His father died in 1747.
At the age of fourteen, he set out from Peterhead for Rome, by sea, a journey of four months, accompanied by William Guthrie, twenty years old, both starting their preparation for the priesthood.
About two years later, George Hay arrived in the college, beginning a friendship of two very different people which was to be invaluable for the Church in Scotland and was to last almost fifty years.
While he was still in Rome, his mother died. He was eighteen years old.
In 1759 he was ordained a priest, and returned to Scotland, with George Hay and William Guthrie. The winds in the Firth of Forth forced the ship into Buckhaven instead of Leith, which was fortunate because security in Buckhaven was lax, whereas at Leith there was always the danger of being unmasked as Catholic Priests.