The Roots of Sectarianism in Scotland

Guest Post by Davy Marzella.

One of the difficulties of addressing the issue of sectarianism in Scotland is agreeing on a definition.

Two common definitions are –

i) Religious bigotry.

ii) Anti-Irish prejudice or “racism”  

The origins and definitions of the terms “race” and “racism”are also relevant – particularly for consideration of the second.  What is the definition of a “race” ?  If there is a specific definition , which maybe doubtful , do those of Irish descent in Scotland constitute a different “race” ?   But is it exclusively one or the other – or maybe a combination of both ?

The historical roots of anti-catholicism can be traced back to the 16 century Protestant Reformation which overthrew the corrupt catholic hierarchy in most of Scotland , which then contributed to the image of Scotland as a “protestant country”.   The Orange Order, founded to support British protestant rule in Ireland , is one of the protagonists of sectarianism in present day Scotland, is constitutionally anti-catholic and perceives itself to be a religious organisation.

Religion also played a part in Scottish history, eg. the Jacobites, who supported the catholic Stewarts claim to the throne – and protestant Covenanters. After the Reformation , Catholics were perceived by many as the “enemy within” and Protestantism was one of the founding pillars of the British state with the Act of Union in 1707 ; the British monarchy is prohibited from marrying Catholics to this day. Yet pockets of Catholicism had remained in parts of gaelic speaking Highlands and Islands of Scotland after the Reformation.

There has been much trans-migration over the centuries between Scotland and Ireland. The original “Scots” migrated to Scotland from Ireland (Scotia).  The 17th century plantation of Ulster by many Scottish Presbyterians – instigated by Scottish king James VI – also added to religious division in the colonial settlement of Ireland , which continues to have implications today.

Irish Republicans rightly reject definitions of the conflict in the 6 counties as being of a religious nature.  But, there is also a religious ( and in part , a Scottish ) dimension to the history there, which is further explored in Chris Guthrie’s articles on the history of Ulster Scots (Frontline Issue 14 and Issue 15).  It is an also John McLean explored in The Irish Tragedy: Scotland’s disgrace.

Many of the Irish – mostly , but not exclusively Catholic – who fled to Scotland in the mid 19th century to escape hunger and destitution exacerbated by colonial rule would have encountered that already existing religious and cultural prejudice , alongside the more general xenophobic/racist attitudes that immigrants can encounter.

Scottish catholic Highlanders and Islanders forced from similar rural, Gaelic speaking, impoverished backgrounds as the Irish would have, presumably, encountered similar experiences on their move to the industrially developing Central Belt.

When the village of Bridgeton was established in 1776  it soon attracted a number of the newly developing industries.  Drawn by the prospects of employment in the factories, the village became host to an influx of Catholic Highlanders – victims of the Clearances.  This group, mostly Macdonnells from Glengarry, was the first significant number of Catholics to take up residence in the Glasgow vicinity since the Reformation, and provided its first resident priest since that time – Father Alexander Macdonnell.  Tied by language and social customs, the Macdonnells formed an enclave in Bridgeton which was to take and retain the nickname of “Glengarry” long after the Highlanders had moved on or been assimilated.One of those catholic schools initially set up by catholic Highlanders employed Brother Walfrid , one of the founders of Glasgow Celtic Football Club

Glasgow History Website

How much would that have differed for protestant Irish & Highlander migrants to the Central Belt, at that time and for subsequent generations in the ensuing development of sectarian tensions?  Could religion and culture have been a more significant factor regarding integration than geographic place of origin?

From that time into the first half of the 20th century – the terms Irish & Catholic became almost synonymous in parts of central Scotland – despite not all those of Irish descent in Scotland being Catholic – and not all Catholics being of Irish descent.  Did the state funding of Catholic schools, from 1918 ( introduced because of prejudice and discrimination against Catholics at that time ) , contribute to a reinforcement of religion as being a defining social characteristic in central Scotland? Catholic schools are now cited by some as a contributory cause of sectarianism – whereas they were created originally as a response to sectarianism.

Divisions developed between rural Highland and urban Lowland Scotland ; with notions of progress being associated with industrialisation, empire , anglicanisation , and Protestantism – and those of Highland , Irish , Gaelic and Catholic origin being perceived as “backward” and a potential internal threat to the image of a “modern” Scottish establishment , collaborating in the spoils of the British Empire.

During the eighteenth century the Scottish Enlightenment produced many innovative ideas on land tenure that had a global reach but were also seeking to address the ‘problem of the Highlands’ after the Jacobite Rebellion, and the embarrassment that traditional clan lifestyle was to progressive Scots.

The Other in India and the Scottish Highlands: Joanna Frew

Indeed, it is in part this complicity contemporaneous with the transformation of Highland society which made, in McNeil’s view, the Highlands such a fruitful site for exploration of ideas about nation and empire. This was also, moreover, a function of how the Highlands could act at one and the same time as a site and symbol of “belonging” and “otherness.”

Scotland, Britain, Empire:  Kenneth McNeil

 That could be a more accurate definition of “sectarianism” – ie. as a form of North British/Protestant ideological chauvinism or supremacy – regardless of who were the objects of that chauvinism/supremacy .

The Stranger who is targeted by xenophobia is necessarily close, and the closer he is, the more he is hated and rejected. This proximity should not be only and essentially understood as spatial proximity: the Stranger hated by the xenophobe is not only a neighbour, often living next to him, but also a Stranger who is as un-foreign as possible, so to speak, a Stranger who differentiates himself as little as possible, through his social and cultural features, from the group of belonging and/or of reference of the xenophobe.

The path of xenophobia: from heterophobia to ressentiment , Alain Bihr

 Internalised phobias could also be added to this – where people feel a need to distance themselves from any aspects of their own actual or perceived cultural identity that they might feel uncomfortable with.


Ma name’s Duncan Campbell fae the shire o Argyll

A’ve traivellt this country for mony’s the mile

A’ve traivellt thro Irelan, Scotlan an aa

An the name A go under’s bauld Erin-go-Bragh………

Well, A am not a Pat tho in Irelan A’ve been

Nor am A a Paddy tho Irelan A’ve seen

But were A a Paddy, that’s nothin at aa

For thair’s mony’s a bauld hero in Erin-go-Bragh………..

Sae come aa ye young people, whairever ye’re from

A don’t give a damn tae whit place ye belang

A come fae Argyll in the Heilans sae braw

Bit A ne’er took it ill bein caad Erin-go-Bragh.

Erin Go Bragh, Dick Gaughan 

 In the case of the Scottish Central Belt, the focus of that particular chauvinism/supremacy was those of Catholic and/or Irish origin.   Just as the ideological establishment origins of the socialised phobias of other forms of prejudice/discrimination could be focussed on more ;     instead of what is known as “identity politics” mainly focussing on the “targets”of those prejudices/discriminations – ie. the discrimanted against “other” – focus more on the ideological identities of the discriminators – individually, collectively and institutionally.

For example, the issue of sexism could be addressed more as an issue of the relative social/cultural/economic advantages of men , rather than focussing mainly on dis-advantages of women.    That’s not to deny the right of those who experience prejudice/discrimination to organise autonomously to oppose that prejudice/discrimination – but to shift the general focus from the social/cultural/political “identity” of the marginalised ( which can then re-inforce a perception of “them” as being the “problem” ) to the usually un-challenged “identity” of those who collude with and benefit from ( sometimes inadvertently ) manifestations of chauvinism and/or supremacy.

Which could maybe also be characterised as “fenian-phobia” .  – the fear/anxiety of the ruling classes to the perceived threat to their authority posed by any combination of Irish , Catholic , Gael , republican , rebel. It would also filter down to “divide and rule” amongst the working class. Fenian being a common term , usually with derogatory intention , for any Catholic ; in contrast to its original meaning stemming from the Fenian movement opposing British rule in Ireland.

These are some of the historical roots of sectarianism in Scotland , which are seen by some as having been imported from Ireland , when historically it could be said that it was originally exported from Scotland to Ireland. There could also be implications for the ( near? ) future as these sentiments could be exploited further by reactionary opponents of the prospects of a re-united Irish republic and an independent Scottish republic .





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