'Scotland's Populations from the 1850s to Today,' by Michael Anderson (Oxford University Press)
This is an important book, by a professor of economic history at the University of Edinburgh. But it is not an easy read. Handling it, one's first impression is of its weight. And that literal weightiness is an apposite metaphor for its contents. It is dense, packed, detailed, an encyclopaedia of figures, statistics, percentages. Whole pages of its 465 total are given over to complex graphs and tables – which are often difficult to interpret.
Inevitably all of this means that the demands made of the reader are unusually high, and I suspect there will be those who do not stay the course. Yet the book's subject matter is clearly of major importance. Given the comprehensiveness and thoroughness of its analysis, it is certain that Anderson's book will become the standard work in its field. What is its field? The short answer is Scottish demography.
'Scotland's Populations' provides an immensely detailed examination of the Scottish population, from the 19th century to the present day, in the context of the basic building blocks of human society – births, deaths, and marriages. But this account of Scottish demography is not made exclusively in national terms. Throughout the entire work there is a running comparison with the demography of England and Wales, and there are frequent comparisons between Scotland and Western European countries.
Additionally, Anderson constantly insists that to treat Scottish demographic statistics only from a national perspective all too often leads to distorted and misleading results. The environmental circumstances of specific areas have always to be taken into account – lives lived in rural areas may be very different to those of urban ones, and an industrial lifestyle may contrast an agrarian one. Thus Anderson's analyses are always carried out in the context of a range of Scottish regions from the Borders to the north-western Highlands, from towns and cities to Scottish islands. It is impossible not to be impressed by the extraordinary comprehensiveness of Anderson's work.
Out of this mass of detail let me cite a single example. In the past I have mentioned that as a boy growing up in Wick, I was also familiar with the area around John o' Groats and often looked over at the island of Stroma a few miles away in the Pentland Firth. At that time the island was a bustle of activity, with a road, houses, and cultivated fields clearly visible. Many years later, all that had changed. No sign of life survived on Stroma. From Anderson's chapter on islands I now know that, as late as 1901, Stroma supported a population of 375; by 1951 that figure had fallen to 111, but in the following decade it ceased to be an inhabited island.
Near the beginning of his book Anderson explains that at the opening of the 19th century, Scotland's population was 1.6 million. In the next 50 years that number grew rapidly to almost 2.9 million. For the rest of the century the pace of growth slowed markedly, but by 1911 the population total was 4.76 million. Thereafter there were falls as well as growths, but in 2015 Scotland's population peaked at 5.4 million. However, over the same period the population of England expanded at much greater speed. Between 1851 and 1951, it expanded by no less than 216% while that of Scotland grew by only 83%.
In the same period, the population of Scotland grew significantly more slowly than that of the rest of the countries of Western Europe. Thus for the 160 years up to 2011 demographic change in Scotland was at best one of sluggish growth and relative decline. This means that, while in 1851 Scotland had 13.95% of the population of Great Britain, by 1911 that figure was down to 11.7%, then to 10.4% by 1951, and finally to 8.6 % by 2011.
In successive chapters of his book, Anderson analyses, interprets and attempts to explain this pattern of decline in Scottish demography. To do this he examines over the years the impact of the rates of Scottish mortality, nuptiality, fertility, and migration.
In Part I of his book he provides what amounts to a social and economic history of Scotland from the middle of the 19th century. Part II describes the differences between what he describes as 'multiple Scotlands' which include rural areas, urban areas, and islands. Part III focuses on migration and other factors related to the country’s age and gender structures. Part IV deals with nuptiality and fertility, while Part V analyses rates of mortality. In Part VI Anderson summarises his conclusions.
As has been noted above, in terms of population, since 1850 Scotland had a markedly lower rate of growth than England, Wales and most of the countries of north-western Europe. However, compared with England and Wales, Scotland had a much higher rate of net and gross emigration from before the 1850s to the end of the 20th century. In a European perspective, Scotland had the second highest (after Ireland) emigration rate of any part of north-western Europe. At the same time, Scotland always had a higher proportion of immigrants in its population than England and Wales.
Compared with England and Wales, Scotland had a much lower rate of marriages from the 1850s to the 1970s. This meant that it had higher mean marriage ages for both men and women, and a markedly higher rate of lifetime celibacy, particularly among women. Compared with England and Wales, Scotland had higher marital fertility rates, from the 1860s through to the 1960s, but thereafter birth rates fell faster in Scotland.
Throughout the period Scotland experienced significantly higher mortality rates. In a European context, by the 19th century Scottish male life-expectancy at birth was already among the lowest in north-western Europe, and has remained absolutely the lowest (except for Finland) for more than 60 years.
These conclusions make uncomfortable reading for today's Scottish population. They should be made required reading for officials in local and national government. Michael Anderson is a much too careful and judicious scholar to over-dramatise any of his detailed findings. Indeed, early in his book, he reminds us that Scotland has shared in western Europe's sustained improvement in most aspects of living. He notes, for example, that compared with the 1860s infant mortality rates have fallen from 120 to 4 per thousand live births. Nevertheless, the picture of Scottish populations that emerges here, is a less than positive one.
In his closing chapter Anderson tries to account for the depressing reality that over the last 150 years Scotland's demographic statistics have been so frequently inferior to those of England and Wales. The suggested explanation is that at work is a distinctively 'Scottish factor' resulting from what the author sees as an enduring greater uncertainty, insecurity, and deprivation of life in Scotland. (Anderson makes much of the fact that up until the 1930s the Scottish Poor Law provided very little help for those in need.)
However, he is prepared to consider a more recent explanation. This is a new area of research called epigenetics which apparently suggests that environmental and other life experiences can affect one's DNA in a negative way, and that these ill-effects can thus be passed on to one's children and grandchildren. Hence generations of Scots born in environmentally deprived areas live with a built-in susceptibility to early mortality and the rest.
Reading this I was reminded of Carol Craig's book 'Hiding in Plain Sight' which I reviewed in SR. Craig argues that hiding in plain sight as an explanation of Scotland's ill-health – which 'Scotland's Populations' so extensively documents – is ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). It would be fascinating to hear what Michael Anderson makes of Carol Craig's challenging theory and suggestion.