John Bremner (1798-1847) : A Priest in Troubled Times

A Priest in Troubled Times by T J Dowds* is a tribute to Fr John Bremner. It is an inspirational account of the life and work of the Scottish priest whose pastoral mission was dedicated to the needs of the poor and defending the need of education for the children of poor Irish Roman Catholic immigrants and others. He typified the zeal and concern for his fellow human beings that was exemplified by clergymen of all denominations, but for Catholic priests there was the added difficulty of public suspicion. His study for the priesthood began when he entered the Lowland seminary at Aquhorties in Aberdeenshire in 1809. It was customary for these students to be cut off from their families for the duration of their training and to spend time in the company of men of letters to prepare them for the life they were to lead. During the first year, his parents would have been responsible for providing his clothes and blankets, although the requirement to pay for his board had been abolished by Bishop Cameron in 1803.
In addition to religious studies, he would have been given instruction in farming techniques. This was considered important as most of the missions were in the north-east where the farming community would have accepted a farmer priest as one of their number. Farming also provided an income to supplement the small stipend paid by the church.
It had been the normal practise to send Scottish students abroad to complete their senior studies on the Continent, where they would be exposed to the culture and customs of another society making them more acceptable to the educated classes on their return home. However, the wars with France after 1792 had arrested the practice as the Republican government closed the seminaries there and then in Spain after the Napoleonic occupation of that country. It was only after the defeat of Napoleon that the colleges could be brought back into service again.
The Scottish bishops decided that the colleges should be reoccupied and they selected a number of students and priests to travel to reopen them. Having successfully completed the Classical curriculum, John Bremner was among those chosen to travel to Spain to reopen the Royal Scots College at Valladolid. (The history and expansion of Scots Colleges in Europe is documented and chronicled elsewhere). A Priest in Troubled Times
Born at Garmouth in Speyside, Morayshire, and educated in Scotland and Spain, John Bremner returned home at a time when Scotland was regarded as missionary territory, and there was considerable animosity to Catholics, priests in particular. Appointed in Edinburgh, the young priest advocated education for the young, and earned the respect of his congregation who supported him when he objected to being moved from the city by his superiors. It was to be in Paisley that he spent the rest of his career where he won the affection of his congregation and the respect of other denominations in his defence of the poor and the sick. It was a world very different from the north-east farming community with which he was familiar, as Paisley was an important industrial centre that was expanding and experiencing increasing social and economic problems. At a time when Paisley was a hotbed of radicalism and there was a large influx of Irish into the town, his support for better treatment of the poor was dangerous, but eventually won public sympathy.
Like most of his contemporaries, he frequently attended those afflicted by epidemic disease, and it was as a result of these exertions that he caught typhus from which he died at the age of 49. His death was marked by an outpouring of grief and tokens of respect and admiration from Protestants as well as Catholics. He was interred in the new crypt of St. Mary’s Church, Abercrombie Street, Calton, Glasgow, alongside Bishop Scott who had died earlier that year.
It is indicative of the dangers faced by priests in the industrial towns of Glasgow and Paisley that the crypt of St. Mary’s was opened no less than four or five times to receive the remains of assistant priests in the parish who had died in the fever epidemic of that year.
Ita Marguet, October 2014
Note : This text is drawn from a tribute to Fr John Bremner (pp. 44) by *T J Dowds, Tutor in History at the Centre for Lifelong Learning, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. It recounts the family background, education, social and religious context in which he lived. The book is illustrated with images, note references and a list of suggested reading. Its cover page is from a portrait of the priest in Cathedral House, Paisley.