WHAT IS SCALAN?
Scalan (Gaelic for a
turf-roofed shelter) is a plain 18th century house in the Braes of Glenlivet. It is by far
the most significant relic of the penal days
when the native Scottish Catholic community kept the ancient faith alive in Northern
The first Catholic bishops appointed after the
Reformation, Thomas Nicolson and his assistant James Gordon, saw the need early in the
century for places in Scotland where intending priests could begin their education or even
complete their courses to ordination. Several tiny colleges were set up at different times
for this purpose, mostly in the West Highlands, but the most important and lasting of
these was at Scalan.
From 1717 to 1799 about one hundred
future priests were given the equivalent of secondary education in this little seminary, a
remarkable achievement for these troubled times. Most completed their courses in Italy,
France or Spain, but at least two were ordained at Scalan without study abroad. This
little college ensured the survival of Scottish Catholicism. A few decades later when
Irish Catholics began to arrive in large numbers, especially in the West of Scotland, Scottish priests were
there to meet them at the ports.
Scalan was raided by Hanoverian soldiers in 1726
and 1728 and burned to the ground after Culloden. The remains of this earlier building are
still discernible. However in 1767 the Rev. John Geddes (rector at the time) decided to
erect a more substantial structure of stone and lime, and it is essentially this building
that we see today.
Scalan Ground Floor Plan
STUDENTS AND STAFF
The names of many Scalan students are known to us
from records in Scotland and abroad. These boys came mainly from Catholic pockets of
population in North-east Scotland, but also from as far away as Edinburgh and the West
Highlands. Their life was spartan. They would study, pray and eat in the large room to the
right of the entrance, sleep in the room above or in the attic, and play their games on
the green beside the Crombie burn.
Rising at 6 a.m. the students washed in the
Crombie. Then, dressed in black and blue tartan, they ate a frugal meal of oatmeal
porridge and began their rigorous day. They managed to have meat two or three times a
week, and supper was again the inevitable porridge. This meagre diet (now recognised as
healthy!) was typical of that time and place.
We know the names of the teachers: for example the
convert William Duthie, who had the sad experience of seeing his college burned by the
redcoats; John Geddes himself, who later restored the Scots College in Spain and was to
become a noted bishop who won the admiration of Robert Burns; and the last rector, James
Sharp, who was to help run two further colleges at Aquhorties and Blairs.
In 1722 Bishop Gordon drew up a set
of rules for students, the essence of which would appear to have been the time honoured
mens sana in corpore sano -plenty of fresh air and exercise to encourage prayer and study.
There now comes on the scene the most notable
figure in Scalans history. Bishop George Hay (1729-1812) was a remarkable man. As a
sixteen-year-old he tended Jacobite wounded in the Fortyfive. After imprisonment,
conversion to the Catholic faith and a spell as ships surgeon, he became a priest at
the Scots College Rome. in the tiny chapel on the second floor at Scalan he was
consecrated bishop on Trinity Sunday 1769. Here he lived for some years teaching theology.
By this time the students were also instructed in Latin, Greek, French, Hebrew, Geography,
Chronology and Rhetoric. The standard of education provided at Scalan was such that they
were able to cope with the demands of advanced studies abroad. It is interesting to note
that Hugh Macdonald (later Bishop) and George Gordon, a native of Fochabers, were ordained
to the priesthood at Scalan on Ember Saturday 1725, the first of the heather
priests who received their whole training in this country.
With courage and dogged
perseverance the Catholic faith was kept alive during the years of persecution which
followed Culloden. However times were changing, and pressure on the Catholic religion was
relaxed during the Napoleonic Wars. it was Bishop Hay who decided that this remote college
had served its purpose, and that the time had come to find a larger building for his
students. Aquhorties near inverurie was purchased for £2,000 and the boys moved down from the
mountains on 15th July 1799 and into the newly built house there.
The glorious Scalan era was over,
it fell into disrepair in mid-nineteenth century and was chiefly used as a barn by the
local farm tenant. it became a dwelling again, but by the 1920s it was once more
dilapidated. Then in 1934 a pilgrim artist called Peter Anson visited
Glenlivet and drew the attention of Scotlands bishops to the state of Scalan. A
lease of the building was taken as a
In the post-war years three priests gathered funds
and got the old place into some semblance of repair. This was the start of the Scalan
Today you can visit the old house and sign the
visitors book. You can walk through the silent rooms where the students worked and
prayed all those years ago, and marvel at the solid faith of those old priests and their
WHERE IS SCALAN?
Take the B9008 road for five miles north from
Tomintoul. Just before the Pole Inn on the left, turn right and take the Chapelton road
for three miles, passing the chapel and the distillery to park at the last farm buildings
on the right Proceed on foot for another half mile and cross the Crombie by a wooden
bridge. You will find Scalan facing you. Or you can walk the older route from the Well of
The Scalan spirit is alive and well !