Hidden in History

Why are Scottish dads still stereotyped as unfeeling ‘hard men’ or simply absent? Research by our guest blogger AIMEE McCULLOUGH shows a fuller picture has often been ‘hidden in history’ – but as fathers volunteer to tell their stories, the truth is beginning to emerge.

Hidden in History

McCulloch DadWhy are Scottish dads still stereotyped as unfeeling ‘hard men’ or simply absent? Research by our guest blogger AIMEE McCULLOUGH shows a fuller picture has often been ‘hidden in history’ – but as fathers volunteer to tell their stories, the truth is beginning to emerge.

Public and political interest in fathers and fatherhood has intensified in recent years. From moral panics over ‘feckless’, absent dads to celebrations of the ‘new’ man – caring, sensitive, willing to attend the birth of his children and take equal responsibility for childcare – the role of the father has become increasingly visible and discussed in Britain.

Yet fathers have largely remained ‘hidden in history’, and until recently few historical studies have explored fatherhood or its impact on family life. In Scotland, the history of fatherhood is almost non-existent. Fathers are often neglected in historical studies of the family, have been defined in terms of financial provision and are assumed to have had little interest in their children.


According to historian Lynn Abrams, who has conducted one of the few historical studies of twentieth century fatherhood in Scotland, the Scottish father remains a ‘victim of ignorance and misinterpretation’ and has been ‘placed by historians – when he is not at work – in the pub, the working men’s club, on the allotment or in the company of his pigeons rather than his children.’ (1)

Where fathers do emerge in historical accounts of family life, they have been more commonly associated with the Scottish ‘hard man’ and often appear as the brutish, selfish, abusive drunk popularised in films such as Neds (2010).

Given there were around 17,600 lone fathers caring for dependent children in Scotland in 1981 (accounting for 18 per cent of lone parents in Scotland at that time), these popular representations about fathers’ supposed lack of emotional and practical involvement in the family are exaggerated and often inaccurate.

McCulloch Dad Quotes boxMen were more than the brutalising father of popular stereotypes, yet assumptions about their poor quality parenting have largely been repeated rather than challenged. It has been argued as recently as 2009 that, as the twentieth century came to a close, the ‘new man’ in Scotland was still in his infancy.


However becoming a father is life-altering and fatherhood is a crucial part of many men’s identities and experiences. In an attempt to explore these identities and recover these experiences, I have chosen to explore fatherhood in Scotland, from 1970 to 1995, as the basis of my PhD research.

This spans a period of significant change, in which there were changing expectations and patterns of behaviours surrounding fatherhood. Male and female roles were challenged by the changing labour market, de-industrialisation and unemployment, feminism and an increase in the number of women entering paid employment.

Although not new, the rise in divorce, cohabitation and remarriage led to multiple family forms. The fathers’ rights movement was established, there was a dramatic growth in the number of fathers attending childbirth from around fifty percent in the late 1970s to over ninety percent in the 1990s, and images of involved fatherhood were to be found in everyday culture via television, film, newspapers, celebrities and politicians.


Time-use studies suggest that between 1975 and 1997, British fathers’ care of infants and young children rose by some 800 per cent, from fifteen minutes to two hours in the average working day. The time British men spent on domestic work rose from an average of ninety minutes a day in the 1960s to 148 minutes per day in 2004.

Although statistics suggest that women in Scottish households continued to undertake the majority of housework and childcare, even as the century came to a close, this does not indicate that fathers were not equally loving or invested in their children, or that they were ‘cruel’ at worst and ‘incapable’ at best.

There remained many barriers which prevented men from taking an equal caring role and women from participating fully in employment. Fathers continued to be overlooked in key government policies on parenting and legislation persisted in encouraging male breadwinner and female carer roles.

In particular, men’s paid employment, including long hours, inflexible work schedules and underdeveloped parental leave policies were among the biggest difficulties. A report this year by the Scottish Parliament into Fathers and Parenting (to which Fathers Network Scotland gave evidence) suggests these obstacles are still widespread.

Undoubtedly fatherhood has changed over the course of the twentieth century; a growing number of fathers are now stay-at-home dads, most attend the births of their children, and paternity leave is a legal right.


However contemporary debates over men’s interest and involvement in family life must be placed in an historical context in order to determine to what degree today’s fathers are different or similar to yesterday’s fathers. As historical representations surrounding fatherhood impact on the way in which both the public and policy makers view Scottish men and their roles as fathers, it is imperative to challenge the stereotypes and demonstrate that many men were, and continue to be, loving, warm and caring fathers.

It is also important to understand why negative images have persisted, especially when they contrast with many fond memories and significant relationships people have with their fathers, including my own.

The historical study of fatherhood captures a lively and controversial present, readdresses the past and holds direct implications for the men, women, children and families of the future. So what did it mean to be father in late twentieth century Scotland and how did fathers in the past view, experience and enact their parental role?

How was ‘fatherhood’ represented in politics and by the press? Did this reflect the realities of everyday life and what impact did this have for fathers, mothers and their children? These are just some of the questions my research hopes to answer.

WRITER BIOG: Aimee McCullough is currently in the second year of her PhD at the University of Edinburgh looking at Scottish Fatherhood. She is interested in speaking to men who became fathers between 1970 and 1990. Check out this pdf advert for more information, contact her directly on 07873702168 or by email at [email protected]. You can also visit Aimee’s blog, or follow her on twitter or academia.

Footnotes: 1) L. Abrams, ‘There was Nobody like my Daddy’: Fathers, the Family and the Marginalisation of Men in Modern Scotland. The Scottish Historical Review, 2, 206 (1999)