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Secret Scalan

The Catholic Faith in Scotland in Penal Times

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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.

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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 heroic sacrifice.

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.

Scalan's Keys


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 !