Looking Back: Sectarianism in Scotland

In an occasional series we ask an author from the Scottish Government Yearbooks to revisit and reflect upon their original article(s) and how much they feel may have changed in the intervening decades.

First in this series is Professor Steve Bruce, University of Aberdeen, whose argument in Sectarianism in Scotland: a contemporary assessment and explanation (SGY, 1988) noted the relative lack of robust data to make judgements about the existence or extent of ethno-religious disadvantage. It is striking that a generation later, and with a far wider and deeper range of data available, Bruce’s core arguments still hold.




A combination of being a Scot, working at Queen’s University in Belfast and researching loyalist terrorism got me interested in sectarianism in Scotland. My interests have expanded considerably over the last 35 years but, prompted by new evidence or new assertions, I have periodically returned to the Scottish sectarianism issue.

Re-reading my 1988 article ‘Sectarianism in Scotland’ was a reasonably comfortable experience. The prose is a wee bit earnest and a tad leaden but, were I to re-write it now, I would change only three things: two elements of evidence and one element of explanation.

In 1988 I wrote ‘the most obvious conclusion about the relative socio-economic status of Catholics and non-Catholics in Scotland is that the data required to say anything … is missing’. Thankfully that is no longer the case. A number of large surveys in the last 20 years have told us a lot and the 2001 census nailed the case. There is no evidence that Catholics have a markedly lower class profile than Church of Scotland identifiers. Indeed the ‘religious’ people who appear most disadvantaged are those raised with no religion. And, no, I have no idea why that is the case. The Irish migrants who settled in Scotland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century lacked capital and the industrial skills required to get the best paid manual work. And, as in the USA and Australia, they worked their way up so that by the end of the century, they were every bit as well off as the typical non-Catholic.

Second, I would now write more about women; I could hardly have written less. Looking back, I suspect that one reason sectarianism is exaggerated is that male scholars – and I am pleading guilty here – have concentrated on male-dominated institutions such as political parties, fraternal organizations, the clergy, and Old Firm football to the neglect of the half of the population who had little or no interest in such things. Reflecting on her own lack of awareness of sectarianism in a fine biographical article, Glasgow Catholic sociologist Angela McRobbie wrote: ‘Protestant working class culture only surfaced occasionally in Orange walks or in football matches between Celtic and Rangers. But in a family of girls with a father who was not at all interested in football this meant very little’ (History Workshop Journal 1995: 180).

The one change that comes close to a recantation is that I now think part of my explanation of Scotland’s relatively peaceful assimilation of a large and culturally very different migrant population rather distorts the picture. I argued that Scotland did not become Northern Ireland because a number of structural features prevented Protestant Scots being effectively sectarian. Militants could huff and puff about Irish Catholics but they could not disempower them or discriminate against them in any sustained manner, and so they could not create the degree of ill-feeling that would have created an enduringly divided society.

Militant Protestants were hobbled by Scotland’s subordination to England. For example, Scots Conservatives might dislike the idea of state-funded Catholic schools but they could not oppose them because for English part of the Conservative party faith schools meant Church of England schools and English Conservatives were in favour of those.

They were hobbled by their inability to present a united front: the many fissures of Scottish Protestantism meant there was no concerted opposition to Irish Catholic migrants.

They were hobbled by their loss of control over manufacturing as locally-owned firms were bought up by national and then multi-national companies. And the growth of the welfare state meant new jobs in education, health, social work and local government that required university degrees and professional qualifications. The local networks which allowed an Orange foreman to fill a vacancy with a co-religionist relative became dust dry and blew away.

I still hold all of the above to be the case but my presentation was misleading. Sociologists like to discover the hidden structures that shape people’s actions. My satisfaction at identifying deep structures that stopped bigots being effective led me to overlook the fact that there were very few bigots. My explanation implies that there were very many Scottish Protestants who wanted to discriminate against Catholics but were prevented from so doing but every time I have returned to the subject I have been ever more profoundly struck by the lack of evidence of anti-Catholic bigotry.

It would take a book to list the examples that have caused me to change my mind but I offer a few. Bairds, Ironmasters, of Gartsherrie are often mentioned as an example of anti-Irish Catholic employers but they did hire Catholics and they donated the ground for St Patrick’s Church in Coatbridge. Conservative and Unionist grandees such as Sir John Gilmour, Sir John Cargill, Sir Charles Cleland and Col. Douglas MacInnes-Shaw could have supported militant Protestants: they did not. Typical of the Tory party is Colonel Sir Thomas Moore, MP for Ayrshire in the late 1920s: on the same day he opened a Catholic bazaar in Ayr town hall and addressed an Orange rally in Maybole. Much is made of the campaign by a number of Church of Scotland ministers to restrict immigration from Ireland and to restrict access of migrants to welfare benefits (and does that sound familiar?). More should be made of the fact that no Church of Scotland minister supported the Scottish Protestant League or Protestant Action during their very brief foray into the local politics of Edinburgh and Glasgow in the 1930s.

In brief, I implied that Scots Protestants were sectarian bastards who were prevented from acting out their wishes. This is misleading. Many features of the Scottish environment did accidentally lead people to behave virtuously but there is little evidence that very many of them wanted to behave otherwise.

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