The Dissenters

IMG_20170817_170023“Have you heard of the Reformation?”, the lady asks as she takes my money and hands me an information leaflet. I explain that I come from just down the road.

She understands my answer and I understand why she asks the question. This is Scotland in August. The group waiting to take the tour are from Portugal while the last group of visitors were from China.

I don’t know why, but one of the biggest misconceptions I ever encounter is that most Scots are Catholic. German people ask me about this a lot. “You’re thinking of the Catalans” is what I normally reply.

It’s an easy mistake to make. Think of Scottish sport and it’s the Catholic half of Glasgow’s footballing duopoly who currently hold the bragging rights. It is they who regularly find themselves on the wrong end of big scores against the heavyweights of Milan, Manchester and Barcelona while Rangers, their Protestant rivals have sunk without trace, last seen running into the tunnel under a hail of rotten fruit in provincial Luxembourg.

It’s the same story if you think about Scotland’s past. Think of Scottish history and you think of the martyrdom of a Catholic queen or the glorious failure of a Catholic rebellion, immortalised on a thousand shortbread tins by the image of Charles Edward (Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria) Stuart.

Scotland’s most famous family firm will always be associated with the See of Rome, so much so that Bonnie Prince Charlie was born there and died there. Much of what draws people to Scotland comes from an era when the country was firmly tied to the Vatican.

But Catholic it is not: In the last census only sixteen percent of the country’s population identified themselves as such. The country’s break with Rome was a centuries long process of religious division and subdivision which means that anybody who comes from Scotland will almost certainly have heard of the Reformation.

If Scotland is not Catholic, it can’t justifiably be called Protestant either. Calling Scotland a Protestant country is like going to a doctor only to be diagnosed as “sick” –good to know, but woefully imprecise. In many ways, the Scottish Reformation is an ongoing process.

Today I am headed for Uddingston, out to the south-east of Glasgow, whose 5,000 residents have Scottish Presbyterian, Scottish Episcopal, Baptist, Nazarene and United Free churches on their doorsteps, always assuming they don’t go to the Catholic one. Religion is always a cause for dissent –and Scotland has always engaged in the debate with vigour.

You could do worse than come to this part of the world, out east of Glasgow to where I was born. Most visitors flock northwards to the Highlands in search of old ruins and Hollywood battlefields but if you want to understand the events which shaped modern Scotland then the best view can be obtained from where I’m standing right now.

I’m standing on  the lawns of Chatelherault, an eighteenth century hunting lodge built by the then-superpowerful Dukes of Hamilton. In its heyday you could have looked down from here onto the largest non-royal palace in Europe, although you should note the use of the past tense. This was before the enterprising 12th Duke allowed leased out the ground under his house to coal mines.

The Palace sank into the ground and today it is a sports complex. All that is left is the hunting lodge, colloquially known as the “dog kennel”. It is still very, very grand –especially the view. Up here, the banks of the Clyde become green again as they rise up into a valley –but the highlight is the panoramic view of modern Scotland.

On the left just over the crest of the hill is the village of Blantyre, birthplace of David Livingstone, whose evangelic zeal opened up Africa to the British Empire, an empire for which this region was once the workshop.

On the right, where once stood the cooling towers of Motherwell’s steel plants, you can now look out towards Holytown, birthplace of Andrew Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour movement and Jeremy Corbyn’s political ancestor.

Given the unpopularity of the party in Scotland today it seems strange to think that the country was once the cradle of British socialism — but it would have made much more sense when these hills were dotted with steelworks and coal mines, and one-third of all of the world’s ships were built on this river.

The British government certainly took the potential for dissent seriously when in 1919 they called troops onto the streets to calm demonstrations in what was termed “Red Clydeside”. Within five years, those reds were the British government.

Nowadays the wind has changed, and Scotland’s politics have  taken a different direction. Straight in front of us is the town of Hamilton, where in 1967 Winnie Ewing became the first Scottish National Party candidate to win a seat in the British Parliament.

Nationalists, socialists, rebels, dissenters. Scotland has always had different ideas about Britain’s destiny than its larger neighbour, and these ideas have not always been welcomed. But if you want to really understand Scottish dissent then forget the chain mail and the armour and the kilts and the muskets of the north, ignore the tour guides and film producers of the Highlands and Islands. Come here instead.

You might want to pack a phrasebook. A short walk down the hill into Hamilton introduces us to some uniquely Scottish expressions.

There’s clatty, to denote the sort of person who would discard their used white goods into their back garden, a popular local pastime on both sides of the river. There’s Buckie, used to describe an English-produced tonic wine for which this region apparently represents ninety percent of all sales.

More seriously there’s Presbytery: Much of the much of the unfamiliar vocabulary revolves around religion. Nowadays Presbyterianism is the dominant form of Protestantism in Scotland but it was not always thus, and it is never that simple.

Even today Presbyterians, offering reformed religion without bishops, and Episcopalians, the Scottish arm of the Church of England, compete for business on peaceful terms, pitching for customers amongst an increasingly agnostic public.

It was not always so. Back in 1679 Hamilton saw the climax of a particularly Scottish conflict, one which pitted Scot against Scot and Protestant against Protestant for more than forty years — and one which challenge your lexical abilities to the limits.

It all kicked off when King Charles I attempted to introduce Episcopalianism to Scotland. It fell to the Dean of St Giles’ Cathedral to deliver the message to an utterly unsympathetic audience, who showed their disgust by throwing their stools at him. Shortly afterwards it was bullets not chairs which were flying — and more than once the pistols entered the Kirk.

Dissent took a very public form when Presbyterians across Scotland signed a contract with God, vowing to defend their religion to the death. The Covenanting movement was born as Scots pledged their lives to defend their faith. Even if the term is unfamiliar then the principle probably is not.

Of course, it could never be that simple. After initial successes it became clear that “Covenanter” was far too broad a term for a movement whose members contained Royalistswho were loyal to the king despite his attempts to change their religion,: Parliamentarians who were not, and Engagers who thought that they could work with the king and even make Episcopalian England adopt Scottish thinking.

They were all right of course. The Lord had told them so, just as he had told continental Europe’s Protestants: Lutherans, Calvinists, Mennonites, Hoffmanites, Zwinglians, Melancthonists, Inspirationists to name but a very few. Once split, the tendency was to keep on splitting.

You can probably guess what happened next. The killing in the name of the Lord spanned four decades, two kings and a republic — and cost thousands of lives. On the edge of town, by the bridge which connects Hamilton to the neighbouring village of Bothwell, I come to the place where it came to a head.

The result of the battle of Bothwell Bridge should probably have been much closer than it actually was. Once more the Covenanters — by this time reduced to holding services in the open air — faced off against government troops: nominal Episcopalians serving a king who was flirting between that denomination and Catholicism.

Despite their lack of military training, the six thousand Coventanters were convinced that right would prevail — once they had determined what “right” actually was. The battle began in an unorthodox manner as the Coventanters, on this side of the bridge, sat down to debate theology, breaking down into smaller and smaller factions as they did so.

Their end came quickly. Having God on their side was no substitute for artillery fire. As government troops charged the bridge, all their theological differences were forgotten in the retreat. Around six hundred were killed, double this amount were captured and deported to the American colonies while some got away and formed yet another faction.

Today in Scotland Presbyterianism dominates once more in the form of its four main factions: the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland, the United Free Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). There hasn’t been a split  since the year 2000 so perhaps the ongoing process is nearing an end.

I’m beginning to understand why visitors to Scotland get confused but the principle is perfectly simple: once you spilt from the status quo then there is always the danger that you will split again.

When you move from rhythm and blues into soul, it’s only a matter of time before you split into Motown, Chicago and Psychedelic.

When William Webb Ellis ran with the ball across the goal line during a game of football at Rugby school he thought he’d created one new game. Nowadays there are two — and many other creeds of football besides.

When Britain voted to leave the European Union there were Remainers and Leavers. Now there are Hard Brexiteers, Soft Brexiteers, Pro Transitionists, Anti Transitionists, Faragists, Johnsonites…

Welcome to Bothwell. Even if you’ve never been here, you’ve been here before.





One thought on “The Dissenters

  1. OK – its your hols and you are entitled to ease up on the intellectual stuff for a few days, but I wonder why you did not seek to ask the Chatelharault custodian why the umpteenth Duke of Hamilton named his hunting howf after a French town whose speciality was/is (?) the manufacture of bombs and bullets for the French Army.

    Armed an answer of any character, you could have gone to the real Chatelherault. It`s a cool place – big Auchan, good IBIS with top-class in-house resto, a river with some bridges, cheap ammo. Check it out. Most of the buildings stand straight
    unlike the Duke`s mausoleum.


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