"The Banffshire Bethlehem" - St. Ninian's, Tynet
Scotland's Oldest Post-Reformation Catholic Church
by Peter F. Anson
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
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
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
" 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
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
The Rev. Parish Priest, St. Ninian's, Tynet, Clochan, Banffshire.