POLICE have searched more than half a million people in Scotland in just eight months, according to new figures.

Since the creation of Police Scotland last April 519,213 people have been searched. Almost one in five was carrying something illegal.

The revelation was praised by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, but the level of stop and searches has alarmed lawyers and civil rights campaigners.

Although there has been no rise this year in the controversial stop searches - compared with the same period last year the figure has actually fallen by 0.2% - their level has increased on a massive scale in the past eight years.

In the first three months of Police Scotland alone, more than 23,000 children aged under 15 were stopped and searched.

In 2012 more searches were carried out by ­Strathclyde Police than the Met in London, which has four times the population.

The Herald revealed last month that the police target is to ensure 20% of stop searches are positive and officers claim that in some areas this has led to unethical and illegal searches.

The family of one knife crime victim have backed the searches.

Mary Stark, 52, whose son Sean was murdered in Lochgelly, Fife, in 2009, said civil liberties concerns should be put to one side.

She said: "I'd urge people not to carry knives, not to use knives, don't put yourself in that ­situation. Think about what will happen to the other person, to yourself, and to your families."

Sean's brother David, 33, said the increased use of stop and search could have saved his brother.

He said: "Sean's killer was known for carrying knives. It may not have helped on the day itself, but if he had been stopped and searched before he could have been in jail where he belonged. We will do anything to try and help other families, even if it's only a few or just one who are spared this kind of thing."

Police Scotland says the rise in positive searches demonstrates "real progress in building safer communities". It said seizures of drugs, weapons and alcohol had increased by one-third.

In November, Mr MacAskill said there were "no targets for numbers of searches, although helpfully there are percentage targets for positive searches".

More than 90% of searches related to drugs, alcohol and weapons. Some 37% of searches to detect firearms yielded a positive result, with 166 firearms or associated items found, and 4273 weapons including knives were seized. About one-third yielded stolen property, with more than 11,000 goods found. Alcohol was the most prevalent item at 37%, or 61,541 recoveries.

Assistant Chief Constable Wayne Mawson said: "Stop and search is one of a number of tactics that frontline police officers within our communities are able to apply, if and when they have reasonable grounds to do so.

"Searches are targeted and intelligence-led, and often conducted with the consent of those involved."

Mr MacAskill said: "By taking a preventative and proportionate approach, proactively disrupting and deterring criminal behaviour, police can stop crime in its tracks and save dealing with the consequences later.

"This builds on our most recent crime stats, which show violent crime falling by 47% between 2006/7 and 2012/13, and crimes of handling an offensive weapon at the lowest in 27 years, dropping by 60% in the same period."

Police Scotland has denied setting targets for officers but police say in practice the targets set for divisions cascade down to them.