Breaking the Silence of Scottish Men

This essay is written as a contribution to starting a debate which is crucial and critical for Scotland’s future: the state of Scottish men. We urgently need to start a wide-ranging debate about Scottish men and masculinities, our behaviour, attitudes and assumptions. And we need men to contribute to this.


We have a problem with Scottish men. The official statistics tell a grim story: the lowest life expectancy in Western Europe, huge health inequalities, record levels of drinking, violence, self-harm and doing harm to others.

We now know that the age old account that this is about poverty and disadvantage isn’t the whole picture, and that ‘the Scottish effect’ shows that if you are middle class and living in Scotland and in particular if you are a man you are more likely to die younger than elsewhere. And there’s even the more pronounced ‘Glasgow effect’.

In some senses the cultural problem is even more bleak. Much of the public debate about Scottish men is shaped by a whole host of negative images which come close to pathologising men and aiding the ‘men behaving badly’ outlook. Another set of images emphasises rugged, robust masculinity – men who eat porridge all the time and stress their physical attributes: a version of manhood most men feel isn’t about them.

None of this really does men any good and encourages a sense of anxiety, falling short of what it is to be a ‘Scottish man’ and powerlessness. How can we have an honest, open conversation about the plight and problem with men which isn’t filled with these clichés and stereotypes, and allows us to find ways to bring hope and change?

There have been major transformations in the last few decades and across the 20th century in Scotland. The Scottish economy has dramatically changed as has the workplace, what is considered men’s and women’s work, and notions of the ‘public’ and ‘private’ and how people are expected to act in each. Scots men across a range of these seem to have had trouble adjusting.

Historically Scotland was a place defined by a very certain, granite like masculinity. Late Victorian Scotland was an economy and society which honoured and acknowledged the role of men and different types of masculinity. Shipworkers, welders, engineers, and colonisers making the reality of ‘Scotland’s Empire’ were men with a place and purpose.

This Scotland wasn’t an ideal place, although one of the richest countries in the world, it was bitterly divided and unequal, with some of the worst housing and living conditions anywhere in the West. Yet, within this world, Scots men, whether working class or middle class, had a sense of their importance and power.

The Making of the Modern Scottish Man

Today what it means to be a man is much more confused and in flux. And what it is to be a man in Scotland even more so. The old anchors and definitions have mostly gone or withered.

Ewan Gillon, a psychologist at Glasgow Caledonian University thinks the situation is so serious that he made the subject of ‘Scottish men’ the theme of his British Psychology Society’s Annual Conference lecture. He thinks ‘the traditional Scottish male stereotype’ still exists and does harm to men and others. It continues he believes because ‘it is very self-maintaining. To break it requires being a different kind of man’ and ‘going against what defines being a man in Scotland’.

Alternative ways of being a man such as ‘the new man’ and ‘metrosexual’ haven’t taken root because of ‘the extremely powerful hold these ideas of traditional masculinity have over Scotland’ says Gillon. There are changes. You see it he believes in ‘generational change with more emotional expression in younger men, but counteracted by the rise of violence and drugs’ along with an interest in psychotherapy and counselling.

Gillon believes ‘traditional masculinity is entrenched in Scottish society’. This is despite powerful forces aiding change. First, there has been the influence of feminism which has challenged sexism and discrimination across the West over the last forty years. Then there is the related agenda of women’s increased expectations and aspirations which has shaped much of public and media debate. Along with this there have been lifestyle changes which have reshaped much of our society: the rise of individualism, consumerism and a more ‘self’ orientated society.

Much of this has been wider economic and social changes which are sometimes parcelled up in the term ‘globalisation’, which have been things done to Scotland sometimes from outside. However, what has been uniquely Scottish has been our reaction to these changes – where to an unparalleled extent compared to anywhere else in Western Europe many men seem to have lost their place.

Men’s Conversations as Men: Breaking the Silence

This brings me to my experience of running for five years a Glasgow men’s group. This turned out to be one of the interesting, powerful and rewarding experiences I have had in my life, and one filled with richness, insight and self-discovery. This allowed men – from different backgrounds, ages and professions – working and middle class – to talk about their lives, their partners, relationships, sex lives, work, families and much more.

When I mentioned recently on ‘Newsnight Scotland’ that I had run a men’s group, Gordon Brewer, the presenter, for a split second looked shocked. I had prepared for such a reaction, possible scorn or dismissal, but he pulled himself together and asked ‘what on earth you did in it?’, to which I answered with the list above, summarising it ‘as rather like a women’s group’.

Such a declaration isn’t unusual in Scotland particularly from men. At the time we were one of only two groups in the city, whereas elsewhere in the West, in London, the States and Nordic countries, men’s groups are much more common.

In one respect of course a men’s group isn’t comparable to a women’s group as it doesn’t so easily translate into politics. Previous attempts in the 1970s to set up men’s groups in the UK shaped by an anti-sexist male agenda influenced by feminism didn’t get far, suffocated by PCness.

Eddie, 47, from Helensburgh, who I met in the group, commented that women show a ‘surprise, but an interested surprised’ about the fact he was in a men’s group. Whereas ‘men kind of dismiss it. It would never be the start of a conversation with a man. It would be the end.’

A men’s group tells us lots of things about men. The confusion of men, anxiety, the sense that women had more expectations of men, even if that often led to disappointment. More intimacy. Better communications. Better sex. And this resulted in worry amongst many men. Some saw women as having ‘sorted their stuff out’ more than men. This seemed a form of projection in the way some English people think us Scots have ‘worked’ out our identity!

There were numerous Scottish effects of the group. One was because we were so rare, large numbers of women over the years showed an innate curiosity about what it entailed. Many times women would suggest that their male partner would be interested in joining the group and that they had ‘potential to open up’; more times than not the men in question were not remotely interested.

Michael, 43, who was in the group, has now for the last eight years lived and worked as a health professional in Brisbane, reflects that the group challenged his notion of himself as ‘fairly in touch with my feelings’. Eddie felt that it gave a safety to get into things you just could not elsewhere – ‘exploring whether you were homophobic or uncomfortable about things about men’s sexuality.’

Michael believes that such a group allows men to engage in a way which doesn’t fall intohe pattern of most men’s conversations. ‘You were consciously trying to talk about your feelings. Other groups of men you would get together with would be because of football.’ Because of this we had conversations which weren’t about those two great abstracts, football or politics.

Eddie reflects that there is a problem about ‘the West of Scotland male’. He thinks ‘the biggest problem we have is certain sections of society blaming all our problems on the West of Scotland male.’ He thinks this is ‘always about putting what is wrong down to poor, working class people and men. This is right through society, the middle class and intelligentsia.’ This he believes is a form of ‘deception’ and prevents middle class men from looking at some of their own problem behaviour.

Michael thinks that there are positives and negatives about Scottish men. ‘There’s no lack of external posturing, noise and chanting. There’s an obvious lack of self-comfort’. Yet compared to Australia the positives need to be emphasised, the Scots sense of ‘depth’ and the fact that Scots men are ‘highly sensitive’ and have ‘emotional depth’ even if they struggle sometimes to put this into words.

Men and women see the world differently, grow up at different rates, and think differently. They see the future in very different ways which became evident in the Glasgow 2020 Demos project which addressed how people imagined the future of the city. Women were generally much more positive about the future, and presented a world where they navigated and balanced challenges and priorities. Women had a sense of their immediate world and environment which they saw they had an element of influence and power. They tended to have a ‘can-do’ mentality across different classes, talking of aiding and supporting family, friends and neighbours.

Men on the other hand were much more negative, and in particular had a sense of change being about others whether politicians or authority generally. They were with exceptions shaped by a ‘you cannae dae that son’ attitude and tended to dwell on talking about external things like the council and wider politics. Women were much more present and future focused, whereas men looked to the past, and seemed filled with a sense of loss. Some of the most negative men were the most middle class.

Hopeful Stories for Scottish Men

What can be done to aid Scots men having an open conversation about what it is to be a man in Scotland? We clearly can’t have a nation of men’s groups. Yet, how can we acknowledge the problems, the limiting of so many men’s lives, the harm many men do to themselves and others, while recognising that the negative portrayal of Scots men is part of the problem?

Part of the solution has to be found in men taking voice and responsibility as men. By this I mean addressing the consequences of what we do as men to women, children and other men. We need to find role models and a modern version of what it is to be a man.

We have to escape from the Scots stereotypes of ‘the Big Man’ and ‘Rab C.’ along with some of the alternatives posed: the ‘Iron John’ mythopoetic man touted by some as the way men reconnect with their fathers and previous generations, or the metrosexual David Beckham-like type. Instead, we need modern Scots heroes, everyday Scots men doing exceptional things in their day to day lives. Less ‘Braveheart’ and more just heart.

One answer is provided by ‘Working Rite’, a social enterprise company based in Leith, which works across Scotland and the UK, run by Sandy Campbell, and studied carefully by David Cameron’s Westminster Tories. ‘Working Rite’ provides apprenticeships mostly for young boys (and some girls as well) which aid them becoming adults.

It is called ‘Working Rite’ because of Campbell’s belief in the missing ‘rites of passage’ particularly for young boys. ‘Men speak in code’ he believes. ‘We never use the term ‘mentoring’; we use the phrase ‘everyone remembers their first boss’’. It is about getting boys to a stage where ‘they can make their first adult friends’ by being in the presence of adults, who also teach them a skill, removed from their peers.

The experience leads almost immediately to a change in the boys, ‘there is a certain sense of self-possession’ which emerges states Campbell. ‘They will be able to look you in the eye, listen, stand in the company of people older and be comfortable. You can feel it physically.’

Colin, now in his early twenties was expelled from school in Edinburgh found structure and support through ‘Working Rite’. Working with a plasterer in Leith, Colin says ‘its like a real job. No college, no tests and the pay’s not that bad either.’ He reflects on his boss, ‘He’s strict in time-keeping though and there’s no messing about. But its not like school. There’s no other lads there to mess about with anything’.

This is part of a long process. How boys become men. How men talk to other men. How men act in wider society. Yet if we spent a fraction of the time we spent talking about football and politics on what it means to be a man in Scotland that would be a start. Gillon believes we need to aid men changing individually, but that we also need change ‘culturally and in society about what it is to be a man’.

Perhaps the beginning of this is to address the fact that men across this nation, come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and types, and that we need to breakdown the traditional idea of what it is to be a man.

One question to ask of ourselves, our friends and families would be: what does it take to be a good man in Scotland? What does it entail in terms of how some men behave so badly, how can we challenge that, and how do we support the legions of good men who are out there trying their best? And how can we create a society which nurtures its good men and women working together for a very different kind of nation?

Comments (8)

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  1. A fascinating subject – and Gerry is right – sorely neglected. A year or so ago, I undertook a piece of work touching on Scottish middle-class masculinities and was primarily struck both by how limited and diffuse is the contemporary discussion.

    While some scholars are now embarking on work treating historical Scots masculinities, analysis of the present situation remains sparse. One area where there has been a bit of concentrated discussion is Scottish literature, via male authors and their depictions of masculine (or emasculated) characters. What also struck me is the class-blindness of much of this – or the invisibility of middle-class masculinities and the use (noted in social research elsewhere, including America) of “working-class” masculinities – or middle class perceptions of the masculinity of the working classes – as a proxy for masculinity as such.

    Strongly implicated in this, I’d suggest, are more general representational difficulties involving the Scots middle classes and discursive relations between perceptions of effeminacy, Anglicisation and the stereotyped modal conception of the “Scottish male”. Scottish theatre is a strange case in point, where theatre produced by the middle classes, for the middle classes rarely depicts middle class life. Particularly in Glasgow, at times this seems a queer – rather bizarre – burlesque of working class authenticity. Matters are obviously more complicated, there are exceptions, ambivalent characterisation – but I’d insist on the broad impression. Such tendencies seem frequently extend to the limited televisual depictions of Scottish life in general and masculinities in particular.

    All of these themes, it seems to me, are tightly wound together. And fascinating.

  2. Martin says:

    Great article, blogged on similar stuff myself, albeit in less eloquent terms…

    I sometimes think that ‘Scottish hardman’ is like the twisted voice of Scottish men’s conscience, waiting to mock any show of sensitivity as weakness. It’s a behavioural lowest common denominator. Do so many Scottish men pursue careers abroad to escape this mindset?

  3. Dave Coull says:

    “At the time we were one of only two groups in the city, whereas elsewhere in the West, in London, the States and Nordic countries, men’s groups are much more common”.

    That is an assertion made without any evidence, which may or may not be true. To take one example out of those mentioned by G. Hassan (but the same is probably true for the others also) the United States has a population of 315 million. Scotland has a population of 5 million. The USA is 63 times bigger than Scotland. For the statement “men’s groups are much more common” to be true, the number of men’s groups in the USA would have to be FAR more than 63 times the number in Scotland. Is it? I bet Gerry Hassan doesn’t know. I bet he never even bothered to check before making his claim.

    This is not a defence of Scottish manhood, far from it. It is a criticism of Hassan’s sloppy methods. I have recently made a similar criticism of his nonsense about the so-called “Devolution Class”.

  4. Vic Blake says:

    Your article is spot on as is the sense of urgency. I am engaged in a similar task here in Nottingham and, while there are situational and cultural differences betwen us, our cultures of masculinity still shape our lives, not always for our good or for the good of others. I know the raised eyebrow as well as the abuse that can come when we question these distorted masculine ideals (it last happened to me a few weeks ago in Ayr) – people hang on to them very dearly and it makes our task all the harder.

    Like Gillon, I also worked with men and we have hardly scratched the surface. I hope you’ll get in touch. Best wishes. Vic Blake

  5. Rod E. Keays says:

    Are you still actively leading men’s groups? The last post is five years ago, what is happening for men in Scotland today?

  6. Emg says:

    I’m also very interested to see where this research, debate, conversation, understanding has gone since its posting. For me it’s vital to bring this subject out into mainstream debate. The Scottish male is struggling probably more so than other male groups in society. A far deeper understanding of the underpinnings of this psyche and its future course are urgently required.

    1. Rod Keays says:

      Yes I agree. It is a global phenomenon not just a local one. Yet Scottish men are Quiet. Men in general will talk about work or their hobbies but feelings are taboo. It’s part of the warrior way that a man that will kill cannot feel and a man that feels cannot kill. Our culture expects a man to be both at different times, or when needed.

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