Albion, ancient sites, Archaeology, Art, Books

Discovering Albion – day 7: Brechin

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Just when you thought we must surely be moving into the next day’s adventure now… we went for lunch. It seemed a reasonable thing to do at quarter to twelve. I, at least, was in serious need of the grounding effects of food before getting back behind the wheel of the car. Soup and a sandwich later, we were once again pointing hopefully north. I attempted to point out another of those delightful old hotels to which I had been used to deliver on my weekly run around the country, back in the white van days. Apparently, they had demolished that one too, which seemed to be becoming a bit of a feature. I was therefore glad we weren’t planning on staying in St Andrews for the night… We were hoping for Aberdeen and I knew a hotel there… well, it had been there, once upon a time!


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We took the backroads again, passing close to the RAF station where my son had spent some time with the ATC in his teens and therefore approaching the bridge over the Firth of Tay from the east, which gives you chance to stop and look at the structure. At 1.4 miles long, it is one of the longest is Europe. The colours and the coastal light were amazing. We crossed, skirting the edge of Dundee and heading north. We had, very sensibly for once, taken the main road. We’d had the snow warnings and the warning lights were back on the dashboard. I was getting a little paranoid with every little cough, hesitation or splutter the engine made, recalling the recent debacle when she had died on me. Still, it is a nice stretch of road to drive. Then there was snow. Not much, in the grand scheme of things, but it was getting progressively worse the further north we went and the light was changing dramatically.

We saw a sign or something… I honestly can’t remember why we decided to cut across country again. Even looking at the map I can’t work out why we would have done so otherwise, but somehow or other we turned off the main road and headed for Brechin and parked up. No… that was it, we wanted a pub. We didn’t get one. What we got was a surprise. There was a sign for Brechin Cathedral… which, of course, we followed.


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We knew nothing at all about the building and once upon a time would have dismissed it as ‘Victorian’. We have learned by now that the majority of church exteriors cannot be so easily dated or dismissed. The Cathedral, technically, isn’t, belonging to the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian. Even so, it dates back before the Scottish Reformation and the formal break with Rome. There are records of a Culdee community here going back at least as far as the 10th century, though the present church was begun around 1225. It is built of the warm, red stone so typical of the area… and very similar in colour to that of Chester. It has a solid, rooted feel to it. It also has a Round Tower… and that is rare.


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Many were built in Ireland, but only two survive in Scotland. And we had fallen over one of them, quite by chance. It is a thousand years old at least and may be much older, dating back to the original church. The tower was built to be freestanding but was absorbed into the corner of the new church when it was built in the thirteenth century. Originally it appears to have had six floors; the ancient raised doorway still survives on the first floor, still bearing its carved crucifix.

It stands around eighty-five feet high, so I was quite glad that this was the one of the two you couldn’t climb! There were medieval stone coffins sheltering by the wall, carved faces and fantastic beasts… even one that looked rather like a certain canine of our acquaintance… The remnants of carvings over the doors… and doors that looked, after all, very shut. We did not expect the church to stand open. But it did. My companion entered while I took a picture of the doorway. There was an odd note in his voice…
“You’re not going to believe this….”

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