The rise, and possible fall, of the Edinburgh football club Heart of Midlothian is a morality tale of modern soccer. It is also a story about Scotland's relationship with the beautiful—and cruel—gameby Harry Reid / January 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
Celtic and Rangers, the so-called old firm, are Scotland’s two most famous football clubs. Their intense and visceral rivalry is rooted in the country’s sectarianism, which seeps out well beyond their home city of Glasgow—including into Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, 45 miles to the east.
Celtic have a dual identity, being both Irish and Scottish. Brother Walfrid, the founder of the club, aimed for social integration: Celtic would be a club that both Irishmen and Scots could support. But even to this day, many Celtic supporters believe that their club represents an exiled people, and that any success it gains is compensation for generations of suffering. This gives an atavistic potency to the fan base. The 1920s and 1930s saw bitter industrial agitation in parts of Scotland. On Clydeside, and in the coalfields of Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Fife, many of the Catholic Scottish-Irish moved en masse into the Labour party.
Rangers also draws on powerful feelings and symbols, and, like Celtic, express only a qualified Scottishness. The club is closely associated with unionism. There was at one time in Scotland a very strong link between unionism, Orangeism and the Tory party. While Celtic fans were joining the Labour party, Rangers were often associated with the Conservative and Unionist party, as it was then known. One of the leading figures in the pre-war Church of Scotland, John White, led overtly racist campaigns against Irish immigration to Scotland. He asserted that a superior race was being supplanted by an inferior one. He demanded the deportation of Irish-Scottish Catholics. When accused of religious bigotry, he blithely explained that his campaign was being pursued entirely as a racial rather than a religious matter. Nonetheless, the Church of Scotland has always been associated with Rangers, the Catholic church with Celtic. And the flags that the clubs’ fans wave tend to be Union Jacks (Rangers) or Irish tricolours (Celtic). You rarely see Scottish saltires at either ground.
It may seem odd that tensions from three or four generations ago can still infest a significant part of Scottish football, but they do, and there is nothing to gain from ignoring the fact. Tom Devine, Scotland’s pre-eminent academic historian, has edited Scotland’s Shame?, a book of essays on bigotry and sectarianism in modern Scotland. He told me: “The horrors of the 1920s and 1930s in Scotland were racist rather than religious, and the racist element is still potent to this day, partly because of Northern Ireland. The split is there in Scottish civic society and we cannot deny that this is what gives the old firm its continuing power. Yet if you look just about anywhere else in Europe, including England, this racial baggage is relegated to the past… I think that the safety valve argument—that the old firm provides a useful conduit for the release of anger that might otherwise manifest itself in more dangerous ways—may have had merit when there was still structural sectarianism, when there were few mixed marriages and so on. But that is almost dead. On the other hand, what I call attitudinal sectarianism is actually growing. Although the religious passion isn’t there—most old firm supporters never go near a church or a chapel—I know many intelligent, educated and prosperous people who can hardly cope if a result goes against them. These tensions now seem more powerful than ever.”