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Scots Monasteries in Germany

Regensburg, where the Regen joins the Danube, is a Bavarian city of 125,000 inhabitants.  Under the Celtic name of Radasbona it developed out of a Roman frontier fort to become one of Germany’s finest medieval cities.  Many timbered buildings and winding streets remain.  Scots and Frenchmen always used the name Ratisbon rather than Regensburg.  Old associations with Scotland give point to the exhibition.  New ones developed when Regensburg was twinned with Aberdeen in 1955, and fifty years of visiting back and forth acquired a deeper significance when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (once Dean of the University) became Pope Benedict XVI.  The old link between Scotland and Germany was through Benedictine monks, and Cardinal Ratzinger chose his papal name after St Benedict, the founder of western monasticism.  St James’s at Ratisbon was one of the last three Schottenklöster or Scots cloisters.

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Abbot at Ratisbon

After the sudden Scottish Reformation of 1560, when Catholic worship was banned by Act of Parliament, a priest-schoolmaster of Linlithgow called Ninian Winzet wrote pamphlets in defence of the old faith.  He accused John Knox of losing ‘our auld plain Scottis’ tongue.  When Mary Queen of Scots fled to England he followed her.  During the long imprisonment which ended with her execution at Fotheringay, Mary got the idea of training Scots priests abroad to reconvert their native land.  Ninian Winzet was to be a key figure as abbot at Ratisbon.  Starting with an empty monastery, he soon had six Scottish monks to help him offer up the traditional prayers of St Benedict.  The 12th-century church and cloisters were put in order.  Erfurt had been given back to the Scots at the same time as Ratisbon, and the abbot’s petitions were granted in 1595, three years after his death, when Würzburg was restored.



The Bones of Macarius

Würzburg was more successful than Ratisbon for a while, helped by the discovery inside the church of the founding abbot’s grave.  The ‘Scoti’ who brought Christ-ianity to Germany were Celtic monks from Ireland.  Macarius or Muiredach from Donegal went to Würzburg from Ratisbon in the 12th century to start a new mon-astery.  The bones of Macarius, especially his head in a silver reliquary, were believed to work miraculous cures.   The reign of Britain’s last Catholic monarch, came to an end in 1688 when James II’s queen had a son after losing daughters to epilepsy.  The Stuart dynasty would continue - except that baby James also had epilepsy.  Following an appeal to Würzburg, a relic was brought and applied to the baby’s head.  The fits ceased, but the Royal Stuarts were forced into French exile.  James always carried his relic, not least when he landed at Peterhead to support the Jacobite Rising of 1715.



Abbot Placid Fleming

Thomas Placid Fleming was Abbot at Ratisbon for forty-seven years until 1720, and ‘the greatest man produced by the Scottish monasteries in Germany’, according to their historian Mark Dilworth.  He was a naval officer before becoming a Catholic, and reached Ratisbon by way of the Scots College in Rome.  After long campaigning and fund-raising Fleming finally opened the seminary which the first royal patron had imagined.  Boys from Scotland received high quality education and some returned as priests.  During and after the reign of James II, Fleming was proposed as a bishop for Scotland.  An outspoken Aberdeen historian, Malcolm Hay of Seaton, accused him (on the basis of a letter held in the Blairs College Muniments Room) of preferring a quiet life in Germany.  Dilworth wrote that Hay’s ‘derogatory comments need not be taken seriously’.  Scholars sometimes disagree!wpe06468.gif (357466 bytes)


Tolerance and Bon Accord

After the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 Scots Catholics were driven out of Edinburgh, but Benedictines and other priests had patrons in Aberdeen and the country areas of the North East.  Elsewhere, as in Dundee, monks suffered severe imprisonment before being banished on pain of death.  James Christian Abercrombie sang High Mass in Holyrood’s Chapel Royal before finding shelter with the Irvines of Drum.  Later in Gordon of Cairnfield’s Aberdeen town-house, he was disturbed by the guards while hearing confession.  Abercrombie hid in the priest’s hole while his chasuble and other vestments were put on a bonfire.  Later still, when things were more settled, he was betrayed into captivity by a man who was in dispute with a widow about money.  He blamed her Benedictine chaplain.  In the tolerant spirit of Bon-Accord, local people called Abercrombie’s accuser a Judas.  The monk was set free.


Benedictines in the Highlands

Early in the 18th century Scotland’s new bishop went from his base near Fochabers to the west coast at Knoydart, where tracks were ‘worse than the Alps’.  In the house of MacDonell of Scotos he carried out the first ordination since the Reformation.  He was assisted by the local priest Columbanus MacLellan, born in Lewis and educated in Germany.  Several Ratisbon monks came from farms around what is now Tomintoul, all with the surname Grant.  William Kilian Grant returned to serve his native Strathavon over a period of many years.  The Catholic Duke of Gordon had just died, and his widow objected to Grant saying mass at St Michael’s kirk.  Auchriachan, not far from Scalan, became his chapel instead.  After Culloden Grant gave himself up at Aberdeen as a priest ‘by habit and repute’, and was set free on the grounds that he must be insane – another example of tolerant Bon-Accord.


Kinship and Blairswpe17344.gif (49990 bytes)

Three Hamilton monks of Ratisbon were descended from John Hamilton of Cobairdy, chamberlain to the Gordons of Huntly.  The family tree shows how another, executed as a leading Jacobite in 1746, was related through marriage to Dr Alexander Gordon of Keithmore;  also his brother Bishop James Gordon who founded the Scalan seminary in Glenlivet.  In the next generation there was a link between Hamilton and Menzies.  The Menzies family of Pitfodels provided Aberdeen with provosts in the 16th century, when the family stayed loyal to the old faith.  The last of the line gave Blairs to the Catholic bishops of Scotland.   This John Menzies might have studied at Ratisbon after Dinant in northern France (instead he went to Nancy with a Jesuit tutor) like four of his uncles.  All joined Moir of Stoneywood’s corps in the ’Forty-five, but Alexander Menzies withdrew early and went back south to become a Benedictine.

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The Siberia of Scotland

The first of the Hamilton monks was briefly at Tomnagylach in Glenrinnes before leaving to become a chaplain at the French Embassy in London.  Alexander Menzies returned from Ratisbon to serve a bleak part of upland Aberdeenshire from his kinsman’s house at Keithmore in Glenfiddich.  In old age Menzies became chaplain to the Gordons of Auchintoul at Aberchirder.  Thomas Brockie was a Ratisbon-trained priest who served 700 scattered Catholics, some of them as far off as Aberlour, during the difficult time of the ’Forty-five.  He was a secular priest, not a Benedictine, although his brother was already a monk.  Shenval in the Cabrach was a remote spot for a chapel, especially in winter, and priests referred to it as ‘the Siberia of Scotland’.  Redcoats burned Shenval in 1746, coming on from Scalan.  Brockie’s last years were spent with the Gordons of Beldornie, and he is buried in Wallakirk.



Erfurt Professors

One of Abbot Fleming’s achievements was to secure the permanent right for two Ratisbon monks to hold professorships at Erfurt, where the house was more of a base for these scholars than a monastery.  Donald Marianus Brockie spent three years in Strathavon, then six in Edinburgh consulting papers on the history of Scotland’s monasteries.  Sadly Monasticon Scoticum has become associated with ‘the Brockie Forgeries’.  These fooled many because he made good use of real documents, starting with Ratisbon’s founding bull of 1177.  He also invented the names of dead monks in order to make the monastery more Scottish – and their souls were prayed for daily!  Other Erfurt monks, including two Grants, gained international reputations in philosophy and experimental physics.  George Andrew Gordon, who came from Coffurach near Fochabers, was a pioneer of electricity - in the early 18th century!


Applied Science and Astronomy

Thomas Ildephonse Kennedy went to Ratisbon with the Menzies brothers in 1735, studied under Gordon at Erfurt and became active in the Bavarian Academy of Sciences.  Visiting Munich to observe the transit of Venus, he was asked to be its secretary, his duties extending to the construction of apparatus.  Kennedy became a leading biologist, anticipating questions later raised by Darwin.  His greatest service to his adopted country was translating texts and diagrams to do with Britain’s industrial revolution.  John Lamont from Corrimulzie, Braemar, was educated at Ratisbon but left an ailing community to become astronomer royal at age thirty.  He had charge of the world’s second largest refractive telescope, and his star maps were famous.  There is a statue to Johann von Lamont in Munich, but his best memorial is the fact that the Apollo spacecraft landed at Lamont on the Moon.


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James Robertson grew up at Strichen in a house with a minister and priest in residence.  He became a Catholic while studying at Dinant (ahead of John Menzies) and then a monk of Ratisbon.  His contribution to Benedictine scholarship lay in publishing devotional books at Edinburgh, including Scotland’s first Catholic New Testament in English.  Five years later in 1797 it was made redundant by Bishop George Hay’s version of the Bible in five volumes.  The two did not see eye to eye, and Hay vetoed Robertson’s attempts to modernise Catholic worship with English prayers and music.  Robertson’s main claim to fame appears in the title of his Narrative of a Secret Mission to the Danish Islands in 1808:  he evaded French troops to contact a Spanish general held in Denmark.  The Peninsular War followed, and Napoleon met his Waterloo.   This ‘merry little monk’ then worked with Bavarian deaf, dumb and blind children.



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John Lamont was not the only distinguished layman to receive an excellent education at Ratisbon.  Another member of the group which came out with the Menzies/Kennedy party was John MacDonald.   An earlier student of the family went by the name ‘Iain Fraingeach’ because Jacobite Highlanders assumed the monastery was in France!  The John in question came from Glenaladale, near Glenfinnan where the Stuart standard was raised.  His ability to speak seven languages and quote classical authors was noted by a priest of Prince Edward Island in testimony to Ratisbon standards.  Captain John MacDonald (who raised a loyalist regiment in the American War of Independence) led emigrants to the Island, partly to check a persecution in South Uist.  His Benedictine piety appears in family letters.



Bishop James Gilliswpe01821.gif (86867 bytes)

In 1802 Europe was under the control of Napoleon and all Germany’s abbeys were closed - except scientific St James’s.  However the monastery was forbidden to accept novices from Scotland.   This was later reversed, and in 1830 six boys from Scotland entered the seminary.  Three died in the monastery.  Within months of the last death in 1843 Bishop James Gillis set out for Germany, but turned back to organise the biggest funeral ever seen on the streets of Edinburgh – for John Menzies of Pitfodels.  Gillis made it to Regensburg four years later, and was able to save the monastery by arguing that the benefactors had legally given their money for Scots Catholics.  The case was put to the Vatican, but also to Foreign Minister Palmerston of send-a-gunboat fame.  As a result several fine priests were educated for Scotland during the seminary’s final phase, including Bishop John MacDonald of Aberdeen.


Abbot Mark Dilworth

St James’s Abbey, Ratisbon, became the bishop’s seminary in 1862 when the last two monks were pensioned off by the Bavarian government.  One of them was William Anselm Robertson from Fochabers.  When St Benedict’s Abbey was opened at Fort Augustus a few years later he joined the community and shared memories, traditions and documents from Ratisbon.  Fort Augustus closed in 1998.  It may well be supposed that the last man in charge, Abbot Mark Dilworth, cherished hopes of another new start.  Gerard Dilworth came to Fort Augustus as a boy from the monastery’s prep school in Edinburgh.  In tune with the monks whose history he was to write, this Abbey School pupil was equally strong in science and the arts.  Later he was able to make himself understood in every European language – including Gaelic.  Abbot Mark Dilworth died on 28 February 2004.  RIP.