According to this I should have a strong sense of Scottishness – true at one level but not another. I was born in Scotland, my parents were born in Scotland. One set of grandparents was born in Scotland but the other set was born in Ireland. And one of my Scottish born grandparents’ mother came from Ireland. They all came from the north of Ireland – Sligo and Enniskillen, both places that suffered from the potato famine of the 1840s and the subsequent cholera outbreak which led to hundreds of thousands of people leaving that part of Ireland. They were all Catholic and when they came to Scotland, mainly Glasgow, they formed a very closed community. This was partly because of the sectarian attitudes among Scots who feared for their jobs and the influx of poor Irish families with their large families who lived in over-crowded slum conditions. It was not unusual to see adverts for jobs or accommodation for rent which said ‘Catholics need not apply’. Among the Irish there was a suspicion of anything British that had been the cause of the famine so they didn’t quite want to fit in. When I was in school fellow pupils with strong Irish affiliations would refuse to stand for the national anthem which was played rather more often than it is now. There was a sense of being on the edges of a society that was predominantly Presbyterian. We lived our own community life which was centred on the Church which not only offered religious services but was the focus for all our social contacts and friendships. I believe this is called a sacral community – a community that is organised along religious lines – religion and community totally integrated. What made this even stronger is that we had our own schools. Looking back on my upbringing I went to Catholic primary school, Catholic convent secondary school, trained as a Catholic teacher, became a Catholic nun and then returned to teach in the Catholic school system. It had its own advantages but it was a narrow and circumscribed upbringing. It was only when I went to university and lived on campus that I lived in a secular situation and for the first time met people of other faiths.
Because of this background I never felt very Scottish, or Irish for that matter. I only really felt Scottish when Scotland got its own Parliament. Because this had come as a result of a referendum there was a sense that it belonged to the people – at least those who had voted for it! Somehow it became alright to acknowledge my Irish, Catholic origins and at the same time acknowledge my concern for the future of Scotland. I could claim a Scottish civic identity and be proud to be a citizen. I know that others from other faiths and cultures felt the same. For me this idea of citizenship was reinforced by all the discussions that took place before the independence referendum. No matter whether the results were to people’s liking it or not it gave an opportunity for us all, with our different backgrounds, to think about and discuss what kind of Scotland we would like to live in and how we might contribute to it. This may not have been the case for everyone but it was very true for those of use involved in interfaith relations.
Since those days I have felt very Scottish, not in the sense of a narrow nationalism, but in a civic sense. I like this. It gives an identity which transcends religious, cultural and national identities but allows an acknowledgement of them. It seems to me that this would be important in those countries (e.g. Myanmar/Burma) that identify nationalism and religion which then leaves those who are different as outsiders and denies them citizenship. This is a kind of nationalism that is dangerous and does not allow for difference.
It is, I think, this sense of common civic identity that allows faith communities to work together for the common good here in Scotland, something that is growing in interfaith relations. All faith communities have their concerns about community, their young people, their places of worship, their elderly which takes up a lot of time and energy. Not everyone can be involved in interfaith relations but there is an increasing desire to work together, to widen participation in social projects, to engage with government, to dialogue about issues of common concern. We meet together as members of different faiths, with respect for our different cultures and viewpoints but we can transcend these differences because we are united in our common concern for the future of this land that we share and this society in which we want to participate. Thank God our society and Government are such that this is possible in a way that it is impossible in so many other parts of the world. It’s no wonder that so many in the BBC survey said they liked living in Scotland.