On the radio the other day I heard that Scotland has the lowest life expectancy in the UK, in fact, though it is improving, still one of the lowest life expectancies in Europe. There may be a number of contributory factors to this. The Scottish climate is harsher than the rest of the UK – people from England often comment on the wind in Edinburgh, the drop in temperature as they move further north. The Scottish diet has been cited as a contributory factor to low life expectancy. Things grow less easily here. Crops that flourish - such as oats, barley and root vegetables - tend to be tough and able to survive in a relatively short growing season.
Scotland’s smaller, more isolated communities and islands have economies based heavily on agriculture and fishing. Whilst conditions have improved over the years these professions still demand hard physical outside work in all weathers. Yet factors such as global markets, recession and the buying power of large supermarket chains make working land or sea hard. The emergence of the oil industry provided high wages for demanding work, employees offshore for weeks at a time, yet in the current economic climate many experienced oil workers see liquid gold frozen as they struggle to find sustained employment. The army has always been a large employer in Scotland – another profession that can take people away from their families for weeks or months at a time.
A Glasgow man’s average life expectancy is 70.7 years; the average life expectancy for an Edinburgh man is 76.5 years. In Calton, an impoverished area of Glasgow, the male life expectancy has been as low as 54. Historically reasons for early death in Glasgow include poverty, high employment in manual trades, diet, smoking and alcohol. The city has been called the heart attack capital of the world. Glasgow has been home to heavy industry; men would work in the steelworks or the shipyards – physically demanding, soul destroying work. Whilst these employers have waned Glaswegians still carry the legacy of generations before who have worked mills, ships or mines and creating a new identity and finding other work is not easy.
The reason for low life expectancy in Scotland is a hugely complex issue, one that raises many questions. Why do the people of Scotland still die early compared to their counterparts in many other nations? What does the loss/decline of major industries mean to people who have lost an economic identity that has been theirs for generations?