The History of St John the Baptist’s parish, Perth

by Dr Harry Schnitker

(The beginning….)

1685 to 1831:

‘A Time of Essentials’

When, in May 1559, John Knox came to Perth to preach in the church of St. John the Baptist, the Catholic Church in Scotland entered the greatest crisis in its entire history. This is not the place to examine the circumstances of its collapse, nor is it the place to enter the discussion on what exactly caused that collapse. Suffice to say that it took very little effort to overthrow the whole edifice of the Catholic Church in Scotland. Probably most of its priests and many of its religious just adapted to the changing times, and became ministers or readers in the new Church of Scotland. This was also true in Perth. With the exception of some of the Carthusians, Franciscans, and Dominicans, there was no resistance to the message preached to such effect by Knox that May. The crowd took it upon themselves to destroy all the symbols of the Catholic Church: the rich trappings of St. John’s were all removed, and the religious houses torn down. Almost all the artistic accomplishments of the past centuries were simply wiped out.

There was some initial reluctance amongst some to embrace the new doctrines. There are one or two reports from Perth that Mass was still being said, although we know tantalisingly little about this. In the wider region, incidences of pilgrimage or the veneration of saints continued, in some places well into the eighteenth century. At Dunkeld, for example, Christians of all denominations still went to a local holy well as late as the 1650s. However, there was no organised resistance, and, perhaps most importantly, there remained very few priests who could continue the Faith. Only around Murthly Castle was there any attempt to re-organise, with the arrival of Jesuit fathers related to the Abercrombie family. A few of the priests of the cathedral chapter at Dunblane, and the incumbent in Muthil continued to say Mass into the 1570s, and the Bishop of Dunkeld stayed loyal to Rome, without, however, initiating any overt resistance to the new settlement.

[nbsp] By the 1610s, there is no further report on any Catholic activity; nor is this very surprising, as the number of priests still active in Scotland numbered fewer than ten. The situation of Catholics in the country during the reign of Charles I and under the Cromwellian Commonwealth has been called ‘pitiable’, but it would seem that in Perthshire there was really no Catholic to be pitied. The decision by the Holy See to restore independence to the remnant of Scotland’s Catholic Church in 1653, after it had resided under English archpriests since 1603, would not have made much of an impact in the region. When Fr. William Leslie, S.J. wrote his report to Propaganda fidei in 1677, there were, according to him, no Catholics in Perthshire at all.

It is against the background of this total collapse of the Church in Perthshire that the conversion of the fourth Earl, later first Duke, of Perth needs to be seen. The Drummond family, of which James Drummond, Earl of Perth, was the head, was one of the most important in the county, indeed, in Scotland. They owned vast tracts of land in Strathearn and to the north of Perth, and had long, and intimate, associations with the Stewart royal family. James was born in 1648, to a Protestant father. His mother, Lady Anna Gordon, was a daughter of the staunchly Catholic George, second Marquis of Huntly. An intelligent man, James studied at St. Andrews University, and lived for some time in Paris to acquire ‘culture’. He had strong Episcopalian leanings, and assisted in the persecution of the Covenanters during the reign of Charles II. In his service, and in that of the future James VII, James and his brother, John, Earl of Melfort, made rapid careers. When James succeeded to the Scottish crown in 1685, the two Drummond brothers were effectively running the country. That same year, they both converted to Catholicism.

A lot of ink has been spilled on the depth of their conversion. Many have seen it as an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the Catholic James VII. However, it has to be said that they remained loyal to the Pope after their conversion, and that their children all grew up to be devout Catholics. Indeed, one of Melfort’s sons became a priest. On the Drummond estates, the conversion caused the rebirth of a small Catholic community, the direct predecessors of the Catholic parishes in Perth and Crieff. Once more, the question of the genuineness of the conversions may be questioned, but, the priests in the household of the fourth Earl were successful at attracting some of the leading families on the estates to the Church. The man who was mainly responsible for these conversions was John Ambrose Cook, a Benedictine from the Scottish Abbey of Würzburg. A letter from 1690 tells of his successes around the two main seats of the Earl, Drummond Castle and Stobhall Castle. The earliest of these conversions may be dated to 1688, when the Earl reported converts to Rome.

The revolution of 1689-90 cut short this favourable climate for the Church. William of Orange’s regime cracked down on the Church, and the Earl of Perth was imprisoned and subsequently exiled to Paris. In both Cargill (Stobhall) and Muthil (Drummond) parishes, in the meantime, the local minister refused to recognise the new regime. Supported by the Drummond family and their Catholic factors, they held out until 1698, when both parishes became vacant. It was not until 1708 that Presbyterian ministers finally gained access to the parishes. Perhaps significantly, the minister at Cargill was reported by Bishop Gordon to be inclined towards Catholicism. By this time, a Catholic priest had been active on the estate since 1698, named Alexander Drummond, and a convert of Fr. Cook. Consolidation came in 1700, when Drummond Castle became an official mission station. Six years later, 27 adult Catholics are mentioned at Stobhall, with another 24 around Drummond.

All this had happened under the protection of the second Duke, who had returned from exile in 1695. By 1710, some 40 adult Catholics are reported from the Stobhall part of the estate alone, and it is clear that the Church was successful at attracting converts. This is all the more remarkable as this occurred against the backdrop of the last severe extended famine in the region, which actually saw a drop in population due to starvation, as well as some of the worst persecution suffered by the Catholic Church since 1560. Indeed, the rest of the Scottish Mission suffered a sharp decline during the same period. The Jacobite uprising of 1715 could easily have undone all of this. The Jacobite army, including the second Duke, burned much of Strathearn as it retreated from the Battle of Sheriffmuir, but spared the homes of Catholics. In the wake of the collapse of the uprising, the second Duke escaped to Paris. There, his father died in 1716, soon followed by the second Duke, in 1720. Both were buried in the Scots College, the Catholic seminary for Scottish priests, in Paris.

That the Church did not collapse for a second time is largely due to the influence of Lady Jane Gordon, widow of the second Duke. Another member of the Huntly Gordons, she was steadfast in her faith. In many ways she was typical of the strong female aristocrats who kept the flame of the Faith alive between 1560 and the 1790s. On behalf of her young children, she administered the Drummond estates – which were briefly confiscated but regained when she appealed to parliament. She also protected the Church, and stimulated its mission. Her sons she had smuggled to Paris, to be educated in the Scots College, as the government had proclaimed that all children of Catholics should be taken from their parents and be educated as Protestants. Upon the coming of age of the third Duke, she assisted him in his work on the estate. When, in 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland to start the final Jacobite uprising, he received whole hearted support from the Drummonds, mother and sons. The third Duke fought valiantly in several of the battles, and commanded the left wing at Culloden. He died on board of a ship trying to escape to France in the aftermath of the battle. His brother, John, the fourth Duke, refused to surrender, and had all his estates confiscated.

This left Lady Jane Gordon once more as the sole protector of the Church. She had received Stobhall as her dower, and this was, therefore, not subject to confiscation. As a result, the mission could continue, but not until she had served nine months in prison for entertaining Bonnie Prince Charlie at Drummond Castle in 1745. Only one man, Alexander Cumming senior, is marked as a ‘Papist’ amongst those who joined the Duke in the uprising, although the list is far from complete. We know that some 200 tenants from around Drummond accompanied the Duke, many of whom came from Catholic parts of the estate. There is a tradition that more than a few of these families fled to France and called at the Scots College in Paris in the wake of the defeat at Culloden.

The Church in Perthshire did not suffer much, though, particularly when compared to other parts of Scotland, for which Lady Jane Gordon was mostly responsible. Her excellent rapport with Lord Kames at the forfeited estates commission ensured that the Church was left alone. Growth still occurred and a note to Propaganda fidei from 1763 shows around 300 adult Catholics in the mission of Stobhall, with another 168 in Drummond. That same year, Stobhall and Drummond both received new missionaries, effectively splitting the mission in two. Lady Jane Gordon would continue to support the Church until her death in 1773. Within four years, the Church was told to vacate the small chapel from which it had operated in Stobhall Castle. Once more Lord Kames came to the rescue, and he allowed a Catholic farmer on the estate to rent a barn on behalf of the Church, which was barred from owning or renting property by the Penal Act of 1700.

There is no need to discuss the minutiae of the foundation of the Park chapel. Initially, Mass was said in an old barn, and even this was threatened in 1778, when, in response to a proposal to end discrimination against Catholics, a mob had marched from Perth to burn the barn. They were turned back by the local gentry. Agricultural improvements, which were beginning to cause migration in the Highlands, hit the Park mission around this time. A report from Bishop Hay in 1780, shows that there were now only 118 adult Catholics in the mission, down from 300 seventeen years before. It was Abbé Paul McPherson, who was later to become the second founder of the Scots College in Rome, who placed the mission on a more secure footing. The lease was secured, and the barn converted into a proper small chapel, with a priest house next to it. This could not prevent the continued decline in numbers: the Abbé served eastern Perthshire, Angus including Dundee, and northern Fife. For this whole region he reported only 160 adult Catholics.

The position of the Church was about to undergo serious change, however. The first came in the form of increasing toleration. The alliance between the Papacy and the United Kingdom during the wars with Revolutionary France made the Faith more acceptable to many, whilst gradually the Church of Scotland came to share the antagonism of the Catholic Church towards the revolution. A Catholic emancipation bill was passed for Scotland in 1793 which removed the most serious restrictions. In addition, destitute Catholic Highlanders were beginning to arrive, and would soon be followed by even more destitute Irish Catholics. The Old Statistical Account of 1799 shows that this influx would have to wait until the new century. In the Park mission it shows only 34 adult Catholics in Perthshire, almost exactly the same number as those left by the work of Fr. John Ambrose Cook, O.S.B. a century earlier! In Dundee, there were a further 30 Catholics.

By the 1820s, the tidal wave had overwhelmed what was left of the original Catholic community. In Dundee by this time, there were over 400 Catholics. In Perth the figure is less clear, and complicated by the occasional Irish regiment stationed in the city. However, the community there numbered at least 250 around the same time. The chapel at Park was no longer the obvious centre of the mission. In 1816, the priest, John Forbes, complained that the walls of the house were sagging, and that the floor in the chapel had been eaten by insects. This ramshackle heart of the community received an organ in 1820, with Fr. William Rattray finally agreeing to have music in his chapel; the fear of detection by the Protestant neighbours lingered for a long time. Fr. Rattray knew that he could not stay at Park. In 1821, a piece of ground was bought in Perth with an eye to constructing a chapel there, although nothing came of this for a considerable time. Since 1803, when Fr. Pepper, O.S.B. left, Dundee had been without a resident priest, although it did have a Catholic chapel. In 1824, Fr. Rattray moved to Dundee, to be closer to where the majority of Catholics in the region now lived. He still occasionally said Mass at the chapel at Park, but even this came to an end when he died, in 1827.

By now, the Catholic population in Perth numbered around 500, mostly Irish with quite a few Highlanders, and Mass was occasionally said in the hall of the Free Masons. Two years later, in 1829, the Catholic Relief Act was passed, which ended almost all restrictions on the Catholic Church. The presbytery in Perth had been less than happy with this: in 1828 it had collected a massive petition to the government in a forlorn attempt to retain the status quo. Fr. John Geddes received a letter from Bishop Paterson that year, ordering him to the new mission in Perth. Fr. Geddes, always in poor health, tried to delay his arrival, but dutifully went anyway. He started the construction of the church of St. John the Baptist, but would not live to see its inauguration: he died in 1831, aged only 24.



1832 to 1981:

From Mission to Parish

The Catholic presence in Perth had been rather ephemeral prior to the construction of a chapel. The construction of a highly visible, solid stone church in Melville Street in late 1832 provided a focus for the religious and social life of Catholics in the town.

Although the evidence for the initial cultural make-up of the mission is rather contradictory, the church soon found itself at the centre of a large, Irish community, mostly very poor. Their arrival initiated a period of religious, social, and economic isolation, in part of their own choice, in part imposed by the host community. Gathered around the church were people scared of losing their religious and their cultural identity, in what they regarded to be a hostile Presbyterian environment.

Like the Catholics from the Highlands and the north-east of Scotland before them, they had been drawn to Perth by the employment opportunities offered by the agricultural and industrial innovations of the early nineteenth century. Gradually, these people, a mixture of victims of the Clearances, people forced off the land by agricultural change, Europeans, and Irish settlers of all hues, would merge into one homogenous Catholic community. Even more gradually, they would begin to form a constituent of the wider community in Perth. Much water would pass under the bridge over the Tay before that happened, though.

Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, more and more migrants arrived in Perth, mainly from Ireland. They were attracted by the employment opportunities provided by the expanding railroad, and driven from their homes by the horrors of famine. The latter years of the 1840s saw the number of Catholics treble in size. Initially, only a small portion of these people attended Mass, but from the early 1850s this started to change. As the congregation grew, the need for an extension to the church arose, and this duly occurred in 1855-6, from which period stems the oldest picture of St. John’s. The growing community had its own voluntary school at High Street-Meal Vennel, in the vicinity of which the vast majority of Perth’s Catholics lived. The school offered day and evening classes. The Vennel itself was known for years in Perth as the ‘Irish Channel’.

The isolation of Catholics in Perth was to affect their political direction: it prevented them from becoming part of the Trade Union movement for a considerable time. Indeed, it was not until the 1890s that Catholics started to join the unions in any numbers. This was further influenced by the ideological opposition towards organised labour by the Scottish bishops, which expressed itself in a campaign to discourage Catholics from getting involved in the unions. Another source of political and economic disenfranchisement came from the open hostility towards the community from their Protestant neighbours. Sectarianism resulted in Catholics being discriminated against, and it would take decades before they were to gain access to skilled jobs.

When the community did become politically active in the late nineteenth century, the outlet was found in Irish nationalism. St. John’s had its own branch of the United Irish League in the 1880s. The close association between Irish national and Scottish Catholic identity was born around this time, at least as far as self-identification goes; for the Protestant community, this had been the case since the start of mass immigration. In Scotland, the community tended to vote Liberal, but this could change depending on the candidate’s stance on Irish Home Rule.

Although not overly political for a long time, Catholics were concerned with self-help and personal improvement. Societies began to appear, which, in the main, mirrored institutions in the Protestant churches. For example, St. John’s had a Temperance Society. Also present was the League of the Cross, a branch of the Irish National Foresters, which was a friendly society, insuring people against illness and death. For the poor there was the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, whilst a Catholic Young Men’s Society provided a wide range of activities from its hall in the High Street near the school, as an alternative to public houses and gambling. Their billiard room was reputedly one of the best in Perth, and they had their own swimming club, a sign that the Victorian concerns over health also affected the Catholic community. The first stirrings of integration may also be seen: the CYMS entered the Perth Billiard League and the Domino League. Football teams associated with the mission, like Perth Celtic and Erin Rovers, represented Perth’s Catholics in the local league from the 1880s.

The character of the Catholic Church in Scotland was to be heavily influenced by the Irish influx. In the central urban and industrial areas, Irish Catholicism, with its less rigid approach to the Faith, and its more florid cultural expressions thereof, replaced the austere, almost Protestant face of the eighteenth-century Church. At the same time, there was a definite Presbyterian influence on the new Catholic congregations: priests did their utmost to make their congregations conform to middle class values, and struggled to get them to understand such concepts as ‘Sunday Best’.

Sociologically, the most important aspect of the huge Irish immigration to Scotland was that it transformed the Catholic Church in the country from a small minority into a major denomination. The apogee of this rapid expansion, and in spite of Presbyterian opposition, was the restoration of the Scottish hierarchy in 1878, 28 years later than in England and Wales. This gave the country a recognisable Catholic infrastructure. One of the restored dioceses was Dunkeld, with George Rigg as its first new Bishop; he set up his new seat in Perth. Growth continued for some time, and, in 1892-3, this resulted in a renewed extension of the church.

From around that time, the integration of the Catholic community began to gather pace. This process was marked by a decline in Irish sentiments, and a slow move away from a denominational organisation of social activities. However, one would do well not to regard this as a rapid process: the period from 1907, when the 75th anniversary of the foundation of St. John’s was celebrated, right up to the 1980’s saw a very gradual move away from isolation and rejection towards integration and acceptance. Crucial amongst this was the integration of the school system. Since the early 1900s the hierarchy had been in discussion with the government with regard to the incorporation of Catholic schools in the mainstream state education system. This would relieve them of a huge financial burden, but they would only countenance such a move if their influence on education in Catholic schools was to be safeguarded. Catholic voluntary schools, which provided post-primary education, had been discriminated against in the 1872 school reforms, which introduced local government finance in place of fees.

Even though Catholics who sent their children to St. John’s School were rate payers, their school had been excluded from receiving government grants. This anomaly was removed by the 1918 Education Act. Interestingly, this move towards integration had acknowledged the continuous influence of the bishops over the Catholic schools, and had thereby safeguarded a specific Catholic identity. Integration, but not assimilation, was to be the underlying theme of the next few decades. Appropriately in this slow-moving process, the full integration of the Catholic schools in the new system would not occur until 1928!

The impact of the First World War on the growing level of acceptance of the Catholic minority by the wider community cannot be overestimated. Of course, parishioners from St. John’s had fought for their country in other conflicts. James Fisher, who died in 1923, for example, had joined the 79th Cameron Highlanders in 1857, and was a veteran of the Indian Mutiny. John Kerrigan had served in the Boer War with the Scottish Horse Yeomanry, and held the Queen’s Medal with four clasps. He was killed whilst serving in the Black Watch in 1918. He was not the only one. As in the rest of Scotland, Perth’s Catholics enlisted and died in rather large numbers. When the conflict ended, the community had lost 65 of its men, a very large portion. A window and plaque were created to honour their memory in 1925. The sacrifice made by the much-maligned religious group allowed them some access to the membership of a wider, Scottish or British, national identity. It is at this point that one can perceive a first shift from ‘Irish Immigrant’ to ‘Scottish Catholic’, both in self-perception and in the opinion of the wider community.

The war had also enabled Catholics to move up the social scale by offering them skilled employment, whilst a sense of class solidarity created by the conflict opened the doors to political participation. State-funding for Catholic schools attracted better teachers, and would, in the long-term, begin to create a better educated segment in the community. This led in turn to the slow emergence of a Catholic middle class, although the vast majority of Perth’s Catholics were still firmly working class. The economic crisis of the 1930s was to halt this process in its tracks. Irish immigration slowed down to a trickle, whilst Scots of all denominations, including Catholics, emigrated in droves to escape grinding poverty at home. The Catholic community was particularly hard hit by the crisis, which destroyed innumerable manual jobs. In turn, they became the scapegoats for what was happening: these ‘alien’ and ‘racially inferior’ people were blamed for the economic ills affecting the country, an offensive which was led by the Church of Scotland. This turned back the clock, and re-equated Catholic and Irish all over again.

By this time, the Catholic community had associated itself closely with the socialist movement. As seen, this began in the 1890s, but the Liberals could still count on the Catholic vote as long as they supported Home Rule in Ireland. In 1910, they won the elections in Perth due to the Catholic vote. Independence in Ireland and the collapse of the Liberal party put an end to this. And so, after an 11 o’clock Mass in 1921, members of the Independent Labour Party marched up to Perth prison and held a demonstration in support of the large number of Sinn Fein members being held there without trial. It was not only in the eyes of other Scots that Irishness and Catholicism were one-and-the-same-thing. The 1920s saw the Catholic vote in Scotland turning solidly in favour of the Labour Party. Many lapsed Catholics joined the Communist Party, which added to the general distrust of the community, and which allowed Protestants to equate ‘popery’ with atheism.

The Second World War saw Catholics from the mission in Perth once again joining the national cause, this time against the evil of Nazism. This resulted in further, if less severe, loss of life. For some members of the community, this was a rather fraught time: Catholics of Italian birth were interned as enemy aliens. On the other hand, the Catholic population not only benefited from an increase in standing as the result of their contribution to the war effort, but also increased in size. The arrival of co-religious from a variety of countries, but especially from Poland, caused Perth’s Catholic community to swell. Poles serving in the Free Polish Army were stationed all over Scotland, but were particularly well represented in and around Perth. They attended Polish Mass in St. John’s, and, in gratitude, donated the brass Sanctuary Lamp to the church on their national feast day, in May 1941.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Scottish Catholic community saw its numbers swell to an all-time high. The economic boom of the 1950s and ‘60s allowed new churches to be built, and increased wealth saw the once geographically close-knit Catholic community disperse. The Polish presence, which the government had encouraged, and which communist hostility in their country necessitated, meant that the identification between Irishness and Catholicism in the eyes of many Scots became less tenable. Polish clubs and associations were formed, and Polish priests served their needs. Yet the Irish dimension was also strengthened: the final large immigration from Ireland took place during the war, and in its aftermath, when labour was needed for the vast hydro-electric schemes. In some cases, these labourers actually constructed new churches, as, for example, in Pitlochry, where the church is dedicated to the very Irish St. Bride.

Reconstruction and urban planning resulted in the building of housing schemes on green field sites, to which were moved large numbers of people. New homes and better living conditions lured them away from their formerly close-knit communities. New parishes were created to coincide with this process, thus further loosening existing bonds. In Perth, Letham and Craigie were the main destinations. In the new Letham Housing Scheme, the church of Our Lady of Lourdes was built, soon to be joined by a primary school. In Craigie, St. Mary Magdalene’s was opened.

Accompanying this geographical upheaval was a social change of similar magnitude. The break-down of the geographical ‘ghetto’ of the vennels was mirrored in a break-down of the social ghetto in which the majority of the Catholic community had found itself. True, for wealthy Catholic landowners and well-educated priests, these ghettos had always been relative: now, with Catholics entering universities and the professions, they were joined by their co-religionists. This was backed-up by better secondary education, and, in Perth, St. Columba’s was built in 1967 to provide an alternative to the overcrowded St. John’s School.

All this flux saw the demise of older social institutions within the community, and the creation of new ones. The Union of Catholic Mothers was formed in 1947, but the parish lost the Knights of St. Columba around the same time. Yet this was also still the period before the storms of the late 1960s and ‘70s. The Marian Year of 1954, celebrating the centenary of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, was widely celebrated, and the parish participated in the national pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1956. The social changes of the late ‘60s were mirrored by the impact of the Second Vatican Council, which saw the church of St. John’s closed to redesign the interior to comply with the Council’s directives on the celebration of the Mass. Much of the old interior was destroyed in the process.

At the same time, the integration process gathered pace. In 1969, Archbishop Grey became the first resident Cardinal in Scotland since the sixteenth century, reflecting the increased standing of the Scottish province in the wider Catholic Church. Four years earlier, Canon John Coogan, the parish priest of St. John’s, had been honoured with a civic reception, a far cry from the 1930s. The gale that hit the Church in the 1970s did not pass Scotland or Perth by, and caused some loss of direction. This was soon to be remedied, however: in 1982, Scotland would witness the first visit by a reigning Pope, and the Catholic community from Perth would turn out en masse to greet him. In the wake of this visit, new purpose and direction was found.