The Old Firm: Celtic, Rangers and Sectarianism in Scotland


This article will examine sectarianism in Scotland through the lens of one of the world’s most famous football rivalries. For many people, Glasgow’s Old Firm derby between Celtic and Rangers is synonymous with sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants. Sectarian banners and chanting occur frequently in matches, with the fixture also notable for its potential to bring violence to the streets of Glasgow. Yet, in order to grasp how the perception of sectarianism in Scotland’s biggest football rivalry not only developed but has endured into the twenty-first century, it is necessary to investigate the wider issue of sectarianism in Scottish society.


This article will first outline the nature of the rivalry and the dominance of these two clubs within Scottish football. It will then show how the strong history of population migration and interconnection between the West Coast of Scotland and Ireland, combined with industrial working-class competition, acted to embed an ethnonational sectarian divide within Scottish society, in which its main public expression was through football. The article will then investigate contemporary Scottish attitudes towards sectarianism. It will be shown how the sectarian divide can be better understood as a persistent ethnonational divide between expressions of Irishness, and those who reject this as incompatible with, or even a threat to, a monolithic Scottish identity. It will then conclude by showing how the Old Firm remains the main driver of Scottish sectarianism.


Figure 1: Curtis, B. (2002). Rangers and Celtic fans at an Old Firm derby at Glasgow’s Celtic Park stadium, 5 December 2002 [Photograph].

The Old Firm

The Old Firm is the name given to the rivalry between Scotland’s two largest, most successful, and most widely supported football clubs, situated in Scotland’s largest city of Glasgow. Between them, Celtic and Rangers have won 107 out of 125 Scottish League titles, and each club is supported by around 13% of the Scottish population, compared to the next biggest clubs drawing only 3% of support (SSA, 2015). This dominant sporting success and popularity provides the foundation for a strong footballing rivalry in and of itself. Yet this rivalry has, almost from the beginning, been marked by the issue of ethnonational sectarianism, with a long history of bigoted or antagonistic banners, chanting and violence (Davies, 2006). For many people Rangers represent the face of Protestant British Unionism, flying the Union Flag, whereas Celtic represent the face of Catholic Irish Nationalism, flying the Irish Tricolour. It is of course important to note that many people who support these clubs have no interest in sectarianism, and like any other club in Britain simply support them based on family allegiance, geographical vicinity, or general sporting reasons. Indeed, a small number of Protestants support Celtic, and an even smaller number of Catholics support Rangers (SSA, 2015). Yet, it is undeniable that the ferocity of the rivalry is spurred on by the history and perception of Scottish sectarianism, and indeed both clubs draw support from across Scotland, the wider United Kingdom, and Ireland, based on their respective ethnonational connotations (Bradley, 2008). To understand how the Old Firm rivalry came to be, and why its sectarian connotations are still considered relevant today, it is first necessary to analyse the nature and history of Scottish sectarianism, against the backdrop of which this club rivalry began.


Scotland, Ireland, and the History of Sectarianism

Scotland and Ireland have a long history of interconnection, particularly between the Scottish West Coast and the North of Ireland. However, it was with the large-scale emigration of Scottish Protestant settlers to the North of Ireland in the Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries, to displace Irish Catholic natives as part of the Ulster Plantation, that this interconnection began to take on a contrasting religious dimension (Davies, 2006). Later in the early Nineteenth Century, the descendants of these same Ulster Protestant settlers began migrating back to Scotland, bringing with them a culture of Orange Protestantism and sectarian antagonism with Irish Catholics amidst wider anti-Catholic sentiment in Britain (Davies, 2006). Simultaneously, the process of empire, slavery and industrialisation saw Glasgow expand to become a centre of commerce, manufacturing and shipbuilding; meanwhile, the surrounding towns and much of Scotland’s Central Belt became centres of coal mining, iron, and steel production (Smith, 1984). Famine in Ireland from 1845-1849 sparked off mass Irish emigration that continued through to the Twentieth Century, with large numbers of poor Catholic Irish immigrants arriving in Glasgow and other industrialised towns and cities of Scotland’s Central Belt looking for work (Davies, 2006).


Figure 2: Unknown. (1860). A view of a Glasgow slum [Photograph].

Existing anti-Irish Catholic bigotry in Scotland was exasperated by this newfound working-class industrial competition for employment, with incoming Irish accused of suppressing wages (Maley, 2006). The result was that many Scottish Protestants organised into fraternal societies such as Masonic Lodges and the Orange Order, to deny Irish Catholics connections and lock them out of higher paid and higher skilled trades (Davies, 2006). This left most Irish Catholics crowded into poor slums working unskilled jobs. Tensions were further inflamed by the ongoing Irish Home Rule debate which dominated British politics from the 1870s onwards, with Irish Nationalists and the British Liberal Party supporting a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland, while British Conservatives, Unionists and Irish Protestants stood in opposition (Davies, 2006). Amidst this backdrop of poverty and discrimination in Scotland, and political tensions over Ireland, Celtic Football Club was formed in Glasgow in 1887 as an explicitly Irish Catholic organisation seeking to raise charitable funds to alleviate poverty in Glasgow’s East End Irish slums, and to fund nationalist political causes in Ireland (Bradley, 2008). Rangers Football Club had already been formed in Glasgow’s West End in 1872, with no religious or political connotations. However, by the 1890s, as Celtic began drawing a widespread fanbase amongst Irish Catholic immigrants and their descendants, Rangers had in turn begun to draw widespread Protestant Unionist support (Davies, 2006). This established the rivalry as one with sectarian ethnonational connotations reflecting the city’s divide, with the two clubs exploiting this tension to boost their fan bases for commercial gain (Davies, 2006). Indeed, it was not until the 1970s that Rangers signed their first Catholic player, while Celtic´s players and staff also remained dominated by Irish-descended Catholics (Gallagher, 1989).


Nevertheless, other markers of public sectarian identity and animosity also developed. Protestant Orange Order parades, as well as less frequent Irish Ancient Order of Hibernian parades, became often violent communal flashpoints in Glasgow and elsewhere (Davies, 2006). Furthermore, Glasgow’s strong culture and long history of working-class territorial fighting gangs also saw some gangs take on explicitly sectarian loyalties from the 1920s onwards, particularly in the East End (Davies, 2006). Simultaneously, outside of Glasgow, other Scottish football clubs such as Hibernian in Edinburgh were also founded as organisations catering to similarly dispossessed Irish immigrants — with many of these clubs failing in their early years in part due to anti-Catholic Irish antagonism (Bradley, 2008). Nevertheless, with Glasgow and the West Coast the centre of Irish migration to Scotland, with some 25% of the population Irish Catholic, it was Old Firm matches that became Scotland’s most visible and prominent flashpoint for the expression of inter-communal sectarian animosity (Bradley, 2008). Interestingly, however, this clear sectarian divide was never embedded in Scottish politics, as it was in Britain’s other main centre of Irish immigration — Liverpool — where Catholics and Protestants rallied around different political parties (Jenkins, 2010). By contrast, Glasgow’s working class, regardless of religious or ethnic affiliation, remained one of the committed trade unionists, as well as Liberal, and later Labour Party voters, with Glasgow and the surrounding towns emerging as a hotbed of British socialism (Smith, 1984).


Figure 3: Ministry of Information. (1944). Workers leaving a Glasgow shipyard on their lunch break, 1944 [Photograph].

This has led to claims from some commentators that the Old Firm acted as a useful outlet for sectarian animosity in Glasgow, which thus kept sectarianism confined to football and out of politics or other facets of public life (Davies, 2006). Yet, as the Twentieth Century progressed, the conditions that had once defined sectarian division and discrimination proceeded to disappear. The process of slum clearances saw many of the more segregated Catholic and Protestant working-class communities disintegrate (Smith, 1984). Meanwhile, the process of deindustrialisation saw most of the skilled and unskilled industrial jobs — that had once defined sectarian employment discrimination — vanish (Maley, 2006). Finally, by the 1980s, an increasingly large Catholic middle class had emerged, meaning that Catholics were no longer defined by low social status (Maley, 2006). Nevertheless, the widespread perception of sectarianism in Scotland persisted. Consequently, Davies (2006) argues that instead of containing sectarianism, the Old Firm acted as the clearest visible marker of division in Glaswegian society. This visible divide has thus served to inflame existing ethnic and religious antagonisms, even after the socio-economic conditions fuelling the everyday lived experience of sectarianism subsided.


The Nature of Modern Scottish Sectarianism

Since the 1997 Scottish Devolution, in which political powers were given from Westminster to a newfound Scottish Parliament, sectarianism has repeatedly been brought into the national spotlight as a persistent issue. In 1999, the famous Scottish Catholic Composer James MacMillan gave an influential speech titled ’Scotland’s Shame’, that highlighted the issue of anti-Catholicism within Scottish society and sparked a wide-ranging national debate (Boyd-MacMillan, 2016). Indeed, such was the prominence of the issue that in 2003 Scotland’s First Minister enacted an Anti-Sectarian Legislation in which crimes aggravated by anti-Catholic or Protestant hatred were brought into line with other forms of Hate Crime, thereby carrying stricter sentencing (Boyd-MacMillan, 2016). Furthermore, in 2012 the Scottish Government formed an Independent Advisory Group (IAG) to review the matter and make policy recommendations. Reflecting this prominence within the national debate, the 2015 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey showed that 88% of Scots felt sectarianism to be a continuing problem in the region (Rosie et al., 2015). Nevertheless, the vast majority of Scots feel the problem to be localised, with only 19% considering it a nationwide issue (Rosie et al., 2015). This is matched by the sentiment that sectarianism has traditionally been considered an unacceptable topic of polite discussion amongst Scotland’s middle classes, thereby side-lining it as a distasteful issue of concern limited to certain ex-industrial working-class communities (Maley, 2006). Indeed, this view is supported by only 14% of Scots reporting having actually experienced sectarian discrimination (Rosie et al., 2015). Nevertheless, the issue remains one that sits uncomfortably with the modern promotion of a unified national Scottish identity (Bradley, 2008).


Figure 4: NurPhoto. (2021). Members of the County Grand Orange Lodge taking part in an annual Orange walk parade in Glasgow [Photograph].

Both Bradley (2008) and Maley (2006) argue that to understand the sectarian question as one that challenges the dominant conception of Scottish identity, is to view sectarianism not as fuelled by religious difference, but more specifically as being prompted by anti-Irish sentiment. It is notable that Scotland’s other main sources of Catholicism, in the form of Catholic Highland migrants to the industrialised Lowlands, and also Italian immigration, have not historically been a focus of sectarian resentment (Davies, 2006). Furthermore, the widespread perception of sectarianism remains completely at odds with the large increase in secularism in Scottish society. Between 1999 and 2013, the number of Scots not identifying with any religion increased from 40% to 54% (SSA, 2015). This decrease in religious identification has been most pronounced within Protestantism, with the number of adherents to the Church of Scotland falling from 35% to 21% in that same period (SSA, 2015). By contrast, the number identifying as Catholic has remained steady at 14% (SSA, 2015). This largely coincides with the 16% of Scots nationwide who claim Irish ancestry, which within Scotland’s West Coast is even higher at 40% (Maley, 2006). Perhaps, for this reason, 72% of Catholics agreed that their religious identity was important, in comparison to just 45% of Protestants, as Catholicism continues to act as the key signifier of Irish Catholic heritage within Scotland (SSA, 2015).


It is here that once again the Old Firm rears its head. Of those who identify as Catholic, a full 45% support Celtic Football Club (SSA, 2015). To date, the most prominent symbols of Celtic support remain the Irish flag and other icons of Irishness (Bradley, 2008). In turn, the reaction of certain segments of Scottish society, including sports commentators and journalists, towards these outward displays of Irishness reflects the persistence of Scotland’s ethnonational divide. Celtic fans have in fact been derided as being pseudo-Irish and adopting a plastic Irish identity despite having been born and raised in Scotland, often for several generations (Bradley, 2008). The 2004 decision of Scottish-born Celtic player Aiden McGeady to play for the Republic of Ireland’s national team, instead of the Scottish team, drew widespread ridicule in the media and earned him abuse at football stadiums up and down the country (Bradley, 2008). Indeed, even at the official level, the Scottish Football Association banned Celtic from flying the Irish Flag in 1952 (Bradley, 2008). Maley (2006) thus argues that this persistence of a separate Irish identity is considered a problem by others in Scotland who see a threat in its stubborn refusal to be fully incorporated into a more monolithic conception of Scottishness. For the significant minority whose Catholic Irish descent forms a core part of their identity, Celtic remains one of the few outlets for their otherwise-derided feelings of affinity with Ireland (Bradley, 2008). Indeed, other opportunities to display Irishness outside of football, such as the 2003 decision by the Scottish town of Coatbridge to celebrate St. Patricks Day, have also generated criticism and fierce media debate (Bradley, 2008).


Figure 5: SNS Group. (2022). Celtic’s tricolour display [Photograph].

Similarly, Rangers remain a key rallying point for those who continue to identify with Scotland’s culture of Orange Loyalism, which itself continues to be much derided outside of its working-class communities (Gallagher, 1989). The wider British Unionist identity of Rangers remains a reactionary force against Celtic’s Irishness, which is seen as at odds with a Scottish identity, emphasising instead the traditional symbols of Britishness within Scotland (Gallagher, 1989). Rangers’ fans point to the very foundation of Celtic as a Catholic Irish club as the source of the sectarianism within the rivalry. Yet, whilst Celtic remains the predominant expression of Catholic Irishness, Protestant Unionists retain more ways of displaying their identity outside of football, such as through Orange Order parades (Bradley, 2008). Subsequently, only 23% of self-identified Protestants support Rangers, with many others across Scotland supporting their local clubs free of more obvious ethnonational affiliations (SSA, 2015). Regardless of the legitimacy of the positions of British Unionism or Irish Nationalism in Scottish society, within the context of Old Firm animosity, these ethnonational sentiments are taken to their logical and unrestrained extremes (Gallagher, 1989). For some sections of the Celtic fanbase, the glorification of the IRA, as well as attacks on Protestant Orange Loyalism, coupled with the denigration of symbols of Britishness such as the Monarchy and Remembrance Sunday, are seen as ways of displaying opposition to the British repression of the Irish (Bradley, 2008). Meanwhile, some Rangers fans perceive these same displays as sectarian attacks upon traditional Scottishness, with some singing songs making explicitly discriminatory or violent references to Irish Catholicism (Gallagher, 1989). One of the most shocking recent examples of sectarianism was the 2011 delivery of a series of parcel bombs to the Irish Celtic manager Neil Lennon, his lawyer, and a prominent Celtic supporting member of the Scottish Parliament (Boyd-MacMillan, 2016).

Although the Old Firm is based on clear underlying historical and contemporary fissures within Scottish society, within the context of a sporting rivalry these tensions are displayed, replicated and enhanced multiple times a year. As the Scottish Independent Advisory Group made clear, there is little to no evidence of sectarian discrimination in politics or the workforce within contemporary Scottish society (Rosie et al., 2015). Nevertheless, the feelings of cultural exclusion remain for both working-class Irishness and Orange Loyalism, with the Old Firm their main cultural output (Rosie et al., 2015). Until these feelings of exclusion are addressed in the wider Scottish society, it seems likely that ethnonational animosity will remain a feature of the Old Firm. Yet notably, these ethnonational affiliations have remained strong even after football has moved in recent decades from being a predominantly working-class pastime to also incorporating a substantial middle-class fanbase (Maley, 2006). This would suggest that either ethnonational division remains more deeply embedded in Scottish society — outside of the traditional working-class communities — than most Scottish people are willing to acknowledge, or alternatively that ethnonational Old Firm animosity has simply taken on a life of its own. Consequently, it is perhaps unsurprising that when surveyed on what aspect of Scottish life people feel most contributes to sectarianism, a clear majority of 55% of respondents point to football (Rosie et al., 2015).


Figure 6: Cameron, L. (2015). Wrong side of history? [Photograph].

Conclusion

As can be, the roots of sectarianism in Scotland have a long history that is closely linked to Scottish-Irish migration and was exasperated by industrial competition for employment. This led to a working-class culture of Catholic Irishness motivated by poverty, cultural discrimination and exclusion from employment, alongside a working-class culture of reactionary and protectionist Orange Protestant Loyalism. In turn, the Old Firm allowed these two cultures a contrasting popular outlet. Nevertheless, even with the conditions of the industrial competition having since disappeared, these two cultures have persisted and been maintained by feelings of cultural exclusion within contemporary Scottish society. This has led to continuing and widely held perceptions of sectarianism within modern Scotland, with the Old Firm continuing to form the most visible expression of this sectarianism. That the football fanbase has become more middle class in this time, and yet the sectarianism has persisted, would suggest that sectarianism is either a more widely held phenomenon in Scotland than is otherwise acknowledged outside of the traditional working-class divide, or else the Old Firm rivalry has simply become its own generator of sectarianism. How this ethnonational divide will come to manifest amidst the growth of the Scottish independence movement remains to be seen.


Bibliographical References

Boyd-MacMillan, E. M., Fearon, P. A., Ptolomey, A. M., & Mathieson, L. J. (2016). I SEE! Scotland: Tackling sectarianism and promoting community psychosocial health. Journal of Strategic Security, 9(4), 53-78.


Bradley, J. (2008). Celtic Football Club, Irish Ethnicity, and Scottish Society, New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua, 12(1), 96-110.


Davies, A. (2006). Football and Sectarianism in Glasgow during the 1920s and 1930s, Irish Historical Studies, 35(138), 200-219.


Gallagher, T. (1989). Old Firm That Thrives on Competition, Fortnight, 276, 31-32.


Kennedy, D., & Collins, M. (2006). Community Politics in Liverpool and the Governance of Professional Football in the Late Nineteenth Century, The Historical Journal, 49(3), 761-788.


Maley, W. (2006). Letter from Glasgow: Where the Streets Have No Shame, Field Day Review, 2, 314-326.


Rosie, M., Clegg, C., Morrow, D., & Galloway, I. (2015). Tackling Sectarianism and its Consequences in Scotland: Final Report of The Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism in Scotland–April 2015. Scottish Government.


Scottish Social Attitudes survey (SSA) (2015). Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2014: Public Attitudes to Sectarianism in Scotland, Scottish Government, Retrieved from: https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-social-attitudes-survey-2014-public-attitudes-sectarianism-scotland/pages/5/


Smith, J. (1984). Labour Tradition in Glasgow and Liverpool, History Workshop, 17, 32-56.


Visual Sources

Cover Image: SNS. (2016). The sound and fury of a Rangers v Celtic league match will return this season [Photograph]. Scotsman. Retrieved from: https://www.scotsman.com/sport/football/old-firm-story-how-sectarianism-came-define-derby-1473126


Figure 1: Curtis, B. (2002). Rangers and Celtic fans at an Old Firm derby at Glasgow’s Celtic Park stadium, 5 December 2002 [Photograph]. PA. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/08/inside-divide-richard-wilson-review


Figure 2: Unknown. (1860). A view of a Glasgow slum [Photograph]. BBC. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/topics/zxwxvcw/articles/zbrj47h


Figure 3: Ministry of Information. (1944). Workers leaving a Glasgow shipyard on their lunch break, 1944 [Photograph]. Wikipedia Commons. Retrieved from: https://www.historyhit.com/history-of-scottish-shipbuilding/


Figure 4: NurPhoto. (2021). Members of the County Grand Orange Lodge taking part in an annual Orange walk parade in Glasgow [Photograph]. PA Images. Retrieved from: https://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/glasgow-news/glasgow-orange-march-re-routed-22114072


Figure 5: SNS Group. (2022). Celtic's tricolour display [Photograph]. Football Scotland. Retrieved from: https://www.footballscotland.co.uk/spfl/gallery/pictures-celtics-sensational-tricolour-display-23712155


Figure 6: Cameron, L. (2015). Wrong side of history? [Photograph]. PA Images. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/old-firm-match-is-a-blast-from-the-past-for-a-post-referendum-scotland-36863


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Finn Archer

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