Scotland’s population statistics for 2017 – a sign of things to come?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

On 19 April, National Records of Scotland published the annual population statistics up to the end of June 2017.

The top line from the statistics is that for the eighth year in a row, the Scottish population has increased and now stands at 5.42 million.  The reason for the continued increase in population is net inward migration, with more people coming to Scotland from the UK and overseas than are leaving.  However, whilst net migration continued to be positive, 2016-17 saw a smaller increase in net migration that in the previous twelve months.

It is commonly accepted (for instance see the Scottish Parliament European Committee report into EU Migration and EU Citizens’ Rights) that Scotland currently faces two population challenges – growing its population, and addressing the impact of an ageing population.  This has also been discussed in the recent SPICe guest blog Migration in post-Brexit Scotland.

Whilst it would be a mistake to consider the figures in isolation, the population statistics for 2016-17 suggest that Scotland may begin to lose these battles over the coming years.  One factor contributing to this could be the uncertainty surrounding future migration policy following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

Net migration

Between July 2016 and June 2017, 23,900 more people came to Scotland than left.  However, the top line increase masks a change in the composition of inward migration since the EU referendum vote in June 2016.  There has been a reduction of 25% in net migration over the last year.

The figures show that whilst net migration from the rest of the UK increased from 8,800 in 2015-16 to 10,500 in 2016-17, net migration from overseas fell from 22,900 in 2015-16 to 13,400 in 2016-17.

The overseas net migration figure of 13,400 is as a result of a sharp fall in both the number of people coming from overseas to Scotland (down by 7,100 to 32,900) and an increase in the number of people leaving Scotland to go overseas (up by 2,000 to 19,500).

The graph below shows levels of net migration to Scotland since 1996-97 from both the UK and overseas.

Net Migration.pngAs the graph shows, the fall in overseas net migration mirrors the overall total fall in net migration, with the small increase in net migration from the rest of the UK not enough to offset the overseas fall.

However, the graph also shows that net migration fluctuates a lot from year to year.  As such, and as referenced earlier in the blog, it would be a mistake to consider the 2016-17 figures in isolation and further years’ data will be required to establish a trend. But that being said, it is interesting to note that in the year immediately following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, fewer people chose to come to Scotland from overseas and more people chose to leave Scotland to go overseas.

Given that Scotland’s population growth has been driven by net inward migration over recent years, if overseas migration levels are affected in the year leading up to and then beyond Brexit, then Scotland’s demographic challenge may get even tougher.

What does this mean for Scotland’s demographic challenge?

Scotland has an ageing population.  By June 2017 just under one in five (19%) of Scotland’s population was over 65, compared to 16% in 2007.

The bar chart below demonstrates Scotland’s ageing population by comparing the Scottish population by age group in 1997 and 2017.

Change in demographics.png

Over recent years, net inward migration from both overseas and the UK has helped to grow the Scottish population and at least help to slow the rate of population ageing in Scotland.

As is shown in the bar chart below, in the year to June 2017, over 80% of those who came to Scotland (from both the UK and overseas) were in the 16-64 age bracket.

Net migation by age

A breakdown of net migration from overseas by age group is shown in the bar chart below.

Net overseas migration 2016 and 2017

The bar chart shows that between 2016 and 2017, the three biggest age groups in terms of numbers are those with the greatest falls in net migration, the actual fall in net migration numbers from overseas in the three age groups is as follows:

  • Ages 16-24    2,932
  • Ages 25-34    3,399
  • Ages 36-45    1,126

Whilst these numbers are small, in Scottish population terms they mean a 29% fall in net migration from overseas amongst the 16-24 age group, a 51% fall in the 25-34 age group and a 54% fall in the 35-44 age group.

Although the Scottish population statistics do not provide details of where people come from, it is likely a significant proportion will have come from the European Union, in part due to free movement rules.

A comparison of overseas migration to Scotland by different ages in 2016 and 2017 shows that most of Scotland’s net overseas immigration during both years came from those aged between 16 and 44.  This migration makes a positive (albeit very small) impact on addressing Scotland’s ageing population. If the sharp drop in net migration amongst the 16-44 age groups is repeated in future years then Scotland will face a further hurdle in addressing its ageing population.

Population projections

National Records of Scotland produces population projections based on different variants.  The data published in 2016 estimated Scotland’s future population under different events including low and high migration.  The low migration estimate for 2017 suggested the population would be 5.42 million which is broadly in line with the annual population data just published.  Projecting the low migration estimate forward, National Records of Scotland figures suggest that the Scottish population will reach a high of just over 5.49 million in 2029, before beginning to fall if net migration remains low, as happened in the year to June 2017.


The 2017 population statistics show that Scotland continues to require net inward migration to address the twin challenges of:

  • growing the population as a result of negative natural change (deaths exceeding births), and;
  • the demographics of an ageing population.

If the reduced rate of overseas migration since July 2016 is repeated over successive years, possibly as a result of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, then Scotland will face the challenge of needing to find new ways to continue to grow the population and slow down the growth in the proportion of the population over the age of 65.

Iain McIver and Andrew Aiton, SPICe Research