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Memoir of the Mission of Strathglass
Prepared by Allan J. Gillis of Ottawa




    The portion of the Highlands, which now goes under the name of Strathglass, but once known as Crom ghleann, is a valley which extends for twenty miles between two ridges of hills, and is watered by the River Glass, which, at the lower end of the district, takes the name of the Beauly. The population numbers about 2000.

    It is a remarkable fact in the history of Strathglass, that, while the entire territory northwards and the other adjacent districts, with few exceptions of modern date, embraced and still cling to the innovations of the so-called Reformation, its inhabitants should from a comparatively remote period, form so singular a contrast by their uniform adherence to the Catholic faith.  It is among the earliest recollections of the oldest men yet living, that a native Protestant could hardly be met with in the district.  Still, the Catholic religion was not in Strathglass, at certain periods subsequent to the Reformation, a peaceable transmission from father to son.  The laws and penalties enacted to extirpate the ancient faith were so unsparingly put in execution in this country, that frequently the pastors had been forced to abandon their posts, and the people to dissemble their creed.  We cannot, at present, procure documents to trace the extent and severity of the ordeal through which religion had, from time to time, to pass, nor mark the various attempts of banished priests to reappear among their bereaved flocks.  For although in these troubled times, the absence of the pastor caused some to dissemble their real sentiments and conform so far to the new systems, still, it is evident from the tradition of the place, that, at heart, they continued warmly attached to the faith of their forefathers.  But the scanty records that are still extant are sufficient to show that Strathglass did not long escape the prying search of the severe enactments of 1560.  In the year 1579, we find Thomas Chisholm, Laird of Strathglass, summoned before the Court for his adhesion to the ancient creed.                                       

    During the interval between 1580 & 1600, the period marked by the renewed activity of the Jesuits in Scotland, the spiritual destitution of Strathglass attracted thither their zealous attention.  We find this country mentioned as one of the stations which they took under their charge.  It is not known how long they superintended this mission; but it appears that, owing to the increasing rigour of the laws against priests, and the activity of their pursuers, they also were forced to retire from the district.  From the date of their departure this mission must have been, for a length of time, without a pastor.  According to the tradition of the present inhabitants, the interval between 1660 and 1680 is the date of the revival of the Catholic faith in Strathglass.  This revival is said to have been effected in the following manner.

    About the middle of the seventeenth century, the Chisholm of Strathglass, owing to some pecuniary embarrassments, retired to the Continent and traveled to Rome.  While he sojourned in the Eternal City, the marks of attention which he received from the Pope drew from him a promise that, in the event of Catholic missionaries penetrating into Strathglass, he would afford them as much shelter as the stringent laws then in force against Catholics would allow.  On his return, he was so well disposed to fulfil his promise that he even began to instruct his family in the truths of the Catholic faith.  This ended in the conversion of his son Colin, who settled in Knockfin and was the first of the family afterwards styled “of Knockfin”.  This circumstance became known to the missionaries who, about this time, found their way to Glengarry, and two of them repaired immediately to Strathglass.  They were received by Colin of Knockfin, who informed them of his own conversion and of the friendly disposition of his father.  Finding thus a confirmation of the reports which they had previously heard, they determined to settle in the country.

    Of the state of religion in Strathglass at this period, or of the apostolic labours of these priests, nothing more is now known than that they opened two stations, the one in a remote locality near Knockfin where an humble Chapel must have been built, as the place, to this day, is called Achadh na h-eaglais (the Church field); the other about the centre of the district, at a place called

Clachan, which may mean Church or burying-ground.  Beyond these missionaries, we have no account of any other priest serving in this mission until we come to a Mr. M’Rae, of whose history we only know that he was the immediate predecessor of Mr. John Farquharson, to whose times we must at once come.

    Mr. John Farquharson, a Jesuit and descended from the family of Inverey, Braemar, came to Strathglass about the year 1723.  On his arrival, his unaquaintance with the language of the people for a short time proved an obstacle to his zeal; but under the able tuition of Mrs. Fraser of Culbockie, he soon became a great proficient in Gaelic.  Settling at Fasnakyle, he built there a small chapel and house.  His immediate predecessors having reclaimed such as might have been perverted through fear or ignorance, the earlier part of his history presents no other particulars than his great zeal and labours–traveling from house to house–from district to district–instructing the young and exhorting the more advanced in life in the practise of their religion.

    But after years of peaceful labours, the persecuting laws, dormant for some time in Strathglass, were, in 1745, renewed with unwonted rigour.  Orders were issued, under the severest penalties, to all proprietors of land, to apprehend such priests as they might discover on their estates, that they might be sent out of the country.  The Chisholm, the principal proprietor of the district, being, though a Protestant, more disposed to fulfil the letter than the spirit of these orders, directed two of Mr. Farquharson’s hearers to go to him, more with his compliments than threats, and send him to the nearest point beyond his territory, whence he might return.  Of this privilege, Mr. Farquharson, on the very day of his banishment, availed himself, but it was to encounter more formidable opponents.  Some time afterwards, a party of Saighdearran dearg (red soldiers) came in pursuit of him.  On entering the chapel as he was celebrating Mass, they tried to force their way to the altar to tear him away, when a struggle ensued between them and the congregation which must have led to serious consequences if Mr. Farquharson had not pacified the people by exhorting them against resistance and assuring them of his speedy return.  Upon this, the soldiers dragged him violently out of the chapel in his sacerdotal robes.  But, after a short absence, he redeemed his pledge to the people by returning to them.  The circumstances of the times rendered his situation now truly perilous and we find him, for some time after, living in places of concealment which are pointed out to this day.

    In such places, Mr. Farquharson was joined by his brother, Mr. Charles, and by a Mr. Alexander Cameron, who were both priests.  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, but neither could protect them from the pursuit of the foe, to whom Mr. Farquharson’s retreat had become known.  At the very time when the two priests mentioned above were taking shelter with him, two men were dispatched to apprehend him in his cave.  The people represent him as endowed with the foreknowledge of coming events and, in this instance, he is said to have told his two companions that his pursuers were making fast towards him–that flight in his case was impossible but that they might still save themselves, as the intelligence of their arrival had not, as yet, gone abroad.  After this conversation, the more effectually to cover their retreat, he set out to meet those who were in search of him and soon fell into their hands.  What became of Mr. Charles is forgotten, but Mr. Cameron returned to his native country, Lochaber.  Mr. Farquharson was hurried out of Strathglass and sent to England, where he was, for some time, detained prisoner on board of a vessel lying in the Thames.  On his way to England, following the example of the holy Ignatius of Antioch who recommended his bereaved church to the saintly Bishop of Smyrna, he wrote to the missionary of Glengarry to extend his pastoral care to the mission of Strathglass until God should restore him to his flock.  In the meantime, Mr. Cameron was captured in the house of a relative and, soon after, became a prisoner in the same vessel with Mr. Farquharson.  He died on board, having been assisted in his last moments by Mr. F., and was interred on the banks of the Thames.  Mr. Farquharson was soon enlarged and returned once more to Strathglass, where he continued for several years serving that mission.  At length, he retired to his native country, Braemar, where he died about the year 1750. (see notes at end)

     Mr. Farquharson was succeeded in Strathglass by Mr. Norman Macleod, born in the Lewis of Protestant parents but, at an early age, he embraced the Catholic faith.  At the time of his appointment to this mission, the storm which had been raging against the Catholics had now, in a great measure, blown over.  Farther than the recollections of his holy and edifying life, the history of the mission during his encumbency affords no other facts than that he built a rude chapel but suited to the circumstances of the times in which he lived.  We find him also the first priest of that period who penetrated into Kintail.  At an advanced age, he retired to Edinburgh and was succeeded by Mr. John Chisholm, a native of Strathglass, afterwards known as Bishop John Chisholm.

    Mr. John was born at Inchully in February, 1752.  At an early age he was sent to the Scottish College of Douay, then directed by the Jesuits.  On their expulsion from France, he went to the noviciate of the order at Tournay.  When the Jesuits were suppressed in 1773, he returned to the Douay College which, by that time, had been entrusted to the secular clergy.  There he was ordained priest on the 17th April, 1775, and, before autumn of the same year, he returned to Scotland and was immediately placed in the mission of Strathglass.  Several reasons tended to render his coming into the country more auspicious than fell to the lot of any of his predecessors.  He was collaterally descended from the family of Knockfin, who possessed the lands in which his congregation resided, and he could claim kindred with most of the neighbouring families of respectability.

    This procured for him the friendship of the proprietors at home and lulled the suspicion of proselytizing when he traveled beyond the limits of his more immediate charge.  He had not long settled at Fasnakyle when he began to turn these advantages to account.  He very soon so ingratiated himself with the Chisholm that it was no longer a matter of toleration to have a priest in the country.  He successively procured the respect of all the families of distinction in the surrounding countries and was the first who made a breach in the rampant bigotry which had, till then, continued to straiten on every side the Strathglass mission.  At length, his increasing popularity began to awaken the jealousy of the parsons, who now began to consult among themselves, “What was to be done with the Popish priest?” when a favourable circumstance, as they thought, presented itself.  Mr. Chisholm opened a station in the lower division of Strathglass.  The place which he was obliged to fix upon was in the vicinity of a barn in which the Presbyterian missionary, who came occasionally to that quarter, preached.  This was construed by the local presbytery into a piece of effrontery that required an immediate check.  They met, therefore, and (it) was resolved that the members of the meeting should head a party to seize the priest.  But an untimely observation by one of the brethern hinting that they “might set out on such mission but that he would not warrant the safety of their bones till they returned”, daunted them not a little.  The expedition was abandoned and Mr. Chisholm was left unmolested.  He served in Strathglass for seventeen years, edifying all by the holiness of his life and guiding the affairs of his mission with that prudence and wisdom for which he was so distinguished.  In 1789 he was joined by his brother, Rev. Eneas Chisholm, who, at first, resided chiefly in his father’s house at Inchully, where he built a small chapel which stands to this day but is now occupied as a dwelling-house.

    On the death of Bishop Alexander Macdonald, which took place at Samalaman on the 9th September 1791, Mr. John Chisholm was appointed by the Holy See, Vicar Apostolic of the Highland District, under the title of Bishop of Oria, and was consecrated at Edinburgh by Bishop Hay on the 12th February, 1792.  >From this period, the entire charge of the Strathglass mission devolved on Mr. Eneas.  Bishop John having fixed his episcopal seat, like his predecessor, at the small seminary at Samalaman, thence transferred both his residence and seminary to Killechiaran in the island of Lismore, where he terminated his valuable life on the 8th July, 1814.

    Mr. Eneas Chisholm, his successor, was born at Inchully.  He was sent to the Scottish College at Valladolid in the year 1774 and was there promoted to Holy Orders in 1783, but did not return to the mission till 1789.  We need hardly observe that he shared fully in the advantages which resulted from the residence of his brother in the Strathglass mission, nor did he fail to avail himself of them.  Although his principal charge lay now in the upper portion of the district, he was unwilling that his infant congregation at Inchully should have to depend on the occasional visits which he could now pay to it.  He therefore obtained in 1793, from his brother Bishop John, the appointment to this rising mission of Mr. Austin Macdonell.  We now find Strathglass divided into two distinct missions.  Mr. Austin Macdonell completed his studies in the Scots College at Rome and, returning to Scotland, was ordained by Bishop John at Samalaman.  At this period, the congregation in the Lower District consisted of only a few Catholics who came to settle there from the upper part of the country.  While Mr. Eneas continued to superintend his numerous flock, the holy and prudent zeal of Mr. Austin, aided by his conciliating manner, was daily producing its fruit in reclaiming lukewarm Catholics and receiving converts into the Church.

    At this time a circumstance occurred well for Mr. Austin’s new mission.  A son of Mr. Fraser of Moulie, a Protestant, succeeded to the property of Aigas, situated within his district.  This gentleman was received into the Catholic Church and married a Catholic lady, sister to the late Mr. Macdonald of Glenaladale.  In the year 1800, Aigas was chosen as a more central point for Mr. Austin’s increasing congregation.  There, a chapel was commenced and opened in 1801.  This was the first slated chapel in Strathglass within the era of our memoir.

    We must now return to Mr. Eneas Chisholm’s mission.  The chapel built by his brother at Fasnakyle, being formed of materials little calculated to resist the agency of time, was now threatening ruin, and Mr. Eneas began to project a new chapel of a very superior description.  But  a part of the materials must be brought from afar and the state of the roads then rendered the undertaking arduous.  These, however, were the “ages of faith” in Strathglass and its generous people offered their willing services to carry out the good work, conveying lime and slates for twenty miles on the back(s) of horses.  An elegant chapel, according to the times, was commenced at Fasnakyle in 1802 and opened the following year.  It is still the only chapel in the Upper District.

    In the meantime, Mr. Eneas, seeing the increase with which God was blessing the new congregation at Aigas, turned his thoughts to Inverness where, as yet, the very name of a priest was hardly known.  A few Catholics from Strathglass began, about this time, to settle in the Highland capital and some of the Strathglass youth ventured to appear in its public schools.  This was considered a fitting opputunity to open a station at Inverness.  Through the kind, but concealed, co-operation of one of the town magistrates, a relative of Mr. Eneas, a room was procured about 1810 in which the few Catholics there began to assemble and Mr. Eneas came to officiate to them from time to time.  A few years afterwards the congregation, now formed, was annexed to that of Aigas and continued on that footing till 1827.  Mr. Eneas now devoted his whole attention to his flock in Strathglass until the year 1814, when he succeeded his brother as Vicar Apostolic to the Highlands and removed to the seminary at Lismore, where he died on the 31st of July, 1818.

    The Rev. Philip Macrae, who had been appointed to the Aigas mission on Mr. Austin Macdonell’s death on the 27th March 1812, succeeded Bishop Eneas at Fasnakyle in 1814 and was himself succeeded at Aigas by Mr. Evan Maceachen.  He was born at Carry in Glencannich, Strathglass, in 1780.  At an early age he was sent to the seminary at Samalaman and was one of the first students who entered the seminary at Lismore where he was ordained priest by Bishop John Chisholm, his uncle, in 1806.  Messrs. Macrae and Maceachen continued to superintend their respective missions under the paternal guidance of Bishop Eneas, who ever continued devoted to his first flock.  In 1818, Mr. Maceachen was removed from Aigas to Braemar and was immediately succeeded by Mr. Duncan Mackenzie.

    Mr. Mackenzie was born at Lietry in Glencannich and studied in the Scots College, Valladolid. On his return to Scotland, he was ordained at Lismore by Bishop Eneas Chisholm.  From 1818 to 1825, the encumbency of Messrs. Macrae and Mackenzie offers no other particulars than the ordinary duties of their office.  In 1825, Lord Lovat, desirous to provide better accomodation for the congregation of the Lower District, built a chapel at Eskadale on a scale of grandeur hitherto unknown in the Highlands, and as yet unrivaled in the North of Scotland, which was opened in 1826.  In this year, Mr. Macrae, after severe and protracted suffering from rheumatic attacks, was reduced to a state of great bodily debility which continued till his death on the 17th October, 1842.  This event left his mission, for a time, almost without a pastor, as the scarcity of priests prevented Bishop Ranald Macdonald, then Vicar Apostolic of the Highlands, from appointing a successor, the congregation depending in the meantime on the occasional visits of the nearest clergyman.  Matters continued in this state till 1827, when the Rev. Alex. Macswein arrived in the country, Mr. Mackenzie continuing at Eskadale to the year 1828 when he died in the latter end of Autumn.  From this period, the charge of the two missions devolved on Mr. Macswein till 1833, when the Rev. Thomas Chisholm was appointed by the Right Rev. Dr. Kyle, in whose district this part of the Highlands is now included, to the mission of Fasnakyle.  Mr. Chisholm is a direct lineal descendant of the Colin Chisholm who first welcomed the missionaries to Strathglass during the trying periods of which we have spoken above.  Well might those messengers of peace say to Colin, as they entered his habitation– “This day a blessing comes into thy house.”, for his family, either in the male or female line, has, since that day, given four bishops to the Church,–viz. Bishops John and Eneas Chisholm, the late celebrated Bishop Macdonell of Canada, and Bishop Fraser of Nova Scotia, who still survives.  Of the priests descended from that family are the two present incumbents of Strathglass, the Rev. Thomas Chisholm and Angus Mackenzie.

The ranks of the Catholics in the upper mission of Strathglass have been, for some time, becoming thinner.  This, however, has not arisen from the defection of its members, but partly from the adoption of new agrarian policy, partly from voluntary removals to the lower portions of Strathglass, the Aird, and Inverness.  Still, this parent mission can look with complacency on the congregations to which it gave existence.  They are: Eskadale, with 700 Catholics; Inverness, with 400 and Beauly, which was lately established, with 200.

    As a nursery of priests, Strathglass is not less deserving of notice.  Even at the present moment it supplies with missionaries: Fasnakyle, Rev. Thomas Chisholm; Eskadale, Rev. Angus Mackenzie; Beauly and Inverness, Rev. John Macdonald; Fort Augustus, Rev. Valentine Chisholm; Glenroy, Lochaber, Rev. Donald Forbes; Fort William, Rev. Archibald Chisholm; Moidart, Rev. Ranald Rankin; Drimnin, Morven, Rev. William Macdonell; South Uist, Rev. John Chisholm; Braemar, Rev. Angus Macdonald.

    From the above details, it is sufficiently shown that the Strathglass mission deserves the attention of those who are able to throw more light on its history.  The present attempt is made chiefly to awaken the interest of those more deeply conversant with the transactions of times gone by.


This edition of  Memoir of the Mission of Strathglass was prepared by Allan J. Gillis of Ottawa, a great-great-grandson of John Boyd “Printer”, on May 8, 2000, one hundred fifty years after it was first reprinted at Malignant Cove.  It is copied from an original edition that was once owned by Mr. Angus MacDonald “Miramichi” of Mull River and is now on the possession of Jemima Lydon.  Some minor corrections have been made by me.

The Memoir of the Mission of Strathglass was not written by John Boyd, he simply reprinted it.  The actual author was Fr. Angus MacKenzie, parish priest of Eskadale.  It appeared in the “Scotch Directory” of 1846, and was reprinted by John Boyd in 1850.  In 1908, Blundell’s Catholic Highlands of Scotland relates that Boyd’s pamphlet was reprinted in Scotland. 

(see: History of Antigonish, Vol. 2, p.52; R.A. MacLean, ed.)  Fr. Angus MacKenzie and two other people were accidentally poisoned by a servant in a house where they were visiting at Baile Dhuthaich (Tain).  All three died.

N.B.    Of the priests mentioned above:

Rev. John Farquharson, S.J., was a noted Gaelic scholar and was considered an authority on the poems of Ossian.  He died in August of 1782.

Rev. Donald Forbes had relatives who came to Antigonish County and to Inverness County, Cape Breton;

Rev Ranald Rankin was a convert [?] and Gaelic poet who later joined 500 of his Moidart congregation who had emigrated to Australia in the mid-1850s. 

Rev. John Chisholm had been preceded in Bornish, South Uist, by Rev. Seumas MacGregor whose assistant, Rev. Allan MacLean, later became parish priest of Judique in Cape Breton [my boyhood parish] and is buried there. See: Father Allan’s Island, p.207; Antigonish Diocese Priests and Bishops, p.83.  

Rev. John Chisholm’s nephew, Fr. William MacDonell, was also a priest at Daliburgh.  There are plaques to both of them in the St. Peter’s Church, Daliburgh.

Fr. Allan MacLean was the composer of many Gaelic songs and ditties, some of which have survived to this day. 

Fr. Evan (Ewen) MacEachen (1769-1849), who was at Aigas from 1814 to 1818, was the compiler of MacEachen’s Dictionary, which has gone into six editions.  He was a native of Arisaig and was educated for the priesthood at Valladolid, Spain.  [For more details, see: Mabou Pioneers, p.376; Fr. MacEachen’s parents were Catherine Gillies, d/o Mary MacDonald and Duncan “BBn” Gillies of Moidart, and Alexander MacEachen.  His three brothers took the clan name MacDonald.  John and Hector settled in Antigonish County and Donald “Councillor” settled in Port Hood, where he married twice and had a family of ten. Also, see:]

            All notes by Allan J. Gillis, Ottawa, ON, May 8, 2000

With this article was a copy of an email...

To give you a clearer idea of just what was happening to those prefessing the Catholic faith in the Highlands during the Penal years when suppression of the Catholic religion was paramount to the Crown could I suggest that you read John Watts'  "Hugh MacDonald, Highlander, Jacobite and Bishop" published by Birlinn ISBN 0 85976 560 1.

John Watts has undertaken considerable study within the Catholic Archives in Edinburgh, his book on Bishop Hugh MacDonald who was born 1699 and his life and difficulties in serving the vast Parishes of the Highlands and the Isles will go a long way in explaining just why you can not locate Catholic Birth, Marriage records.

These Highland Priests did serve their communities, they recorded the marriages, births and deaths to their Bishops, but they excluded names, for fear that their communications may be intercepted and their parishioners revealed to the Crown and put them as well as themselves in danger of banishment, or even death. Many of their letters contain names only understood with the assistance of a 'cyper list' ie Clanranald was referred to as Mr Collander....interesting but infuriating when one is trying to unravel the connections between all of these Catholic Highlanders

Canon William Clapperton was a Roman Catholic priest who wrote about 130 years ago, "Memoirs of Scotch Catholic Priests"

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