This week’s seminar speaker is Sean Huddleston (University of the West of Scotland), who will be presenting on  ‘Catholic schools and the development of the Scots-Irish community 1870-1970’. In this blog he discusses religious prejudice and the history of Irish Catholics in Scotland. 

The seminar will take place in the Old Staff Common Room, Lanyon Building at 4pm, Friday 16 October.

For more information on Sean’s research see his profile





Sectarianism in Scotland has often, and incorrectly, been viewed through the same prism as Northern Ireland. This approach needs to change if analysis is to be made properly and solutions in the present climate can be made appropriately. Religious prejudice in Scotland should be more accurately defined as more of an ‘ethno-tribal’ type of prejudice (rather than purely religious) considering the ethnic composition of so much of it over the last 100-150 years. Only in recent times has a mirror been held up to how ugly this confrontation became and manifested itself throughout large sections of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Anti-Catholic/Irish attitudes in Scotland at the start of the twentieth century

In the nineteenth century, Irish Catholics were settling in Scotland at the time when ‘North British’ values seemed to be substituting Scottish ones as significant signs of identity. Although the Irish Catholic community were generally despised for their religious allegiances and lowly status, they were not however treated as scapegoats ‘by a nationalistic bourgeoisie as was already beginning to happen to their counterparts in the multi-national empires at the opposite end of Europe’.[i]

 It would actually be the third or fourth generation of Irish who, in the 1920s and 1930s, were victimised for their ‘unScottishness’. The interwar years saw ferocious anti-Irish/Catholic feeling reach the mainstream in devastating fashion with the country’s largest religious group, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, regularly advertising animosity against a group it felt was trying to destroy Scotland. This was epitomised by the (euphemistically) named ‘The menace of the Irish race’ report, produced by the Kirk in 1923, exclaiming sentiments bemoaning the ‘abnormal growth of the Irish race in Scotland’[ii] and that it was ‘incumbent on the Scottish people to consider, before it is too late, [methods to]…preserve Scotland for the Scottish race’.[iii]

Leading Scottish political figures, such as the unionist John Buchan, erroneously told the UK Parliament “every fifth child born in Scotland is an Irish Roman Catholic” and was even moved to remark that “Something must be done, and done soon, if Scotland is not to lose its historic individuality”.[iv]

 Even up to and including the 1950s, the terms ‘Irish’ and ‘Catholic’ were interchangeable and certainly not in an affectionate way. Dr John MacCormick, a founding member of the Scottish National Party, noted in 1955 that ‘They [Catholics of Irish descent] have remained as an undigested mass in our body politic and have created a new and deplorable division in our life… All too often the crimes of crude violence which come to the notice of the courts in places like Glasgow are committed by people with recognizably Irish [Catholic] names’.[v]

Legacy issues in the post-unionist era

As Scotland moved into the ‘post-unionist’ modern era, out of the different political and cultural groups that engaged in anti-Catholic rhetoric in the interwar years, only the Church of Scotland has since apologised for the nature and content of their sectarian attacks on the Irish Catholic community. (See ‘Kirk regret for bigotry’ – BBC Wednesday, 29 May, 2002[vi]). It should be noted that neither the Conservative Party in Scotland nor the Scottish Nationalist Party have ever apologised formally for their bigotry during these years in the same manner as ‘The Kirk’.

However, anti-Catholic prejudice still continued and was maintained. Even in the decades after World War Two, Catholics of Irish descent were systematically discriminated against. The skilled workforce of small engineering firms around Glasgow and the shipyards remained largely Protestant up until the 1960s and 1970s. Established and well-known firms such as the Glasgow Herald, and D. C. Thomson, publishers of newspapers in Dundee and comics across the UK, still categorised job applications by religious affiliation, and Catholics were rarely given skilled posts within these companies. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that even the BBC in Scotland also practised a tacit sectarianism at this time.[vii]

 While it its acknowledged in most academic quarters that the evidence points to most of this prejudicial discrimination was largely being eliminated by the end of the twentieth century, one report suggests that the memory and legacy of such discrimination has not disappeared easily (see NFO Social Research/Glasgow city Council ‘Sectarianism in Glasgow – Final Report’ conducted in 2003). While the report suggested many of those who believed prejudice and discrimination still existed had not actually suffered from it, it overlooked the fear and suspicion that many respondents (on both sides of the religious divide but most commonly those from the Catholic community) much more commonly alluded to.[viii]


The heat is probably disappearing from religious discrimination and prejudice in Scotland but slower than many academics and experts thought. Indeed, some commentators have speculated that a ‘new sectarianism’ – between ‘secularists’ and the religious may be developing, replacing the old ‘Catholic v Protestant’ conflict.[ix]

The behaviour of Catholic leaders in recent times has also betrayed an intolerant, selfish attitude coupled with an acute lack of self-awareness. Involvement with campaigns such as retaining ‘Section 28’ (a law that prevented the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in Scottish schools) and regular utterances against gay marriage allow the Church to appear running against popular opinion in a bigoted fashion. Meanwhile the bar on non-Catholic Teachers obtaining posts in Catholic schools continue to draw the ire of various secular campaigning groups who rightly point to this itself being a discriminatory act. As Tom Gallagher has noted ‘Scotland’s shame [sectarianism] is perhaps not bigotry’s refusal to lie down and die but the fact that its metaphors and behaviour patterns have too easily reproduced themselves in other walks of life’.[x]

Tom Devine, the esteemed historian and author (himself of Irish Catholic descent), has noted that people of Irish Catholic descent did not reach parity in employability in Scotland until the 1990s – nearly a full century after their Irish American counterparts managed to in the United States.[xi] Properly acknowledging Scotland’s history – warts and all – would be one way of making a start in ‘combating sectarianism’ in Scotland.


[i]  Gallagher, T., Divided Scotland – Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis, Argyll Publishing, 2013, p.33

[ii] Report from the Presbytery of Glasgow & The Synod of Glasgow and Ayr to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 29/05/23, p.751

[iii] Ibid, p.762

[iv] Hansard, 261, 24/11/1932, p.262

[v] MacCormick, J., Flag in the Wind, Birlinn Press, Edinburgh, 1955

[vi] BBC Website, Wednesday, 29 May, 2002 (accessed 8/10/15)

[vii] Devine, T. M., (eds), Scotland’s Shame – Bigotry and Sectarianism in Modern Scotland, Mainstream, Edinburgh, 2000, p.46

[viii] NFO Social Research, Sectarianism in Glasgow – Final Report, 2003, p.56

[ix] University of Edinburgh, Faith and Belief in Scotland – A Contemporary Mapping of Attitudes and Provisions in Scotland, 2014, p.38

[x] Devine, T. M., Scotland’s Shame, pp.50-51

[xi] Scotsman, 24/4/2011