Elizabeth Duchess of Gordon (1794-1864)
Elizabeth Duchess of Gordon (1794-1864)

GORDON CHAPEL was dedicated on Tuesday, August 12th, 1834.  The Reverend John Murdoch assisted by the Reverend Henry Blunt (Rector of Streatham and friend of the Duchess of Gordon) conducted the services which included hymns and a reading from 1 Kings, 8:28-29.

The event was the culmination of a long-standing wish of Elizabeth Brodie, Duchess of Gordon, the consort of George, 5th (and last) Duke of Gordon.  Some three months earlier the Ducal couple had presided over the opening of her Episcopal School, run by Alexina Mackintosh (located on the ground floor under the Chapel itself).  The construction of Gordon Chapel, on the edge of the Castle Park, with its facade facing the square and Bellie Kirk opposite, had been undertaken by Archibald Simpson, the most celebrated architect in northern Scotland at that time.  The Duke had, for a number of years, been eager to grant his wife’s wish that an Episcopal School and Chapel be established at Fochabers.  The building cost £1,100 – the Duchess sold some of her jewelry to raise funds for it, famously saying that “rocks look better in chapel wall than around one’s neck”.

For the previous fifty years a thatched cottage in Old Fochabers had served as the meeting house for the Episcopal Congregation who had been much tormented during the persecution of the Episcopal Church during the eighteenth century.  Additionally, there was a private chapel located in the Castle itself.  Indeed, two years previously, in 1832, it had been the venue for the glittering marriage of the Duke’s niece, Lady Louisa Russell (daughter of his sister, Georgiana and her husband the Duke of Bedford) to the Marquess of Abercorn.  HRH the Duke of Cambridge descends from this marriage.

The first Rector was the Reverend William Pitt McFarquhar and services were in accordance with the English Book of Common Prayer.  This was a sorrow to the venerable Bishop of Moray, Alexander Jolly.  However, the Duchess explained that “her household, numerous friends and servants from England…and…the family of Gordon from Cairnfield” would find the Scottish Liturgy a distraction.  Bishop Jolly replied highlighting the legitimacy of the Scottish Liturgy but accepting that English Liturgy could be used in Gordon Chapel.

Whereas their Graces the Duke and Duchess of Gordon have built and endowed an Episcopal Chapel in the town of Fochabers, and requested that the said Chapel, together with the congregation assembling therein, may be considered and acknowledged as a regular Episcopal chapel and congregation, under the government and inspection of the Protestant Bishop of the Diocese – I, Alexander Jolly, D.D., by Divine Providence, Bishop of the Diocese of Moray; and while the clergyman canonically ordained and regularly appointed to the charge of the said congregation shall, in his ministrations, use the daily service of the United Church of England and Ireland, I hereby give full permission to him, in the administration of Holy Communion, to make use of the form of administration thereof as is used in the United Church of England and Ireland, and in all things to conform to the solemn ritual of the said Church.  Praying God to bless the ministrations of the clergy to the glory of Christ with much comfort to the noble Family, upon which may the Divine blessing, with every grace, perpetually rest.  So with much affectionate good-will ever prays.  ALEXANDER JOLLY, Bishop, Fraserburgh, Feb 3rd, 1835

Bishop Jolly’s licence is worth quoting in full because so many of the future tribulations of the chapel hinged on the chapel being under the “government and inspection” of the Bishop.  For the first one hundred years the Rectors were principally Chaplains to the Ducal Family and Household and their stipend was paid by the estate.

Two years after the completion of the chapel George 5th Duke of Gordon died.  Elizabeth and he had no children and consequently the vast Gordon estates passed to his nephew, Charles Lennox, 5th Duke of Richmond (his mother being Lady Charlotte Gordon, eldest daughter of the 4th Duke of Gordon).  Richmond added the ancient name of Gordon to that of Lennox.  However, Gordon Chapel remained the personal domain of the redoubtable Elizabeth Brodie, Duchess of Gordon.  She retired to Huntly Lodge but took an active interest in her school and chapel at Fochabers.  One of her last acts before moving to Huntly was to appoint the Reverend Charles Bigsby as Rector.

At Huntly, the Duchess appointed an Irish clergyman, Reverend J.D. Hull as Rector.  Hull’s first act was to abandon the Scottish Liturgy in favour of the English one without the approval of the Bishop.  This was contrary to a doctrine laid down at the Synod of Laurencekirk in 1804 which sought to bring together the disparate congregations under the auspices of the Episcopal Church of Scotland and to ensure that parishes, priests and congregations saw themselves as part of that church and did not look to the Church of England for government.

The Synod excommunicated Hull.  The Duchess strongly backed him stating that she could not make English or Irish clergy accept the rule of the Scottish Bishops.  The Duchess then joined the Free Church.  Gordon Chapel was soon embroiled in crisis.  Bigsby had been replaced by the Reverend Jonathan Douphrate who was, in turn, succeeded by the Reverend George Williamson in 1847.  Williamson was the Duchess’s appointment and one which had not been confirmed by the Bishop.  The congregation felt that this was in breach of Bishop Jolly’s original licence and that they risked no longer being under the “government and inspection” of the Bishop.

The congregation petitioned Her Grace.  However, they met with a frosty reply.  She told them that she could not ask an English clergyman to accept the discipline of the Scottish Episcopalian Bishops and she could not hope to find a [Scottish] Episcopalian clergyman “who preach those doctrines which she believed to be essential to salvation”.  So, in 1848, she closed the chapel.  Edward Wagstaff, the Factor of the Estate, petitioned her to reopen it.  He added a footnote saying that it was very inconvenient for the Duke of Richmond and his household to be unable to attend worship in the chapel in his own grounds.  She remained adamant and insisted that it was impossible for her to appoint someone who would join the Scottish Episcopal Communion and that it was her duty not to “give the chapel to any other person” [i.e. the Duke of Richmond].

In March 1852, the Duchess was petitioned again:

May it please your Grace,

We the undersigned Episcopalians residing in Fochabers and the neighbourhood venture to approach your Grace once more in the earnest hope that favour immortal Souls you will not reject our Prayers. Before your late revered husband the Duke of Gordon built the present Chapel here we had a place of worship where we used to meet but when the New Chapel was built, we, feeling confident that we should never want it again, gave it up. But alas, the change in your Grace’s religious opinions having led to the breaking up of our little congregation we are left desolate. We have no house of prayer of our own, such as we once had. We have no minister to dwell among us, to care for our souls, to visit us in sickness or sorrows, or to teach and catechise our little ones. If your Grace did but know how deeply we feel this loss, but inadequately supplied by our visits to a distant Chapel, you would we confidently believe, not refuse us the favour we now ask – permission to use the Chapel, which is now useless and we grieve to see falling into ruin and decay. If your Grace will grant us the use of the Chapel, we will at once apply to our Bishop and ask him to send us a Pastor. May God in his mercy induce the heart of your Grace to listen to our Prayer.

It was signed by thirty members of the congregation. This time the Duchess of Gordon relented and she made over the chapel and school to her nephew, the Duke of Richmond. A new chapter in the history of Gordon Chapel was about to commence.

Gordon Chapel. Photograph: Iain Dorman-Jackson.
Gordon Chapel. Photograph: Iain Dorman-Jackson.