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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/