Anti-Polish Bigotry in Contemporary Scotland

The most recent and internationally-reported physical and verbal assaults on Catholic clergy and churches in Glasgow has occasioned not only vehement condemnation at home and abroad, but has also rekindled controversy over the long-standing theme of anti-Catholic bigotry and discrimination in Scotland.  Within this broad context lies the subtext of anti-Polonism, which has been brought to the fore by the desecration by vandals in April this year of St. Simon’s Catholic Church in the Glasgow district of Partick. Since the Second World War, when Polish soldiers based at the nearby Yorkhill Barracks adopted this church as their favorite place of worship, it has been a focal point for the sizable post-war Polish Catholic community in the city. That status has been enhanced following the arrival of much larger numbers of Polish migrants since 2004, when Poland joined the European Union, taking advantage of its charter on freedom of movement of labor. Today, some 25,000 of the approximately 70,000 post-2004 Poles in Scotland reside and work in Glasgow and its environs. The most credible explanation for the appalling attack on St. Simon’s, therefore, is that it was a premeditated act of an anti-Catholic, polonophobic nature.

Since the Reformation of the sixteenth century, Scotland has been a predominantly Protestant (overwhelmingly Presbyterian) country, with the Church of Scotland, recognized as the “Established Church,” preserving the legacy of the historical figures of firebrand Protestant clerics John Knox and John Calvin (the founder of Calvinism). Its concomitantly strong anti-Catholic animus was accentuated in the interwar period through public warnings and denunciations of the putative pernicious impact of Catholics, especially those originally from Ireland, on Scottish society. They were accused of all kinds of nefarious conduct, such as the lowering of public morals, the destruction of traditional standards of dignity and rectitude, and even of the import of filth and disease. Scotland obviously had its own homegrown eugenics fanatics.

From the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, large swathes of the Central Belt, including Greater Glasgow and Edinburgh, certain parts of Fife, as well as numerous towns and villages in the southwest of the country, became notorious as bastions of anti-Catholic bigotry. It is also relevant to recall that while the Polish troops who began to arrive in Scotland in 1940 in preparation for continuing the fight against Nazi Germany were at first warmly received by Scots as a whole, the Church of Scotland’s enthusiasm quickly cooled when it realized that most of them were devout Catholics. Only in the 1970s, as the ecumenical impulses and liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council filtered through, did the Church of Scotland begin to mellow somewhat, allowing it to pursue gradually a much less antipathetic attitude towards the 16 percent of Scots who were Catholic by that time.

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After 1945, of course, Poles who had seen military service in the war and who refused or were unable to return home to a Soviet-controlled, Communist Poland, together with a smaller number of deracinated Polish civilian refugees, constituted a modest part of this Catholic population. In addition to the religious and racist bias directed at them, they were also regarded, thanks to late wartime propaganda, with not inconsiderable ill will as “fascists” by pro-Soviet and Communist sections of the political Left, particularly the Labour Party and trade unions.

As time went on, however, Catholics were able at last to make their way in society, principally through new educational opportunities and the self-employed sector of business, so that nowadays, in the twenty-first century, there is no longer any notable institutional discrimination against Catholics, who are to be found in higher positions in, inter alia, government, academia, business, and the legal, medical, and other professions. Consequently, overtly ant-Catholic sentiment has been pushed to a periphery occupied by militant Protestant organizations, such as the 50,000-member Orange Order, whose head office is in Glasgow’s “loyalist” Bridgton area. Nonetheless, this propitious situation of general accord has been noticeably undermined in the last decade or so by a series of crucially important developments which have exercised a detrimental effect, in particular, on the wider Catholic community in Scotland and, in particular, on its Polish component.

The worldwide financial crisis instigated by the collapse of Lehmann Brothers in 2008 in the USA led in the UK, as elsewhere, to high unemployment, business and private bankruptcies, and a palpable increase in social and political tensions. All of these were exacerbated by the profoundly divisive 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum and then the Brexit referendum in 2016, the latter stoking a “Little England,” flag-waving, xenophobic nationalism among a small segment of the population in the United Kingdom, though clear majorities in Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain. Perhaps more significant were revelations of extensive child abuse in Scottish care homes administered by the Catholic Church, resulting in court cases and convictions of both its clergy and lay officials, male and female. Thus, the status and authority of the Catholic Church in the eyes of many nosedived, particularly among Protestants, some of whom used these indefensible scandals to justify their disdain, if not hatred, of all things Catholic.

It must be no coincidence, therefore, that a clear majority of recorded “hate crimes” in recent years (on grounds of religion and ethnicity) have been against Catholics, and that the number of parades in Glasgow by the Orange Order has risen to the point where there are now more of these than in Belfast. Moreover, in view of Glasgow’s fierce football rivalry, the demise, through a process of legal administration and ongoing liquidation in 2012, of one prominent club, Rangers FC, which was widely perceived to be “Protestant,” and the subsequent and continuing domination of Scottish football by Celtic FC, the perceived “Catholic” club, have produced in some quarters anger, acrimonious resentment and even despair. In such an unpleasant ambience, the Polish community has experienced more than its fair share of this antagonism, of which the assault on St. Simon’s was simply the latest and most outrageous.

It is firmly believed, on the basis mainly of reliable anecdotal evidence, that the incidence of physical and verbal attacks on Poles in Scotland, but especially in the major cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Perth, and Inverness, is substantially greater than what is officially recorded by Police Scotland, the mainstream media, and other public bodies. This puzzling absence of official acknowledgement in this regard may be plausibly ascribed to a studied unwillingness to contradict the mantra of the Scottish government (led by the Scottish National Party), that Scotland is a multicultural society where everyone is equal and treated fairly. In truth, many are aware that this is little more than vacuous rhetoric.

The postwar Polish community in Scotland had to contend with the prejudice of many Scots that they were of a detested, different religion, and also that they were “foreigners,” a double negative, so to speak. “Go home to Poland,” “Go back to your own country,” and the like were opprobrious epithets not uncommonly heard in public spaces until at least the 1960s (as the author knows from family experience and reports from others).  The animosity was too often transparent, and emanated almost entirely from Protestants. Unfortunately, and despite the many “civilizing” and “progressive” trends of the twenty-first century, this type of ethnic and religious insult is being suffered by an increasing number of the more recent Poles in Scotland, not least because virtually all of them are Catholic, or at least of Catholic heritage. This is not to deny that some of them have been accepted, have integrated and even assimilated into Scottish society, and have been successful in their chosen fields. But this is by no means a universal experience for present-day Poles in this country. Notwithstanding official assurances that all is well in “Bonnie Scotland,” formidable obstacles are in place against them, including, notably, a worrying proportion of the public mood.

(Photo credit: Lirazelf via Wikimedia)


  • Peter D. Stachura

    Peter D. Stachura, M.A (Hons), Ph.D., D.Litt., F.R.Hist.S., is Professor of Modern European History and Director of the Centre for Research in Polish History at the University of Stirling. He is the author of Poland, 1918-1945 (2004); The Poles in Britain 1940-2000: From Betrayal to Assimilation (2004); and Poland in the Twentieth Century (1999).

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