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"The Banffshire Bethlehem" - St. Ninian's, Tynet

Scotland's Oldest Post-Reformation Catholic Church

by Peter F. Anson

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SITUATED within a short distance from the main road between Elgin and Banff, about a quarter of a mile north-west of the bridge that spans the Burn of Tynet, the modern division between the counties of Moray and Banff, is the oldest post-Reformation Catholic church in Scotland still used for regular worship. Nobody glancing at this long low building with its harled walls, slate roof and square-headed windows would guess that it is a church, far less a Catholic church. There is nothing "ecclesiastical" in its outward appearance.

Tynet lies in the heart of the Enzie district of Banffshire. This stretch of country, with the Moray Firth on the north and rolling hills to the south, remained loyal to the Catholic religion after the Reformation. The Enzie roughly comprises the parishes of Bellie and Raffiven. The reason why Presbyterianism failed to gain a hold among the people was due to the fact that until 1728 the noble House of Gordon was the leading Catholic family in the north of Scotland. A chaplain was nearly always in residence at Gordon Castle throughout the seventeenth century.

After the death of Alexander, the second Duke, in 1728, the Duchess, a Protestant, brought up the children in her own religion; taking them to the kirk on the first Sunday after their father's funeral. For the next hundred years, that is until Catholic Emancipation was obtained in 1829, the people of the Enzie had to look after their own spiritual welfare. Not only did they cling to the old religion tenaciously, but they gave eleven Bishops to the Church in Scotland during the two centuries, and probably more than fifty priests.

To-day there are five Catholic churches in this comparatively small area; St. Gregory's, Preshome (1788); St. Mary's, Fochabers (1825); St. Peter's, Buckie 1857); St. James', Letterfourie 1904), and St. Ninian's, Tynet - the oldest of them all.

About a mile south-east of the venerable church of Tynet is a cemetery, standing in the midst of fields, with no buildings near it. As early as 1602 there was a ruined chapel within this graveyard, and in 1687 another church was built on the site of the old one. In 1728 this church was desecrated by an armed band of Protestants. After this incident the Catholics dared not hold services there again for fear of being arrested, and so it fell into ruin. Bishop Nicholson, the first Vicar Apostolic of Scotland, who died in 1718, was buried in St. Ninian's cemetery. In modern times a cross has been erected to his memory. On it are inscribed the name of the bishop, and twenty-six priests, whose mortal remains lie within the space where the chapel once stood.

Try to picture the state of Catholics in this quiet peaceful fertile countryside two hundred years ago. The defeat of the Jacobite forces at Culloden in 1745 resulted in even worse persecution of Catholics than before. All were treated as rebels and outlaws, regardless of class, age or sex. Orders were given that Catholic chapels were to be pulled down and their priests imprisoned. The laity were deprived of their property. The clergy and their congregations were driven out of their homes. The Hanoverian soldiers, commanded by the Duke of Cumberland, set fire to any house belonging to Catholics which they discovered. The College of Scalan, in the Braes of Glenlivet, was plundered and burnt. A barn near the Bridge of Tynet, which had been used as a place of worship after they had abandoned the little church in St. Ninian's cemetery, shared the same fate.

In 1734 the Rev. John Godsman was appointed to look after the scattered Catholics in the Enzie.

Not long after the Battle of Culloden he was made a prisoner, but was eventually set free. Disguised as a farmer, he hid himself in the country; saying Mass in barns, usually during the night. It would have been far too great a risk for Catholics to gather together by day. The soldiers were tireless in their efforts to lay hands on them.

Bishop Alexander Smith, the Vicar Apostolic of the Lowlands District from 1735 to 1767, must have thought highly of Father Godsman. He put forward his name to the Holy See as his Coadjutor. But the choice fell on James Grant, who was consecrated by Bishop Smith in 1755. So Father Godsman remained in the Enzie.

About this date he wrote to the Vicar Apostolic, saying: " If you remember in the way between Auchenhalrig and Tulloch I showed you a small little house, where a poor woman had lived for some time, to which Tynet proposed making an addition as a cot for his sheep, but in effect for our use, for if we may expect any humanity or sympathy they will be ashamed to put us from a sheep-cot, especially when there is incomparably better of that kind in the country. What Tynet proposed to do he has done, and the house is very near complete. His sheep have been in it for some time past, and will continue to go there some time more. We will not have such accommodation as we had in the barn, but we will be considerably better than we have been now these twelve months past."

Thus it came to pass that the "little house" and the adjoining "sheep-cot," added by the owner, became the nucleus of the present Church of St. Ninian. The bleating of sheep was replaced by the tinkle of the Sanctus bell-if Catholics in those dangerous times dared to ring even a small hand-bell within a building? It required heroic faith and powers of endurance to be a practising Catholic two hundred years ago.

" Christmas and Eastertide came and went, and were possibly observed by neighbours a; national Feasts-in any case there was no Venite adoremus, no Gloria in Excelsis with rejoicing multitudes, but there was the silent thanksgiving in the solitude of the heart. Many had never seen anything other than a poverty-stricken altar, and had never heard Mass said above a whisper, when two tapers just made visible the darkness of the earliest morning hour." (Kinloch, Scottish Ecclesiastical History, p. 2 17).

After a life of remarkable sanctity, Father Godsman died on 1st April 1769. Bishop Geddes, his devoted friend, assisted at his death-bed. The Bishop wrote his Life and declared that everybody regarded this missionary priest as a saint. Father Godsman was succeeded at Tynet by Dr. Alexander Geddes. This priest had such a high reputation for learning that the University of Aberdeen conferred on him the Degree of Doctor of Laws. This was a most unique honour for a Catholic priest at that date.

In 1779 the Rev. George Matheson was placed in charge of the mission. He made many improvements to the chapel. The windows were enlarged and glass inserted. Before this there were merely narrow openings in the walls, filled with straw or hay. This helped to deceive strangers as to the nature of the building. For it was in 1779 that all the Synods in Scotland became frantic in their efforts to prevent the Catholic Relief Act being passed by Parliament, and it was not until 1793 that the long-delayed Catholic Relief Bill for Scotland obtained the royal assent. The same year as Father Matheson came to Tynet, the streets of Edinburgh had resounded with the shout of " knock down, kill, burn the Papists." Mobs had attacked the houses of well-known Catholics in Glasgow. Bishop Hay narrowly escaped being murdered when escaping from his home in Edinburgh.

To have placed a cross on the roof of St. Ninian's would have been far too dangerous. The stone ball on the west gable, added by Father Matheson, can still be seen. He re-roofed the chapel with slates brought from the old church in St. Ninian's cemetery. Hitherto it had been thatched. About seven years after the Catholic Relief Bill became law, Father Matheson ventured to make some improvements in the interior. There was less danger now that the church would be desecrated. So he erected a choir-loft behind the altar, and furnished it with an organ "with seven stops." As Bishop Geddes tells us that he was "an amateur Musical Instrument Maker of no mean ability," it is probable that he constructed this organ himself.

He took the precaution of consulting his Protestant neighbours before starting music in the chapel, being anxious not to offend them. As they raised no objections a few simple hymns were sung. But Father Matheson had not reckoned with Bishop Hay, who took a different line. He denounced music of any sort as "an innovation in the Service of God and the public discipline of the Church," adding that he felt it to be " a mere whim of the Scottish Catholics to wish for music in their chapels; a thing which ought to be the last to be thought of." So it is doubtful if Father Matheson dared to play his organ or to have any more hymn singing at Tynet until after the death of Bishop Hay in 1811.

Most likely to confirm the belief that the long low building was not a chapel, the priest resided at Auchenhalrig, about half a mile distant. Here in his own oratory he said Mass on weekdays and reserved the Blessed Sacrament. It was during the years that Father Matheson was at Tynet that the gilt dove, which had belonged to the old church in St. Ninian's cemetery, was hung up above the altar. Many vestments and altar vessels from this church, which had been hidden away during the worst times of persecution, were handed over to Father Matheson. Some years after his death thieves broke into the chapel, and everything was stolen.

There is not much to relate of the subsequent history of Tynet. The story of this quiet peaceful little building has been as uneventful as that of the farms and crofts which lie around it. You would not find material for startling headlines in their annals. In 1859 the Rev. William Loggie erected the present presbytery and moved from Auchenhalrig. He also made extensive alterations in the chapel. He walled up the original door at the west end and inserted the existing entrance on the south side. The choir loft was moved to the west end and a wall built immediately behind the altar. The next priest, the Rev. Donald Kennedy, who served the mission from 1885 to 1913, made other improvements. The weight of the heavy slates on the rafters threatened to cause the walls to collapse. The roof had to be strengthened on more than one occasion. As the congregation had declined in numbers a wooden partition was put up, cutting off the west end of the building. A font was placed in this quasi-narthex. By 1931, when the Rev. William Watson succeeded the Rev. James Marr, the general opinion was that further repairs to this venerable chapel were useless. As a work-man expressed it to Father Watson: "Aye, Father, she's gey ripe!"

The roof was sagging to a depth Of 7 inches. There was a big crack in the ceiling. Many of the rafters were split through below the ties. To prevent the total collapse of the ceiling, a 36-feet long wooden beam was placed under the rafters affected-. Meanwhile, Father Watson, with the approval of the late Bishop Bennett, started to collect money to build a new church. It was estimated by the architect consulted that at least 2500 would be required to erect even a small church worthy of "the Papistical country" of the Enzie.

Had not the Second World War broke out shortly after this appeal was launched, it is possible that enough money would have been raised to build a new church. Under present conditions, what with the ever-increasing cost of building and the difficulty of obtaining licences for anything but the most urgent housing, any hope of starting on a new church must be abandoned. The only thing to do is to ensure the preservation of the old chapel.

St. Ninian's may have no intrinsic value as a specimen of any particular age or style of architecture, yet this simple little building possesses a quality which is almost unique. Architecture at its best expresses the period and culture of its period. St. Ninian's, Tynet, does this with just as much force as, say, St. Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen, or the ruins of Elgin Cathedral. These two great churches, even in their present condition, remind us of the hey-day of Scottish Catholicism. St. Ninian's recalls the sufferings and persecutions of the Penal Times, when our ancestors had to worship in the Catacombs. This venerable sanctuary is intimately associated with the dark days before Catholic Emancipation; that Act of Parliament which gave our forefathers in the Faith the right to call their souls their own.

About ten years ago an English visitor to Tynet was so moved by this little church, that he ventured to insert a letter in one of the Catholic papers, saying: " I have just had the great privilege of visiting the oldest post-Reformation Catholic church in Scotland still in use, where I experienced a curious thrill at the thought that Catholic worship had gone on here unceasingly for over two centuries. To my dismay 1 discovered that this venerable relic of the past is being allowed to fall into decay, and that in a few years' time it may be no more than a heap of stones.

"Surely something can yet be done to avoid this catastrophe? I should think that Scottish Catholics throughout the world would be glad to have the opportunity of contributing something towards the preservation of this unique sanctuary. As I contemplated this ancient building, now so forlorn, and likely to collapse at any moment, I asked myself why there is no 'Old Mortality' to come to its rescue, as did the hero of Sir Walter Scott's novel of that name, who, as it will be recalled, went about the country cleaning the grave-stones of the Covenanter martyrs. To the impartial student of Scottish history this humble chapel at Tynet has much in common with the graves of the Covenanters, both reminding us of the age of religious persecution which, thank God, has now passed, at least in Scotland."

It is too much to expect that the mostly poor 'and dwindling number of Catholics in the parish of Tynet should have to shoulder the financial burden involved in the now really necessary restoration of the church. It is a matter which .should concern Catholics in every part of Scotland, even those of Scottish ancestry in remote parts of the world. At the last religious census there were approximately 600,00 Catholics in Scotland. If each of them contributed one penny towards the rebuilding and refurnishing of the "Banffshire Bethlehem," at least 2500 would be raised-a sum which would defray the cost of all essential work and safeguard the oldest post-Reformation Catholic church in Scotland for a long time to come.

Any contributions towards the re-furnishing of this historic church will be gratefully received by

The Rev. Parish Priest, St. Ninian's, Tynet, Clochan, Banffshire.