The Racialisation Of The Irish In Scotland

The piece below is a chapter, from the recently published book No Problem Here: Understanding Racism In Scotland, in which various writers explore racism in Scotland. This chapter sets the racialisation of the Irish community in Scotland in its historical context. Jim Slaven has been campaigning against racism & sectarianism for over 30 years and first raised the issue of institutional anti-Irish racism- and its connectedness with sectarianism- in 1992, during the state ban on James Connolly commemorations in Edinburgh.

Jim is a writer, activist and founding member of the James Connolly Society. His work looks at the intersection between race, nation and class. He has written and lectured widely on culture and politics from a working class perspective. He is currently Director of Connolly150 and working on projects using artistic approaches and techniques to develop open dialogue and create social change.

Jim Slaven delivering the oration at the Dublin Trades Council 2018 James Connolly Commemoration in Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. May 2018.


The purpose of this piece is to offer a historical perspective on the process of racialisation which impacted on the Irish community in Scotland. Traditional accounts of the Irish experience have tended to focus on the role of the Catholic Church in the assimilation process or involved localised studies of the community in specific geographical locations. Less has been written on the role Irish immigration (and their place as a racialized Other) played on the development of notions of Scottishness (and Britishness). I will also explore the key role Scots played in the development and promotion of racialism during a vital period of class and state formation.

Wha’s Like Us?

Discussing the Irish experience in Scotland in a historical perspective is a strangely challenging endeavour. Not because there is not a wealth of historical material to be researched or empirical evidence to be analysed. It is challenging because the Scotland it reveals does not easily correspond with the way Scottish people view their history. Particularly in relation to race, racism, imperialism, state and class formation and nationalism (both Scottish and British). The political decline of unionism in Scotland and a body politic dominated by Scottish nationalism has reinforced Scotland’s view of itself and its history as distinct from England.

The focus on Scottish difference from England and Englishness also underpins much of indigenous historiograph. Indeed much coverage of racism in Scotland has highlighted Scotland’s perceived good record in this area.[i] This is particularly the case when you only consider the issue of racism as being relevant to immigrants from ‘New Commonwealth’ countries. Of course the vast majority of these immigrants settled not in Scotland, but in England. It is also true that the vast majority of these immigrants were black. Attempts to limit discussion of racism to either this timeframe or the black/ white paradigm only encourages a ‘no problem here’ mentality in Scotland.[ii]

At the outset we should be clear that ‘race’ is a social construct. That is not, of course, to deny the obvious fact that migrants have travelled to Scotland over the centuries. Neither is it to deny that many of them have suffered racial discrimination, from individuals and institutions. It is merely to be clear that the ideology of racism does not operate in a vacuum. The place of racialized migrant labour in relation to (and reproduction of) the capitalist means of production should be front and centre. It is also to highlight the way racism interacts with other economic and political ideologies. In the case of the Irish in Scotland, for instance, their economic and political exclusion was justified on the basis of ‘race’[iii].

The New Labour project of ‘devolution all round’ has served to reinforce the view of a resurgent ‘Celtic’ nationalism dragging power away from the imperial centre.[iv] This process of state reconfiguration has provided the policy backdrop which has led to a reimagining of Scotland’s place in the Union along Scottish nationalist lines. This narrative places England in the role of Scotland’s historic Other. However it was not always thus.

Double Barrel Racism

By the beginning of the nineteenth century significant numbers of immigrants from Ireland were arriving in Britain. In Scotland, like elsewhere, these immigrants came mainly from rural Ireland and were making their way to ever expanding urban centres. The industrial revolution in lowland Scotland brought with it huge demand for low cost labour to build the canals, railways and road, and work in the factories and mines. The Irish who arrived in Britain were arriving into host communities with pre-existing ideas of the Irish and Irishness. These ideas were based around specific discourses about racialism, national identity and state formation based not only on centuries of British occupation of Ireland but also underpinned by cultural and scientific racism.

Etienne Balibar has argued that in France the ‘Arab-Islamic’ community tend to suffer a double hit of discrimination[v]. As they are seen in a colonial racist context to be inferior while at the same time their religion marks them out for cultural racism and cast as alien. A similar process has impacted on the experience of the Irish in Scotland[vi]. That both racism framing the Irish as inferior, in the context of Britain’s long colonial relationship with Ireland, and racism framing the Irish (Catholic) as alien from the British/Scottish (Protestant) occurred. This overdetermination of exclusion based on religion with exclusion based on race posited the Catholic Irish as a racialized Other in Scotland[vii].

There are differences and connectedness between these two forms of racism and difficulties in identifying the precise boundaries between each as there is often overlap and coexist[viii]. Despite this the distinction is worth preserving as historically anti-Irish racism has applied both of these forms of racism. Viewing the Irish (in the context of colonial rule) as inferior and also through racialized religion as alien. It allows us to place the experience of the Irish in Scotland within the historical context of particular strain of Scottish (and British) thought. Furthermore this historical approach offers an insight into the development of Scottish (and British) cross class national identity which places the Catholic Irish as the Other during the process of (British) state formation.

In a Scottish context this is significant as the role of the Other in the formation of Scottish national identity had been occupied by the English until the eighteenth century. The Scottish embrace of Protestantism, political union, imperialism, British state formation and then British national identity (albeit with a Scottish nationality within it) had profound implications for not only Irish immigrants but for Scotland and the story Scotland tells itself in the context of a resurgent nationalism. Although out with the scope of this chapter the role of state strategies of developing cross-class identification with the nation state in the nineteenth century and the role of the Catholic Church in ‘incorporating and denationalising’ the Irish community are also crucial.[ix]

Carlyle’s Boat

It should also be acknowledged that during the nineteenth century the development of British nationalism was paralleled by the development of a particular sort of Irish nationalism[x]. To understand one it is essential to understand the other. Leading Scottish intellectual and political commentator Thomas Carlyle, writing in the context of the national crisis in 1839, was able to claim “Ireland, now for the first time, in such strange circuitous way, does find itself embarked in the same boat with England, to sail together, or to sink together”.[xi] The boat serves as an allegorical representation of the union between Britain and Ireland and Carlyle gives us a useful insight into the dialectical relationship between the two islands and the two emerging nationalisms.[xii] The way Scotland (and the British state) saw itself during this period was often in relation to Ireland. Through their respective nationalisms and through categories of race, nation and class.

Those Irish arriving in Scotland were arriving in a country which had changed dramatically over the previous centuries. Each significant change, religious, political and cultural, had widened the gulf between indigenous Scots and the arriving Irish. The Reformation, the act of union and the industrial revolution had each driven Scotland closer to the imperial centre and further from an understanding of the Ireland the immigrants were leaving. These factors meant the Irish arriving in central Scotland were perhaps geographically only crossing a short stretch of water but by every other standard it was another world.

Following the Reformation Scotland had embraced their new reformed faith enthusiastically. Indeed the Reformation itself was a largely peaceful affair in Scotland. Certainly when compared to the Thirty Years War fought out in central Europe between 1618-1648. In Scotland, with the exception of St John Ogilvie, no priests were executed and large scale civil conflict resulted[xiii]. Catholics ‘simply melted away’[xiv] with the exception of a communities in the north east and Gaelic speaking West Highlands. Between 1680 and 1800 the Catholic population of Scotland fell from 50,000 to 30,000.[xv]

In 1707 Scotland entered into a political union with England. Then became one of the first countries to industrialise.  All of this at a time when, in terms of religion, Ireland remained loyal to Rome while occupied by Britain and economically destitute. Not only was Ireland not reconciled to its political and economic situation, at various periods it was in open rebellion. At least in part as a legislative response to this rebellion and perceived ‘Irish receptivity to French ideas’, in 1800 Ireland was brought directly under the control of Britain with the Act of Union[xvi].

While, following Scotland’s political union in 1707, the Scots had been able to retain their own legal, educational and religious institutions, Ireland was to be controlled almost totally by London. So while the political union, and a degree of autonomy through national institutions, had seen Scotland move closer to England and the British imperial project the 1800 Union with Ireland had the opposite effect.

The 1800 Act of Union while on one level merely institutionalising the de facto control of Ireland by Britain, also reorganised the British state. Absorbing the Irish, with all their difference, directly into the British state. In other words it absorbed a colony directly into the imperial nation. With this came a new name, ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. As has been argued by Martin even the new name itself is a pointer to problems to come. The ‘United Kingdom’ signifies the unity between the nations of Scotland, England and Wales while Ireland follows a conjunction. This reading of even the state’s name highlights the contradictory position of the Irish. Incorporated into Britain politically and economically but still colonized and considered alien. The Irish were constructed as religiously, culturally and racially Other.[xvii]

The 1800 Act of Union made Britain’s direct control over Ireland, economically, politically and in terms of suppressing rebellion, easier. However the corollary of that was that any attempt to confine Irish difference and revolutionary potential to the island of Ireland was impossible[xviii]. This led to the Irish been seen as a threat to ‘national security’ in what has been describes as ‘the first war on terror’ (Martin, 2012)[xix]. The process of problematizing (and racializing) the Irish serves a key role in cementing the modern state’s legitimacy over the use of force. Particularly in the context of political violence in what Foucault describes as the ‘pact of security’[xx]. This debate about ‘security’ and ‘terror’ in part underpinned the development of a British (state) ideology which incorporated Scotland, England and Wales in a ‘one nation’ narrative able to reproduce ‘one people’ (Althusser, 2014).[xxi] The implications on this focus on Irish ‘terror’ and security were as relevant in Scotland as elsewhere in the state.[xxii]

These changes led the British political and intellectual elites to think through the implications of these changes. Traditional markers of difference between Britain and Ireland such as religion, nation and race had to be rethought in the context of Irish absorption into the newly expanded imperial nation. How was this incorporation of the Irish to work? Was assimilation possible/desirable? How could Irish difference be tolerated within the newly constituted British nation? And what to do about Irish anti-colonialism now absorbed into the colonial centre? These are the questions which dominated political discourse in nineteenth century Britain.

Scotland And The Alchemy Of Race

As Kidd points out ‘racialism was an omnipresent factor in nineteenth century intellectual life’ and in Scotland this meant that ‘race had a spectacularly different range of meanings for Scots of the Victorian era compared to that held by their descendants in the second half of the twentieth century’[xxiii]. These debates about race and racialism, inclusion and exclusion into the state played an important role in how the Scots imagined and re-imaged themselves in the context of a developing and racializing British (and Scottish) nationalism. These debate about racialism did not just affect Scotland, Scotland affected those debates. Leading Scottish scientists and intellectuals were central to the advancement of what Appiah describes as a system of knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, that ‘divide human beings into a small number of groups, called ‘races’, in such a way that all members of these races shared certain fundamental, biological heritable, moral and intellectual characteristics that they do not share with members of any other race.’[xxiv]

While it is important to point out that, like race itself, ‘whiteness’ is a social construct. Also, like Scots, the Irish in nineteenth century did not describe themselves as white it is also important to see this process of racial categorisation as being about more than colour. Recognising what Jacobson describes as ‘the alchemy of race’, the strange process where apparently white people where denied their whiteness by those defining it as Protestant, Saxon and British. This process led to a system of racial classification where ‘one might be both white and racially distinct from other whites’[xxv]. In nineteenth century Scotland these debates about racial categorisations took on added importance as Scotland enthusiastically embraced the idea of Britain. Racialism, along with shared Protestantism, the economic gains of industrialisation and empire, and the inclusion of Scotland into a broader Britain wide party political system at Westminster, played a significant role in cementing Scotland’s place in Britain. The idea of Scotland being racially other than Celts was a powerful part of the process.[xxvi] Scotland was to be British (albeit with Scottish nationality within it) and Scotland was to be Protestant and Teutonic (sometimes Saxon). In other words Scotland was to be like the English and unlike the Irish.

Therefor Scotland’s attitude to the Irish race cannot be disentangled from Scotland’s view of its own race and Scotland’s role in developing racialism. Race and racialism were significant in the way Scotland thought about itself and others. That is not to say these thoughts were fixed or consistent. Race had varied, situational and often contradictory definitions[xxvii]. Ranging from radical polygenists who believed the difference between races was so great that the bible’s story of Adam and Eve was insufficient to explain human origin. While many others viewed racialism as an important, and new, scientific discovery they stuck to a monogenist explanation of human origin, for fear of being labelled atheists[xxviii].

It should be stressed that although race was a common topic in intellectual life in Scotland in the nineteenth century this was not in itself a response to Irish immigration. Rather Scotland’s fascination with racialism can be traced back to the Scottish enlightenment in the eighteenth century. Henry Home, Lord Kames, in his 1774 work ‘Sketches of the History of Man’ begins to question the bibles explanation of the origins of humanity[xxix]. This laid down a challenge that was enthusiastically taken up by those in the mainstream of Scottish intellectual life over the next century and a half.

‘Race is everything’

Prominent among these thinkers was Dr Robert Knox, who has been described as the ‘founding father of modern racism’[xxx]. Knox had been one of Scotland’s leading anatomists, with his lectures attracting hundreds of spectators, before he was exposed as being a central figure in the scandal of Irish immigrants, Burke and Hare.[xxxi] Moving to London Knox would go on to write one of the most infamous racialist and anti- Irish (and more broadly anti- Celticist) works of the time, The Races of Men[xxxii]. The purpose of The Races of Men is clear as Knox states ‘the object of this work is to show that the European races, so called, differ from each other as widely as the Negro does from the Bushman; the Caffre from the Hottentot; the Red Indian of America from the Esquimaux; the Esquimaux from the Basque.”[xxxiii]

For Knox, who argued ‘race is everything in human history’, it was not enough to show that the Irish were racially inferior in Scotland.[xxxiv] He claimed race, that is the inferiority of the Irish race, was responsible for Ireland’s problems also and he suggested a solution: ethnic cleansing.

“the source of all evil (there) lies in the race, the Celts race in Ireland. The race must be forced from the soil; by fair means, if possible; still they must leave. England’s safety requires it. I speak not of the justice of the cause; nations must ever act as Machiavelli advised: look to yourself. The Orange (Order) of Ireland is a Saxon confederation for… clearing the land of all papists and Jacobites; this means Celts.”

Continuing Knox stated the Encumbered Estates Act, introduced at Westminster at the end of An Gorta Mor, ‘aims simply at the quiet and gradual extinction of the Celtic race in Ireland’.[xxxv]

Knox was far from alone in his views of the Irish. Thomas Carlyle, one of Britain’s leading public intellectuals of the time and Scottish Presbyterian, wrote the following about ‘these poor Celtiberian Irish brothers’ in Chartism (1839):

“Crowds of miserable Irish darken all our towns. The wild Milesian features, looking false ingenuity, restlessness, unreason, misery and mockery, salute you on all highways and byways. The English coachman, as he whirls past, lashes the Milesian with his whip, curses him with his tongue; the Milesian is holding out his hat to beg. He is the sorest evil this country has to strive with. In his rags and laughing savagery, he is there to undertake all work that can be done by mere strength of hand and back; for wages that will purchase him potatoes. He needs only salt for condiment; he lodges to his mind in any pighutch or doghutch, roosts in out houses; and wears a suit of tatters, the getting off and on of which is said to be a difficult operation, transacted only in festivals and the hightides of the calendar. The Saxon man if he cannot work on these terms, finds no work. He too may be ignorant; but he has not sunk from decent manhood to squalid apehood; he cannot continue there . . . There abides he, in his squalor and unreason, in his falsity and drunken violence, as the ready-made nucleus of degradation and disorder.”[xxxvi]

‘Settled Hostility’

The poverty and social conditions the Irish experienced in Scotland were very similar to those experienced by the Irish arriving in England. The experience of Irish immigrants in Scotland could not be said to be worse than that suffered in England. It was just mediated through a different lens. Scotland’s reaction to the Irish immigrants was to a heavily influence by the profound changes which the country had undergone. Scotland had over the previous three hundred years undertaken a huge conversion from Catholic to Protestant country and from independent nation to one embracing the Union with England. These developments had a very profound effect on the nations psyche and the development of societal structures. In particular the Act of Union recognised the specificity of the Scottish context by allowing for the continuation of its separate legal, education and church systems.

This arrangement, what Nairn describes as a ‘peculiarly patrician bargain’ between the two ruling classes, effectively left the moral wellbeing and statehood of the nation in the hands of the Kirk.[xxxvii] So while Scotland would have no parliament the state of the nation would be annually discussed by the general assembly of the Church of Scotland. Which makes all the more remarkable the Church of Scotland’s report entitled ‘The Menace of the Irish race to our Scottish Nationality’.[xxxviii] The report outlined the perceived damage the Irish were doing to the moral fabric of Scotland. It should be noted that indigenous Scottish Catholics and Irish Protestant immigrants were excluded from criticism.

Ireland had resisted the reformation which Scotland had embraced. Thus the vast majority of the Irish arriving in Scotland at the end of the eighteenth century were Catholic, many only spoke their native tongue. Of this situation Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote, in Carlylean terms, in his aptly entitled ‘History of England’ that

‘As the rudeness and ignorance of the Irish were extreme, they were sunk below the reach of that curiosity and love of novelty by which every other people in Europe had been seized at the beginning of the century and which had engaged them in innovations and religious disputes, with which they were still violently agitated. The ancient superstitions, the practices and observances of their fathers, mingled and polluted with many wild opinions, still maintained an unshakable empire over them; and the example alone of the English was sufficient to render the Reformation odious to the prejudices of the discontented Irish.’[xxxix]

The attitude of the majority of Scots to the Irish has been described as one of ‘settled hostility’[xl]. This hostility can be placed in three categories: economic, political and moral. Economically the native worker viewed the Irish as competition whose presence would have the effect of driving down wages, forcing native Scots to move or change job. However as Handley points out

‘It was not the case of Scots abandoning types of unskilled labour to the strangers in favour of the skilled branches, because both the unskilled and skilled forms of labour were new ones, created by the requirements of the industrial revolution that was underway. The Irish in Scotland made that revolution possible and by their labour established jobs for Scottish workers.’[xli]

Irrespective of the contribution the Irish worker made to economic stimulation and job creation the hostility between the two sets of workers often manifested itself in outright racial conflict. During the nineteenth century it was not uncommon for a game of ‘hunting the Barney’ to take place during the Glasgow Fair. Barney being the negative nickname given to Irish immigrants of the time and used in much the same way as Paddy would be today. Essentially any Irishman entering the area of the fair would be captured and subjected to abuse about the way they dressed or spoke and then beaten. The fair would often end with young men arming themselves and heading for the Irish areas around Saltmarket to break the windows, doors or heads of any unfortunate Irish the could find[xlii]. Such behaviour was by no means confined to Glasgow or west central Scotland and similar racial attacks have been documented in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Perth and Inverness[xliii].

The geographic spread of such levels of hostility had very little to do with the numbers of Irish residing in the locality. Indeed there is no need for any Irish to be present to ensure the existence of anti-Irish feelings. And while the number of English workers in Wales during this period far out stripped the Irish it was still the Irish who were the main object of hostility.[xliv] Redford points out that there were many Scottish migrant engaged in agricultural work in the first half of the nineteenth century however very little is known of them as they didn’t receive poor relief or come before the courts in high numbers[xlv]. The reasons for this may be numerous but the point is that neither Scottish agricultural migrants in England or English works in Wales were segregated in the same way as the Irish. As Hickman argues

‘Irish labour was distinguished from the rest of the seasonal workforce, not just because the Irish were an essential component of the harvest workforce, but because of the extant notions of ‘the Irish’. The conjunction of migrant labour, poverty and Catholicism was recognized as Irish and as ‘immigrant’. This explains why the Irish were seen, categorized and subject to the attention of the magistrates and poor law guardians to a greater degree than, for example, Scottish migrants. The latter were poor too, but they were part of a longer established and more acceptable union, and they were Protestants.’[xlvi]

In making the case that the Irish were a racialized minority in Scotland we need to move beyond the black/white paradigm of race. The experience of the Irish in Scotland during this period can be contrasted with the experience of Irish immigrants in the United States who it has been argued would (eventually) lay claim to ‘whiteness’.[xlvii] Knox, for example, very rarely used the terms black or white. A complex character who claimed to be related to John Knox, he was a firm opponent of organised religion and opponent of monarchy. He was also an outspoken critic of European colonialism, which he described as seizing land ‘by fraud and violence’.[xlviii]

The views of racialists like Knox in the nineteenth century are not reducible to the advocacy of the superiority of ‘white’ over ‘black’. As Gibbons has pointed out, for the imperial British nation the whiteness of the Irish served to complicate not simplify their status.

‘… a native population which happened to be white was an affront to the very idea of the ‘white man’s burden’ and threw into disarray some of the constitutive categories of colonial discourse. The ‘otherness’ and alien character of Irish experience was all the more disconcerting precisely because it did not lend itself to visible racial divisions.’[xlix]

When exploring the connectedness between racialism and racism in the context of British colonial nationalism we are working on theoretical foundations laid by Balibar who describes the relationship between racialism and racism as follows:

‘Racism- a true ‘total social phenomenon’- inscribed itself in practices (forms of violence, contempt, intolerance, humiliation and exploitation), in discourses and representations which are so many intellectual elaborations of the phantasm of prophylaxis or segregation (the need to purify the social body, to preserve ‘one’s own’ or ‘our’ identity from all forms of mixing, interbreeding or invasion) and which are articulated around stigmata of otherness (name, skin colour, religious practices). It therefore organises affects (the psychological study of these has concentrated upon describing their obsessive character and also their irrational ambivalence) by conferring upon them a stereotyped form, as regards both their ‘objects’ and their ‘subjects’. It is this combination of practices, discourses, and representations in a network of affective stereotypes which enables us to give an account of the formation of a racist community (or a community of racists, among whom there exist bonds of ‘imitation’ over a distance) and also of the way in which, as a mirror image, individuals and collectives that are prey to racism (its ‘objects’) find themselves constrained to see themselves as a community’.[l]

One Scotland?

Accounts of the Irish experience in Scotland traditionally focus on the process of assimilation and the role of the Catholic Church in Scotland in supporting the Irish community while facilitating this assimilation process[li]. Other accounts focus narrowly on the immigrant experience, sometimes in specific geographical locations in Scotland[lii]. Less has been written about the role the presence of the Irish in Scotland played in the formation of a cross class British and Scottish national identity and state formation. In other words on what the story of Irish immigration and the experience of the immigrants and their ancestors tells us about Scotland and the Scots. Particularly in the making of working class in Scotland which was a heterogeneous and multi-racial formation from the industrial revolution onwards[liii].  And Scotland’s specific role in developing discourses on race, religion and nation which placed the Catholic Irish as a racialized Other in an effort to underpin British state formation and national identity.

Once here their relationship with the Scottish Catholic church was complex and often contradictory. On the one hand they found the solidarity and relative harmony that came from living amongst other Catholics. On the other hand while the Catholic Church was very keen to service this huge influx they were conscious of Scotland recent history of anti-Catholic societies and riots. Indeed it has been suggested that in the 1790’s there were forty three anti Catholic societies in Glasgow and only thirty nine Catholics[liv]. So while Scottish bishops were desperately in need of priests they were also making it clear to the Vatican that they would rather not have Irish priests[lv].During this period the only Catholic seminary in Scotland was even reluctant to accept children of Irish immigrants into the fold[lvi]. This was partly due to the fact that Scottish priests had recently began serving as British army chaplains and many Irish priests defended their flocks right to resist the same body[lvii]. It was also driven by a fear of outright colonisation by their Irish cousins, the Scottish Catholic church was after all downgraded to missionary status between 1603 and 1878[lviii].

Many of the Irish arriving in Scotland did so as a consequence of various political rebellions at home, particularly 1798 and 1803 and they maintained their political views in their new home. This met with disapproval from Bishop Scott and the Scottish Catholic hierarchy. Scott himself commented of his congregation ‘they are very national in their ideas and sentiments – rather too much so in some cases’[lix]. This simmering resentment between parishioners and church surfaced publicly in 1823 with the formation of the Glasgow Catholic Association whose aim was to support the work of Daniel O’Connell for Catholic emancipation. Led by an Irish teacher named William McGowan they would over a period of time raise various complaints against Scott and others ranging from lack of financial transparency to ‘occasional display of anti-Irish feeling very nearly completed the alienation of the intelligent and sensible portion of the congregation’[lx]. The Association attempts to raise enough money to start a Catholic newspaper and open a library were thwarted when Bishop Scott condemned the group from the pulpit and had McGowan removed from his teaching position[lxi]. As Hickman has noted the Catholic church played a key role in denationalising the Irish.[lxii] In Scotland this has lent added weight to the ‘Scottish Catholic’ construct which in turn plays into the state narrative of ‘One Scotland’.[lxiii]

It is clear that by the middle of the nineteenth century Scotland was in the midst of dramatic urban expansion. As industrialisation gathered pace, people flocked to the urban centres searching for work and an escape from rural poverty. However as these fledgling cities and towns expanded the infrastructure required was absent. Inadequate housing and water supply allied with practically non-existent sanitation resulted in horrendous living conditions.  In each of these over populated centres could be found Irish workers and their families. Almost always occupying the lowest paid jobs and living in the very worse conditions.

No event dominates Irish history more than An Gorta Mor (or The Great Hunger) beginning in 1845. Despite the Scottish Government’s Education Scotland website in 2015 still claiming “(before An Gorta Mor) emigration from Ireland could best be described as a trickle. After the famine it became a flood.[lxiv]”, in fact this period marked for Irish immigration to Scotland what Handley describes as ‘both the end and the beginning of an epoch’[lxv], after rising steadily for half a century the number of Irish immigrants to Scotland would fall swiftly thereafter.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the structural requirement for Irish migrant labour was broadly accepted and the state began to focus on the settlement of the Irish workers. This was particularly the case in Scotland were Irish labour played a central role in the workforce compared to many other parts of Britain. The State’s response to the issue of settlement was to attempt to address the perceived problems of Irish settlement in Scotland.

As Swift has argued the Irish in Victorian society were “Outcast from British capitalism as the poorest of the poor, from mainstream British politics as separatist nationalists and republicans, from the “Anglo-Saxon” race as “Celts,” and as Catholics from the dominant forms of British Protestantism, the Irish were presented as the outsiders of contemporary society on the basis of class, nationality, race, and religion, a people set apart, rejected and despised.”[lxvi]

This at a time when social relations were in a state of flux and capitalism was striving to mould the working class into a viable labour force respectful of law and order and under one national banner. Any strategies developed to deal with Irish settlement would be undertaken with all the working class in mind and long term objectives. It is in the context of the State response to the Irish that we must view individual responses. As Balibar has pointed out racist behaviour is never just ‘a relationship to the Other’ rather it is relations mediated through the State and ‘lived’.[lxvii]


Whether you consider the continuing size and profile of the Orange Order in central Scotland or the failure of the state to deal with the widespread singing of songs at football and within communities whose lyrics include the expressed desire to be ‘Up to our knees in fenian blood’ or ‘The famine’s over, why don’t you go home’, indicates not just a problem with racism but a historically and politically specific racism aimed at the Irish in Scotland.[lxviii] When the Irish Consulate in Scotland raised concerns over ‘The Famine Song’ with the SNP Government the response was telling. “The Scottish Government is totally committed to combating sectarianism and bigotry”. In other words this was a problem of intra-Christian rivalry and not of racism. This displays a worrying misunderstanding of racism and Scotland’s history.

As we have seen Irish participation in Scottish society was not without its challenges and obstacles, taking place as it did at a time when Scottish and British national identities were being constructed and class and state formations were coming to the fore. The key lesson of the Irish experience in Scotland is not that it was exceptional, because it was not, or to feed some modern craving for victimhood. Rather the key lesson is that anti-racism in Scotland cannot focus exclusively on state racism or racism associated with British nationalism. The starting point for Scottish anti-racism must be an acknowledgement of indigenous ideology of racism developed here and enthusiastically pursued against Irish migrant labour in Scotland.


[i] Welcome To Scotland? (accessed Nov 2015)

[ii] ‘No Problem Here’: Action Research against Racism in a Mainly White Area, Patricia Donald, Susan Gosling, Jean Hamilton, Nicolas Hawkes, David McKenzie and Ian Stronach, British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 21, No. 3, Teacher Research: Methodological and Empowerment Issues in Practical Research for Improved Teaching and Learning (Jun., 1995), pp. 263-275

[iii] Robert Miles, Racism and Migrant Labour, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982, p 122

[iv] See for example British Museum lecture series on Politics and Nationalism in the Celtic Nations. (accessed Nov 2015)

[v] Etienne Balibar, Racism and Politics in Europe Today, New Left Review, 186, March/ April 1991

[vi] Hickman 1996

[vii] Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialised Other, Palgrave, 2014, p162

[viii] M Silverman, Deconstructing the Nation, Immigration, Racism and Citizenship in Modern France, Routledge, 1993

[ix] Hickman 1996

[x] Bruce Nelson, Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race, Princeton, 2012

[xi] Thomas Carlyle, Chartism, The Works Of Thomas Carlyle, ed HD Traill, Chapman and Hall, 1899, p140

[xii] Amy E Martin, Alter-Nations: Nationalisms, Terror and the State in Nineteenth Century Britain and Ireland, The Ohio State University Press, 2012, p1

[xiii] John Cooney, Scotland and the Papacy, Paul Harris, 1982 p. 10

[xiv] Tom Gallagher, Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis, Argyll Publishing, 2013, p18

[xv] James Darragh, ‘Catholic population of Scotland in the twentieth century’, Glasgow Observer and Scottish Catholic Herald, Scottish Survey. Quoted in Gallagher, 2013 p 34

[xvi] Roy Foster, Modern Irish History 1600- 1972, Penguin, 1988, p282

[xvii] Amy E Martin, 2012

[xviii] Amy E Martin, 2012

[xix] Amy E Martin, 2012

[xx] Michael Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977- 1978, Translated by Graham Burchell, Palgrave, 2007, p372- 373

[xxi] Louis Althusser, On The Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus, Verso, 2004

[xxii] Mairtin Sean O Cathain, Irish Republicanism in Scotland 1858- 1916, Irish Academic Press, 2007

[xxiii] Colin Kidd, The Forging of Race: Race and Scripture in the Protestant World 1600- 2000, Cambridge, 2006, p15

[xxiv] Anthony Appiah, ‘Race’ in Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, University of Chicago Press, 1995, p276

[xxv] Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Colour, Cambridge, 1998, p6-8

[xxvi] Colin Kidd, Race, Empire and the Limits of Nineteenth Century Scottish Nationhood, The Historical Journal, Vol 46, No 4 (Dec 2003), p 873- 892

[xxvii] P. Mandler, ‘”Race” and “nation” in mid-Victorian thought’, in S. Collini, R. Whatmore and B. Young Eds, History, Religion and Culture: British Intellectual History 1750- 1950 (Cambridge 2000)

[xxviii] Kidd, 2003 p 877

[xxix] Henry Home, Lord Kames, Sketches of the history of man (2 volumes, Edinburgh, 1774). Quoted in Colin Kidd, Race, Empire and the Limits of Nineteenth Century Scottish Nationhood, The Historical Journal, Vol 46, No 4 (Dec 2003) p 878

[xxx] Douglas Lorimer, Race, Science and Culture: Historical Continuities and Discontinuities 1850- 1914 in Shearer, West eds The Victorians and Race, Ashgate, 1996, p 12-33

[xxxi] Owen Dudley Edwards, Burke and Hare, Birlinn, 2014

[xxxii] Robert Knox, The Races of Men, London, 1850

[xxxiii] Knox, 1850, p39

[xxxiv] Knox, 1850, p 17

[xxxv] Knox, 1850 p 253- 254

[xxxvi] Thomas Carlyle, Chartism, 1839, p 182-183

[xxxvii] Tom Nairn, the Break Up Of Britain, 2003 (3rd edition), p 118

[xxxviii] Church of Scotland Report, The Menace of the Irish Race to Our Scottish Nationality, 1923, (accessed Nov 2015)

[xxxix] Quoted in N Lebow, British Historians and Irish History, Eire-Ireland Vol 8

[xl] Handley, n.d, p131

[xli] Handley n.d p74

[xlii] Handley, n.d, p132

[xliii] See Handley, n.d, p132 -142

[xliv] Quoted in Hickman, 1995, p92

[xlv] Quoted in Hickman, 1995, p80

[xlvi] Hickman, 1995, p81

[xlvii] Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, 1994

[xlviii] Knox, 1850 p77

[xlix] Luke Gibbons, in Transformations in Irish Culture, University of Notre Dame Press, 1996, p149

[l] Etienne Balibar, ‘Is there a Neo-Racism?’, in Etienne Baliber and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class, Verso, 1991, p 17-18

[li] Tom Devine Ed, Irish Immigrants and Scottish Society in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Scotland, John Donald, 1991

[lii] Martin J Mitchell, The Irish in the West of Scotland 1797- 1848, John Donald, 1998

[liii] Robert Miles, Racism and Migrant Labour, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982, p129

[liv] John Cooney, Scotland and the Papacy, Paul Harris, 1982, p10

[lv] Quoted in Gallagher, 1987 , p9

[lvi] Gallagher, 1987, p12

[lvii] Cooney, 1982, p14

[lviii] Gallagher, 1987, p9

[lix] Quoted in Handley, n.d 128

[lx] Quoted in Handley, n.d p129

[lxi] Gallagher, 1987, p13

[lxii] See Hickman, 1995

[lxiii] (accessed Nov 2015)

[lxiv] Scottish Government, Education Scotland Website, (accessed Nov 2015)

[lxv] Handley, n.d, p157

[lxvi] Roger Swift, Thomas Carlyle, “Chartism”, and the Irish in Early Victorian England, Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 29, No. 1 (2001), pp. 67-83

[lxvii] Etienne Balibar, Racism and Politics in Europe Today’,  New Left Review 186, 1991


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