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The Spanish Connection

By Ron Smith

Reprinted from the Leopard Magazine November 1999

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St Margaret's Chapel Huntly

THE twists and turns of fate that influenced the founding of the church of St. Margaret’s in Huntly are a fascinating insight into the way that North East folk lived and worked in the 19th century.

In the late 16th century the Earl of Huntly was a great champion of the Catholic faith. At that time there was no church in Huntly and all services were held in the part of the castle that was dedicated as a chapel. This situation continued for many years until Charles Maxwell arrived and took over the farm of Boghead of Gibston in 1776. He set about building a church in Huntly, dedicated to St. John, and it opened in 1787.

This church served the faithful for many years, but eventually, proved inadequate. On June 11, 1832 the parish priest, Father Robert Stuart, wrote to Bishop Kyle, who was at Presholme, near Buckie, which was an ancient centre for Catholics. The marvellous old church still stands there today. Father Stuart reported that three men, Sandy Stuart of the Post Office, a Mr Brown, and a church elder, attended an auction ‘last Friday’ and successfully bid for the Freemason’s Hall.

The Hall was demolished, and work started on a new church. To avoid possible confusion with St. John’s Church, it was decided to dedicate the new church to St. Margaret, Queen and patroness of Scotland. The old church then became the Freemason’s Lodge.

Bishop Kyle was a remarkable and energetic man, and his influence is evident in a number of churches throughout the North of Scotland. He oversaw the construction of the new St. Margaret’s Church and a wealthy family, the Gordons of Wardhouse, provided the majority of the finance. The family had extensive farming and wine-growing interests in Spain, and many members of the family married Spaniards. The Gordons bad spread far and wide and younger sons had emigrated to Jamaica, the US, and one even went as far as Alaska and married an Inuit.

The most successful branch was in Spain, believed to have been attracted there by the Catholic college for Scots at Valladolid. Their sherry estate was large and successful so the Spanish connection was evidently very strong.

The last Laird ofWardhouse was Rafael Carlos Gordon, Count de Mirasol. He invited King Alfonso XIII and his wife Victoria Eugenia to honeymoon at Wardhouse, which they did. (see Leopard December 1990 Garioch Dynasty). It must have created quite a stir locally. Rafael’s grandfather, described as "of Wardhouse and Cadiz" had died in Cadiz and left a large bequest towards the construction of the church. Further large donations were made by John Gordon, of "Wardhouse and Xerez, Spain", and it was he who recommended that construction be entrusted to a Mr Lupton, a master mason from Aberdeen. The stone came from a quarry at Kildrummy.

The old Earl of Huntly, John Gordon, and Bishop Kyle all seem to have influenced the design of the church, and modifications were made during construction. The result was described by Father Lovi of Keith, (where St. Thomas’s Church had just been constructed) (Leopard July 1998) as a case of "too many cooks spoil the broth". This was perhaps a little unkind, as the church is an unusual and inspiring building.

The body of the church is octagonal, with six high semicircular windows set into the 27ft.-high walls and it can seat 400. The façade which is on the corner of Chapel Street and West Park Street is magnificent. It is surmounted by a tower with a belfry, which is topped by a crown and an 8ft. -high cross. The belltower is noteworthy, as it was the first to be built in post-Reformation Scotland. The bell itself was purchased with funds raised by public subscription, and became a source of local controversy. Father McLachlan made use of it so frequently and for such long periods that the neighbours complained. Sandy Stuart (of the P.O.) advised Father McLachlan that it should be rung only on Sundays and Holidays, but not on the Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent. Father McLachlan complained to the Bishop, and left it to him to decide when and how often the bell should be rung.

Attached to the church was a commodious house and garden for the priest and there was some rivalry with Keith. Father Lovi had opened the magnificent St. Thomas’s Church in 1831, three years earlier, but it had no house for the priest so he had to live in a small room at the front of the church until 1837 when the house was finally added.

St. Margaret’s opened with a celebratory mass on August 31, 1834, but was incomplete. A large alter-piece painting, and other paintings to adorn the walls had been commissioned by the Gordons of Wardhouse, and were daily awaited from Spain. For reasons unknown, the paintings did not arrive until 1840. This was too late for Father McLachlan, who had moved to Keith on Whit Sunday 1839. He was replaced by Father Terence Maguire who came from County Cavan and at that time was at Keith where he had replaced Father Lovi. Father Maguire set about establishing St. Margaret’s School, which opened in 1848. It continued to provide education to the children of Huntly until it was closed in 1969.

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The Altar and Painting

St. Margaret’s settled down to a long period of serving the faithful of Huntly, including Italian prisoners of war who were camped near Huntly in the 1940s. The priest at that time, Father William Mulligan said masses in Italian for them.

In 1987 it became apparent that the church was suffering from dry rot, and in 1989 plaster started falling from the dome. The last mass was held in March 1989, and then the builders moved in. The energetic Canon McWilliam had to move out of the house as that too had to be rebuilt. The dome had to be completely removed and a new one built.

The extensive work cost more than £280,000. Because of the historical significance of the church, a grant was obtained from Historic Scotland, but there was still a lot of money to be raised locally.

The rebuilt church was re-dedicated on May 3, 1990. The work was carried out to a high standard which is evident in the splendid interior. On entering through the porchway in the tower, you pass between two round pillars which support the curved organ loft. The organ was also restored to working order. The octagonal body of the church has pews arranged so that they face the alter and give the impression of being curved from a central aisle. The ornate marble altar is surmounted by a large oil painting 3m. wide and 5m. high. This is matched by six other paintings, each 2m. x 2.5m., one on each of the three side walls.

These are the famous Spanish paintings and are unusual in their style and dominate the church. Above them are eight paintings in medallions and are portraits of saints. During the repainting, Canon McWilliam persuaded the artist to change Saint Charles to Saint Louis, after his own namesake. Beside the altar is a large attractive statue of St. Margaret holding a child. If you look carefully, you will see that the child is wearing tartan, possibly Gordon tartan. The high segmental windows add light to the magnificently decorated dome which has inset panels radiating from an ornate centre piece. The overall impression is of warm colour with magnificent decorations and the church seems set for another century or two of service.

Spanish Gordons