Brechin Cathedral

Brechin Cathedral, exterior, west front and round tower

Summary description

A complex building incorporating a round tower probably of the eleventh century. There are: a truncated thirteenth-century unaisled choir, nave arcade walls of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, and a west front and tower of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Heavily restored in 1806 and 1900-02. Contains an important collection of early stones.

Historical outline

It seems that from the time of the establishment of the diocese at Brechin in the twelfth century that the cathedral church also fulfilled parochial functions.  There is no surviving evidence for an independent parish church in Brechin or for a separate parsonage in the existing, mainly late medieval, documentary records of the diocese.  The parsonage had evidently been annexed before c.1275 as only the vicarage, valued at 20 shillings, is recorded in Bagimond’s Roll.(1)

In the earliest surviving constitution of the cathedral chapter set out in a statement by the bishop and chapter in 1372, no indication is given of any of the prebends in the cathedral being maintained on the parsonage revenues, but in 1435 it was noted that the bishop held the parish of Brechin as his prebend.(2)  It seems likely, therefore, that the parsonage had been annexed to the office of bishop from an early date, but the separate existence of prebends supported on vicarage revenues might suggest that the cure had been served by a vicar perpetual before the fourteenth century. 

The 1372 constitution also referred to a prebend called ‘the vicarage’, without any further designation, which is taken to refer to the vicarage of Brechin.(3)  A third prebend, labelled ‘the pensionary’, appears to indicate that the vicarage revenues had been divided and annexed in two stages, with this third prebend funded out of a portion reserved from the vicarage perpetual, although no more detailed record of the process survives.  Neither the vicarage nor the pensionary prebends were held with the cure of souls and it seems that the parochial altar in the nave of the cathedral church was served without cure.  A parochial chaplain, Robert Mearns, is mentioned in January 1436.(4)

It is unclear from the surviving documentation where in the nave of the cathedral church the parish altar was located.  Numerous altars and chaplainries are recorded, with a marked proliferation of foundations from the later fourteenth century onwards.  The first significant expansion of chaplainries occurred in 1348 when Bishop Adam (1328-49) instituted two new perpetual chaplainries – of Boath and Cairncortie – one to celebrate at the altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the other at the Rood Altar.(5)  This was followed in 1360 by Robert Erskine, lord of Dun, who assigned property yielding an annual rent of £10 for the support of two further chaplains at the altar of St Mary the Virgin in the cathedral.(6

What appears to have been the largest single later medieval endowment of the church of Brechin was made in October 1429 by Walter Stewart, earl of Atholl and lord of Cortachy, out of the revenues of his lordship of Cortachy.  This grant, of rents worth £40 per annum, was for the sustenance of two chaplains and six choristers, one of the chaplains being to serve at the altar of St John the Baptist.(7)  No further record of this altar survives. 

The Rood or Holy Cross altar also benefitted from the Earl’s support; in 1435 it received an additional endowment at the supplication of Earl Walter of the revenues of the chapel of St Mary Magdalene at Arrat, east of Brechin.  This chapel, which was in the presentation of the bishop, was annexed to the Rood Altar for the maintenance of a chaplain of St Mary Magdalene serving in perpetuity at that altar.(8)  There are few other references to the Holy Cross or Rood altar, but in post-Reformation records it was still noted as one of the principal benefices within the cathedral.(9)

For lesser local lords and townsmen with slender resources, such chaplainries were the principal means of expressing their personal piety and devotion, recorded at Brechin in a growing number of endowments either of new altars or of perpetual chaplainries at existing altars through the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.  In many ways, the cathedral was attracting these gifts in the same manner as one of the larger burgh parish churches. 

The first of these endowments appears to be a grant made by Walter Ogilvy of Carcary, confirmed by Robert, duke of Albany in January 1408, which seems to have been in favour of an altar dedicated to St George, but no other reference to such a dedication in the cathedral is known.(10)  It is probably this chaplainry that became that known as ‘Magnacarcare’, recorded from 1432.(11)  A further perpetual chaplainry, known as ‘Caldhame’ after the lands near Kirriemuir from which it was funded, is first recorded in August 1432.(12)  In July 1442, John Wishart, lord of Pitarrow, allocated revenue amounted to 10 merks annually from various of his properties in the Mearns to support a chaplain at the altar of St Thomas the Martyr (St Thomas of Canterbury), which had been recorded first in 1435.(13)

First mention of an altar of St Christopher the Martyr occurs in March 1449, when John Smart, ‘citizen’ of Brechin, endowed a chaplainry at that altar with his tenement in the town.(14)  Two years later in 1451 a second townsman, Richard Williams, endowed the altar of St Ninian in the cathedral.(15)

A cluster of new endowments began in the mid-1480s and continued into the first quarter of the sixteenth century.  In March 1484 an endowment was made to the altar of St Katherine and in May 1485, King James III confirmed a grant by David Lindsay, earl of Crawford, of an annual rent of 20 merks for the support of a chaplain at the altar of St Katherine the Virgin.(16

This was followed in November 1485 by an endowment of a new altar of St Duthac, reflecting the late medieval popularity of this saint, by the Brechin merchant Malcolm Guthrie.(17)  A substantial grant was made in June 1512 by Gilbert Strachan, canon of Brechin, which provided endowment of masses to be said by the chaplain of the cathedral – presumably one of the two established by Walter Stewart in 1429 – at the altar of St Nicholas and St Sebastian the Martyr,(18) and in the same year further gifts were made to the existing altar of St Christopher.(19

An altar of All Saints, with endowed chaplainries attached to it, is mentioned in 1537, the chaplains being named in 1547 when it was noted that the foundation had been made by the late Ptrick Meldrum, archdeacon of Dunkeld and vicar of Brechin, with a further chaplainry being endowed there in 1552 by David Brown, vicar pensioner of Edzell.(20)  Endowments were also made in 1537 by the chaplain, John Leslie,from properties in Brechin to support a chaplain at the altar of St Andrew the Apostle.(21)

There were apparently further altars to which reference only survives at or in the immediate post-Reformation period.  An altar dedicated to St Agnes is recorded only in the 1560s, when it was valued at 18 merks annually.(22)  An altar of St James, at which there was a chaplainry of St Anne, is named in 1588, while an altar and chaplainry of the Name of Jesus occurs in documents dated 1600 and 1614.(23

Notes

1. SHS Misc, vi, 53.

2. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, i, nos 15 and 45.

3. Cowan, Parishes, 22.

4. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, i, no.8.

5. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, Appendix, no.27.

6. NAS GD1/111/1 [18 November 1360]. Confirmation of same by King Robert II, HMC, Supplementary Report on the Manuscripts of the Earl of Mar and Kellie, ed. H Paton (London, 1930), 10-11 [8 April 1382].

7. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, i, 47-52.  ‘The two priests are to celebrate two masses every day at alternate times. One chaplain with the six choirboys is to celebrate a high mass at the high altar in the choir immediately after matins and prime; when the one chaplain has celebrated high mass, the second chaplain is to begin a low mass at the altar of St John the Baptist: a requiem three times a week, a mass of the Holy Spirit four times, always with the office of Saint John after the mass. There is to be a high mass of the Holy Trinity twice a week, of the Holy Spirit twice, a high requiem twice, and one for peace and good weather. He also provides for another two priests to operate in the cathedral: The mass of the chaplain supported by the dean and chapter should be at the altar of Our Lady always beginning at the second bell at matins at all times of the year and always of Our Lady with the office of the day after the mass. A fourth mass at the altar of the Holy Cross should be begun at the first bell at the high mass and should always be the mass of the Cross with the office of the day.’

8. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, 25.

9. Kirk, The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices, 400 [valued at 16 merks].

10. RMS, i, no 941 [6 January 1407/8].

11. CSSR 1428-1432, 234 [12 July 1432].

12. CSSR 1428-1432, 244 [7 August 1432].

13. Arbroath Liber, ii, no 85; Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, 47-49.

14. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, 125-127.

15.. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, i, 114.

16. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, i. no.105; ii, Appendix, no.66.

17. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, i, 120.

18. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, i, 105: the chaplain of the cathedral is to celebrate every day at seven o'clock in the morning, at the altar of St Nicholas the bishop and St Sebastian the martyr, yearly, weekly, and daily, the masses detailed below, namely, on Sunday, a mass of the Holy Trinity, on Monday, a Requiem, on Tuesday, a mass of the Holy Spirit, on Wednesday, a mass of the Five Wounds of Jesus Christ, on Thursday, a mass of the Body of Christ, on Friday, a mass of the Name of Jesus, on Saturday, a mass of the Most Glorious Virgin Mary.

19. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, Appendix, no.105.

20. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, i, no.114; ii, nos 129 and 191.

21. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, Appendix, no.124.

22. Kirk, The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices, 372.

23. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, 241, 361.

Summary of relevant documentation

Medieval

Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes:  Cathedral church also parochial, parsonage revenue with the bishops, who held the church as their prebend. Vicarage fruits also supported a further prebend; the parochial altar appears to have been served by a chaplain.(1)

1434 Donation to the cathedral of two silver candlesticks by Bishop John de Crannach of Brechin in fulfilment of a vow made on a sea voyage returning from a diplomatic mission in France.(2)

1435 Cathedral has a parochial status, formed into a prebend for the bishop. Bishop John de Crannach complains that the cathedral is poor and lacking in vestments, so passes legislation to use entry fines from benefices in the cathedral to pay for enlargement of the choir and for vestments and ornaments for the cathedral.(3) [see for the same below in 1447]

1447 Instrument drawn up regarding a meeting in the chapter house of Brechin which records the poverty of the said church and the entire lack of vestments and other needful ornaments, and for the buying and renewing of the same.  To remedy this, new bishops, deans, and canons should pay as follows from the first fruits of their benefice: Bishop, 10 marks; Dean, Archdeacon, vicar and prebends of Lethnot and Glenbervie all 5 marks; all others 40 shillings. (see Reg Brec, 66-68 for the same).(4)

[No further specific references to cathedral as a parish church]

Altars and Chaplaincies (5)

Our Lady

1360 (18 Nov) Bond by Robert de Erskine Lord of same and of the barony of Dun, narrating that he has enfeoffed two chaplains, to celebrate at the altar of St Mary the Virgin in the cathedral church of Brechin, in that purparty of the barony of Dundee which the king granted to him, and, since the liferent of said purparty pertains to Lady Johanna, Countess of, Strathearn binding himself to pay annually to said chaplains £10 sterling from rents of barony of Dun during time when purparty of barony of Dunde is occupied by said countess.(6)

St Christopher

1449 (7 Mar) John Smart, citizen of Brechin, to the praise and glory of Almighty God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Blessed Christopher the martyr, has granted to one chaplain at the altar of St Christopher in the cathedral church of Brechin, his tenement in the town of Brechin.(7)

1512 (7 June) Gilbert Strathauchin, canon of Brechin Cathedral, in praise and honour of the holy and undivided Trinity, has granted to the said holy and undivided Trinity and the chaplains and choristers and corporation receiving in the choir of Brechin cathedral, his tenement with le Kill and Cobill near the big mill, together with an acre of arable land; he grants two parts of his whole tenement lying within the city of Brechin on the east side of the communal street, between the lands of the altar of St Christopher, martyr on the north side (etc.); the chaplain of the cathedral is to celebrate every day at seven o'clock in the morning, at the altar of St Nicholas the bishop and St Sebastian the martyr, yearly, weekly, and daily, the masses detailed below, namely, on Sunday, a mass of the Holy Trinity, on Monday, a Requiem, on Tuesday, a mass of the Holy Spirit, on Wednesday, a mass of the Five Wounds of Jesus Christ, on Thursday, a mass of the Body of Christ, on Friday, a mass of the Name of Jesus, on Saturday, a mass of the Most Glorious Virgin Mary.(8)

St Duthac

1485 (17 Nov) Altar founded in the cathedral church of Brechin by Malcolm Guthrie, burgess, for the souls of his immediate family, his wider kin group, and finally his business partners.(9)

St John the Baptist

1429 (22 Oct) Grant by Walter, Earl Palatine of Strathearn, Atholl, and Caithness, and lord of Brechin and Cortachy has granted in honour of Almighty God and the Blessed Virgin Mary His Mother, to the cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity of Brechin, £40 a year from his lands of Cortachy, to support two chaplains and six choir boys at the cathedral.(10) [see footnote for full ref]

St Katherine

1485 (12 May) James III confirms a charter of David, earl of Crawford and lord of Lyndsay, granting, to the praise, glory, and honour of almighty God and the most glorious virgin Mary his mother, the blessed virgin Catherine and of all the saints, to God and the church and to one chaplain at the altar of Saint Catherine the virgin in the cathedral church of Brechin, an annual rent of twenty marks, for his upkeep, from the lands of Drumcarne.(11)

St Mary Magdalene

1435 (12 Aug) The dean and chapter have proposed, obliged by the most excellent and magnificent prince, the lord Walter Stewart, earl palatine of Strathearn and laird of Brechin, to found at the altar of the Holy Cross a chaplainry for perpetual celebration for the souls of the bishops and princes, their ancestors and successors. The chaplainry of the blessed Mary Magdalene of Arrat, which is at the disposition of the bishop of Brechin, will be united, annexed and incorporated into the new chaplainry. This chaplain is to say mass in the chapel, yearly for ever, and likewise every week on Monday or Friday, for the souls of the founders, their ancestors and successors, in honour of the Trinity, Blessed Mary the Virgin, and Blessed Mary Magdalene.(12)

St Nicholas

1512 (7 June) Gilbert Strathauchin, canon of Brechin Cathedral, in praise and honour of the holy and undivided Trinity, has granted to the said holy and undivided Trinity and the chaplains and choristers and corporation receiving in the choir of Brechin cathedral, his tenement with le Kill and Cobill near the big mill, together with an acre of arable land; he grants two parts of his whole tenement lying within the city of Brechin on the east side of the communal street, between the lands of the altar of St Christopher, martyr on the north side (etc.); the chaplain of the cathedral is to celebrate every day at seven o'clock in the morning, at the altar of St Nicholas the bishop and St Sebastian the martyr, yearly, weekly, and daily, the masses detailed below, namely, on Sunday, a mass of the Holy Trinity, on Monday, a Requiem, on Tuesday, a mass of the Holy Spirit, on Wednesday, a mass of the Five Wounds of Jesus Christ, on Thursday, a mass of the Body of Christ, on Friday, a mass of the Name of Jesus, on Saturday, a mass of the Most Glorious Virgin Mary.(13)

St Ninian

1451 Altar dedicated to Ninian in the cathedral of Brechin by Richard Williams, burgess.(14)

St Sebastian

1512 (7 June) Gilbert Strathauchin, canon of Brechin Cathedral, in praise and honour of the holy and undivided Trinity, has granted to the said holy and undivided Trinity and the chaplains and choristers and corporation receiving in the choir of Brechin cathedral, his tenement with le Kill and Cobill near the big mill, together with an acre of arable land; he grants two parts of his whole tenement lying within the city of Brechin on the east side of the communal street, between the lands of the altar of St Christopher, martyr on the north side (etc.); the chaplain of the cathedral is to celebrate every day at seven o'clock in the morning, at the altar of St Nicholas the bishop and St Sebastian the martyr, yearly, weekly, and daily, the masses detailed below, namely, on Sunday, a mass of the Holy Trinity, on Monday, a Requiem, on Tuesday, a mass of the Holy Spirit, on Wednesday, a mass of the Five Wounds of Jesus Christ, on Thursday, a mass of the Body of Christ, on Friday, a mass of the Name of Jesus, on Saturday, a mass of the Most Glorious Virgin Mary.(15)

St Thomas of Canterbury

1435 (10 Jan) Instrument regarding Lethnot witnessed at the altar of St Thomas in the church of Brechin.(16)

1442 (3 July) Abbot Walter confirms the grant of Sir John Wischart of ten merks annual rent to one chaplain celebrating mass at the altar of Saint Thomas the Martyr in the cathedral church of Brechin.(17)

Post-medieval

Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: Some fruits from the vicarage of Brechin annexed to the canonry called the ‘pension’, value £24. Overall value of Vicarage £80, held by James Hepburn.(18)

Altars and Chaplainries

  • Chaplainry of St Agnes in Brechin Cathedral held by John Farar, value 18 marks.(19)
  • Altar of the Holy Rood in Brechin Cathedral, George Wilson chaplain, value 16 marks.(20)

Account of Collectors of Thirds of Benefices (G. Donaldson): Third of vicarage £25 8s 10 2/3d and third of chaplainry at All Hallows altar £20.(21)

1641 (15 July) Visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Brechin.(22)

1658 (15 July) Visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Brechin finds the minister to be competent, the church is upheld by penalties, annuals from Mochfield. The presbytery is not satisfied and appoints the landward and urban heritors to uphold the church. A side note mentions that the stipend of the first minister is 500 marks pa and the second minister is 580 marks.(23)

Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev Andrew Bruce): [No reference to the fabric of the church]

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Revs James Burns and George Whitson, 1833): ‘The west end of the cathedral, repaired upwards of twenty years ago, and forming a handsome parish church, was originally built by David I. It has two runs of pillars, with gothic arches and a large and elegant window on the west. The east part or choir, in which some special rites of the church of Rome were performed, was thrown down at the time of the Reformation’.(24)

Notes

1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland, 22.

2. Registrum Brechinensis, i, no. 39.

3. Registrum Brechinensis, ii, no. 24.

4. CPL, ix, 247.

5. Mackinley notes altars dedicated to SS Christopher, Duthac, George, Ninian, Sebastian and Nicholas, Catherine, Lawrence, Mackinley, Non-Scriptural Dedications, 37, 227, 370, 420, 370 & 454.

6. NRS Document relating to Brechin Cathedral, GD1/111/1.

7. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, 125-127.

8. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, 105.

9. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, 120.

10. The two priests are to celebrate two masses every day at alternate times. One chaplain with the six choirboys is to celebrate a high mass at the high altar in the choir immediately after matins and prime; when the one chaplain has celebrated high mass, the second chaplain is to begin a low mass at the altar of St John the Baptist: a requiem three times a week, a mass of the Holy Spirit four times, always with the office of Saint John after the mass. There is to be a high mass of the Holy Trinity twice a week, of the Holy Spirit twice, a high requiem twice, and one for peace and good weather. He also provides for another two priests to operate in the cathedral: The mass of the chaplain supported by the dean and chapter should be at the altar of Our Lady always beginning at the second bell at matins at all times of the year and always of Our Lady with the office of the day after the mass. A fourth mass at the altar of the Hoy Cross should be begun at the first bell at the high mass and should always be the mass of the Cross with the office of the day, Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, i, 47-52.

11. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, i. 105.

12. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, 25.

13. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, 105.

14. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, i, 114.

15. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, 105.

16. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, 47-49.

17. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ii, 85.

18. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, 373, 378 & 410-2.

19. Ibid, 372.

20. Ibid, 400.

21. Donaldson, Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices, 9 & 11.

22. NRS Presbytery of Brechin, Minutes, 1639-1661, CH2/40/1, fol. 25.

23. NRS Presbytery of Brechin, Minutes, 1639-1661, CH2/40/1, fol. 406.

24. New Statistical Account of Scotland, (1833), xi, 133.

Bibliography

National Records of Scotland, Presbytery of Brechin, Minutes, 1639-1661, CH2/40/1.

National Records of Scotland, Document relating to Brechin Cathedral, GD1/111/1.

Calendar of entries in the Papal registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland; Papal letters, 1893-, ed. W.H. Bliss, London.

Cowan, I.B., 1967, The parishes of medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh.

Donaldson, G., 1949, Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices, (Scottish History Society), Edinburgh.

Kirk, J., 1995, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, (British Academy) Oxford.

Mackinley, J.M, 1914, Ancient Church Dedications in Scotland. Non-Scriptural Dedications, Edinburgh.

New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-45, Edinburgh and London.

Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, 1856, ed. C. Innes (Bannatyne Club), Edinburgh.

Architectural description

There was a settlement at Brechin from at least the late tenth century, when King Kenneth II offered it to the Lord.(1) There are records of bishops from the mid-twelfth century, whose chapter was formed by a community of céli dé,(2) but by the time of the election of Bishop Albin in 1246 there was a chapter of secular canons.(3) The medieval parish of Brechin was housed within the cathedral church, with the bishop holding the rectory as a prebend by 1435, and probably well before then. The vicarage also supported a prebend, suggesting that the cure of souls was the duty of a chaplain.(4)

So far as the material remains of the cathedral are concerned, the long religious associations of the site are reflected in a number of high quality early stones housed within the building. These include part of an inscribed cross slab with a depiction of the Virgin and Child within a roundel at the centre of the cross, which perhaps dates from the early eleventh century; it was found in a garden near to the cathedral in 1856 and was removed to the chapel at nearby Aldbar Castle before being returned to the cathedral.(5) A second and more complete cross slab is thought to have originated at the old church of Aldbar.(6) There is also the greater part of a complex hogback stone of the tenth or eleventh century that is carved with interlaced animals and figures of ecclesiastics.

The earliest part of the cathedral structure is the round tower, which, since the widening of the aisles in 1806, is now engaged with the south-west corner of the nave; it is one of two surviving round towers of Irish type in Scotland, the other being at Abernethy in Perthshire. It is built of finely faced but irregularly coursed large blocks of pink sandstone. At its base it has a diameter of about 4.6 metres and it rises to 26.5 metres below the later medieval spirelet. Floors were carried at unequal intervals on six substantial string courses with an intake above the four rectangular openings at belfry level.

The finest feature of the round tower is the entrance doorway, the sill of which is elevated about 1.85 metres above ground level, and which has tapering jambs and a round arch cut through the lintel at its head. The opening is framed by a raised margin with two bands of pellet decoration around its edges and there is a lozenge motif at the centre of the sill. At the apex of the arch is a relief carving of the crucifix, and there is a saint depicted on each jamb, while crouching beasts flank the sill on each side. These carvings are amongst the finest things of their kind and date in Scotland. An uncarved block flanks the arch on each side; these are of uncertain significance, though it is possible that there had been an intention to carve them. The date of the tower is not known, though the later eleventh century may be most likely; a statement by Hector Boece that the Danes left a round tower standing during an attack on the city in 1017 is probably unreliable.

After the round tower, the earliest architectural evidence is provided by a number of carved and moulded stones found during restoration operations in 1900-02. These include sections of bands decorated with label moulding and with a type of square flower. The closest parallels for the label moulding are to be found in the nave arcades and aisle windows at Dunfermline Abbey, and in the choir arcades and aisle windows of Kirkwall Cathedral. Parallels for the square flower are also to be found in parts of Dunfermline Abbey, as for example in the hood mould of the south-east doorway.

Since Dunfermline was started in about 1128, and Kirkwall around 1137, a date around or soon after the second quarter of the twelfth century for the Brechin fragments is indicated. On this basis it is possible that they can be attributed to the episcopate of Brechin’s first recorded bishop, Sampson (c.1150-74),(7) though a slightly earlier date might be preferable. At both Dunfermline and Kirkwall it is thought that the earlier work was designed and built by masons brought up from Durham Cathedral, at a time when Scotland had few indigenous high calibre masons, and perhaps this was also the case at Brechin. Nothing can now be said about the overall design of the building of which these fragments formed a small part, other than that it must have been a structure of architectural quality.

The greater part of the cathedral as now seen was largely the result of a progressive reconstruction over the first half of the thirteenth century. The final plan was like several others of that period in having a long aisle-less eastern limb for the presbytery and canons’ choir, an aisled nave, and spaces for additional chapels, particularly off the east end of the nave aisles. It was also given an asymmetrical north-west bell tower, which partly balanced the retained free-standing round tower to the south-east.

On the architectural evidence it appears most likely that the rebuilding sequence began with the nave, starting with its east wall and the arch at the entrance to the eastern limb, followed by the north aisle and arcade and then the south aisle and the west front. Next came the eastern limb. The lower part of the north-west tower was perhaps started around the same time, although, as was often the case with towers, it was only completed considerably later. The last major alteration for which we have clear evidence appears to have been the insertion of the west window. This sequence suggests that a twelfth-century choir was retained in use for the earlier part of the thirteenth century, since otherwise it would perhaps have been more likely that the thirteenth-century rebuilding campaign would have begun with the choir.

The nave as eventually completed is a relatively modest design of two storeys, with a five-bay arcade on each side opening into the aisles, and above the arcade piers there are small clearstorey windows, each with a trifoliate-headed rear-arch. Regrettably, the outer walls of the aisles have been lost as a result of a succession of post-Reformation reconstructions. The earliest surviving parts are probably the responds of the chancel arch and the eastern pier of the north nave arcade, which are of clustered-shaft type. New bases were provided for the arcade piers in the rebuilding of 1806, though these followed the form of the existing base of the west respond of the north arcade.

The first known examples of clustered-shaft piers in Scotland were those in the choir of St Andrews Cathedral, which was started soon after 1160. They were then used in a number of major buildings that took some of their ideas from St Andrews, including Jedburgh Abbey nave, of around the 1180s, and Arbroath Abbey, which was founded in 1178, though little of what is now seen at Arbroath can have been started much before the last years of the twelfth century.

A second significant pier type used in the north nave arcade at Brechin is the third pier from the east, which is basically an octagon, but which has small rolls sunk into the angles, and again a parallel for this is to be found at Arbroath Abbey. Arbroath is itself one of a group of great churches on each side of the Anglo-Scottish Border, which also includes Hexham Priory in Northumberland, and both of those churches have responds of the same type as the pier with the sunk angle rolls seen at Brechin, while they both also have clustered shaft piers.

Since the earliest work on the nave at Brechin appears to belong within this group, it appears possible that the original design, which perhaps dated from a little before 1200, was for something akin to Arbroath Abbey and Hexham Priory. The scale of the work and overall design at Brechin, however, evidently had to be reduced as work progressed, possibly for fina cial reasons. The piers of the rest of the north arcade and along the whole of the south arcade are of simple octagonal form.

Parallels for Brechin’s nave as completed may be found in the nave of the parish church of Crail in Fife, which is of a very similar scale, and which has comparable clearstorey windows with trifoliate-headed rear-arches located over the arcade piers, rather than above the arch apices. Crail, however, has cylindrical piers to the arcades instead of the range of more complex pier types seen in the earlier work at Brechin. There were possibly also parallels between Brechin and the destroyed nave of Dornoch Cathedral, which had cylindrical piers and clearstorey windows set over the arcade arches. However, the chief evidence for the design of the nave at Dornoch is late-eighteenth-century engraving by Charles Cordiner, and it is possible that the nave there was in fact late medieval rather than of the thirteenth century.

The final part of the nave to be completed in this thirteenth-century campaign was probably the processional doorway at the centre of the west front. Its finely moulded but sadly weathered arch is carried on jambs with five free-standing shafts alternating with five smaller engaged shafts. The details of this doorway represents an approach to the design of major entrances that is comparable in scale and detailing with doorways at Cambuskenneth Abbey and Dunblane Cathedral, and on the basis of such analogies it appears likely that it was around the turn of the first and second quarters of the thirteenth century that the nave at Brechin was completed.

Once the nave was approaching completion, work is likely to have commenced on the new eastern limb. On the evidence of the architectural details, it appears most likely to have been started towards the middle years of the thirteenth century, when Bishop Gregory (1218-42) was making major efforts to bring together a properly constituted chapter of secular canons. These canons would have required an appropriate architectural setting for their daily round of services, within a distinct part of the building that could be screened off from the rest of the church. Since the twelfth-century choir is likely to have been quite small in scale, this would be a sufficient reason for starting work on a more spacious new choir, though the fact that little more than half of the original length was restored in 1900-02 gives a rather misleading impression of its original scale.

Externally the new choir was relatively austere, with a simple sequence of lancet windows along the flanks, and in some ways the appearance must have been similar to what is still to be seen in the roofless shell of the eastern limb at Restenneth Priory. But internally an altogether more sumptuous effect was sought, with the windows framed by finely moulded arches carried on triplets of free-standing shafts, above a blank wall against which the stalls of the canons would have been set. In this there are some parallels with what was designed for the choir of the Valiscaulian priory of Beauly, where work was started around the 1230s, and where there was an alternation of arches around the windows with smaller arches between. Something similar was also designed for the choirs at Elgin and Dornoch Cathedrals in the 1220s, though in the former case it was later suppressed, and in the latter case it has been much modified.

The highly elegant design seen at Brechin has close parallels in a number of churches in eastern England. A strikingly similar choir to Brechin’s is to be seen at the chapel of Jesus College in Cambridge, which was first built for the Benedictine nunnery of St Radegund. In this case there was a Scottish connection, since the land on which this nunnery church was built had been provided by King Malcolm IV of Scotland in about 1159.(8) Unfortunately, we do not know exactly when the new choir was built at the Cambridge church, though a date around the 1220s seems likely. Another version of this same idea is seen in the slightly later parish church of Cherry Hinton, near Cambridge.

Probably around the same time that Brechin’s new choir was being built, work was started on a square bell tower projecting from the west end of the north nave aisle, at the opposite corner of the west front from the earlier free-standing round tower. The new tower has a different base course from the west front, and its masonry was not coursed in with that of the west front, suggesting that its construction was initiated as a distinct operation. Nevertheless, some caution must be applied in determining the chronological relationship between this tower and the nave, since the lower part of the tower may have been re-cased when its upper storeys were eventually completed.

The chief evidence that this tower was started in the thirteenth century is the capitals to the vaulting shafts of the lowest storey, though the vault they support is probably a later modification in its present form. These capitals have finely executed stiff-leaf foliage that is likely to be quite close in time to some of the caps in the crypt of Glasgow Cathedral, which can be dated to around the 1240s.

Single asymmetrical bell towers set to one side of the west front of a major church, in the way that is seen at Brechin, were relatively common in Scotland. At Glasgow Cathedral, one was added after the west wall of the nave had been constructed in the early thirteenth century, and probably as part of the mid-century continuation of works; a second tower there was to be added on the other side of the west front in the fifteenth century, though that later tower was never completed. A single north-west tower has also been located through excavation at Fortrose Cathedral. A later medieval example of such an asymmetrically located tower may be seen at Dunkeld Cathedral, where the north-west tower was added in 1469 to the nave that had been started in 1406.

On the basis of the architectural evidence, the upper storeys and spire of Brechin’s north-west tower were only completed many years after they had been started. There are references to stones for a tower at the cathedral being delivered in the time of Bishop Patrick de Leuchars (1351-c.83),(9) and a date in the later fourteenth century would fit well with the details of the tower, and particularly with the design of the belfry windows and the form of the spire.

So far as the spire is concerned, there are some similarities with that at St Monans Church in Fife, which was built for King David II between 1362 and 1370, and which could therefore be quite close in date to that at Brechin. In particular, parallels between the two may be seen in the way each is set back behind a parapet, with neither broaches nor splays at the base to make a transition between the square plan of the tower and the octagonal plan of the spire. There are also parallels in the way that tiers of lucarnes are set alternately on the cardinal and diagonal faces.

The last major feature known to have been provided at the cathedral was the west window, which is a particularly fine example of the type of tracery that was ultimately inspired by French Flamboyant designs. The closest surviving parallel for this tracery is in the window on the north side of the presbytery at Melrose Abbey. Melrose was rebuilt after being destroyed by English troops in 1385, and the design of the first phase of works was probably the contribution of English masons.

However, in about 1400 a new mason was brought in to continue the work at Merose, and an inscription in the south transept there gives his name as John Morow and states that he was of Parisian birth. In view of the strikingly close similarities between the windows at Brechin and Melrose, it may be a possibility that both were the work of masons who had come over from France with Morow. Possible prototypes for this type of design in France are to be seen at the chapel of the royal castle of Vincennes, for example, where work was started in 1379, though the more flamboyant designs introduced in the western bays there must be a little later than that.

The final medieval works at the cathedral are likely to have been more concerned with the provision of fine liturgical fixtures and furnishings, than with major new building. These would have been intended to enhance the setting of worship around the high altar and choir, but also to enrich the growing number of chapels that were being founded throughout the cathedral. By the Reformation of 1560 there are known to have been at least seventeen of these chapels within the cathedral.

Following the Reformation only the nave was retained in use for worship, and eventually little more of the eastern limb than short lengths of its flanking walls remained in place. There is some evidence of periodic works of maintenance on the fabric, one part of those being commemorated by the date 1642 that is inscribed on the tower parapet. Repairs on the spire at a cost of 100 marks were necessitated by storm damage in 1683. Some of the later works were partly funded by the state on the assumption that the cathedral had become crown property following the abolition of episcopacy in the national church in 1689, and in the 1770s (possibly 1773) work on the two towers was paid for by the Exchequer.(10)

In 1806-7 there was a wholesale remodelling of the nave, which was aimed at making it function more effectively as what was in essence a preaching hall. In the course of this operation the aisles were widened and heightened, the clearstorey was hidden externally beneath a roof that extended over both nave and aisles, galleries were inserted within the heightened aisles and at each end of the nave, looking towards a pulpit at the centre of the south side, and all parts of the cathedral that projected outside the widened aisles were removed. There were also thoughts of demolishing the round tower to provide masonry for the new aisle walls.

Illustrating the external appearance of the cathedral before the works of 1806 there are the engravings of Thomas Pennant and Francis Grose of 1776 and 1790 respectively, which show the extent to which the medieval clearstorey had risen above the flanking aisle roofs, and which also make clear that there were transept-like chapels projecting out from the east ends of the aisles, and a porch against the north flank.

In 1847 works that were considered necessary on the two towers were costed at £335 by the Clerk of Works to the Office of Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Works and Public Buildings, with consolidation of the fragmentary walls of the eastern limb estimated at £25.(11) At that time it was recommended that the state’s responsibility for the fabric should be confined to the round tower and eastern limb, though, despite that, in the following year a grant was made to works on the square tower on a grace and favour basis.

Many of the changes that had been carried out in 1806 were reversed in a restoration by John Honeyman in 1900-02. This included the addition of an enlarged chapel at the north-east corner of the nave, which recreated something of the architectural appearance that the chapel in that location may have had, though Honeyman’s detailing was rather more enriched than is likely to have been the case with the original. As part of the same operation the western bays of the eastern limb were restored and brought back into use, but the existence of graves on the eastern part of its site meant it was not felt appropriate to restore more than about half of the original length. Once the restoration of the eastern limb had been completed it was decided that the state could no longer accept responsibility for this part of the building, and only the round tower was retained in state care.

Notes

1. Chronicle of the Kings of Scotland, in W,F. Skene, ed., Chronicle of the Picts: Chronicles of the Scots, Edinburgh, 1867, p. 10.

2. Liber S. Thome de Aberbrothoc, ed. Cosmo Innes, Bannatyne Club, vol. 1, 1848, pp. 49 and 52.

3. Vetera Monumenta Hibernorum et Scotorum Historiam Illustrantia, ed. A. Theiner, Rome, 1864,  no 19.

4. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, ed. Patrick Chalmers and Cosmo Innes, Bannatyne Club, 1856, vol. 1, no 15.

5. J. Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1903, pt 3, pp. 249-50.

6. Allen and Anderson, pp. 245-7.

7. Early Scottish Charters prior to 1153, ed. A.C. Lawrie, Glasgow, 1905, p. 180.

8. Regesta Regum Scottorum, vol. 1, p. 203.

9. Registrum Episcopatus Brechinensis, vol. 1, p. 74.

10. National Records of Scotland, MW/1/625 (SC 23143/2a), letter of 16 Nov. 1846.

11. National Records of Scotland, MW/1/625 (SC 23143/2a), report of 26 March 1847.

Map

Images

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  • 1. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, west front and round tower

  • 2. Brechin Cathedral, interior, north side choir

  • 3. Brechin Cathedral, (Pennant, 1776)

  • 4. Brechin Cathedral, early twelfth-century fragments 1

  • 5. Brechin Cathedral, early twelfth-century fragments 2

  • 6. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, before restoration, from south west

  • 7. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, before restoration from south east

  • 8. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, choir, from south east

  • 9. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, choir, north flank

  • 10. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, nave and tower from north

  • 11. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, nave, from south

  • 12. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, round tower, door

  • 13. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, round tower, from east

  • 14. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, tower and west front from south west

  • 15. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, towers, from south

  • 16. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, west door

  • 17. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, west door, north jamb

  • 18. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, west front

  • 19. Brechin Cathedral, exterior, west window

  • 20. Brechin Cathedral, hogback stone

  • 21. Brechin Cathedral, interior, capital in lowest storey of tower

  • 22. Brechin Cathedral, interior, choir, north wall

  • 23. Brechin Cathedral, interior, choir, north windows

  • 24. Brechin Cathedral, interior, corbel at base of spire squinch

  • 25. Brechin Cathedral, interior, cross slab

  • 26. Brechin Cathedral, interior, cross slab fragment

  • 27. Brechin Cathedral, interior, font

  • 28. Brechin Cathedral, interior, from west

  • 29. Brechin Cathedral, interior, nave north arcade wall

  • 30. Brechin Cathedral, interior, nave north arcade, east pier

  • 31. Brechin Cathedral, interior, nave, north arcade

  • 32. Brechin Cathedral, interior, nave, north arcade respond base

  • 33. Brechin Cathedral, interior, nave, north arcade, east pier and respond

  • 34. Brechin Cathedral, interior, north arcade clustered shaft pier

  • 35. Brechin Cathedral, interior, north arcade from south east

  • 36. Brechin Cathedral, interior, north nave arcade, third pier from east

  • 37. Brechin Cathedral, interior, pulpit, before restoration

  • 38. Brechin Cathedral, interior, spiral stair

  • 39. Brechin Cathedral, interior, spire squinch

  • 40. Brechin Cathedral, interior, spire, door onto parapet

  • 41. Brechin Cathedral, interior, tower ground floor cap, 1

  • 42. Brechin Cathedral, interior, tower ground floor cap, 2

  • 43. Brechin Cathedral, interior, tower ground floor cap, 3

  • 44. Brechin Cathedral, interior, tower vault