Brechin Cathedral stands on ground that rises above the north bank of Skinner's Burn, a tributary of the River South Esk, in the heart of the extremely attractive town of Brechin in Angus. There is free parking nearby and the usual approach is by walking down the gentle hill of Church Lane from Church Street. As you reach the foot of the lane the north side of the cathedral opens up in front of you. Trees and other constraints mean there are no really good views to be had of the building as a whole without taking to the air, but the header view from the foot of Church Lane gives a pretty good impression of the cathedral.
Brechin Cathedral is part of the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian in government. This means that there are no bishops in the Church of Scotland, and it also means that, technically at least, there are no cathedrals. There are, however, a number of buildings whose history and pre-Reformation status mean that they have retained the title of "cathedral" even if they do not fulfil the functions of a cathedral. Brechin Cathedral is one of them.
An external tour of the cathedral reveals its main structural components. As you approach, the most obvious elements are the nave with, projecting from its north side, a broad north transept known as the Queen's Aisle and an entrance porch with a beautifully and elaborately carved arch. At the east end of the nave is a five bay choir, and as you proceed around the south side the south transept comes into view, considerably narrower than its counterpart on the north side of the church.
Much more obvious, however, is the tall and extremely slim circular tower standing at the south-west corner of the church. This really is Brechin Cathedral's most unique feature. The final main structural element is the massive square tower attached to the north end of the west gable of the cathedral, which provides an interesting counterpoint to the circular tower.
We've always believed that you can tell most of what you need to know about a church from the feeling it gives as you enter. We were lucky enough to have Brechin Cathedral to ourselves when we visited, and found ourselves in a beautiful haven of tranquility. This is a church that feels the way you'd really want every church to feel. Whatever your religious beliefs, some buildings simply exude a sense of spirituality that tells you immediately that you are somewhere very special. Brechin Cathedral is one of those buildings.
As you look around the interior you could be forgiven for thinking that everything you are looking at dates back to the medieval period or earlier. The truth is that while Brechin Cathedral has ancient origins, and many of them are still visible, large parts of the structure are the result of work carried out in 1900-2, much of it intended to reverse the effects of a highly destructive makeover inflicted on the cathedral in 1806-7. If Brechin Cathedral has a single unifying style, it might best be described as "Edwardian Medieval".
The origins of Brechin Cathedral are thought to date back to the establishment of a chapel somewhere nearby by St Dubhoc or Duthoc in around 600AD. By the late 800s it seems that a religious order known as the Céli Dé (or Culdees) had set up a church in Brechin, possibly on the site of an earlier Pictish establishment. This first enters recorded history in 972 when King Kenneth II endowed lands and property to the religious community here.
The earliest standing structure is the round tower, which was probably built some time around 1100. Many free standing round towers (as this one was originally) can be found in Ireland, but there are only two still standing in Scotland. The other is the Abernethy Round Tower in Abernethy, six miles south-east of Perth. The single high level and deeply recessed door, originally accessed by a ladder, shows that the tower had a defensive role as well as a spiritual one. On a day-to-day basis the tower would have been used for the ringing of hand-bells.
The original cathedral was built in the first half of the 1200s, and comprised a nave with aisles and transepts and a long choir to the east. Work seems to have begun on the north-east tower, tacked slightly uncomfortably onto the structure, in the late 1200s, though it was only completed a century later. After the Reformation of 1560 the choir was abandoned and partly demolished.
In 1806-7 major work was undertaken to remove the two transepts and the north porch. At the same time the aisles were widened and heightened, a ceiling was inserted, and galleries were added on all four sides of the church. The pulpit was placed centrally on the south side of the church, in front of the south gallery.
The second major round of reconstruction took place in 1900-2 under the direction of architects Honeyman & Keppie. This time the aim was to reverse the changes made a century earlier, and return the cathedral to something resembling its medieval origins. The five western bays of the choir, which were still partly standing, were rebuilt to form a new choir. New transepts and a north porch were built on the foundations of the medieval originals, and the aisles in the nave were reduced in height to allow the clearstorey windows to serve once more as windows.
Today's visitor finds that Brechin Cathedral has survived all this interference by well meaning modernisers with tremendous spirit and character. The atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the magnificence of the stained glass windows on show, mainly added during the 1902 rebuilding or subsequently.
Meanwhile the sense of great antiquity is enhanced by Pictish and other ancient stones, and by a selection of superb grave markers and graveslabs. In many ways the most striking is the amazing Aldbar Stone, a Pictish cross slab probably dating back to the late 800s or early 900s which can be found in the south aisle. This has a cross inscribed on one side, and depictions of figures in what may include a hunting scene on the reverse. Also in the south aisle is a wonderfully decorated hogback gravestone, probably carved in around 1000.
In the Queen's Aisle you can find a font dating back to the 1100s which is still used for baptisms. Displayed on the wall behind the font is the ornately carved Mary Stone dating back to the late 800s which, very unusually, comes complete with a Latin inscription. On the floor nearby is a grave slab dating back to around 1200 and decorated with a carving of a pair of shears, perhaps indicating that the grave it covered was that of a tailor.
The graveyard is home to a number of interesting monuments, including a fine selection of post-Reformation grave markers carrying symbols of mortality and the occupations of those interred. At the west end of the church are the remains of two stone coffins, while at its east end is a grave marker protected by a wood and perspex cover. This clearly has some significance, but we have been unable to find out what it is.