Objectives There is currently little theoretically informed exploration of how non-traditional clinical placement programmes that are longitudinal, immersive, based on community-engaged education principles and located in rural and remote settings may contribute to medical student learning. This paper aims to theoretically illustrate the pedagogical and socio-cultural underpinnings of student learning within a longitudinal, integrated, community-engaged rural placement. Methods Data collected using semi-structured interviews with medical students, their supervisors and other health clinicians participating in a longitudinal rural placement programme were analysed using framework analysis. Data interpretation was informed by the theory of social learning systems (SLSs). Results In a longitudinal, rural clinical placement students participate in an SLS with distinct yet interrelated learning spaces that contain embedded communities of practice (CoPs). These spaces are characterised by varying degrees of formality, membership and interaction, and different learning opportunities and experiences. They are situated within and shaped by a unique geography of place comprising the physical and social features of the placement setting. Within these learning spaces, students acquire clinical knowledge, skills and competencies, professional attitudes, behaviours and professional values. The process of connectivity helps explain how students access and cross the boundaries between these learning spaces and develop a more complex sense of professional identity. Conclusions Longitudinal, integrated clinical placement models can be understood as SLSs comprising synergistic and complementary learning spaces, in which students engage and participate in multiple CoPs. This occurs in a context shaped by unique influences of the geography of place. This engagement provides for a range of student learning experiences, which contribute to clinical learning and the development of a more sophisticated professional identity. A range of pedagogical and practical strategies can be embedded within this SLS to enhance student learning.