Brechin, like that other early beacon of Christianity, Abernethy in Perthshire, has a distinctive and rare round tower that is evidence of its importance to the Celtic Church. It also gives a clue to the origins or at least overt influence of the clerics who operated here, as there are a large number of such towers in Ireland (76 at one reckoning) and just these two examples in Scotland. Brechin’s tower, which was said to sway like a reed in the wind according to local tradition, is now joined on to the cathedral, though originally it was free standing. Its elasticity was tested during storms by some locals who used to insert knives into the gaps in the stonework, and when they retrieved them the blades had been snapped by the movement of the building. (You had to make your own entertainment in those days!)
Another clue as to the importance of the site in early medieval times is that it is recorded as having a settlement of those shadowy Christian clerics called the celi de, or Culdees, servants of God. Although famous in Celtic studies partly because of the mystery about exactly who and what they were, there were actually few recorded Culdee settlements in early times, ranging from places of importance like Dunkeld, Lochleven, Monymusk and St Andrews, as far south as York. The fact that there were two known monastic Culdees foundations in Angus – Brechin and Monifieth – is intriguing to say the least.
The round tower at Brechin escaped the vandalising renovation which was inflicted on the adjacent cathedral in the 19th century, though plans to have it demolished in 1807 and have the masonry incorporated into the cathedral were thankfully scuppered, largely through the intervention of Lord Panmure and Mr Skene of Careston. The architect’s plans were rebuffed, with an addition threat that the first man who touched a stone of the tower in the wrong fashion would promptly be hanged from it. Even before this date the tower had been subject to attack – usually from the elements. Although the tower is roughly 85 feet (26 m) high it is topped off with a relatively modern spire. This again may have been the result of damage recorded in the kirk session records under the date 5th November 1683: ‘The head of the Litl Steeple, blowen over.’ The tower may have been originally built probably in the 11th century, several hundred years before the adjacent cathedral. The theory that such towers were originally constructed as places of refuge from rampaging Vikings is not proven.
Another indication of Irish influence is in the name of Brechin itself, which may derive from an Irish personal name, Brachan. There is however no specific mention of the place until the reign of King Kenneth II (971-995): ‘Hic est qui tribuit magnam civatem Brechne Domino,’ signifying that the monarch gave the large city of Brechin to the Church. There is no further substantial trace of this important ecclesiastic settlement until the reign of David I (1124-1153), when the Episcopal office was revived or at least modernised and a charter records rights given to ‘the Bishops and Keledei of Brechin’. The continued recognition of the Culdees as an entity continues throughout that century, with local Episcopal grants being witnessed by members of the order such as ‘Bricius, prior Keledeorum de Brechin,’ ‘Gillefali, Kelde,’ ‘Mathalan, Kelde,’ and ‘Mallebryd, prior Keledeorum nostorum’. By the mid 13th century the Culdees had fallen away and they were replaced by ‘regular’ church offices like deacons and archdeacons. Many of the Culdees appear to have married and their role was hereditary, but in decline the abbot and others of the old order became a second-rate layman, and a fourth-rate member of society’ [The Culdees of the British Isles, William Reeves, Dublin, 1864.].
By the 13th century the ecclesiastical power at Brechin was vested in individuals like Albin or Albinus (who died in 1269). He is recorded as being the first precentor of Brechin Cathedral and later became the bishop here. This was despite the fact that he was the bastard son of a bastard of David, Earl of Huntingdon, brother of King William the Lion. His father was in fact Henry de Brechin, Lord of Brechin. It was during his episcopate that a bull of Pope Innocent IV recorded (18th February 1250) that, ‘The brethren who have been wont to be in the church of Brechin were called Keledei and now by change of name are styled canons.’ Another sign that times were changing in Brechin was Albin’s introduction of a certain English monk named Egbert, a Carmetite, who was an expert in Arabic. Although some of the priests and deans of Brechinst still maintained ‘native’ Gaelic names, another mark of the widening of the clerical horizon is in the name of the extremely obscure local martyr St Stolbrand, who sounds as if he would have been more at home in Germany than the Celtic kingdom of Alba.