Scotland’s Big and Burly Men have Shrunk

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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.

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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.

 

 

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    https://archive.org/details/cu31924029874611

    http://galton.org/essays/1880-1889/galton-1883-rba-anthro-report-final.pdf

    https://epub.ub.uni-muenchen.de/572/1/european_heights_in_the_early_18th_century.pdf

  3. 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.

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