As the traditional Marching Season approaches, Sir Tom Devine explores new evidence on contemporary Orangeism in Scotland
I first became interested in Orangeism at the academic level after I was appointed in the 1990s to the Foundation Glucksman Chair of Irish and Scottish Studies, and became the first director of the AHRC Centre of Irish and Scottish Studies at Aberdeen (in association with Trinity College, Dublin and Queen's University, Belfast). Our remit was to carry out advanced comparative and interdisciplinary research on Irish and Scottish history, literatures and languages.
Few subjects combined such a close association between the north of Ireland and lowland Scotland in the 19th and 20th centuries as the history of the Orange Order. It was born and grew to maturity in the ferocity of Catholic and Ulster Protestant conflict in the 1790s. The Order then first came to Scotland through soldiers returning to their homeland after service in Ireland during that decade. However, the primary impetus was the mass migration of Ulster Protestants across the North Channel to Scotland in the 19th century. The settlement of the Irish in this country is often popularly seen as almost entirely Catholic in religious composition and impact. The fact is that perhaps as many as a third of that great diaspora were Protestant people who brought with them their presbyterian beliefs, heritage and, not least, a deep loyalty to Orangeism. As late as the 1880s, for instance, most of leadership of the Orange Order in Scotland were first generation Irish-born immigrants.
Very many of these Ulster folk must have been the descendants of the thousands of Scots who had migrated to the north of Ireland during the 17th century in the search for land and opportunity and, in the 1690s, to escape harvest failure and famine in their own country. However, a new life across the Irish Sea could only have been won at the cost of the expropriation of the indigenous Catholic peasantry. Historically, therefore, the identity, culture and mindset of Ulster Scots were formed in bitter opposition to the mortal enemy of Irish Catholicism.
Today, the governing body of Scottish Orangeism, the Grand Lodge, has cultivated a more active profile than ever before, by stoutly defending the Order against the many negative criticisms it receives in the press and trying hard to present a more positive image of the organisation. The membership of this body represents the so-called more 'respectable' side of Orangeism, and is usually made up of a churchgoing, lower middle-class elite which is conservative in politics and social mores. They assert that although Catholicism is in error they have no animosity towards the followers of that faith because of their own commitment to religious liberties.
Much less, however, is known about the rank and file of Orange men and women. It is estimated there are around 50,000 of them in Scotland, though others have a sympathetic, though less formal, connection to the Order. They are concentrated in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, Glasgow and West Lothian and are overwhelmingly working class in social background. While the Church of Scotland has lost large numbers of adherents since the 1960s, not least among the working class, the Order itself has remained surprisingly resilient and popular.
But what about the attitudes and worldviews of these ordinary members? There are plenty of speculations and prejudices around those questions but now an academic analysis which tries to answer some of them has been published. The Religion of Orange Politics
(Manchester University Press, 2020) is written by Dr Joseph Webster, a Scottish anthropologist of Presbyterian background, now teaching at Cambridge. He spent over five years socialising with Orangemen, observing and listening to them, and trying to understand their mentalité. The focus of his study is a former mining town in north Lanarkshire to which he gives the fictitious name Glencruix.
It is not surprising to read in his pages that Orangemen (all Webster's interviewees were men) remain fiercely opposed to Scottish independence, are Rangers supporters to a man (the bus for Ibrox leaves from their club), deeply loyal to the monarchy, proud of their Protestant heritage (despite the fact that few ever attend church) and strongly opposed to denominational schools. They are, in Webster's words, 'ultra-Protestant, ultra-British and ultra-Unionist'. But unlike the members of the Grand Lodge, these ordinary Orangemen seem to live in a pervasive culture of hatred, not simply of Roman Catholicism as a religion of error, but also of their fellow Scots who happen to be Catholic.
As one informant boasted: ‘We f***** hate them!' Another proudly admitted to Webster that on his donor card it is that stated that not one of his body parts after death should be donated to a Roman Catholic. Bigoted performers are also much appreciated at social nights in the Orange Hall. Apparently, the more bigoted they are, the better they are received.
Myths abound in their beliefs. Priests are accused of instructing their parishioners on how to vote in elections. The European Union is unacceptable because it is 'a puppet of Rome'. Pope Benedict resigned because he was about to be outed for his sexual peccadilloes and so on and so forth for several pages of the book.
The author really breaks new ground, however, when he shows how his interviewees are at one in seeing Protestant people as being now on the defensive in Scotland. Indeed, they are convinced that Roman Catholics have become the dominant force in Scottish society. They argue that followers of the Church of Rome control the Scottish media, politics, government, judiciary, and even business and finance. They may roar 'We are the people' in unison at Ibrox but they seem no longer to believe it.
Almost all of this, of course, is exaggerated fantasy but also ironic since some Catholics of Irish descent in Scotland themselves still wallow in persecuted victimhood. But the Orangemen of today are right to sense a historic shift in the status of their ancient foes. Catholics achieved occupational parity in this country in the 1990s and all forms of employment in Scottish society today are open to them. The fact that so many Catholics of Irish descent voted for independence in 2014 confirms how comfortable they now are in their Scottish skins. Working-class Orangemen on the other hand feel they are the displaced in the present day. They have become the victims and their enmity towards Catholics may have taken on a harder edge as a result.
Probably most readers of this piece will see Dr Webster's evidence as confirmation of their prejudice against Orangeism. However, though a Catholic myself, I do not share that view. I can understand and even sympathise with these disaffected people. Within a generation, their traditional world has all but crumbled. Deindustrialisation cost them many jobs. The mother church of Protestantism in Scotland is rapidly haemorrhaging numbers. The Union which they fervently support is under serious threat.
However, amid this landscape of real or impending disintegration, the culture of the Orange Order continues to provide a sense of identity, of camaraderie, companionship and mutual support. That is one reason why the Order has retained a resilience and continues to remain popular among some Protestant working-class people in villages and towns in central Scotland to this day.
Sir Tom Devine is Sir William Fraser Professor Emeritus of Scottish History and Palaeography in the University of Edinburgh