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The advent of Christianity in Moidart is traditionally associated with St Finnan who came from Iona. St Columba's monastery there was established in 563 after his arrival from Ireland and established a missionary base that eventually reached out even to the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria.  Nearer home, St Finnan remained on the Green Isle (later known as St Finnan‘s Isle) in Loch Shiel, before passing on to spread Christianity along the Great Glen.  Owing to the mountainous and fiord-like nature of the area, water was usually the quickest and most direct form of transport until fairly recent times.  Comparatively remote and quiet now, the island’s situation on Loch Shiel put it in the middle of what must have been a very busy waterway giving access towards the Great Glen.

There is oral tradition and some archaeological and name evidence for early monastic activity on the Moidart shore of Loch Shiel; and the Green Isle itself has remained a place of spiritual significance long after the departure of the Saint. The medieval parish was based there and the mediaeval church was there, seemingly falling into ruins only after the Reformation.  It was still a place of pilgrimage in the early Nineteenth Century. For much of its history and up to the present day it has served as a Christian burial ground for the area.

The wider influence of Iona faded gradually after the Synod of Whitby in 664, which was held ostensibly to establish dates for the celebration of Easter. It actually marked the beginning of the submergence of the semi-independent system of Irish monasticism to be replaced by the more hierarchic Roman establishment. The Viking raids on the monastery, the first in 801, brought a brutal interruption to its life and, although restored in the medieval period both as a religious house and the burial place of kings, it had lost its pre-eminence. Even after the Christianisation ofany Norse settlers, Moidart was now remote from the organising centre of the Church and was left in an ecclesiastical backwater of which little is recorded. The inhabitants appear to have retained the faith and practices that they had learned from the monks and the medieval church on the Green Isle was possibly in use until the Reformation.

Penal Laws

The Reformationbrought profound changes to Scottish life. In 1560, Parliament established Presbyterianism in the Confession of Faith. Roman Catholicism was outlawed and a series of penalties introduced.  A three strike penalty was imposed for saying or attending Mass: a fine for the first offence, banishment for the second and death for the third.  The law seems to have been sparingly applied. We hear of Frs. Veitch and Leitch being fined for saying Mass but when Fr. Leitch continued to do so no stricter measures seem to have been taken. Recanting priests were offered two thirds of their stipends - the other third to help support the Presbyterian Church. Religious, such as friars, who were technically penniless, were offered £12 a year. It is not known how many accepted these terms, how many became Protestant ministers, how many stayed to minister in secret or how many went abroad but by the end of the Sixteenth Century there were no recorded priests left in the country.  Remote areas like Moidart were left in religious limbo and people managed with their own religious practices and long-held customs. As yet there were no Protestant ministers.

Penal laws continued in force through the Eighteenth Century apart from a two year respite under the Catholic James VII and II. Various measures barred Catholics from owning or selling property and from holding public office.  Persecution was more vigorous following the 1688 deposition of James VII and the various Jacobite risings that succeeded it but seemingly for political, rather than for religious, motives. The Act of Union in 1707 meant that, although previous Scottish legislation stood, in future laws would be passed or repealed by a united and England-dominated Parliament. England used her penal laws more harshly than Scotland – Fr. Bell, sent to Scotland as the first head of a new Scots Mission, had the bad luck to be caught passing back through London, was imprisoned for six years and then hung drawn and quartered in 1643 merely for being a priest.

The eventual lessening of the Penal Laws was held back, long after all chance of another Jacobite rising, by the fact that the English feared a largely Catholic Ireland.  War with Catholic France and Spain in the early part of the Eighteenth Century brought the possibility of invasion through Ireland. Policy had changed, however, by the 1790s and the Catholic Relief Acts in the Westminster and Irish parliaments were seen as lessening the danger of an Irish rebellion following the revolutionary example of France. After 1794 Scottish Catholics were allowed to worship openly and to buy and sell property. Only the inflexibility of George III seems to have held back full emancipation for a while but even this was brought about in 1829. Catholics could now become members of Parliament, be awarded University honours and hold all but the highest offices of state.

The Counter-Reformation.

At first, exiled Scots seem to have been more occupied with the fight to regain Catholic ground than were the central authorities. As early as 1599 a Scottish Fr. Chrystostom Campbell attempted to return. Promptly banished, he came back at least twice over the years and after his final exile he worked with the Irish Francis Nugent, a fellow Franciscan, to arouse Continental interest in a Scottish Mission.

Irish Franciscan missionaries, eventually based in Antrim, were given the task of working in the Western Highlands as the Gaelic that they spoke could be understood by the people. One of these, Fr. Cornelius Ward, came to Moidart in 1623 and was based at Castle Tioram. He baptized a large number of people, including many of the Chief’s family. The chief excused himself: the 1609 Statutes of Iona, designed to limit the powers of Highland chiefs, meant an annual check on their conduct and this would include adherence to the Penal laws. He did, however, give Father Ward protection in his territories. Similar successes by these Franciscans meant that Catholic practices were re-invigorated in a population that had not, as yet, had Presbyterian ministers settled within it. The support of clan chiefs, even if in secret, seems to have been a decisive element in an area adhering to Catholicism in the future as the clansmen followed the religious persuasions of their chiefs.

Continental Seminaries

These were not primarily set up as missionary-training schools but for Catholic Scots now unlikely to attend the Scottish universities.  The Scots College in Rome was opened in 1600, that in Paris in 1603 and in Madrid in 1627.  From them came most of the secular priests, as opposed to religious orders like the Franciscans, who were to man the Church’s mission to Scotland.  The Roman college had only a few students at any one time and not all of them became ordained. Even if they did there was always the danger that they would be “poached” by the Jesuit order. By the 1650s an oath was imposed on students whereby they promised to serve on the Scottish Mission for at least three years. By 1660 this oath had become an oath in perpetuity.

There can be no doubt of the sincerity and courage of those who eventually went to serve in the Highlands. At first few in number, they were forced to travel from place to place covering huge distances across mountainous country, often in wild weather. Short of money from those who sent them, dependent on the local population for food and shelter, they had no permanent home and were in constant danger of discovery and arrest.  Their task was made more difficult because the Roman authorities refused to make allowances for local conditions. For example, neither wine nor wheat, both needed for celebration of the Mass, was to be had without journeys outwith the Highlands but these journeys had to be made - all this was in exchange for a life of warmth and safety in Italy.


An early attempt to set up a Mission to Scotland seems to have been bogged down without ever reaching Scotland though it did work serving Catholic court circles in London and in 1630 withdrawing all Franciscans working in Scotland except a Fr. Epiphany who worked tirelessly through the Highlands until he died aged eighty four years. The unfortunate Fr. Bell, arriving briefly in 1634, was followed by other Franciscans, notably Francis White, a Vincentian who arrived in 1654 and served for over twenty years until his death. For some time he was the only priest in the West Highland area. Other missionaries included two Macdonald brothers, Frs. Cahassy, Ryan and Devoir and Fr. Munro who, after thirty years in the Highlands, died in prison in 1704 after rough handling during his arrest on suspicion of involvement in an anti-government plot.

The Propaganda office was, however, making slow progress towards setting up a hierachic structure of sorts in Scotland. In 1653 it set up another Mission to Scotland, urged on by a group of Scottish secular priests meeting in Rome. Prefects Apostolic were appointed but these were mainly concerned with the Scots-speaking and not the Gaelic-speaking areas which were left to the Irish-speaking Vincentians. In 1695, however, Thomas Nicolson was appointed Vicar Apostolic (as bishops were designated before the restoration of the Scottish hierachy in 1878) and visited the Western Highlands many times before his death in 1719. By him, priests were allocated fixed districts.

An assistant to Bishop Nicholson, James Gordon was appointed in 1706. These were particularly sensitive times, with Jacobite sentiments high; Bishop Gordon, when visiting Moidart, had to preach on Ardnish at a place still called The Harbour of the Mass, his congregation arriving, as was usual, in boats. There were government troops at Castle Tioram and any closer approach might have led to trouble. By 1727 the Western District was set up for the Gaelic area with Hugh Macdonald, of the Morar family, appointed as its Vicar Apostolic in 1731. Gradually, Moidart came to have a dedicated priest, though not a specific parish centre. 

The 1745 Rebellion

The reprisals for this fell much more heavily on Moidart than those that followed the 1715 Rising. Charles Edward had landed, been welcomed and raised his standard here; later he had been protected in his flight through neighbouring lands with Moidart men in his company. Many priests, who were involved, suffered imprisonment or exile. Through this harsh time the priest William Harrison was allowed to carry out his ministry because he went himself to the Sheriff of Inverness, declared his non-political stance and openly asked to be allowed to perform his duties. Amazingly this was agreed to.  There are however, also stories from the time of masses having to be said secretly in a small cave on the Silver Walk on the South shore of Loch Moidart.

Highland Seminaries

Small junior establishments were set up during the Eighteenth Century to ensure a suitable supply of candidates to go on to Continental Colleges. They were in remote and well-hidden places as they were illegal and they were often very poorly built and furnished, as instructors and pupils had little, if any, means of support. Local boys were deemed to make the best priests for the area as they spoke the language, knew the people and were, it was hoped, inured to the hostile climate. However they first had to be taught to read and also to have the rudiments of Latin, the language of the Church, before going abroad.

Bishop Gordon founded a Seminary on an island in Loch Morar with seven pupils. With unfortunate timing this was in 1714 and it had to close almost immediately on the outbreak of the 1715 Jacobite Rising, The Bishop re-opened this after the rising but then moved it to Scalan in Banffshire.

The next Seminary on Morar was set up in 1732 by Bishop Hugh Macdonald, himself entirely trained and ordained in Scotland at Scalan.   Over the next few years it appeared and disappeared: in Morar again, Glenfinnan, and Rhu Arisaig. Eventually, in 1783, Bishop Alexander Macdonald moved, with the Seminary, to Samalaman, by Glenuig. The conditions were far from ideal – the Bishop complains of having to have “boys and stirks under one roof” – but the Seminary remained there until 1803 despite the increasingly urgent calls from his successor, Bishop Chisholm, to have the boys moved to a better place. By then the Catholic Relief Act had removed the need for secrecy and so Bishop Chisholm had his way and a far better house was provided on Lismore. Eventually the existing Scottish Seminaries were closed and replaced by a single establishment at Blairs in Aberdeenshire, in use until the late Twentieth Century.

The Mission of Moidart

To this day Moidart is officially called a mission rather than a parish but by the later Eighteenth Century it began to take on a more settled appearance. In 1769 Father Austin Macdonald – Father Hustian - was sent here and the Catholic Directory gives this date for the first church. He built three “houses for the Congregation one at each end and one at the centre” and also “something of a house for myself” [Blundell], although this did not necessarily reduce the amount of travelling that he had to do. The parish covered the whole of the North shore of Loch Shiel as far as Glenfinnan in his time and stretched north as far as Lochailort; at least he now had a settled base. That he built “houses” rather than churches is a reminder that their existence was still illegal.

After the 1794 relaxation, however, churches began to be built more openly, if modestly. In 1826 Macdonald of Rhu built the Castle Chapel at Dorlin – seemingly replacing an earlier house. In 1834 a chapel was built, or rebuilt, at Langal. These possibly replaced two of Austin’s “houses”. Ten years later Fr. Rankin was complaining about the derelict state of a chapel at the foot of Plate Rock which may or may not have been a third site.

After the 1829 Act there was a serious outbreak of church building among Catholic congregations. The infection reached Moidart with Ronald Rankin, already experienced in raising funds for buildings and trying to buy, or be gifted, land on which to build. He had little luck in Moidart. Kinlochmoidart was his site of choice but the proprietor, William Robertson, would not give him a site and instead built his own Episcopalian Church.  The potato famine devastated Moidart and the surrounding area in the late 1840s and Fr. Rankin not only urged a considerable number of his parishioners to emigrate to Australia but also followed them himself.  It was ironic that only a few years later, those who were left behind were presented with a far bigger Church than he could ever have imagined.

Two churches were built in Moidart within two years of one another, in 1861 and 1862. The earlier, St Agnes’ at Glenuig, was built at the orders of Bishop Murdoch, who paid half the cost. The rest of the money came from local landowners and neighbouring priests. It is a compact building with no provision for accommodation as it was to be served from the main Church, then at Dorlin. The priest went there, as best he might, for one Sunday in four. This practice continued, except during the 1939-45 war when a Father Bradley stayed in Glenuig partly as a chaplain for the troops in training in the area, until the Lochailort to Kinlochmoidart road was built in the 1960s.

The other church was built at Mingarry and dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels. It was built under the direction of the new owner of the Loch Shiel Estate, James Hope Scott, a wealthy and aristocratic lawyer, co-owner of Sir Walter Scott’s large house at Abbotsford and a recent convert to Catholicism. He was an enthusiastic builder and was responsible for several churches in the Scottish Border area. He had already built a large house for himself at Dorlin and a schoolhouse next to the eventual church site. An architect was brought up from London and no expense spared. A priest’s house was also built between the school and the church.

 The church was dedicated with great ceremony on October 2nd 1862, the day of the Feast of the Guardian Angels. (All a great contrast to the opening of St Agnes’ Church the year before, which had a write-up in the Catholic Directory but no mention of any dedication or date of final completion.) Poor Hope Scott was given a great deal of trouble by his building, which was of a rather unsuitable design, with its huge roof, for an exposed site in the Western Highlands but its construction was a most generous gesture. He is said to have bought the estate, unseen, partly to prevent it being sold to a Protestant landowner. This was not merely a case of religious prejudice. Although Catholics were now emancipated, crofters had no long-term security of tenure until the 1890s and some Protestant landlords, in the Islands for example, had been known to use this fact to pressure their tenants to attend Presbyterian services.  Sadly, Hope Scott died in 1872 but not before he had sold the estate, with safe provision for the Church, to Lord Howard of Glossop who was a Catholic connection of his second wife. After the sale Fr.Charles Macdonald wrote “I am very glad indeed that the present ground & buildings have been secured to the Mission – Mr Hope Scott was always a brick”The estate remained with the Howards until the 1920s.

Today, with the exception of the Episcopalian church of St. Finnan’s at Kinlochmoidart and a small Church of Scotland establishment on the extreme northern limit, there is no Protestant place of worship in Moidart. The endurance of Catholicism may be partly attributed to the remoteness and wildness of the area, partly the long memory of a population that still reveres the memory of St Finnan, but very largely to the Clanranald adherence to the Catholic Church and the dedication of the post-Reformation missionaries that risked their lives to work in the area during the Penal era.

Catholicism in Moidart: A Rough Outline by Jean Lawson


Moidart or Among the Clanranalds by Father Charles Macdonald

The Scots College Rome 1600-2000: edited by Raymond McClusky

Catholic Highlands of Scotland by Dom. Odo Blundell

A Tender Watering by John Watts

A Cairn of Small Stones by John Watts: a fictionalised account of Morar in the Eighteenth Century.

West Highland Priests of the Scots College Rome by Alasdair Roberts

Historic Catholic Sites in the Highlands and North East of Scotland by John Watts and Alasdair Roberts

Some Priests of Moidart by Father Jerome Ireland edited by John Dye. .

The Jacobite Threat: A Source Book by Bruce P. Lenman and John S. Gibson.


At the Scottish Catholic Archives:

Scottish Catholic Directories: from 1829 onwards. [Much of the post-1600 information was collected by Bishop Kyle, 1788-1869].

The Highland Seminaries by Glenlivetensis in St Peter’s Magazine 1949-52

Western Division & Diocese of Argyll Correspondence

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