An Examination of the Evidence on Sectarianism in Scotland

This is a review of existing research and survey data on sectarianism in Scotland.


  • This paper begins by highlighting the key findings from a similar review of the evidence published in 2005 - that while there was a perception of sectarianism in Scotland, there was little consensus about whether this was underpinned by empirical evidence.
  • This current review adds another perspective to the debate by focusing not only on the research that is explicitly designed to explore sectarianism but also the broader survey data that allow us to explore whether there appears to be any structural disadvantage for either Catholics or those who belong to the Church of Scotland.

Perceptions of sectarianism in Scotland

  • Recurrent questions on conflict in the Scottish Election Survey and in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey from the late 1970s through to 2000 suggest that a sizable proportion of the Scottish population have, in recent history, believed that conflict between Protestants and Catholics is 'very' or 'fairly serious'.
  • One of the key studies on sectarianism in Scotland is that commissioned by Glasgow City Council (2003) which shows that most adults believe that sectarianism is still a feature of their city. More recent in-depth research on young people aged 16-18 in Glasgow suggests that the use of sectarian language and humour has become normalised among young people.
  • Three-quarters of those who responded to the Glasgow City Council survey believed that, rather than being mainly anti-Catholic or mainly anti-Protestant, sectarianism tended to be equally aimed at Catholics and Protestants. Even among Catholics and Protestant respondents, there was a strong view that sectarianism affected both religions equally.
  • The study also revealed that a sizable proportion - 12% of respondents - believed that sectarianism affected them personally.

Experience of sectarianism in Scotland

  • The Glasgow City Council survey asked residents if, in the last five years, they had been the victim of discrimination, and if so, whether they believed this was motivated by bigotry or prejudice. There was no significant difference in the level of discrimination experienced by Catholics and Protestants in respect of any of the forms of discrimination explored: discrimination when applying for work; treatment in the workplace; treatment by the police; treatment by the council; or treatment by another public service.
  • Though the numbers are very small, responses did reveal that, even in recent times, there are both Catholics and Protestants who believe that they have been discriminated against because of their religion in Glasgow. The very small number of cases meant that it was not possible to draw any conclusions about whether Catholics or Protestants are more likely to experience this sort of discrimination.
  • While two-thirds of respondents perceived sectarian violence to be very or quite common in Glasgow, the numbers who claim to have experienced this suggested that it was actually fairly rare. Nevertheless, there is a small number of both Catholics and Protestants who believe that they have been the victim of crime and harassment because of their religion in recent times.
  • There are also more recent national survey data from the Scottish Household Survey and Scottish Crime and Justice Survey that show that a very small proportion of people in Scotland believe they have been the victim of sectarian crime and harassment.
  • Analysis of data from the criminal justice system show that in 2012-13 there was a 24% decrease in crimes motivated by religious prejudice that were reported to the procurator fiscal. This follows as 26% increase in 2011-12. Roman Catholicism was the religion that was the focus of the majority of cases - 56.5% of incidents were derogatory towards Catholicism and 29% derogatory towards Protestantism. However, closer analysis of the data suggest that, since many victims were not known to the offender, this would not necessarily have been linked to the actual religion of the victim.
  • Data from the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey show that there has been no increase in the proportion of victims who believe that the crime they experienced was related to race, religion or sectarianism. This suggests that the increase in the numbers of racial and religiously aggravated crimes that had been reported to COPFS in recent years was simply due to changes in reporting and recording practice.
  • What emerged from the 2003 Study for Glasgow City Council is that, if there is sectarian discrimination in Scotland, it is most likely to present itself in the form of discrimination in the workplace. Evidence of anti-Catholic discrimination in the workplace was also uncovered in Walls and Williams' qualitative research in Glasgow in the mid to late 1990s. Although some of these examples involved discrimination that took place many years ago, there were examples from the 1980s and 1990s. More recent research by Finn, Uygan and Johnson (2008) suggest that favouritism along religious grounds has still occurred in recent years.
  • What is most obvious from the literature is that more research is needed to allow us to explore the extent and nature of sectarianism in Scotland - not only national sources of data that will allow us to quantify sectarianism experiences but qualitative research to explore if and how sectarianism affects particular communities in Scotland.
  • Questions in the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey and the Scottish Household Survey have recently been extended to collect more data on the extent of sectarian harassment, intimidation and discrimination. Data will be available towards the end of 2013.

Indicators of structural disadvantage

  • Data from national surveys (such as the Census, Scottish Household Survey and Labour Force Survey) were used to explore whether sectarianism manifests itself in disadvantage for either Catholics or those who belong to the Church of Scotland. The evidence shows that Catholics are not disadvantaged in terms of income and that younger Catholics are no longer disadvantaged in terms of educational attainment. The most comprehensive source of data also suggests that Catholics are not disadvantaged in terms of occupational class. Although earlier data suggested that Catholics were more likely to suffer poor health, these differences may be disappearing. The data have shown however that Catholics are more likely, than those of the Church of Scotland, to be unemployed, to live in deprived areas, to rent their homes, to be the victims of crime and to experience imprisonment.
  • There is also evidence to suggest that differences are more apparent amongst older generations than younger generations. This may suggest that the socio-economic position of Catholics has improved over time but we cannot yet rule out the possibility that there is an age effect - that disadvantage emerges only as people get older.
  • Some of the associations which emerge between religion and the measures of disadvantage may be influenced by demographic differences between those of different groups rather than by religion itself. The 2001 Census data show that Catholics had a younger age profile than those affiliated to the Church of Scotland, were more likely to have dependent children and more likely to be lone parents.
  • The relative impact of these demographic differences and religion on outcomes deserves fuller analysis. The release of the 2011 Census data will provide an ideal opportunity to explore this using regression analysis to identify the relative impact of a range of variables (such as religion, age, gender, length of residency and family status) on the outcomes discussed above.

Intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants

  • One other measure of the extent to which a country is divided on ethnic or religious grounds is the extent of intermarriage between particular groups. Holligan and Raab use the 2001 Census data to show that, of the Roman Catholic females, 45% were in partnership with someone of the same religion but the percentage in partnerships with a Protestant partner was almost the same (43%). They also found that there was a very steep decline in the percentages of same religion couples among younger couples for all Christian groups. This, they argue, should contribute to an erosion of any sectarian divisions in Scotland.


Email: Ben Cavanagh

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