THE Church of Scotland, in a historic move, yesterday expressed regret for the first time for any part it had played in sectarianism in the past.

The general assembly also approved the setting up of a new joint group with the Roman Catholic justice and peace commission to examine the issue afresh and combat bigotry in Scotland.

The Rev Alan McDonald, convener of the church and nation committee, said it was important that the assembly - the Kirk's supreme authority - took such a step. ''It means that we can now say this is the will of the general assembly,'' he said.

He recalled some of the worst examples from the church and nation's report to the 1923 assembly entitled ''The menace of the Irish race to our Scottish nationality''.

He said: ''It accused the Irish Roman Catholic population of taking employment from native Scots, of being part of a papist conspiracy to subvert presbyterian values, and of being the principal cause of drunkenness, crime and financial imprudence.

''It suggested the control of immigration from the Irish Free State, deportation, and preference being given to native-born Scots in public works because 'Scotland was over-gorged with Irishmen'.''

Mr Macdonald added: ''I am ashamed when I read how badly we got it wrong.

''We have to be honest about the past so that we can move forward. Let's be honest but let's move away from the blame culture. It is not their fault, their problem: sectarianism is everybody's problem.''

He adding that it was time to ''consign bigotry to the history books, where it belongs''.

Backing the new working group, Trevor Reid, an elder from Castle Douglas but originally from Belfast, said: ''The future is what is important, the past is the problem. I've been blown up, I have had my business blown up. I know what sectarianism can do.''

The Most Rev Dr Alastair Dunlop, moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, said: ''Sectarianism is very deep rooted and the problem is in our own hearts.''

The Rev Roderick Macdonald, whose church in Glasgow is near to Rangers' Ibrox stadium, where he is a season ticket holder, said: ''Most schoolchildren do not know what it is all about. They are told by their parents that they are Prods, that they are Rangers supporters and they do not like Catholics. That's sectarianism.

''We cannot talk about sectarianism on the one hand and not look at the divisions from the age of five that are the root cause of it.''

The Kirk's move follows a similar public admission to the assembly by the Most Rev Keith O'Brien, archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, for the Catholic Church's refusal to respond to ecumenical talks for nearly 400 years.

He said yesterday he welcomed the joint initiative of the working group.

The assembly heard also yesterday that speakers of Gaelic in Scotland are ''treated like second-class citizens''.

Iain MacGregor, from Ross-shire, a kirk elder, told the assembly there was still a degree of animosity towards Highland people from those in the lowlands.

He said: ''Gaels, like beggars, cannot afford to be choosers, and have to recognise that, as far as Gaelic is concerned, those who speak it are considered second-class citizens.

''Is it any wonder that many Gaels feel the animosity of the lowlands against the Highlands, which is categorised in that derogatory word 'teuchter'?''

He said the Gaelic language had been treated with contempt since it was banned following the failure of the 1745 Jacobite rising.

Mr MacGregor, from Kis-horn, complained no legal status was accorded to Gaelic and that documents written in that language could not be submitted in court.

The assembly later approved moves to support ongoing legislation to provide ''secure status'' for the Gaelic language.