The story of Catholicism in Scotland is one of survival. After the Reformation of 1560 the Catholic Church nearly died out in Scotland. Roman Catholicism was outlawed, with the Reformation Parliament banning mass and abolishing the authority of the Pope.

These new laws had a profound effect on the life of the nation. A thousand years of worship was completely changed and although the Presbyterian Church wasn’t finally established until 1682, Scotland now had a very changed pattern of religious life.

Scots Colleges Abroad

The Protestant Reformation also meant that the Scottish Universities were closed to Catholics.  It was forbidden to train as a Roman Catholic priest and as the pre-Reformation clergy died out, there was a shortage of priests. There was nowhere in Scotland for the sons of noble Catholic families to be educated according to their own Faith. Families had to send their sons to abroad to one of the Scots colleges in Europe.

Many Scottish clerics had taken refuge from the Reformation in Catholic religious establishments on the continent. Some of these men set up special Scottish institutions which became known as Scots Colleges. These Colleges served as schools for the education of Catholic boys and seminaries for the training of the clergy.

Scots Colleges were established in France, Italy, and Spain. There were also Scottish monasteries in Germany which acted as Scots Colleges. These were called Schottenklöster. One of the most famous is the Abbey of St James, at Ratisbon (Regensburg).

Today, students for the priesthood can study at Rome and Salamanca. As the other Scots Colleges closed in the nineteenth century, their collections of books, liturgical items, and historical objects made their way to the safe haven of Blairs College in Scotland. Some of our most spectacular collections, such as the Ratisbon Mitre, the Ratisbon Processional Cross, and even the Mary Queen of Scots Memorial Portrait came to our collections from closed Scots Colleges.

Survival in Scotland

Meanwhile, back in Scotland members of the Church worked in secret to train young men for the priesthood. As it was unsafe to advertise the fact that young men were being trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood in Protestant Scotland, secret colleges were set up in various out of the way places in the Highlands and Islands. The first school was on Loch Morar on the west coast. By 1716 this had closed due to persecution following the failure of the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion.

By 1717 the Rector and students were together again in an even more secluded spot – Scalan, in Glenlivet, Speyside. The building was changed and enlarged as the number of students increased, and in 1746 the building was completed destroyed by Hanoverian soldiers patrolling the Highlands after the failed Jacobite Rising. It was rebuilt and used until 1799, when a new college was built at Aquhorties, near Inverurie, Aberdeenshire. The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collection Trust owns several objects from this period, including many objects associated with Bishop George Hay, who moved the college to Aquhorties.

In 1829, the college moved again thanks to John Menzies of Pitfodels, a wealthy Catholic landowner with no surviving family. He donated his mansion at Blairs, near Aberdeen, along with his 1000 acre estate to the Catholic Church. St. Mary’s College at Blairs remained a centre for Catholic education until its closure in 1986.

The Restoration of the Scottish Catholic Hierarchy

Throughout the 19th century, the laws against Catholics were gradually eased. The Emancipation Act of 1829 approved civil and political liberty to Catholics in Scotland. As well as the new seminary at Blairs, the first convent of nuns since the Reformation was founded in Edinburgh in 1832. In Glasgow alone the number of Catholics grew from a few hundred to 24,000.

On 4th March 1878, Pope Leo XIII re-established the Scottish hierarchy of bishops. This meant that Scotland was officially no longer classified as a missionary country but administered by its own system of bishops.

After hundreds of years of persecution, Catholicism was once again allowed to flourish in Scotland.