History of St Gregory’s

It has been said, and rightly so, that ‘to follow the history of Preshome in detail would be to give the history of the whole Northern District during the past 200 years and more’.  To that we can add another 60 years since the words were written.  So the question is asked, why does or why should Preshome occupy such an eminent place in the annals of the Catholic Church in Scotland? We hope that these few paragraphs will help to give some answers.

There was a Catholic presence in the Enzie in the shape of the chapels of St Margaret of the Craigs and St Ninian’s of Chapelford, and Tynet for many decades before that. The Reformation may have made its effect felt in the towns and cities of Scotland, but the countryside painted a very different picture.  Customs and allegiance died hard, and sometimes not at all!  Witness the minutes of the Presbyt¬ery of Rathven from the year 1672:

“August 15 … the brethren upon diverse reports that used to go on pilgrimage over Spey to Our Ladies Chappell, ordained them diligentlie to be enquired after and punished”; and the minutes show that they were!  Again in 1656, dated August 13, it is reported that a great confluence of people had gathered at “a Chappell and well commonlie called the Ladie Chappell in the parishe of Dipple beyond Spey ..”  The Reformation and the Established Kirk certainly made it difficult – but not impossible – for Catholics in lower Banffshire to practise their Faith.

To understand the situation slightly better, let us go back to the Reformation itself.  The last member of the Scottish Hierarchy, Archbishop James Beaton of Glasgow, died in Paris in 1603.  For the next fifty years, little was done about any real leadership in the Church – though on the missionary front one cannot discount the work of the Irish Franciscan fathers, particularly in the Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland.

Thomas Innes, in his Memoir on the condition of the Scottish Mission, declared his opinion “…that nothing had contributed so much to the almost complete extinction of Catholic Religion in Scotland,  as the mistake that was made in not continuing the Episcopal succession.”  Even as early as 1610, petitions had been made to Rome; that a Bishop might be sent to Scotland.

In 1653, William Ballantine was appointed as Prefect Apostolic to look after the affairs of Scotland. Alexander Winchester (of Garmouth) followed Ballantine in the latter years of the 17th century.  This system of Prefects Apos¬tolic was superseded by that of a Vicar Apostolic for the whole of Scotland, with the appointment of Thomas Nicholson (born at Birkenbog).  He was consecrated Bishop (titular Bishop of Peristachium) in secret in Paris on 27 February 1695. So it was that, after an interval of almost a hundred years, Scottish Catholics found themselves under the jurisdiction of a bishop.  It was not until 1697 that Bishop Nicholson managed to make his way north, finding a retreat on the Duke of Gordon’s estates in the heart of the Enzie, roughly in the centre of the coastal parish of Rathven. The House of Gordon had made its influence felt in favour of the old religion, and that influence has left its mark on the whole district.

Bishop Nicholson’s residence was a one-storied heather-thatched cottage, a “but-and-ben”, at Preshome and for more than a century this place was to remain the strategic centre of Catholicism in Scotland.  Later Vicars Apostolic made it their headquarters, and its importance really only ended with the death of Bishop James Kyle in 1869.

Let it be recorded that Bishop Nicholson died at Preshome on 12 October 171B, aged 76.  His body was laid to rest in St Ninian’s cemetery in the Enzie.  It is generally thought that the bishop was buried within the small church built in 1687 by the first Duke of Gordon, on the site of the altar and an older church dating from before the Reformation.  His name (along with other missi¬onaries) is remembered on the granite Celtic Cross erected there in the mid-1920s. Bishop Nicholson’s residence was replaced by Bishop Kyle, with the present Chapel House.

About half a mile from Preshome is the site of the Chapel of St Margaret of the Craigs, situated in a deep ravine, placed there to be out of sight.  The foundations are no longer visible. It appears that there had been two other chapels in succession on this site, for the first had been gutted by the English soldiers on their return from Culloden when books and vestments were carried away to Cullen and burned in the market place. For some time after this, the congregation assembled in great privacy in a small room at Preshome, but in 1765, through the exertions of Mr, later Bishop, George Hay, St Margaret’s Chapel was rebuilt and restored for Holy Mass.

George Hay had begun his missionary career in Preshome in 1759, one year after his ordination to the priesthood by Cardinal Spinelli in Rome.  Mr Hay’s zeal and undoubted ability soon attracted the attention of his superiors, who made increasing use of him in many important and delicate affairs.  One of his brother mission¬aries was to say of him: “besides the place he now occupies could not be so advantageously filled by any other Labourer (priest) than we have at present … moreover, it is of no small consequence to have so near the Duke of Gordon’s door a person that is much loved and esteemed by everyone, and has gained many kindly friends among the better sort, who may be of use to protect him, if any danger is threatened … in my opinion, he is the fittest person among all the Labourers to be made a coadjutor in due time, having abundance of qualifications both natural and acquired, with much zeal and a good fund of piety…”

George Hay stayed at Preshome until the death of Bishop Smith in 1767, when he went to Edinburgh to discharge the double duties of pastor to the congregation there and Agent to the Scottish Mission.  Bishop James Grant succeeded Bishop Smith and immediately asked Rome for George Hay as his coadjutor Bishop.  This was agreed to, and the Brief for his consecration reached Scotland late in 1768.  George Hay was consecrated titular Bishop of Daulis, in secret, at the seminary of Scalan in Glenlivet, by Bishop James Grant, assisted by the aged Bishop Hugh MacDonald, Vicar Apostolic of the Highland District, and his coadjutor Bishop John MacDonald, on Trinity Sunday 21 May 1769.  Bishop Hay was to remain in Edinburgh, while Bishop Grant came to stay in the northern part of the Lowland District.

Let us return to Preshome and the story of the present church.  Remember that George Hay had restored St Margaret of the Craigs in 1763.  Some twenty three years later, now Bishop of Daulis and Vicar Apostolic of the Lowland District, he was asked by the then priest in charge of the eastern half of the Enzie, Mr John Reid, for permission to build a new Church in that area.  One can well imagine the thoughts that must have been running through his mind at the time … what’s wrong with the one I restored? It seems that it was with great reluctance that Bishop Hay did give the necessary permission for this new place of worship at Preshome, one that would look like a church from the outside and well as from the inside, and this for the first time in Scotland since the Reformation.  It was proposed to build a strong edifice, to hold 700 persons, one of stone and lime, and slated.  The expenses, on a modest calculation, would amount to £350.  Unfortunately, like many another modest calculations, Mr Reid was to complain a few years afterwards that it cost him nearly double that sum.

The choice of a site was a matter of some doubt; in fact it had been the subject of much thought and consultations.  It was at one time proposed to build it on the moor at Pathhead, a little to the east of Preshome and nearer to the Craigs.  That proposal was abandoned as it would be more desirable to avoid publicity and a too-conspicuous situation.  So Fr Reid determined that it should be built on part of his own garden property in the hands of the Reid family.  The Baronet of Letterfourie in the immediate neighbourhood plus his brother took a lively interest in the Chapel project and these two were to super¬intend the building and contribute very liberally to the cost.

Work started, and the foundation stone was laid on Thursday 29 May 1788, by Letterfourie and his brother. The Chapel was opened for Holy Mass on Whit Sunday (Pentecost), 23 May 1790.  Regrettably, Letterfourie did not live long enough to see this auspicious day, for he had been found dead in bed on the morning of 30 April 1790.

The Chapel has been described as ‘a wide rectangular Church with harled walls and freestone dressing, with flanking staircase pavilions, well-disposed headed openings, and a pedimented gable …’  This gable was to have borne the coat of arms of the Letterfourie (Gordon) Family, and inside a fine monument was to have been erected to the brothers, but neither project was carried out.  The gable bears the simple and telling dedication “DEO 1788”.  The Church is adorned with urn finials; its west end is a charming product of eighteenth century taste, in which Italian baroque has been skilfully naturalised in a Banffshire setting.  Mr John Reid was himself a product of the Scots College in Rome, and there is little doubt that he was largely his own architect for the work.  No chapel approaching its pretensions has been erected in Scotland since the Reformation.  Even now, in the opinion of many appropriately qualified to decide, it is surpassed by no other Chapel in Scotland in spaciousness and in the elegance of its internal proportions.  Bishop Hay at one time pronounced the plan of the new Chapel to be a romantic scheme, but he was now free to confess that, after having inspected it all on the day before the Opening, it was indeed a beautiful House of God and well executed… “I sincerely pray God grant long and peaceful possession”.

The Dedication to St Gregory the Great comes from the presentation to the Church by the last Earl of Findlater of a very fine painting (some would say, a copy) by Annibale Caracci.  In design and execution, both as to form and colour, this work of art (?) is nearly perfect. This remarkable picture has been the gem of the Church until the present day.  The two Holy Water stoups in the porch were the gift of the Countess Findlater: they are of Portsoy (serpentine or magnesian) marble.

In 1820 a ‘powerful and elegant organ’ was put in the Chapel, by contributions principally from the congregation.  Its acquisition from Edinburgh was largely due to the persistent efforts of Mr Alexander Badenoch, priest of Preshome at the time.

Like many another Catholic Church in Scotland, the building has undergone many changes. The sanctuary was enlarged to the east, thereby taking away the original sacristy.  This work was under the direction of Peter Paul Pugin in 1896.  Ho was most insistent, in his endeavours to have the painting of St Gregory removed to another part of the Church. But he was given to understand that it was a necessary part of his plans that the picture should continue to form the altar-piece, and eventually he completed the design which now commands the attention of all who visit the Church.

The present altar was the gift of Canon John James Kyle. At each end of the altar rails is a brass plaque: one to Bishop James F Kyle, the other to his nephew, Canon J J Kyle. It states:

BISHOP JAMES F KYLE: born Edinburgh, 22 Sept 1733; ordained at the seminary of Aquhorties, Aberdeenshire, 21 March 1812; consecrated titular Bishop of Germanica and Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District in Aberdeen, 20 September 1828; died at Preshome on 23 February 1869 and buried in a vault beneath the sanctuary of St Gregory’s.

Such are the bare bones or the life of one to whom the Church in Scotland is immensely indebted.  He made it his responsibility to recover what was left of the Archives of the centres of Scottish life on the continent. This interest in manuscripts and documents of bygone days was passed on to the curates who lived with Bishop Kyle at Preshome, helping with arranging and copying the Mission Archives.  For provision had been made in the new chapel house for the custody and maintenance of all this valuable material. At Buckie, about 1870, Joseph Stevenson of the Historical Manuscripts Commission was able to hear from Dean Clapperton and Father JJ Kyle of the extent of this collection.  After the death of Bishop Kyle, the Scottish Bishops felt that there was no good reason for leaving these important archives in such a remote place as Preshome, and they directed that these should be transferred to Blairs College. In excess of 30,000 items harvested by Bishop Kyle became part of the Blairs Library.  Some further clearing up was done at Preshome in 1919 after the death of Provost John James Kyle. The Historical Manuscripts Commission also noted that in the Library at Buckie there were various volumes, recently collected by Dr Kyle himself or by others under his directions or from his dictation, preparatory (apparently) to a history of The Catholic Religion in Scotland since the period of the Reformation. It is said that Dean Clapperton (of Preshome and Buckie) directed in his last illness that all his notes and transcripts be deposited at Blairs.  This was done 1912/13 and later in 1918 – again forming part of Blairs Library.  In 1974 the Scottish Hierarchy decided to place the whole of the Blairs Collections on long-term loan with the National Library of Scotland.

The last expedition to collect historical documents and items from Preshome was in October 1973 when some 25,000 letters left behind in the forays of 1870 and 1919 were collected. The full collection has evidently been split, with (a) the letters now forming the “Preshome Letters” deposited with the Scottish Catholic Archives in Edinburgh and (b) the rest forming the “Preshome Chapel Library” consisting of some 4750 ‘books’. These were initially placed with the National Library of Scotland, and in May 1980 the Trustees of the RC Diocese of Aberdeen signed an Agreement with the National Library of Scotland that the books be kept there on long-term loan for maintenance and preservation.

With the ‘Preshome Letters’ and the ‘Preshome Chapel Library’ went (a) the vestments purporting to belong to Bishop Kyle, put in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh for safekeeping, and (b) the portrait of Bishop Kyle which used to adorn the dining-room at Preshome but which now hangs on the staircase at Columba House.

Another link with the past was the Holyrood Silver, saved by Mr David Burnett after the sacking of the Chapel of Holyrood in 1689. For nearly 300 years several pieces of the Silver remained at Preshome until the early 1970s, when they were all gathered together and are now on display in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh. Photos of the Holyrood Silver are now on show in the Exhibition.

All in all, Preshome has figured large in the life of the Catholic Church in Scotland over the years, and it will be due to the efforts of Bishop James Kyle and those who helped him at Preshome and abroad that it is possible to write a definitive history of the Catholic Church in the period from the Reformation to the Restoration of the Hierarchy.