Blairs College and Museum: Snapshot of History

St. Mary’s College near Aberdeen, known as Blairs, was opened in 1829 as a school to educate boys from across every social class in Scotland who might later enter the priesthood. There had been district seminaries in Loch Morar opened in 1714 for seven students and three years later a seminary at Scalan in upper Banffshire was begun. Another seminary was started at Aquhorties near Inverurie in 1799 before John Menzies of Pitfodels donated his mansion, with its one thousand acres by the River Dee, to create Scotland’s first and only national Seminary.  It was to last 160 years before it closed in June 1986.
Its closure was the end of a long chapter in the history of the Scottish Catholic Church and its association with North East Scotland. A booklet titled Blairs A Journey of Faith* records in words and pictures the college facilities and life for students and staff including those holding high tenure and other positions who contributed much to develop and expand the seminary and its facilities. A feature of the college building is its distinctive high central tower topped by a Papal Crown.
The college chapel built in mid-Gothic style was opened in 1901 and has undergone extensive structural, decorative and art work. Its altar table in white marble depicts the scene of the Last Supper. It serves as a parish church and venue for religious and other events including the Aberdeen International Youth Festival.
Soon after the college closed the Blairs Museum Trust was set up to preserve and exhibit its precious collection of Catholic treasures. The chapel sacristy has become Blairs Museum opened to the public for the first time in May 2000. It serves as depository of unique historical paintings and many exhibits of artefacts and fine art that were placed throughout the college or were in keeping elsewhere.
A DVD of Blairs – Past and Present was made but is no longer available. In the spring of 2001, former pupils, staff and friends of the old college officially formed an association known as ‘Friends of Blairs’. Their aim is to promote and develop links with those who have Blairs at heart and to ensure not only that its memory is preserved but that the museum and chapel will continue to prosper.
In May 1994 the college and grounds were acquired by the Muir Group of Scottish developers as a Blairs College Resort. Blairs College Chapel Trust was created in 1995. More recently the Scottish Government has approved plans to use the old college and its grounds for development of a luxury hotel with a championship golf facility and the construction of a large number of residences.
Snapshot of History
                        The land on which the Seminary was built was initially owned by the Knights Hospitalier of St. John of Jerusalem before passing to the Menzies family in 1542. In 1827 it was gifted by the wealthy laird and land owner John Menzies (see below) to the Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland.
The original Menzies house was converted into a seminary for twenty-five pupils. In 1829 Lismore and Aquhorties Colleges merged and the students were moved to Blairs.  Notable are observations … they presented a very sorry sight. ‘The students have been much neglected as to their persons, so that on their arrival at Blairs, I found them in a very tattered state indeed. ‘It may be said that they had not coats for their backs, shoes for their feet, nor linen for their bodies’.
Menzies retained a suite of rooms in his former home to maintain vigilance over the staff and make sure the young students were imbued with good manners as well as morals. He was not slow at making his feelings known about appointments and other matters. The motto became … dinna anger the laird!  There was much relief when the resident ‘testy laird’ finally left for Edinburgh.
 John Menzies (1756-1843) *
                        He was the last member of an ancient family long settled at Pitfodels, Aberdeenshire, which had always adhered to the Roman Catholic faith. He was born on 15 August 1756 a few months after his father’s death. The care of his education devolved to his mother, a daughter of the house of Kirkconnel. She resided for some time at Dinant, Belgium where her son was educated.  On closing of the Jesuit College there, his mother intervened in 1774 to the Scottish Bishop George Hay (1729-1811) to arrange for the completion of her son’s education that he declined.
It was said of Menzies that for thirty-seven years he never became aware of the distress or difficulty without exerting himself to relieve it. Walter Scott in his Journal, 30 January 1827 (1890, i 349) writing about Pitfodels … ‘a bauld crack, that auld papist, and well informed. We got on religion. He is very angry with the Irish demagogues and a sound well thinking man’.
In the course of that year Menzies conveyed to Bishop Paterson his beautiful estate with the large mansion house of Blairs, Kincardineshire, about six miles from Aberdeen.  There the college dedicated to St. Mary for the education of secular priests was opened in 1829 and the students from two seminaries of Aquhorties and Lismore were removed to the new institution.
Menzies was also a munificent benefactor of the convent of St. Margaret in Edinburgh. For many years he discharged the duties of convenor at Aberdeenshire, and he was a member of the Abbotsford Club* to which he presented ‘Extracta e variis Cronicis Scocie’, 1842. He died at Greenhill Cottage, near Edinburgh on 11 October 1843. It is recorded that crowds estimated at 50,000 lined the streets of the capital to watch ‘the magnificent and unwonted pageantry’ of his funeral procession.
* Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900 (Vol. 37). Abbotsford House was the home of Scottish historical novelist, playwright and poet Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).Following his death *Abbotsford Club was founded in Edinburgh as a literature publishing society of which John Menzies was a prominent member.
 Ita Marguet, May 2014
Note:        Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text including *Blairs A Journey of Faith (pp 24), author Bill Harris, Desk Top Publishing 2002.  It follows a guided visit to Blairs College Chapel and the adjacent Blairs Museum, April 2014