top of page



Nil by Mouth sessions get under the skin of the issue: challenging preconceptions and asking people to ask as many questions of themselves as they do of others.

“Sectarianism?” This word is used to describe a “sect”, or section within an established group, but most commonly it’s used with regard to groups with a particular religious or political basis.

The word sectarianism is very often used in Scotland today in association with divisions within a religion, particularly in reference to Christianity and the division which can exist between Catholic and Protestant people. Sectarianism can also be found within other religions.

As society becomes increasingly secular, the term is often also used to describe a type of social identity, that is about things other than a particular set of religious beliefs.

The reformation movement of the 16th century saw Protestantism, a new type of Christianity, sweep across western Europe. The various leaders of these emerging groups had beliefs and ideals which were not in keeping with the practices and belief systems of the traditional Catholic Church of Rome. There was considerable public support for this movement in Scotland, once a predominantly Catholic country. Protestantism was later adopted by the state as Scotland’s national religion with various strands and movements emerging over time .

The 17th and 18th century saw conflict between the Jacobite followers of Catholic King James VII and the forces of King William and Queen Mary, who took the throne in 1688 and were not Roman Catholics. In the 19th century the prospect of Jacobite invasion declined, yet sectarian conflict continued as a result of immigration of those who later fled famine in Ireland ( a traditionally Catholic country) and sought to live and work in Scotland. Urban industries and expanding transport systems offered opportunities for work in factories, and in building railways, canals, bridges and roads.

As we have seen throughout history, a large scale movement of people from their homeland often causes social tensions, and those new to a country commonly create support networks with each other for support. Some areas in cities, such as Edinburgh’s Cowgate and Canongate were called “Little Ireland” due to the congregation of immigrants living there. Many Irish Catholics settled in the poor east end of Glasgow, and in communities across the west of Scotland in particular, seeking work in industries such as mining and textiles. These settlements led to increased competition for employment and housing and this sometimes led to antagonism and conflict between competing groups of workers over housing and jobs.

Widespread discrimination in entering employment, and certain established social networks, also fuelled tensions between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Scotland. Employment opportunities  were denied to people of both denominations on the grounds of the religious group to which they belonged or were perceived and prejudged to belong. Discriminatory recruitment practices were conducted both officially and unofficially and a name considered traditionally Protestant or Catholic, or whether a candidate attended a Catholic or non-denominational school, was sufficient grounds for many businesses to exclude people from employment.

Sports clubs were founded as a focal point for these Irish immigrant communities. For examples, Hibernian Football Club was founded in Edinburgh in 1875, and Glasgow Celtic Football Club was established in 1888. Later, in Dundee, Dundee Hibernian later became Dundee United. Football teams, whether they developed from a mainly Irish Catholic or Scottish Protestant community or neither, played matches between one another for charities and to win competitions. Today, the increasing diversity of Scotland’s population means that no football clubs are in the same way tied to any particular religion, and players and supporters of all teams will  be from a range of racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds to a greater or lesser extent.

However, despite this, sectarianism as we know it  in Scotland today is perhaps most visible in relation to football. The historical links of some clubs and the traditional ethnic and religious make-up of their supporters have led to them being held as symbols of religious, cultural and political beliefs. Sadly, there has historically been many issues with sectarianism at football matches in Scotland with elements within clubs fanbases using songs, chants and banners on match days to abuse, antagonise and provoke rival fans. In a similar way, some football fans proclaim a political commitment, and they promote their support for Northern Irish based paramilitary  groups such as the IRA and UVF which are outlawed in the both the U.K. and Republic of Ireland. At some matches this can generate an atmosphere of hatred, religious tension and intimidation which continues to lead to violence in communities across Scotland. This has been widely reported in the media over the years.

Offensive sectarian language is still used in Scotland on a daily basis, with abusive terms such as “Hun” and “Orange bastard” being used negatively against Protestants (or those perceived to be) and others such as “Fenian” and “Tim” used negatively against Catholics (or those perceived to be). This reinforces religious and racial stereotypes as well as fuelling the divisions and conflict between the denominations and people of no religious denomination. Children commonly use words without any knowledge of their meaning, but with an understanding that these words are a means by which to insult others.

In recent years, the challenge against sectarianism in Scotland has made some difference to what is a deep rooted and widespread social issue for us. The problems associated with religious conflict are being examined and confronted across society by schools, community groups, academics, football clubs such as Celtic and Rangers, football governing bodies, national and local governments, churches, charities, museums, galleries and a growing number of individuals across the nation. However – you will still hear the offensive language on our streets, at football matches, on public transport, in pubs and social clubs, and in some people’s homes. You will still see graffiti about Irish Politics in some places in Scotland, you might still be unwelcome at the local golf or bowling club because of your surname, and when you marry someone whose family are from a different “sect” within Christianity you might still to this day experience more disapproval than you had expected to.

Cultural and economic landscapes change, and while the Scotland we live in today is a small country striving to be competitive and modern, it still has work to do in addressing some negative and harmful old-fashioned views.

bottom of page