In about 1180, a lay brother at the Charterhouse at Lugnay in northern France, called Viard, petitioned the Duke of Burgundy to found a Priory where the brothers would adhere strictly to the rules of St Benedict's. This priory was established at Val des Choux in the forest of Chatillon, where cabbages were grown, and the order of the monks took their name, Valliscaulian, from the Latin "valley of the cabbages", A further 20 houses were opened in France, and, under the auspices of Archbishop William Malvoisin of St Andrews, three priories were established in Scotland in 1230 as centres of royal control in the Highlands following the rebellion by the men of Moray in 1228.
The founding patron of Beauly priory was Sir John Bisset of the Aird, who lived at Redcastle, about 4 miles to the east. He wished to pay tribute to his King, Alexander II, who's father in law was King John of England, and accordingly renamed the site of the Priory to copy the name given by King John to the Abbey he had founded in 1206 at Beaulieu in the diocese of Winchester. Medieval documents describe the land granted to the Valliscaulian Monks and include as one of the markers, the elm tree which still stands at the entrance to the graveyard, west of the Priory. At eight hundred years, this is believed to be the oldest surviving elm tree in Europe.
The oldest surviving part of the Priory is the south transept which already existed and was a small chapel dedicated to St Katherine, or possibly the Celtic, St Cattan. The monks would have used this chapel until they had constructed the rest of the priory. They followed the Cistercian style of a long rectangular church, with a cloistered area to the south. As the records show that large gifts to the order ceased in 1272 it s probable that the building had been completed by that date.
The monks of the Valliscaulian order were granted considerable farming and fishing rights in the area, which they used to trade with the continent. Also, they received tithes from four local parishes and many benefices from people wishing to have prayers and masses said for them all the time. This created the paradox that, although they were an order of denial, the Valliscaulians became very wealthy.
Improvements were carried out to the building in the early 15th century by Prior Hugh Fraser from his own resources, on return for which, he was granted the right to hold a May Fair at the Mercat Cross in Beauly in perpetuity, a tradition, which regrettably, is no longer upheld. His successor was Prior McKenzie who was the illegitimate son of the chief of the Clan McKenzie. He died in 1479 and his tomb in the wall between the monks' choir and St Katherine's Chapel, is the oldest of all the graves in Beauly. His half brother, the first Sir Kenneth Mackenzie of Kintail is buried immediately opposite and it is his effigy behind the grill into the former Sacristy. This was the beginning of the connection between Beauly and the Mackenzie's, which continues to this day
In 1506 Beauly was raided by folk who were aggrieved by the wealth that the Priory had accumulated. They were excommunicated for their efforts, but the Valliscaulians were persuaded to follow the example of their French counterparts and become members of the Cistercian order. This was the beginning of probably the most influential period in Beauly's history.
In 1531, Robert Reid was appointed Prior of Beauly, to add to the other church livings he enjoyed at Kinross and at Dysart. He was the nephew of John Scharnwell, the Abbot of Cupar and had been educated in Bologna University in Italy. As well as being a cleric, he became Lord President of the Court of Session, a Royal Ambassador and secretary to the King. He also became Bishop of Orkney. Following a lightening strike in 1541, Reid rebuilt the west front of Beauly, leaving the elegant arrangement of three finger windows we see today. His crest of a stag's head and bishop's crosier is carved just above the west door. In 1541, he returned from Dieppe in France with a botanist, Guillaume de Lubias, who laid out the orchards both at Beauly and Kinross, and is credited with planting the magnificent sycamore tree which dominated the graveyard. Reid was the man responsible for negotiating the marriage between Mar, Queen of Scots and François, the Dauphine of France, and it was during his return that ceremony in 1558 that he was poisoned at Boulogne and died. John Knox, the protestant reformer remarked wryly in his Chronicles that Reid "had his bed made upon his coffers rather that betwixt them, so reluctant was he to be parted from his wealth" He bequeathed 8,000 merks to the City Fathers of Edinburgh for the creation of a University. When his nephew and executor, Walter, was sued for the bequest in 1588, there was only 2.500 merks left, but this was still sufficient to found the University.
The reformation in 1560 saw the decline of Beauly, and in 1585, the few remaining brothers dispersed to other houses. After Cromwell has raided the Priory for stones which he shipped downriver to Inverness for his Citadel, the buildings were cared for by the Fraser's of Lovat and the Mackenzie's of Kintail. In 1901, following the death of the sixth Kenneth Mackenzie, Alexander Ross, the ecclesiastical architect, remodelled the sacristy to form the Mackenzie mausoleum. Beauly Priory has been in the care of the state since 1913