Scotland’s population has reached a record high with 5.31 million people now living in the country.
The arrival of tens of thousands of workers from overseas, along with a birth rate which continues to outstrip deaths, is behind the annual increase of more than 13,000.
But the rate of population growth has halved compared to recent years and there are fears it is now too slow to keep pace with major European economies.
The east of Scotland has seen the biggest surge in growth as workers seek to take advantage of better job opportunities in and around the capital. It comes as the total population across the UK soared to a record of high of 63.7 million – making it now the third biggest country in Europe behind Germany and France.
Scottish Government external affairs secretary Fiona Hyslop said the population rise continues “in the right direction” to achieve its target of matching European growth levels over the period 2007 to 2017.
“While, like almost every mature economy, we have an ageing population, it is excellent to see the under-fives population has increased,” she said.
Referring to those who have moved to Scotland from abroad she said: “The Scottish Government welcomes the contribution these new Scots can make to our economy and society, and we are working hard to attract the best international talent to our universities and our workforce.
“With full responsibility for immigration, an independent Scotland would be able to support the needs of Scottish businesses and help to address Scotland’s own demographic challenges.”
Net in-flow of people coming to Scotland from overseas “is proof that Scotland is an attractive and dynamic nation and one where people want to make a life for themselves”.
Economists say Scotland’s population needs to grow by 24,000 people a year just to keep pace with European economies.
But fewer people came to Scotland from abroad and more people left the country, the figures show. An estimated 35,900 people came to Scotland in the 12 months to June last year, compared with 42,300 in 2011.
Around 26,200 moved overseas in the 12 months to June last year, up by about 9,300. The balance of 9,700 immigrants last year is less than half of the 25,400 who arrived the year before. And although the population is up 13,000, it is actually the lowest increase since 2003, with the rise from 2006 never falling below 22,000.
Conservative finance spokesman Gavin Brown said: “A country like ours needs people, particularly young people, to come in to work and increase the tax base – that is absolutely essential for the economy.
“So for this increase to halve could prove extremely significant, especially compared to the growth rate before. It could just be a one-year blip, but the minister in charge at the Scottish Government needs to find out why this is and what can be done.”
Of the overseas immigrants, about 44 per cent came from the EU and 37 per cent of those were from the EU8 accession states – those which joined the European Union on 1 May 2004. Some of these migrants will also be returning British citizens.
David Lonsdale, assistant director of the Confederation of British Industry Scotland, added: “If Scotland aspires to having a bigger and more dynamic economy, and a larger and wealthier population, then we must continue to be open to the skills that migrant workers bring.
“However, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that immigration is the sole solution to the productivity or skills challenges this country faces. Inward migration cannot be an alternative to up-skilling our indigenous workforce or to labour market policies that help those on benefits back to work.”
There are 2,577,140 males and 2,736,460 females in Scotland, according to the National Records of Scotland (NRS) statistics.
Around 45,116 people came to Scotland from elsewhere in the UK in the year to June 2012, compared with 43,686 to mid-2011. Around 42,078 left Scotland to live elsewhere in the UK, compared with 40,777 to mid-2011, leaving a balance of around 3,000 growth each year.
The rising birthrate has also slowed, with 4,223 more births than deaths to June 2012, compared with 4,809 to mid-2011.
Edinburgh, Midlothian and East Lothian were the council areas which had the largest population increase at 1.2 per cent between March 2011 and June 2012. The major falls were in the west of the country with Argyll and Bute having the largest decline at 2.2 per cent.
Older Scots tend to live in the countryside, the figures indicate, with younger people in the city and the median age of the population in Scotland – that at which half the population is older and half is younger – is 41, but it tends to be lower in cities like Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh, where it is 36, compared with more rural areas like Argyll and Bute where it is 47.
NRS chief executive Tim Ellis said: “Scotland’s population has continued to grow, reaching its highest-ever level last year. The increase from the census in 2011 to end June 2012 was 18,200.
“The rise was because there were over 6,000 more births than deaths and a net in-flow of 15,200 more people coming to Scotland than leaving.
“Most of this net migration increase is from people coming to Scotland from overseas rather than from the rest of the UK. Overall, however, fewer people came to Scotland from overseas and more people left to go overseas in the year to mid-2012, than in the previous year.”
The immigration issue has been thrust to the heart of the independence debate in recent weeks. The SNP Government is keen to attract more immigrants to come and settle north of the Border, while the Conservative-led coalition in London wants to restrict immigration.
Scottish Secretary Michael Moore even warned that in the event of independence, with two opposing immigration policies, there would need to be border checks between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
Local government body Cosla insisted that providing services to deal with the growing population was not an issue.
“The figures represent a small and healthy increase in Scotland’s population, which is not a concern for Scotland’s local authorities,” a spokeswoman said.