@ Aberdeen University Magazine
When the library of St Mary's College returns to Aberdeen it will open a new chapter in the Catholic Church's ancient connections with the Northeast of Scotland. Rosemary Goring reflects on the collection and its history
When Mary, Queen of Scots was standing on the scaffold awaiting her execution she was approached by the Dean of Peterborough. Even at the eleventh hour of this devout Catholics life, he was determined to offer her a last chance to come over to the Protestant side.
The Queen treated his blandishments with polite contempt. "Mr Dean," she said, "I am settled in the ancient Catholic Roman religion, and mind to spend my blood in defence of it." "We will pray for you Grace." He replied. "If you will pray for me, my Lords." She said"I will thank you : but to join in prayer with you I will not, for that you and I are not of one religion."
Mary Queen of Scots (1542-87) being led to Execution.
Oil and canvas by John Laslett Pott (1837-98)
The year was 1587. Back in Scotland, the Queens former subjects were living through tumultuous religious revolution, hastened by Marys abdication 20 years earlier. By the time of her death the Protestant Reformation was in full swing and those Catholics who resisted the pressure-spiritual, political and legal- to turn their back on the "old faith" were in a difficult situation. Unlike their captive Queen they were not in a position to declare their faith pubically. For them and their descendents, centuries of legal prohibition and social stigma lay ahead, brought only to an end by the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.
That dark epoch in the history of Catholicism in Scotland has left many scars. Yet it also saw a remarkable flourishing of theological, cultural and intellectual inquiry among those who held on to their faith in the face of determined opposition.
One spectacular product of that persecution is the world-class library of works of theology, science and history written and collected in the Scottish Colleges on the Continent in the long years of exile and subterfuge.
These books which combined to form the Blairs Library, will before long be brought back to Aberdeen to be housed in the new university library as part of what it hopes will become an increasingly eclectic collection of religious 'works from all faiths and beliefs.
Currently on deposit at the National Library of Scotland, this collection of priceless Catholic literature was gathered in the library of St Mary's College at Blairs, on Deeside, which in the mid 20th century was the only Catholic institute of Higher education left in Scotland. Held at the National Library since 1974 , the collection holds a deep emotional as well as intellectual significance for the area. Its return will bring full circle the story of the Catholic church's ancient connections with Aberdeen and the North-east.
The origins of the Blairs collection go back to the heart of the Reformation. By driving the Catholic community underground Kirk officials w ere unwittingly ensuring that those who adhered to Rome grew even committed to their faith. As Catholic scholar Dr John R Watts writes, those who remained Catholic were " so steadfast that they seemed to have inherited the fervour of the primitive Christians".
While the majority of priests and laity capitulated at the Reformation and moved to the new church there were outposts of staunch resistance. It is estimated that about a third of the Scottish nobility remained Catholic, along with several hundred knights and gentlemen. Many of these were in the North and North-east, where wealthy Catholic landowners and their tenants continued to practise their religion with various degrees of secrecy and safety.
Several factors explain the widespread resistance in the North- and to a lesser degree in the Borders also. For a start, it was far from the eagle-eyed revolutionaries in the Central Belt. In addition, the relationship between Catholic landowners and their dependants was traditionally close. The loyalty inspired by families such as the Gordons, Leslies, and Hays meant that tenants trusted their landlords' decisions; it was also in such tenants' best interests to retain solidarity with their overlords' faith.
But there is a far more profound and interesting explanation for the endurance of Catholicism in the Northeast. According to Peter Davidson, Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Aberdeen, religious life in the North-east was so markedly different from the rest of Scotland before the Reformation that what happened thereafter was consequently very different, too.
This unique situation can be traced directly to the influence of William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen and founder of the university. By the time of his death, he had so radically reordered the diocese of Aberdeen, says Davidson, that "if a revolutionary mob had turned up accusing the clergy of neglect or oppression, many people could reply that they were enjoying the services of an educated clergy, and benefiting from many practical improvements, including the building of new bridges and the teaching of medicine:'
Compared with the situation in England after the Reformation, says Davidson, "the Catholic experience in Scotland was different because, although marginalised and penalised, Catholics were not treated as traitors, as they were in England at times of heightened religious tension".
The substantial Episcopalian presence in the Northeast created a middle-ground between Calvinists and Catholics, making for far less vexation over niceties of religious observance. Added to which, James VI adroitly refused to create Catholic martyrs - the only notable exception is St John Ogilvie - preferring to treat rebels more quietly with imprisonment, confiscation of property, or banishment.
As a result, a network of illegal but widespread Catholic activity was maintained throughout the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries. Despite the comparative laxity of the Reformation in the North-east, however, reprisals against recusants could be fierce, leading to financial ruin.
The anti-Catholic mood of the country was sufficiently harsh in the 16th and 17th centuries that the work of the handful of travelling priests who ministered to their flock was deemed highly dangerous. Many went in disguise, with one priest describing how he had evaded discovery by adopting a series of identities: "Now master, now servant, now musician, now painter, now brass-worker, now clock-maker, now physician, I have endeavoured to be all to all, that I might save all:'
Candidates for the underground Scottish priesthood were drawn particularly from the gentry, who could afford to send their sons abroad to study. It was with these young men in mind that a series of Scots Colleges were established in Paris, Madrid (later Valladolid and Salamanca), Rome, and Douai. The education they received there was excellent, and many sent sons who had no intention of becoming priests, simply for the quality of the teaching. At various times many of these institutions were run by Jesuits, who were famed for their intellectual rigour. And those who could not send their boys abroad could resort to the "heather" seminaries in Scotland, housed in redoubts such as Glenlivet, or remote islands like Lismore.
The works collected together at Blairs gather the remnants from the old Scots Colleges at Rome, Paris and Douai, although the Douai collection was almost completely destroyed during the French Revolution, and those at Rome and Paris were partially dispersed throughout Europe. Even so, they represent an extraordinary body of material from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, a tangible record not only of the conceptual evolution of intellectual Catholics, but of the state of higher education and learning in the western world.
In an unexpected stroke of luck, a long-lost work from the Douai library has just been given to the university. This copy of David Chalmers's De Scotorum Fortitudine (Concerning the Valour of the Scots) (1631) may have been carried from the college in the luggage of a fleeing student.
Comprising over 27,000 books, the Blairs collection includes over 1,000 works from the 16th century, the earliest English printed book among them being, Wynken de Worde's edition of Capgrave's British Saints (1516). As befitted the broad education desired by wealthy Catholics, these books cover the gamut of knowledge of the time. While heavily weighted towards theology, they also encompass science, natural history, agriculture, architecture and numismatics.
About a third of the books are in English, with many in Latin and French. One of the most interesting is a Bible owned by Dom Thomas Ross, who was the last monk at the monastery of Plus carden in Morayshire in the 16th century. Marked in the margins with his unabashedly Catholic ideas about scripture, decades after the new Protestant regime was established, it shows how slowly and incompletely the Reformation took a grip on the North of Scotland.
There is a pleasing symmetry to the idea that the Blairs Library will return to Aberdeen, where its spiritual roots lie. Bishop William Elphinstone was not only a religious and administrative visionary but a man of great commonsense. It was through his auspices that Scotland's first printers, Walter Chepman and Andrew Myllar, were established, albeit briefly, in 1507. The collections culled from Scotland's European Catholic colleges are an immediate legacy of his influence in nurturing a religious climate in the North-east that made it not only fertile for belief, but so deeply planted that it could sustain a functional Catholic community throughout the darkest days of the Reformation.
The level of pragmatic tolerance demonstrated in the North-east over several centuries makes it the natural home for this exceptional and inspirational library. One hopes that its return to Aberdeen will encourage new research and offer fresh insights for our own age which, as during the Reformation, urgently needs to understand the secret of religious tolerance and open mindedness.
More practically, it will complement the Blairs Museum, on Deeside, which contains valuable artefacts, paintings and relics from the Scots Colleges, among them the best-known portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, and vestments, silver, reliquaries and needlework that were once in daily use in the cultured continental outposts of Scottish Catholicism .
The Library represents an extraordinary body of material
Below St Cecilia. established as the patron saint of music in the15th century. as painted by the Catholic supporting Aberdeen artist Cosmo Alexander
Above Right ;Bishop Leslie, a Canonist at King's in 1556 and 1558-59. was secretary to Mary Queen of Scots and a staunch defender of King's College
Below: Peter Davidson. The Catholic experience in Scotland was different, he says.
Although marginalised and penalised, they were not treated as traitors
@Rosemary Goring is literary editor at The Herald