There is a burgeoning literature that suggests that, across a number of social policy domains, ‘Scotland is different’. Hitherto however, race equality policy has been largely overlooked and this article addresses this within the context of recent and historical developments in a devolved policy context. Adopting a mixed-method case-study analysis, including thirty-two semi-structured interviews with civil society and Scottish Government, the article shows how policy actors lack a consensus on the underlying causes of racial inequality, in ways that may impede policy making. In this sense, the article shows how Scotland ‘orbits’ around existing settlements, rather than necessarily setting off in a new course that goes beyond the fact of contingency. The implications of this analysis have a much broader relevance, including an account of how race equality policy opportunities encounter political obstacles, in a way that bears both specific and generalizable qualities. These include the role of policy coalitions in holding and promoting a coherent set of positions, the particularity of race as an idea or ‘cognitive problem’, and how prevailing narratives about national identities can feed into this process.