Religious Roots: Scottish Reformation


Religion was important to Scotland in the 16th Century. The Roman Catholic Church was dominant. It was regarded as central to all aspects of human life, from health, education, welfare and discipline. However in 1560, John Knox was at the heart of the Reformation movement which finally rejected the Catholic Church and the authority of Rome, ending hundreds of years of dominance and slowly replacing it with a form of Presbyterian Protestantism. The then Scottish Parliament passed a Reformed Confession of Faith, outlawing the celebration of mass and repudiating Papal jurisdiction in Scotland.

Since the Reformation in Scotland, Catholicism came to be regarded with complete disdain and was considered to be opposed to the true teachings of the Bible. One of John Knox’s central theses was that Catholicism was bound up with idolatry and false worship; he also claimed that it failed to recognise the glory of Christ. Knox insisted on the sufficiency of the scriptures to regulate Church life and how people should worship God, rather than relying on the interpretation and authority of Rome.

Indeed, it was felt that the Papacy was becoming very secular and living like kings rather than spiritual leaders; their excessive wealth was becoming increasingly difficult to accept against the poverty experienced by the majority of people.

The teachings of the reformed Church, unsurprisingly, had a profound effect on society and on family life. Educational and cultural institutions were reformed to reflect what the Protestant faith believed to be the true glory of God. It is often credited with having stimulated greater levels of literacy by encouraging people to read the Bible for themselves; it is said to have brought about a renewed appreciation of marriage and family values and to have fostered a feeling of equality among men, with a clearer recognition and understanding of basic human rights.

Historical Roots: Irish Immigration

The 18th and 19th Centuries witnessed a slow and steady flow of mainly unskilled Irish Catholic immigrants into Scotland, mainly on a temporary basis to suit the farming calendar. Numbers slowly increased as the cotton industry began to expand and the railway infrastructure started to be built. Given that Scotland was by then a Protestant country, the majority were made to feel unwelcome and were openly discriminated against in newspapers, at work, on the street and even in some of the publications and announcements of the Church.

The Great Famine of 1845 – 52 brought about a significant increase in the number of Irish immigrants arriving in Scotland seeking refuge from the conditions back home. The basis of strong Irish communities started to be formed around areas in the West of Scotland where work was available, typically in the form of coal mining, dock yards, textiles and general labouring.

In the late 19th Century there was an increase in the number of Irish Protestant immigrants who brought with them a commitment to the Orange Order, and because they were perceived to share a common faith with the people of Scotland, they found it somewhat easier to integrate into Scottish society (although discrimination still existed in cases).

Social & Economic: The Great Depression

The early 20th Century in Scotland was a difficult economic time, particularly during the depression of the 1930’s. The industrial strength of Glasgow had diminished and unemployment levels were high. Poverty and deprivation were rife, alcoholism and poor dietary habits were common, slums deepened and gang culture worsened. Irish Catholics were again facing discrimination as the Protestant communities complained that the immigrants were taking all of the jobs, strengthening the role of Masonic Lodges in influencing the allocation of jobs in the Clyde shipyards and further afield.

Indeed, the Church of Scotland reinforced and vindicated the anti-Irish Catholic sentiment at this time, through publishing papers such as ‘The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality’.

Despite this, Irish communities and the Catholic Church remained determined and resolute, retaining their proud identity through establishing and supporting Catholic Schools, and Football Clubs such as Dundee (Hibernian) United, Hibernian and Celtic. Thus sectarianism became deeply entrenched, not only in many of the institutions and establishments of the time, but also in the hearts and minds of the Scottish people.

Psychological Roots: Education & Upbringing

It is a sad and regrettable fact that many people reach adulthood without achieving the level of maturity required to integrate into society as a rational human being, capable of making a positive contribution to their own life and to the lives of others; and many people are simply incapable of recognising other people’s right to be who they choose to be. They engage in behaviours, both unconscious and conscious, that express an underlying resentment and intolerance of all that is different.

Our perception of that which is different is informed by the conceptual and linguistic abilities we develop as we grow up. It is through our upbringing that we inherit and absorb the rich and complex web of beliefs, attitudes and ideas defining the cultural traditions we happen to be immersed in.

This inheritance is frequently and brutally reinforced through the views expressed by our parents, through the games we play and songs we learn as children, through the groups and clubs we join after school, through the ‘throw away’ comments and banter we have with friends and colleagues, through the social media forums we frequent. In short, many people learn the ropes of sectarianism and racism at home, at school and through engaging in various social activities and too often, once it takes hold, it becomes difficult to shake it off.

It is each individual person’s responsibility to learn to dissociate themselves from aspects of our culture and traditions that progressive, tolerant and inclusive societies ought to have completely rejected a long time ago.

Yet when we recognise and admit that such rejection is only superficial, where it only exists in policies embraced by most people in a sober and rational moment, that society cannot rightfully claim to be tolerant and inclusive at all.

Eradicating Sectarianism

In my view there is something deeply wrong with a society that has permitted sectarianism to take root in the first place, particularly when it did so as a matter of policy; admittedly, the roots trace back to circumstances and situations many, many years ago, indeed in some cases, centuries ago, when the religious, political and legal landscapes were completely different, but the crux is that sectarianism was once permitted, promoted and practised and so deeply embedded that eradicating it is no longer straightforward.

Eradicating sectarianism requires admitting that we have a real problem in the first place and then slowly unravelling the key strands that hold it together. In my view, the absolute starting point has to be to address the shameful and ugly way in which some of our children are brought up – it has to start with the families and parents who deem it acceptable (sometimes unwittingly) to teach their children to be intolerant and hateful of people who hold different views and beliefs, or who are from a different ethnic origin, but this will take a couple of generations of re-education.

I also believe that many of our problems are perpetuated by the vicious circle of alcoholism and drug dependency, poverty and unemployment that a number of these same young children grow up into, resulting in seriously low levels of achievement, low levels of self esteem and poor emotional intelligence, low levels of hope for the future and zero confidence in the present.

People who are prone to engage in destructive patterns of behaviour as a result will come to regard their attachment to a group, gang, club or sect as a means of finding the fulfilment, identity and direction that is otherwise lacking. I believe that engaging in sectarian behaviour for some people is therefore a means of self preservation, attachment and protection – and that will be one of the hardest things to change. It will require a deep shift in the Scottish psyche and I am not totally convinced we will achieve that any time soon.