Scottish masculinity in historical perspective

Royal Society of EdinburghThe ‘hard man’ image associated with Scottish masculinity has been more readily taken for granted than widely explored, despite the fact that it has serious implications for contemporary social relations, notions of Scottish national identity, and current policy challenges. In 2005 a World Health Organisation survey showed that the Scottish murder rate of 2.33 deaths per 100,000 people (compared with 0.7 south of the border) was the second highest in Europe and novelist Irvine Welsh ascribed the soul-destroying litany of stabbings, slashings and slayings to poverty, social class and national identity. The tradition of the hard man has tremendous currency in contemporary Scottish popular commentary and in literature but there has been little serious discussion of his antecedents or of the constituents of manliness that have seemingly prevailed in Scottish society. In 2008 a meeting of the Scottish Government’s Equality Unit acknowledged both the relative neglect of men’s equality issues and the serious consequences that gender norms can hold for men as well as women, and for society more generally. Higher rates of suicide among men and tendencies to low self-esteem linked with mental health problems can be attributed to the demands of dominant codes of masculinity, as can the greater involvement of men in violent crime as both aggressors and victims. Domestic violence and absent fathers also have grave implications for the experience and expectations surrounding family life. Against a background of large-scale changes in the labour market for men in Scotland since the 1980s there is a growing recognition of the pressing need for a greater understanding of the historical roots of male identities in Scotland. It is therefore timely at the beginning of the twenty-first century to establish a historical framework for the different experiences of being a man in Scotland in contemporary Scottish society in the light of concerns about Scottish men’s health, engagement in social life, and their role within the family. 

The workshops will facilitate dialogue between historians and researchers in Scottish studies, sociology, social policy, criminology and medicine. The goal of the workshops is to identify issues of contemporary concern and historical interest in order to establish fruitful lines of historical enquiry that are alert to policy issues and requirements, and to explore the ways in which Scottish masculinity, and particularly some of the assumptions surrounding the ‘hard man’, can be placed in long term historical perspective. The workshops will address both ideal or dominant representations of maleness in particular contexts and periods and the embodied experiences of men, addressing the relationships between expectations and behaviour in three areas:

  1. men’s bodies (to encompass issues of sexuality and health)
  2. men and the family 
  3. violent crime and disorder

One of the guiding principles of this project is the recognition that we need to interrogate myths about Scottish manhood in the past as well as apply a long-term historical perspective to current concerns and policy initiatives. Taking the association between Scottish men and violence as one example, we should not assume a direct relationship between men, masculinity and violence in the Scottish past. Violence certainly has a prominent place amongst the few serious analyses of men and masculinity in Scotland, ranging from research into the blood feud in early modern Scotland, and studies of so-called martial masculinity, to the history of violent industrial conflict and most recently the story of Glasgow gang culture in the twentieth century. But to regard it as an enduring manifestation of Scottish masculinity would be to ignore the historical contingency of understandings of what constituted manliness at different times and in different places. Violent behaviour is but one expression of masculine identity that may be privileged or subordinated according to the legitimating norms of a society.  

This project forms part of the research programme of the Centre for Gender History at Glasgow University, a cross-faculty organisation which brings together the largest number of historians of gender in the UK. The Centre has an overarching research theme on ‘The Practices of Patriarchy’, which seeks to interrogate the ways in which gendered relations of power have been experienced by men and women over the longue duree. A number of members of the Centre have existing expertise in the history of masculinity, notably Alex Shepard (who is a leading scholar on early modern masculinity), Lynn Abrams (masculinity and fatherhood and men and violence), Annmarie Hughes (masculinity and domestic violence), Rose Elliott (men and smoking) and Rosalind Carr (masculinity in constructions of Scottish nationhood).

Besides benefiting the research projects of individual participants, the workshops will contribute to the development of a longer term programme of grant applications to support research on the history of Scottish masculinity and gender relations from the Middle Ages to the present day. Opening cross-disciplinary dialogue informed by policy considerations would establish a network of researchers concerned with the impact of gender norms, past and present. We would also open the workshops to current doctoral students with research interests in Scottish masculinities, offering travel bursaries to the best five applicants.

The provisional list of participants, in addition to members of the Centre for Gender History, is as follows:

  • Michelle Burman, Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, University of Glasgow
  • Roger Davidson, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh
  • Andrew Davies, Department of History, University of Liverpool
  • Elizabeth Ewan, Department of History, University of Guelph, Canada
  • Peter Hopkins, Social Geography, University of Newcastle
  • Kate Hunt, Medical Research Unit, University of Glasgow
  • Louise Jackson, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh
  • Lynn Jamieson, Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, University of Edinburgh
  • Ronnie Johnston, Department of History, Glasgow Caledonian University
  • Rosaleen O'Brien, Centre for General Practice, University of Glasgow
  • John MacInnes, Sociology, University of Edinburgh
  • Arthur McIvor, Department of History, University of Strathclyde
  • Christine Reid, Equality Unit, Scottish Government
  • John Stewart, Department of History, Glasgow Caledonian University
  • Daniel Wight, Medical Research Unit, University of Glasgow
  • Hilary Young, Post-doctoral Research Assistant, Open University