SCOTS returning home, longer life spans and rising immigration have helped push the country's population to its highest level since 1977, new figures revealed yesterday.

Last year the population bucked the trend, increasing by 28,100 to an estimated 5,222,100 thanks to more births than deaths, migration and the return of patriots from around the world.

The figures come from the General Register Office for Scotland in its annual review of population movements, living habits and social trends.

The population boosts come following Scottish Government drives to increase the labour force, particularly by eastern European incomers, and promote the country to those who had long left it behind.

Registrar General for Scotland Duncan Macniven said: “Trends suggested the decline would continue and the population would fall to below 5,000,000 by 2010.

“But over the past eight years, the number of people coming to Scotland has been higher than the number leaving, by an average of 22,800 per year.

“Around half of those moving to Scotland came from within the UK.

“Of the other 50%, who came from Europe and further afield, approximately one quarter were British citizens returning home.”

Last year 46,100 people came to Scotland from overseas and 24,600 left to go abroad, while 43,000 people left Scotland for other parts of the UK.

Further analysis shows there were 58,791 births registered in 2010, which represents a 12% jump over the past eight years.

This baby boom, some of which can be attributed to the rise in those born to eastern European mothers, comfortably outstrips the number of deaths, which totalled 53,967 last year, the second lowest-level since 1855.

Mr Macniven said: “The number of deaths has reduced by 4500 in the last 10 years while the number of births rose by 6400. This represents a dramatic alteration in the natural change.”

He added that “significant reductions” in the number of deaths from heart disease, down by almost one third, and strokes, which are down by more than one quarter, contributed to the changing population pattern.

Mr Macniven, said: “Men living in more affluent areas are expected to live seven years longer than those in poorer areas.

“The equivalent figure is 5.6 years for women.”

Life expectancy in Scotland has improved in the last 25 years, increasing from 69.1 years for men and 75.3 years for women born around 1981 to 75.8 years for men and 80.3 years for women born around 2009.

Social changes in Scotland are also well documented in the official report.

For the first time in history, the number of humanist weddings has outstripped Roman Catholic marriage ceremonies. There were 2092 humanist marriages held in Scotland in 2010 compared to 1776 Roman Catholic weddings. The Humanist Society of Scotland claimed yesterday that the numbers of such non-religious marriages would surpass Church of Scotland weddings by 2015, which last year totalled 6005.

Tim Maguire, marriage celebrant and spokesman for the society, said: “The difference is that people can choose exactly what they want to say and they can make the celebration very personal.

“We believe humanist weddings will be the most popular type of celebration in Scotland within four years.”

More than half of all marriages being conducted are civil ceremonies carried out by a registrar, compared with just less than one-third in 1971.

The figures show 28,480 marriages, 465 civil partnerships and 10,034 divorces took place in 2010.

The average age at which people marry for the first time has increased in the last 10 years, to 32 for men and 30 for women.

Mr Macniven was commenting on his last General Register Office for Scotland report on demographic change and retired yesterday.

Looking back on his eight years in post, he said: “When it comes to the long-term birth rate, we are trying to predict the future behaviour of people who are not born yet. We are also trying to predict how many people will come to Scotland from anywhere in the world. I thought the recession would have had an impact (on population figures) but it did not.”