‘The Rise and Decline (?) of Anti-Catholicism in Scotland’

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By Mark Dingwall

On Saturday 18th May I attended a symposium in Glasgow organised by the SCHA (Scottish Catholic Historical Association) entitled: “The Rise and Decline(?) of Anti-Catholicism in Scotland from the Reformation to the present day.” An unusual choice for a Rangers-supporting Orangeman? Perhaps – but our worlds do interweave, and both Rangers and the Orange would get a few mentions.

Having read about and studied the history of these British Isles for as long as I can remember, religion is obviously a major issue and I’m continually surprised and too often disappointed by the general ignorance of Scottish – far less Irish – history displayed in certain parts of the mainstream Scottish media. Thus, I was keen to discover what four noted academics working in this area had to say regarding their research.

The four speakers were Professor Emeritus Sir Tom Devine, Michael Rosie (Edinburgh), Geraldine Vaughan (Rouen), and Martin Mitchell (Strathclyde). Historians and sociologists with an interest in religion, ethnography, politics, etc, with three from a Catholic background and the other the third generation of non-believers. Devine and Rosie presented their take (s) on the religious history of Scotland and how that translates into modern day demographic and social trends, with Vaughan and Mitchell offering a response to various points, before concluding with a Q & A wherein the audience could participate. I would estimate there were between 60 and 70 people in attendance; a mixture of students, academics, clerics and the curious, with a few fanatics for good measure.

A number of people were filming proceedings on their mobile phone, so you may find some footage online, but these thoughts represent a flavour of proceedings.

Despite an august reputation, I’ve been wary over the years about Devine but his work on Scots and Scotland during the Imperial Age has been outstanding. His jocular response to a question regarding his Catholic background and how it informs or affects his work – “Well, sometimes people think I’m Bishop Devine’s son. I have to put on record there is no blood relationship” – belies the fact that he’s proud of that tradition, one where study was clearly highly prized.

His description of Scottish history and its post-Reformation interaction with Catholicism – mainly through the medium of the waves of Irish migration – is one with which I would largely agree. The Scottish Reformation took a great hold of the people of the country, coming as it did from the bottom up, rather than via the conversion of monarchs and princes, and it also turned the country into a largely homogeneously Protestant place, with Catholicism surviving mainly in isolated pockets in the Highlands and Islands, and Dumfriesshire, with Episcopalian worship maintaining a stronghold in the north East.

Presbyterianism and Calvinism, with the emphasis on reading, learning, and self-improvement, left a huge imprint on the country. ‘A bible in every pulpit and a school in every parish’ meant that Scotland became and has largely remained until recently one of the most literate and best-educated of countries. As the Industrial Revolution took hold Scotland prospered and even slightly more so than in Scotland it became a byword for engineering: at one time over 45% of the population was engaged in activities relating to manufacturing or mining, a rate placing it as the most heavily industrialised nation on Earth. However, it also suffered from a huge loss of skills, with native Scots emigrating to various corners of the Empire, and to America, by the hundreds of thousands. Around the same time, the country saw huge numbers of people emigrating from Ireland, not just by the Great Famine and other rural factors but as a result of decades of opportunity in the developing industrial belt. And unlike many parts of England, that migration contained a significant proportion of Protestants among their number.

Devine’s view centres on the idea that despite Protestant Scotland suffering greatly from persecution from both Catholics and Episcopalian regimes, the absorption of the Catholic influx was largely trouble-free, especially when compared to and with other mass migrations of the time and in general. In particular, the often very violent religious rivalries found in other parts of the Empire and in America resulted in bloodshed on a scale that Scotland has been mercifully spared. He moved on to assert that religious and ethnic rivalry here has largely been played out peacefully, and that incidents or periods of naked sectarianism have been isolated and short-lived. Devine then introduced to the discussion his theory that the sort of sectarianism we would readily recognise is largely a product of a new social phenomenon brought on by employment competition during the Great Depression. It is, he implies, largely a collective memory of that period which provides motivation for people today.

All told, I’m not sure this thesis was expounded particularly well – for instance, were the economic conditions of the Depression really that much worse than those of the Famine era, or the general level of economic prosperity for industrial toilers of Scotland in earlier times? A perusal of the research around the English and Irish Poor Laws of the 1830s give you a good idea of how tough life was then. All told, I wasn’t wholly convinced.

Moving on to the present day – if Anti-Catholicism is alive and kicking and, crucially, working then it should be measurable and it must be measurable by economic and societal means. Michael Rosie’s contribution tackled this issue through the use of census figures and many other forms of data. For this purpose, he chopped the population into three main sections: Catholics, Protestants, and those with no religion, and it should be noted that most (although by no means all) of those in the third group are from a nominally Protestant background while, because of the schools system, non-practising Catholics tend still to largely self-define as Catholic. The bad news for religious fanatics is that all measures show that the most depressed section of society are those with ‘no religious belief’ and this is true in terms of poverty, quality of housing, employment or virtually any other parameter one chooses. The good news is that the percentage difference between the three groups across all subjects if fairly minor. 

For example – Presbyterians might be slightly better off in terms of ‘good’ jobs but that is largely because those declaring as such tend to be older, and older people tend to have been promoted earlier than young people. It is, however, only a few percentage points. Catholics might be over-represented in the prison system but – again- their overall age profile is younger and Catholics tend to be congregated around the West/Central Belt which is more urban and has more crime than in rural communities. It is not – so far as the figures can talk – because the cops are all in the Masons.

Rosie noted that he felt the most convincing figures to illustrate how integrated society is can be found in the numbers which show how people chose to live intimately. Roughly 45% of Catholics marry non-Catholics. (Prof.) Devine intervention brought the historical point that even a century ago this figure was much closer to 33%, which demonstrates that regardless of background many Scots do not tend to regard their neighbours and cousins as aliens with two heads. There is here simply an absence of hate at any level that makes a difference to how people live their lives.

Vaughan and Mitchell then responded, with interesting contributions about the Irish in Victorian Scotland, Protestantism as a vital factor in the development of Britishness, and so on, with one of the most valuable moments being Mitchell’s development of the Scottish trade unionism and early integration of the Catholic Irish into the movement at all levels, despite the cliche of them having been manipulated by bosses as an effective strikebreaking force. (His book, New Perspectives on the Irish in Scotland (Ed.), is well worth getting a hold of.)

I would say that throughout this symposium was conducted with a slight air of unreality, with the various Elephants in the room being largely anti-Protestant – ranging from the Killing Times, Bloody Mary, Mary Queen of Scots, etc to the more modern examples of the Monklands Mafia or Glasgow City Council – and the anachronism of sectarian schooling. Indeed, and in particular, the Q & A presented the idea that separating children at school age was not only a great idea, but to think otherwise – to note that it is sectarianism writ large, enforcing discrimination in life chances for pupils and teachers alike, while at the same time propping up an insulting notion that Catholics alone are possessed of some special magic that makes them superior to their colleagues in the profession – was in some respect to be in leave of your senses. However, as a notably jaundiced Devine pointed out, it may remain an artificial life support system for Mother Church but they are no longer doing a successful job in producing believers to the extent that once prevailed. 

The remainder of the Q & A provided much in the way of entertainment and despair, with one gentleman, fixed stare, funereal suit, offering the typical response of a question masquerading as a tirade, this one opining that the panel were in self-denial, as anti-Catholicism permeated every aspect of Scottish life – professions, police, judiciary in particular – and that the “best-supported football team isn’t really a football club but a hate organisation that occasionally plays a game of football.” One panellist was unkind enough to offer by way of a reply “Is this Celtic you’re talking about? They have the biggest ground and their fans sing sectarian songs every week.” The bewilderment and incomprehension was visible as his face took this in – “No, no, it’s different singing Hello, Hello and singing songs like Roll of Honour.” Some in the audience guffawed, most rolled their eyes. He then moved on to discussing how uncomfortable he was in certain places while mentioning he was a supporter of a 32-county Irish socialist republic. As ever, the impression given might suggest that certain seductive aspects of Irish nationalism – support for sectarian death gangs, rather than the verse or prose of the island – were of more import than others and, in any case, this did not strike me as an obvious evangelist for good Catholicism.

There are those who wallow in misery and wish to create a narrative that places Scotland’s Catholics in a false “back of the bus” tale of eternal woe.   They hate Scotland for being such a cradle of the Reformed Faith and wish to stereotype Protestants, and Protestantism, past and present.   Countering that and standing against the tide can have consequences – two of the Catholic panelists noted that they had been excluded from the pages of the Scottish Catholic Observer in recent years for failing to toe the party line in that rather ultramontane publication.

Rangers did manage a mention – one (unnamed) lecturer suggesting that Rangers and the Orange Order were the only anti-Catholic organisations left – with Devine going off on a tangent about Rangers, listing the smattering of Catholic players we had before the Great War. This is somewhat of a pet subject of mine as many seem to think they have discovered that “Rangers weren’t sectarian then”, neatly ignoring the fact that we were an explicitly Protestant club for at least 30 years before that point and that – moreover – although it may appear odder now, it was both common and normal in the period for sports and social clubs to be formed around churches and/or common identities.

A notable figure in the audience was Archbishop Joseph Toal of Motherwell, who was invited to give his opinion on whether coverage of sex scandals could be exacerbated by ‘Anti-Catholicism’ in the media. He professed that he was often depressed, as some weeks it seemed as if never a day went by without the first thing on the radio being another bad story, and how ‘other groups’ never seemed to get the same coverage. At this point, our old pal Kevin McKenna chipped in, pointing out that in the week previous the Church of Scotland had paid a million pounds in compensation to victims of sexual assault and not only was that massively reported but it beggared belief that the Catholic Church could expect anything else. 

The moral of this roundabout tale? The issue of sectarianism – of ‘Anti-Catholicism’ or of any other label you wish – whether real or imagined is fascinating and, frankly, when it comes to the media in Scotland is all too often titivating. In terms of how it effects football in Scotland it is even more prone to hyperbole. But on the basis of this gathering it would seem that the foremost experts in the land are almost completely as one in dismissing it as a major motive force in the country, and equally strident in defending Scotland’s reputation, both now and in the past, as a reasonably welcoming, liberal, place in which to live and work and love.

There are some among us whose lives are filled with continuing delusions of hate and conspiracy; some seem driven to distraction by the idea of an Orange walk passing a place of worship in silence, as every such walk does and must; others seem more intent on living their lives as anti-Rangers fans rather than genuine followers of their own teams. All of these people have one thing in common: hatred. And the message that came through loud and clear from this symposium was that such fear and hatred are largely without serious historical or factual foundation. 

For the record – there is no basis for the claims of institutional anti-Catholicism in Scotland and, with regard to any past suggestions, the raw data suggests that it has declined so far as to be almost non-existent. Would that some of those most passionate about the subject had the benefit of such a fascinating – and conclusive – event.

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