Sched Apon the Rude? Reflections on Scots and Religion

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The development of religion and language in Scotland has seen great disjunctures over the last 500 years, changes which might alternatively be seen as cathartic episodes of rebirth, modernisation and popular enfranchisement or, alternatively, as catalysts for rupture, colonisation and the replacement of two indigenous tongues by the dialect of southern England. The Roman Catholic religious polity so integral to medieval Scotland was swept away by the Reformation of 1560. The repercussions of that change for Scots are a commonplace for academics. The decision to use the English Geneva translation of the Bible rather than commission a native version was the first important event in the decline of the language. Equally, the Plantation of Ulster, a project made possible by the Reformation, destroyed the unity of the Gaels and did serious damage to the survival chances of the new Goidelic languages which were to emerge as a result.

However, it is perhaps unfair to lay all the blame for the decline of Scots at the door of Presbyterianism, since the situation thus engendered was merely one of diglossia. Had Scotland remained independent, it might have developed in a way similar to "German-speaking" Switzerland. Both anglicisation and the Reformation were in part results of the invention of the printing press, which for the first time opened wider markets for literary works and introduced the possibility of a more personal relationship between believer and Deity based on individual interpretation of the Bible. Moreover, the dialectalisation of any idiom is a phenomenon impossible without social contact. In the case of Scotland, one might argue, the key event was not the adoption by the King of Scots of the Presbyterian faith, but his willingness to abandon it in favour of Anglicanism in order to facilitate his ascension of the English throne in 1603. Even more damaging was the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, which resulted in the assimilation of the Scots nobility into its English counterpart and the eventual diminution of Scots to a series of regional sociolects. Today, Scots language activism has a much more marked association with an individual's political orientation than its Gaelic equivalent. The reasons are obvious and unavoidable. The linguistic continuum of which the traditional Scots dialects and Standard English now form opposite poles is the product of political change, and splitting that continuum is often an earnest of political ambition. By the same token, however, though it is wise to distinguish between the historical and the contemporary, neither should one ignore the role of religion.

I now intend to voice two great calumnies against the reformed and unreformed faiths of Scotland. The first is that Catholicism, from its dealings with Copernicus, Galileo and Columbus all the way down to contraception and stem cell research, has had a troubled relationship with science. The second, for our purposes more relevant, charge is that the particular brand of Protestantism adopted in Scotland has had a diffident and often disapproving attitude towards secular culture. This view is not new, having been the subject of great controversy when expressed by the composer James MacMillan, who raised the issue of sectarianism in 1999 in a lecture at the Edinburgh Festival. MacMillan later retracted his claim that the Reformation had amounted to a cultural 'year zero' but continued to insist that sectarianism was endemic in modern Scotland. Having lived in Belfast for the past six years, I do not feel that Scotland is structurally sectarian in the same way, since religious demographics do not define the borders of the national territory as they do, somewhat imperfectly, in the case of Northern Ireland, or prescribe the names used for that territory and elements of its internal political geography. Nor does faith in Scotland generally decide where one lives, what sports one takes part in, what music one plays, or--except at the most personal level--how one votes. …