Scalan News Number 1

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At a recent meeting of the management committee we decided on a drive for new members: at the last count there were 151. Up till now members of the Scalan Association have mainly been people familiar with Blairs and, through it, the old and original seminary. A banda sheet of the minutes of the annual meeting was enough to keep them in touch. But now we are approaching the point when a widely scattered membership throughout Scotland and beyond needs a newsletter. You people deserve something more for your subscriptions than a warm feeling, once a year, of spending 5 in a good cause.

The newsletter will be short enough to read over breakfast but should be good enough to read again at leisure. Even if the Scalan Association decided to define itself in terms of one building (rather than a wider interest in Catholic heritage) there would be no shortage of material for a long time to come. All sorts of people have written about the hidden seminary over the years, starting with Bishop John Geddes in the eighteenth century and including our president Mgr. John Copland.

There is an abundance of illustration available too, most of it by Peter Anson who is known to a wider audience, perhaps, for his line-drawings of fishing-boats - no pun intended! I envisage two issues a year: one in midwinter to raise your eyes unto the hills with recollections of Glenlivet, and one to remind you of the annual summer Mass. I can imagine a future occasion where hundreds look down on the con-celebrants from the other side of the Crombie Burn - hence the first Anson drawing which has been selected.

Anne MacDonell of Roybridge tells me that, in penal times, the inhabitants of a wide area of Lochaber would turn towards the hill where they knew that the consecrated host was being raised above a mass-stone. (There's an article about it in an old copy of The Innes Review.) Communion was rare then, and a gathering would have attracted unwelcome attention. But now we can gather, and where better to do so than Scalan?

I'm already promised a contribution to the next number by a kindred spirit, recently met. Without a covered wagon David McNamee devised his own version of the Chisholm Trail - Bishop Aeneas Chisholm and his brother John were priests from Strathglass, near Beauly - to the Highland seminary on the island of Lismore. (You knew, of course, that Scalan served the Lowland District despite its mountainous setting.) It would be good to hear from readers, maybe with queries or a short letter about some old place of Catholic interest. Write to:

Alasdair Roberts, Editor, 'Scalan News', 9 South Crown Street, Aberdeen AB1 2RY.


A House Built on. . . ?

Our management committee meetings have been dominated by architects' reports. It seems that despite all these years of standing four-square at the head of Glenlivet the old college has no proper foundations. We are advised by the Castlegate Design Group the foundations of at least one gable and the rear wall require underpinning. In addition the first floor walls require to be stabilised with steel ties, about twenty roten joist ends need replacing along with most of the lintels, and a further recommendation involves plywood sheathing under new floorboards on the first floor.

To do all this and begin to develop Scalan as an informative, imagination-stimulating visitor centre we have set ourselves a target of 20,000. Sounds a lot for 151 members, but there will be many more by this time next year, and all sorts of trusts are willing to help well-founded organisations with clear development plans - especially for interesting old buildings which attract people to the Highlands.


St Michael Centre

The possibilities for joint ventures with the St Michael Centre in Tomintoul are endless. During recent months there has been a feeling of uncertainty over the Centre which occupies the old Convent of Mercy, because it was known that the warden, Charlie McEwan, could no longer afford to bring up his growing family on a Church stipend supplemented by occasional periods of supply teaching. He's a PE teacher, ex-Blairs College, which is why his knowledge of orienteering and canoeing made him such an obvious choice for what is at least partly an outdoor centre.

Now Charlie has left Tomintoul for a full-time teaching post in Shetland. He will be greatly missed, and we all owe him a great debt of gratitude for the way he's presided over the transformation of a freezing old building which was well on the way to dereliction into something like a luxury youth hostel - but with a very special character of its own. And the bookings are building up - not all from Scotland and not only Catholics.

But if anyone thought that Charlie's departure meant the end for the St Michael Centre they couldn't have been more wrong. Father Colin Stewart is the Aberdeen diocese's director of catechetics and youth work, and he's just move up from Aberdeen to become parish priest for Tomintoul, Tombae and Chapelton. He's a dab hand with a paint brush and has transformed the once dingy St Michael's chapel house and created facilities for workshops in music, art and local studies.

Local studies includes local history, which in this part of the world is largely Catholic. He takes bookings at 3 per night per person for parties up to thirty, and they don't have to be children. Why not get some friends together and plan a weekend - or a few days or a week -walking the ground in search of Catholic heritage? Write to:

Rev. Colin Stewart, St Michael Centre, Main Street, Tomintoul.


Lost in the Mist

Some years ago I began to develop what now seems like an obsession with 'the old way to Scalan'. The 1822 map below shows that the seminary was normally approached from the south by travellers who had toiled up the Lecht from Cockbridge. Those familiar with the area will know the stone erected at the Well of the Lecht by military roadbuilders following in the footsteps, almost literally, of General Wade. His work was begun in the 1720s, whereas Donside was not linked to Speyside by this road until 1756.

After the Highlanders had failed in two Jacobite risings they gradually became reconciled to a new level of government control, and it was possible for the new ease of communication to be celebrated in verse:

If you'd seen these roads before they were made, You'd hold up your hands and bless General Wade.

The road which Scalan visitors take today from the Pole Inn to Chapelton was the result of the Rev. James Glennie's lobbying of the Duke of Richmond and Gordon - and Chapelton's first priest received the credit:

If you'd seen these roads Before there were any, You'd hold up your hands And bless Mr Glennie!

My first attempt, six years ago, was on the old road from Scalan in the company of two teenage daughters. We were on bikes (having cycled through the Braes of Enzie) that lowland area which contains Preshome and Tynet, and were pleasant-ly surprised to find the climb from Fochabers less tiring than it looked on the map. It was one of these attractively old-fashioned Bartholomew's half-inch maps which clearly showed a path from Scalan to Tomintoul by way of Casfuar. After spending the night at Tombae we cycled up to the old seminary. It was a pleasant September day but Catherine had a streaming cold and Fiona was complaining of a sore backside. I explained the plan as we sat on the bench outside Scalan eating sandwiches.

The track was good enough as far as Clash of Scalan (the home of Abbe Paul MacPherson who gave Chapelton to the people of the Braes after masses stopped at Scalan) but then we found ourselves in difficulty as we continued up the slopes of Carn Dulack. Whin bushes - that was the problem. When it got to the point of carrying the bikes above our heads I realised that this was a lost cause. There really was no path, despite the map. After a grateful pause, looking down towards the cluster of buildings which is Scalan, we cycled merrily back again and reached our destination for the night - the St Michael Centre, Tomintoul - by road, the long way round.

Some of you may remember part two of this tale. For the annual summer mass of 1989 I thought it would be fun to approach Scalan from the south playing the bagpipes. I left my car beside the picnic tables at Well of the Lecht and set off with the base drone protruding from a haversack - no I didn't play all the way, although there was supposed to be a piper once who played all the way from Corgarff to Aberdeen. It was a beautiful, sweaty day, and although I immediately took a wrong path by heading right of the old Lead Mill rather than through it, precise directions hardly mattered. There were no whins on that side of the Ladder Hills, and although what became known as the 'whisky road' (in the days of the smuggling) was by no means obvious, the general direction was clear enough.

After finding and losing the path several times, with interludes of sheep tracks, easy patches of burnt heather and others up to my waist in the stuff, I spied Scalan far below. That was after about an hour. Another half hour and I was within striking up distance: 'Cock of the North' (celebrating the Huntly Gordons) and 'Faith of our Fathers' seemed approp-riate for different reasons. There was a bit of disturbance to the hymn practice, apparently, but I felt within my rights, piping in Glenlivet, and most people seemed to like it.

This year was different. I travelled from Aberdeen with my wife Deirdre, our young son Kieran and a friend of his, Andrew. Doubts were beginning to be expressed about the weather when we stopped at the Corgarff Hall (marvellous local history museum) and as the windscreen wipers worked away the others decided to keep dry. Very fortunate: I was to have problems enough of my own. After a quick lunch in the Lead Mill (worth a look, and clearly explained by some publicity on the wall) I set off - this time on the correct path, left along the shoulder of the hill.

For what then ensued I partly blame you, or the world in general, for having failed to walk this way in sufficient numbers to maintain a clear path. The famous scandal of the Pennine Way, eroded to a hundred yards across by countless hill-walkers stepping ever wider to avoid the stones, could not be in greater contrast to this former whisky road of the barrel-laden shelties (ponies to you, madam). Soaked, at once by the relentless rain, I abandoned the heather tracks in favour of the bed of a stream. Boots took on the consistency of wet cardboard, kilt pleats gathered moisture, bagpipes weighed my shoulders down as I staggered on and up.

But mainly I blame myself. There is a pipe tune called 'The Mist on Yonder Hill', and the further I struggled the more it came to mind. And I had no compass! I thought it wouldn't matter - a couple of miles of hill which was already quite familiar from last year. There was a fence running up to the left - if only I'd stuck to it, but I struck off in what seemed like a Scalan direction - shoulder of the hill, and it 'felt' right - into a great greyness. It became quite frightening when I broke a bootlace and began to think of broken ankles.

At times like that prayers come to mind more readily than pipe tunes, and the time was slipping away. Mass might have to start without me - or would they delay? Send a search party up from Scalan? Or inform the police and let them organise the searching - but it was just a question of finding the headwaters of the Crombie Burn and splashing downhill into clearer visibility. And then - Glory be and Thanks to God - there was a confluence of white water ahead, two burns joining on a steep slope. I splashed in, knee-deep but confident of the way things were going now.

Gradually the mist cleared, and I found myself looking for the ruins of the Clash of Scalan. Once there the journey was almost over, and perhaps the annual Mass was still in progress. I'd certainly tried to be there in time ('Bless me, father') but somehow the journey seemed longer than last year. Then I saw a house looming out of the mist, and lengthened my stride. I was now walking beside the swollen stream - more like a river - not in it.

But wait a minute - this wasn't the ruin which I remembered. It had a roof, slates . . . it was certainly not the Clash of Scalan. Dawning awareness . . . the Lead Mill! The water I had followed downhill was not the Crombie but the Conglass. I was back where I started!

Believe me there was no inclination to play the bagipes as I trudged soddenly along the road towards Tomintoul, seriously concerned by now in case people were up in these misty hills looking for me. Deirdre and the boys would be mad with worry: three hours had passed since they dropped me off. A police station was the first priority, but car after car ignored my outstretched thumb - perhaps my general squelch-iness was obvious to the drivers, concerned for their precious tourist upholstery!

Eventually a car drew up. By one of these coincidences which seem mirac-ulous if you're in the mood - and I was - the chap was a Catholic, on his way from a jazz festival in the south of Scotland (van loaded with instruments) to Pluscarden for a weekend retreat. Only a Catholic could combine like that, but I'd have loved the dreariest agnostic provided he took me to Tomintoul.

The rest of the story is quickly told. There was no police search because I hadn't been reported missing - not even to the congregation, who had gathered at Chapelton rather than Scalan because of the foul weather. Charlie MacEwan of the St Michael Centre ran me across, and we learned from the remnants of that gathering ('Are you the piper?') that my wife had set off to meet me at the head of the glen. We drove on, stopping to check the contents of my steamed up family car - Kieran, Andrew and car radio: 'Mum's gone off that way.'

I found Deirdre with Sandy Mathieson (in the front room of that house to the right of the seminary) being consoled by his judgement that I was 'bound to come down somewhere'. She swore she was on the point of driving back to Aberdeen with the boys - and I could have been in Glenbucket or maybe Glenrinnes! 'Oh, you'd have been all right.' Greater love hath no man. . . Sandy, more sympath-etic, produced the most welcome dram I ever had: whenever I'm next at Scalan, whatever the route or the weather, I'm determined to carry a flask for Sandy!

This is not a very edifying tale. It shows the puffed-up piper - full of himself, over-fond of display: you can see why they used to bury bagpipers face down, according to one piece of folklore I dug up. Pride came before a very miserable experience and I certainly know - now - why it's foolish to go walking on mist-covered mountains. But wouldn't it be great for Scalan if the old route, the whisky road, was tramped into place again. Next year at the Lead Mill? (Weather permitting, of course. . . )

Alasdair Roberts


Interested in Catholic history? Of course you are or you wouldn't have joined the Scalan Association. Why not also join the more scholarly version, the Scottish Catholic Historical Association? We had a very successful conference in Glasgow this summer and are feeling very good about the rising membership. The Association's journal, The Innes Review, comes out twice a year and is named after an 18th century historian, Thomas Innes, who came from Aboyne on Deeside and was a close associate of Bishop James Gordon who founded Scalan If you would like to join send 14 (the annual subscription) to:

Dr Mary McHugh, Archdiocese of Glasgow, 196 Clyde Street, GLASGOW G1 4JY

Two issues will then arrive each year. Back numbers are available, together with an index of authors and historical periods.

Are you familiar with Father Robert Macdonald's booklet Churches & Places of Catholic Interest in Moray? It has just come out in an improved edition, so that there are 23 places in the index including Scalan. There is an interesting new item on Sacrament Houses: 'aumbries' or wall cupboards which replaced the hanging or standing pyx in the sixteenth century for reasons of security. Based on an article by Mgr. David McRoberts in The Innes Review for 1965, the entry points out that these have been echoed in modern times: 'After the Second Vatican Council, the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in a separate place of honour wasencouraged, leaving the altar as simply the place of sacrifice.' And as the drawing by George Herraghty shows, there is a fine example of a Sacrament House at Deskford, near Buckie, which should be on the itinerary of anyone visiting Tynet and Preshome.

If you would like a copy of this excellent compilation of short accounts, line drawings mostly by Peter Anson, and map, send to Rev. Robert MacDonald, St Sylvester's, Elgin.