Scotland’s Big and Burly Men have Shrunk


Remembering back to the Napoleonic period and the French Wars, the German poet and author, Johann Eckermann commented on how puny Paris’ infantrymen looked and wondered what they could achieve in battle. 

“Wellington’s Scottish Highlanders were a different set of heroes, from all accounts,” replied his fellow German, the celebrated playwright and author, Goethe.

“I saw them in Brussels a year before the battle of Waterloo,” said Eckermann. “They were men! All strong, nimble and free as if they had come straight from the hand of God. They carried their heads so freely and gaily and marched so lightly, swinging along with their bare knees . . .” 

(Conversations with Goethe)

It looks like the Union of equals has proved to be anything but equal in ways you cannot imagine. Scots can expect to live shorter lives than their English neighbours and be shorter in height as well. It wasn’t always so.

Scots were once the tallest of all European peoples with Highland men pushing up the average to between 6ft and 7ft.  

At the end of the 18th century a survey of 600 crofters from Glen Tilt in Perthshire discovered every adult male in the glen was at least 6 feet tall – and broad with calves at least 17 inches around. The population of Glen Tilt were also long-lived, thriving on the traditional Scottish diet of oats, barley, vegetables, milk, butter, eggs, local grown fruit and honey supplemented with small amounts of meat, venison and fish.

Nowadays Scots suffer premature deaths and are puny compared with earlier generations as they tuck into high sugar, high fat junk food, white bread, cakes and biscuits, sugary drinks and over-sweetened  breakfast cereals with scarce a glance at the perhaps boring but wholesome foods that made their ancestors taller and stronger than them. 

It’s well-known that Mary Queen of Scots was taller by some measure than the English monarch Elizabeth much to the latter’s considerable displeasure but tall stature was not confined to the Scottish nobility as the inhabitants of Glen Tilt demonstrated. England aside, European monarchs were so taken by Scotland’s mighty big laddies not only did they seek them out to supplement their armies but hired them as personal guards. The Garde Écossaise was established at the French Court in 1418, and remained a feature in the Court for nearly two centuries. Francis I described his personal guard of Scots as being ‘much comelier’ than others in his pay.

guard ecosse

Hundreds of years earlier and later than 1418 big and burly Scots were prized as troops – recruited into the armies and naval fleets of many a ruler and by the nation states of France, Flanders, Russia, Denmark, Poland, Sweden. In the 17th century Sweden’s king Gustavus Adolphus depended on no less than 84 Scottish battalion and regimental commanders. His strapping Scots had been nourished mainly on oats and milk at home in Scotland and as adult soldiers ate a diet 93% bread and oatmeal washed down with ale. By contrast a servant at Gordon Castle near Fochabers in Moray enjoyed more variety in his diet with pickings off the Duke’s table of just 62% bread and meal, 10% meat, a miniscule amount of fish and 19% ale from the castle brewery in 1739.

It was not only Scots men who were famously tall. Our women were also once very tall. Something changed here and elsewhere.

During the early years of the Union Scotland was a poor country but it valued education and with Scottish literacy levels the highest in Britain Scots were soon travelling the length and breadth of the Empire as its administrators however the centre of the Empire was not Edinburgh but London which became the main beneficiary of the wealth created from all those resources appropriated from other nations. The educated Scot drawn to London initially found himself at a height advantage over native Londoners right up into the 1830s but the downward spiral for Scots had set in by then with poverty increasing in the Scottish countryside where a need for cash was becoming a necessity as well as in towns and the steady encroachment of inferior foods along with greater burdens of exploitative labour ravaged health.

It wasn’t only Scotland’s Highlanders who stood head and shoulders above people from elsewhere. While  Appletons’ Annual Cyclopedia and Register of Important Events Vol. 10 of 1871 declared ‘lunatics’ and criminals tended to be shorter than ‘sane and honest men’ even Scottish criminals were found to be taller than English criminals.

Short Englishmen had no need to stand on tip-toes to catch a glimpse of big blokes for their Scottish neighbours from just over the border in Galloway were reputed to reach impressive heights while those from Berwickshire were heaviest of all our big men.

Taller and heavier than the populations from the other nations of the UK Scots towered over Londoners in particular who were reported to be diminutive in stature. Within Scotland the shortest people lived in Edinburgh and Glasgow while rural areas produced the biggest. Why the difference?

By the 19th century more people were moving into towns from the country to look for work and with urban living came deprivation of different kinds. Towns were unhealthy environments – overcrowded, polluted, crampt. Glasgow, said to have the worst slums in Britain and described as a “squalid industrial megalopolis” in Chadwick’s 1842 Report on Sanitary Conditions, produced a population of  ‘stunted wee bauchles’ a good inch shorter than the average Scot.

Towns were notoriously disease-ridden and mainly reliant on importing food from the countryside which was often none too fresh when sold. And food cost money for in towns there was often nowhere to grow your own. Diet was a major factor determining growth and health and poor nutrition was a consequence of low wages. When Scots were the tallest Europeans they existed on what’s known as the traditional Scottish diet – boring perhaps but healthy – made up predominantly of oats, vegetables and dairy – locally produced.   

Those people who remained in the country might have been as poor as urban-dwellers but their living conditions and available foods were better and so they grew taller than their town cousins.

The acerbic and obese Dr Johnson ridiculed the Scots diet of porridge, brose and oatcakes, milk, cheese, vegetables, fruit with just a little fish and very little meat but these were foods on which generations of Scots thrived. With urbanisation came the start of junk food – poor quality and too few vegetables, milk and what was once the Scots’ bread – oatcakes.

From the time potatoes made their appearance in the British Isles, in the very late 16th century, their popularity and availability increased until they eventually ousted oatmeal as a staple food in Scotland. Bread and meal were still being eaten but the percentage declined as potatoes began to make an impression, along with some more meat, fish and cheese.

The bread and meal Scots of the later 18th and earlier 19th centuries were no longer 6ft or 7ft giants but topped just 5ft 7inches though they were still a good two inches taller than a man from the English midlands and three inches taller than shorties from the south of England.   

It is little wonder, then, that post-Union governments were driven to recruit big and burly Scots into their regiments and why otherwise despised Highlanders became targets for military recruitment drives. It has been argued that with the tallest, sturdiest Scotsmen being removed from communities shorter men were left behind to breed equally short children. Following that logic it may not be too far a stretch to link the prevalence of big and burly Scots spreading their genes across the length and breadth of Europe and elsewhere so contributing to the increased heights of our neighbours as our own heights went on the slide.

stables, brew house, bake house and other lost buildings including where an L-plan tower house once stood built in the early 15thC to replace the lost wooden castle

Site of the brewery and bakehouse at Gordon Castle

At the start of the 19th century, in 1801, the people of England and Wales made up something in the region of 82% of the UK’s population and contributed 52% of the British military. Scots from a population of around 14% of the UK made up a whopping great 16% of recruits. The shortfall was made up by other nationalities: German, French and Dutch included but within the British Isles Scots’ contribution hugely outweighed that of other nations.  High levels of recruitment into the British military from Scotland during the 18th and early 19th centuries began to peter out by the mid-19th century but was still high compared with England and Wales and why the percentage of Scots per population killed in Britain’s wars was much greater than from the UK’s other nations.

Early in the 19th century Scots and men in the north of England were taller by at least a centimetre than their southern counterparts but compared with earlier times heights were diminishing – a trend that continued until now the pattern is nearly entirely reversed.

By the 20th century Scots had been overtaken in the height stakes by the English. In 1908 working-class five-year old boys in Bradford, England average heights were 40.31 inches while middle-class boys from Cambridge averaged 40.44 inches and Glaswegian working-class five-year olds were just 40.20 inches. By 1938 Glasgow boys averaged 41.70 inches while the boys of Bradford and Cambridge were 42.24 inches and 43.29 inches respectively.  

By the outbreak of World War II Scots men averaged 66.82 inches and 138.2lbs compared with English average of 67.14 inches and 135.9lbs. The Welsh were shortest and lightest of all at 66.55 inches and 133.7lbs.

Thirty years later in 1972 a survey of children from Scotland and England found, unsurprisingly, that children from manual working families were shorter than from middle class families. Children of non-manual fathers were taller than those from manual worker families but height disparity was less marked in mothers from different classes. Interestingly discrepancies in height by class were more striking in England than in Scotland where unemployment was more significant in determining height than social class.

This blog has been very male-centred, as my sources concentrated on men and boys but I came across a curious piece of evidence that suggested taller girls were more likely to achieve social mobility through marriage than their shorter sisters – that taller girls attracted taller and possibly better-off husbands.

And sticking with social class for a moment in the latter part of the 20th century English fathers from the wealthiest class 1 measured in at an average of 177.5cm – EU influence! and to appease Brexiteers out there and oldies that’s just under 5ft 10inches while unskilled men in class V were a touch under 5 ft 8 inches. English women from the same classes were 5ft 4 inches and 5ft 3 inches respectively. Scottish men from class 1 measured up at 5ft 9 inches and from class V at 5ft 7 1/2 inches with Scots women from class 1 just under 5ft 4inches and those from the unskilled class V 5ft 3 inches.

By now the tallest people in the UK lived in the south of England. Something had changed. Before the Union with England and for a few generations following it Scots were markedly taller than the English. With the advance of the industrial revolution and the concentration of wealth in south Britain Scotland’s populations were subjected to increasing hardships to the extent the physical appearance and health of the populations north and south of the border diverged in opposite ways from how they once had been.

I am not arguing every English man and women prospered in a smoke-infused hell that was once England’s green and pleasant lands. Brutal, alienating hard work and filthy living conditions shortened lives and the nightmare existences for the working classes in England was every bit a trial as it was for their brothers and sisters in Scotland and Wales. But there were other factors at work – a power grab in London and its surrounding counties that sucked away wealth from other parts of the UK, Scotland, yes, but also the north of England and Wales.


In the 1980s Scotland’s average man measured in at 5ft 8inches. The very short Londoner had stretched to a touch over the Scot while in the southwest of England men averaged an inch taller. In Wales men struggled to reach 5ft 7 1/2 inches.

I thought when I began looking into the shrinkage of Scots that our past tall stature might have come from our Viking ancestors but it appears that Norwegians used to be some of the smallest people in Europe although they now have become the second tallest, behind the Dutch so that scuppers that theory. It will not escape many of my fellow Scots that not only have Norwegians accumulated great wealth from the North Sea which they share with Scotland but they are now also over-shadowing us physically. There’s a lesson there for us, surely.

Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn’s Spiorad a’ Charthannais (The Spirit of Kindliness),
written in 1874 – translation from the Gaelic

Is anyone presently alive
who recollects that awful day,
on which was fought the fearful fight —
Waterloo of the bloody plains?
A fine victory was won by Gaels
when they rose in battle-arms;
faced with the blade of bravest men,
our fierce foes yielded fast.

What joy came to the fathers
of those who won the fray?
The warm homes of kindliness
towered round their ears in flames.
Their sons were on the battlefield
to save a heartless land;
their mothers were in the saddest plight,
and their homes reduced to ash. . . .

O Britain, it is a disgrace,
should we recount your tale,
relating how hard you dealt
with your own and truest race.
The land that those heroes had,
who saved you in your straits,
has now become a field of sports
for those wasters without morals.

I never included my sources and it is too long ago since this blog was written for me to unearth them now. Here’s a couple but you can scran your own sources. And agree or not.

A Professor Forbes concluded the Irish were the tallest on average. ‘Having measured a thousand of each nation, English, Irish, and Scotch, he gives the following as the average height of each: – English, 68 inches1/8; Scotch, 69 inches, 2.8; Irish, 70 inches; and the age of each twenty one years.’ (The Era, 1850)

Rona, R. J., A. V. Swan, and D. G. Altman. 1978. Social factors and height of primary schoolchildren in England and Scotland. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 32: 147-54.

Riggs, P. 1994. The standard of living in Scotland 1800-50. In Stature, living standards and economic development: Essays in anthropometric history, ed. J. Komlos, 60-75. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

28 Comments to “Scotland’s Big and Burly Men have Shrunk”

  1. Fascinating read! Being “slightly Scot”, height in my family has always intrigued me. Two aunts were 5’10”, then their sister, my mom, was 5’5-1/2″. I’m 5’4″, daughter is 5’3″, and granddaughter is 5’1/2″ if she stretches! However, birth order seems to have reversed our trend. My mom was the oldest, I’m an only girl, my younger daughter is 5’6″ (sister to older 5’3″ daughter), my older granddaughter is 5’7″ (sister to 5’1/2″ granddaughter), and my great-granddaughter, age 14, is 5’7″ and still growing! Diets are all over the map! That’s our women….now for the men….All range from 6’2″ to 6″5″, broad and very physical.
    A side note: All family members have grown up on oatmeal for breakfast…sometimes dinner, too!

  2. As a Flemish-Belgian who works in health statistics , i can inform that the three tallest nations in the world ( gathered in a big study in 2019-2020)in regard to average male height are all European: The Netherlands (Dutch ) , Belgium and Latvia.

  3. I am of Scottish Descent (42%) and I am just over 2m tall and have lifted a 226.796 upright piano off the ground by myself. So speak for yourself, there are still big Scotts out there. I was considered the strongest man in my regiment in the US Army

  4. Brilliantly researched article. I am a Jat Sikh of Indian origin. Our height was also very great. We were among the tallest races to be found not just in India and Asia but throughout the world. Again we were farmers with a rich diet focussed on spinach, wheat and dairy. My paternal grandfather was 6 feet 4, all his male cousins and relatives no less than 6’2 to 6’3. My great grandfather and his father no less than 6’3. My height a mere 5’11. Why ? Our community has moved away from our traditional livelihoods, are not as fit as our predecessors, are more exposed to stress especially through pressures of holding jobs in modern urban contexts and of course a diet corrupted and adulterated with excessive fats, carbohydrates, salt, sugar and yes alcohol.

    • Hullo Navtej, very many thanks for reading the blog and your kind comment. Fascinating to learn that you have found a similar phenomenon relating to height changes in populations anecdotally. The influences of diet on growth are clear but as you say, so too is stress encountered from living and working environments. I’ve no evidence for it but suspect that some growth spurts that have been occurring over recent decades are connected with growth hormones pumped into farmed animals. I understand these are mainly outlawed now. L

  5. Hi Lena, That was a really interesting and informative read!

    I’d gotten a bit interested in this subject some years back. I was living in Dundee, and like yourself – being a shorty, fitted in well with the general height of the local population. Then I attended a local church: St. Peter’s, Free Church… I felt like I’d stepped into a different world. I was a complete midget! The smallest bloke in the room. Staring up at all these giants – way above 6ft.
    The why question arose in me. My initial observation was that an unusual proportion of the congregation seemed to be from the Highlands, and not local. In retrospect, a bit more affluence could have been a factor too. Though, at the time I pursued the former deduction. I came to the same conclusions from my reading as yourself, however, you have developed my understanding further. Thanks.

    • Hi Shorty, apologies for delay in adding your comment. I’ve had a problem with comments going straight into spam. Thanks for reading the blog and stopping by to comment. People come in all shapes and sizes. Many of the best are wee folk. Take care. L

  6. Interesting read. I think size comes from diet, the aristocracy always seem to have been over 6 feet (many English kings were), because they ate protein/calorie rich meals and were meatheads working out a lot.

    • Hullo, I agree that a good diet makes a difference to size as well as general health. Certainly in studies of populations up and down the UK in the 20th century have shown a wide disparity in heights between social classes – as you say, aristocracy and the middle classes tended to be taller and better-built and this was largely down to good varied diets including protein, calcium etc. Not sure that applies to poor, rural folk in Scotland in the 18th and earlier 19th centuries. Living in the countryside with fresh fish, perhaps rabbits and the odd bird taken, often illegally, would have boosted many a diet whereas in towns everything eaten had to be paid for. It’s a long time ago I wrote the blog and might go back and read more about it. Thanks for reading. L

      • Among my interests are human size/strength/nutrition (as well as class/culture etc), current and historically. I was looking for comments on aristocracy always being ‘bigger’ I found some pages that discussed how the size of humans is quite variable and it’s not always a given that older people were smaller. I found yours thanks to some keywords on how these Highlanders were big. I found it really interesting especially as you’d done research on the diet, which I believe is a large factor, alongside exercise and sleep. The nutrient dense dairy and oatcakes being core. I’ve started reading some of your other stuff, it’s similar to a youtube channel I found recently called Scottish History Tours.

      • Hi again, good luck with your own researches. I don’t know the Scottish History Tours but will search them out. Take care. L

  7. I really enjoyed the article and it answers many of my questions…..having visited Scotland, I found beauty everywhere not in just it’s people. However, my favorite tv show this past year has been “Outlander” and and its star Sam Heughan is a big & tall Scot who fits your description of one.
    Queen Elizebeth the First was not enamored of her cousin Mary so their heights probably didn’t enter into their many and final disputes that lost Mary her head.

    • Hi Camille and thank you very much for your kind remarks. I am also a fan of Outlander and the heroic figure of Sam Heughan. He’s more the exception to the rule of big and burly Scots nowadays! And I agree that Mary’s height advantage wasn’t the deciding factor in her assassination. L

  8. You dont seem to have much evidence that Scottish people were taller in the past though? Its either anecdotal or potentially isolated incidents.

    For example, MQoS was considered unusually tall compared to the average height if Scottish women, which suggests that (the women at least) weren’t particularly tall.

    And that everyone in Glen Tilt was quite tall might just reflect the fact that they were all related – i.e a local genetic trait rather than representative of Scots overall?

    • You’re entitled to your opinion – even on my blog page. Mary Queen of Scots was taller than the average woman – and? I don’t argue she wasn’t.
      As for Glen Tilt being unusual. Perhaps it was but there are descriptions across hstories and literature of glens where men were tall. Highland men and boys were not selected for military service out of all men and boys across GB and Ireland because they were the same height and build as everyone else. They were deliberately sought after because of their height and build. That Scots formed the backbone of the British military is no quirk of circumstance.
      Rural Scots were taller than urban for obvious reasons.
      The blog was written too long ago for me to unearth my sources now. Here’s a couple. You can do your own research and reach different conclusions and perhaps write a blog of your own.
      Riggs, P. 1994. The standard of living in Scotland 1800-50. In Stature, living standards and economic development: Essays in anthropometric history, ed. J. Komlos, 60-75. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
      Rona, R. J., A. V. Swan, and D. G. Altman. 1978. Social factors and height of primary schoolchildren in England and Scotland. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 32: 147-54.

  9. 🙂 Hi, the schoolboy statistics I think you found in the following paper by Economics professor Timothy J Hatton, namely ‘Infant Mortality and the Health of Survivors: Britain 1910-1950’.

    Another good source is the NBER paper by a Roderick Floud and Bernard Harris, it being ‘Health, Height and Welfare: Britain 1700-1980’.

    And heading the NBER is probably the most knowledgeable expert on stature, a Professor Richard H Steckel.

    Regards, ~Pete

  10. Hi, just found your blog.

    Other than the reference to 7 foot tall, which surely was an exaggeration, the rest made sense to me and I recognised the schoolboy figures from my research.

    For your information, I have a 1930 encyclopedia which supports those early 20th Century statistics. It lists the average heights of all the World War One combatants. And with the British soldiers (remember many were still growing youths but also on average healthier than many too unfit to join up), the average British serviceman (therefore including Scots) was 5ft 7 3/4″, but the English were 5ft 7 1/2 and the Scottish a whole inch-and-a-quarter taller, at 5ft 8 3/4 in.

    Interestingly, a commentary in this book mentioned how the Scots were relatively shrinking as other nations got taller, blaming that on the poor diet now based on sugary foods rather than oats and dairy. Therefore confirming the premise of your blog.

    Yes, with London and the SE being favoured in the UK, drawing upon, indeed feeding off the North and Scotland, it is logical that they down there benefit. And with so many immigrants, often from taller countries mostly living there, they will get even taller as good genes are shared.

    As with all things there are exceptions, and where I live in rural Perthshire the local men on average are very big and burly, with I would state an average height over 5′ 11″ and maybe over 6′, with many inches above that. It is common, say in the village shop, to have say 3 or 4 male customers at once and two to be clearly inches over six feet. The “Village of the Giants” 🙂

    • Hi Pete, it’s always reassuring to have someone confirm the premise of my blogs! I can’t recall where I found my info now but be reassured it was scrupulously researched 🙂 As a shorty I will steer clear of Perthshire which is a shame as it is a beautiful part of the country but I’m fed up having daylight obliterated by giants. Thanks for reading it.

  11. Thanks for looking. While I agree with the general points of your post and that we were once taller than our closest neighbours I’m fairly sure that the average height in Scotland has always been below 6 foot.

  12. What’s your source for the average height of Scots being between 6ft and 7ft? As far as I’m aware aside from the 19th century industrialisation dip European heights have been on a largely consistent upward curve and the Dutch are currently the tallest on average that humans have ever been at just over 6 foot.

    That’s not to say that there weren’t statistical anomalies such as Mary, who was unusually tall compared to her contemporaries of both sexes, and other tall individuals. However the average height in Scotland remained below 6 foot.

    You might find the following links interesting.

    Click to access galton-1883-rba-anthro-report-final.pdf

    Click to access european_heights_in_the_early_18th_century.pdf

  13. interesting stuff. Two things spring to mind.A Korean friend who lives in Scotland told me that when the Americans arrived in Korea they brought with them their diet. ie. they wanted dairy and meat foods. the agricultural system changed to meet the demand and the local people began to eat more meat and dairy products From the fifties to the present the stature of Koreans has approached the norm for the ‘west’.
    Also, moving from a country school-to an Aberdeen school associated with a high level of deprivation, for the first week I used to think that the S3 were S1-because I was accustomed to the stature of the country, (mostly from farms) loons. Altogether more robust and healthy in general. I was quite shocked at first by the disparity. I would have described it as typically, a one to two year discrepancy in development but it is questionable whether the lag in development could be ‘recovered’.
    In fact it was very shocking to see such an obvious display social difference although one must assume that poverty, while part of the explanation, is far from the whole story.

    • Thanks for the comments.

      Diet is certainly important in the development of the the body and poverty is integral to how that. Interesting observation on children from town and country – I’ve noticed much the same in kids from impoverished backgrounds who are either shorter than wealthier pupils or have a peaky appearance absent in others better off.
      Today’s children are growing taller again but I have a suspicion some of that is down to growth hormones in farm animals. But that’s another story.

      • Indeed, there is proven disparity between socio-economic classes, and from data I saw from WW1 and Civil War America, significant difference between town & countryside.

        In Britain, the statistics I saw stated just a centimetre between the so-called ‘Working Class’, the Lower Middle Class and the Upper Middle Class. I would suggest this is based on more the economic status of each of them, as even cash poor people of Upper MC and Upper Class are clearly inches taller if one just considers their social status. As a rough indicator, I have observed the WC males to hover around 5’9, the MC 5’11 and the UC well over 6′. Also, I am sure the richer someone is, if been so for generations, the longer the neck but also the legs.

        As for generational increases in height, since around 1900, English people have increased each decade by around a quarter of an inch (or nearly a centimeter). Over the centuries, it has been up & down, with Civil War and Tudor England almost our present height and the Dark Ages and Prehistoric times likewise.

        One of the reasons for the above increases is warmer climate, with natural climate change in cycles, as being cold stunts a child’s growth. Central heating is great for growing children. Also stemming it is lack of calcium and lack of sleep, hence with the latter the Victorian kids were much smaller due to their working in factories (and up chimneys) instead of school later in the day like now. Also, childhood illnesses/diseases stunt growth, with children in the old days much sicker than now thanks mostly to antibiotics.

        In mid-19th Century London, and I believe Manchester and Glasgow, the average man was as low as about 5’5″.

        Incidently, back to the USA, the Southern Confederate soldiers, mostly farming and ranching workers, were approximately an inch taller than the Northern Union men who averaged just over 5’7 and weighed only 9 1/2 stone. Of interest, the Plains Indians were said to be typically 5’9ish, while the American men got shorter in the 1870s to just 5ft 6 1/2 inches.

        Interesting stuff! 🙂

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