I am seeking the parents of my 3x-great-grandmother, Isabella Colville, who was baptised in 1785 in Invergowrie. According to her baptism record, her father was John Colville. Her eldest sibling (plural, actually – they appear to have been twins) were born in 1780, and the youngest in 1794.

I have two candidate Johns.

While I've seen assertions that the average age at marriage was 25–30, I'm mindful of the old Scottish advice, quoted in the family history my aunt wrote:

Marry a woman whose child-bearing years are limited and who, as the eldest of a large family, is already experienced at housekeeping in an economical manner.

Indeed, Isabella's oldest child Elizabeth (my great-great-grandmother) was 36 when she married.

With that in mind, would it be unreasonable to expect that John was about 40 when he married and 55 when his youngest child was born?

Some initial Googling has not turned up any scholarly sources that would suggest late marriage was common in Scotland, but there is that folklore and a few verified examples even in my own tree.

I'm going to keep tracing the two Johns, as set out in the answers to this earlier question of mine, but in the meantime, are there any historical studies of population demography in Scotland that might help me?

  • 1
    There's this but it only refers to average age at marriage in England, and I think it's reasonable to believe Highland Scotland was different.
    – Verbeia
    Commented Nov 22, 2014 at 4:43
  • 2
    Also in England and Wales, Probert, Rebecca Marriage Law for Genealogists the definitive guide. Kenilworth: (Takeaway Publishing), 2009.) states that mid-20s was the usual age for marriage in the period in question, but like you, I think it's reasonable to assume that Highland Scotland wasn't necessarily the same.
    – user104
    Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 15:41
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    I only have anecdote to go by here (and mostly pertaining to the lowlands), but marrying 25–30 was the average for men — though equally getting married a decade or two later was far from unheard of. As such, I don't think it's unreasonable for him to have been 40/55. Which sadly doesn't help much.
    – gsnedders
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 12:33
  • 1
    I would think 18-22 would be the average with some being slightly older, especially if there was a second marriage. Commented May 5, 2015 at 20:17

1 Answer 1


On marriages in Britain, The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History notes several key points that dictated the age at which individuals married:

[T]he great majority of the people of Britain remained unmarried until their mid-twenties. The proportion of males and females who married before the age of 20 was always low....The restrictions of service and apprenticeship, and the necessity to save enough money, prevented earlier marriages even if the wish was there....Moreover, a large number of people–at least one in six in the early modern period, sometimes rising to one in four–never married.

The absence of a complete or even extensive dataset in eighteenth century Scotland containing marriage and fertility information makes it difficult to assess, at least definitively, subjects like average marriage age. Nevertheless, some attempts have been made.

In his essay titled "Age at Marriage of Scottish Women, circa 1660-1770", R. A. Houston describes how he used Scottish criminal court depositions to perfom an analysis of marriage trends, as they are one of the few sources to contain such information. Houston reports that the average age at marriage of women contained in this dataset was 26.6 years. He notes that there may be sources of bias inherent to the dataset. Houston also states that this figure is probably more representative of the Lowland Scotland marriage age for women, and there is some evidence that the average age may have been lower in Highland Scotland.

R. A. Houston's "Scottish Society, 1500-1800" is also worth a read. In this, he writes:

Key issues such as trends in nuptiality and fertility remain uncertain because of the patchy survival and poor quality of essential sources such as parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, but it is argued that Scotland possessed a 'high pressure' demographic regime similar to France or perhaps Ireland, where high birth rates were matched by swingeing mortality, and where crises of subsistence remained a central fact of life until the end of the seventeenth century in the Lowlands and well into the eighteenth century in the Highlands. Gibson and Smout imply in chapter 2 that the homeostatic regime which adjusted population and resources in England (through changes in the age of women at first marriage responding to the standard of living) was not matched in Scotland...Scotland appears to have resembled England in having a late age at first marriage for women - 23 to 26 on average, though female celibacy was more extensive.

Ian Whyte notes in "Scottish Population and Social Structure in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: New Sources and Perspectives":

It is evident, nevertheless, that some aspects of Scottish society and demography correspond to patterns found in England and elsewhere in north-west Europe. The basic age/sex structure of the population derived from Webster is similar to England, as is household structure and size. A relatively high age of first marriage for women linked to the prevalence of farm and domestic service and a significant degree of male and female celibacy occurred in both countries.

Although the linking of individuals between different sources is made difficult by the limited range of Christian names and surnames in Highland communities there is little doubt that the detailed study of records of some of the larger Highland estates could provide further information on population turnover in this region. The scale of Scottish emigration to Ulster in the seventeenth century has long been appreciated as has the extent of Scots mercenary service on the continent. Such large-scale outflows of population must have been a major check to demographic growth by removing from Scotland, sometimes permanently, many young men thereby raising the age of first marriage of women and the level of female celibacy.

In a footnote in Exploring the Scottish Past: Themes in the History of Scottish Society, citing data from Michael Flinn (see reference below), the author states:

Material on the subject is fragmentary for eighteenth-century Scotland, but such data as do exist indicate substantially later ages at marriage: a mean 'rural' age for women in Central Ayrshire of 26; Laggan parish (Inverness) 29 to 32 for men and between 27 and 30 for women; Lochcrutton (Kirkcudbright) average age at marriage 33 for men and 24 for women.

Further works to explore include:

  • Flinn, Michael W. 1976. Scottish population history: from the 17th century to the 1930s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Devine, T. M., and Rosalind Mitchison. 1998. People and society in Scotland. Vol. 1, Edinburgh: John Donald.
  • Dixon, Ruth B. 1978. "Late Marriage and Non-Marriage as Demographic Responses: Are They Similar?" Population Studies. 32 (3): 449.

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