Following disturbances at two Irish unity marches in Glasgow there was a somewhat hysterical reaction from some in the media who spoke of the scourge of sectarianism being back again and the usual nonsense was talked about the ‘divisive’ nature of Catholic schools. We even had a former high ranking police chief, Tom Wood formerly of Lothian and Borders Police, call for their abolition. The idea that the prejudice is taught in Catholic schools is of course risible nonsense just as the idea of ‘segregated’ education is demonstrably false too. In an increasingly secular society the idea of faith schools is anathema to some while in others they awaken old prejudices. Most Scots are decent, tolerant people but for a small and vociferous minority a latent prejudice persists. A look at the history of Scotland will demonstrate clearly that historical prejudice against Catholics predates Catholic schools joining the state system in 1918.
Few countries in Europe adopted the reformation as completely as Scotland did. So successful were the reformers that the Catholic faith which had existed in Scotland for a thousand years was extinguished from the land and only clung on in a few northern and western areas. Scotland’s conversion to Presbyterianism left a residual hatred of Catholicism which was strong enough to cause chaos when Charles the first attempted to reform the Church of Scotland in 1637. His reforms were regarded by many as being too close to Catholic forms of worship and were met with scorn and violence. In popular legend, a certain Jenny Geddes heard Charles’s ‘Book of Common Prayer’ being read out by the Minister in St Giles church and shouted ‘Daur ye say mass in my lug’ and threw a stool at his head. Violence broke out in the church and spread to the town as a mob gathered. In the end Charles used force to try and crush the people opposed to his attempted reform of the Scottish church and this eventually led to all out civil war across his three Kingdoms.
Whether the events surrounding Jenny Geddes happened in the manner described above or not the story illustrates the more puritanical nature of Scottish Protestantism in the 17th century. Anything which smacked of ‘popery’ could lead to violence and often did. Little more than a generation earlier in 1614, Catholic Priest John Ogilvie travelled to Scotland in the guise of a horse trader using the name of John Watson to secretly administer to the 20 or so Catholics left in Glasgow. Catholicism had been outlawed in 1560 and any found practicing it were breaking the law and likely to face severe penalties. Ogilvie was captured and tortured but refused to name the secret Catholics he administered to. As he was led to his death at Glasgow cross he is said to have kissed the gallows and threw his rosary into the watching crowd saying ‘If there be here any hidden Catholics then pray for me but I will not have the prayers of heretics.’ He was hanged, drawn and quartered.
In 1780 the UK Parliament sought to ease the repressive anti-Catholic laws particularly the harsh measures contained in ‘Popery Act’ of 1698. The ‘Papist Act’ sought modest easing of the discrimination Catholics in the UK had to endure then. It led to a mob of 60,000 marching on Parliament carrying banners bearing the slogan ‘No Popery’ and in the ensuing rioting which took place across Britain, some 285 people were dead. Catholic churches burned and the Embassies of Catholic countries were attacked by the mob. The rioting affected Glasgow which was said to have 43 anti-Catholic societies at the time.
The 1798 rebellion in Ireland which saw the disenfranchised Catholic majority joined by significant numbers of Presbyterians under the banner of the United Irishmen would also have repercussions in Scotland. Scottish soldiers who fought to repress the rebellion returned home and set up the first Orange Lodges in the country. They had of course come into contact with Orangemen in Ireland and found their ideals close to their own. Orangeism with its strong strand of anti-Catholicism found parts of Scotland to be fertile soil in which to grow.
The Penal laws in Ireland which sought to force the indigenous population to accept the Church of Ireland as their church failed miserably. Under them Catholics and Presbyterians had to pay for Anglican churches most of them would never use. Catholics were banned from holding public office, being members of Parliament, owning firearms, excluded from voting, denied education and should one of a Catholic’s children change faith he would automatically inherit all his father’s property. These laws were designed to disempower and impoverish the Catholic majority in Ireland. The Penal Laws were, according to Edmund Burke...
"a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.
It was the section of this population living close to poverty who were most affected by the calamity of an Gorta Mor which in the 1840s saw Ireland’s population fall by a quarter. The great hunger was the catalyst for mass migration from Ireland and tens of thousands arrived in Glasgow often to a less than friendly welcome. The industrial revolution needed their muscle but for the most part they languished in the poorest parts of town and suffered suspicion and hostility. For some native Scots, they were uneducated, uncouth and for the most part Catholic and this last fact reawakened dormant prejudices in some.
The Catholic Church in Scotland began to grow in and the hierarchy was restored in 1878 meaning that for the first time since 1560 the church had a formal structure in the land. Education was one of their chief roles and various religious orders were set up or arrived from abroad to try to educate their flock. The schools they set up were not ideal and were insufficient to meet the growing demand of a fast growing population. The 1872 Education Act made it mandatory for children of Primary age to attend school. The Act also saw rates levied on tax-payers to pay for the building of school board schools and something of a building boom commenced. The Act was interpreted in such a manner that the religious education to be taught in the board schools was to be Protestant in nature and for this reason the Catholic schools refused to enter the system. Thus in the years from 1872 to 1918 Catholic tax payers paid rates for schools which for reasons of conscience their children could not use. That 46 year period saw Catholic schools struggle as the state sector powered on and something had to be done.
The 1918 Education Act was designed to remedy this great injustice and finally brought Catholic schools into the state system. The ethos of the school and the religious instruction therein was to be decided by the ‘denominational body’ responsible. The 1918 Act doesn’t specifically mention the Catholic Church and thus Scotland has several Episcopalian schools and at least one Jewish School. Given the numbers of religious orders involved in teaching (Marists, Jesuits, Notre Dame sisters, etc.) the more strident bigots in Scotland decried the Act as ‘Rome on the Rates’ conveniently forgetting that Catholics were rate payers too and the 46 years during which those same Catholic rate-payers subsidised what were de facto Protestant Schools.
For Scottish Catholics the 1918 Act put their schools on a secure footing and the community began to use education as a vehicle for advancing in society. That continues to this day and Catholic schools do an excellent job particularly in areas of deprivation. In the last census back in 2011, it was noticeable that Scottish Catholics were more likely to live in areas of deprivation than any other group but also that they were despite this just as highly represented in higher education. For many, education was the engine of social mobility which improved their lives greatly.
Today Catholic schools are more diverse than they have ever been and some even have a non-Catholic majority attending them. They are popular with many because of the high standards they set and the religious ethos at their heart which contrary to the opinion of some who appear blinded by their prejudice are both inclusive and welcoming. Tom Devine, Scotland’s leading historian said recently of attempts to portray Catholic schools as guilty of creating sectarianism….
“You’ve got to distinguish between people who have done serious academic research on
Devine cited the findings of the Scottish government’s advisory group on tackling sectarianism in 2013, which concluded that sectarianism did not stem from Catholic schools, nor would it be eradicated by closing them.
The above historical description clearly demolishes the idea of Catholic schools causing bigotry. That particular evil is learned at a father’s knee and perpetuated by people who have a very limited understanding of the conditioning they have gone through which makes them think like that. The sort of anti-Irish racism and anti-Catholic rhetoric we still see occasionally in Scotland is an echo of a centuries old problem. It is on the wane and is increasingly seen as embarrassingly medieval by most Scots.
Those who caused trouble at recent Irish Unity marches were few in number and Professor Devine was scathing of them when he said…
‘The recent violence was driven by a hard core of bigots who felt threatened by renewed calls for a united Ireland and Scottish independence after the Brexit vote. Police should take a leaf out of the book of Strathclyde police, which dealt with the Ulster Defence Association during the Troubles of the 1980s.The chief superintendent responsible for policing them referred to the UDA as the Union of Dumb Amateurs. Infiltrating these people will be very easy, so they can be identified and face the courts. Intelligence, whether it is done by surveillance or undercover operations, will quickly bring an end to this problem. There were probably fewer than 50 people prepared to cause trouble and these are people with distant connections to Ulster on the Protestant side, some of whom belong to Orange lodges, many of whom support a certain football team, but they are a minority.”
As Scotland moves forward in the 21st Century and looks to find its place in the world it should leave some of its less savoury baggage in the past. When calls for the abolition of Catholic schools cease, we will know that we have reached a new reality. Some it seems will never change their ways but they are increasingly out of touch with reality and belong to the past. The future belongs to all decent Scots who utterly reject the dumb prejudice of the bygone days of yore.