SCOTLAND'S population is on course to reach its highest level ever, with new figures showing that the country now has more than 5.22 million inhabitants - the largest number since 1977.
Rising immigration and the number of births exceeding deaths by the biggest margin for almost 20 years has contributed to the population soaring to 5,222,100 in mid-2010, a rise of 28,100 on the previous year.
Official projections now forecast that next year the population will surpass Scotland's all-time high of 5.24 million, which was recorded in 1974. In 2012, the population will reach 5.25 million, making the country more crowded than ever before.
By 2033 the population is expected to break the five and a half million barrier, reaching 5.54 million.
Yesterday's figures released by the National Records of Scotland were more proof that the country has turned around a population decline that was a source of anxiety at the beginning of this century. The population has increased by 167,300 since mid-2002, when it hit its lowest level since the Second World War.
According to the statistics, immigration exceeded emigration by 25,000 in the 12 months up to the middle of last year.
Analysis of the net migration gain of 25,000 showed that in the 12 months to mid-2010, there was a net gain of 3,300 from the rest of the UK added to a net gain of 21,500 from overseas.
According to the National Records of Scotland, there were 58,937 births in 2009-10, a slightly lower number than the previous year, which saw the most since 1996-97.
The births were off set by 53,749 deaths, almost 1,000 fewer than the previous year. Therefore, the number of births in the 12 months up to mid-2010 exceeded the number of deaths by 5,188, the largest gain in population due to natural change (births minus deaths) since 1991-92.
The rise in immigration caused concern among politicians; David Mundell, Scotland Office minister and Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweedale, warned that pressure would be exerted on the NHS and other services.
He said: "There is a huge population shift occurring in Scotland that is putting great pressure on our communities and on our services.
"The additional strain on our health service, schools and housing is damaging and we must ensure that they are capable of dealing with any further influx in population. We want a more measured approach that would see good immigration, not mass immigration."
The extra demands on the NHS can be estimated by the rapidly increasing numbers of people of pensionable age predicted over the next two decades.
By 2033, there will be 1.34 million pensioners in Scotland, an increase of 31 per cent when compared to the most recent figure of 1.02 million.Over the same period, the percentage of the population who are pensioners will rise from 19.7 per cent to 24.1 per cent. Those of working age will fall from 62.6 per cent to 59.7 per centm while the proportion of children will fall from 17.7 per cent to 16.2 per cent.
When the figures were broken down by local authority area, the City of Edinburgh had the largest population rise over the year, recording a 1.8 per cent increase.
It was followed by Aberdeen city, with a 1.6 per cent rise. Perth and Kinross also experienced a rise (1.3 per cent), as did Stirling (1.3 per cent). At the other end of the scale, a decline in traditional industries, including agriculture was to blame for a population fall in Argyll and Bute, which saw a decrease of 0.9 per cent. Other areas to lose people were Inverclyde (down 0.6 per cent) and West Dunbartonshire (down 0.4 per cent).
The expansion of Glasgow was slower than Edinburgh at just 0.7 per cent over the past year. That pattern is expected to continue, with Edinburgh quickly catching up to Glasgow and eventually threatening its status as Scotland's largest city. By 2033, the Edinburgh City Council area's population is expected to have risen to 551,000 from its current 486,120. Over the same period, Glasgow's population, now 592,820, is expected to remain relatively constant. It will peak at 596,000 in 2024 before dropping back to 593,000.
The median age - the age at which half the population is older and half is younger - in Scotland was 41. The median age was lower in cities (35 in Glasgow and 36 in Edinburgh) than in rural areas (46 in Argyll and Bute, Dumfries and Galloway, and the Western Isles).
Despite concerns about the rising number of people, Scotland is still far less crowded than the UK as a whole. The average population density for the UK in 2009 was 255 people per square kilometre.
In Scotland, there were 67 people per square kilometre. Population density ranged from nine people per square kilometre in the Western Isles and Highland Council areas, to 3,378 per square kilometre in the Glasgow City Council area.
The figures were welcomed by the SNP, which argued that the influx of more talent would help the economy.
An SNP spokesman said: "A growing population will help fuel our economic recovery.The SNP believes Scotland should have responsibility for immigration policy, and should have an earned citizenship system similar to those in Canada or Australia, allowing us to attract highly skilled workers who can further boost prosperity."
Labour's Edinburgh South MP, Ian Murray, said: "Labour brought in a points-based system for immigration to ensure it is properly managed. But what is absolutely crazy is the SNP's plan to have a totally different immigration system in Scotland - but that simply reflects their obsession with independence."