Spotlight: Jacobites - Aberdeen, Catholics, and Jacobites, 1688-1746

08 November 2023
In our newest Spotlight: Jacobites essay, Dr Kieran German discusses the Catholic communities in Aberdeen during the Jacobite era and their legacies after executive control of the north-east had been secured by the British Whig administration.

In l’Église Notre Dame du Finistère in Brussels stands Notre Dame du Bon Succès, a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child, known in Scotland as Our Lady of Aberdeen. While suggestions that place the statue in Old Aberdeen in the 1490s are difficult to verify, there are records that trace the movement of a statue from the north-east of Scotland to the Low Countries, and its arrival at the church in Brussels in 1625. [1] While the Reformation in Scotland was far from universally accepted at the time, many Catholic relics were hidden and safeguarded. What is striking about Our Lady of Aberdeen is that such safeguarding went on well into the following century. In Aberdeen and the north-east, Catholic traditions and artefacts were protected, preserved, and repurposed. The ‘smells and bells’ of Catholic and orthodox Christianity were in plain view across Aberdeen. The mercat crosses of Aberdeen offer particularly expressive examples. Unveiled in 1686, just prior to the Revolution, the cross in Aberdeen featured bas-reliefs of ten Stuart monarchs sculpted upon it. Meanwhile, in Old Aberdeen, reports from 1724 explain that the cross there was decorated with images of the Virgin. The survival of both crosses to this day is suggestive of a consistent conservative local outlook that did not violently reject emblems of Jacobitism or Catholicism, despite largely being under Whig and Presbyterian oversight for most of the past three centuries. This contrasts with the south-west of Scotland, where differing interpretations of Presbyterianism were developed, and with Edinburgh, where suspicions of encroaching Catholicisation caused Jenny Geddes to fling her stool and kick-start a civil war.

That Aberdeen was distinguished by ‘cultural conservatism’ is a broadly accepted fact in the study of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries in Scotland, and we can interpret that conservatism as a disposition to preserve what is established, coupled with a scepticism towards change. [2] Thus High Church Episcopalianism was embraced alongside a commitment to the Stuart monarchy. Yet the Jacobite century (1688-1788) was a period of great change, starting with the Revolution 1689-91 and followed by staccato Jacobite plots and risings for the next five decades; the collapse of the Episcopal Church and the establishment of the Presbyterian Church government; the Union with England and subsequent growth of engagement with imperial projects; not to mention agricultural revolution and incumbent social pressures or industrialisation and urbanisation.

With ingrained cultural, spiritual, and intellectual traditions, how did the cultural conservatism of Aberdeen and its hinterland fare in this period of change? For starters, identification with the Stuart dynasty was sustained: Aberdeen was slow to accept the Revolution settlement and Aberdonians continued to be enthusiastic participants in Jacobite culture and action for the next six decades. In commerce and local politics, Episcopalian burghers tempered the influence of Whigs. [3] In religion, liturgical developments from Catholicism towards High Church Episcopacy were managed over a long period while at odds with the trends of Presbyterianism that took hold in other parts of the country. [4] At the time, the universities were referred to as ‘nurseries of Jacobitism’ and its churches as ‘seminaries’ for the Stuart cause. [5] In recent scholarship, Colin Kidd has referred to Aberdeen as the ‘intellectual citadel’ of Jacobitism. [6] And yet, Aberdonian Jacobite culture was from from unified and hegemonic. For this very publication, I have explored the divisions and divergent paths of the Episcopalian community of the north-east of Scotland. [7] To develop and perhaps problematise that picture further, I would like to consider how the Catholic community of Aberdeen both supported and challenged Scottish Jacobitism.

In 1680, there were 405 Catholics in Aberdeenshire. In 1705, the town council of Aberdeen registered twenty-two adult male Catholics. In 1675, and again in 1705, the council reiterated a law that barred Catholics from being entered into the burgess guild of the town. Whether this was done in earnest or to satisfy onlookers is a valid question. [8] Actions speak louder than words. For example, as news of the Revolution arrived in Aberdeen, students from Marischal and King’s Colleges led a procession through the burgh that culminated in the burning of an effigy of the Pope. [9] Other riots and demonstrations against the Revolution and the advance of Presbyterianism occurred, too, when the town council chose not to keep the peace. However, the town council did respond to the deposition of King James VII by arresting and imprisoning Alexander Crichton, a missionary priest. When Alexander Dunbar, the Prefect Apostolic, fled Edinburgh and arrived in the burgh, they duly arrested him, too. [10] And when rumours of Catholic Irish and Highland troop movements circulated, the council was quick to drill the town’s residents. [11] Before their own deposition, the Episcopal clergy of Aberdeen addressed William and Mary as their ‘deliverers from Poperie’ and stressed to the new monarchs that their own branch of Christianity was an assured opponent of the Roman church. They warned William and Mary that a failure to support Episcopalians in Scotland would strengthen the Catholic movement in the country. Such hostility towards Catholicism was common currency in Scotland as the Jacobite century wore on. Episcopalians continually invoked fears of resurgent Catholicism as they argued for toleration from the Presbyterian regime. In the aftermath of the ’15, the Episcopal clergy of the Diocese of Aberdeen appealed against deposition upon the grounds that it would inevitably encourage Catholicism amongst a population that would prefer its children to be baptised by a priest rather than a Presbyterian. Thus we can say that anti-Catholic sentiment in Aberdeen was genuine, albeit somewhat self-serving, and therefore the common cause of Jacobitism was difficult to triangulate between Catholics and Episcopalians.

And yet, there was an overlap in the culture, practices, and traditions of the Episcopalians and the Catholics, as well as in their shared experiences of tolerance on the margins and of their Jacobite loyalty. Episcopalians were repeatedly portrayed as crypto-Catholics. James Gadderar, the Episcopal Bishop of Aberdeen, was accused of trafficking Jesuit priests. The Presbyterian minister John Bissett could hardly tell the difference between Catholics and non-jurors when he lambasted Aberdeen congregations for practices such as burning incense and singing in chapel as ‘Popish’. After the 1715 rising, the complaint that Episcopalian ministers had not overtly prayed for the ‘Protestant monarch’ insinuated that Episcopalians were pseudo-Catholics. After 1745, the Lord Chancellor’s brother, Colonel Joseph Yorke, was much more blatant. As a British soldier serving in the north-east of Scotland he had observed the non-jurors and reported to the Lord Chancellor his belief that they were tacit Catholics. The remedy? That those people should be ‘reduced to reason on the point of our bayonets’. [12]

All that being said, Catholics, like non-juring Episcopalians, were given both conditional and tacit toleration. The congregations in Aberdeen of which Bisset complained made quarterly contributions to the burgh’s poor house ‘which, no doubt, they esteem a taking them under protection’. [13] In Old Aberdeen, the dismantled former parish church of the Old Town, known as the Snow Kirk, continued as a burial place for Catholics until the nineteenth century, although no records exist for any burials there before 1776. King’s College began charging for burials in the Snow Kirk in 1671 (£8 scots for burial within the walls and ‘one dollar’ for the graveyard). [14] In 1745, King’s College also commissioned the Catholic artist John Alexander to paint a portrait of the college’s founder, William Elphinstone. Notwithstanding the fact that Alexander took up arms on the side of the Jacobites in 1745 and went into hiding in 1746, his commission was still honoured by the college. The beautifully decorated chapel at Provost Skene’s House on the Guestrow is likewise further evidence of a private Catholic community in Aberdeen. The paintings on the chapel ceiling there have been dated to 1626, and it is unlikely that the secret chapel remained in full use into the eighteenth century. Like many British officers billeted upon private homes in the burgh during the last rising, William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, lived in this building during his stay in Aberdeen on the way to Culloden in 1746. He liberated the premises of much of its belongings when he left Aberdeen, suggesting that the Guestrow property was well-known for its recalcitrant inhabitants. [15]

If cultural expressions of Catholicism were tolerated, overt displays of anti-Protestantism were certainly not. Patrick Gibbs (father of the famous Catholic Aberdonian architect James) named his two dogs Luther and Calvin, and he used the names publicly. The council prosecuted Gibbs for disrespect and ordered the dogs to be hanged. [16] Similarly, Catholic missionary priests were prosecuted. Patrick Wemyss, a Jesuit who was active in the burgh for six months in 1720, was arrested and sent to the Tollbooth in Edinburgh. In 1738, Alexander Shand was harried out of the parish, having allegedly served there for several years. Though there was a regular service of Catholic priests in the burgh from the 1680s to the 1750s, the establishment of Catholic schools in nearby Fochabers and Dunbrennan and the seminary in Glenlivet was not replicated in Aberdeen. [17]

The exception proves the rule. The Menzies family of Pitfodels, in the hinterland of Aberdeen, retained their Catholicism well into the eighteenth century. In 1745, all six of William Menzies’ sons fought in the Jacobite army. Menzies coerced his servants and tenants to join, too, with some success by way of particularly vicious threats. [18] Catholicism and Jacobitism went hand-in-hand. But Catholicism and Episcopacy did not. When Menzies attempted to coerce his Episcopalian servants to convert to Catholicism he was less successful. Conversely, when the Catholic John Urquhart of Meldrum risked being disinherited on account of his faith, he converted to Episcopacy. His younger brothers did not, instead joining the Jesuits in France. His sister married into the Pitfodels family, and Meldrum’s son was ‘out’ in the ’45.

In practice, when the Episcopalian communities of Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland (with few exceptions) were well-served with Episcopalian ministers, they were not tempted by Catholicism. Despite shared political objectives and a common cultural conservatism, there was a hard line between between the confessional identities of Catholics and Episcopalians in Aberdeen, with Catholicism very much the minority pursuit.

Dr Kieran German received his doctorate from the Univeristy of Dundee. He teaches on the Scottish History MLitt by distance at the University of Dundee. He has published on various aspects of Jacobitism and Episcopalian history, as well as the origins of the Scotch whisky industry.


1 Ray McAleese, ‘Notre Dame du Bon Succès or Our Lady of Aberdeen - A Pre-Reformation Statue from Scotland?’ in Scottish Church History, 48:1 (2013), pp. 74-103.

2 G. Donaldson, ‘Scotland’s Conservative North in the 16th and 17th Centuries’ in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 16 (1966), pp. 65-79; R. L. Emerson, Professors, Patronage and Politics: The Aberdeen Universities in the Eighteenth Century (Aberdeen, 1992), pp. xiv, 31.

3 Kieran German, ‘Jacobite Politics in Aberdeen and the ’15’ in Paul Monod, Murray Pittock and Daniel Szechi, eds., Loyalty and Identity: Jacobite Politics at Home and Abroad (Basingstoke, 2010), pp. 82-97.

4 Allan I. Macinnes, Patricia Barton and Kieran German, eds., Scottish Liturgical Traditions and Religious Politics: From Reformers to Jacobites, 1560-1764 (Edinburgh, 2023), passim.

5 Bruce Lenman, ‘The Scottish Episcopal Clergy and the Ideology of Jacobitism’ in E. Cruickshanks, ed., Ideology and Conspiracy: Aspects of Jacobitism, 1689-1759 (Edinburgh, 1982), pp. 38-9; P. C. Yorke, ed., Life and Correspondence of Philip Yorke Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, (3 vols., Cambridge, 1913), i, p. 512.

6 Colin Kidd, British Identities Before Nationalism (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 111-2.

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7 Kieran German, ‘Episcopalians and Jacobites’ in History Scotland (Nov/Dec 2020), pp. 26-31.

8 T. McInally, ‘The Alumni of the Scots Colleges Abroad 1575-1799’, (PhD thesis, University of Aberdeen, 2008), pp. 119-20.

The Account of the Pope’s procession at Aberdene, the 11th Jan., 1689, which was delivered to the new-elected Magistrats and Council thereof, by the Students of Marischal-Colledge, with the students’ letter to the said Magistrats there anent (1689).

10 W. Doran, ‘Bishop Thomas Nicolson: First Vicar-Apostolic 1695-1718’ in Innes Review, 39:2 (Autumn, 1988), p. 118.

11 A. M. Munro, ed., Records of Old Aberdeen (Aberdeen, 1899), ii, p. 88.

12 Yorke, Life and Correspondence of Philip Yorke, i, p. 512.

13 J. Stuart, ed., ‘Diary of the Reverend John Bisset. M.D.CC.XLV-XLVI’ in Miscellany of the Spalding Club (5 vols., Aberdeen, 1841-52), i, p. 359.

14 G. M. Fraser, Historical Aberdeen: The Castle and the Castle-Hill, the Snow Church, the Woolmanhill and Neighbourhood, the Guestrow (Aberdeen, 1905), p. 72.

15 D. McRoberts, ‘Provost Skene’s House, In Aberdeen, and its Catholic Chapel’ in Innes Review 5 (1954), pp. 119-24.

16 McInally, ‘Alumni of the Scots Colleges, p. 213.

17 M. Lynch, G. DesBrisay with M.G.H. Pittock, ‘The Faith of the People’ in E.P Dennison, et al., eds., Aberdeen Before 1800 (East Linton, 2002), pp. 301-3.

18 ACA, Press 17: Parcel L/I/14: (5 May 1746); Parcel L/I/17: (17 May-4 July 1746); A. & H. Tayler, Jacobites of Aberdeenshire and Banffshire in the Forty-Five (Aberdeen, 1928), pp. 347-8.

Archival Leads:

  • Aberdeen City Archives: Jacobite Papers, Press 17, Parcel L
  • Aberdeen City Archives, Aberdeen Council Letters Books (1700-1719)
  • Aberdeen University Library: Scottish Catholic Archives, Blairs Letters
  • National Records of Scotland: Episcopal Chest, CH 12/12

Further Reading:

M. Lynch, G. DesBrisay with M.G.H. Pittock ‘The Faith of the People’ in E. P Dennison et al., eds., Aberdeen Before 1800 (East Linton, 2002), pp. 301-3

Allan I. Macinnes, Patricia Barton and Kieran German (eds), Scottish Liturgical Traditions and Religious Politics: From Reformers to Jacoibites, 1560-1764 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2023) 

T. McInally, ‘The Alumni of the Scots Colleges Abroad 1575-1799’ (PhD thesis, University of Aberdeen, 2008)

J. Stuart, ed., ‘Diary of the Reverend John Bisset. M.D.CC.XLV-XLVI’, in Miscellany of the Spalding Club (5 vols, Aberdeen, 1841-52), vol. i