It is generally believed that Christianity first came to Scotland through contact with Roman soldiers, but we find ourselves on firmer historical ground, when we come to Ninian, the first missionary bishop in Scotland. He began his work in the south west at the end of the 4th century. Two centuries later we come across Mungo working in the west, and later still Columba, abbot of Iona, who used the island as a base for making missionary journeys all over Scotland with his Celtic monks.
The history of St Matthew’s began with St Nathalan in the 7th century, the time when Columban Christianity was spreading from the west. Nathalan was born of noble parents and received a liberal education. It is said that he also practiced farming the land. The best known legend about him relates that when the harvest was almost ruined by wind and rain, he forgot his submission to Divine Will and complained frequently about it. When the situation improved, he was so frightened that he had offended God, that as a penance, he chained his right hand to his leg with an iron lock and threw the key into the River Dee with a vow that he would not have it unlocked until he had been to Rome. The pool of the Keys lies below Tillich Kirk. The story continues that, when he did visit Rome, he purchased a fish from a boy and in it found the key which unlocked his fetters. The importance of the story is not the penance, the fish or the key, but the fact that he visited Rome and was consecrated bishop.
On return to Scotland he built, at his own expense, the churches at Tillich, Bethelnie and Collie. The association of his name with Tillich and Bethelnie is so strong that he clearly worked in these areas for some time although the are not exactly close together.
The date of St Nathalan’s death is given as 8th January 678 and he was buried in the churchyard at Tillich (some 2 miles from Ballater on the Aberdeen to Ballater road). Near the church, in former days, there was a stately pillar about twelve feet high known as St Nathalan’s Cross. This however, was broken upi for road metal for the turnpike road in 1857.
Throughout the Middle Ages and even after the Reformation, the parish church remained at Bethelnie. William Urquhart MA the last Episcopalian priest to be appointed in 1665. It was during his encumbency that in 1684 the church at Bethelnie was dismantled and moved to Oldmeldrum, the manse was not moved until 1712. Despite the Revolution of 1689 and the establishment of Prebyterianism in place of Episcopacy, Mr Urquhart, a bachelor continued to hold church, manse and glebe until his death in 1697 although during his last years he was deprived of his stipend(salary)
With the death of Mr Urquhart, the Episcopalians broke away from the Parish Church and formed a separate congregation. They were ministered to for a large part of the 18th century by one George Walker who arrived in 1733 and was witness to the removal of the roof of his chapel at Cumberland’s orders in 1746. It is not known exactly where the Episcopalians worshipped thereafter, but the present church is built on the site of the chapel in use during the 19th century