Ian Forbes on Blairs College and Scotland’s Catholic heritage

Five miles out of Aberdeen, Blairs Museum commemorates St Mary’s College which was Scotland’s national junior seminary, a boarding school for secondary boys from all over Scotland who were thinking of becoming priests – most did not, 9 out of 70 in Ian’s year having attained the priesthood but not Ian himself since he studied geography at the University of Edinburgh, then teacher training at Craiglockhart where he met his wife before returning to Blairs as a teacher.  The Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy ran the laundry and the kitchen but the boys had to make their own beds and undertake cleaning duties.  The thousand-acre estate contained a home farm and several tenant farms. Blairs had a library of 27,000 volumes which was at the National Library of Scotland from 1972 to 2014 before going also on loan to the University of Aberdeen. Many of the items in its collection of archives arrived in 1839, a decade after it had opened, from the Scots College in Paris. They too are now on loan to the University of Aberdeen.

Scotland’s first seminary since the Reformation lasted just a year at Loch Morar before moving in 1716 to Scalan on the Braes of Glenlivet where it rose from the flames of the ‘15 to flourish in secret as Catholicism was still illegal but about 80 priests and 3 bishops were ordained there. Aquhorties near Kemnay was the next location from 1799 until, in 1829, John Menzies of Pitfodels donated his estate and house at Blairs to the Catholic Church ‘for the education of young men for the priesthood.’  Under Bishop Aeneas Chisholm a major rebuilding completed in 1903 provided a purpose-built college and chapel. A further extension was provided in 1928 so that in total 200 students were accommodated in modern conditions, but with falling numbers the decision was taken in 1986 to close the seminary, leaving just the chapel and museum in use, and ownership passed in 1994 to a developer with plans for the college to become a hotel supported by housing and a golf course designed by Open champion Paul Lawrie, and with a new footbridge across the Dee.

Beginning and ending each day in prayer and spending one and a half hours daily in chapel, the boys were nevertheless sporty. An early photo shows Blairs College F.C 1904 formed a year after Aberdeen FC.  The ‘Philosophers Pitch’ was so-named after the philosophy students who were unable to attend the senior seminaries on the continent during the second WW2.  After leaving Blairs boys, pursuing the priesthood, went on to study at Paris, Valladolid or Rome or at the senior seminaries of Cardross and Drygrange in Scotland.  All have now closed apart from the Scots College in Rome.

With no-one to curate their origins, the sources of many artefacts received at Blairs College are unknown. However it was the Scots College in Rome that provided a portrait of Cardinal David Beaton, who crowned Mary Queen of Scots and fathered 6-8 children before being assassinated in St Andrews for having two men burnt at the stake for heresy.  Another portrait is that of Bishop George Hay, an Episcopalian who joined the Jacobite army and was jailed after Culloden.  He then converted to Catholicism and walked all the way home after being ordained a priest at the Scots College in Rome.  He was consecrated a bishop at Scalan in 1769 and was instrumental in negotiating with the government to bring Catholics back into mainstream society after the death, in 1788, of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Items in the collection include a watch and snuff-box associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie among many sacred vessels, rare vestments and paintings. Best known of all is the memorial portrait of Mary Queen of Scots loaned to the National Museum as the centre-piece of its 2013 exhibition. It was painted posthumously in about 1600 as a political statement since it showed the Queen still regal after 19 years’ imprisonment on her way to execution at Fotheringhay, where her Skye terrier emerged from under her skirts but died a week later, broken-hearted.  The Lady Diana of her day she remains a charismatic figure today.  She is the first named woman to be recorded playing golf anywhere in the world – reported playing golf and croquet at Seton House just nine days after the murder of her second husband Darnley.  Mary may have given us the word ‘caddie’ since in France golf clubs for the Royal Family were carried by cadets.  Mary, the golfer, is commemorated in another portrait commissioned last year.