BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Monday, 9 February, 2004, 00:08 GMT
Colin Bell writes on the Sons of the Manse

You thought the kirk had little political influence, but the children of ministers are everywhere. Colin Bell investigates.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Sunday Times's Ecosse section.

Somehow it was appropriate that in its hour of need Scotland turned to a son of the manse. With the cost of the Holyrood parliament spiralling through its intricately designed roof, who better to chair the ensuing inquiry than Lord Fraser, not only one of the finest cross-examining lawyers of his generation, but also a man whose father was a Church of Scotland minister?

In modern Scotland we like to think that our days as a kirk-ridden country are over, with a recent survey suggesting the Church of Scotland's influence is small and getting smaller. Think again. Peter Fraser has been hard at work quizzing Wendy Alexander, and listening to speculation as to what Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander may have thought. Soon we may be able to look forward to Fraser explaining himself on television to Sheena McDonald. All are sons or daughters of the manse.

Scots think they know what that means, but having looked a little deeper into the notion, it seems to me to be about as misleading as that other great cliche of Scottish life, Red Clydeside. The son of the manse, as we all know, is a Presbyterian super-hero, Eric Liddle on speed, a man who thrives on adversity.

Dour, driven and with Calvinist certainty to spare, the son of the manse is pre-destined to succeed and fired with a Protestant work ethic to end them all.

The idea expresses a persistent belief that those brought up in an atmosphere of piety and service are not only likely to enter public life themselves, but bring particular qualities and attitudes to it. Indeed, Sir David Steel, yet another son of the manse, told me, in a curiously evangelical phrase, that his family background "inculcated the zeal for public service".

On the face of it, it looks plausible -a special class of folk brought up to serve us all, sharing a special, even an altruistic, ethos. But then, as Steel himself admits, some of those brought up under constant pressure to be responsible respond by going off the rails. The son of one Greenock minister, tasked with suppressing the pirates of Madagascar, instead joined them -and Captain Thomas Kidd ended on the gallows.

This is unlikely to shake the impression that the child of the minister carries a peculiar discipline and dedication, not to say rigidity, through life. The type that cliche expects is exemplified by two giants of the early 20th century, John Reith and John Buchan.

Reith, having followed exacting service in the first world war with the unprecedented task of inventing the BBC in his own dour image -or possibly that of a singularly grim Hebridean Sabbath -complained of not being "fully stretched". Since the man from whom he sought fresh herculean tasks was Winston Churchill, the very antithesis of the Presbyterian ethic, it didn't get him very far.

Buchan was, if anything, even fuller of that zeal for public service, or terror of mere idleness. He wrote more than 100 books, from poetry to biographies to thrillers -plus a handbook on taxation law. He also fitted in being a barrister, publisher, journalist, intelligence officer, deputy chairman of Reuters, founder of the British Film Institute, an MP, and, as Lord Tweedsmuir, governor general of Canada. If that isn't zeal, it's certainly enough to make most of us backsliders cringe.

It's not unreasonable to question if there's a link between the public hyperactivity of children of the manse and the teachings of the kirk. There is that old chestnut, the Protestant work ethic, but that doesn't mean that all good Protestants work hard, nor that all hard workers are Protestants -any more than the contemporary liberal decencies of the Church of Scotland are inherent in historical Calvinism.

Just remember that we're only two generations away from a Church of Scotland which flirted with compulsory repatriation of Irish immigrants -on both religious and eugenic grounds.

There are, however, some grounds for advancing a sociological, rather than a theological or even ideological explanation for all those manse-bred toilers in the public vineyard. Remember that over several centuries the greatest Scottish Presbyterian tradition was disruption. The bloody-minded certainties which lost the Battle of Dunbar run deep in the Scottish psyche.

Many kirks means many manses. By the middle of the 19th century you could choose between the Church of Scotland, the United Presbyterian Church, the United Original Secession Church, the Free Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the United Secession Church -and within most of them, between rival factions. As a result, there were in many parishes three or more rival contenders for business.

One consequence was that the census of 1871 identified 5,123 males who were clergymen out of a population of 3.3m. In a modern context that would mean there were more ministers than there were people working in local government, and only a few less than those working for the national government.

The lingering question surrounds what they thought -and some still think -to be good. Often, I suspect, it reflected not so much the democratic nature of Presbyterian church governance as the autocratic nature of Presbyterian certainties. Scots have never shirked the duty to help lesser breeds find salvation, to bring light on a darker world.

At a push that notion might extend to the son of the manse, whose impact has been arguably most terrible of all - Helensburgh's John Logie Baird.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | World | UK | England | Northern Ireland | Scotland | Wales | Politics
Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health | Education
Have Your Say | Magazine | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific