Edinburgh World Heritage - News Article


Archive Anecdotes

Snippets from the city's archives

Mar 10, 2015

Four hundred years ago, on 10 March 1615, John Ogilvie was executed in Glasgow.  In the preceding two years, John had been active in Edinburgh and other parts of Scotland promoting Roman Catholic beliefs and practice. These were dangerous activities within the protestant led Scotland of the time.

John was born in Keith around 1580 into a Calvinist family. Around the age of thirteen he undertook the Grand Tour on the continent of Europe. There he met many catholic relatives of his late mother. In 1596, at the Scots College in Louvain, he converted to Catholicism.



Following religious studies in many parts of Europe he became a Jesuit in 1601 and in 1610 was ordained a priest in Paris.  He was ordered by the Jesuits to return to Scotland as a covert counter-reformation missionary. Under the alias of 'John Watson, horse dealer' he spent the winter of 1613-14 in the Canongate as the guest of Advocate William Sinclair.

According to George Gregory Smith in the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900:

‘ he continued his propaganda under the protection of his friend Sinclair, saying mass in private and holding intercourse with many, including the notorious (catholic) Sir James Macdonald of Islay, then a prisoner in the castle of Edinburgh.’

He travelled to other parts of Scotland to continue his secret mission. In August 1614 he visited Glasgow where he was discovered and arrested:

‘A few Romish books and garments, a chalice and an altar, some relics, including a tuft of the hair of St. Ignatias, and some incriminating letters, 'not fit at that time to be divulgate,' were found in his possession.’ (Smith)

Following questioning by religious and civil authorities in Glasgow he was returned to Edinburgh for further examination by five members of the Privy Council. His chief protagonist was the protestant Archbishop of Glasgow, James Spottiswoode, who acknowledged the spiritual ascendancy of King James VI as head of both church and state.

Ogilvie admitted his Jesuit affiliations and to saying mass. When Spottiswoode was advised by the Royal Court that, in the King's view, the punishment for this should only be banishment, the Archbishop decided to focus instead on proving Ogilvie guilty of treason through his denial of the King's 'Divine Right to Rule'.

Ogilvie was challenged about his views of Royal and papal prerogative and, as a result of his replies, was returned to Glasgow for trial. John’s defiant responses in the trial sealed his fate:

‘In the indictment and prosecution Ogilvie was told that it was not for the saying of mass, but for declining the king's authority, that he was on trial. Ogilvie provoked his judges by saying: "If the king will be to me as my predecessors were to mine, I will obey . . ., but, if he doe otherwise, and play the runneagate from God, as he and you all doe, I will not acknowledge him more than this old hatte". The archbishop's account of his subsequent conduct during the trial, at the swearing of the jury, and in his speech after the prosecution was closed shows that Ogilvie maintained his stubbornness to the last."He was found guilty and was sentenced to be hanged and quartered. Three hours later he was led to the scaffold, where he had the ministrations of William Struthers and Robert Scot, the latter reiterating that it was not for his religion but for his political offence that he had been condemned. The quartering was not carried out".’ (Smith)


Many early catholic images of Ogilvie depict the quartering taking place by symbolically placing a knife in his chest.

However, Sister M K Richardson, of the Order of the Sacred Heart who wrote a religious tract about John Ogilvie in 1976, concurs with the assertion that the quartering of Ogilvie was not completed, and indeed writes that the hangman in fact reduced Ogilvie's suffering by tugging his legs to curtail the agonies of slow strangulation. The hangman placed him in a coffin and he was buried within two hours in a plague burial yard.

John Ogilvie was canonised by the Roman Catholic Church in 1976, and is the only post-Reformation saint from Scotland.

‹ Return to List
Recent Projects

From the three year Twelve Monuments Project to the major restoration of Well Court.

Who We Are

EWH staff directory and biographies.

Support Us

Find out how you can help support our work.


© Edinburgh World Heritage. All rights reserved. Terms and Conditions | Cookie Policy
5 Bakehouse Close, 146 Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DD. T: 0131 220 7720. E: info@ewht.org.uk
Registered in Scotland No.195077. Scottish charity No. SC037183


Website by Urwin Digital