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.


Murton Farm, Tearoom and Nature Reserve



Fun with a purpose

Murton signage says “Farm and Tearoom” and that’s accurate as far as it goes: there is indeed an excellent tearoom, it’s on the site of what was a farm and there are still animals to see and, by arrangement, pet.  (There’s also an excellent and growing play-park and a wind turbine.)  For many visitors, these facilities are what the place is all about.

Which is fine; but it ignores the largest part of Murton’s raison d’etre.  It’s a nature reserve, run by the charity Murton Trust for Education and the Environment.  The tearoom and farm, the only areas you have to pay to use, help draw in visitors and funds.

What Murton is really about

Murton was a perfectly ordinary farm once.  Then the diggers arrived.  The soil in this part of Angus contains large quantities of sand and gravel, and open-cast mining for them is a common sight.  For 12 years, Murton’s fields were scoured for aggregates.

The owners had already decided that the land would become a nature reserve when the diggers left.  They were also interested in education.  They combined the two to create a place where nature and people could flourish together.

So groups of 14-19 year-old students who find academic education challenging come here from local schools.  They learn skills they can use later in gardening, forestry, farming, environmental protection work and other employment.  Trust staff make sure what they learn refers to the curriculum whenever possible.

For example, people who struggle with maths learn how to calculate the quantities of fencing wire or timber they’ll need for a job.  When you have a reason to learn something, it often makes more sense.

Nature, with a bit of help

Students and staff have built nesting walls and boxes for the several hundred pairs of sand martins that return here every year to breed.  They (the students and staff, not the martins) manage grassland, and a whole field of orchids blooms on the reserve round about May. Elsewhere in the region, you’re lucky to see one or two specimen orchids.  Other management practices mean that otters now visit Murton from local lochs, one with cubs.

And there are hides and shelters all around the lochs where visitors can sit and watch the birds – all thanks to the students and staff.  You’ll also meet a life-size deer and boar on your travels, but quite safely: they’re made of wood!  You can buy smaller versions in the tearoom.

Murton boar
This little piggy won’t hurt

They’re currently building a new cabin, large enough to accommodate the Outdoor Tots toddler group in wet weather, the Murton Makers kids’ carpentry events, and courses in rural skills such as spoon-carving.  You can find full details of events and courses on their website and social media: see below.

Visiting Murton

The tearoom, farm and car park are open 10-4, every day from April to October and Wednesday to Sunday the rest of the year.  There’s a hide you can access directly from the car park, so if you’re short of time, mobility or energy you can still watch the birds in comfort.

The tea, coffee and cakes in the tearoom are excellent – some people come just for them!  Entry to the farm is £3.50 for adults and £2.00 for children (2017 prices), which is very reasonable considering you can stay all day and find plenty to occupy small people.

The main gate is shut every night and the place looks closed.  But the nature reserve is open 24/7: you can wander round any time the mood takes you.  The pedestrian access gates are down a side road, almost opposite the Foresterseat Caravan Park entrance.  Sadly (or luckily, depending on your viewpoint) not many people know about them and you’re quite likely to have the place to yourself outside normal opening hours.

Murton’s a great place for all ages and many interests.  Whether you’re a life-long birder or just need a good walk, want a place to meet a friend for tea and buns or have two energetic children to occupy, it’s here for you. Definitely worth a visit!

More details




Because it’s a nature reserve, dogs are not allowed (they can stay in the car, but there’s no shade).



Glamis Castle, Angus

Glamis Castle
Glamis Castle (photo by Helen MacGregor)

What is it about Glamis?

I’ve been trying to analyse why Glamis Castle is my favourite (non-ruined) castle…

Is it the fairy-tale turrets of pink sandstone rising up against a background of hills and the warm ruggedness of the whole as you approach down the long drive?

Or the treasures of furniture, paintings and porcelain it houses, and the extraordinary engineering achievement of its wheel stair (as described by Fred Dibnah in one of his inimitable programmes)?

The stories, history and ghosts?

Or perhaps it’s just that I know it so well.  I worked there for 11 years, as a guide and occasionally in the office.  I made good friends there and loved (mostly!) the groups of tourists we took round and their sometimes astonishing questions.

Family history

But I think it’s the family history that grabs me most.  For example, the shrewd 3rd Earl who designed Glamis Castle as we see it today, having brought the family fortunes back from the brink of bankruptcy.  He kept a Book of Record (diary) in which he recorded his thoughts on life, philosophy, family – and builders.  It seems these last haven’t changed much since the 16th Century!

The 4th Earl, his oldest son, with a strong eye to posterity and proving hs position in the world, had enough portraits and busts of himself made to stock a gallery.

The 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Earls, all brothers, prove the necessity of having a good number of sons to ensure the succession.  The 8th, incidentally, though he lived longest, seems to be the only Earl who never got around to having his portrait painted (though it is possible that one of the miniatures in the family’s possession is of him).

The 9th Earl, a handsome man described as a “good bottle companion” married the fabulously rich, intelligent and highly-educated Mary Eleanor Bowes.  She had a horrible life after the Earl died (young, probably of tuberculosis), and ended up divorcing her second husband – almost unheard of in those days and the object of much discussion in the newspapers.  She won the case, with public opinion on her side, which was equally unusual for a woman in such a case.

Politics, gossip, intrigue – like all noble families, the Bowes Lyons of Glamis have had their share.  And much of it happened at Glamis Castle.

Family home

But above all, Glamis has been a family home.  Dozens of children, including the late Queen Mother, grew up here.  There are graves of family pets in the garden and plenty of trees crying out to be climbed by adventurous young sons.  They had a curling pond and a cricket pitch in the grounds.  The old cricket pavilion has been moved down to the back of the Castle; for several years it was the Castle office and it’s now used for children’s entertainments, but it still looks like a cricket pavilion, with a separate small room for the scorers so they wouldn’t be distracted by chit-chat.

Not everything you see on the castle tour is grand.  A lot of it’s big, but it’s all on a human scale, especially when you consider how large families were.  A dining table that can seat 28 doesn’t seem that huge when you have a family of 10 children, plus the spouses of the older members, to fit in.


Glamis is a house built for entertaining and it’s seen some famous visitors, Mary Queen of Scots, King George VI, Sir Walter Scott and William Ewart Gladstone among them.  It’s still welcoming visitors today – thousands of them every year – and entertaining them, albeit on a less grandiose scale.  (And these days they don’t stay in bedrooms complete with a private ghost but no plumbing!)

You can’t wander around the house on your own: all visits are by guided tour, and I think that’s a good thing (well I would say that, wouldn’t I?).  The guides are an interesting and knowledgeable bunch – and not just about the Castle – and you’ll discover far more about the place than you would on your own.

If you can, take a full day to see the Castle and grounds at your leisure, especially if the weather’s fine.  Don’t make the mistake so many coach tours do and try to cram it into a couple of hours; there’s too much to see.  I used to take groups of Italians round; Glamis was often their third castle of the day and they were “castled out”.

It’s a waste.  Take your time, enjoy your visit and maybe you’ll be able to answer the question “What is it about Glamis?” for yourself.

More information about Glamis Castle

… can be found on their website, or by phone on +44(0)1307 840393.  The Castle is closed through the week November-March (for exact dates see the website).  The Christmas Fair in December is worth an expedition all on its own, as are the various theatrical events throughout the year.




5 Best-Kept Secrets of Angus

Glen Clova in Angus
Glen Clova in Angus

Angus: what most visitors miss

The county of Angus lies on Scotland’s east coast between Dundee and Aberdeen.  If people have heard of it, it’s usually because major golf tournaments are contested at Carnoustie, a links course of fearsome reputation.

But there’s so much more to Angus than golf.  It’s home to at least five “best-kept secrets”.

Lunan Bay

One of my favourite walking spots is Lunan Bay, two miles of sandy beach on a gentle curve backed by dunes.  The river Lunan runs into it near the southern end, its rushes hiding swan’s nests.  On the bank above sit the sandstone ruins of Red Castle, weathered over the centuries into fantastical shapes.

In a corner of the bay, the old fishing village of Eassie hugs the ledge of the cliff.  It’s now a gated community, a single-track road its only connection to the outside world.

The bay is one of the best places on the east coast of Scotland for surf and the sky is often colourful with the sails of kite-surfers.  Hundreds of gulls and shags nest on the cliffs, and the rocks are a larder of shellfish waiting to be harvested.

Best of all, even on a sunny weekend when the car park is full it’s big enough to feel as though you have the place to yourself.

Glamis Castle

Hidden away in woodland near Forfar lies Glamis.  The childhood home of the Queen Mum, it is apparently one of the most haunted castles in Scotland.  A confection of pink sandstone and turrets, it nestles low against a dramatic backdrop of high hills.

Now open to the public, Glamis is a magical place, full of history, atmosphere and quirky charm.  I’ve written a longer post on it.

The Angus Glens

… are five valleys running deep into the foothills of the Cairngorms.  According to local legend, the Glens are the imprint of God’s fingers when he finished creating the world.

They vary from gentle, river-created valleys like Glen Esk to the drama of Glen Clova, gouged from the hills by ice-age glaciers. Although popular with walkers, the glens are still quite empty of people, offering great opportunities for wildlife-spotting if you’re quiet enough.

Montrose Airfield

Montrose was the first full-time military airfield in Scotland, way back in 1913. Two hangars from that period are still in use, though not for their original purpose.

Although no planes fly from Montrose now you can still see the runways.  You can still use them too, as many cyclists, walkers and runners prove.  The old Station HQ is now a museum crammed with information, models – and ghosts.  During both World Wars the airfield was a training camp for pilots, many of whom are still “there”: both staff and visitors see and hear them .

You can read more about the airfield here.

Arbroath Abbey

The Abbey of Arbroath has a good claim to be the home of Scottish nationalism, because it was here, in 1320, that the Declaration of Arbroath was signed.

Officially this was a letter to the Pope claiming the right of Scotland as an independent country to take up arms in its own defence.  In fact it was aimed at the English King who wanted to annex Scotland, to warn him “hands off!”.  The Abbey is now a ruin, but the Declaration still has life in Scots’ hearts.

And there’s more…

Angus has plenty more to offer than these five best-kept secrets.  It often feels like the part of Scotland no-one visits.  People rush up the main road between Perth and Aberdeen, missing the real treat in the middle.

There’s farmland, forestry, mountain, ocean; breath-taking views, fine architecture, music, art; Arbroath smokies to eat and locally-produced beer, gin and vodka to drink.  The air is clean; it’s a peaceful county.

If you want something more energetic, Angus offers excellent horse- and mountain bike-riding, scuba diving, hill-walking, canoeing, and (of course) golf.

So next time you’re heading from Perth to Aberdeen, take some time out to explore Angus, Scotland’s hidden-in-plain-sight gem, and discover its secrets for yourself.

Find out more has listings for things to do , places to go, accommodation and everything else you need for a first visit to the county.

For a list of recommended accommodation providers, see the DAVAA website.







Montrose Airfield: Scotland’s First Airforce base

RAF Sopwith Camel, Montrose Airfield
An RAF Sopwith Camel, as used at Montrose Airfield during WWI

The ghosts of Montrose Airfield

Montrose airfield is peaceful now, home to skylarks and rabbits.  Only the concrete bunkers around the perimeter and a lonely barrier in the middle of nothing tell a different story.  77 years ago this is where “the few” trained: the young men of the RAF who saved Britain in the hot summer of 1940.

In 1913 Montrose was Britain’s first military airfield and the original hangars are still in use (though they’re now workshops and warehouses).  The first planes flew here from Farnborough in Surrey, taking 12 days.  When they needed fuel, the pilots landed, ordered it from the nearest blacksmith or chemist’s shop, waited for it, and flew on.

Three years later the first squadrons of the RFC (Royal Flying Corps) left from Montrose to fight over the trenches in France.  Many didn’t return.  Most pilots on the Western Front died within two weeks, and the airfield where they trained is notorious for its ghosts.

Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre

The Station Headquarters building now houses the Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre.  My guide, John Melville, described his own ghost experience.  He was approached by a middle-aged couple asking to see a photo of their son at the base.  He went off to find other information for them.  When he returned there was no sign of them and no-one else had seen them.  Then someone pointed out that the couple’s son had died during World War II.

Visitors are shown a film of the airfield through the years.  One lady said afterwards, “All the boys enjoyed the film”.  It turned out that “the boys” were the ghosts of pilots who recognised the buildings, flyers and ground crew shown in the film.

Flying crashes were common around Montrose Airfield.  The base sits between the mountains and the sea, both lethal to flyers without blind-flying instruments.  (Another ghost story tells of a “shepherd” plane guiding a pilot down to the base in fog and then vanishing.)  Both air-sea- and mountain-rescue were pioneered here.

Visiting Montrose Airfield and the Heritage Centre

Anyone can visit the airfield any time and, indeed, it’s a very popular dog walking area.  Joggers regularly give the word “runways” a whole new meaning, and the football pitches in the middle are busy at weekends.  You can even still see the occasional pane flying from here – but it’ll be a model one!

The Montrose Airfield Heritage Centre houses exhibits covering the life of the Air Station from 1913 to 1950, when it closed.  One case is devoted to heroes who flew from Montrose, including the pilot Richard Hillary, author of the World War II classic “The Last Enemy”.

The Butler Building houses a Sopwith Camel, standard issue during World War I and famously flown by Biggles.  The “kite” seems so small and frail – bits of cloth, wire and balsa wood, more like a model than a fighting machine.  There was no protection for the pilot; I was left with a deep admiration for the courage of the men who flew them.  Even the metal WWII planes seem very small and fragile, considering what they were up against.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the air is never still at Montrose Airfield, however hot the day may be.  Some would say it’s because the sea is just over the dunes; I think it has a lot to do with the ghosts of the aeroplanes  and the men and women who flew and maintained them.  It doesn’t disturb the rabbits or the skylarks – but it serves to remind you that things were not always so peaceful here.

Find out more

… about visiting the Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre at  It’s open at weekends (Saturday 10-4 and Sunday 12-4) all year round, weather permitting.  During the summer (April-October) it’s also open Wednesday-Friday 10-4.




Coupar Angus’ Tolbooth Steeple

Coupar Angus Tolbooth
Coupar Angus’ Tolbooth steeple

Law and order

Coupar Angus sits on a little river which used to mark the boundary between Perthshire and Angus.  It all lies within Perthshire now, which must make things easier for the Council.  But it does leave people wondering about the name.

It’s easy, really: the “Angus” bit was added to differentiate it from Cupar in Fife.  It made sense at the time …

I’ve driven through the town hundreds of times down the years, usually in a hurry to get from A to B.  On a whim the other day I stopped to take a look at the steeple that sits beside the Dundee road.

Lords of Regality

It turns out to have an interesting history, explained briefly on a plaque attached to the tower:

“Tolbooth steeple.

Built by public subscription 1762.

Prison of Court of Regality.”

The ground floor was the gaol (jail) and the top storey was where the local court met.

During the Middle Ages Coupar Angus was a Regality, a territorial jurisdiction created by the Scottish Monarchy.  The King or Queen gave the lands to a particular person or body, ecclesiastical or lay.  In Coupar Angus’ case it was the Abbey, so the Abbott was the Lord of Regality.

Lords of Regality had rights and duties equivalent to those of a sheriff over the local population.  In other words, they dealt with both civil and criminal cases.  The only crime they didn’t cover was treason.

It must have seemed a good idea at the time, when it might take years for judges or the Court to reach an area.  In practice, the Lords of Regality often went somewhat beyond their remit and tried to usurp authority from the Crown.  They were abolished in the wake of the Jacobite rebellions, in 1746.

In Angus and the surrounding area there were Regalities based in Arbroath, Brechin, Lindores, St. Andrews, Coupar Angus and Kirriemuir.  All except Kirriemuir were ecclesiastical, granted to the Abbeys that dotted (and often owned) the rich countryside.

The story of Coupar Angus

Coupar Angus has been around for a while – it was a Roman marching camp and there are Pictish stones all over the area. Nothing much seems to have happened between then and the Middle Ages – it’s always been a quiet place.

But in 1164 Cistercian monks from Melrose, way down in the Scottish Borders, founded Coupar Angus Abbey.  In the 14th century the monks owned 8000 acres, so it was a rich foundation.  The Abbot was powerful: as the Lord of Regality, he had jurisdiction over even the local barons.

The main Abbey buildings were on the edge of the town.  They were destroyed, like most of the great ecclesiastical foundations, during the Scottish Reformation and the lands passed to a local landowner.

Stone from the Abbey was used to build the Tolbooth and a church on the original site.  All that’s left of the Abbey itself is a section of a gateway, fenced-off to stop people climbing it.

Unusual layout

I don’t know how many times I’ve driven that road through Coupar – lots – but there’s never seemed any particular reason to stop.  The town hides itself behind a railing and a burn and looks nothing much, though there is a large and obviously popular park.

But there’s more to it than meets the eye: its street plan is very unusual.  Most Scottish towns – according to a local history leaflet – are laid out more or less on a grid pattern, with back wynds and a central square-ish area where the market was held, way back when.

Coupar’s not like that.  Probably because everything looked towards the Abbey, it radiates out from a point near where the Abbey was and the traffic lights are now.

The town has some interesting old buildings, too, so it’s worth a walk around.  Having been in decline for some years, it’s now being brought back to life, which is a real pleasure to see.

It’s a quiet town that largely serves the local farming community.   Next to the play-park is one of its more useful shops, the NE Farmers’ Co-op, where I bought a splendidly waterproof jacket.

Coupar Angus isn’t a standard stop-over on the tourist route – in fact most people probably drive through it without a second glance – but it’s definitely worth an hour or two of your time.