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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

XVI. Religion and Sectarianism

XVI. Religion and Sectarianism

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Religion

  • 1 Quoted in C. Brown, “Religion and Secularisation”, p. 48-79 in A. Dickson, J. H. Treble (eds.), Peo (...)

1At the beginning of the twentieth century religion still played a fundamental role in the spheres of politics, education, work and culture. School-boards were almost entirely constituted of elected church members and parish councils were often comprised of ministers. In some parts of Scotland the church was highly influential: the parish council of the Catholic island of Barra looked like a “Holy Synod” and in another parish in the Borders the Medical Officer of Health was threatened with dismissal unless he “freed himself from the scandal”1 of adultery.

  • 2 The Act guaranteed new rights to the Catholic community: Catholic schools, which had been supported (...)

2The Church of Scotland’s influence diminished in the inter-war period. In the late 1920s county councils took control of state schools and parish councils lost the administration of welfare. Many in the Church did not approve of the status that had been given to Roman Catholicism by the Education Act of 19182. Yet, in the 1920s and 1930s church adherence and attendance only fell very slightly and religious values were still important in the lives of many Scottish people:

  • 3 D. Hempton, Religion and Political Culture in Britain and Ireland: from the Glorious Revolution to (...)

Even non-churchgoers sent their children to Sunday school, dressed up on Sundays, used religious affiliations to obtain jobs and welfare relief, sang hymns as a means of cementing community solidarity, respected ‘practical Christian’ virtues […] and used the churches’ social facilities without any need to attend more overtly ‘religious’ activities.3

3The reunion of the United Free Church and the Church of Scotland in 1929 appeared to strengthen the Church’s position—the total number of members was 1,300,000 (90% of all Presbyterians and nearly a third of the whole Scottish population). After World War II the Church enjoyed a boom in membership that culminated in the fifties. Church of Scotland membership rose by 4.7% between 1941 and 1956. In 1951, 59% of adults in Scotland were said to be church members, whereas the figure for England and Wales was only 23%.

4The situation was to change dramatically from the 1960s onwards when the forces of secularization eroded the power of the church and brought about a regular decline in members. In 1960, 40% in the population had some form of connection with a Church; the figure declined to 30% in the mid-seventies, the most important decrease being in the Church of Scotland.

5In spite of the decline in membership the Church managed to keep part of its influence in society. Ministers kept on playing an important role in local communities. Schools still conducted services at the end of term and religious instruction was still part of the curriculum.

6Scotland, like many other European nations, has become more secular, culturally more diverse and religiously more pluralist. The current official membership of the Church of Scotland is about 500,000 (12% of the population of Scotland). However, in the 2001 national census, 42% of Scots declared that their religion was Church of Scotland.

Sectarianism

7The outbreak of anti-Catholicism that took place in Scotland in the inter-war period had represented the most intense phase of sectarianism since the seventeenth century. Although government figures in 1930 showed that Irish immigration into Scotland had virtually ceased, many Scots believed that Scotland was being threatened by hordes of Irish immigrants accused of stealing their jobs. The Irish, blamed for their supposedly innate features—squalor, poverty, drunkenness and crime—became the scapegoats for Scotland’s calamities. Extremist organizations, such as the Protestant Action Society, managed to win support in local elections in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

8In 1922 the Church and Nation Committee of the Church of Scotland stepped into the debate by issuing the notorious report, The Menace of the Irish Race on our Scottish Nationality, in which the Irish Catholic population was accused of taking the Scots’ jobs and of subverting Presbyterian values.

9The period of sectarian tension ended with the economic recovery of the late 1930s. It must be added, though, that sectarianism was largely a western central Scotland phenomenon.

Notes

1 Quoted in C. Brown, “Religion and Secularisation”, p. 48-79 in A. Dickson, J. H. Treble (eds.), People and Society in Scotland. vol. 3, 1914-1990, Edinburgh: John Donald in association with the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland, 1992, p. 66.

2 The Act guaranteed new rights to the Catholic community: Catholic schools, which had been supported by voluntary contributions, were to be funded by the State.

3 D. Hempton, Religion and Political Culture in Britain and Ireland: from the Glorious Revolution to the Decline of Empire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 137.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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