Scotland’s population – long view

This is one of my favourite graphs from the book. It’s one that I can stare for a while and even still sometimes I notice something interesting about Scotland’s history just by looking at how its population has changed.

Scotland's population from 1855 to 2015
Data here. Primary source: National Records of Scotland.

The line shows Scotland’s population in each year and should be read against the left axis. As you can see, the population increased from about 3 million in 1855 to reach about 5 million by 1940, then plateaued for decades, followed by an uptick in the last decade that brought it to its present 5.4 million. For contrast, England’s population has grown more rapidly, from about 16 million to 55 million over this time with much of this growth, unlike Scotland, taking place during the 20th century.

The red bars show the annual growth rate. Through the late 1800s the growth rate varied between 0.5% to 1.0%. Although this annual growth rate may seem small, the change over several decades compounds to produce a significant 50% increase over the first 50 years of this graph.

Scotland’s population growth appears to come to an attend at the time of the First World War, but a close look at the data shows that the two negative bars indicating population decline are before the war in 1912 and 1913. Growth resumes at a muted rate from 1914. (I’m not sure what the explanation is for this oddity. If you know, please get in touch.)

After a brief spurt, the growth rate falters again in the mid to late 1920s but remains positive through much of the 1930s until the outbreak of the Second World War. From 1940 to 1944 there is the biggest historical exodus from Scotland as people leave to join the war effort, but this is reversed in the late forties as people return, at least the ones that were lucky enough to survive.

Hidden in that post-war spike in growth rates is an increase in birth rates. You can see a clue for this by looking at the population: it is higher after the war-time dip than before it. In other words, despite the deaths due to war, the net result was to increase Scotland’s population, by about 100,000 between 1939 and 1949.

The second half of the twentieth century was a period of decline with the growth rate often being negative as deaths outnumber births. Also, there was more emigration out of Scotland than immigration into it.

The next big change came in 2004 when the growth suddenly leapt to 0.3% having been zero or negative in preceding years. And the growth rate went higher still, reaching 0.7% in 2007 and 2011. Such sustained growth had not been seen in Scotland for over a century.

The explanation, of course, is that many new states joined the EU in 2004 and many people in eastern European countries such as Poland chose to exercise their new rights as EU citizens to come to Scotland to live and work. Of course, this wave of immigration was not just confined to Scotland but was present throughout the UK.

The next post will take a closer look at how and why the population has changed.

Scotland’s current population

Scotland’s population is the highest it has ever been at a little over 5.4 million people. This figure is for the middle of 2017 and was published in April 2018 by the organisation tasked with providing authoritative statistics on population, the National Records of Scotland.

They also provide this graphic which is packed with much more detail.

Statistics on Scotland's population.
Primary source: National Records of Scotland.

One striking fact is that women outnumber men in Scotland. In fact, this is true in most developed (meaning wealthier) countries. In less developed countries males slightly outnumber females and this is also true of the world’s overall population as most of the global population live in less wealthy countries.

This kind of chart is sometimes referred to as a “population pyramid” because it’s wider at the bottom than the top. Well, it used to be wider when national statistics of this kind were first published, but it is suffering from a form of middle-aged spread.

The various bulges correspond to times when the birth rate was high. There was a brief burst of baby-making immediately after the Second World War, and those babies are now around 70 years old. There was a more sustained spell of procreative hanky-panky from the late 1950s and through the 1960s resulting in a bulge of people who are now between about 45 and 60 years old. And these “baby boomers”, as they are called, went on to have babies themselves and so we see a third, smaller bulge of people in their twenties. The fourth, and smallest bulge is of children and is likely associated with the wave of immigration that followed the entry of a number of countries into the EU from 2004 to 2006.

This one graphic touches on a number of challenges facing our society, most obviously on schooling, immigration and growing health and social care needs of a growing cohort of people moving into old age. We’ll come back to all of these in future blog posts.

The next post takes a closer look at how the population has grown and shrank over the last 160 years.