Nothing about Larkhall is black and white

GREEN is a colour noticeable by its absence in Larkhall, the small town with the big reputation as Scotland's most sectarian community. Ask the average person what the name of the Lanarkshire town conjures up and the most likely answer is tattoos, Rangers tops and Protestant marching bands.

Yet is this town of new-build homes and old miner rows perched on the edge of the Clyde Valley itself a victim of prejudice?

As the sign welcoming visitors exclaims in multi-coloured letters - two green and two blue, a rare example of balance: "Larkhall: take a closer look".

Yet however close you look, green, the colour of nature in any other country, but in the west of Scotland a symbol of Celtic Football Club, is rarely seen. A drive around Larkhall reveals one green door; the majority are white or brown with more than a few blue.

Larkhall, it has been claimed, has a problem with the colour green, the most recent victim being the traffic light which signals go, 205 of which have gone since 2004 in acts of vandalism that have cost the local council 16,880 in repairs. Optimists point to the fact that the green light is closest to the ground; pessimists, including one local police officer who preferred not to be named, believe sectarianism is behind attacks on a colour associated with Celtic and so the Catholic Church.

Just visit Subway, the sandwich chain which opened in the town's main street a few weeks ago. Its standard livery is green throughout Britain. In Larkhall it is black, a decision a spokesman for the company said may have been due to "planning and environmental issues".

Larkhall is certainly an environment unsympathetic towards the colour green. Five years ago Moss Pharmacy in the town changed its front colours from green and white to red, white and blue, while there have been reports that Telewest boxes - originally green - were vandalised and reappeared blue. Locals say that in Hamilton, a chain of Indian restaurants is green and white, while the Larkhall branch is blue and white.

The most prominent example of the promotion of colours associated with unionism is the railings of Glenview Memorial Park. In the past they were red, white and blue. In the 1990s, the council painted them municipal green, an act which proved unpopular. In 2001, a resident painted a stretch red, white and blue, and with the support of Karen Gillon, the local Labour MSP, the Queen's colours were then retained by the council.

The capitulation of Subway has annoyed many. Richard Benjamin, campaign director of Nil By Mouth, said it was "unjust, undeserved and serves only to reinforce the town's stereotype". While Sandy Todd, headmaster of Machanhill primary in Larkhall, said: "This is not very helpful".

In the high seats by the window of the new Subway store, one local mother, who like many residents equates giving her name with "smashed windaes", said: "It's so embarrassing - imagine living in a town where people can't tolerate the colour green - you'll no see green wheelie bins. I had one and they set it alight." Like many people we spoke to, she believes sectarianism is ingrained, but at the same time is not as bad as many people might imagine. "You've got a minority of nutters who'll cause trouble, but that's about it."

A local taxi driver had a darker view. When asked how big a problem sectarianism was in Larkhall, he pointed to the Subway sign as evidence and said: "It's rotten to the core." The younger generation was more optimistic. Grant Robertson, 22, who works in a warehouse, insisted: "It's nowhere near as bad as people think. It's mainly just friends slagging each other off about what team they support." Kerry Brown, 24, a barmaid at the local snooker club, which prohibits any football colours, said: "You have a few troublemakers who go after the colour green - what are they going to do next, go after the grass?"

While Irish immigrants were able to mix successfully in towns such as Paisley, Greenock, Ayr and Kilmarnock, historians believe anti-Catholicism to have been greater in mining towns such as Larkhall, where Irish Catholics were used by pit owners to break strikes. So the fuel was as much economic fear as it was cultural dilution of Protestant stock, the idea which found support in sections of the Church of Scotland in the 1920s and 1930s.

Catholics, who account for just 2,000 out of the town's population of 15,000 are no longer feared as economic rivals. They have gathered to celebrate mass in community halls in Larkhall since 1872, but when there was enough support to fund the construction of a church in 1905, the local council insisted St Mary's be built on the outskirts of the town. Today, the parish enjoys strong ecumenical relations with the town's other religious denominations. The local St Vincent de Paul group, a charitable organisation whose assistance is not restricted to Catholics, receives donations from the local Rangers Supporters Club, Orange Order and Masonic lodge.

The parish priest for the past 30 years, Canon Henry McGinn, 85, took umbrage at reports in the Catholic press that he was too fearful to walk the streets in a dog collar, which, in fact, he is rarely without. The attitude of the local Catholic community, which may surprise some people, is that the town has been unfairly treated.

Simon Dames, a press officer with the Scottish Catholic Media Office, said: "Over decades, anti-Catholicism has been marginalised throughout Scotland. The majority of the decent people of Larkhall are no different to anywhere else in the country. Any disharmony is caused by the same antisocial tendencies you would find in other towns in Scotland and is therefore not peculiar to Larkhall."


IT HAS been more than three years since Inspector Willie Black of Strathclyde Police took over responsibility for Larkhall and, despite the town's reputation, the police officer insists levels of sectarian offences are no higher than in his previous beats in Glasgow.

Although he did not have the most recent figures immediately to hand, he explained that in recent months, the only complaints have concerned the singing of sectarian songs or music being played at loud volumes.

Even during the marching season, when as many as 30 bands can arrive in the town on a Friday night, recent complaints have merely concerned buses blocking access to property.

While he is aware that some residents would refrain from reporting any complaints to the police for fear of reprisals - as one resident put it: "talking to the police just ensures your eviction" - he believes the perception of the town is unwarranted. "When we do have trouble it is usually the work of a small minority, which is what happens in many other areas in the country."

According to Peter Craig, a local SNP councillor, Larkhall has been unfairly stigmatised by the media. "The reputation Larkhall has got is simply not justified. Any problems it does have are shared by many other places in the west of Scotland. Yet there are urban myths about Larkhall that are continuing to be reported.

"I don't believe that the smashing of traffic lights has anything to do with sectarianism, and it has nothing to do with religion, but it has everything to do with vandalism.

"The vast majority of the people of Larkhall are pig-sick of being tarred with the same brush as a few idiots. It's quite simple. If you want to find people who will voice sectarian views, you will be able to do that, just as you are able to do that anywhere in Scotland, but the vast majority in the town want nothing to do with it."