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History of Scotland's Census

Introduction

An official census of the British population has been taken every 10 years since 1801, with the exception of 1941. There were smaller population counts before this - including a credible count in 1755.

However, 1801 was the first official government census, ordered by an Act of parliament.

Changing over time

Early censuses were little more than a population count but later censuses offer an ever-richer picture of the Scottish population.

There has been a census every 10 years since 1801, except for 1941 because of World War 2. The 2021 census in Scotland was moved to 2022 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A lot has changed since the first census, not least the level of detail the questions go into. The modern census questionnaire collects much more information than its 1801 version. But with this comes a more detailed picture of the population.

The way we collect and publish census information has also changed. What was once a paper-based process is now mainly online.

Still adding value

What has not changed is that the census remains the only survey of its kind offer such an accurate and detailed snapshot of Scotland's population over such a long time.

A key part of this is that census records are closed for 100 years. All statistics produced from the census have personal information removed. This allows people to be honest in their answers, which in turn makes the data more reliable.

And the value of the census is not just about helping us make decisions today. After 100 years, all census returns become available for the public to access. Not only can we study how Scotland's past has changed, we can discover more about the individuals who have lived here.

You can explore historic census returns at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

Find out more about searching historic census data.

1801 Napoleonic wars and feeding the nation

Population of Scotland: 1,608,420*

Compared with today, the 1801 census was a simple affair. It asked for basic details about who was present at an address on census night and their occupation.

Like today, the government needed a population count to help it deliver services like healthcare and education.

In 1801, though, the government needed census information to help plan the corn crop. They also wanted to establish the number of seamen available to fight in the Napoleonic wars.

Another justification given was that the results would stimulate the life insurance industry.

1811 to 1831 Still inconsistent

For most of the early 19th century, the census remained a very basic count of the population. Often, there were differences in the amount of information captured in different areas.

New questions added in this period recorded information about the age of the population and employment.

 Across Scotland there were enumerators in each local area. They had the task of calling door-to-door and counting the local population. Enumerators - a term we still use today - were usually the local schoolmasters. 

The enumerators were responsible for returning a population count of their parish. Some also recorded household details, such as occupations.

Sadly, many of the original records from pre-1841 censuses were destroyed, although some remain.

Find out more about pre-1841 censuses in Scotland.

1841 Building a more detailed picture

Population of Scotland: 2,620,184*

By 1841, the census had recorded a population jump of over 1 million since 1801. For the first time, individual households were asked to complete a form. Because of this, some consider 1841 to be the first modern census.

For the first time, the census consistently recorded names and ages. People's jobs were also collected, as well as their place of birth.

This represented a shift in the purpose of the census. After starting as a basic statistical count, it now provided a more detailed picture of the population.

In 1841, there was a change to how the enumerators worked. Every parish in Scotland was divided into districts. Each district had an enumerator to visit households to collect their form.

Find out more about the 1841 census in Scotland.

1851 More questions about family

Population of Scotland: 2,888,742*

In 1851, the census asked more questions about family relationships and place of birth. For the first time, people were also asked if they were "blind or deaf or dumb".

Find out more about the 1851 census in Scotland.

1861 Planned in Scotland for the first time

Scotland's population: 3,061,251*

After its creation on 1 January 1855, the General Register Office for Scotland became responsible for the census in Scotland. Scotland has run its own census ever since.

In 2011, the General Register Office merged with National Archives of Scotland to become the National Records of Scotland. The National Records of Scotland is now responsible for running the census in Scotland.

We still work closely with other parts of the UK to plan the census. By making sure our questions and methods are consistent, we can produce UK-wide statistics.

A common theme that remains today is the cost of the census. In his post-census report, the Registrar General, William Pitt Dundas, revealed: "The saving of money... has been very great if we compare the expenses of 1851 with those of 1861.

"In 1861 the taking the Census of Scotland cost the country L.18,464, 0s. 2½d., (£18,400) being no less than L.7,777, 16s. 1½d. (£8,000) less than the sum spent on the Census of Scotland in 1851."

Find out more about the 1861 census in Scotland.

A collage of three portraits featuring two older men and one young woman from the 1860s.
L-R: Shepherd Robert Clark, road mender D. Rankin and bracken cutter Flora, all from Glen Creran in the 1860s. Some of these jobs can still be found on modern census returns, some are not so common anymore. Crown Copyright, National Records of Scotland, GD1/1208/1/53 , GD1/1208/1/44 and GD1/1208/1/37 .

1871 Scotland's population continues to grow

Population of Scotland: 3,358,613*

The census in 1871 included a new question on unemployment and a number of changes were made to existing questions. One change was to how information about school children were recorded. In the 1861 census, school information was captured about children aged 5 to 15.

This was lowered in 1871 to 5 to 13 year olds after the Scottish Education Commissioner reported: "...it appears that in Scotland, education does not begin much earlier than six years.

"It has already been observed that comparatively few children remain at school after twelve years of age; and the question arises, whether school attendance can be prolonged beyond that period."

Find out more about the 1871 census in Scotland.

1881 Charting the use of Gaelic

Population of Scotland: 3,734,441*

In 1881, the census started to collect data about how many people could speak Gaelic. Over the last 140 years, this information has charted the decline of Gaelic use in Scotland. But it has also provided a useful tool in efforts to grow the language.

The 1881 census also records the ongoing migration from country to town taking place in Scotland at the time. Registrar General Stair Agnew reported that the rate of population increase in large towns "varied remarkably".

He wrote: "In the case of Glasgow, for instance, the total increase of the population during the last decennium has amounted to only 4.0 per cent.; while in Paisley during the same period the increase has been 15.3 per cent., and in Leith no less than 31.73 per cent."

Find out more about the 1881 census in Scotland.

A woman and man working outside a stone cottage on the island of St. Kilda in the 1880s.
Two residents of the remote island of St. Kilda, c1885. The islands were inhabited for centuries and, every ten years from 1801, a census enumerator would travel there to count the islanders. By the time of the 1931 census, however, there was no need - the last residents had left for good the year before. Crown Copyright, National Records of Scotland, GD1/1295/2

1891 Collecting information about living conditions

Population of Scotland: 4,033,103*

The census in 1891 asked about people's work and the living arrangements of the household. 

The population of Scotland was recorded as being above 4 million for the first time.

As is still the case, how we define things like households is very important to make sure the census is accurate.

In 1891, the definition of a household was included in Registrar General Stair Agnew's preliminary report: " (1) every dwelling with a distinct Outside Entrance from a street,, court, lane, road, &c., or (2) with a door opening directly into a Common Stair ; but any such dwelling, if subdivided and occupied by different families, is reckoned as only a single house."

Find out more about the 1891 census in Scotland.

A group of 8 infant and pre-teen children from the 1890s stand in front of cottages that appear to be in disrepair.
A group of children outside workers' cottages in Argyllshire, c1890. For over 200 years the census has charted how living conditions and standards have improved in Scotland. Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, GD112/18/14/9/6

1901 A century of the census

Population of Scotland: 4,472,103*

The 1901 count marked 100 years of the census collecting information about Scotland's population.

At the start of the 20th century, who could imagine the coming changes in society? The census would record and preserve many of these changes for future generations.

Find out more about the 1901 census in Scotland.

6 men are standing in smart clothes holding either sacks of post or bikes with mailbags and parcels.
A group of postmen in East Linton, c1900. Perhaps some of these postal workers helped deliver census returns. Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, GD1/673/23/5

1911 Boycott for women's votes

Population of Scotland: 4,759,445*

In 1911, suffragettes across the country staged a boycott of the census. Many refused to be counted and avoided being at home on census night so they could not be included. Despite this, many prominent suffragettes do appear on the 1911 census. 

The 1911 census was also a notable for the use of punch card and mechanical sorting for the first time. This allowed for faster sorting and analysis of the data.

Registrar General James Patten McDougall reported: "The total decennial increase is less than that found by any Census since 1861, but is more than the increases found by the Censuses of 1811 to 1851."

Find out more about the 1911 census in Scotland.

A crowd of primary school-age children from 1918
A group of children from Beckford Street School in Hamilton, 1918. As the census has developed over the last 200 years it has collected vital information about the education of Scotland's population. Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, NSC1/392/2/49

1921 A changed nation

Population of Scotland: 4,882,497*

The first census taken after World War 1. The statistics recorded painted a picture of a country much changed by the previous decade's events. Despite the setbacks of the war, in less than a century the population had doubled in size. For the first time, the census collected information on divorce rates.

The 1921 census was not without its challenges.

In his preliminary report of the 1921 census, Registrar General James Craufurd Dunlop wrote: "... the Thirteenth Census of Scotland fell to be taken on 24th April of the present year, but, on account of extensive industrial unrest at the time, the taking of the Census was postponed until 19th June...The necessity for a change of date was in many ways unfortunate.

"The populations more especially affected by the change of date are those of seaside and other such resorts."

1931 Unique in the UK

Population of Scotland: 4,842,554*

Records of the 1931 census in Scotland hold some significance.

The records for the English and Welsh census were destroyed during World War 2. In Northern Ireland, there was no census this year.

This means Scotland will be the only part of the UK to release historic census records in 2031. The 1931 census is also unique as it shows a population drop for the first time since the census began.

The Registrar General, Andrew Froude, noted in his report: "This is the first official Census of Scotland as the result of which a decrease of population falls to be recorded."

1941 Census cancelled

Population of Scotland (1939): 5,006,700*

No census was taken in 1941 due to World War 2. However, the 1939 National identity Register provided a population estimate. This showed Scotland's population to be above 5 million for the first time.

A World War 2 German bomber plane that crashed near Edinburgh during the war. The plane is surround by a crowd of interested locals.
A German bomber that crashed near Edinburgh during the war. Crown Copyright, National Records of Scotland, NSC1/394/27

1951 First for 20 years

Population of Scotland: 5,095,969*

The census in 1951 was the first to be held after World War 2 and the first since 1931. As with the 1921 census, it recorded a country still recovering from war and the changes it brought to society.

In his preliminary report of the census, Registrar General Edmund Hogan reported: "It is estimated that between the censuses of 1931 and 1951 there was an excess outward migration from Scotland of some 220,000 persons."

An advert about the 1951 census that was shown at cinemas.

1961 Swinging Sixties bring changes to society

Population of Scotland: 5,179,344*

To keep pace with a changing society, the census continued to add new questions. This time, respondents were asked about their qualifications, migration and their household tenure. 

Computers had a role for the first time to process census outputs. There was high hopes this would make things faster. In the end, though, it was over 5 years before final national tables were published.

A shipyard welder, kneeling and wearing safety equipment and holding tools. In the background are cranes and scaffolding.
A welder in John Brown & Co shipyard, Clydebank, in the 1960s. The census has been a useful record of how people's jobs and occupations have changed in different parts of the country. Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, UCS1/118/736/32

1966 First and last sample census

In 1966, a sample census was run for the first time. This was, in part, to help keep pace with a rapidly changing society facing increasing birth and migration rates. 

The sample census only surveyed six special study areas. This was about 10% of the population of the country. So far, it is the only 'mid-way' census we've run.

1971 More computer power 

Population of Scotland: 5,229,000*

The census returned to its 10-year cycle in 1971 with a longer questionnaire and new questions. Parents' place of birth, first entry to the UK and address 5 years ago were among the new questions asked.

The 1971 census aimed for quicker and more detailed data computer processing. But plans to store census information on computers presented new challenges.

There was public concern over how secure this information would be. This led to an independent review of the IT system by the British Computer Society.

The society stepped-in to perform similar reviews for the 1981 and 1991 censuses too.

A group of miners leaving the mine after their shift.
Miners at the Solsgirth Colliery, leaving No 2 mine, 1970s. Because the census asks for information about occupations, it has helped us see how some industries have declined and others have emerged. Copyright Scottish Miners Museum. NRS image library ref. AAA00285/Scottish Mining Museum ref. 2006.0411

1981 Population dips but stays above the 5 million mark

Population of Scotland: 5,035,000*

The 10 years leading up to the 1981 census saw a dramatic drop in population - the largest since 1801. This was only the second time in the census had recorded a drop in Scotland's population.

But the population was not falling in all parts of the country. The discovery of oil under the sea near Shetland led to a 57% population increase on the islands between 1971 and 1981.

The 1981 census continued the adoption of technology to help run the census and produce more detailed statistics. 

1991 Population on the up, for now

Population of Scotland: 5,083,000*

The last census of the 20th century saw the population on the rise once again. A question on ethnic group was added to the questionnaire. Data from this question provided a valuable insight into the changing population.

The 1991 census also made use of modern marketing and advertising. A TV advert was produced featuring a talking baby, inspired by the recently released film Look who's talking. 

We can only wonder what the census organisers from 1801 would think of that.

The 1991 census promotional advert.

2001 Asking about religion

Population of  Scotland: 5,062,011*

As the census marked 200 years of surveying the nation, Scotland entered the 21st century.

Looking back on the previous 2 centuries, the census had recorded more than population levels.

Radical changes in where and how people lived, as well as their education and employment have all been charted by the census. 

After the population rise recorded in 1991, the 2001 count saw a dip for the third time since 1801's census.

For the first time, a question on religion was asked in the main census questionnaire. This was - and still is - a voluntary question. 

The outputs from 2001's census also broke a new digital barrier. They were the first to be published free-of-charge online.

2011 A new digital age

Population of Scotland: 5,295,403*

Scotland's population was at its highest ever. The 2011 census recorded an increase of well over 200,000 in the previous 10 years.

Technology continued to be a part of the census story. For the first time, people could complete their census questionnaire online.

And 130 years after first asking about Gaelic, the census asked about Scots language skills for the first time.

The advert for Scotland's Census 2011

2022 Still going strong

The census continues to be an important part of Scotland's story. Originally set to be held in 2021, the census in Scotland was moved to 2022 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The 2022 census will ask new questions about:

  • trans status or history
  • sexual orientation
  • British Sign Language
  • passports held
  • previous armed forces service

The new questions on trans status or history and sexual orientation are voluntary. People do not have to answer these questions if they do not want to.

Building on 2011's digital move, the 2022 census will be first where the majority of responses will be made online.

Find out more about the 2022 census.

Notes and sources

* The census produces an estimate of Scotland's population, not a firm number. Often we revise the population estimate over time to try and make it more accurate. Because of this, different sources may offer different estimates. In some cases, the number is rounded-up to the nearest thousand.

The timeline on this page was compiled using information from:

National Records of Scotland staff also contributed to this timeline.