St. John Ogilvie is Scotland’s Most Famous Martyr

The Church in Scotland and the Society of Jesus observe John’s feast day on March 10, the day of his martyrdom.

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)

For more than a century the Church has beatified and canonized dozens of Reformation-era martyrs from England and Wales. But Scotland has only one martyr from that period—St. John Ogilvie (1579-1615), a Jesuit priest.

St. John was not raised Catholic. His father, Walter Ogilvie, was a Calvinist and although he married Agnes Elphinstone, a Catholic with two brothers who were members of the Society of Jesus, it was John’s father who took charge of the boy’s religious education. When his son turned 13, Walter sent him to a Lutheran school in Germany. In Scotland, where the Catholic faith was outlawed and persecution was rife, Catholics kept a low profile. Yet in Germany there were Lutheran principalities and Catholic principalities. It’s likely that John would have had many encounters with German Catholics. He may have gone to Mass. I’m speculating, of course, but I think it is very likely that John met and befriended Catholics because in 1596 he traveled to Louvain in what is now Belgium and enrolled in the Scots College, a school for Scottish Catholic young men. That same year he converted to the Catholic faith and became interested in the Society of Jesus. Three years later, in 1599, he became a Jesuit novice.

The Jesuits trained their candidates for the priesthood very carefully—11 years of intense study passed before John was ordained a priest. And that’s when he began to lobby his superiors to send him as a missionary to Scotland to serve the beleaguered Catholic Scots.

It was an especially dangerous mission field. Led by John Knox, the fire-breathing leader of the Reformation in Scotland, Scottish Calvinists had erased almost every trace of Catholicism in the country. Only a handful of Scottish nobles had remained Catholic, and the high concentration of Catholics was in the Highlands and on the islands. Catholics in cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow went underground. Yet those are the Catholics Father Ogilvie sought out and served.

For 10 months Father Ogilvie, always in disguise and using an alias (he passed himself off as a horse dealer), slipped from one Catholic house to another, saying Mass, hearing confessions and administering the other sacraments. He was betrayed in October 1614 by a man named Adam Boyd who had infiltrated the Catholic population of Glasgow specifically to hand over a priest to the government and collect the names of Catholics who had attended Mass.

In prison Father Ogilvie was tortured to force him to reveal who had sheltered him and helped him elude the priest-hunters. For nine days and nights he was kept awake. When he did fall asleep, the torturers woke him by pricking him with needles and knives, or dragging him around by his hair. After the nine sleepless days, Father Ogilvie felt that because of the ordeal he had lost some of sanity. But he had not betrayed any Catholic and he still refused to say that King James VI was supreme head of the Church in Scotland. He was condemned for treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Mercifully, he received a reprieve from that terrible death and was simply hanged until dead. The executioner did not mangle his body, either, but laid it intact in a coffin. Several hours later it was taken outside Glasgow and buried in a place reserved for plague victims and criminals. No one knows the site of his grave, so there are no relics of this martyr.

Pope Paul VI canonized St. John in 1976. He is the only Scottish martyr to have gone through the formal canonization process. The Church in Scotland and the Society of Jesus observe John’s feast day on March 10, the day of his martyrdom.