Scotland, Scottish history

Notes towards a blog post about Scotland #1

Notes towards a blog post about Scotland #1

During the 19th and early 20th century Scotland experienced large successive waves of Irish immigration. The drivers behind this were varied: the pressure of poverty in Ireland (the ‘potato famine’ took place in the 1840s) together with the availability of work in a Scotland in the midst of its industrial revolution.

Meanwhile, Scotland was experiencing its own population shifts: during the same century successive waves of Scots were migrating too: the same British empire which included Ireland also included Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. And outside the Empire, the USA had an allure to both Scots and Irish.

The wheels of industry needed workers to go round and to the Scottish bourgeois classes the arrival of thousand of Irish workers was mostly welcome.

The argument “we need migrants to grow our economy” is not a 21st century one and, in the case of 19th and early 20th century Scotland, was actually true.  Naturally, the middle and upper classes who benefited most from the economic boom did not have to live near the poverty and the social problems experienced by the two working class populations (the native Scottish one and Catholic Irish incomers).

Even detractors of Irish immigration in Scotland grudgingly acknowledged that Scottish industry and by extension Scottish industrialists, needed the workers:

With the industrial development of Scotland in the nineteenth century a demand for cheap labour arose. Industrial firms and great contractors advertised for labour in the Irish Press, and crowds of Irishmen and their families emigrated to Scotland to engage in building railways, to work in coal mines, in the great shipyards on the Clyde, and in the jute mills of Dundee, and in the construction of public works, such as the Loch Katrine water scheme… All were welcome by the employers of labour. The Irishmen worked well, accepted almost any kind of habitation, and were content with small wages.

This passage came from a report by ministers and elders of the Church of Scotland submitted to the General Assembly in 1923 entitled Report of Committee to Consider Overtures from the Presbytery of Glasgow and from the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr on “Irish Immigration” and the Education (Scotland) Act, 1918.

This is an extraordinary document, although in the eyes of modern liberal historians of Scotland who decry its racism and bigotry, extraordinary for all the wrong reasons.

I find myself more sympathetic to the document not because, as its authors undoubtedly were, I am anti-Catholic and anti-Irish, but because I find their prophecy – of how the demographic replacement of ethnic Scots in their ancestral homeland would alter the nature of Scotland and endanger the existence of the Scots phenotype (the author’s called it the Scot’s race) altogether – largely correct.

What I also find fascinating about the document is some of the blind spots on the part of the authors which prevented them from seeing how flaws in the Scottish character (and in their Church) as well as the structure of the British Empire itself, were as much cause of their people’s decline as the arrival of the Irish.

For the same British Empire which facilitated the arrival of thousands of Irish into the lowlands of Scotland had also facilitated the colonisation of large chunks of the north of Ireland by Scottish protestants in earlier centuries. To be fair to the authors of the report, although they did not question the entitlement of the Scots to settle in Ireland, they did note the divisions it had caused:

A small country divided by creed and race has never proved to be a happy or harmonious country. Ireland affords a striking illustration of the truth of this. Its racial and sectarian antipathies have embittered the soul of two peoples, and impeded the high enterprises of civilisation.

Although the word “race” – clearly not such a scary and laden word in the 1920s – features widely in the document, the difference of religion was equally high in the minds of these ministers.

What really kept the two populations apart and prevented their integration was religion. Intermarriage between Catholic and Protestant was a rarity for more than a century and to this day Catholics in Scotland have separate schools. Indeed, this concession made to a growingly organised Irish Catholic population in Scotland towards the end of the First World War in the shape of the Education Act (Scotland) of 1918 is possibly what helped stoke the anti-Irish debate of the 1920s. Middle class Scottish protestant taxpayers were now aware of the fact that they were footing the bill for a separate education system.

Today, the Roman Catholic population in Scotland, can, if it wishes, still send its children to faith schools – although quite what faith these days, is questionable given that I recently saw a niqab wearing girl sporting the uniform of a Roman Catholic girls school in Glasgow.

But this is now. Back to then. And another faith that was not keen be assimilated:

They [the Irish] cannot be assimilated and absorbed into the Scottish race. They remain a people by themselves, segregated by reason of their race, their customs, their traditions, and, above all, by their loyalty to their Church, and gradually and inevitably dividing Scotland, racially, socially, and ecclesiastically…

There is no parallel to these movements in modern or in ancient times. It is a thing unprecedented that one race should gradually by peaceful penetration supplant another in their native land. For this is what is happening…

It is a notable fact that whenever the Irish population reach a certain proportion in any community, whether village, small town, or area of a great city, the tendency of the Scottish population is to leave as quickly as they possibly can.

Almost a century on, those who would wish to detract the authors of this document would point to the fact that people of Irish Catholic origin in Scotland have now largely integrated into Scottish society, especially in the higher economic classes. Of course, thanks to the Education (Scotland) Act of 1918 the decision on whether to send their children to a “faith” school remains an option not available to protestant Scots. Marriage between Catholics and non-Catholics is now not a rarity.  And most of those who three generations ago would have described themselves as Irish now call themselves Scottish.

So the authors of the report were wrong in their doom laden prophecy?

In terms of what became of the Scottish people, I would say not. The churchmen correctly foresaw that the double calamity of the emigration of large numbers of some of the best Scots and the arrival of large numbers of people from a different culture, albeit a neighbouring one, would irrevocably change the nature of Scotland and its population. The “Scottish people” that has emerged from this early iteration of multiculturalism was of a very different nature at the end of the 20th century than at the start of it. Other factors, of course, indeed possibly even bigger ones, are responsible for this, and I may examine these in future posts.

The Education (Scotland) Act of 1918 was the State’s first iteration of  what is now, officially a  “multicultural” Scotland.  Out of that era and the disaster of the First World War, Scotland has drifted politically ever more leftward and the Scots towards a reliance on the State far from the 19th century fictional stereotype of the independent, enterprising and thrifty Scot .

Although the authors of the report did not lay the blame for the drift leftward on the Irish (I’m glad they didn’t – a Calvinist upbringing created all too many Red Clydesiders), they were concerned by the increasing influence the Irish were gaining in public life and claimed that they were also influencing the Scottish population in encouraging a dependence on welfare:

Even now the Irish population exercise a profound influence on the direction and development of our Scottish civilisation. Their gift of speech, their aptitude for public life, their restless ambition to rule, have given them a prominent place in political, county, municipal, and parochial elections. They have also asserted themselves in co-operative and benefit societies. They have had an unfortunate influence in modifying the Scottish habit of thrift and independence. An Irishman never hesitates to seek relief from charity organisations and local authorities, and Scotsmen do not see why they should not get help when Irishmen receive it.

Sectarianism plagued working class areas of central Scotland and seems to have come to a head in the decade this report was issued. Why then? The ordeal of the First World War, the left wing political ferment in Clydeside, the economic constrictions of the 1920s and 1930s and the formal separation of the two communities in the state school system all spring to mind as some of main causes.

There was also, perhaps, the dawning among the ‘native’ Scots population in those central belt areas that the tipping point had been reached and that this was no longer quite their patch any more.  Also, a divided working class could also have had benefits for the authorities so I would not be surprised if some of it was deliberately stoked.

As for the middle classes – from whose ranks the clerical authors of this report were undoubtedly drawn –  the rise of a more prosperous and organised Catholic community  competing with their place in local politics, business etc. would have made them wake up to the demographic changes in Scotland affecting them. The same classes of people would probably not have earlier listened to the complaints of working class Scots about Irish immigration a generation or two before.

Even in the 1920s, the Church of Scotland ministers must have felt the impending loss of their status.

Ultimately, what I find particularly fascinating about this document is the complete absence of any answers offered by the authors.

I don’t personally think Presbyterianism has ever been much of an answer, but in 1923 these leaders of their flock could only complain, only diagnose the state of modern Scotland. They had no medicine for it.

Complaining about the clannishness and ethnic solidarity of the Irish they failed to see that this was in fact a virtue, contrasting with the individualism fostered by Scottish protestant culture and a Kirk forever splitting into rival congregations on the grounds of doctrinal hair-splitting and clerical egotism.

What the authors of the Report of Committee to Consider Overtures from the Presbytery of Glasgow and from the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr on “Irish Immigration” and the “Education (Scotland) Act, 1918 did not realise, almost 100 years ago, is that in addition to providing a text for future historians to virtue-signal over (and for their cucked successors in the Church of Scotland to obsequiously apologise for) they were in fact penning an epitaph for a people.

I am largely in agreement with many of their main conclusion line of argument – namely, that the arrival permanent settlement of a large quantity of foreign people changes, irrevocably the nature of a country and its population.

This is as true of the Scottish going to Ireland as it is of the Irish coming to Scotland. It is impossible for me to read the document without feeling what literary critic would call “contemporary resonance” as I ponder the fate of all of Europe in this era of mass migration. As such, Report of Committee to Consider Overtures from the Presbytery of Glasgow and from the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr on “Irish Immigration” and the “Education (Scotland) Act, 1918 is a depressing read.

But the only lesson I fear I can draw from it is that by the time the middle classes – and certainly Church of Scotland ministers – start noticing and talking about something, it is almost certainly too late.

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