Meeting place of the Vicars Apostolic and Administrators.

Mortlach, Robieston and Scalan

Alasdair Roberts

Mortlach and Robieston are two little known places near Huntly, but both are linked to Scalan. Mortlach is so little known that Peter Anson confused it with the ancient kirk of Mortlach outside Dufftown, but Dom Odo Blundell visited the site: ‘ Although the ruins prove that there must have been many houses there at that time, the township is now deserted. Indeed a sombre desolate spot can scarcely be imagined, the poor land offering very little inducement to the farmer whilst the exposed situation has nothing of the exclusion of Scalan, so far at least as weather conditions are concerned.’

There is an early Mortlach link in the person of John Gordon, who withdrew from Minmore to the Braes of Glenlivet after the ‘Fifteen as ‘ the first Churchman who lived at Scalan’. Thus wrote Bishop Geddes, recording these penal times with care. Perhaps the Glenlivet winters were too severe for Mr Gordon, with the first seminary still unbuilt, because he came down to the old chapel site of Mortlach, at the foot of the Binn Hill in CairnieGordon was only 48 when ‘he preached on death on a Sunday and died on the following Tuesday.’ He was buried in the ruins of Peterkirk, another ancient chapel near his family home at Cairnborrow.

Built before the 13th century; Burnt at the Reformation; and now taken In 1833, by Jas. Henry, Watchmaker, Kelth.

Mass-House at Robieston

That was in 1720. Four years later a report of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge drew attention to the ‘218 Roman Catholics in Huntly, with a chapel at Robieston, where Peter Reid and John Tyrie preach and say Mass.’ Peter Reid was another priest who ‘did not live long’ (in the words of Abbe McPherson, who did) and he died at Mortlach in 1726. John Tyrie took over, saying mass at Robieston for another seven years.

Robieston is north-west of Huntly, less than a mile from the ruined castle of Strathbogie where mass had been celebrated very solemnly in the 1660s. From this farm the 14-year-old Charles Cruickshank went out to the Scots College Rome in 1728. Even in these days Huntly provided first class education, so his parents did not need to send their son to Scalan.

On returning to Scotland young M r Cruickshank was sent to serve the Catholics of Glenrinnes and Morinsh, his house and chapel at Tomnagylach being situateq a mile or so from the modern distillery. There is very reason to think that Cruickshank became a Jacobite agent. He left his mission for France in 1744 with an ‘indisposition’, and was a close associate of John Tyrie who returned from a prolonged visit to Rome and became his neighbour in Glenlivet. As Stuart Mitchell has shown (ScN 14) Tyrie was wounded at Culloden and his ‘Bochle Hall’ (with its library) was destroyed after the battle.

In 1736 198 Roman Catholics were attending the ‘mass-house at Robieston’: dimensions 66 feet by 18 (SPCK again, keeping a watchful eye on papists). The priest there, Alexander Paterson, had spent most of his time in the Highlands although from Tynet – first ‘at a school in Morar, as master’, teaching Latin (as George Innes had done on Eilean Ban) then Vist, where Paterson’s lack of Gaelic meant that he could say mass but not hear confessions.

His twelve years with the Catholics of Huntly, living at Robieston, were more productive. The ‘mass-house’ there was burned in 1746 (by no means accidentally) along with Scalan and the Bochel. Alexander Paterson died within a year of this sad event. A later Robieston priest, William Duthie, considered himself fortunate in getting vestments and books out before he and his students saw Scalan burned to the ground.

Mortlach at Binfoot

Mortlach was spared in this orgy of chapel-burning, although the priest William Reid was taken a prisoner to Edinburgh. The following year, once more at liberty, Mr Reid wrote to Bishop Smith from ‘Bin-foot’. Asked to take over Glenrinnes, his reply could have been that of any overworked modern priest with extra journeys to make:

‘I’m sorry you shou’d think it necessary to appologise for the’ additional task you was forced to lay on me. It’s true I took the liberty to remonstrate but I assure you, Sir, it was not so much with any view of my own ease as of a clear foresight that the people wou’d be ill cared for; seeing I cou’d not do things here and there too allone. Jo: at Robs: is indeed very helpful and goes as often as can be expected considering the other places he goes to. He is truely exerting himself as becomes his station, and is generally well liked and very popular. He comes frequently here, and I go as often as I can.’

‘Jo: at Robs’ was John Gordon at Robieston, who came from Mill of Smithston at the Rhynie end of the Strathbogie mission – we were there with Andrew Oliver (see p. 5). The phrase ‘as becomes his station’ seems to mean that Huntly, where the Duke of Gordon’s forebears had lived until the move to Bog of Gight at Fochabers, required a clergyman who could get on with Protestants as well as his own people. Mortlach was more of a country mission.

Confident of being ‘well liked’, Mr Gordon moved into town although his mass continued to be at Robieston. John Gordon’s health broke down in 1751 when he was only 33 (another victim of hard times) and during his final ten years of life could give no more help to Mr Reid in visiting country districts. One of his last baptisms, before retiring to Mill of Smithston to die, was of William Goodbrand who was born at HiIIend of Ruthven – the great-(times four) grandfather of the man who started all this.

Rev William Guthrie (1724-95) Although he achieved the three score years and ten, Willam Guthrie also suffered from ill health – including the gangrene of a badly set broken leg which eventually had to be amputated. That was done in Edinburgh on the advice of Bishop George Hay, a former medical student. Hay, Guthrie and John Geddes, the builder of the second Scalan (and future bishop) came back together from Rome to Scotland in 1759 as new priests. Guthrie joked about his ‘tree leg’ in January 1785 when he was called to give his neighbour William Duthie the last rites. He arrived in time to anoint the former Scalan rector, having ‘waltzed’ across the Binn through a snowstorm to Boghead of Gibston.

William Guthrie was apprenticed to a carpenter in Ellon when he became a convert through the Rev. George Gordon at Aberdeen. This priest was distinguished from other Gordons by the name ‘Scalanensis’ because of receiving all his seminary education in the Braes and being ordained there – a distinction he shared with yet another bishop, Hugh MacDonald of Morar. Carpentry was not the only useful skill which Guthrie brought to his work as a priest (which began at Achinraw – John Geddes’s spelling for Achnarrow in Glenlivet). Alexander Geddes caught Guthrie nicely in his ‘Book of Zaknim’ which satirized the 1775 Scalan meeting of bishops and senior clergy – readers may recall ‘The Hole of the Snorers’ (ScN7):

‘William the son of John, of the tribe of Guthrie, a man cunning in all sorts of needle-work and in making ephods and girdles for the priests of the Lord and all other things that are for the service of the Temple. And he could do all manner of work of the carpenter, and of the engraver, and of the guilder, and of those that devise cunning work. And he knew the history of all the generations of the Tribes of Israel, and he was skilled in the rites and ceremonies of the Law of Moses; and they made him Recorder. And he too was a preacher, and he preached terrification; and his words were like thunder in the ears of the people. Howbeit he only had one leg:

Geddes was honoured with a doctorate by St Andrews University as an early modernist theologian (proposing a non-literal interpretation of the Bible) and most certainly did not preach ‘terrification’. He probably looked down on Guthrie’s Scripture knowledge. But Geddes also completed Scotland’s oldest Catholic church at St Ninian’s Tynet while living nearby at Auchenhalrig, and he respected the convert’s manual skills. Alexander Geddes literally looked up to him from five foot five inches, for William Guthrie was a tall man.

To pursue the comparison, Geddes was later taken up by London society and had his portrait painted. All that remains of Guthrie to assist a pen portrait are a few of his letters, together with comments by contemporaries.

William Guthrie (1724-95)

The history of the Scottish Mission as told through clergy letters often falls short of Scripture’s exhortation ‘See how they love one another: but it is hard to believe that the carpenter of Mortlach had an enemy. On New Year’s Day 1783 he sat down to send the wishes of the season to Bishop Geddes at Edinburgh. Guthrie’s friends had feared that he would die, but now he was recovering. The ‘letter ends: ‘When you have a moment of spare time from necessary business, I defy you to write to anyone on earth who has a warmer heart to you, or has had these thirtythree years, than I have.’

Mortlach’s Excellent Chapel

During the winter of 1771, the worst in thirty years, Mr Guthrie received £5 to help him keep body and soul together at Mortlach in exchange for making a suit of vestments for Scalan. He wrote of working in front of a ‘wet fire’ made with peats that ‘would neither sing nor’ say.’ Along with his neighbours at Robieston, Shenval and Glenlivet, the Mortlach priest was sent a barrel of flour by Bishop Hay to help him survive the famine of 1782 – known as the ‘pease-meal year’ because hardly any corn was harvested. The clergyman who lived at Gibston with responsibility for the Catholics of Huntly, still saying mass at Robieston, was Charles Maxwell. In contrast to William Guthrie’s Protestant boyhood among the lower orders in Buchan, Maxwell grew up in the aristocratic house of Terrregles near Dumfries and was educated by Jesuits (including his uncle the rector) at Dinant in Flanders.

The two reached Strathbogie by very different routes (and Guthrie was fourteen years older than Maxwell) but found common ground in their vocation to priesthood. It was while walking together on a Sunday afternoon in June 1784 that Guthrie tripped his wooden leg on a clod of earth and ‘both disjointed and sprained the ankle of my only leg, so that not having now a leg at all I must be carried from the chair to my bed and from my bed to the chair like a child in my lad’s arms. I hope it is replaced again into the joint as I heard it give a sharp knap when I got it.’

This time Guthrie recovered the use of his leg and responded by building’ an excellent chapel’ at Mortlach – presumably with help from the young male servant who had been carrying him about. There was probably a housekeeper as well, but chapel-building was men’s work – like embroidery. ‘It is now almost finished,’ he wrote in the following November, ‘and is truly to my mind. Everybody that sees it seems to be truly charmed with it. I am busy and much fatigued, making a beautiful altar with my own hands.’ That’s another thing that Fr Colin Stew art, who says mass at ChapeItown of Glenlivet (and sundry other places between Aberlour and the other Mortlach at Duff town) have in common – see p. 3.

Guthrie wanted to take his liturgical progress a step further by introducing Christmas Midnight Mass in 1785 (Catholic ‘services’ were very quiet affairs under the penal laws) but there was no way that Bishop Hay would risk stirring up trouble: even in the remotest country chapels he steadily refused to allow hymn-singing, although priests and people were beginning to request it.

Further Scalan Connections

There are still more connections between Mortlach, Robieston and Scalan. In July 1788 Bishop Hay went up to the Braes with several objects in mind. One was to bathe in the Crombie where it was dammed for the purpose below the ‘cornhill’ on the Tom of Scalan: he was sure this had restored him to health nine years before after falling down stairs at Aberlour. Hay was to take charge of Scalan as rector in place of young Andrew Dawson who was dying of consumption (the second superior to fall victim to this scourge in five years) at his parents’ home at Haddoch, north of Robieston.

In their article ‘Scalan Reconstructed’ (Innes Review, 1994) Ann Dean and Mike Taitt suggested that Bishop Hay’s building work which was being completed that summer may have been partly carried out for health reasons. Others have claimed that the new stone and lime houses ‘breathed’ less well than the turf black houses they replaced, especially when there was genteel wallpaper as at Scalan. However that may be, the final link is Mr Guthrie. Bishop Hay had brought his old college friend up after meeting with Bishop Geddes and the administrators at the new, experimental venue of Gibston (more on this in the next issue). Hay then returned to Aberdeen to make his final arrangements to leave the Castlegate during two weeks of September 1788. Meanwhile who better to supervise the ‘heatherers and wrights’ who were raising the roof at Scalan than Guthrie, the carpenter from Buchan.

On 19 April 1791 Mr William Guthrie, designated as son of the deceased Thomas Guthrie of Blackhouse, parish of Peterhead, executed a holograph will and testament at Mortlach leaving all his effects to Bishops Hay and Geddes. Four years later it became obvious that he was no longer fit for duty, and arrangements were made for him to leave Mortlach and retire with a servant (perhaps the ‘lad’ who had helped him through the second leg injury) to live in the attic of the chapel house at Aberdeen. John Geddes was already there, paralysed and in constant pain after taking a final leave of Scalan, and was to linger on for several years. The plan was never put into effect – William Guthrie was too weak to travel. His death was entered with precision in the records of the Scots College Rome: ‘Mortuus in Mortlach anno 1795 [1 Maii].’

Sharp Exit

The one-legged William Guthrie has quite properly – taken over this story, but there is a postscript. Two brothers, James and John Sharp, were closely associated with Scalan during the final years before the move to Aquhorties, and they came from Mortlach. James Sharp, the older by four years, was born there in 1768 and went to Rome after Scalan, whereas John spent his ten senior seminary years at Valladolid. Both were at Scalan only briefly (six months in John’s case) confirming the idea that a solid grounding in classical education was available at Huntly.

James Sharp was ordained in 1793 and went straight back to Scalan where, as ‘an agreeable and sweet-tempered lad’ (Bishop Hay’s words) he was to take some of the pressure off Andrew Carruthers. This future bishop, still to be ordained, had managed to upset almost everyone at Scalan after returning to Scotland when Douai fell into the hands of French Republicans. Both the farm manager and the housekeeper, Annie Gerard, were ready to quit, Bishop Geddes being virtually bedridden and unable to sort things out.

Soon after the sweet-tempered lad arrived all this changed. Both John Geddes and the high-handed Carruthers left for the Castlegate of Aberdeen, the one to endure a five-year purgatory of immobility and pain, the other to finish his studies. Then John Sharp came back from Spain in 1795, and it was under these two young priests tha t the last boys were educated at Scalan. James was superior of the seminary and John the only other’ professor’ – a title which made more sense when he held it at Aquhorties. Both brothers ended their lives at Blairs, and so are connected with all three seminaries.

James Sharp remained at Scalan for another eight years as priest for the Braes of Glenlivet. Mass continued to be said in the chapel which has recently been saved from further ruin until a more convenient site was found at Lettoch. Mr Sharp’s early education in the town of Huntly, dose to Mortlach, may explain why he was known as one of the first Catholic priests to make a point of speaking King’s English in preference to ‘the auld Scots tongue’. Dean and Taitt have suggested that he introduced the wallpaper.

Taken with kind permission of Mike Morrison from Scalan No.15, 1997