SAINT JOHN OGILVIE
The biography of Saint John Ogilvie is taken
from the website of
the Diocese of Aberdeen and is reproduced with the kind permission of the
Bishop of Aberdeen.
This is a remarkable story of a remarkable man from Keith who has a privileged
place in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in Scotland and
here in the north-east.
John Ogilvie's life was short and yet his tale of bravery, courage, selflessness
and devotion to his faith has lasted long after his death almost four hundred
A Jesuit priest, he was martyred in Glasgow for refusing to denounce Catholicism
and accepting that the King - James VI of Scotland and I of England - had supreme
authority in all matters spiritual as well as civil. Ogilvie was no traitor to
his nation. He declared his loyalty to his King on countless occasions but made
clear he was dying "for religion alone" adding "For that I am prepared
to give even a hundred lives.".
John Ogilvie was not born a Catholic, He wasn't admitted to the faith until he
was seventeen years of age. He was a priest for only five years and he was dead
by the age of thirty-six.
His trial, following unspeakable torture, beatings, starvation and sleep deprivation
and his subsequent execution, became a cause celebre throughout Europe and he
was revered by his Jesuit order and throughout the Church but it was not until
1929 that he was beatified - made Blessed - and 1976 that he was canonised as
Scotland's first Saint in more than seven hundred years.
John was born into a well-connected family in 1579, the son of Walter Ogilvie,
baron of Drum-na-Keith, whose 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.
Like many, the Ogilvies were once staunch Catholics but the Reformation of 1560
had changed the face of Scotland. Just twenty years before John Ogilvie's birth,
John Knox had succeeded in switching Scotland's state religion from Catholicism
to Calvinism, later known as Presbyterianism and there were fierce purges to stamp
out the Catholic faith.
The saying of Mass was outlawed, priests were banished and anyone suspected of
being a Papist could be thrown into prison. Even being found with a rosary or
crucifix would lead to punishment and yet, brave souls were still prepared to
risk danger, imprisonment and death to practise their faith in secret.
Although some of the nobility, particularly in the northern part of the country,
may have retained Catholic leanings, few were willing to show them for fear of
losing their lands, their wealth, their status so young Ogilvie was brought up
Such was the fear of the influence from still Catholic Europe that permits had
to be granted for travelling abroad and Walter Ogilvie obtained one for his son,
who set off from home in 1592, aged thirteen, to further his education and his
experience of life so he would be better equipped to play what his father hoped
would be a prominent role in Scottish affairs for his first-born but the path
of life that John was to take was not the one that his family had planned.
He travelled widely and studied in France, Germany and Italy and listened to scholars
both Calvinist and Catholic discussing religion.
That proved a source of inspiration and at the age of seventeen, he converted
to Catholicism. It was the first of many brave moves.
We can only imagine the torment this must have caused. How had he broken the news
to his family? It must have caused him great anguish and led to all financial
support to him being cut off. It is thought he never saw them again.
In 1596, John Ogilvie was registered as a student at the Scots College of Douai,
France which had been moved at the time to Louvain in Belgium.
The college occasionally received students who were not Catholics and among his
instructors was Cornelius a Lapide, then a young Professor of Scripture and later
to become a great scholar. Poverty at the college meant that some students had
to be dispersed and in 1598 Ogilvie was at the Jesuit College at Olmutz in Bohemia
supported by a Papal bursary and it is here that he became a Catholic.
Having embraced the faith, John Ogilvie wanted to become a priest. The Jesuit
order was close to his heart and he traversed the Continent to achieve his aim.
His application, along with others, was deferred because of plague but he persisted
and in 1599 was admitted to the Jesuit order at Brunn in Moravia. From there he
was sent to Graz in the Austrian Tyrol where he made his first vows in 1601 and
stayed there until 1606, teaching grammar in the lower school and studying philosophy
at the university. He spent a time teaching in Vienna then returned to Olmutz
for more studies.
In 1609, though not yet ordained, he was appointed, along with another young Scot,
Father Green, to the charge of encouraging devotion to Our Lady as a means of
fortifying a faith that was under siege. He achieved success and a Jesuit historian
would later recount one Lenten exercise which saw Ogilvie lead young pupils, after
5 am Mass and Communion, in making a Way of the Cross through the streets of the
unfriendly city, carrying crosses and dressed in sacking, returning to the chapel
to set their crosses before the altar and lie prostrate in prayer for an hour.
In 1610, he was sent back to Paris and ordained a priest at the age of thirty-one.
His prayer had been answered.
The newly-ordained Father Ogilvie was appointed confessor to the students at Rouen
where he met priests exiled from Scotland for saying Mass or ministering to people
and realising the heavy burden of Catholics in his native land, he longed to return
there. He applied to his Jesuit 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 -
so this represented an extraordinary vote of confidence in this inexperienced
priest. It was a dangerous mission.
Accompanied by fellow Jesuit Father James Moffat and by Friar John Campbell, a
Capuchin, Father John Ogilvie set off in 1613 for Scotland travelling under an
assumed name of John Watson.
The Government had spies scattered over the Continent whose business it was to
pick up in Rome, Valladolid and other places, information about priests and seminarians
destined for home missions. The information was forwarded to those who would search
ships hailing from foreign ports and suspects were apprehended on landing in Scotland
As Watson - the Scottish surname meaning son of Walter - in the guise of a soldier
returning from European wars looking to turn to horse dealing, he split up from
his companions on landing and headed for his native north-east where the Catholic
faith was still flickering under the protection of the powerful Gordon, Earl of
Huntly. His superiors may have felt he would be safest here. He was close to home
but there is no record of him having any contact with his family.
Father John 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 headed for Edinburgh after Christmas and not long after set out for London
on something of a mystery mission. One version is that he went to see King James
himself. He tells 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. The King's constant preoccupation was earning the loyalty of his Catholic
subjects and he would dearly have wished to have the Pope accept him as a Protestant
King. Perhaps he saw Father Ogilvie as a vehicle for achieving this but the priest's
inability to deliver an assurance of loyalty had the effect later of making the
King more unrelenting towards him.
From France, Father Ogilvie returned to Scotland in June 1614, to continue his
covert missionary work, mainly around Edinburgh, Glasgow and Renfrewshire. He
is said even to have penetrated Edinburgh Castle to comfort prisoners.
During his mission in Scotland, John Ogilvie wrote to Father Claud Aquaviva, General
of the Jesuits, in July 1614: The harvest here is very great; the labourers here
are very few. One of them, Father Andrew Crichton, the bearer of this (letter),
long in chains for the faith, is leaving the country so as not to fall again into
the hands of the enemy since he is, on account of his former captivity, too easily
recognised, he would expose to danger the noblemen to whom he had often to turn
and who took him with great trepidation in their houses and hid him.
In my own country I am known to nobody, and am engaged day and night in more work
than I can cope with in any day. I, thanks be to God, do whatever I wish freely
during the day in the open streets and by night, free of all suspicion, I go about
the duties of my vocation
The net, however, was closing in on Father John. 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, an appointee of the King, and a trap
On 14 October 1614, Father John was arrested, imprisoned in the Archbishop's palace
and appeared before the burgh court of Glasgow. John Ogilvie's nightmare was about
For five months after his arrest, Father John was subjected to starvation, beatings,
torture and sleep deprivation but he met it all with equanimity, humour and courage.
He even engaged in religious arguments with ministers.
He was moved to Edinburgh for further investigation by the Privy Council of the
King 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 had 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 200 lb, 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, like others, 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, all 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 10 March 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. The sheriff then 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, Father 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
In a testimony in 1629 to Catholic Church authorities who were considering whether
John Ogilvie had died a martyr, William Sinclair, an Edinburgh lawyer who had
been banished, wrote of what he had heard from fellow prisoners and others who
had witnessed the execution. "I know for certain that he persevered in his
Catholic faith up to the last moment of his life in a devout, pious and steadfast
manner. On the night before his death, he devoted all the time that he possibly
could to prayer and spiritual meditation and they further add that he did the
same before ascending the steps themselves, calling both God and his fellow men
to witness that he died in the Roman Catholic faith. His piety and also his constancy
were proved by his readiness to forgive all those who had trespassed against him
just as he prayed to God to forgive him, and by embracing and kissing the scaffold
and finally bidding the hangman to be of good heart and by pardoning him also.
It is impossible that he did not die as a martyr.".
Following the Reformation, the Catholic Church had almost died out but it stayed
alive in corners of Scotland, not least in parts of the north-east and especially
in John Ogilvie's homeland of Banffshire. At Scalan, in Glenlivet, a seminary
operated from 1716-99, 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. Scalan had been attacked and burned by government troops but
the staff and students returned from hiding to rebuild and prepare to set out
to keep our faith alive.
In the latter half of the 1700s, the Penal Laws were relaxed and in 1793 they
were largely abolished, allowing Catholics once again to practise their religion
openly and free of fear.
The cause of martyrs such as John Ogilvie lay dormant for many years until revived
at the close of the nineteenth century and a process of investigating extensive
historical evidence was opened by the Vatican, paving the way for the beatification
of this man from Keith by Pope Pius XI in 1929. Nothing much happened about the
next step towards him being proclaimed a Saint until, in the early 1960s, the
Cause of the English Martyrs, or at least forty of them, began to revive with
the appointment of an energetic young Jesuit, Father Paolo Molinari, as Postural
General in Rome. With his investigations came the possibility of re-opening the
Cause of Ogilvie. Scots Jesuits Father James Quinn and Father Thomas Reilly, great
supporters of the Ogilvie cause, were appointed to form a National Council composed
of priests to investigate what devotion existed in Scotland to John Ogilvie and
armed with a consignment of 300000 medals, the committee set about promoting prayers
for his Canonisation.
Of course, to pave the way for Sainthood, a miracle would be needed. Father Reilly
and Father John Fitzgibbon ran a large parish in Glasgow's Easterhouse dedicated
to Blessed John Ogilvie and in their congregation was a docker called John Fagan
who in 1965 was diagnosed as having stomach cancer. An operation removed part
of his stomach but from x-rays afterwards doctors declared they had done all they
could. The cancer cells remained and, they said, the tumour would return, which
it did seven months later.
It was decided that surgery would kill him. His wife Mary was told: "There
is nothing more we can do for your husband. Take him home and be good to him.".
His general practitioner noted how the mass in his patient's abdomen was growing
ever bigger. Mr Fagan was in continuous pain. In January 1967, Father Fitzgibbon
administered the Last Rites and he gave a medal of Blessed John Ogilvie to Mrs
Fagan, suggesting she pin it to her husband's pyjamas. Parishioners prayed to
Blessed John for him.
In March, John Fagan was said to be hours away from death and the general practitioner
declared there was nothing more he could do. He expected to return the next day
to sign the death certificate. The Legion of Mary and neighbours joined the Fagan
family at the bedside to pray. After they had gone, Mrs Fagan kept a quiet vigil
as John slipped in and out of consciousness. At six in the morning she woke and
felt the room cold. She checked her husband's pulse and heartbeat, and there was
neither. She slumped in her chair, heads in her hands and dozed off. She was woken
by a voice declaring "Mary, I'm hungry.".
It took five years of intensive medical investigations, checking of all hospital
and medical records, and examinations by the Church in Scotland and in Rome before
it was officially confirmed that there was no natural explanation for John Fagan's
In October 1975, the Congregation of Cardinals in Rome accepted that a miracle
had taken place and in May 1976, approval came for the Blessed John Ogilvie to
be made a Saint.
To mark the four hundredth anniversary of his martyrdom, an open-air Mass was
celebrated at Kynoch Park, Keith on 4 July 2015. This was the National Pilgrimage
for the Church in Scotland for 2015. Some Saint Peter's parishioners travelled
to Keith as did former parishioner, Father Stephen
McGrattan who concelebrated the Mass. The photographs below were taken at