The Sash We Never Sang

Celtic fans have been consistent in the claim that the club has many non-Catholic supporters. There is, however, a widespread acceptance that Rangers is a club that is followed almost exclusively by Protestants. Both propositions may well be true, albeit less so if we stopped to examine what precisely constitutes a Catholic or a Protestant in an increasingly secular age. My main concern though relates to the fact that there are many Catholic football fans in Scotland who support clubs other than Celtic and, less contentiously and of greater relevance in relation to the present topic, most Scottish football clubs, with the obvious exception of Celtic, enjoy a predominantly Protestant following (once again with the necessary qualification that this probably does not mean regular kirk attendance). Whatever newco Rangers is currently suffering at hands of other Scottish clubs has certainly nothing to do with a conspiracy hatched in the Vatican. This may of course be a simple case of the wee yins getting their own back on one of the big yins. But we should not overlook the possibility that there is also an unconscious objection to the way in which Rangers Football Club and its fans have consistently sought to keep the mantle of Scottish Protestantism to themselves.

My maternal grandfather was a long-serving elder in the Church of Scotland. He took me regularly to watch Raith Rovers in the late 1950s and through the 1960s. Rangers, he left me in no doubt, was not the team for us. My father had won the King’s Medal in the Boys’ Brigade, served in the submarine service in World War Two and became a Freemason shortly after he was demobbed. As far as he was concerned, we were Dunfermline Athletic supporters and should have no truck with the Gers, regardless of our religion. All three of us thrilled to the success of Celtic in the European Cup Final in 1967, particularly my father and I who had witnessed the Pars’ renaissance a few years earlier under the guidance of Jock Stein. Here was a Scottish team taking on the best in Europe (and I stress the Scottishness of Celtic at that time to make the point that this aspect of the club was considerably more marked in the 1960s than it is today). Arguably the shift in emphasis from Scotland to Ireland can be linked to the resurgence of inter-community conflict in Northern Ireland at the end of that decade. Yet even in the 1950s and early 1960s, Old Firm fans were singing the songs that were and remain rooted in particular readings of Irish history. And what did the Battle of the Boyne really matter to those of us brought up in the kirk? During the eighteenth century,  notable Presbyterian clerics, such as Francis Hutcheson, had left behind the narrow ground of Ulster politics to study and teach at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Meanwhile their co-religionists back home had sided with Catholics in the fight for social justice in Ireland in opposition to the landed, Episcopalian ruling class. This was our Presbyterianism – fighting oppression, in accord with Christ’s teaching, rather than demonising Catholics.

None of this is to deny the admiration which both my grandfather and father had for successive generations of Rangers players and for the club’s impressive roll call of managers and administrators. My own early memories include images of Bobby Shearer, Eric Caldow, Willie Stevenson, Alex Scott, Davie Wilson, Ralph Brand and our own former player, Jimmy Millar. Towering over them all, of course, was our fellow Fifer, Jim Baxter. That said, where Fife and Protestantism are concerned, was there ever a more compelling figure than John Thomson, Celtic and Scotland great? Other memories moreover take me back not to the Rangers players but to the songs from the terraces bawled out to tunes that I would also hear when the Orange Order or Royal Black Preceptory visited Dunfermline. These were the alien sounds that my family would never play. If marching airs reverberated in our heads at all, they were the tunes of glory played by the Black Watch, the former regiment of Rangers legend Harold Davis who suffered such serious injuries in the Korean War. Not for us songs celebrating the Peep o’ Day Boys, far less the Ulster Volunteer Force, old or new. They, like Rangers themselves, were off limits to Protestants like us. When the Church of Scotland’s magazine Life and Work first expressed criticisms of the club, we were confirmed in our belief that many Rangers fans, and possibly the club itself, were very differently Protestant. None of this is to deny that many Rangers supporters then and now, perhaps even a majority, are no different from their Protestant compatriots. However, a willingness by the club and large sections of its support to play the Orange Card has not served Rangers well in relation to other Scottish clubs. There are many reasons why these clubs have stood up against Rangers newco. But we should not ignore the possibility that Scottish Presbyterianism as opposed to Ulster Orangeism is enjoying its day in the sun.

Alan Bairner is Professor of Sport at Loughborough University and has written extensively on sport and national identity.

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