Within the walls of Braemar’s churchyard rests the site of the first church in Scotland dedicated to St Andrew.
Now overbuilt by the Farquharson mausoleum, the church was built by Angus MacFergus, of King the Picts (731-761). Returning from an attack into Dalriada, he encountered the expelled Bishop of Hexham, carrying with him relics of St Andrew. He promptly granted him asylum.
Braemar is significant as it remained one of the few places in Scotland to never to relinquish the Faith throughout the Reformation – into the late 1700s it was recorded that there were only ‘48 whole families Protestant’ compared to the ‘about 118 whole Catholik [sic] families’.
Farquharson records note about forty people in this county that never go to the Kirk and always expect and ‘pray for a churchman of the religion of their forefathers.’
The Jesuit Mission
From the early days of the Reformation, though, chapels were left to ruin and such was the case with St Andrew’s. A Jesuit mission began operation in 1671.
They were not uncommon in the Highlands as they had been tasked with the conversion of the clan chiefs and aristocracy.
Priests who served Braemar, such as Fr John Owen, were imprisoned. The danger led Fr E Lindsay to visit Braemar dressed as a shepherd playing a flute to gather the congregation.
Fr Owen likely preferred another instrument, writing during his stint in prison: “Remember me to the people of Glenairn, beginning with the fiddler.”
Indeed, in 1700 – six years before Fr Owen’s stay in prison – the Presbytery of Kincardine O’Neil complained of the ‘great danger’ the local flock faced of being ‘per- verted by the pernicious endeavours of trafficking priests and Jesuits’.
The area was poor and the conditions of fugitive priests tough. Fr Hugh Strach, writing in the early 1700s, recorded that the people were ‘so poor that they keep their cattle in their own dwellings,’ continuing, ‘we live as we can on butter, cheese, and milk, rarely get fresh fish – hardly ever.’
They drank water and sometimes beer. The priests never tasted wine except at the altar, and they slept on the ground or on a little straw or leather.
By 1788 the first secular priest, Fr James Cattanach, took over the mission. The persecutions were easing, and now the ‘greatest problem was the lack of a church’, he wrote to Bishop Cameron.
In 1795 a chapel, with funds and materials from Lord Fife, was erected. It lasted the congregation for a time, but by the next century it was too small.
The task of the creation of a new chapel would be given to Fr Walter Lovi.
Struggle for the Church
Born near Edinburgh, he was described as having a ‘natural gift of oratory and charm and boyish exuberance of character and expression not often found in a Scot’.
He wrote his first of many letters where he bemoaned the weather in Braemar to his bishop in 1837, stating the snow was so deep that he was left with the choice of being ‘frozen to death by going out or being smoked to death by remaining in.’
“I am already like a red herring,” he complained, “in smell and colour.” The planned construction of the church was largely being funded by Lady Carmarthen, granddaughter of the wealthiest man in the United States.
She was often quite demanding – indeed, Fr Lovi and she went back and forth on many details. But he also wrote of her generosity and goodness.
Throughout the planning of the church there are many more accounts of Fr Lovi’s writing to complain of the weather, but also the expensive Keith masons and materials. “I turned the whole congregation out to work,” he wrote, “men, women, and children.”
“There were 50 labourers in one day. I worked myself from six to six and kept up spirits by sport and fun.”
Lady Carmarthen – now the Duchess of Leeds – provided luncheon and beds for guests attending the opening and vestments were sent in from Blairs. Drained of energy and resources, Fr Lovi left Scotland for a time to fundraise across Europe where he met Prince Metternich and Empress Elisabeth of Austria – the latter giving £500 for the expenses of Braemar chapel.
After three years he returned. It is recorded that upon hearing of his approach ‘the poor people in their gala garbs, led on by their pipers, went forth for 10 miles in a body to escort him in triumph to Braemar.’
On Christmas day 1843, the congregation presented him with a purse of gold and a richly ornamented silver snuff box.
In an address, they bade him farewell: “Years have rolled on Rev Sir since you entered upon the pastoral charge in Braemar and great is the change and happy results which have marked the period of your incumbency.”
“The scene was most moving,” The Tablet recorded, “as the tears of the audience abundantly testified.”
Today Mass is celebrated in the church once a fortnight. Parishioner Carole Paterson said, ‘we are very proud of our lovely church and of the people of the past who made it possible’.