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The Catholic Mission in Strathglass

From Fr. Æneas Mackenzie’s Memoirs of 1846

Edited and condensed by Peter MacRae - London 1999

From The Clan Chishom Journal, Vol. 42, pp 65-69, 1999

Strathglass was formerly known as Cromghleann.(1) The valley contains a stream that runs for about 20 miles in a Southwest to Northeast direction. Above Glenstrathfarrar the stream is known as the River Glass and below it is the River Beauly. The upper portion is Strathglass proper and the narrative that follows refers chiefly to this. The population in 1845 was about 2000.

Remarkably, Strathglass was one of the few areas of the Highlands where the Roman Catholic faith endured with almost all its inhabitants. In 1845 there were few if any native born Protestants in the district. This is all the more remarkable considering Catholicism was outlawed and inhabitants were forced to pay lip service to Protestantism at various times since the reformation and most notably following the ‘45 rebellion. The religious purges followed the enactments of 1560. In 1579 Thomas Chisholm "Laird of Strathglass"(2) was in Court to answer for his adherence to the old religion.

Between 1580 and 1600, when the Jesuits were most active in Scotland, Strathglass became a focal point and a mission station for the priests. From about 1600 to 1660 increasing persecution forced the Jesuits out of the district and the population was for considerable periods without pastoral care. According to the tradition the Strathglass Mission was revived between 1660 and 1680.(3) This came about in the following manner:

About the middle of the 17th century, it is recorded that The Chisholm(4) found himself owing money and sought refuge for some time on the continent, ending up in Rome. Whilst there, he was received kindly by the Pope and promised that on his return to Strathglass he would ensure the survival of the faith. Alexander Chisholm was true to his word and exercised the greatest possible tolerance towards Catholics in the Strath. He encouraged the conversion of his son Colin of Knockfin. Meanwhile the Chisholm chiefs remained nominal Protestants for fear of losing their lands. Thereafter Colin of Knockfin became an amiable and popular host to the Catholic missionaries.

About this time the priests founded two mission stations in Strathglass, one up in remote Knockfin called Achadhnah-eaglais (the Churchfield); the other at Clachan of Comer. The latter was said to derive from St. Bethune who consecrated a Church there. In 1845 the burial ground was still in use. After the missionary era nothing is known of serving priests until the time of a Fr. Alexander McRae(5) and his successor Fr. John Farquharson,(6) a Jesuit descended from the Farquharsons of Inverigh, Braemar who came to Strathglass about the year 1723 took over(7). Fr. Farquharson settled at Fasnakyle ­ building there a small Chapel and House. At first he understood little Gaelic but under the tutelage of Mrs Fraser of Culbokie he became increasingly proficient and able to communicate with the inhabitants. Fr. Farquharson and his immediate predecessor deserve full credit for keeping the Catholic faith alive in the Strath despite the government’s attempts to suppress and destroy it. After 1745 the repressive law by then dormant were again revived and priests were again being hunted and imprisoned by the Hanoverians.

The Chisholm of the day(8) nominally a Protestant but with strong Catholic sympathies, did his best to protect Fr. Farquharson from the oppressors by conducting him to a safe place out of immediate district where he might conduct services. This ruse was soon discovered. He was dragged away from his congregation by the redcoats an act that would have led to some serious resistance had Fr. Farquharson not pacified the congregation by promising to return to them. This he did, but more as a fugitive than a religious leader, going from place to place under cover and holding services as and when he could in the midst of constant danger.

During this dark period and in such places Fr. Farquharson was joined by two other priests: his bother Charles, and Fr. Alexander Cameron.(9) These two would appear to have retired to Strathglass as a place of greater security both on account of the nature of the locality and of the Catholicity of the district. However in the aftermath of the ‘45 no priest was safe in Strathglass. At one time the other two priests were in hiding with Fr. Farquharson and before being discovered he told them to seek safety out of the glen. He then gave himself up and was arrested and imprisoned on a hulk in the Thames.

After his capture Fr. Farquharson somehow managed to get a message over to the Glengarry Mission with a request for them to cover Strathglass until he would be able to return. In this Fr. Farquharson was following the example of St Ignatious who upon his demise commended his congregation to the Bishop of Smyrna. Fr. Cameron went back to Lochaber but was soon discovered and was sent to the same prison hulk on the Thames where he rejoined Fr. Farquarson, but did not survive for long. Eventually Fr. Farquharson was able to return to Strathglass and minister to his flock for a few more years before retiring back to Braemar where he died about 1750.(10)

He was succeeded by Fr. Norman McLeod a native of the Lewis. Fr. McLeod was born of Protestant Parents but at an early age became converted to Catholicism. By that time the anti-Catholic measures had to a greater extent subsided.(11) Fr. McLeod ministered for several years in Strathglass where he built a chapel and was the first priest to venture into Kintail.(12) In later years he retired to Edinburgh where he died. Fr. McLeod was succeeded by Fr. John Chisholm (26-6-1836 to 12-1-1918) a native of Strathglass who later became a Bishop of Aberdeen.

Fr. [John] Chisholm was born at Inchully in February of 1752 the son of Valentine Chisholm of the Knockfin family.(13) Early in his career Fr. Chisholm was sent to the Scottish College of Donay(14) then directed by the Jesuits. He was ordained on 17th April 1775 and returned in the same year to Strathglass. Fr. John Chisholm was a collateral descendant of the Chisholm Chiefs and he could count kin with most of the old established families in the Strath. He soon ingratiated himself with the Chisholm of the day, Alexander XXII, and took up residence at Fasnakyle. Fr. Chisholm became widely respected throughout the district and aroused the concern of the Protestant clergy who wanted his activities curbed. However the Protestants fearing they had little popular support left him unmolested and Fr. John "served the Mission of Strathglass for 17 years edifying all by the Holiness of his life and guiding the affairs of the Mission with that prudence and wisdom for which he was so proverbially known."

In 1789(15) he was joined in the Mission of Strathglass by his brother, Fr. Æneas Chisholm who lived nearby in the family home at Inchully where he built a small chapel later to become a private dwelling. On the death of Bishop Alexander Macdonald Fr. John Chisholm was appointed Bishop of The Highlands at Edinburgh on 12th February 1792. Fr. Æneas Chisholm then succeeded to Fasnakyle. A native of Inchully, Fr Æneas Chisholm was ordained in the year 1783 and took over the Mission of Strathglass in 1789. He had the same advantages as his elder brother in assimilating the Strathglass catholic congregation. At the time he took over the Upper Strathglass Mission he was unwilling to lose his new congregation of the Lower Mission. He obtained the approval of his brother to the appointment of Fr. Austin McDonnell to take over the lower mission in the year 1793 thus giving Strathglass two separate centres of the Catholic Church.

About this time helpful contacts(16) enabled Fr. Austin to relocate to Aigas in 1800. Soon a new chapel was built there of more permanent materials than had hitherto been possible. Fr. McDonnell continued with Aigas until his death in 1812 when Rev. Philip MacRae took over.

Things were improving at Fasnakyle too and in 1803 Fr. Æneas Chisholm saw the completion of a replacement Chapel built of substantial materials hauled from as far as 20 miles away up the strath by horseloads and a devoted and willing populace. Father Æneas also oversaw the establishment of a new mission at Inverness where increasing numbers of Catholics from Strathglass had been displaced with the clearances of the early 1800s. Through a contact there(17) Fr. Æneas managed to procure a meeting place in about 1810 and managed to serve that mission on an occasional basis together with Fasnakyle for some years. Fr. Æneas continued with the Strathglass Missions until 1814 when he succeeded his brother as Bishop to The Highlands, based on the Island of Lismore where he died in 1818.

On the promotion of Fr. Æneas, Fr. Philip MacRae took over at Fasnakyle. Fr. MacRae had been in charge at Aigas since Fr. McDonnell’s death in 1812 and his place at Aigas was taken by Fr. Ewen McEachan who continued in that post until 1818 when he transferred to Braemar. Fr. Philip was a nephew of Æneas and the son of Alexander McRae a native of Strathglass. He was born at Carry in Glencannich in 1780 and studied at the seminary of Samalaman prior to being ordained at Lismore by Bishop John Chisholm in 1806. When Fr. McEeachan went to Braemar in 1818 his place at Aigas was taken by Fr. Duncan MacKenzie another native of Strathglass and son of John MacKenzie. Fr. Mackenzie was born in Lietry in Glencannich in the year 1786 and studied at Valladolid and later was ordained at Lismore by Bishop Æneas Chisholm.

In the year 1825 Lord Lovat sponsored the construction of a new chapel at Eskadale which was superior in terms of construction to anything that preceded it. The good fortune occasioned by the new chapel was counter-balanced by the ill-fortune in the loss of the services of Fr. McRae who suffered atrocious ill-health over a long period from which he never recovered.

It was not possible to make an immediate replacement and the area went without pastoral care until 1827 when Father Alexander McSween arrived to take over. Fr. MacKenzie continued at Eskadale to the year 1828 when he died. Between 1828 and 1833 Fr. McSween took charge of both Strathglass Missions after which Fr. Thomas Chisholm was appointed to the upper mission. Fr. Thomas was a descendant of Colin Chisholm who first welcomed the missionaries. He was also closely related to Bishops John and Æneas Chisholm and another two Bishops in Canada. Another priest Fr. Æeneas Mackenzie was also related. Thus it is apparent that missionary zeal very much ran in the particular family of Chisholms descended from Colin of Knockfin.

By 1845 the numbers of Catholics in the upper Mission of Strathglass had been steadily depleting due to the clearances(18) and swelling the congregations of Eskadale, Beauly and Inverness missions. However, as a nursery of priests Strathglass remained undiminished and at that time no fewer than ten priests serving twelve highland districts had origins in Strathglass and most of them were related.(19)

End Notes

  1. "Valley of the twists (or bends)" in Gaelic.
  2. Heir of Alexander XIVth who predeceased his father.
  3. Another account says the Jesuits were established in 1701 or 1703.
  4. Alexander XVII was very deeply in debt. So much so that when he died in 1661,his son Alexander XIX could not be served heir until 1677. It was in the time of these two Chiefs that extensive parts of Strathglass came into possession of the prosperous Inverinate MacRaes as collateral for loans.
  5. Son of Duncan McAlister McGilchrist of the Strathglass McRaes.GGS of Farquhar of Morvich (Inverinate MacRaes).See p 80 -History of Clan MacRae.
  6. of the Farquharsons of Inverigh, Braemar.
  7. Fr. Farquharson was Priest 1729-1746 and 1748-1753.
  8. Roderick XXI who died 1767
  9. Brother of Gentle Lochiel of the ‘45
  10. Under penalty of Death if discovered by the redcoats according to another account which also says Fr. Farquharson survived until 1753.
  11. There were said to be 1231 Catholics in Strathglass in Fr. MacLeod’s time.
  12. This tends to reinforce the view that Strathglass’s first native priest was Fr. Alexander MacRae not Fr. John Chisholm as sometimes supposed.
  13. Valentine lived to be 96.
  14. Probably meant to be "Douai"
  15. Misinterpreted in the MS as 1798
  16. Fraser of Muilie a convert gave land to build a chapel at Aigas.
  17. A town magistrate related to Æneas
  18. Euphemistically referred to by Fr. Mackenzie as "voluntary removals" in the MS.
  19. In fact 5 bishops and 25 priests in the area were descendants of Colin of Knockfin.

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