History - Changing Life in Scotland and Britain, 1880s - Present Day

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Population and Migration


The populations of Scotland and Britain as a whole rose dramatically between 1880 and 2001.

  • In Britain it rose from 29.7 million to 58.7 million.
  • In Scotland it rose from 3.7 million to 5.5 million.

Whereas before this period population increase could be attributed mainly to a rise in the birth rate, in the last 120 years the birth rate has steadily fallen. Between the 1880s and 2000s the average British family decreased in size by two thirds.
The increasing population in this period is primarily explained by the falling death rate. The death rate in Britain has halved since the 1870s, when the death rate ran at over 20 per thousand, while life expectancy has increased by almost 80 percent. The reasons for this are as follows: 

  • Better and more varied diet; cheap imports of meat, cereals and fruit.
  • Decline in child labour.
  • Improvements in welfare provision such as pensions, sickness and unemployment benefits.
  • The National Health Service, providing free medical care for all.
  • Medical advances, for example in antibiotics and vaccines.
  • Housing and sanitation improvements, for example, clean water, affordable fuel, washing and laundry facilities.


  • Irish immigration had been a major factor in life in Britain in the nineteenth century and this continued into the twentieth century, but at a reduced rate.
  • Italian immigration from the poorer parts of southern Italy led to around 4000 Italians setting in Scotland early in the twentieth century, with a further 20 000 coming from Russia and the Baltic states such as Lithuania. Some were looking for work, others escaping persecution.
  • Form the 1950s onwards the government encouraged people to immigrate to Britain from around the Commonwealth, particularly Asia and the Caribbean, to make up for shortages in some areas of employment. Most of these immigrants settled in England, particularly the prosperous south, but a significant number of Asian immigrants also settled in central Scotland.

During the twentieth century there has been a lot of emigration from Scotland:

  • While the Crofters' Holding Act 1886 gave some relief to the Highland crofters who had suffered most in the Clearances, the de-population of the Highlands continued and the highest proportion of emigrants came from these areas.
  • Around half went to the USA, the other half to Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
  • In the years just before the First World War, 600 000 Scots emigrated.
  • Patterns of emigration were closely linked to times when the economy was doing poorly, except for the 1930s when the whole world suffered a Depression so that there was nothing to be gained from emigrating.

Towns and Cities

Urbanisation continued throughout the twentieth century, with only 20 percent of the population not living in large urban centres by 2000, and only 2 percent working in agriculture. The reasons for this included:

  • Increased mechanisation on farms.
  • More employment opportunities in towns and cities.
  • The appeal of facilities and culture of towns and cities.


Changes in Shipbuilding

From the beginning of the twentieth century there


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