong growth on pre-pandemic numbers. Exports of Scotch whisky have risen by 14 per cent in value compared to 2019, with a 3 per cent increase in volume.

Salmon scales up in value

Scottish salmon was the UK’s most valuable food export in 2023, figures from HMRC show. Export sales of Scottish salmon increased by 0.5 per cent to £581 million in the calendar year, equivalent to £1.6 million every day, despite restricted supply leading to export volumes falling by 11 per cent from 72,300 tonnes to 64,000 tonnes.

France was once again the biggest market, taking half – 32,010 tonnes – of Scottish salmon exports, although that volume was 26 per cent lower than in 2022. Salmon (Scottish and imported) is also the most popular fish among UK shoppers, with sales running at around £1.25bn a year.