ON SUNDAY August 19 I concelebrated Mass with the past and present parish priests at St Peter's, Chapel Court, Aberdeen. It was 180 years to the day, a Sunday also, when Bishop Cameron, coadjutor to Bishop Hay of the Lowland District, solemnly dedicated the Church in honour of the Apostle Peter.
The cover of Peter F. Anson's book Underground Catholicism in Scotland reproduces his own drawing from a well known etching of "The Rev Charles Gordon of St Peter's Chapel catechising his little ones" before the altar of the Church.
It is an appropriate cover because St Peter's is one of those places in Scotland where the underground Church of the penal days emerged in the early 18th century, like a hidden stream surfacing in a spring of fresh water.
The sources were in remote places like Scalan in the Braes of Glenlivet or the Enzie of lower Banffshire.
That the faith was able to winter the storms of antiCatholicism which swept the country was due in part to the remoteness of the highlands and in part to the protection of clan chiefs or powerful magnates like the Dukes of Gordon who kept the faith.
You must see Scalan, the hidden seminary in the foothills of the Grampians, to sense the fugitive nature of the Church throughout most of the 18th century, particularly after the failure of the '45.
Bishop Cameron was born at Braemar the year after the terminal battle of Culloden, and brought up during that period of intense application of the penal laws suffered also by our Episcopalian brethren who were not part of the Scottish Establishment, and implicated like ourselves in Jacobite causes. He was educated for four years at Scalan before going to complete his studies in the Scots College in Rome.
When he came to Aberdeen to dedicate the new church, Bishop Cameron was following in the footsteps of his predecessor Bishop Geddes, both as Rector of the Royal Scots College in Valladolid and coadjutor to Bishop Hay, for it was to Aberdeen, and to his nephew, Priest Gordon, that Bishop Geddes retired.
He died in the presbytery there and was buried in the Snowy Kirkyard (Our Lady of the Snows) in Old Aberdeen. It was Geddes who had done so much in his day and at Edinburgh to win a new respect for the Catholic Church.
Robert Burns inscribed a copy of his poems to a man he publicly acknowledged as one of the finest clerical gentleman he had ever met.
What hopes the building of St Peter's must have kindled in the hearts of Catholics in the North-East! They celebrated its dedication with what they claimed to be the first High Mass in Scotland since the Reformation. The Bishop confirmed 60 young people a new generation to build on what their fathers had struggled so hard to found.
Their hopes were not without substance. In the next half century they saw the establishment of schools for boys and girls, and an orphanage attached to both. (The school continues to this day on its third, and new, site at Old Aberdeen, while the orphanage has become Nazareth House.) They witnessed the building of St Joseph's, Woodside (1842), and the transfer of the students from Authorities (whence they had gone from Scalan in 1799) to the manor house of John Menzies of Pitfodels at Blairs. (This is still our National Junior Seminary). The parish priest, Fr Charles Gordon, had much to do to prepare the buildings for the arrival of the students and staff one auspicious day in 1829, the year of Catholic emancipation.
By the end of the half century they were dreaming of a fine new Church in Aberdeen's proud new thoroughfare, Union Street, an achievement which was realised in 1860 with the building of St Mary's of the Assumption, later, and still, the Cathedral of the restored Diocese of Aberdeen.
Priest Gordon, as he was called, could claim to have 2,000 worshippers (including nonCatholics) at his services.
It is a sobering fact to consider that when Aberdeen accounted for perhaps less than 25,000 people there were between 1,000 and 2,000 Catholics in the city. Now when Aberdeen is ten times larger, the number of Catholics is less than five times what it was in Priest Gordon's time — if we can trust his figures.
When doubts were cast upon them in his own time he answered with typically pithy humour, "Well when we count the collection there is always from 1,000 to 1,200 coins, an' verra few pits in twa!"
Overall in the diocese, which comprises the whole of Grampian Region, most of Highland and the islands of Orkney and Shetland, our numbers have remained steady. This is not a sign of lack of movement or even lack of growth.
A closer examination of the parishes shows that the old pockets of Catholicism have been largely emptied of their populations. The old sources are reduced to a trickle. On the other hand new springs have emerged in places like Thurso, Tain and Alness, and particularly around the City of Aberdeen.
Modern industry (nuclear reactors and oil exploration are largely responsible). According to a set of recent statistics Aberdeen was the only Scottish Diocese to show an absolute increase over ten years in the number of people attending Mass.
Rivers can change their course, new springs be added to them, new outlets to the sea, but they continue to flow, and the faith like them. Visiting ancient sources and well heads can make us ponder, and prompt our appreciation, of the ebbs and flows of our history.