1921 Census - The Census in Scotland

Since the middle of the 17th century, statisticians and civic planners in Scotland had mounted various exercises to count the population in the country. Would you believe that in the middle of the 17th century the Royal Burgh of Edinburgh, for example, consisting of six quod sacra[i] parishes only[ii], was home in 1678 to no more than 3,133 souls? Congregations and communities grew as the industrial age forced people from agricultural occupations into townships and the population increased initially to 5,975 in 1722 but 57,195 in 1755, 70,430 in 1775 and 84,886 in 1791. In that year, a fresh review[iii] converted the hitherto estimated population sizes into a recognisable upward trend capable of like-for-like comparison. The result displayed the modern pattern of settlement we would recognise in and around Edinburgh to include the port of Leith and the encircling suburban sprawl around it.

So, Scotland’s experience developed since the end of the 18th century, brought it to the forefront of the British Census project, when the Census Act of 1800 hit the statute books. Wasn’t it the M.P. for Caithness, Sir John Sinclair, who instituted the Statistical Account of Scotland in 1791 for publication in 1799?

This was the era of Enlightenment Scotland and the introduction of a statistical review to be performed by the clergy [who were best placed to know] of the condition of the 938 parishes of Scotland, fed the nation’s thirst for self-knowledge. The review provided an understanding of contemporary life and conditions in the nation, covering topics as diverse as agriculture, antiquities, industrial production, population and natural history.

The Statistical Account sat on bookshelves alongside Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and Encyclopaedia Britannica, leading other nations like Ireland and Switzerland to conduct similar reviews.

The Old Statistical Account [OSA] of 1799 was so successful that in 1832, the clergy was asked once more to describe its parishes. Finally published in 1845, the New Statistical Account [NSA] together with the Old Statistical Account, trace the development of the Scottish nation over two generations. The entire collection of documents, together with a later publication, the Third Statistical Account of 1885 is available to researchers at https://edina.ac.uk/stat-ac-scot.

UK Census in Scotland

And so, it was no surprise, that when the U.K. Government implemented the Census Act of 1841 and gave the task of taking the Census to the Registrar-General, Scotland, it was ready to meet its obligations. The role of enumerator for a district in Scotland was given to parochial schoolmasters in country districts, County Sheriffs in the counties and Chief Magistrates in rural and Parliamentary burghs.

It was at this time also that responsibility for the accuracy of the information given was transferred from the Census enumerator to the householder. In 1841 and 1851 the Census in Scotland was commissioned from London using the existing structure developed by the county sheriffs and chief magistrates. The introduction of compulsory registration in Scotland in 1855 meant a seamless transfer of operations to the Registrar-General in Scotland who required to appoint local registrars to carry out the work.

The role of the local registrar was to survey the district, form a view of the current conditions under which people lived and identify any changes which had taken place and, finally, arrange for the enumerators to conduct the Census. Scotland differed markedly from England, which had only 18 administrative areas. Scotland was divided into a host of different administrative areas for different tasks. For a start, parishes in Scotland were traditionally divided between either Quod Sacra[iv] [for ecclesiastic matters] and Quod Civilias [for civil matters]. School Boards managed schools locally, water and drainage were each dealt with by local district boards, Parliament demanded separate constituencies, villages, towns and royal burghs exercised control over their domains, there were separate authorities looking after municipalities, police, public health and national health insurance areas. All in all, a heady mix of administrative bodies, representing challenges to planning the taking of the Census.

In Scotland, as elsewhere, householders could not be counted on [no pun intended] to enter the detail of the Census with accuracy. Enumerators in North Britain [as it was frequently referred to at this time] were surprised to find that the householder often struggled to record the number of windowed rooms in his house correctly and so, the enumerator was called upon to verify that detail for entry on to the Census schedule. In time, the English subsequently adopted this practice too. What Scotland do today…

By 1891 Edinburgh alone boasted 18 established churches alongside those of other denominations. Glasgow required 1,270 ordinary and 81 special enumerators to undertake the Census in the city. Special enumerators were required for prisons where the responsibility fell on the governor, hospitals [chief medical officer], lunatic asylums [warden], and army barracks [barracks master or Quartermaster.]

Census Night

In the week leading up to Census Night, the enumerator would deliver a Census Schedule to every occupier in his district. Once Census Night had passed, he would then collect the completed schedules, often advising the householder on completing missing details. In addition, he would need to record the number of uninhabited and unoccupied houses and those under construction. Further work involved identifying those living in the open air or sleeping in tents, caravans, sheds, barns as well as those living on canal boats and barges on the network of canals and inland waterways in the country.

Details of persons spending Census Night on board vessels of the Royal Navy in harbours, docks and roadsteads or sailing in home waters were collected by the Board of Admiralty and for the Mercantile Marine by the Registrar-General of Shipping and Seamen by the officers of HM Customs.

Summarising the Results

The Scottish Enumerator is then called upon to perform another ask not required of their counterparts in England or Ireland- that of meticulously copying the details from the Census Schedule into a large enumeration book and to complete a summary of its contents showing the population, rooms and houses in each enumeration district. The Registrar checks the summary for error[v], before preparing a statement encompassing the results for the entire Registration District.

In 1881, to encourage accuracy, Enumerators were awarded a bonus in addition to their stipend.

And so, Scotland continued to develop a separateness when conducting the United Kingdom Census, which lasts unto this day, when the 2021 has already been postponed until 2022.


[i] Quod Sacra [ecclesiastical parishes] administered by the Church as opposed to Quod Civilias [Civil Parishes] administered by municipalities.

[ii]  i.e.  Tollbooth in the North-West, High Church in the North, College in the North-East, Tron in the South-East., Greyfriars in the South-West, and Old Church in the South. [Old Statistical Account, Edinburgh, 1791 https://edina.ac.uk/stat-ac-scot ]

[iii] The Old Statistical Account [OSA] performed in 1791, published 1799.

[iv] Comparisons between the OSA and the NSA are useful here. For example, the parish of Lasswade contained the village of Roslin and its famous chapel in 1794; whereas in 1845 they formed separate Quod Sacra parishes, each with its own dedicated report.

[v] Common errors include using the wrong column when identifying Males or Females or their ages, imprecise recording of occupations, misstating the county of birth,  and the number of  windowed rooms [as mentioned in the text].

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