Brechin Mechanics Institute

Brechin Mechanics institute

Home of learning and entertainment

Brechin (* see below for pronunciation) is a fascinating place.  The size of a large village, it is in fact one of Britain’s smallest cities.  It has a 13th century cathedral that’s now a parish church of the Church of Scotland.  Since it therefore has no Bishop, it isn’t technically a Cathedral any more.  (The Episcopalian Diocese of Brechin uses St Paul’s Church in Dundee as its Cathedral).  Because of this discrepancy, some people would say Brechin can no longer call itself a city.  Locals would not agree!

Brechin also boasts an 11th century Round Tower in the Irish style, one of only two in Scotland to survive.  It nearly didn’t make it through the 1960s, as local councillors considered it irrelevant and planned to demolish it.

The closure of the nearby US Air Force base some 20 years ago hit the city badly, but it’s finally getting back on its feet.  Many buildings date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, and some have recently been restored to their full glory.  Others are still very run-down and just crying out to be tidied up and put back to use…

Brechin Mechanics Institute

And it has the Brechin Mechanics Institute, a fine building that faces you as you approach the town from the Forfar road.  Historic Environment Scotland describes it as “Tudor gothic”, a designation I hadn’t come across before.   As it dates from 1838, the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation, I’d have though “Victorian gothic” would be more apt.  But I’m not an architectural historian.

John Henderson of Edinburgh designed the Mechanics Institute building.  He was the son of a gardener at Brechin Castle, just along the road.  The Earl of Dalhousie, owner of the Castle and, presumably, Henderson’s patron, gave it to the city.  Faced in fine ashlar stone, the building soars elegantly heavenwards, suggesting perhaps that the source of learning lies above.

The Mechanics Institutes movement dates from the Age of Enlightenment, that period in the early 19th century when philosophy, physics, chemistry and natural history, as we now know them, were born.  The first Mechanics Institute was founded in Edinburgh in 1823.  However, the idea goes back to George Birkbeck (for whom Birkbeck College is named) who started a group in Glasgow in the 1790s.  Another Mechanics Institute of the period is now better known as UMIST.

The Brechin Mechanics Institute occupies the site of an earlier school building.  It provided a night-school for “mechanics” (workers), and anyone else who wanted to improve their employability, on the upper floor.  The lower floor housed the High, Parochial and Burgh schools for youngsters.  It must have been a busy place in its heyday.

What happened next

The Institute didn’t just provide education: all sorts of groups met there.  The Guildry of Brechin used the building for meetings and still makes an annual donation towards its upkeep.  A Guildry was a group of Guilds of various trades;  Brechin’s dates from 1629.  Although it’s lost its original purpose, it’s still active in the civic and social life of the city.  Many of those civic and social events take place in the Mechanics Institute.

When the Managers and Patrons of the building felt unable to maintain it by themselves in 1950, ownership of the building was “vested in the City Council for the Common Good of the Burgh”.  It subsequently passed to the District Council who, in the 1970s, had the same difficulties and closed the building as an act of economy.

Events and artworks

Finally, after many years of negotiations, Brechin Mechanics Trust was founded to manage and maintain the building, though Angus Council still own it.  The Trust has refurbished and  updated the facilities.  There’s now provision for disabled access, for example, so the whole community can use the building.  The Institute once again hosts events of all kinds, from formal dinners, art shows and musical events to pop-up oriental rug and knitwear shops.

As a place of education, the Institute displayed paintings such as Phillip’s “Robert the Bruce on the Eve of Bannockburn”, to bring history to life.  There are several portraits of local citizens, to give students models to follow, including a QC, a Doctor of Divinity and the poet Alexander Laing.  There’s also the rather unpleasant-looking local landowner Lord Erskine, ancestor of the writer Violet Jacob.  They both lived at House of Dun, between Brechin and Montrose which is now a National Trust for Scotland property.  You can see the pictures, in the upper hall, whenever the Institute is open.

What else to see

When you’ve finished at the Brechin Mechanics Institute, there’s an excellent Town House Museum on the cobbled, steeply-sloping High Street.  The Cathedral and Round Tower should also definitely be on your itinerary.  Brechin still has lots of interesting shops, too, including one of the very few greengrocers to survive the onslaught of the supermarkets.  While you wander, keep your eyes open for the many architectural joys in this tiny gem of a city.  You never know what you might spot.

Find out more

* In case you’re wondering how to pronounce it, Brechin has a “ch” as in “loch” or the German “ach”, not as in “church”, and the “e” is long: “Breechhin” is the nearest I can get to writing it!

Brechin Mechanics Institute listing at Historic Environment Scotland: http://portal.historicenvironment.scot/designation/LB22459

Round Tower: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/brechin-cathedral-round-tower/

Brechin Cathedral: https://brechincathedral.org.uk/about/

 

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Montrose sculptures

Montrose sculptures, James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose

Great men – and others

The town and port of Montrose, on Scotland’s north-east coast, has a fine collection of sculptures waiting to be discovered by the open-eyed visitor.  (The seagulls, inevitably, have already found them). Some are of local figures, others made by locals, and still others haven’t even a tenuous connection to the town.

Two of the Montrose sculptures stand very close together either side of the junction at Peel Place (the southern end of the High Street).  The first is the famous – some would say infamous – local man James Graham, 1st Marquis* of Montrose, who lived from 1612-1650.

James Graham, Marquis of Montrose

Born in the town in 1612, Montrose went on to become one of the greatest soldiers of the time of King Charles 1st.  Charles 1st wanted to impose the English brand of Protestantism on the Presbyterian Scots.  They weren’t keen on either the Bishops or the rites that Charles proposed.  The Presbyterians signed a Covenant upholding their right to worship in their own way and took arms in defence of their chosen religion.

At first Montrose supported the Covenanters but later he supported the King.  Many people therefore see him as a turncoat who followed whichever course would be most advantageous to him.  Others say that he turned against the 1st Marquis of Argyll, leader of the Covenanters, thinking he was trying to usurp the King’s power in Scotland.

Soldier-poet

No-one, however, disputes Montrose’s skill as a General; this complex man won many battles for whichever side he was supporting.  He was also a fine poet, probably best remembered for the poem he wrote to his wife.  The most famous lines from it are inscribed around the statue’s plinth:

“He either fears his fate too much,

Or his deserts are small,

That puts it not unto the touch

To win or lose it all.”

Montrose did both win and lose it all.

His loyalty to the monarchy was his downfall.  After Cromwell had King Charles 1st beheaded during the British Civil War, Montrose pledged his support to the exiled Charles 2nd and tried to raise an army to restore the monarchy.

Montrose was defeated in 1650, and executed as a traitor in Edinburgh by being hanged and quartered.  Charles betrayed him, denying all knowledge of the plot.  A tragic end for a gallant man who fought for what he saw as right.

The statue marked the 350th anniversary of Montrose’s execution.  It’s perhaps unfortunate that it’s stuck outside the Job Centre on a bend in a busy road.

Sir Robert Peel

The man on the plinth opposite him was very different, though also a doughty fighter in his way.  Some might see him, too, as a turncoat.  Montrose sculptures, Sir Robert Peel

Sir Robert Peel was not local.  He came from Lancashire and had nothing at all to do with the town.  So what did he do to earn this fine statue?

Peel has two main claims to fame – three if you’re a Catholic.  The first is that, as Home Secretary,  he founded the Metropolitan Police force in 1829.   (That’s why policemen are still called “bobbies”, Bob being short for Robert; they were also originally known as “peelers”.)

Police forces weren’t an entirely new idea.  Glasgow had had one since 1800 and the Royal Irish Constabulary was founded in 1822 (partly also thanks to Peel).  But this time the concept spread right across the country, which hadn’t happened with the earlier forces.

Women and children first

Peel was also responsible for passing the Mines Act, which banned the employment of women and children underground, and the Factory Act, which limited the number of hours they could work.

He also got the Railway Regulation Act through Parliament.  This required railway companies to provide regular affordable trains, every day, with seats and roofed carriages even for third-class passengers.  At 1d a mile they still weren’t cheap but they did help people move around to find work.

Although originally so anti-Catholic that he was nicknamed “Orange Peel”, Peel came to see that the danger posed by riots against Catholics was worse than the danger of religious freedom.   His change of heart helped to win repeal of the Test Act and pass the Roman Catholic Relief Act.

But that’s not how he earned a statue in a staunchly Presbyterian town!

His greatest legacy was forced on him by the Irish potato famine.  Peel was not in favour of free trade and most of the landowners in his Tory party strongly opposed imports of cheap corn.  But, faced with a spreading famine, Peel did something almost unprecedented in British political history.

He got the Opposition to support him against his own party to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws and relieve the hunger of millions of people.  It took five months of bitter struggle to get the repeal through Parliament.  The day it became law in 1846, Peel was defeated on another Bill and resigned.  He died in 1850 after a fall from a horse.

Erected in 1855 to mark Peel’s political achievements, his statue now sports a plaque which, ironically, misrepresents them.  It mentions only the police force, the Corn Laws and the first of his two terms as Prime Minister, ignoring the rest of his surprising career.

Montrose sculptures trail

Two men separated by two centuries and very different ideals stand within yards of each other at a busy road junction, where few passers-by give them a thought.  But they are by no means the only statues Montrose boasts.

A couple of hundred yards further up the High Street, for example, stands a Montrose man who knew Peel in Parliament and fought for many of the same things.  He’s Joseph Hume (apparently one of the worst speakers in Parliamentary history: the sight of him standing to speak could clear the Chamber within minutes).

Beyond these three, there’s a whole trail of Montrose sculptures; there’s a link below to download the guide.

They include a bust in the Library of Dr. Robert Brown, another Montrose native.  He’s the man who discovered Brownian Motion (you know, the thermal movement of molecules in liquid) and plant cell nuclei.

There are also several works by local sculptors David Annand and William Lamb.  You can visit Lamb’s studio in July and August on Tuesday-to-Saturday afternoons, or at other times by arrangement with the Curator of the Montrose Museum.

As well as statues of people, there are sculpted drinking fountains, swans and geese (Montrose’s tidal Basin is famous for its water fowl) and even a famous naval dog.

But I won’t spoil the surprises.  Download the guide, slip on your comfy shoes and go and find them for yourself.  They should keep you entertained for several hours.  You’ll also discover the lovely old town of Montrose, with its hugely wide High Street and tiny hidden wynds.  It’s worth a visit.

When you’re done, please let everyone know what you thought by leaving a comment!

Find out more:

You can download a map of the Montrose sculptures trail at www.montrosesociety.co.uk/Sculpture%20Trail%2005.pdf

For details of William Lamb’s studio: http://www.angus.gov.uk/directory_record/177/william_lamb_studio_montrose

* ‘Marquess’ or ‘Marquis’?  Either form is correct but ‘Marquess’ is the currently accepted spelling.  According to Chambers Dictionary ‘Marquis’ is “a variant spelling used esp. by holders of pre-Union titles”.  As James Graham lived between the Union of the Crowns (1603) and the Act of Union (1701), I’ve used the old spelling, as does the statue plinth.

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