Scotland's first census

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Dating from the 7th Century, long before the Domesday Book, the Senchus fer nAlban (History of the men of Scotland) is Britain's earliest native census. It is a list of the population of Dál Riata, the Kingdom of the Gaels on the west coast of Scotland. At around only 70 lines of text, the Senchus is considerably shorter than Domesday; much shorter even than a modern census form and certainly shorter on detail. But then, it was created for a much simpler purpose.

While the modern census sets out to capture statistics to help target services and allocate budgets, Senchus fer nAlban had the opposite intent. Rather than asking what your country can do for you, it states what subjects should do for their country. This was a record for military and tax purposes.

The document divides Dál Riata into three groups, the Cenél nGabráin of Kintyre, the Cenél Lairnd based in Lorn and the Cenél nÓengusa who occupied the islands of Islay and Jura. It records the number of houses that make up each group and alongside these states their obligation for military service: For each it sets out that for every 20 houses they are to provide two seven-bench boats for sea expeditions.

While no census goes by without its accuracy being questioned, at least the date each was taken is known. But with no surviving original version of the Senchus, all academics have are later ‘versions’ of the document. It is thought to have been rewritten in the 10th Century. In turn, this later document formed the basis for the 14th Century version (pictured) housed at Trinity College, Dublin....

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