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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 132 FEBRUARY 2010 / BACK
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Reflections on the Unco Guid

Mark Smith

The 25th January is Burns' Night, the celebration of Scotland's national bard. Across Scotland families sit down to a meal of haggis, neeps (turnip) and tatties (potatoes), and recite what they remember of Burns from their schooldays. Formal Burns Suppers are held the length and breadth of the country, following a well-established pattern on eating, drinking and recitation.

He was a remarkable character was Burns, the ploughman poet. Given that he died at the age of 37, he was a prolific writer of poems and ballads, his canon ranging from love songs such as “Ae Fond Kiss” and “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose” through political tracts like “A Man's a Man for A' That” to social satire. One of the things that Burns does particularly well is to puncture pomposity and hypocrisy in poems such as “Holy Willie’s Prayer” and “Address to the Unco Guid” (the uncommonly good). The unco guid lived lives beyond reproach (or at least on the surface they did) but not content with this, they also revelled in pointing out the faults of those who didn’t. As Burns remarks,

O ye wha are sae guid yoursel',
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye've nought to do but mark and tell
Your neibours' fauts and folly!

The juiciest faults and follies, of course, were those of a sexual nature. And Presbyterian Scotland had a particular way of dealing with such indiscretions. Those accused of such had to sit on a small three-legged “cutty stool” in front of the pulpit in the kirk, their sins exposed to public disapprobation.

The unco guid are still with us. They are the ones who tell us how awful residential care is or was. The unspoken assumption is that things would be much better were it left to them rather than the unsophisticates who do or did run homes and schools – it’s just that they don’t have enough time between their various good works to spend more than five minutes with kids who can, after all, be a bit uncouth. Sometimes, though, the unco guid do venture into residential care settings. They arrive knowing how things should be because they've been told by a college lecturer or have maybe even read a book. And when things don’t work out the way they think they should then it must be someone else’s fault. That’s when a psychology of righteousness can come to the fore. The sense of self-righteousness of the unco guid was rarely in my experience shared by the kids. They seemed to have more of an affinity with those staff who might have a few rough edges of their own.

Sexual impropriety it seems is still high on the agenda of the unco guid. I was doing some training during the week and was told by a foster carer that their agency had a policy that demanded that young children being given a bath were first put into swimsuits. I questioned whether this was just one of those myths which can grow up around such situations but was assured it was written in black and white. Actually, whether these things are written down or not is almost secondary. The very fact that people can believe that the wider child care establishment thinks along such lines is itself telling. Quite aside from the practical question of how one might get a kid into a swimsuit without by chance setting eyes on bits of forbidden flesh I do wonder about the mindsets that come up with such policies and what kind of distorted view of sexuality it assumes and indeed reinforces.

In Burns' day the unco guid would point to the Bible to justify their positions (and of course to vilify those of more ordinary mortals). Nowadays moral propriety is upheld through recourse to more secularised tomes: codes, standards and procedures, with a secularised apparatus to make sure that we all adhere to them. And woe betide those who don't!

The displacement of a repressive religious moral order with a secularised one that, equally, broaches no dissent, is something I have been reflecting on in different contexts. The more it seems we assume ourselves to have moved beyond the superstition of erstwhile religious belief the more we are prone to constructing alternative apparatus' to impose some moral certitude on our lives. This secularised morality is all the more dangerous, for it eschews the supernatural or superstitious elements of religious belief and replaces these with an appeal to cool reason – the kind of cool reason that wants to put kids into bathing costumes before they have a bath. I’m reassured to realise that I’m not the only one thinking along these lines. A recent article in the British Journal of Social Work makes a similar point, suggesting that,

There is certainly a similarity to religion in the way that the GSCC (the General Social Care Council “the social work regulator in England) has taken to censuring our sex, drink and drug habits, its hostility to denial and favouring of confession and repentance. In some respects, it could be argued that the GSCC is replacing the priest or imam as the contemporary arbiter of morally “correct” behaviour (McLaughlin, 2010).

To conclude, I’d like to call upon another strand of religious tradition, that which points to our innate human failings and the need to understand and forgive these. They are part and parcel of who we are and to seek to expunge the bits of us that maybe aren’t entirely as we might like them to be may only serve to erode our very humanity itself. Burns, an acute and honest observer of the human condition puts this point a bit more pithily -

The Rigid Righteous is a fool,
The Rigid Wise anither:
The cleanest corn that ere was dight
May hae some pyles o' caff in;
So ne'er a fellow-creature slight
For random fits o' daffin.


Robert Burns: Address to the Unco Guid

Mclaughlin, K (2010) The Social Worker versus the General Social Care Council: An Analysis of Care Standards Tribunal Hearings and Decisions. British Journal of Social Work 40 (1):311-327

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