Homily for the Scalan Pilgrimage

I know many of you are from the south. I hope you’ll forgive me if I first say something about the area of Scotland in which we are – more immediately Upper Banffshire, more widely Moray.

It’s an area of great natural beauty, with a firth and a wide sky and rivers and hills, forests and sweeps of field. It’s also one of the spiritual lungs of Scotland, and of Catholic Scotland. This is the setting of Scalan.

It is an area with a long Christian history, from Pictish times to our own. Burghead, Mortlach, Birnie, Kineddar, Spynie all had, and some still have, their holy places. Just across the Moray Firth, on the Tarbat Peninsula, stood the Pictish monastery at what is now Portmahomack. It flourished from the 6th to the 9th cc, has only recently been excavated, and is earning the name of the Iona of the East.

In the Middle Ages, Elgin had its Cathedral, the Lantern of the North, magnificent even as a ruin. It had a Dominican community from the 13th c., and from the 15th Observant Franciscans. There were Benedictines nearby at Urquhart, the Cistercians at Kinloss, the Valliscaulians (later Benedictines) at Pluscarden. Here was a cluster of Catholic religious life.

In the penal times, blessed Moray sheltered Catholic pockets, especially in the Enzie and here in Glenlivet. There’s Scalan, Tynet and Preshome. When the Church could breathe again, parishes were founded. Think of the quasi-cathedral in Buckie and the beautifully restored church in Dufftown. The Sisters of Mercy reoccupied Greyfriars, Elgin, and ran schools there, in Buckie, Keith and Tomintoul. After the last War came the return of the monks to Pluscarden, and two years ago a second refounding of Greyfriars with the advent of the Nashville Dominicans. And for many years now, St Michael’s Centre, Tomintoul, has been pursuing its own special mission, to the appreciation of many. There is something here. It may be less awesome than the wilder Highlands, but it conduces to prayer and largeness of soul. A kind of spiritual Malt Whisky! May we drink it in, especially on a day like this! May it flourish and develop. Our country needs these things, these places, these memories. Each of us does.


That’s just an introduction – now for a homily!

A story well-known to lovers of Scalan: on 12 September 1760, two emissaries from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland came to inspect Scalan. The Master, at that time a deacon called William Gray, invited them in. But they did not even dismount. They rode off, expressing astonishment that so mean a place had caused so much concern. In their later written report, they described it as “a sort of college in a place called Skalon.”

In fact, 1760 was a low point in the 83 year history of Scalan. But can’t we also connect the reaction of those visitors with that of the people of Nazareth in today’s Gospel: ‘This is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary’? We’re colliding here with the scandal of the Incarnation: divine wisdom, divine power concentrated, condensed, located in one human being, a carpenter of one obscure place in one, to us, distant time. One droplet in the ocean of human history carrying the meaning of the universe and the joy of eternity. It baffles our hearts and heads. And unless, by God’s grace, the gift of faith opens our eyes, we won’t dismount. We’ll ride on. We’ll pass the mystery by.

This strange logic of the Incarnation plays itself out again in Paul the Apostle. He’s the recipient, he says, of extraordinary revelations, but his life isn’t bathed in emotional sunshine. He makes his weary way along the roads of the Eastern Mediterranean, with a thorn in his flesh, and under a constant rain of ‘insults, hardships, persecutions, and the agonies I go through for Christ’s sake.’ And there was minted the immortal line: ‘when I am weak, then I am strong.’ As for the Master, so for the disciple. As for the Head of the Body, so for every member. As for Christ, so for the Church. Her whole history will be lived as strength-in-weakness, and in the measure we’re Christian, so will ours.

Scalan is a touching embodiment of this. If there was a low point in the history of Scottish Catholicism, it was the 18th c. If there was a time the Psalm we sang must have resonated, it would have been then:

‘Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy.

We are filled with contempt.

Indeed all too full is our soul

With the scorn of the rich,

With the proud man’s disdain.’

In the whole history of penal legislation from 1560 onwards, the most far-reaching, the most disabling was the Act of 1700 for Preventing the Growth of Popery. That was a euphemism. It was effectively an Act for the Extirpation of Popery. One provision is particularly telling: children of Catholic parents were to be sent to Protestant relatives or teachers for their education. In other words, the faith was not to be transmitted to the next generation.

Yet this dark 18th c., this time of weakness, was the time of bishops like James Gordon, George Hay and John Geddes. It must have been a time when many, known only to God, kept their eyes on the Lord their God, waiting for his mercy and secretly sustained by it. And it was the time when, by the Crombie Burn, this ‘mean place’, this ‘sort of college’ became a cradle of priests, men anointed by the Holy Spirit to represent Christ, the Head and Bridegroom of his Church.

In this place, these men – their names fill 5 pages of John Watts’ Scalan – became ‘units of spiritual power’, as Mgr Ronald Knox called priests. Each of them had the experience of Ezekiel: ‘The Spirit came into me and made me stand up, and I heard the Lord speaking to me. He said, “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to the rebels who have turned against me…I am sending you to them to say, ‘The Lord says this’. Whether they listen to you or not, this set of rebels shall know there is a prophet among them”’.


‘When I am weak, then I am strong.’ We want to store that phrase in our memory, write it on our hearts.. It was true then. It’s true now. It’s true for us.

When I first came to the monastery and diocese, in 1974, the majority of the priests appeared to be from the old Catholic strongholds of the north east. It’s quite different now. Where would we be without priests from elsewhere? From September, please God, we will have 6 seminarians. Not a single one was born and bred here. (I won’t mention the Bishop!). This is a weakness and a strength.

We don’t now have a seminary in Scotland. We don’t have an institution we can call a successor to Scalan. And most of society doesn’t dismount to look at us, except when we sin (as we do). So our eyes too are on the Lord, till he show us his mercy.

Scalan was mercy. Even for those who did not become priests, it provided an education in the faith at a time when Catholics were forbidden to teach or learn their Catholicism. Next year is the 300th anniversary of Scalan’s foundation. May that encourage us to do what we can to transmit our faith! Is it perhaps time for some imaginative institutional initiative, some centre – not a seminary as such, not an academic institute, not a retreat centre merely – but a centre, a place for forming Christians as such, theologically and spiritually, a place of community life, a place of discernment for personal vocation, a school of evangelisation? If so, why not now?

Here we are, living the 21st c. version of the age-old story. Here we are, a kind of Scalan ourselves, weak and strong, earthen vessels with a heavenly treasure. Like our spiritual forefathers here, let’s try and do something, let’s do what we can!

Let me end with the ending of John Watts’ fine book:

‘Here was a house, dwarfed by the huge, intractable landscape, remote, poor and unobtrusive, not a part of respected society, indeed breaking the laws of respected society by its very existence, surviving at all only through dogged determination and courage. Its influence and achievement seem quite out of proportion. Whatever its shortcomings, and quite against the odds, it vindicated the original vision of its founder, and achieved as much as he and his successors could have hoped for, and more.

‘It is perhaps above all this quality of strength-in-weakness that has won the respect, admiration and affection even of those who have no close affinity with its aims. And for those who share its ideals, and understand what a keystone it was in the survival and recovery of their Faith, it is remembered with love, and mentioned…with veneration’ (Scalan, The Forbidden College, 1716-1799).

Now it’s our turn.


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122