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St Margaret's Huntly


When we speak of the outstanding contributions that such places as the Enzie and Glenlivet made to the preservation of the Catholic Faith in Scotland we must not forget that other places, as Strathglass and Strathbogie also played an important part, in the post~reformation scene.


Strathbogie castle was the seat of the Earl of Huntly who was the acknowledged head of the Catholic party in Scotland. Abbe Paul MacPherson in his "History of the Scottish Mission" wrote "the preservation of the ancient faith was due under God, to the House of Gordon". In 1594 the Earl had successfully routed the much larger army of the Duke of Argyll at the battle of Glenlivet, but at a price; Gordon of Auchundoun, Huntly’s military genius was killed. When James VI advanced from Dundee with a large army, Huntly had neither the skill nor the power to oppose him and had to flee to France. With the duke gone, the King’s army burned and pillaged throughout the Gordon lands; Huntly castle was destroyed. After three years the Earl returned and not only was he restored to favour, but was made the first Marquis. He proceeded to rebuild Huntly and it is the ruins of that edifice that can be seen today. He was called before the General Assembly and went through some form of accepting the new religion but no one took it seriously and he carried on practising his religion as before. A minister was sent by the Assembly to spend 15 months instructing the household, but he left after three days: He refused to attend the local Kirk since as he said he had a chapel of his own within the castle as had been the custom of his forefathers. In fact, it would seem that there had been no Catholic pre-reformation Church in Huntly itself apart from the Castle chapel although there were churches at Drumdelgie, Dunbennan, Ruthven and elsewhere.


Huntly castle became a safe refuge for Jesuit priests. The Jesuits were much better organised than the secular clergy; with no Bishop to direct them, the secular clergy were inclined to wander about at random and it was not unknown for three to turn up at the same place at the same time. The Jesuits on the other hand were more disciplined. Another point in favour of the Jesuits was that whereas most of the secular priests were of farming stock, the Jesuits were of the aristocracy from the leading Catholics in the country such as the Gordons and the Leslies. This partly came about by the fact that the administration of the Scots Colleges abroad was in the hands of the Jesuits and many of the more gifted students became Jesuits. When finally a Vicar Apostolic was appointed to Scotland, students at the Colleges were asked to take the "mission oath" that they would return to Scotland, if ordained, as secular priests. This oath continued in existence in the Scots Colleges abroad until the beginning of the second world war. It was Jesuit custom to take up residence in the home of prominent Catholics such as Huntly Castle. Fetternear, Drummond Castle and Traquair House. As long as these families remained Catholic their tenants were reasonably protected from persecution.


Yet even the powerful Marquis of Huntly found the interest of the Kirk rather uncomfortable and by the eighteenth century the family had moved to Gordon Castle at Fochabers and Strathbogie was exposed. In the eighteenth century, the main centres for Catholics were at Mortlach near Cairnie and Shenval in the Cabrach. Mortlach became the meeting place for the Vicars Apostolic before Preshome and Scalan. The Shenval was the most desolate and wild centre in the whole of Scotland and was commonly referred to as Siberia. It was a primitive existence. Abbe Paul MacPherson tells of the only winter that he spent there that the snow fell heavily on "All Souls Day" and lay until March was out at a depth of about four feet. On a sick call he had to take care that he did not fall down the chimney of a house over which he was walking. It was to the Shenval that most young priests were first sent. One such young priest on receiving his appointment from Bishop Hay remarked: "Very well, I can have no objection; it is very proper that everyone should take his turn in that place". "Stop" said the Bishop, "that is not a proper way of speaking about it; you should be willing, if necessary, to go there and labour for the rest of your life". "Of course so" said the young man, "but if that should happen, may the Lord have mercy on me."

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Shenval Today

One of the first priests at Shenval was Mr Burnett and it was said that he was in charge of 700 Catholics. Mr Brockie came in 1731 and his area covered Cabrach, Glass, Mortlach (Dufftown not Cairnie) and Aberlour. The Church was burned down by Cumberland’s troops after the fortyfive, and was not restored until 1780 , Mass meantime being said in a barn. Mr Brockie is buried in Wallakirk cemetery in Glass. He was succeeded by Mr John Geddes, later Bishop. He had the companionship of Bishop MacDonald who after the fortyfive could not return to the highlands. The next priest, Mr Menzies took up residence at Keithmore, near Dufftown and remained there until 1783. It was Mr MacPherson, better known as Abbe Paul, who had the Church at Shenval rebuilt and he tells us that even the local minister helped with building materials. Kempcairn became a separate mission in 1783 and the priest at Shenval was responsible for Braelach, Tullochallum and Aberlour. Young Alex Gordon of Tullochallum used to carry the altarstone, chalice and other Mass requirements except vestments which were kept at Tullochallum, from Shenval to Tullochallum whenever they were required.

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View from Shenval

Times were changing and a more tolerant attitude was becoming noticeable an example being the help with the Church; the 1780 Act had helped a little too. It was no longer necessary to hide away in the Glens.

Mass had been said at such places as Bogtown and Dunbennan in the 17th century and Robieston (burned after the fortyfive) and Gibston in the eighteenth. Charles Maxwell took the farm of Boghead of Gibston in 17 th and in 1787 built the first church in Huntly itself. Abbe Paul returned to Huntly during the French occupation of Rome and was there from 1798 to 1800. There is little else recorded about Huntly until 1832 when the then resident priest, Mr Robert Stuart wrote to Bishop Kyle at Preshome on the eleventh of June that year as follows:



"I write to inform you that we are now the proprietors of the Freemason Lodge. It was up for sale on Friday last and I found on my return home that that there was no alternative but to buy them or want the place altogether. Accordingly Mr Stuart of the Post Office, Mr Brown and an elder of the Kirk attended on our part. There were several offers besides ours, one of 103.00, and Mr Brown offered 106.00 and became the purchaser for us; a cheap purchase."


It was in this way that the Catholics of Huntly came to build their Church on the site of the Freemason Lodge. In due course the old church built by Mr Maxwell and dedicated to St John became the new masonic lodge. To avoid confusion the new church was dedicated to St Margaret. Bishop Kyle who to all intents and purposes was to be the architect may have had his own mother in mind; she also had the name of the patroness of Scotland. John Gordon of Wardhouse, a generous contributor, suggested a Mr Lupton a master mason in Aberdeen as the builder; he had just completed the new House of Newe for Sir Charles Forbes. The stones came from the freestone quarry at Kildrummy. Bishop Kyle was a prolific letter writer as the thousands of Preshome letters in Columba House verify, but in this case he is remarkably silent. The reason is quite simple; on his frequent visits to Aberdeen by coach, it was his custom to stop off at Huntly and supervise the building.

The interest of the Gordon’s of Wardhouse in the plans is spoken of in a letter of Mr McLachlan to the Bishop:


"You will see that I have been out at Gordon Hall (Wardhouse). I went out on Monday morning and returned last night. Wardhouse received me very kindly and pressed me to stay yesterday which I was sorry I could not do as I had not my breviary. The old Earl (Huntly) takes a great interest in the chapel. We pored over it all day. On the whole he is pleased with the plan, I believe, in everything except the windows. Although he does not mention it in his letter to you, they were declared at Wardhouse to be like those of a stable, and for my part I agree with them. I think they would look much better circular altogether."


. . Wardhouse made his comments on Oct. 23.



He was going to send them on to his son John immediately "desiring him to make his observations and alterations and return the whole work to me to enable you to begin the work in the spring. "Bishop Kyle may have been the architect, but we can see that he was not short of advice from elsewhere. It must have been this which prompted Mr Lovi of Keith, himself no mean letter write, to exclaim on seeing the finished church:



"it verifies the proof of the old proverb too many cooks spoil the broth"


Mr Lovi in this same letter to Mr Charles Fraser in Aberdeen also wrote: " I cannot conceive that anyone in his senses can say that it is equal to that of Keith



. "This new and splendid chapel "as it was described by the Catholic Directory of the time had at least one unique feature; the bell tower was the first in a post-reformation Catholic Church in Scotland.


The bell itself caused some trouble; Mr McLachlan made use of it so frequently and for such long periods that some of the neighbours began to complain; so much so that Sandy Stuart of the Post Office felt it his duty to advise Mr McLachlan that it should be rung only on Sundays and holidays but not on the Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent. Mr McLachlan justifies his action in a letter to the Bishop as follows;



In advent it was rung every morning Wednesday and Friday and I found out that a great many more attended Mass on these days last Advent than any previous one


Now it would have the same effect in Lent. "He said he would leave it to the Bishop to decide. The result we do not know.




The Catholic Directory for 1835 has the following item:



"During the last season a new and splendid chapel was erected in Huntly. A great part of the funds consisted of a munificent bequest made for that purpose by a late member of the family of Wardhouse, then resident in Cadiz to which very considerable additions were made by John Gordon Esq., of Jerez in Spain and of Wardhouse.


The chapel was opened with great solemnity on Sunday 31st August. Solemn High Mass was celebrated by the Rev. John Sharp, President of Blairs College assisted by the Rev. Alexander Grant as Deacon and the Rev. Charles Green as sub-deacon. The Rt Rev. Dr Kyle and the Rev Charles Fraser delivered most eloquent and appropriate discourses. Several other clergymen were in attendance. The choir of St. Peter’s chapel, Aberdeen executed several pieces of music in a very superior style. The chapel is dedicated to St. Margaret, Queen and Patroness of Scotland.



The form of the church is octagonal. The front is a beautiful facade, surmounted by a spire which has been universally and deservedly admired. The spire terminates in a crown surmounted by a cross. It is nearly eighty feet high. In this spire is a very fine toned bell which was purchased by subscription. Nor is it here out of place to remark that this is the first chapel in Scotland since the Reformation to have such. The chapel is seated for four hundred persons; the side walls are 27 feet high and the light is introduced by six semicircular windows. In the chapel there is an organ and an elegant recess for the altar which along with the dome have been greatly admired. As yet there is no altar piece, but a handsome painting is daily expected from Spain, presented to the Chapel as a gift from the generous family who furnished the means of erecting this beautiful structure. Attached to the Chapel there is a commodious house and garden for the clergyman. The whole reflects on the good taste of the Rev. Dr Kyle who planned the Chapel, house and everything regarding this establishment, which is now the most complete in the Northern District." I can’t help feeling that that last remark was directed at Keith, where although the Church was opened in 1831 the house was not finished until 1837, Mr Lovi living in a room at the front of the Church in the meantime. We have seen earlier that Mr Lovi was appalled at the very idea that Huntly was a more beautiful structure than Keith. By strange coincidence Mr McLachian was moved to Keith in 1839 in a straight exchange with Mr Terence Maguire who had only been in Keith a matter of months. It is also interesting to note that the 1836 Catholic Directory still has it that "the painting is still daily awaited". In fact it was about 1840 that the altar piece and the other paintings which are still around the walls, arrived from Spain.

Fr. McLachlan remained in Keith until 1848 when he was transferred to Inverness. In 1852 he emigrated to Canada where he died on the 25th Oct. 1856.

Fr. Terence Maguire was born in County Cavan and went to the Seminaire de Saint Esprit in Paris a seminary which prepared priests for the French colonies: after two years he transferred to the Irish College and attached himself to the Highland district. He was ordained priest by Bishop Ranald MacDonald in 1825: the next two years were spent at the seminary at Lismore as a member of staff. In 1827 he was sent to Inverness and he spent 1834-35 on a begging mission in Scotland and Ireland for the church of St Mary’s in Inverness which was opened in 1837. In November of that year he moved to Keith but only six months later (Whit Sunday) he was moved to Huntly. It was he who built St Margaret’s school in 1848 (it was closed in 1969). In 1862 his health began to fail and in 1868 he retired to Fochabers where he died on the 30th Oct. 1869. Fr James MacDonald came after him and was in Huntly for five years. Next came one of the great stalwarts of the last century Fr John Sutherland. John Sutherland was born in Aberdeen in 1822; after studying at Blairs he went on to Valladolid but here his health gave way and he had to return to Blairs to complete his studies. He was ordained by Bishop Kyle at Preshome on the 16th March 1846. He was to remain at Preshome for the next eight years in active charge of the mission. During that time Preshome was reroofed and redecorated. He was also largely responsible for building and raising funds for St Peter’s Buckie. In 1854 he succeeded "Priest Gordon in St Peter’s Aberdeen.

It was to be his mammoth task to raise funds for and build St Mary’s Huntly St. The foundation stone was laid on the 16th March 1859 and it was opened to divine worship on the 21st Dec. 1860. In 1856 he had brought the Franciscan Nuns from Charlotte St Glasgow, to run the girl’s school in Constitution St (there were two schools one for boys, the other for girls). In 1864 they moved to what is now the Cathedral rooms where they had a day and boarding school. In 1862 the Little Sisters of Nazareth made their first foundation outside of Hammer-smith in the now empty Chapel house at St Peter’s. In 1866 another group of Nuns, the Apostoline Sisters of the Immaculate Conception were invited to run the Orphanage in Constitution St. He was appointed to Huntly in Nov. 1874, but by that time he had paid off most of the debt (20.000) on St Mary’s. In Huntly he was a very popular figure and as member of the school board he topped the poll on more than one occasion. He was particularly attached to his own school of St Margaret’s and could often be seen surrounded by the pupils. When the Cathedral Chapter was founded in 1892 he was appointed the first Provost; this was only eighteen months before his death. On Sunday 31st January 1894 he was unable to say Mass, the following Sunday he did say Mass, but with difficulty and announced that there would be no sermon after Mass (the custom in those days), no evening service and no Mass during the week. That night he died. The Huntly Express had a lengthy obituary notice in which it spoke of him as a universal favourite; it went on to say that as the cortege passed from St Margaret’s to the Railway Station every house and shop had its blinds and shutters drawn. The Requiem Mass was in St Mary’s Cathedral on the 11th February 1895 with;

Mgr Stopani as celebrant, Fr Donald Chisholm as Deacon, Fr Charles Mann as Sub-deacon and Fr Charles MacDonald as Master of Ceremonies, the man who was to suceed him. Over thirty priests were present. Mozart’s Requiem was sung by the choir and Haydn’s "0 Jesu Deus Pacis" was sung by Mr Keenan at the Offertory. The internment took place in St Peter’s Cemetery, Spittal where the committal service was taken by his life long friend Canon William Clapperton of Buckie.


Fr MacDonald was a very different character, but he too was to leave his mark on the diocese. Charles MacDonald was born at Auchdregnie Glenlivet in 1867; his family had been farmers there for over three hundred years. He went to school at Tombae which at that time was part of the Church. From there he went Blairs and on to France where he was at Douai, Issy and finally Paris. He was ordained by the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Richard on the 23 May 1891. The next three years were spent as a curate at St Mary’s and after a matter of months at Inverurie, he came to Huntly; here he was to remain until 1907. It was here that he first showed his talent for maintaining and improving Church property. He redecorated the Church, the interior of which is the same today; he extended the school and built the present presbytery. It was in Huntly too that he became involved in schools an interest that he was to maintain until his retirement. He moved to Keith and in the next twenty years he was indefatigable in his labours. His first task was the building of the present Convent he then started on the hall and in 1914-1915 he enlarged and reorganised the Church replacing the lantern tower with the present dome that was indeed a daunting task! Putting a dome of such dimensions on a Church already 80 years old took no small amount of courage.

What remained of the lantern tower was partly used in the summer house and partly used in the present garage; not many places can boast of the garage being a listed building. Both these structures were unless I am much mistaken, mostly his own handiwork; he was no mean craftsman in wood either. Canon Charles was known as a strict disciplinarian. In the Catholic Directory, there is the following passage:


"As a teacher of youth he made a marked impression and many an ear, no longer young, tingles today in retrospect."


As one subject of his earlier days remarked to the writer:



"it wisna safe tae be coorse fan he was aboot".


In fairness it has to be said that he was also strict with himself. He never stinted himself and his interests were widespread. He was Secretary of the Blairs Society for 15 years and treasurer of the Diocesan Friendly Society for thirty years. He was the first to try to stir up interest in the preservation of Scalan and revived the ancient custom of making pilgrimage to the well of Our Lady of Grace at Orton. He was also strong in promoting the cause of John Ogilvie. I can remember as a boy, his preaching a most eloquent sermon on the occasion of John Ogilvie’s beatification in 1929, at Tombae. He left Keith in 1927 for Buckie where he was to remain for the rest of his active life. In Buckie there was not the same scope for building that there had been elsewhere, but he was assiduous in maintaining it. He became a Canon a domestic prelate and finally Provost of the chapter. He retired in 1945 to the Hythe, Portessie where he spent the four remaining years of his life, the last two being shared with that other remarkable man Canon Andrew Grant. He is buried at St Ninian’s Tynet. His successor was another man from upper Banffshire. Fr Donald Matheson. He was born at Tomintoul on the 7th Dec. 1873 and at the age of sixteen went to Blairs; four years later he went to Valladolid where he was ordained priest in 1899. On his return to Scotland he was sent to Glengairn a once proudly Catholic Glen but now sadly depleted; in fact, most of his parishers now stayed in Ballater and he set about the task of building the present house and church. Scarcely was it finished when he was sent to Huntly where he was to remain the rest of his all too short life. Like his predecessor he was interested in education and a member of the Aberdeenshire Education Authority for many years. He was also diocesan procurator. He was not robust, however and died in Holy Week 1923. He was buried at St Michael’s Tomintoul on Good Friday. Because of the day there could be no Requiem Mass; Solemn Requiem Mass in the presence of the Bishop took place on Tuesday third April in St Margaret’s. Bishop Bennet chose as his successor, Fr William Mulligan. He was born at Old Noth, Aberdeenshire on the 21st February 1880. At thirteen he went to Blairs College and four years later to the Propaganda Fide, College in Rome, where he was ordained by Cardinal Respighi on the 19th March 1904. On his return to Scotland, he was given on loan to the Archdiocese of Edinburgh where he served as a curate at Dunfermline and Lochgelly until 1913 when he was appointed parish priest of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Banff. He enjoyed these years among the miners of Fife and there he was famed for his generosity to the poor. In Banff too, his life was frugal and every penny was saved for the extension of the Church by the addition of the Baptistry. His special charity was the A.P.F. of which he was diocesan director. He was a great walker and thought nothing of walking right to the boundaries of his various parishes. His parishioners at Banff gave him a Douglas motorcycle which he rode for twenty years until at the age of 63 he had a nasty fall in which he broke his leg whereupon the doctors forbade him to use it again. He never had a car nor did he have a radio. Bishop Bennet made him procurator of the diocese a work that he carried out most meticulously. He was made a domestic prelate and in 1943 he became a member of the Cathedral chapter.

For many years he was a very popular member of the Aberdeenshire Education Authority. He had enjoyed good health all his life, but 1958, old age and an increasing forgetfulness made him retire to St Anne’s Musselburgh, where he died on the 3rd June 1961 at the age of eighty one. As ascetic, he was not always understood by his parishioners, particularly when he felt it his duty to preach sermons of an hour or more. During the second world war, there was an Italian prisoner of war camp near Huntly and the prisoners attended St Margaret’s; the same sermon was repeated in Italian for their benefit.


The next parish priest was to be from Glasgow although of highland descent. Fr Kenneth MacKenzie was born at Tollcross on the 8th April 1904. He went to Blairs in 1919 and the Scots College in Rome in 1924. He was ordained in the Lateran seminary, Rome by Cardinal Palica on the 18th May 1930. There had been no less than six priests ordained for the diocese in the space of eighteen months, so Fr MacKenzie was loaned to the Archdiocese of Edinburgh where he was stationed as a curate at St Columba’s. In 1932 he returned to the diocese as a curate to Fr Keenan at St Mary’s Inverness. His first parish was St John’s Fetternear in 1936; this was followed by terms at Wick, Ballater and Tombae. His time in Huntly was to be the longest in any parish but illness made him seek retirement and he went to the vacant chapelhouse at Portsoy. Even that became too much and he and his faithful and long serving sister are now in Nazareth House. He became a canon in 1962.

The present incumbent Canon McWilliam, was born in Buckie on the 26th Oct. 1904. When he went to Blairs in 1917, he was the first of a line of Buckie boys who were over the next twenty years to serve the diocese well as priests. He went on to Valladolid in 1922 and was ordained there on the 25th May 1929. After a year as a curate in the Cathedral he went to Stonehaven for two years; twenty years in St Margaret’s, Forres, followed. St Margaret’s had only been built five years before and the widow of the benefactor, James McGregor Forbes still took an active interest in the parish, an interest however that did not always coincide with the views of the parish priest.

His next parish was St Michael’s Tomintoul where he celebrated his silver Jubilee. When Mgr Paterson resigned from being V.G. because of ill health, Bishop Walsh appointed him administrator of the Cathedral and Vicar General. He was also made an honorary canon which gives him, I believe, the unique distinction as far as this diocese is concerned of becoming an honorary canon before being a member of the chapter. After five years, Canon McWilliam resigned both as administrator and Vicar General and became parish priest of Beauly where he was to remain for fifteen years.

On coming to Huntly the first task he set himself was the repair of the external fabric particularly the bell tower which was in a dangerous condition. Some help was forthcoming from the National heritage Trust, but the bulk of the financial burden has been carried by the parish who have been wonderful in their support. The Women’s guild which the Canon formed have been particularly helpful. Last Autumn, his housekeeper of thirty years, Mrs Durnin retired and again the congregation have rallied to help. This 150th Jubilee year coincides with the Canon’s 80th birthday and to both we say "Ad muitos Annos".

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