Scotland’s Census

The 2011 Census is approaching: Census Night is Sunday 27 March 2011. Courtesy of the Scotland’s Census team, here’s the history of it.

The 2011 Census is approaching: Census Night is Sunday 27 March 2011. Those of us engaged in local research are actually more excited about the imminent release of the personal data in the 1911 census – but still, it’s a significant day that comes around every decade. Courtesy of the Scotland’s Census team, here’s the history of it.  Meanwhile some data from the 1991 census in Uig is onsite now – 2001 has not reached us in so tidy a fashion so may take some time to compile.

UPDATE: There is an information session at Uig Hall on 16 February, 1.30pm, with local manager Annie Delin. All welcome.

The direct impact of Scotland’s Census on the development of our country can be traced back more than 200 years to the point when the first regular census was introduced due to concern over the effect of an increasing population on food production, immigration and colonisation.

Arguments for taking a census in 1801 included finding out the number of men who could be liable for conscription to the military in different parts of the country and the number of seamen available to fight in the Napoleonic wars. Information on the population was also necessary to help understand how much corn was needed to help feed the nation. The first census showed that Scotland’s population was nearly 1.6 million – around a third the size of our population today.

Scotland’s census was run from London from 1801 until the passing of the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland) Act in 1854 which stated that a complete and uniform system of registration of events was to be established and maintained in Scotland. In the same year, William Pitt Dundas, the first Registrar General for Scotland, was appointed and from 1861 to the current day, the census in Scotland has been administratively separate from England and Wales. The General Register Office for Scotland has taken a census every decade since, with the exception of 1941 during the Second World War.

The content of Scotland’s 1861 Census was a little different from that in England and Wales as it included a count of people who were temporarily absent from the household on census night. This identified the number of fishermen at sea and temporary migrants. More importantly, a question was included about the number of rooms with windows in order to identify overcrowding. It showed that, on average, each room with a window was occupied by 1.7 people. This question was repeated in successive censuses until 1951.

Throughout the latter decades of the 1800s the content of the census remained essentially the same with a few more questions being introduced. The 1871 Census asked about unemployment and the 1881 Census was the first to include a question on the Gaelic language. The number of habitual Gaelic speakers in that year was recorded as 300,000 which strengthened the demand for more time to be allocated to the teaching of Gaelic in Scottish schools.

By 1901 the census results showed that Scotland’s population had more than doubled from 1.6 million a century earlier to 4.5 million and in 1911, census data showed that Scots were migrating at twice the rate of the English. With the harsh conditions of urban overcrowding at home and the lure of North America and Commonwealth countries abroad, the census in this year recorded the largest loss of population by migration in one decade.

The early 1930s saw greater mobility and finding a single date during the year at which local populations were likely to be stable was becoming difficult. Until then, the best approximation of Scotland’s population had relied primarily on taking the census on a Sunday, this being generally believed to be the day when it was most likely that residents would be at home. The practice of holding the census on a Sunday has continued ever since.

Preparations for the 1941 Census were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II which meant that there was no official count of Scotland’s population for 20 years following the 1931 Census. Interestingly, the 1951 Census recorded the post-war baby boom showing the largest age group as 0 to 4 year old children.

Technical advances saw the use of a computer to process the results of the 1961 Census and by 1971 the development of computer processing unlocked the potential for significant increases in the volume and detail of the results for future years.

The 2001 Census was the first to be approved by the devolved Scottish Parliament which was created in 1999. New questions were asked about general health, the provision of unpaid care, and time since last employment, and two voluntary questions on religion were included.

Like Scottish society, the shape of the census has been constantly changing, with questions being added or amended to reflect what the society of the day needs to help prepare for its future.

The 2011 Census marks the 150th year for which the Registrar General has been responsible for the count of Scotland’s population, and will ask 13 household questions and up to 35 questions for each individual.

For Registrar General Duncan Macniven, the statistics produced by those questions will prove fascinating reading for the decision makers of today and the historians of tomorrow. He said:

“Scotland’s Census is unique in its capacity to chart our history and inform key decisions about the level of services required and how our country grows and develops.

“It is fascinating being able to track the developments in our country and view the trends of the last 200 years such as the move from a population with a high number of young children to one consisting of a high number of older people.

“While it is a unique historical record it is important to remember that the census is a living statistical mechanism that changes with society. The 2011 Census will reflect a wider change in society by offering most householders the option to complete their census questionnaire online for the first time, in English or Gaelic.

“One common aspect of every modern census has been the emphasis placed on the security of personal details. All such information collected through the census is safeguarded by law and kept confidential for 100 years. Only then will the individual census records be available to future generations as a rich source of information about 21st century Scotland.”