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The Scalan Archive



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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 Scotland.

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

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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 Scalan’s 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 ship’s 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 Scotland’s bishops to the state of Scalan. A lease of the building was taken as a result.



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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 Association.

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 students.


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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 Lecht.


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The Scalan spirit is alive and well !