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:

Round Tower:

Brechin Cathedral:



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.


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

For details of William Lamb’s studio:

* ‘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.


Cromarty’s Good Samaritan

James Thomson plaque, Cromarty
James Thomson’s blue plaque, Cromarty

James Thomson MD, hero of the Crimea

Embedded in the weathered sandstone wall of the antique shop at the corner of High Street and Church Street in Cromarty is a blue plaque.  It says “Birthplace of James Thomson MD, 1823-1854.  A Good Samaritan to wounded enemy Russians at the Battle of Alma in the Crimean War”.  Who was this medic who died, aged just 31, saving wounded soldiers on a battlefield?

James Thomson was born and brought up in the house now occupied by the antique shop.  He must have been a bright child and either came from a well-off family or was supported by one, because he trained as a doctor and joined the Army Medical Department.


He must have joined up almost as soon as he qualified, as by February 1848 he was Assistant Surgeon to the 7th Dragoons.  In 1850 he moved to the 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot and was posted to Malta, where a cholera epidemic was raging.

Cholera, a vicious diarrheal killer, was common in places where people were crowded together with poor sanitation.  Military hospitals were no exception.  The epidemic wiped out all the other medics working there but Thomson survived.

The website Regimental Surgeons of the Malta Garrison quotes the Roll of Commissioned Officers in the Medical Service of the British Army.  “The skill, fortitude, and humanity, displayed by him in arresting the progress of that disease, gained for him the praises of the Commander-in-Chief”.

From Malta he went to Gibraltar for three years, then in April 1854 he left for Turkey on the way to the Crimea.


The Crimean War arose because Britain and France were trying to prevent Russia gaining territory and influence in Turkey as the Ottoman Empire crumbled.  The allies wanted control of the Russian Black Sea port of Sebastopol, in the Crimean region of the Ukraine.  Crimea has recently in the news again, of course: it’s still strategically important to Russia.

The Battle of Alma, the first major battle of the Crimean War, was a British and French victory.  When the allied armies left the battlefield, Thomson volunteered to stay behind.  With just his batman to help, he looked after 700 desperately wounded Russians.  Despite the dangers of marauding Cossack soldiers nearby and lack of food , within days he’d managed to save some 400 of them and ensure they embarked for Odessa and home.

He moved on to the military hospital at Balaclava, where Florence Nightingale also worked.  Either because of a lack of available doctors or becauseThomson was considered immune after his experiences in Malta, he was assigned to work on the cholera ward.

Sadly, he wasn’t immune.  After just 34 hours on the ward he caught the infection and nine hours later he died, 15 days after the Battle of Alma.  His batman buried him on the shores of the Black Sea.

Thomson was acclaimed in Parliament for his bravery and his work was celebrated by William Russell, The Times’ war correspondent, who also made Florence Nightingale’s reputation.

And back to Cromarty

The blue plaque is not Thomson’s only memorial.  In true philanthropic Victorian style, a bursary was set up in his name to help children educated and living in Cromarty.

And Thomson’s friend Sir James MacGrigor, Director General of the Army Medical Department, erected an obelisk to him at Forres.  He had wanted to erect it in Thomson’s birthplace but the local landowner didn’t approve the chosen site.  So he built it across the Moray Firth instead, where people can see it from Cromarty.

The obelisk makes no mention of the cholera, stating that Thomson died “from the effects of excessive hardship and privation” – which may indeed have contributed by lowering his resistance to infection.

It describes him as an officer “whose life was useful and whose death was glorious”.  That’s a good epitaph for a young man – or, indeed, anyone.

Find out more:


Mercury Seaplane

Mercury seaplane plaque
Mercury seaplane with Maia flying boat

World record long-distance flight

Walking along the Tay Embankment next to RRS Discovery, I stopped to read a bronze plaque attached to the sea-wall.  It commemorates the world record for long-distance seaplane flight. This was achieved by the Mercury seaplane, which took off from Dundee.

The illustration shows  a combination of one plane under another.  This rather ungainly but intriguing arrangement was known as the Short Mayo Composite.  The name commemorates its builders (Short Brothers Ltd) and designer (Robert Mayo).

An epic adventure

It was high tide and windy as I stood at the edge of the river.  The Tay roiled and slopped against the embankment below me.  Conditions were much the same in early October 1938, but by the 6th they had cleared up enough to be safe.

This is what the plaque says:

“Commemoration of the 1938 flight of Captain Bennett from the Tay Estuary to South West Africa.

The world record long-distance flight by a seaplane was achieved by the aircraft “Mercury”, the upper component of the Short Mayo Composite that took off from the Tay Estuary at Dundee on 6th October 1938.

The seaplane was positioned on top of the “Maia” flying boat for assisted take-off, enabling her to carry a greater fuel load.  The planes separated in the skies north of Dundee and “Mercury” flew 6,041 miles to Alexander Bay, South West Africa.

The two experiment planes, “Mercury” and “Maia” were built by Short Brothers Ltd. for Imperial Airways and designed to carry mail long distances without refuelling.

This tribute to the epic flight by Captain D.C.T. Bennett and First Officer Ian Harvey was unveiled by Captain Bennett’s wife Mrs Ly Bennett and Lord Provost Mervyn Rollo on 4th October 1997.

Captain Bennett, later Air Vice Marshal D.C.T. Bennett, C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O., was the famed founder and Commander of the Royal Air Force Pathfinder Force during the Second World War.”

The story of the Mercury seaplane

The reason for creating the Short Mayo composite is that planes can’t take off with the amount of weight they can carry once they’re actually flying.  They also use a lot of fuel to get airborne.  If another plane can assist with take-off, the smaller plane can travel further on its fuel-load.

A frame on the lower plane (Maia, a flying boat) held the upper one (the Mercury seaplane) until the moment of release.  There were two release levers, one in each cockpit, to avoid mishaps.  Aerodynamics then provided the lift to get the upper plane airborne.

Before the African trip, the Mercury seaplane had successfully flown across the Atlantic to Canada to deliver mail.  Her flying ability was proven.  But the African journey was considerably longer.

The expectation was that Mercury would fly all the way to Cape Town (some 6,400 miles) but poor weather meant she hadn’t enough fuel to get all the way.  Instead she landed on the River Orange.  Apparently she came down through a flock of flamingos, which must have been somewhat unnerving for Captain Bennett.

Mercury didn’t beat the overall long-distance flying record.  However, no other seaplane has beaten her record (mostly because very few seaplanes make long-distance flights these days).

Mercury and Mayo seem to have been the only Mayo Composite plane combo built and neither plane survived World War II.  However, the idea lived on.

The piggy-back concept was used again when 747s carried the US Space Shuttle around America.  The coupling idea also developed into in-flight refuelling, according to Wing Cdr Colin McCrae of the Air Training Corps, quoted in a BBC report of the 70th anniversary celebrations of the flight.

Find out more

You can watch contemporary footage of the Short Mayo Composite on YouTube and at the British Pathe site.

And you can learn all about Captain (later Air Vice Marshall) DCT Bennett here.  Perhaps surprisingly, he was an Australian.  He joined the RAF in the early ’30s, left to become a commercial pilot, then rejoined the RAF in 1941. After the War he became an MP and designed cars and light aircraft.

If you know what happened to First Officer Ian Harvey, please let me know.  As so often happens with the “junior” members of a team, I couldn’t find anything on the internet apart from his connection with this flight.


David Douglas Memorial, Scone

David Douglas memorial
David Douglas Memorial in Scone churchyard

Remarkable plant collector

In spring, roadside verges, hedges and gardens are bright with the myriad pinks of flowering currant, a plant so widespread that I’d always thought it was native.  That’s until I took a short detour to the churchyard on the outskirts of Scone, just outside Perth, following a brown sign to the David Douglas Memorial.

It turns out it was Douglas who introduced flowering currant to Britain.  Not just Ribes sanguineus, either.  Douglas fir (yup, he’s that Douglas), Sitka spruce, Monterey pine, California poppy and a couple of hundred other plants are all “his” too.

The plants he discovered became fashionable with wealthy garden owners who wanted exotic novelties to show off, and spread from there.  Nowadays Sitka spruce in particular, and to a lesser extent Douglas fir, are hugely important in the UK timber industry.

David Douglas started his working life aged 11 in the gardens of Scone Palace, just up the road.  He went on his first plant hunting expedition to North America in 1823, still only 24.  A short 10 years later he was dead, gored by a wild bull after falling into a pig-trap in Hawaii.  What a way to go!  How many other plants would he have introduced had he lived longer?

Memorial to David Douglas

The Memorial was built in 1841 by Douglas’s admirers to recognise his great contribution to horticulture and forestry.  It stands at the top of the churchyard, not huge but imposing.

The churchyard gates are wired together, but don’t let that put you off: the wire’s just there to stop the gates being blown around, because the latch doesn’t work.  Go round to the right, past what looks like a lodge [the first time I’ve ever seen one in a churchyard.  Was it the gardener’s cottage?  Sadly, there was no-one to ask so I’m none the wiser] and up the slope.  This is one of the rare times when “you can’t miss it” is true.

The churchyard is open all year, oddly enough!  The carefully-mown grass is slippy if there’s been a lot of rain recently.  There’s a large car park next to the church with plenty of shade from mature trees.

If you want to go for a walk, a footpath along the stream starts at the car park gate and heads into a small patch of woodland; it makes a good 20 minute stroll.

Alternatively, Kinnoull Hill, a mixed woodland with miles of trails on the outskirts of Perth, is also a great place to walk.  Just follow the signs up to the left as you come into Perth from the Scone direction.   You need to be fit enough for a steepish climb.  Right at the top of the hill there’s a cliff-top folly, built by a Victorian with a sense of the picturesque.  It’s a bit nervousness-inducing if you don’t like heights but the view across the Tay is fabulous.  Worth the climb.




Hercules Linton Memorial

Hercules Linton memorial
Hercules Linton Memorial, Inverbervie

Inverbervie’s famous ship designer

Hercules who?  Well, indeed!  But in his day Hercules Linton was a well-known shipbuilder and famous as the designer of the fastest ship in the world.

Hercules Linton designed and built the famous tea clipper Cutty Sark.  She was named after the garment worn by the young witch Nannie in Robert Burns’ poem “Tam o’ Shanter”.  You may remember how Nannie pulled the tail from Tam’s grey mare Meg as he fled from the witches.

All of which goes to explain the rather unusual statue at the northern edge of the small coastal town of Inverbervie, Kincardineshire*.  Hercules Linton was born and is buried in Inverbervie.  And the statue’s a copy of the original figurehead from the Cutty Sark ship.

There Nannie flies, clutching Meg’s tail, in her skimpy “cutty sark” or short shift. (In the poem the sark was from Paisley so it probably wasn’t plain white, but Paisley-pattern would have been harder to paint on a ship.)

Hercules Linton’s greatest ship

Cutty Sark, now a major attraction at Greenwich on London, was launched in 1869.  Building her bankrupted Hercules Linton’s company, but she made a fortune for her owners.

The clipper sailed the route between England and Shanghai, carrying tea on the return journey.  This was a serious race, with intense rivalry between the clippers.  Whichever ship got the tea home first got the best price for her cargo.

Cutty Sark later carried wool from Australia, and was subsequently sold to a Portuguese trader.  She then returned to Britain and served as a training ship for naval cadets until 1938.  She finally came to rest at Greenwich in 1954, 54 years after the death of her creator.

Other local attractions

A couple of doors away from the memorial is Inverbervie’s other famous landmark, the Bervie Chipper fish-and-chip shop, a great place to sample some of the local produce.  You can park in the square opposite the Chipper and take a walk down to the beach while you eat.

A few miles up the road is Arbuthnott, where you’ll find the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre.

*The historic county of Kincardineshire is now technically part of Aberdeenshire.

More information

Some of the above came from the plaque on the wall by the statue. The rest is from the Undiscovered Scotland biography of Linton (

and from the Royal Museums Greenwich site (

And if you can’t remember the poem, you can read it in full here: