The 16th-century Protestant Reformation in Scotland was relatively bloodless and swift, and by the late 17th century the majority of one million Scots had converted to Protestantism. Estimates put the number of remaining Catholic Scots at that time at 25,000, most of them located in remote areas of highland Aberdeenshire and Inverness-shire, or Lowland Dumfries and Galloway.
Scottish Catholics were disenfranchised in several ways. Before Charles II ascended the throne in 1660, the British penal laws were in place, driving the Catholic Church underground. Accordingly, Scottish Catholics probably comprised 20 percent of the Jacobite forces that attempted to restore the House of Stuart to the British throne in 1715 and 1745, including many Highland soldiers. In 1772 the forced conversion to Presbyterianism of the residents of South Uist by their landowner caused a mass Catholic immigration to Prince Edward Island. The period of the Clearances, starting in the late 18th century, saw Catholic Highlanders immigrating to North America as part of an organized mass migration. While those who traveled to America for the most part remained there, a number of Scots Catholics traveled to the European mainland, including some who were destined for the priesthood.
The repression of the Scottish Catholic Church has left the genealogist with few official records for identifying Scottish Catholics of this period. With the repeal of the penal laws in 1793, Catholic parish registers began to be kept; however, only four Catholic parish registers pre-date 1780 (Braemar from 1608, Kirkconnel from 1730, Ballater from 1769, and St. Mary’s Edinburgh from 1777). This dearth of parish registers convinced David Dobson to mine other sources in search of Catholic identities. Working from the Hudson Bay Records Archives, the National Archives in London and Edinburgh, the Scottish Catholic Archives in Edinburgh, various European archives, and a number of other repositories, Dr. Dobson has prepared an alphabetical list of about 2,000 Catholics who lived in Scotland between 1680 and 1780. In each case the compiler cites the individual’s occupation, locality, a date and the source, and in many cases, the name(s) of parents, spouses, or children, where educated, and so on. At the end of the alphabetical sequence of native Catholics, researchers will find a second section of Scottish ships’ passenger lists that identify Catholics whom we know immigrated to North America.