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John Ogilvie

Image of John OgilvieThis is the remarkable story of John Ogilvie, who as a Catholic priest in penal times had to operate under the cloak of secrecy. He was eventually captured, tortured and in 1615 hanged, aged just 36. His crime? Failing to disown his religion. The bravery, devotion and unshakeable spirit of this young man from Keith led to his becoming Scotland’s first saint since Queen Margaret in 1250, and one of the most important figures in the history of the Catholic Church in Scotland. Here MIKE COLLINS explains why…….

Moray’s sainted martyr

JOHN Ogilvie hailed from a land-owning family of ancient lineage, but he left his native area around Keith, aged 12, to head for the Continent and further his education. He intended returning to play his part in the affairs of Scotland. At the age of just 36, however, he would be dead – executed because of his religion, after being subjected to the most abominable torture against a background of fierce intolerance that was sweeping Scotland. His was a cause celebre in which the King played an active role, but the cruelty and injustice of his fate shocked many people.

Ogilvie’s life may have been short, but his legacy has been long-lasting – so much so that 400 years later, we are still telling this tale of heroism, unbreakable spirit and unshakeable faith.

Securing a place in history could not have been further from the thoughts of this son of Walter Ogilvie, baron of Drum-na-Keith, whose own father, James, had been treasurer to Mary Queen of Scots. The family tree is said to have stretched back to William, King of Scotland, and Queen Margaret, herself later to be made a Saint. The Ogilvies were firm Calvinists. Just 20 years before John Ogilvie’s birth in 1579, John Knox had succeeded in switching Scotland’s state religion from Catholicism to Calvinism, later known as Presbyterianism, and the Catholic faith was now forbidden, with fierce purges instigated to stamp it out.

The Protestant King James (VI of Scotland and I of England) insisted that he should be the head of all matters civil and spiritual, and that no one should bow to the Pope of Rome.

Such was the fear of influence from the still Catholic Europe that permits had to be granted for travelling abroad, and Walter Ogilvie – closely related to Sir Walter Ogilvie, later Lord Deskford – obtained one for his son, who set off from home with an uncle in 1592. The route Ogilvie took was not the one that his family had planned. He travelled widely and studied, and listened to scholars, both Calvinist and Catholic, discussing religion. That proved a source of inspiration, and at the age of just 17 he converted to Catholicism. The Jesuit order was close to his heart, and he traversed the Continent to achieve his aim of becoming a priest. Having enrolled in the Scots College at Louvain in Belgium, he took his vows at Graz in the Austrian Tyrol, and in 1610 was ordained in Paris. Appointed a confessor to students at Rouen in France, he met priests exiled from Scotland for saying Mass or ministering to parishioners, and realising the heavy burden of Catholics in Scotland, longed to return to his native land.

He applied to his superiors for permission to go home. Twice he was refused, but his persistence eventually paid off. There was then no other Jesuit priest in Scotland – almost no priests at all, in fact – so this represented an extraordinary vote of confidence in a young man.

It was a dangerous mission. To cover his tracks and evade the many spies, he took a roundabout route by way of Mainz in Germany, and landed on the east coast of Scotland in 1613, taking on the identity of John Watson, a soldier returning from European wars and now trying his hand at horse dealing. Jesuit historians say he headed for his native North-east, where the Catholic faith was still flickering under the protection of the powerful Gordon, Earl of Huntly, and his superiors may have felt he would be safest here.

Father Ogilvie is thought to have spent Christmas at Strathbogie, and may even have visited Grant of Ballindalloch, who was fined around this time for harbouring a priest. Most noblemen wanted little to do with the visitor. Going against the King would cost them their position and land holdings; they pretended to be faithful to the new religion so as to retain their wealth. However, others of professional or lower classes responded. He returned to Edinburgh after Christmas, and one version of Ogilvie’s life story states that he set out for London to see King James himself.

“He tells us nothing about the purpose of his journey, but it so impressed the King that he gave Father Ogilvie a safe conduct to France in order to further the scheme. It must have had merit concerning the King’s constant preoccupation, the loyalty of his Catholic subjects. He would dearly have wished to have the Pope accept him as a Protestant King.

“It may be that the episode had the effect later of making the King more unrelenting towards the priest, since it would appear that he (Ogilvie) was unable to deliver an assurance of loyalty.”

From France, Father Ogilvie returned to Scotland in June, 1614, to continue his covert mission work, mainly around Edinburgh, Glasgow and Renfrewshire. “The harvest is great,” he wrote. He is said even to have penetrated Edinburgh Castle to comfort prisoners.

But the net was closing in on him. He travelled to Glasgow to reconcile five men to the church, but one was a spy, Adam Boyd, who had contacted the Protestant Archbishop of Glasgow, John Spottiswoode, and appointee of the King, and a trap was set.

On October 14, the priest was arrested, imprisoned in the Archbishop’s palace, and appeared before the burgh court of Glasgow. The nightmare was about to begin. Tortured for his faith for five months after his arrest, John Ogilvie was subjected to starvation, beatings, torture and sleep deprivation – but he met it all with equanimity, humour and courage.

Father Ogilvie was moved to Edinburgh for further investigation by the Privy Council, and was ordered to be subjected to the torture of the Vigil or Waking, which had been designed to ensure confessions of witchcraft. The prisoner was kept awake by being punched, thrown to the stone floor, and pierced by sharp instruments or “witch’s bridles”. This went on for eight days and nine nights, until a doctor pronounced that he was within hours of death. Through all this, he refused to disclose the names of Catholics to whom he had been ministering. After a few hours’ rest, he was brought back in front of the judges, still resisting threats and promises to save his skin.

He was taken by horseback to Glasgow, where for weeks he was shackled to a heavy iron, unable to sit up without help. In a letter smuggled out of prison, he wrote: “I lie burdened with an iron weight of 200lb, awaiting death unless I accept what is offered with the King’s clemency; that is, a rich provostry and abjure the faith. Having been tortured once by a vigil of nine nights and eight days, I now await a second torture and afterwards death. The gaoler will be coming back.”

Banishment for saying Mass was no longer an option. The Ogilvie case had now gone further, and the King wanted him to repudiate the Pope or die. King James intervened directly to draft a list of five questions, designed to force the priest into accepting, or rejecting, the “divine right” of the King in all matters, spiritual and temporal.

Father Ogilvie was finally put on trial for treason on March 10, 1615, at the Tolbooth in Glasgow’s Square. Facing the charges, he declared that he would die in defence of the King’s civil authority, but he could not obey him on spiritual matters. Two hours after the trial began, the jury found him guilty, and he was condemned to be hanged and quartered that afternoon.

Father Ogilvie spent three hours in prayer while the judges and jury went to lunch. Then the sheriff came to escort him to the public square for execution. Holding the rosary, the Jesuit mounted the scaffold and prayed briefly. A last-minute reprieve of his life and the promise of a substantial sum of money was refused. He declared his loyalty to the King, and made it clear he was dying “for religion alone”, adding: “For that, I am prepared to give even a hundred lives.”

Father Ogilvie threw his rosary into the crowd. It struck a Hungarian merchant visiting the city, and became the instrument of his conversion. The hangman tied the priest’s hands, led him up the ladder and pushed him off. He did not die immediately, so the executioner grabbed his legs and pulled him down to end his agony. The crowd murmured against the injustice of the execution, and instead of the body being quartered, it was spirited away to be buried secretly in a criminal’s plot on the outskirts of Glasgow.

In the years after his death, John Ogilvie was revered as a martyr throughout Europe, wherever his story was told. The Scripture scholar Cornelius a Lapide, who had known Ogilvie at Jesuit college, wrote: “It is clear from the account of his martyrdom that he astonished the Calvinists, for although unconquered by torture and still bold and ready in debate, he opened not his mouth against his tormentors.”

Following the Reformation of 1560, the Catholic Church almost died – but it stayed alive in corners of Scotland, not least in parts of what is now Moray, where at Scalan, in Glenlivet, a seminary operated from 1716-32, producing priests who headed out to all parts of the country to minister in secret.

These brave men were following in the footsteps of the likes of Ogilvie.

In the latter half of the 1700s, the Penal Laws were relaxed, and in 1793 largely abolished, allowing Catholics again to practise their religion openly and free of fear.

It’s a miracle!

JOHN Ogilvie’s formal canonisation in Rome in 1976 made him the first Scottish saint since Queen Margaret of Scotland in 1250. He had been beatified, given the title of Blessed, in 1929, and a campaign to have him raised to the sainthood was successful after the recovery from cancer of a 63-year-old Glasgow docker, John Fagan, in 1967 was declared a miracle and attributed to John Ogilvie, after whom Mr Fagan’s parish was named.

Given only a short time to live, he was unable to eat because of stomach cancer, and his weight dropped to five stones. Then one morning he woke and startled his wife by saying, “I’m hungry”. To the astonishment of doctors, Mr Fagan went on to make a full recovery, and was present at the canonisation at the Vatican.