Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Saturday 26 February 2005

Scotland's secret shame

This is the title of a BBC1 Panorama programme to be shown tomorrow evening. It is billed as a documentary about the hatred and bigotry between the two major Christian strands in Scotland, specifically Protestantism and Catholicism.

However, I take issue with the overall title of the programme, because in large parts of Scotland one's religion (or lack of one) is of no moment. This particular focus of bigotry and hatred is most frequently found in the western central region of the country, basically centring around Glasgow and the Strathclyde/Ayrshire regions. Pockets of this kind of bigotry do exist elsewhere in Scotland, of course, but I believe no more frequently than in any other part of the UK. I have never lived in Glasgow or the surrounding areas, but I do have family connections in the area.

A few vignettes from my own personal experiences:

For part of my teenage years I did not live in Scotland, I lived in the Isle of Man (IoM). The first time I ever travelled completely on my own I would have been about 13 or 14 years old; I was sent, for reasons that are not important here, on a 'plane trip (my first experience of travelling in an aircraft) to Glasgow, in transit to Inverness (by train) and had to transit Glasgow, but was visiting some relatives in Glasgow for a meal whilst waiting for the Inverness train. My parents had been warned by these relatives that the Saturday I would be passing through Glasgow was the day of a Rangers/Celtic match. I knew, vaguely, that they were rival teams (I have never had any interest in football) and that this rivalry was reinforced by their respective religious adherences, but I could never bring myself to take it very seriously - how could such a bizarre thing really cause people to fight each other? Somewhat naively I thought that the fact that I had a blue shoulder bag and a green scarf was a bit of a joke and in any case would show to everyone that I was completely neutral - walking between the town centre airport bus terminal and Queen's Street Station taught me how foolish my nonchalance was. Nothing bad actually happened to me (luckily), but two different groups of football supportes each took exception to one of the two colours I was (mostly innocently) sporting; luckily they had enough beer/lager inside them that even I, a somewhat overweight teenager, could speed myself out of harm's way. I can still remember the shock of my Glasgow relatives on seeing the colours of my bag and scarf - they made me conceal both when we were travelling back into the city for me to catch the train. This happened in the 1960s.

Another event was much more recent - just a few months before the 1997 election that brought 'The Dear Leader' Tony Blair to power. It happened in my own drawing room. A guest, a friend of one of the Glasgow relatives I referred to above, knowing that I was (at that time) closely involved with the local branch of the Conservative Party, asked me how I felt about the possibility of a Catholic becoming Prime Minister. Frankly I had no idea what the person was talking about; I was not aware that Mrs Blair was a Catholic, that their children were apparently being brought up in the Catholic faith and that Tony Blair himself was said to have attended Mass with his family from time to time - nor, when the matter was drawn to my attention by this guest's question, did I even really understand what the fuss could possibly be about, and said as much. However, the fact remains that for some people in Scotland such a question seems to be completely normal, and my complete indifference as incomprehensible to them as their prejudices are to me. It can be no secret to anyone who has read my blog from time to time that I have absolutely no time for the Labour Party ('New' or 'Old'), irrespective of my current attitude toward the Conservative Party, which since September 2001 has been pretty contemptuous, too, but whatever feelings I have about the Labour Party and its current leader, Tony Blair, are completely unaffected by whatever religious affiliation any politician may have, so him having a wife who is Catholic and perhaps having Catholic religious sentiments himself, was something I simply did, and do, not care about.

My own background, whilst mainly mildly Protestant, does include some members who are Catholic, or who have become Catholic through marriage. Big deal, move on, is my attitude. But in Glasgow, and some nearby areas, such blindness about religious affiliation is much less frequent, even today. That's the truth. Some towns in that area are known as mainly Protestant, others mainly Catholic. Traditionally access to public sector employment, under local council control, could be affected in practice by one's own religious affiliation. It is said now to be less so. Who knows where the truth lies now? I understand both Rangers and Celtic have, in recent years, tried their best at club level to sideline sectariansism and the worst aspects of it have probably passed into history, but every so often something will happen which makes one realise that the old prejudices have not gone away. I shall watch tomorrow evening's programme as an exercise in anthropology.

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