Bishopric of Aberdeen, pp.85-91.

[Sketches Contents]

Our last sketch for illustrating the old cathedral life of Scotland, shall be taken from the annals of the bishopric of Aberdeen, though its saintly bishops – Elphinstone and Forbes – came too late for canonizing.

An ancient biography of Saint Columba informs us, that one of his Irish disciples, named Machar, received episcopal ordination, and undertook to preach the gospel in the northern parts of the Pictish kingdom. The legend adds, that Columba admonished him to found his church, when he should arrive upon the bank of a river, where it formed, by its windings, the figure of a bishop’s crosier. Obeying the injunctions of his master, Machar advanced northwards, preaching Christianity, until he found, at the mouth of the Don, the situation indicated by Saint Columba, and finally settled there his Christian colony, and founded the church which, from its situation, was called the Church of Aberdon.1 The life of the apostle of the Scots from which we derive this information, of much higher antiquity than any history of civil affairs in Scotland, does not fix the precise era of Saint Machar’s foundation; but it may be conjectured to have been before the death of his master, which took place in the year 597. The venerable Breviary of Aberdeen gives, as the ancient tradition of the church, that the founder of the future cathedral was not interred there; but, having died in France on his return from a journey to Rome, he was buried in the church of Saint Martin of Tours.

Another adventurous band of missionaries of the same stock pushed still farther into the pagan fastnesses of the north, and established their little Christian family in the sequestered valley of the Fiddich, at Morthlach.2 Their colony must have thriven in the benevolence of the people, since, in the beginning of the twelfth century, the “Monastery of Morthlach” was possessed of five churches with their territories.

It was the fate of the ancient Columbite foundations in Scotland to disappear under the reforming vehemence of David I., the most zealous of Romanists; who raised on the ruins of many a primeval monastery, his grand establishments of Augustinian canons or Benedictines, or converted their convents into the chapters of his new episcopal dioceses. In this manner, the bishopric of Aberdeen was founded by David, and endowed with several of the old Columbite possessions, among others, with the “Monastery of Morthlach,” and its five churches.

The most distinguished of the Bishops of Aberdeen was William Elphinstone, who was promoted to the see in 1483, and held it till his death in 1514. in an age of general immorality which peculiarly disgraced the church, himself the offspring of an illegal connexion of an ecclesiastic, his morals were a pattern and a reproach to his country and his order.

His life has been written by Boece, a contemporary,3 whose manner it is to discard dates; and his character drawn without much rhetorical embellishment by Leslie and by Spottiswood. We know him in the history of the time as the zealous churchman, the learned lawyer, the wise statesman; one who never sacrificed his diocesan duties to mere secular cares, but knew how to make his political eminence serve the interests of his church; who, with manners and temperance in his own person, befitting the primitive ages of Christianity, threw around his cathedral and palace, the taste and splendour that may adorn religion; who found time amidst the cares of state, and the pressure of daily duties, to preserve the Christian antiquities of his diocese, and collect the memories of those old servants of the truth who had run a course similar to his own; to renovate his cathedral service, and to support and foster all good letters; while his economy of a slender revenue rendered it sufficient for the erection and support of sumptuous buildings, and the endowment of a famous University.

The last of the ante-Reformation Bishops of Aberdeen. Bishop William Gordon, died on the 6th August 1577. Spottiswood’s character of him is short and plain. “This man, brought up in letters at Aberdeen, followed his studies a long time in Paris, and returning thence, was first parson of Clat, and afterwards promoved to this See. Some hopes he gave at first of a virtuous man, but afterwards turned a very epicure, spending all his time in drinking and whoring; he dilapidated the whole rents by feuing the lands, and converting the victual-duties in money, a great part whereof he wasted upon his base children, and the whores, their mothers; a man not worthy to be placed in this catalogue.”4

“In his time,” says Father Hay, “the glorious structure of the cathedral, which had been near nine score of years in building, was defaced by a crew of sacrilegious church robbers; for in 1560 the barons of Mernes, accompanied with some of the townsmen of Aberdeen, having demolished the Monasteries of the Black and Grey Friars, fell to rob the Cathedral, which they spoiled of all its costly ornaments and jewels, and demolished the chancell; they shipped the lead, bells, and other utensils, intending to expose them to sale in Holland; but all this ill-gotten wealth sunk by the just judgment of God, not far from the Girdleness. The body of the Cathedral was preserved from utter ruin by the Earl of Huntly, and, in 1607, repaired and covered with slate at the charge of the parish, and so continues yet in pretty good order.”

The records of an ancient bishopric naturally arrange themselves in two classes, the first comprising charters, titles, rentals, and all documents touching property, – the other consisting of statutes of councils, church ordinances, and matters bearing on the discipline and government of the Church and diocese.

The first section is calculated to be oftenest referred to, and perhaps most practically useful. No one living within the bounds of the diocese can look into it without finding something to interest him – something throwing light on his family, his property, or his parish – showing the ancient state and occupation of his own residence, or of conterminous property. It may require somewhat more reflection to appreciate the body of Church muniments which form the materials of the second section. But, rightly considered, the interest of mere local history is secondary to that of the Christian antiquities of our country. If it be possible to trace the introduction of Christianity in its first simplicity, the weak beginning of the Church when struggling for existence, its progressive acquisition of security, wealth, and power, it cannot be unprofitable to examine dispassionately the causes of its success, by what means it controlled the minds of men not easily led, and influenced their laws, banished all dissent even in thought, and brought it about that men gave to the Church in the full confidence that they were giving to God.

In that inquiry – in examining the foundations of that mighty power, wielded often for good, sometimes for evil – it may be allowed to lay aside for the time questions of doctrine. We may be permitted to view the ancient Church as an artist with a task proposed; to examine the materials in her power, and the skill with which she used them. We shall then find much to admire, something perhaps to imitate. We are astonished at her adaption of herself to all circumstances, and patient bending of all things to her purpose. However politicians dispute, we cannot regard without sympathy her care of the poor, and the ceaseless charity which she inculcated for the benefit of the giver as well as of the receiver. Not less worthy of our attention is her avowed and consistent principle of inspiring piety by an appeal to the imagination and the heart. Subservient to that end was the munificence directed – ad ampliandum cultum divinum – ad decorem domus Dei – to make more glorious the service and the fabric of the Church, not as a mere place of popular instruction, or a convenient meeting-house for devotion, but regarded by the old Catholic, as by the Jews of old, as the temple and very shrine of a present Deity, where innumerable altars were offering up the ever renewed sacrifice of propitiation. The effect of such means for the object proposed – to produce strong faith, unhesitating obedience; the success of the great plan of the ancient Church, and its whole influence on society – are subjects of reflection not to be slighted by the most philosophical, nor rejected by those most opposed to the Roman Catholic doctrines, with the same ends in view. As some part of the materials for such an investigation, these collections of church usages, the relics of a once splendid hierarchy, may be held not unworthy of some study; and it is not too much to say, that their study, is entered upon without prejudice, would fill an instructive chapter of Scotch history.

Ubi flumen, præsulis instar baculi, intrat mare; Colgan Trias Thau. – Breviar. Aberdon. 12 Nov. The lives of Saint Columba, written by his immediate followers and contemporaries, are, perhaps, the most ancient genuine materials of Scotch history. – Act. Sanct. Jun. 9, p. 184.
Bull of Adrian IV. confirming previous donations. – Regist. Aberd. p. 5.
Vidimus hominem, quem vidisse, singularem ab praestantiam, et nobis gaudemus, et Deo optimo maximo non vulgares habemus agimusque, et habebimus atque agemus dum vivemus, gratias. – Boec. Episc. Aberd.
It has not been thought necessary to notice a surmise of Father Hay and Bishop Russell, that there may have been two bishops in succession of the name of William Gordon. The change of conduct, even if that were proved, is but a slender foundation to build upon. It is impossible that any appointment of a bishop should have taken place about 1567, the time fixed upon, without some record of it being preserved.