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Migration: introduction

Migration, the movement of people, has occurred as long as mankind has existed. It is linked with global issues including economic growth, poverty and human rights.  Migration can have many social and economic benefits but also presents challenges.

Historically, Scotland like many other countries has been affected by large population movements within the country and by waves of immigration and emigration.  People from the Highlands and other rural areas moved to Scotland’s central belt as a result of the Clearances and because of the opportunities for work offered by industrialisation and business.  Irish migrants came to Scotland for centuries for seasonal work but also to escape starvation and poverty.  It is in cities that the largest proportions of migrants have settled.  Highland and Irish migrants came to Glasgow in large numbers from the beginning of the 19th century, Jewish populations came to the city to set up business but also to escape persecution, many Italians came to Scotland from the 1890s onwards and Polish exiles have settled in Scotland’s cities since the 1830s.     

Nevertheless, for economic reasons, over much of the last three centuries Scotland has been a net exporter of people to North America, Australasia and others countries.  Between 1820 and the start of the First World War over 2 million Scots emigrated.   Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Scotland, along with Ireland and Norway, had the highest rates of emigration among western and central European countries.

Since the early 2000s, migration has played a large part in demographic change in Scotland, especially since Eastern European Countries joined the EU in May 2004 leading to an influx of economic migrants from Eastern Europe to all parts of Scotland.  There has also has been the resettlement and dispersal of over 20,000 asylum seekers to Glasgow since 2001 under the 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act.  More recently, the Scottish Government has committed to taking their share of Syrian refugees following the UK Government’s commitment to accept up to 20,000 refugees from the war in Syria by 2020. 

Population migration is an important issue for planners locally and nationally. Locally, changes in the size and composition of populations and relative movement between areas impact on the need for services including housing, social work, health, education, employment and training. Knowledge of population movement is also critical to properly assessing the success of regeneration initiatives although, historically, adequate data have often not been available. From a public health perspective, a new population moving into an area may have different health needs and a different health profile from the resident population. One consequence of this may be a requirement for new and culturally specific services.

From published work we know that in Scotland migration is higher among young adults, reflecting moves out of the family home; however, migration is also notable, but to a lesser extent, among the very young - i.e. children under the age of five - which is associated with parents moving home prior their children starting school or moving to more suitable family accommodation. It is also known that people with long-term illness, carers and those with poorer health are less likely to move, while the better qualified, students and those with professional occupations, are more likely to move.

Migration is difficult to estimate accurately and there is no comprehensive system which registers migration in the UK - either moves to or from the rest of the world, or moves within the UK. Estimates of international migration have to be based on survey data, while estimates of migration within UK are largely based on administrative health service data.

In Scotland, migration estimates are calculated by the National Records of Scotland and are derived from three key sources of data. The National Health Service Central Register (NHSCR) is used to calculate moves between health board areas within the UK, with migration at council area level and below estimated using data from the Community Health Index (CHI). The International Passenger Survey (IPS) provides information on moves into and out of Scotland from outside the UK.

A range of migration estimates for different administrative areas are published by National Records of Scotland each year. These estimates, local area migration reports, details of methodology and other useful information are available on the migration pages of their website.

The Scottish Government has produced various useful reports, including Recent migration into Scotland: the Evidence Base, and have more information on their population and migration pages.

The tables in the data pages have been derived from NRS and Census reports. The key data sources and useful links pages of this section provide further details on relevant sources of information.


Koser K. International Migration: a very short introduction. 2007.

Edward M. Who belongs to Glasgow? 200 years of migration. 1993.

Devine TM.The Scottish nation 1700-2007 (p468). 2007.


Section updates:

  • The last major update of this section was completed in November 2017.
  • The next major update is due to be carried out in November 2018.


Page last updated: 15 November 2017

© Scottish Public Health Observatory 2014