The Catholic Faith in Scotland in Penal Times
George Wishart dispensing the Sacrament in the prison of
St Andrews Castle on the morning of his execution.
@ Thomas Duncan (1807-1845) RSA ARA
After the Reformation of 1560 the Catholic Church almost died out in
Scotland. Nearly everywhere the people embraced Protestantism, some by conviction, some
for other reasons, some simply for want of an alternative. For a short time in the early
1600's there was not a single Catholic priest in the whole country, and for much of the
century there were so few that the Mass was often little more than a memory even to those
who had remained Catholic.
At the end of the century these still numbered less than 25000, a tiny
fraction of the population. But even this figure is deceptive, because nearly all of them
lived within a narrow swathe of the country that ran from the North East coast, through
Lochaber and The Rough Bounds, to the Western Isles. Elsewhere - in the South, the Lowlands, and the rest of the Highlands
and Islands - there were almost none.
Within this swathe Catholics formed the majority in many places, and
in some virtually the entire population, where the people had remained loyal to the Old
Religion, protected by their remoteness and their chiefs. It was here that the Catholic
faith was saved from extinction, and from here that in time it began to grow again.
But it was a poor Church, with few to lead it. And it was banned under
the Penal laws, whereby even to attend a service was strictly speaking punishable by
banishment. So recovery could only be slow and painful, achieved at cost, sometimes by
From the 1730s the Laws were rarely enforced rigorously, except for a
few years after the 45 Rising, and in 1793 they were largely abolished. At about the
same time the first trickle of immigrants were arriving in the Lowland towns from Ireland,
many of them Catholics, and they joined the little native Church that had come through the
dark days, and greatly added to its numbers.
Some Catholic sites remain to remind us of the Penal era, but they
take some searching for. Because the pre-Reformation churches had all been taken over or
destroyed, the faithful had to worship in houses, barns, or even at Mass stones out of
doors, and the few new buildings that they erected were small, usually remote, and
deliberately hidden away. But it is these very qualities that are most striking, and
express most powerfully the faith, hope, and love of those who worshipped there. They tell
a story of struggle against the odds, which is a part of the story of Christianity in
Scotland and a part of national heritage, and we can all - of
whatever faith or none - admire them for that.
This site gives brief details of some of the surviving mainland sites,
set out as a Heritage Trail, which could be followed in full or picked up at any point.
All but one are open to the public, and all but four are quite accessible from the road.
Why were there so few
When he died ?
Just, no one knew him
As the cock cried;
And he was despised
Fitted up on wooden effigy.
Why his death and life
Controls hearts and minds ?
A sad discerning tale
Fixed in print
Following an early road,
In life and death the issue lies.
He died for us
A monumental sacrifice ?
Judaic tradition merged a new route
To eternal salvation.
A Christian heritage;
Why are there so many
Yet, so few !