Stand Up and (Finally) Be Counted: Paganism’s Changing Future in Scotland

Pagans in Scotland have been fighting hard to achieve recognition and support. The next Scottish census will be in 2021 and this will be the first year that ‘Pagan’ is offered as an option in the religion category. This is an awaited breakthrough for the community of this minority religion who have never had official recognition in a census, and who have fought for the past 20 years to have more coverage, respect, and official statistics surrounding their numbers in Scotland. 

Understanding Paganism

Paganism, as a term, has a complex history. In the modern understanding, Paganism covers a variety of cults and religions. The term Neo-Paganism is also used, emphasizing revivalism of ancient pagan rituals and traditions. 

The term “pagan” developed around the arrival of Christianity in around the 5th century from Ireland. It meant country dweller. It arose at a time when Christianity was known as an ‘urban faith’. This was because Christianity originally developed, and spread, exclusively through urban centres, from Jerusalem and then throughout the Roman Empire. The economic and cultural developments of early urban centres had a profound impact on the construction of Christianity according to the late philosopher, Alan Watts. 

‘Pagan’, initially, had a pejorative undertone, aligning with the term “heathen”; a disparaging name for a worshipper of a polytheistic religion, but more broadly, for a non-Christian. The name was ascribed to people outside the Christian faith by the early Christian Church. In historic Britain, the term was often attributed to Viking settlers who worshipped Old Norse religion, which had various deities and practices. Old Norse religion was seen as a direct threat to Christianity and the sanctity of life within early Britain. 

The Roots of Paganism in Scotland

Paganism has historic roots and elements of Scottish Paganism have a foundation in the country’s Celtic history, and these can be found across the map of Scotland. 

Pagan religions are deeply connected to the environment and the natural world. The community continues to advocate for more protection and respect for ecosystems and nature within Scotland. The growth of modern Paganism in Scotland is occurring at a time when mainstream Scottish society is also attempting to push for a more symbiotic relationship between people and the natural world. 

John Macintyre, a Wiccan and Honorary Member of the Scottish Pagan Federation who sent the initial plea asking for information on Pagans from the 2001 census, charted his experience as a Pagan within Scotland. He wrote that understandings “of the Divine in modern Paganism largely arise from, and are sustained by, personal experience of the sacred within Nature rather than through the authority of the written word.” 

Call of the Wild

One of the most famous examples of the “sacred within Nature” is the Clootie Well at Munlochy in Northern Scotland. A clootie well is a naturally occurring spring which was used as a site of healing by early Celts. There are a few clootie wells dotted around Northern Scotland today.  If individuals had a pain or ailment, they would dip a piece of cloot (cloth) into the spring water and tie the cloth around a nearby tree. When the cloth rotted away, the ailment should disappear. 

Today, the clootie wells are still attracting people from near and far to tie ribbons and cloths to trees and to commemorate the healing powers of the natural world. They still represent a desire of people in modern society to connect with the benefits of the natural world and to reconnect to the pre-Christian spiritual heritage of Scotland. 

Celebrations of nature continue to occur throughout the year. Notable celebrations are the seasonal equinoxes and solstices. 

A famous version of the Beltane (or Bealltainn in Scots Gaelic) festival is held annually at Carlton Hill in Edinburgh. It honors May 1st, which is roughly halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. The day is frequently celebrated with bonfires (or fire) and yellow flowers. This event is celebrated by several modern Pagans and Wiccans. The festival’s growth since 1988 demonstrates that Paganism, and celebrations of various Pagan religions, are becoming more recognized and accepted in mainstream society. 

Paganism Today

It is estimated that Paganism is the sixth-largest non-Christian religious group in Scotland, according to the previous census. Modern Paganism (sometimes referred to as Neopaganism) has been steadily growing in Scotland and more celebratory pagan events are occurringNowadays, Paganism still covers a variety of religions. Modern faiths of Wicca, Neo-Druidism, Heathenry, Witchcraft and Shamanism are just some faiths encompassed within the monolith term. Followers may refer to themselves by their particular religion or may identify by the term Pagan. 

There are various theories about why Paganism is continuing to grow in Scotland. Some suggest the rise of individualism in modern society and also the loosening grip of the major religions on the way of life in Scotland are the reasons. At the same, the rise in awareness and respect for the natural world as the climate crisis continues to alter and affect natural landscapes and weather may explain the return of individuals to more nature-oriented religions. 

Modern Paganism also offers a respite from the fast-paced, globalized world of today and advocates a return to a slower pace of life and an appreciation for the world around us, as Charlotte Barbour of Culture Trip writes.  More local groups and moots have formed regionally around Scotland to provide community for those who identify as, and those interested in learning about, Pagans. 

Legal Protections for the Community

Despite Paganism being a small religion in Scotland, it is recognized as a protected belief in Scot’s Law and is provided some protection and recognition.

The Equality Act (2010) “harmonizes and replaces previous legislation” to protect individuals from direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, and victimization. The Act ensures recognition of religion or belief and the right of individuals and groups to receive fair and equal treatment, even if they are minority religions or faiths.

This legal protection is significant as it shows that Scotland is interested in supporting its minority religions. This ensures that members of the community can worship and to continue to preserve the tenets of their religion. The focus of The Equality Act on Paganism also demonstrates that it is here to stay in Scotland. On a broader scale, it emphasizes Scotland’s pledge of support to its minority communities. 

Support is also facilitated by Interfaith Scotland, a Scottish charity whose focus is enabling various forms of engagement between different faith groups in Scotland. They help to liaise with the Scottish Government to provide support and information for Pagan rights in contemporary society. 

Let’s talk numbers 

According to data extrapolated from the previous Scottish census in 2011, there are 9487 people who self-identify within the umbrella term of Paganism. This is around 0.2% of the population. 

Whilst this is a small percentage of Scotland’s population, it still deserves recognition. Other religions such as Judaism are also small within Scotland but are nevertheless recognized religious faiths which are respected in the census and in the media. This support has not been afforded to the Pagan community. In 2001, when John Macintyre sent his plea for more information on Pagans to the General Registry Office for Scotland (GRoS), he was told that allowing Pagans to have information on their community would lead to “future ‘impractical’ demands” of groups in Scotland. This disinterest in the government was also reflected in the media which did not consider the group’s concerns as significant, and frequently misrepresented the Pagan community

Is the Situation Changing?

The Scottish Pagan Federation (SPF) has been one of the largest propellers of change for the Pagan community in Scotland. This organization is an offshoot of the UK Pagan Federation; SPF became independent in 2006

SPF is the leader in Scotland working on the promotion and protection of Paganism. It is the main public educator on the various Neo-pagan and Pagan faiths in the country. The Federation also acts as a counterweight to misrepresentation of the community in media and wider society. 

It is the main authority for Paganism and the only body in Scotland with the ability to register a Pagan Celebrant or Chaplain. Celebrants can conduct “many kinds of ceremonies – hand fasting, legal-binding marriage, funeral, and baby naming”, according to the official SPF website

The Federation has also enabled the introduction of Pagan representatives to universities. Jean Fowler is now the first official Pagan university chaplain in Scotland and is registered with the University of Edinburgh. Pagan chaplains are also available to individuals in hospital and prison within Scotland. 

Led by District Managers, Steffy VonScott and Jennifer Connolly, who have been in the position since 2017, the Federation promotes a more tolerant point of view. As evidenced by the fact that they advocate for the “tolerance, acceptance, and understanding of LGBTQIA+ people”; more education and voice for Pagans in Scotland; and more events for the community. 

What have they achieved?

The Pagan community has had a steady battle over the past 20 years to gain meaningful recognition in Scotland. Without concrete knowledge and information about Paganism and the number of Pagans in Scotland, it is difficult to enact meaningful change. It also adds to the challenge of tackling misrepresentation in media and society. 

SPF fought hard to gain recognition and finally, after the 2001 census, interest in adding ‘Pagan’ as a religious category was acknowledged. This was because it “was the most frequently written in [the] religion response under the Other category” according to Scotland’s Census 2021 Ethnic Group and Religious Update report

During the 2006 Census Test and the 2009 Census Rehearsal, a pilot test with a tick box for ‘Pagan’ in the religious section of the census was trialed. However, despite evidence that there was interest in adding ‘Pagan’ as an option and that the trial was successful, the tick box was not added to the 2011 census.

Instead, despite support from “local authorities, health services and many more public bodies”, a Member of the Scottish Parliament vetoed the Pagan tick box as they felt it was more important to find out about other Christian denominations in Scotland, according to VonScott’s article for SPF. This caused obvious disappointment, but did not thwart the community’s ambitions for the 2021 census

One of the most important benefits of giving clear recognition to Pagans in the census is that it provides the ability to chart the numbers of the community. Beyond providing a clear number of Pagans in Scotland, it will enable the chance to implement more national recognition of Paganism in education, social services, and support in interfaith communities. 

Onwards and upwards

The 2021 census provides an exciting opportunity to gain more information and recognition for Pagans within Scotland. Manny Tejenda-Moreno of The Wild Hunt, chronicled that SPF believes there could be an estimated 30,000 Pagans within Scotland, over three times more than were recorded in the previous census. The 2021 census will provide more recognition and clarity for the diverse Pagan community in Scotland. The change demonstrates an expansion of Scotland’s toleration and respect for diversity. This suggests real hope for increased respect for minorities in Scotland. 

If Pagans are now recognized officially in the 2021 census, this may pave the way for recognition of other communities and an expansion of future censuses to show the true diversity of Scotland. This step towards more explicit respect is a positive example of Scotland’s continued effort in making its nation an open and respectful place for all within its borders. 

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.

Phoebe Williams
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Phoebe is an International Master’s student of Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian studies between the University of Glasgow, Tartu University, and Jagiellonian University. Her Master’s dissertation, is about Slovakia’s President Zuzana Čaputová and women’s participation in Slovak politics. Phoebe's research interests include modern Native faiths, women’s rights and women in politics, and Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, she is based in Scotland.

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