Scottish Census

5,436,600 Scots and counting…

The first results of the Scottish Census which took place in March 2022 have been released today, which show that the Scottish population has increased by 2.7% since the last Census in 2011.

Digging underneath this, there were 585,000 births and 634,800 deaths since the 2011 Census. So, without migration, the Scottish population would have decreased by 49,800. Net migration of +191,000 people is the reason that we have seen this population growth in Scotland.

The Census shows that the population in Scotland grew less quickly than England and Wales (+6.3%) and Northern Ireland (+5.1%).

The main story is of an ageing population

The numbers show a significant increase in the share of the population that is over the age of 65. 1 in 5 people were aged 65 or over in 2022; it was only 1 in 8 in 1971 and 1 in 6 in 2011.

The larger share of older people is largely a good news story, reflecting the success in increasing life expectancy over the long run. But fewer children are also being born. So not only is today’s share of the population over the age 65 larger than ever before, it will continue to grow in the coming decades (even with the levels of inward net migration seen over the last decade or so).

Chart: Dependency ratios at successive Scottish Census

The old age dependency ratio is at the highest level since 1971. Despite the falling young age dependency ratio, the overall dependency ratio has started to tick up in 2022

Source: National Records of Scotland, FAI calculations

This means that the working age population – which produces most economic output and pays the largest share of the taxes that fund public services – will need to support a larger share of the population than in previous decades. Older people generally also need to rely on health and social care more, which increases funding pressures on public services, and increases the number of people entitled to claim state pension – bringing into focus the cost over the long term of policies such as the triple lock.

This is not a Scottish-specific issue, or even a UK-specific one, but it is one the country will need to grapple with. As the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s recent analysis showed, if these spending pressures were to be accommodated, it would mean an unsustainable path for the public finances, which would have to be addressed by either tax increases, spending reductions, or (most likely) a combination of the two.

The population is also moving within Scotland

The published results also provide an up-to-date picture of population counts and structure across council areas – and the 2.7% increase in national population has not been equal across the board. Areas around Edinburgh showed the strongest increases, with Midlothian (16.1%), East Lothian (12.6%) and Edinburgh City itself (7.6%) topping the list. At the other end of the scale, Na h-Eileanan Siar (-5.5%), Inverclyde (-3.8%) and Dumfries and Galloway (-3.6%) showed the sharpest declines. In total, 22 of the 32 council areas showed an increase in population.

These changes in population have also led to changes in the structure of the population in different council areas. The four areas with the largest proportional increase in the share of over 65s (Shetland, Aberdeenshire, Clackmannanshire, Highland) are all lower population density than the national average, which itself is a long way below that of the large urban centres. All four also saw falls in the share of the working age population of 5% or more.

By contrast, Glasgow City saw its share of the working age population increase by 0.6%, and Edinburgh City’s decreased by only 1.6%, well under the average decline across Scotland of 3.7%. These results serve as an illustration of the difficulties faced by more rural areas of Scotland in attracting people of working age relative to large urban areas, and the disparate effects of an ageing population on different areas of the country.

Are the Census results reliable?

There has been considerable coverage of the approach to the Scottish Census given the challenges that were faced in ensuring a good return rate in order to have as good quality as possible.

National Records of Scotland had to extend the deadline to allow households more time to get the forms in, and ended up with a return rate of 90%, compared to the 94% that they achieved in the 2011 Census. This also compares rather unfavourably to the (admittedly very good) response rate in England and Wales in 2021 of 97% (in 2011, the E&W return rate was also 94%).

So why was the return rate lower than it had been in the past?

For anyone who doesn’t remember, in July 2020, about 9 months before the Scottish Census originally scheduled for 2021 was supposed to take place, National Records of Scotland decided that they would delay the Scottish Census for a year due to “the impact of the Covid pandemic”.

The ONS and NISRA, who are responsible for the Census in England and Wales and Northern Ireland respectively, took a different view and proceeded with their census on the original planned date.

At the time, there was concern about the impact that this delay could have on the coherence of the census data across the UK, and the potential (for ever more) for this incoherence to weaken the power that the Census has to provide a snapshot of the UK population. This is particularly true for the groups that are only really reached well in a full population census – small and underrepresented groups, for example.

However, there is no doubt that this delay had an impact on the return rate for the Scottish Census, perhaps due to the lack of benefit that would have been accrued from the coverage and publicity of the UK-wide census going on at the same time.

Having said that, use of a coverage survey and the additional data sources used to supplement the gaps caused by non-returns is not unusual. Even at 94% coverage, these techniques would be used to ensure that the whole population is reflected in the counts. This is not, in itself, a reason to question the validity of the Census results.

However, the lower response rate does mean more of this is required from these results. And in some places in the country with particularly low return rates, such as Glasgow, it does make the results more uncertain. National Records of Scotland have assessed the overall margins of error at the Scotland level is similar to 2011: but no doubt will be doing more assessment over the next year(s) on how the lower return rate could affect particular groups or geographies.


Picture of Mairi Spowage, director of the Fraser of Allander Institute

Mairi is the Director of the Fraser of Allander Institute. Previously, she was the Deputy Chief Executive of the Scottish Fiscal Commission and the Head of National Accounts at the Scottish Government and has over a decade of experience working in different areas of statistics and analysis.

João is Deputy Director and Senior Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the Fraser of Allander Institute. Previously, he was a Senior Fiscal Analyst at the Office for Budget Responsibility, where he led on analysis of long-term sustainability of the UK's public finances and on the effect of economic developments and fiscal policy on the UK's medium-term outlook.