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ministers who sought to close Scalan's doors.
But the local people, of all faiths, did not share their
views. Local magistrates were inclined not to
enforce the Penal Laws and the people of Glenlivet
acted as lookouts warning the college and its staff of
incoming Redcoats. In one case a
Fr Kilian Grant was taken prisoner but on appearing
in court the magistrate and Laird of Ballindalloch,
who was also a Grant, refused to convict him on the
grounds that there was no evidence (except for the
word of Fr Grant) that he was a priest - as "papists"
were incapable of telling the truth.

In the wake of Culloden soldiers were sent "to
extinguish the remains of the rebellion". Lookouts
warned the then rector, William Duthie, of their
coming and he hid his students and the vestments
and vessels. He then watched from a nearby hill as
his beloved college was burnt to the ground. During
the following summer Duthie remained close by and
built a new house, smaller than the first. But Scalan
survived and more importantly thrived. From its
opening in 1716 until its eventual closure in 1799
around 100 priests received an education within its

The first two men to receive their full training in
Glenlivet were the "Heather Priests" Hugh
MacDonald and George Gordon, latterly Bishops
MacDonald and Gordon. But the most celebrated
figure in Scalan's history is Bishop George Hay. As
a 16 year-old he tended the fallen at Culloden. In
the wake of defeat he was imprisoned, where he
then converted to Catholicism and later served at
sea as a ship's surgeon. He was ordained to the
priesthood at the Scots College in Rome and was
consecrated bishop in the small upstairs chapel in
Scalan on Trinity Sunday, 1769.

He later consecrated Alexander Macdonald, Bishop
and Vicar Apostolic of the Highland region, in the
same room on Passion Sunday in 1780. Bishop Hay
lived at Scalan for some years as rector and
oversaw the building of a new college. He also lived
to see more peaceful times and the beginnings of a
new dawn for the Catholic Church.

The pressure eased on the Church during the
Napoleonic Wars. Bishop Hay made a hard
decision. These were safer times, Scalan was too
remote and a new and more accessible seminary
was needed. He purchased a larger building in
Aquhorties near Inverurie and in 1799 the boys
came down from the mountains, concluding an
exciting and vital chapter in the story of Scotland's
Catholic Church.

Scalan's contribution to the well-being of
Catholicism on these shores is immeasurable.
Without the "Heather Priests" what would have
happened to the thousands of Irish immigrants
arriving in the West? The "numbers" of the faithful
may have been bolstered by their arrival, but who
would have ministered to their spiritual needs as they
arrived here starving and impoverished?

In the years after the move to Aquhorties, the north
wing of the seminary became a public chapel for the
people of the braes. It later fell into disrepair but is
now in the process of being restored. Today the
visitors book inside the College shows entries from
as far as Europe, America and beyond.

This would surely have brought a smile to the face of
Bishop Geddes, former college rector, who in 1777
wrote: "The time, by the goodness of God, will
come when the Catholic religion will again flourish in
Scotland; and then, when posterity shall acquire,
with a laudable curiosity, by what means any sparks
of the true faith were preserved in those dismal times
of darkness and error, Scalan will be mentioned
with veneration, and all that can be known about it
will be recorded with care."

(Story by Gregor Kyle. Reproduced by kind permission of the
Scottish Catholic Observer)
The darkest period of the Catholic Church's history
in Scotland often provides the most illuminating tales
of bravery and loyalty in the face of persecution.

The oppression which followed the Reformation had
almost succeeded in wiping all traces of a Catholic
Church from Scotland's shores. In 1701 all priests
were banned from the country and outwith the
Highland regions the Catholic population was almost
non-existent. This was the backdrop to the origins of
Scalan, a hidden seminary which was to ensure that
the Catholic religion would not just survive but
eventually prosper.

Following the failed Jacobite rising in 1715, the
British Government, willed on by the Presbyterian
Church, redoubled their efforts to try to eradicate
completely what remained of the Catholic Church.
Priests were seen as the most ardent supporters of
the Jacobite cause and every effort was made to
hunt them down and drive them into exile.

Priests returning to Scotland were trained in the
Scots colleges in Madrid, Paris, Rome and Douai,
France. But none answered directly to the Scottish
hierarchy and many were ill-prepared for life as an
illegal missionary in Scotland. It was for this reason
that the Scottish bishops sought a domestic training
ground, which would allow them control over the
selection process for candidates and in turn give the
seminarians experience of the conditions in which
they would serve.

The Braes of Glenlivet, in the north-east, had been
chosen as the site for this seminary, in part for their
remoteness. But they also lay at the heart of an area
populated by the last vestiges of Scotland's Catholic
population. Glenlivet was on the most easterly side
of a Catholic belt, occupied by strong clans and
stretching across the country from the Western Isles.
Unlike the Lowlanders, the Highland people had
clung fiercely to the faith and in 1677 a Fr Alexander
Leslie, reporting to the Vatican, said that "in spite of
their natural ferocity (the Highlanders) were as lambs
in the presence of a priest, and as firm in their faith
as rocks." There may have been just 50 Catholics in
Glasgow around that time, but there were over 1000
in Banffshire and the people were hungry for the
Word of God.

Nestled in this sanctuary and shielded by the barren
Ladder Hills a seminary was established in 1716
called Scalan. Opened by Bishop Thomas Nicolson
its aim was to provide the Catholic people with new
priests, of their own blood, patriotic, hardy and
pious. In his book, 'The Forbidden College', Dr
John Watts paints a picture of four young boys,
guided by one young priest, arriving at a small hut by
the Crombie Burn at the heart of the Braes. On their
minds was the weight of the realisation that they
were entrusted with the future of the Church in
Scotland. And the students at Scalan were just boys.
They came from the last bastions of the Faith in the
North-East of Scotland and the Western Highlands
and the life that they chose to follow was Spartan in
the extreme.

Their day began at six a.m., when they would rise
and wash in the water of the Crombie. They ate
meals mainly comprising oatmeal porridge and
would have meat just two or three times a week.
Their curriculum later included Latin, Greek,
Hebrew, geography, chronology, rhetoric and
theology, and they would study, pray, eat and sleep
together in one small room, spending their free time
playing by the Crombie. The college was known to
have 12 students at one point, but the usual figure
was around five. Its primary function was to provide
a launching point for the boys to go on to study on
the continent, although some notable students
received their full training there.

The years 1723, 24 and 25 were tumultuous for the
college as it survived attacks on the seminary by the
Government's Redcoat soldiers.The attacks were
urged on by local Presbyterian
Faith of Our Fathers
The 'Heather Priests' who kept the Church alive
(Story by Gregor Kyle. Reproduced by kind permission of the Scottish Catholic Observer. The
article originally appeared on 6 July, 2001. Reproduction of the article here does not imply that the
site editor agrees with all the sentiments expressed in it. )
The ruin of the
north wing of the
seminary that
became the
chapel stands in
front of Scalan

(Photo by Paul
The story of Scalan, the hidden
seminary that trained boys for
the priesthood under the noses
of the Redcoats