The Roman Catholic Church in Scotland after the Reformation of 1560.

Despite the stringent action against the Catholics, the abolition of the Pope`s authority, and dire penalties for hearing the Mass, there remained an influential core of its supporters. The nation had not been unanimous in its acceptance of Presbyterianism; the northern parts of Inverness, Caithness, Sutherland, Aberdeen, Moray, and the Sheriffdoms of Buchan, Angus, Wigton and Nithsdale were either wholly or partly  commanded by nobles who secretly adhered to the Catholic faith and were directed in their movements by Jesuits and Priests. Some thirteen of the nobility were Roman Catholics. This situation gave rise to extensive hypocrisy and deception by inducing people to have differing standards, with the former clergy adopting various disguises as doctors, soldiers, physicians etc. and adopting several false names and identities. The most influential of the Northern Lords was the Earl of Huntly and the Gordon hierarchy – Lord Aboyne, the Lairds of Craig, Gight, Abergeldie, Lesmore, Letterfourie; by the Earl of Errol and his kinsmen of Delgatty and Fetterletter. Other powerful houses were the Leslies, the Bissets,  Blackhall in Garioch; the Irvings, Coutses in Mar, the Cheynes, the Cons and Inrings  in Buchan.

At the accession of James VI/I to the throne of England there was a sheaf of indulgences given out that allowed especially the powerful, to practice their faith in private. The Marquis of Huntly  and Gordon of Craig were among the first to be indulged. From this time the Roman Catholic Church maintained an Agent or Resident, in London to negotiate for them and thereby kept the established church at arms length. In Scotland only one Jesuit priest, John Olgivie, was convicted and executed in Glasgow in 1615. In 1628 Charles I required all dissenting Catholics ( ie who refused to attend the official church) to be reported and placed in custody, and on conviction excommunicated and their property seized. In 1630 Charles stated in a letter that seven Catholics who had appeared before the Council had been banished and one third of the rents due them allowed to be retained by the individuals family . This allowance was forfeit if they returned and they would be liable to heavy fines and imprisonment. Following the demise of the last Catholic Bishop ( Bishop Watson of Lincoln)  in 1584 it was deemed expedient not to nominate a successor(s) and a Clergyman with the title Archpriest was set up. The first was the Rev G Blackwell in 1598 whose authority extended to the Mission in Scotland. Despite their precarious position in law, the Scottish Catholic clergy resented the intrusion of the English Archpriest. There followed the consecration and appointment of Rev William Bishop in 1623, as Vicar Apostolic with rule over Scotland. Eventually the Pope ordered Rev Bishop to abstain from exercising jurisdiction in Scotland.

  In Scotland between 1560 and 1600 the remaining Catholic priests and Jesuit, Benedictine, Franciscan, Lazarite and Augustinian Orders planted themselves in different districts to continue their work; many adopting two or three false names to cloak their activities. The Jesuits were in Braemar, Glencairn, Strathglass and Buchan. Meanwhile, in 1600  the Pope, Clement  VIII, established a Scots College as a nursery for native Missionaries in Rome.

 By the mid 1630s there re-emerged the Missionary Priest ( Fr Blackhal) who discharged that role in a very limited way in the safe areas of the North. In the remote parts the absence of a priest was sorely felt such that the Chieftain of Clan MacDonell sent to Ireland for two priests – Francis White a Lazarist, and a Dermot Gray who came from Spain. They entered their charge at Glengarry in 1654. After some earlier negotiations the first Prefect of the Mission in Scotland was appointed in 1653 ( Rev William Ballantyne). Although wanting in organisation and for appointments of clerics, pressures continued for the appointment of a Bishop, especially the Bishop of the Isles, where many Catholics remained. The fact was, nevertheless, that the Catholic faith had weathered the worst storms of the Presbyterians and the  Covenanters, and enjoyed a mild resurgence until Cromwell took charge of the country. The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and his marriage to a Catholic Princess raised the hopes of all Catholics, especially in England.

In 1675 two Catholic schools were set up, one in Glengarry and the other on the Isle of Barra, but there were problems with distribution of the pupils.  A survey was conducted which estimated that there were some14,000 communicants of which 12,000 belonged to the Highlands and the Isles and with only three or four priests , three from Ireland. Catholics elsewhere were Galloway 550; Glasgow and district 50;Forfarshire and Kincardineshire 72; Aberdeenshire 405; Banffshire 1,000;  and  Morayshire 8. In this period the care delivered by the few priests over a vast area of Highlands and islands was spasmodic and almost random, subject as they were to possible betrayal to the authorities. The Visitation report that was made did manage to make the Mission in Scotland to become more structured and organised, but still without a Bishop of their own. Hopes were raised high when James II came to the throne, but a Bishop still did not materialise whereas a new English (Catholic) Bishop was created in 1688. In Scotland in 1688 there was serious rioting  and the newly redecorated Chapel at Holyrood was ransacked as was the home of the newly converted Earl of Perth – the Chancellor. There was a general search for Altars and associated furniture and furnishings, with several priests seized, imprisoned and some banished. By 1690, however, things eased with King William inclined to clemency and toleration. In 1694 Rome finally authorised the first Scottish Bishop – Dr Thomas Nicolson as Bishop of Peristachium.

Thomas Nicolson (bishop1695-1718) was the son of  Sir Thomas Nicolson of Kemnay and Elizabeth Abercromby of Birkenbog. He was born about 1645 and had a brother, Sir George, who was appointed a Lord of Session. Notably his parents were Protestants and he was brought up in that religion and being of a literary mind spent some fourteen years as a Regent in the University of Glasgow. He embraced the Catholic faith about 1682 when he went to  Padua and then three years theological training at the Scottish College of Douay.  In 1685 he took Holy Orders and returned to Scotland as a Missionary priest in December 1687. This was just in time to be arrested in November 1688, imprisoned and ordered to be banished to the Continent. He escaped the mob in Edinburgh but was subsequently apprehended in Stirling and one more thrown into prison. His brother subsequently stood bail for him and he went to France where he was Confessor to a Convent of nuns in Dunkirk. While still banished he was appointed Bishop of Peristachium and Vicar Apostolic of Scotland. He was consecrated in the private chapel of the Archbishop on 27 February 1695.  His return to Scotland was frustrated by not having a valid passport and he instead ventured to London in November 1696 where he was again arrested and incarcerated  until May 1697. On his release he made his way to Edinburgh and thence to the Gordon castle from where he began his work of the next 20 years. He died on 23 October 1718.

It is interesting to compare the privations and suffering of the outed, conventicling, ministers of the Presbyterian Kirk and the Missionaries of the Catholic church . Their problems were remarkably similar. They suffered poverty, the risk of imminent discovery, and travelled largely on foot disguised as common peasants. The Missionaries certainly were obliged to take the dangerous bye ways over mountains, moors, bogs and through the glens to reach their flock, seeking refuge in shielings used by the migratory population in the summer. It is ironic that the Scottish Catholic Priests, few as they were, dissented from rule from England and were not dissimilar in their bickering as it was between the Covenanters and the Indulged etc.

Roman Catholic Bishops 1694-1828