By Jason Michael

MANY OF US IN SCOTLAND were raised on the familiar – yet entirely false – narrative that “religion is the cause of all wars.” Sure, religion and religious people have caused their fair share of social and political strife. Human institutions, especially those intricately connected to politics and power, have and do instigate tensions which have and do often lead to violence and war. Organised religions, as very human institutions, are no exception to this rule. But to lay the blame for “all wars” at the feet of religion is a bit of a stretch and an oversimplification in the extreme. While it is true that there are religious elements to sectarianism in Scotland, Scottish sectarianism isn’t about religion. Had this be the case, the attention of sectarian bigotry in our country would be focused on matters of faith and theology, but they are not. It is indeed rare to encounter bigotry with a comprehensive understanding of the doctrines of limited atonement and transubstantiation or of the Church Councils.

Sectarianism in Scotland is a reflection of the historical, social, and political tensions of Scotland, dating back – of course – to the Reformation. Even then however, from the mid-sixteenth century, the struggle between Catholicism and the various Protestantisms of the Reformation period was always, in essence – as it was in England and on the continent, a power struggle. With the Peace of Westphalia – ending the Wars of Religion in 1648 – where states recognised the principle of cuius regio, eius religio, which granted the monarch the right to determine the religion of the state, intra state political sectarian feuding became more acute. Given that the religion of the monarch largely determined the foreign alliances a country would make, the various political factions within the state – each vying for different sets of alliances and foreign relations – naturally found the religion of the monarch a matter of vital importance, and thus a source of internal conflict.

When we think of “sectarianism” in Scotland today, however, few of us think of the early Reformation struggle between the Catholic Stuart monarchy – James V, Mary, and James VI – and the Scots noble factions aligned to reformers Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart, and more particularly to the brand of ecclesial Presbyterianism preached by John Knox. While this sectarianism was closer to being about religion, modern sectarianism in Scotland – a sectarianism of a much more bigoted and violent nature – is rooted in foreign events imported into Scotland from England with the political union of the two kingdoms and from the island of Ireland in the centuries after 1801. Our sectarianism – “Scotland’s shame” – has a distinctly political flavour in the battle between the Hanoverian Crown and its politicised Protestant ideology and the struggle for Irish independence.

Oddly, Irish Republicanism, which began shortly after the French Revolution and the establishment of the French Republic among Ireland’s Protestant ascendant class and its Presbyterian dissenters, is not – and never has been – a politicised Catholicism. Naturally, given the overwhelming Catholic population of Ireland, most Irish Republicans have been Catholic, but from the point of view of the Catholic Church hierarchy of Ireland and Britain Republicanism – the movement for the abolition of monarchy (and considering the Papacy is a monarchy) – is an enemy of the Church as much as it is an enemy of the Crown. Sure, in the context of a 220-year national struggle, it has found support among individual priests and bishops, but it has always been met with the official displeasure of the Catholic Church in Ireland – as it was in revolutionary France.

In England, political Protestantism is different. Rather than the religious institutions condemning the state-political use of religion, the Church of England – and later the Church of Scotland – were co-opted by and subsumed into the state as the “established Church,” thereby becoming instruments of the state and its political ideology. To be English was to be of the Protestant, a member of the established Church of England. Loyalty to the Crown, to “God’s appointed monarch,” was expressed in religion and in the state-political fusion of the sacred and the secular. Therefore, to be a rebel – to rebel against the Crown – was not only an act of treason, but the highest form of heresy.

How this development of Anglo-Irish sectarianism comes to Scotland is the result of the complex histories of England and Ireland, and that of Scotland within the union. Scotland’s native resistance to the union of 1707 did not rally primarily around Catholicism – well, not Roman Catholicism, but around the Protestant Episcopalian Jacobinism of what would become the Scottish Episcopal Church – a member of the Anglican communion of churches. Yet, with the destruction of Jacobinism and the transformation of Scottish civil society into a loyal and unionist North Britain, from the early 1800s and more especially after the Irish Famine, the influx of immigrants from Ireland altered the dynamic of political sectarianism in the country. Growing hostility towards Irish – mainly Catholic – immigrants proved fertile ground for the introduction of true British sectarianism.

In Ireland, the Orange Order had proven a useful cultural weapon against Protestant Republicanism as it drove a wedge between the Protestant Ascendancy class and the majority Catholic population. This Orange loyalism – a radically politicised Protestantism – became one of the most powerful forces of unionism and British cultural supremacism in Ireland, and in so doing it forged a new identity among Irish Protestants; a quasi religio-political sense of Britishness over and against the conquered “native Irish.” It was precisely its usefulness for dividing Catholics and Protestants and for bolstering a sense of loyalty to the British state – something that was slow to develop in Scotland – that made it so valuable to the ideology of the Crown and the union state.

In Scotland, other than the natural forwards and backwards flow of people between Ireland and Scotland, Orange loyalism was encouraged and imported into Scotland as a handy instrument of colonial rule. Its function, by 1821 – the year of the first Orange march in Scotland, was as much to replace among Scots Protestants their sense of Scottishness with that of Britishness as it was to remove the possibility of rebellious collaboration between Protestants and Catholics – an alliance which almost cost the British state Ireland in 1798. Sectarianism in Scotland has performed this dual function ever since, effectively keeping the Scottish Protestant nobility and upper classes in a position of dominance over and against a Catholic minority kept in check by the inclusion of the Protestant middle and working classes in the Orange Order.

Nothing of this, however, absolves the Catholic sectarian institutions that have formed or have otherwise been imported. The clandestine organisations of dispossessed Ulster Catholics came to Scotland along with successive waves of Irish immigrants. From the late 1700s these groups – styled “Catholic Defenders” – were formed against the background of land agitation in Ireland, whereby Catholics removed from their land by Protestant settlers sought revenge. Such groups continued in Scotland, seeing themselves as defenders of the Irish Catholic immigrants in a hostile environment, and were gradually absorbed by later, more organised bodies such as Fenian societies, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Republican Army, and other militant physical force Republican organisations. Certainly, the activities of these groups and their continuation did little to reduce the sectarian divide in Scotland, but each of these was a response to the active state-political sectarianism against Ireland, and the Irish in Britain – and therefore, by connection, against Catholics.

Much has changed. The Orange Order is a dying institution today, Fenianism, and the IRB have gone, leaving only a scattering of militant Republican sympathisers. But this changing reality does not mean that political sectarianism has gone away. Sectarianism, especially in a Scotland where the desire for independence is growing, remains a politically useful tool to the union. Great efforts have been made by the pro-British media in Scotland to associate the independence movement with both Irish Republicanism and Catholicism, and the agenda of many unionist activists has been to construct in the popular imagination a sense of threat from an entirely fictive latter-day Popish plot. These ploys work, of course, because sectarianism – thanks to its long history in Scotland – has entered into the cultural base of the country. While the Orange Order has all but died a death, the sentiments of Orange loyalism have long been soaked up by the industrial and cultural institutions of the working class – the trade union and the football ground.

This sense of British loyalism continues as a default, and so acts as a bulwark against an independence movement easily caricatured as a Catholic threat to those things held sacred by the loyalist; the Protestant Crown and the Protestant British state. Again, these Protestant emblems are not religious in any meaningful sense. That is, they are not “Protestant.” They remain as they were, the politicised notion of a religious identity that was never native to any denomination of the Christian faith in Scotland. While its counter in the shape of Irish Republicanism continues to be ideologically hostile to the notionality of the Protestant and therefore anti-Irish British state, it has at its core a means of escaping the cycle of animosity – at the heart of Irish Republicanism is the memory of Protestant and Catholic unity, embodied – albeit somewhat brutally – in the shrine to its first martyr, the Protestant lawyer Wolfe Tone.

It is more difficult to see such an exit for unionist sectarianism, given that its central mythology is wrapped up in the existence and preservation of the power of the Protestant Crown and the Protestant state, other than the deconstruction of these totems. Perhaps this was the genius of its architects when they fused and so confused the state and its most potent symbols with the religious, cultural, and political identity of besieged seventeenth century state-Protestantism. In fact, it could be argued that the very existence of the British state guarantees the reproduction of sectarianism.

Still, and in conclusion, Scottish sectarianism is not the product of religion, and it never has been. It is the product of a political system of dominance which has forever sought to protect itself by hiding behind a particular and distorted view of religion. In Ireland this sectarianism was the result of a British colonial project. In Scotland it has functioned primarily as a weapon of the British state, to halt the development of any pan-Scottish sense of national solidarity and replace the national identification of the majority of Scots as Scottish with a sense of loyal Britishness.


Fears of rising sectarianism in Scotland following independence vote

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5 thoughts on “Sectarianism and Scotland

  1. Jason
    If ‘Colonialism is the colonising of the mind’ (as you state), I can see Sectarianism as the element that allows this colonising to take hold.

    its like it makes a space for it in the brain – allowing it to take root – and as with all effective viruses, it hides itself behind the mask of sectarianism.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An important analysis! There is a new element to sectarianism in Scotland; Secularism. Charles Taylor, in his book, A Secular Age, distinguishes several types of secularism, and how modern secularism as an alternative to religion has become the general assumption in Western societies. The modern split between religious and secular is based on a definition of religious as having to do with belief in God or gods, and the supernatural. The BBC gives a wider definition of religion. “Religion can be explained as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”. Any ultimate set of beliefs and any worldview are religious in the wider sense.

    Dr. Donovan Schaefer of The Religious Studies Project has posed and discussed the question, “Is Secularism a World Religion?” The Oxford Handbook of Secularism identifies different secularism in different cultures. The Religious Studies Project posits a problem with the notion of Religious and Religion.
    By cordoning off religion into a separate compartment, faiths, beliefs, and systems of faith and belief are promoted as rational and scientific. Thus the Humanist Society Scotland claims to be non-religious, though it’s statement of what it’s about is a statement of faith. It is particularly opposed the influence of Christianity in public institutions. The Scottish Secular Society’s motto is, Freedom of Religion, Freedom From Religion, Equality for All. There is no recognition that it is a faith based society.

    Some years ago I was invited to participate in discussion on the Secular Scotland Facebook page. I was abused by other contributors by name-calling and swearing. So, I withdrew from the discussion.
    The anti-Catholic-Schools campaign is based on the notion that non-denominational schools can be, and should be, secular not faith based, and that no faith based schools should exist. All schools are faith based. The anti-religious attack on faith schools is intended to produce a single “non-religious” faith perspective in Education. I consider that to impose any particular faith or beliefs is unjust. So I wish to see pluralism rather than Christian or secular in public institutions. Parents are recognised in European Law has having the right to teach their children their faith. This seems to me to imply the right to have them educated in schools that share their faith perspective. Thus, though I’m not a Roman Catholic Christian (I’m a catholic Christian in the tradition of the Calvinistic Reformation of the Church) I support Catholic schools. I sent my son to a Catholic School in Canada for a time.

    The point I’m making here is that secularism needs to be considered when discussing sectarianism. In a tolerant society, all faiths, including “religious” and secular would be welcomed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice. Seriously in depth and of a subject that made me scan it as, well.. Asw you say, it’s not about religion. And what is religion about? Belief, a need of belonging, an understanding of life in the widest context? And what is sectenarism a result of? Divide and conquer = blame the foreigners, the immigrants, the benefits scroungers.. the Liverpool supporters.. the third world countries… Hell! (carefully used) Blame anybody but not ourselves. Control. I mean, ‘supermacist’ A word meaning ‘to believe a group far superior to others’ – even language is used as control, why do we not just say it as it is. This comment is not aimed at yourself or this article Jason. It’s a small example of human weakness and fear of actually opening our minds, exploring feelings and acceptance and looking for real understanding of one another and all of life. It’s a get out clause in a literally Freudian need to arrange all that we know in some order of how it is rather than face the abyss of discovering so much that we don’t know. It is a massive part of the reason that we are now facing the 6th mass extinction.
    And all of this written as statements. Well, maybe I’m wrong. Let’s hope so.


  4. Oh yes religious bigotry in Scotland a Scotland where hardly anyone goes to church it’s clearly political bigotry .
    The orange order an order with hardly any members just a few places where marches take
    place and people stop and stare in disbelief that so many nutters can be gathered in one place at the same time.


    1. A few members a few marches are you kidding. In Glasgow alone, there was near on 200 of those knuckle-dragging marches promoting hatred. With the OO around sectarianism is alive and thriving in Central Scotland, end these walks of shame ban the bigots. Scotlands Shame continues


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