Podium: James MacMillan - The bigotry that shames Scotland

From a lecture on Scottish Catholicism given by Scotland's leading modern composer to the Edinburgh Festival

Monday 09 August 1999 23:02 BST

On my trips abroad or to England, I am often asked curious, probing questions about my country, and specifically about the extreme nature of our anti-Catholic past and rumours of a still-prevalent sour anti-Catholicism. These questions embarrass me, and I try to say it's not like that anymore - we have moved on, ie are putting sectarianism behind us in the dustbin of history. Things have changed for the better.

But deep down I know that this is a response charged with ambiguity. Yes, it's true that for many Scots, religious bigotry does not impinge on their lives - but for a significant minority, Catholics continue to be a source of puzzlement, if not anxiety and its concomitant bigotry.

Because of this, most Scottish Catholics learn at an early age that the best mechanism is to keep one's head down. Try not to attract attention to the fact that you are a Catholic - it will only annoy them. In fact I know that most Catholics of an older generation would be appalled at me raising this subject at all at a public forum. My grandfather, God rest him, used to become very nervous when he saw the words "James MacMillan" and "Catholic" in the same sentence. "No good will come of it," he cautioned. "There's bound to be a backlash - you'll suffer the consequences in the end." On dining out with my parents recently in Ayr, conversation eventually drifted to the topic of the Chrism Mass which they had attended at the cathedral. I noticed that every time the waiter came close to our table they hushed their voices. They did not want to give themselves away as Catholics. I have found myself doing exactly the same thing even in the company of younger co-religionists.

There is still, even today, a palpable sense of threat and hostility to all things Catholic in this country. Some of these anxieties are a result of a lack of self-confidence among Catholics; some are because of vague and not so vague hints that Catholics are not really full citizens - possibly because some of them support a team associated with Irish rather than Scottish roots.

If Scotland is ever to establish a genuinely pluralistic democracy where differences are not just recognised and respected but celebrated, nurtured and absorbed for the greater good, we will first have to clear a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. In many walks of life - in the workplace, in the professions, in academia, in the media, in politics and in sport - anti- Catholicism, even when it is not particularly malign, is as endemic as it is second nature. Scotland is guilty of "sleep-walking" bigotry, a writer recently claimed.

But, at the heart of this malaise is a very Scottish trait - a desire to narrow and to restrict the definition of what it means to be Scottish. One letter states "this country's national religion is Protestant and Presbyterian, and the Scottish Parliament is duty bound to reflect this fact."

This tendency to restrict, to control and to enforce conformity and homogeneity is an obsessive and paranoid flaw in the Scottish character. It is not confined to the Presbyterian mind. It has eased effortlessly into the collective psyche of much secular discourse, so that even the humanist arid liberal objections to religious belief (and to Catholicism in particular) are motivated by the same urge to restrict, control and enforce.

Perhaps it is the case that Catholics can appear a little eccentric from a post-modern perspective - perhaps we are! But it is perfectly possible to believe in transubstantiation and be a good citizen simultaneously - High Anglicans and Episcopalians manage this all the time, after all.

One point of this talk is to suggest that pluralism need not equate with a bland homogenisation, where we all do and think the same. Yes, Scotland is Presbyterian; yes, Scotland is secular. These are two aspects of the national character in which I rejoice wholeheartedly - but I want to celebrate much, much more about our country, and I think we all can. The obsessive attempts, historically and contemporaneously, to peripheralise and trivialise the Catholic experience in Scotland (and in particular the Irish Catholic experience) is a self-defeating tendency. It represents the very opposite of the enriching multicultural pluralism which I crave for this country.

Another point of this talk is to suggest that there is much in the Catholic experience, perspective and potential contribution, that could be of benefit to wider civic society. Another point is to suggest that we as a nation have to face up to the ignominy of our most prevalent if unspoken bigotry, if we are to move together into the next millennium with a sense of common purpose.

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