Scottish history: the Catholic response.


As questions of identity continue to shape much of current political and cultural debate in the wake of the independence referendum, a leading Scottish academic reflects on the contribution of Catholicism to his own and Scotland’s story.

Open House along with the Innes Review have given my adult life a strong sense that there are lay Catholics in Scotland thinking about the church (the Christian church most widely) and who also love it.  As a student of English Literature, my own Catholic ‘thinking’ was buoyed up by Graham Greene and Muriel Spark (even Graham Greene can be claimed as Scottish, to some extent, as a familial cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson).  Something that I’ve ‘worried’ over all my adult life is about being a Catholic in Scotland.  I love the Catholic Church … I love Scotland: do these two identities create problems?  Do they create opportunities?

James Macmillan, Tom Devine, Lord Gill, Helena Kennedy,  John Wheatley, Dr Finlay’s Casebook, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, Whisky Galore, Compton Mackenzie: products of the Catholic faith, of the Catholic imagination.  One response to Catholicism was to hide it -who knew that Dr Finlay’s Casebook, based on a story written by A J Cronin in the 1930s, had its Catholic setting written out for the TV and radio series of the 1960s and 70s?  Scottish Catholicism is not always ‘the other’, certainly not today.  Are we now in a place where there is no disadvantage from Scottish culture, Scottish history in being a Caledonian Catholic?

The ‘Catholic vote’

Let’s start with some fairly recent history.  What happened with the ‘Catholic vote’ in the independence referendum?  We are reliably told that 56 per cent of Catholics voted Yes and 44 per cent No, compared to the Church of Scotland with 40 per cent Yes and 60 per cent No.  When we look at low earners in Scotland, 42.4 per cent voted Yes and 57.6 per cent No.  We know that professional mobility for Catholics has massively increased from the 1960s, and a combination of legislation, the death of mass industrial workplaces and religious apathy seems to have largely done away with anti-Catholic discrimination.  Scotland in the latter part of the 20th century, like the rest of the UK, accelerated its equality mentality and was determined to howk out remaining areas of racial, religious, gender and sexuality discrimination.

When we look at the makeup of poverty, we find about 23 per cent of Catholics among the most deprived (12 per cent of Church of Scotland).  Muslims at about 18 per cent are the only other religious identity that comes close to the Catholic situation.   What seems to be happening, with about 17 per cent of Scots overall in poverty, is that there is a strong urban effect, especially in places like Glasgow, Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire and Dundee, where poverty is entrenched and enmeshed with a number of other socially debilitating factors.  It is probably not religious identity, but poverty identity that is dictating the choice for independence.  It is clear that the former distrust of independence has gone, along with the collapse of the seemingly certain Catholic Labour vote.

If we look at another part of the Catholic ‘demographic’ – a very small part – the Scottish hierarchy, what do we see?  There were recent claims that the Scottish Bishops were, more or less, endorsing the Scottish National Party.  The late Cardinal Winning was open to the ideas of the SNP in the face of a Labour Party agenda on ‘life’ issues with which he was out of sympathy.  Cardinal O’Brien may even have been more amenable to the SNP and it may even be that as a ‘second generation Scot’ he read a nationalist agenda through more of an Irish lens.  However, the Scottish Catholic hierarchy continues to look rather middle of the road, as it has done for 40 years or more.  We should be thankful that we now live in a church where the hierarchy is no longer suspicious of secular ‘democracy’, which was the case essentially until after World War II.

It was interesting to see that the hierarchy did not follow one possible path in urging votes for the SNP: the Scottish hierarchy has been more outspoken on nuclear weapons than their English and Welsh equivalent.  Several vocal peace activists, proud of the ‘official’ Scottish Catholic position, urged that this was the natural logic of the Catholic moral outlook.  Speaking personally, as a former member of CND, I am a lot less hot on the issue since the end of the Cold War.  We should always be wary of complacency, but I now sincerely believe that the ‘nuclear deterrent’ worked, and stopped or curtailed both Russian and American military action in some cases (in Cuba – both ways, in Europe, and in Africa, particularly Angola).  I believe both sides having these was the lesser of two evils – as opposed to allowing one side to have a monopoly on this vile instrument.

I am also naturally suspicious of any group that says ‘their’ moral issue is the one and only moral issue: this runs the risk of a number of bits of sins, from conceit to the inability to recognise moral complexity.

My own inclination is to see as foundational (though not the only issue): poverty.  The obscenity of food banks in 21st century Britain, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, the ‘bedroom tax’, the ‘austerity’ agenda: these things all make me see red.  And yet, while the policies of the Tory government are culpable in these things, I would not want a Scottish hierarchy that recommended voting for any political party in particular.  To state the obvious: we need a distinct Catholic space, a democratic secular space, that allows for potential voters for nearly all the political parties (I would demur only at the BNP).

Activism and identity

Scottish Catholic moral and social action is a story of recent pride.  The Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF) punches well above its weight.  It is undoubtedly Scotland’s leading international charity and has long combined the practical insights of social sciences and the best policy insights generated by organisations like the World Health Organisation, along with wise use of Papal encyclicals and non-Catholic religious thinkers.  These overlapping spheres of secularity and faith represent the most civilised mentality that humanity has yet inhabited.   ‘Mary’s Meals’ founded by a Catholic, Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, has provided the equivalent of over seven million meals to children in Asia, Africa and Europe. These are the organisations that allow a continuing pride in the Scottish Catholic response to world history.  These initiatives, also, come more or less directly from the insights of Vatican II.  And in the case of SCIAF, we see a particular instance of the Holy Spirit at work where many people of all religions and none (including Ally McCoist) have practised Lenten abstinence and the giving of alms.

The St Margaret’s Children and Family Care Society has recently had to sever its formal links with the Catholic Church so as not to fall foul of discrimination legislation and to remain a registered charity. This happened particularly under pressure from the Scottish Secular Society.  St Margaret’s must now consider the potential suitability of gay parents, but by and large, its Catholic ethos remains intact.  It has been an interesting case of the pronounced challenge to religion in Scotland over the past decade.

What I’ve been simply pointing to are some fairly recent historical instances that have exemplified a strengthened Scottish Catholic activism and identity.  It is not all the doom and gloom of declining Mass attendance, fewer priests and parish clusters.

The grammar of devotion

The historical point I’m edging towards is one that has been hitting home to me a lot recently.  It involves late 19th century demonstrative, mass piety, often French-inflected.  I’ve been brooding about the cultural phenomenon of the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  What we have with these trappings is a cultural effect: post-Romanticism, something time-bound that would have been little recognised prior to the 19th century.  It is literally an intense poetic effect following on from Romantic Literature, from the vision, the lyricism, the ecstasy found in the poetry of Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley – it is what we call in literary studies synecdoche – where one part of something stands intensely for the whole thing.  The idea of the Sacred Heart goes back theologically to the 12th century, but it is really in the 19th century that this comes to the fore as an item of widespread, popular devotion.

The ramping up of Mariology and of the Sacred Heart had a profound effect on the outward appearance of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Ireland, England and many other places such as Poland.  That post-Romantic Catholic façade has a lot to do with the French reaction against the atheistic, enlightenment and rationalism of the French Revolution and secularism.  It is one we’re all familiar with in parish names, in hymns, in Catholic literature, in devotional practice.  This was the vivid face under which immigrants in Scotland from Ireland and elsewhere congregated in the later 19th and in early 20th centuries.  It is curious that this highly sentimental grammar of outward devotion is at once a product of our European (French) experience and is further pronounced in its seeming oddity to Protestant Scottish eyes as the trappings of an outsider, immigrant community.

Lourdes was the inspiration for Canon Thomas Taylor in constructing Carfin Grotto in the early 1920s.  Unemployed miners laboured heroically to create it, and it did much for morale and Catholic pride.  It is astonishing, however, to read in Edwin Muir’s Scottish Journey (1934) that it is one of the few places that the author has any time for.  Muir is dazzled by Carfin’s difference, as he excoriates Inverclyde, which is dominated by a stinking glue factory, and Dundee, with rows of tenements and smoke.  Carfin stood for the Romantic Muir as a sign of contradiction: as a refusal, as it literally was, to give in to industrial reality (unemployment) and the rationalism of the age, which, paradoxically, in the 1930s was dominated in many ways by Nazism on the one hand and Bolshevism on the other.  Here were the polar twin movements that said there was nothing beyond material existence.

Crypto-Catholicism was part of the story of the so-called cultural renaissance in Scotland during the 1920s and 30s.  We find, for instance, Hugh MacDiarmid deliberately contradicting some of the more racist outpourings from the Church of Scotland about controlling Irish immigration.  MacDiarmid declared that to make Scotland less puritanical it would be good to accelerate the arrival of the Catholic Irish who were at that time still coming in to the country in their tens of thousands.  As though Irish Catholicism did not, in itself, have a strong strand of puritanism.  Tom Macdonald, former Presbyterian teacher and missionary in Palestine adopted the pseudonym, Fionn Mac Colla and wrote excoriatingly of the Church of Scotland’s betrayal of Celtic/Gaelic culture: like Muir, Mac Colla believed that Presbyterianism was closer to Communism than Christianity in its supposed denial of individual joy and in its worship of a dubious ‘progress’.

We see here one of the reasons that from the 1930s there were many nationalists who converted to Rome: they read a less materialist Gaeltachd (across Scotland and Ireland) that had been crushed in its independent identity by the evils of empire and industry brought by the English.  Unravelling the worst of modern Britain, turning the clock back to Celtic and medieval periods when Scotland was independent of England, was  more communal and less capitalist, appealed greatly to this mentality.


So we have the Romantic response of the Scottish Catholic convert to Scottish history.  However, I think there can be little doubt that the best response to Scottish history by the Catholic community in the 20th century was in helping engineer the 1918 Education Act.  The general outlines are well-known – out of justified fear of the Presbyterian complexion of things, Catholic schools stood outside the 1872 Education Act which largely established free, comprehensive, state-controlled school education.  The Catholics came in from the cold in 1918, by which time a range of cultural factors, most especially the Great War, had made Scotland, and the United kingdom more widely, think about having as sleekly streamlined an educational system as possible as the best hope for recognising the ‘progress of the nation’.  The 1918 act is a very important sign that secular rather than confessional nation-ness was now dominant.  Paradoxically, this gave the Scottish Catholic authorities the chance to establish state Catholic schools more or less as well-resourced as the ‘non-denominational’ sector.  By the 1960s, and with the expansion of the universities in that decade also, the Scottish professional classes had burgeoned out of all recognition in size and substance.

We know that today Catholic schools, according to figures for 2012-14 were rated by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate ‘very good’ in 40 per cent of cases as compared to 26 per cent in the non-denominational sector.  At the lower end we had a ‘weak’ performance of 6 per cent of Catholic schools compared to 14 per cent in the non-denominational sphere.  Such figures have been fairly consistent for at least a decade and a half.  Something is going on in Catholic schools and I believe one of the things is prayer.

In my lifetime I’ve found it astonishing to find a shift in the common wisdom: down to the 1990s, there were politicians, journalists and sport commentators who routinely said: ‘Catholic schools cause division’.  These days an Alex Salmond or a Graham Spiers will routinely opine that Catholic schools are certainly not the cause of sectarianism and that Catholic schools make a positive contribution to Scotland.  I find that a relief – as a product of Catholic schooling I used to be fed up as being identified, by implication, as a kind of pollutant spewed out by a supposedly barbaric institution.  These days of course, the antagonist has changed: we’ve moved from Protestant antipathy to Secular Humanist opposition.

I want to bring in one of Scotland’s great unsung Catholic writers, the quiet, unassuming George Friel.  He died in 1975 and was writing from the 30s to the 60s.  He was of an age to capture the new housing estates in Scotland, but not completely as yet to see the upward trajectory of the products of Catholic schooling.  A typical, droll short story by Friel is ‘Father Twomey’s Friday Night Dance’.  A young curate tries to get things going in a new parish in a city scheme and fails to persuade the parish priest that he should allow the young people to have a disco, after he finds a boy and girl round the back of the gym in close proximity (sharing a bag of chips).  Parish priest Canon Macpherson rules that Fr Twomey can continue with his Friday night dance but on condition that it involves Scottish country dancing.

Friel isn’t proposing some kind of moral alternative to Canon Macpherson.  Rather, he is pointing out a church that can be culturally inflexible, that has problems dealing with modernity, a church that is not sufficiently responsive, that can be fearful and petty-minded, that refuses to deal with real people and their often quotidian circumstances.  Macpherson, of course, is ludicrously close-minded.  Not a bad man, he is set in his ways, unable in the moment to extend sympathy or love to a couple of teenagers sharing a bag of chips, or indeed, to a sink estate where joy amid the poverty is in short supply.

Friel’s writing is a useful corrective, from a cradle Catholic, to the romanticism of a Fionn Mac Colla. But I’d also want to say that we need both of these things: romance and realism – any institution, any faith needs a bit of both.

Unfolding tradition

The central intellectual debate in the Catholic Church today, perhaps as always, concerns tradition.  Tradition is not only about the past, but about its unfolding in the present.  Here is where I think the most ‘traditional’ present-day Catholics make a big mistake.  They have something like love of the past and contempt for the present that I think equates to a sin against God’s creation.  These traditionalists believe the present to be more degraded, more sinful, more lapsed than the past. They have a powerful weapon seemingly, in that through the 18th and 19th centuries church attendance in the western world was somewhere in the region of 75-80 per cent, compared to today’s 15-20 per cent.  But if these figures count, then either God is gradually throwing in the towel (the secularists’ argument) or he is purifying the world selecting an ever purer, but punier number of the ‘elect’.  This is end of days stuff, and as Catholics we shouldn’t fall for it.  Religious practise may be weak, but over 70 per cent of Catholics whether ‘practising’ or not self-identify as ‘Catholics’.

As Scottish Catholics we are heirs to cultural traditions and education that were never wiped out; at the same time as grasping a lot of what we believe to have been, our identity is more changing and conditional.  We are immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland; natives from the highlands, Aberdeenshire, Dumfriesshire; lowland converts, numerous in origins occupying the same public spaces as non-Catholics.  We have difference in our DNA.  Our Catholic and non-Catholic Scottish history is not so straight as is sometimes believed.  Our DNA is twisted – thank God.  If simplicity was what we craved we wouldn’t be Catholic.  The Catholic response to Scottish and, indeed, to world history is at its best to be faithful, open and loving and not always the same as the person in the pew next to us.  It is to allow difference as much similarity.  Our Catholic response should be not to believe our own myths too much and to be flexible, without despairing.

Our identity is mysterious, fully known only to God, and at the same time our Catholic identity is continuous with our human identity.  I would like to end with the words of a great Scottish Catholic.

Christian is my name, and Catholic my surname,

I grant that you are Christian as well as I

And embrace you as my fellow disciple in Jesus

And if you were not a disciple of Jesus

Still I would embrace you as my fellow man.

Words written on the tombstone of Alexander Geddes, 18th century Aberdeenshire priest

Gerard Carruthers is the Francis Hutcheson Chair of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.