Shining a light on sectarianism

A couple of years ago, I went along to Glasgow Women’s Library to take part in a writing workshop related to their ‘Mixing the Colours’ project.

The workshop was organised to challenge the view of women in relation to sectarian issues in Scotland. Scottish writing has stories, poems and dramas that explore the Catholic/Protestant experience. It’s part of our history, part of our culture, but women’s voices are all but silent.

The piece which I produced was based on a childhood memory of being verbally and physically abused because I was brought up as a Catholic but lived in a council scheme dominated by Protestants. This was not an isolated case and I witnessed many forms of sectarianism on both sides throughout my childhood and as an adult in the workplace.


I do believe that times have changed for the better and organisations such as Nil by Mouth and Action on Sectarianism are doing fantastic work to tackle the problem and to rid Scotland of the destructive social impact that sectarianism has upon our lives and upon our society. And I’m keen to be involved in any way I can to help raise awareness of the issue and I’d love think my writing could stimulate discussion.


Sectarianism is not a new ‘ism’ but one particular element is modern, football related violence. As a writer of contemporary fiction, I wanted to explore the impact of sectarianism and how it specifically affected women. In my debut novel, Talk of the Toun, there are several scenes where the main character is verbally abused.

“Hang on; ah’d recognise that pishy smell anywhere. Aye, it’s a wee Fenian bastard.”

The novel is set in the 1980s and in working class central Scotland and this wasn’t an unusual scenario for me to encounter.

Fast forward more than thirty years and times have changed, thankfully, for the better. However, there are still triggers for a flare-up of sectarianism and I’ve explored this in my new novel, Buy Buy Baby. This novel is the bittersweet story of two very different women united in their desperate quest for motherhood.


One of the women, Carol, has lived a sheltered life, and while married she was the victim of domestic violence. The flash-point for her husband lashing out is when the football team he supports loses against their arch rivals.

“… when Celtic got beaten, so did I. When we had been married, I had been the wife of a die-hard football fan and I was the one who suffered for the final score.”

I admire writers of historical fiction who tackle universal themes but set their novels in a time period which has to be researched.  Maybe I’m just lazy but the best way for me to explore issues is to create a world I can relate to and understand.  I would like to think I might one day be brave enough to investigate a historical period but for now I’m sticking to the well-known advice to “write what I know”.


This post is brought to you by Helen MacKinven.


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