Brechin ~ Castle, Gardens & Cathedral

map_LIBrechin, even though it’s a small little obscure town off the beaten track, it holds a number of little treasures which I think are worth checking out if you are in the area – and at the right time.

Brechin used to be a Royal Burgh and one of its treasures is a castle that is believed to have been home to the Kings of Scots in the 13th century.

Another treasure is the 40-acre castle gardens which date back to 1701. They are quite extensive and very pretty.

There is also an ancient Cathedral built upon the foundations of an earlier Celtic monastery and is conveniently located just across Skinner’s Burn from the castle. The Cathedral also has an unusual Irish-style round tower.

Finally, if you visit on a Sunday, you can take a ride on the Caledonia Steam Railway which embarks from the Brechin Rail Station and travels out to the Bridge of Dun and back. Steam train rides are always fun! Unfortunately, Lindsay and I did not visit on a Sunday so we didn’t get to ride the train but we did visit the castle, its gardens, and the cathedral and that’s what I’m going to share with you.

IMG_5417We started with the castle.  Luck would have it that they were giving tours when we arrived at the gatehouse.  Evidently, there aren’t very many tours offered each year. This year they only conducted tours sporadically during the month of June and only offered a couple of tours on each day.  The tour was quite extensive however and the guide was very informative and didn’t rush us at all. In fact, the tour group only consisted of about 4-5 people so it was quite enjoyable and we didn’t feel cramped or crowded.IMG_5869 Brechin Castle stands proudly upon a massive bluff of rocks above the River Southesk.

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It was built on the site of a much older fortress belonging to Scottish Kings. The existing mansion was built in 1711 and incorporates the original Castle dating back to the 13th century.

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Below is the view that is seen from the castle looking back up the entry drive. The grounds are massive and very well groomed.IMG_5872

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IMG_5881Brechin Castle is steeped in history:

  • In 1296 Edward I received the submission of King of Scots, John Baliol, at Brechin Castle.
  • In 1303, Sir Thomas Maule defended the Castle against the English for three weeks until his own death brought about its surrender.
  • In 1643, Patrick Maule, 1st Earl of Panmure, bought the Brechin Estate from the Earl of Mar. The Castle was at that time a simple L-shaped house with three stories.
  • The 4th Earl of Panmure eventually rebuilt the Castle as it is today. A crisis in the history of the Maule family, as in many noble Scottish families, occurred after the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. James, the 4th and last Earl of Panmure, took part in the rebellion and died afterward while in exile in France. His estates were forfeited to the Crown. Eventually, his brother’s son, William, bought back the estate. Through marriages, it has been passed down over the centuries to the Dalhousie family who still lives there.

It’s a beautiful house to tour. It’s filled with many treasures, beautiful paintings by famous artists, furniture and curiosities and a pleasure to explore.

Unfortunately, since the family still lives there, we couldn’t take pictures indoors to share with you. There were a lot of things to see and enjoy but the main thing that really stood out to me about this tour was that I could tell the family actually lived there. Unlike a lot of privately-owned castles I have toured, where I usually only to get to see certain parts – rooms set aside just for tours – this one I got to see most everything.

Although the majority of the contents of a room might be roped off so I couldn’t wander about their belongings I could tell they use these rooms regularly.  As I was guided from room to room by the tour guide, I noticed, sitting amongst the 17th-century furniture and exquisite paintings and chinaware, that there were big screen TVs, accompanying remotes, and various other gadgets as evidence of modern day living.

It was rather refreshing to look over and see what books they were currently reading, puzzles they were working on, the mornings’ newspaper folded up on the table, etc. It had a real homey and down-to-earth feeling about it rather than being “perfect and pretentious.” I rather enjoyed that and felt honored to be welcomed into their beautiful home to see how they still live amongst (and honor) the ancient treasures they have inherited and how they incorporate them into modern family life.

After the tour, we made our way to the gardens.  As you can see from the aerial view below, the grounds are quite extensive and the gardens are a fair walk from the castle. The walled garden is in the lower right of the picture in a kind of a circular area.

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Soon, Lindsay and I were entering the main gate…

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The first formal design and creation of Brechin Castle Gardens was accomplished by Alexander Edward for James, the 4th Earl of Panmure between 1701 – 1708. Since that time there have been many improvements, including the addition of shrub and woodland gardens in the early 20th century.

It is touted that Brechin Castle Gardens is one of the finest private gardens in Scotland. It covers over 40 acres of planted parkland and includes the famous walled garden. The gardens link to Brechin Castle by woodland paths with banks of vibrant colors of azaleas and rhododendrons in Spring and we were in luck. They were in full bloom!

The 13-acre walled garden has an exceptional plant collection around a structure of mature trees and in particular a magnificent cedar of Lebanon and sculptured yew hedge along the main pathway.

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The walls near the entrance gate are adorned with such beautiful roses such as Rosa Foetida ‘Bicolour’, also known as Austrian Copper, for its yellow-centered coppery-red blossoms.

Nearby peonies and Clematis provide spectacular spring and summer color.

An ornamental gate beside a drinking fountain in the wall and inscribed with “Drink and Be Thankful,” is the kitchen garden area containing most of the greenhouses including a unique curved Victorian peach house. Also, potting sheds, vegetable areas, and cold frames are also located there but the public were not allowed to walk amongst them.

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The upper garden is open to the sun and contains areas of lawn, mature ornamental tree plantings, beds and borders with Rhododendron and vine houses and a garden room.

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The Rhododendrons and Azaleas were ablaze with color as we worked our way down toward the second level!

We came upon a circular group of tall evergreen trees with a 17th-century sundial perched in the middle of them.

Beyond that, we walked through the yew shrub to see a vista of a vast grassy area leading down toward the river.

Lindsay stayed up in the upper garden while I explored the lower levels where a vast variety of trees were growing. I followed the grassy areas between them toward the center of the garden where I found a circular lily pond at the base of a cherub-flanked flight of steps.

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Then I finished walking the rest of the way across the gardens back toward the entrance and saw all sorts of beautiful blooming delights…

French Lilacs! Oh, they smelled good!

More and more Rhodies and Azaleas…

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I worked my way back to the entrance gate where I met up again with Lindsay. It was such a wonderful garden to explore. Next, we went over to see the cathedral and what it had to share.

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According to the information interpretive boards:

“Brechin has its roots in the Medieval Cathedral and Celtic monastery which preceded it. It enters written history in the late 10th century during the reign of Kenneth II (or MacMalcom), King of Scots, who further endowed the mastic community, by then perhaps 300 years old.  In the mid 12th century, King David I made the church one of Scotland’s Cathedrals and Norman style alterations were made to reflect its new status. Rebuilt and altered at various times, it achieved its present form in 1900-1901.

The Transepts – The existing South Transept is on the same scale as its 14th-century predecessor. The North transept (or “aisle” in Scots) was enlarged partly to provide more accommodation, but also to give the building a more cathedral-like appearance. As it was being built, the Queen died and so it was treated as Brechin’s Victoria memorial being called “The Queen’s Aisle.”

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We headed inside…

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There were a lot of colorful windows as you might imagine there would be…

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We headed back outside and started working our way around the west end of the church and the square tower.

IMG_5934Again, according to the interpretative boards:

“The Square Tower was built in the 14th century. The clock in the Steeple face is actually the town clock. The first clock was gifted by Bishop David Strachan in 1665, the “great IMG_5923orlodg” it was called. The current clock mechanism dates from 1974.

The curfew bell (from the French “couvre feu”) still rings each weekday at 8 pm, a reminder of bygone days when the bell summoned monks to Compline, the final prayers of the day.

Fragments of Norman work dated 1140 AD have been found in the foundations of the west gable. The West Door is from the early 13th century. The great west window is in the beautiful “Scots flamboyant” style of the 15th century.”

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“The Round Tower – One of only two round towers of the Irish type in mainland Scotland, it was built as a free-standing tower in the 10th century.

Over 106 feet tall, it is as refined as any example in Ireland where they are called “bell towers.” The elaborate doorway is well above ground level because the tower was also a place of safekeeping of the precious manuscripts or relics belonging to the monastery.”

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IMG_5941This is an amazing tower! I first saw this type of tower in Ireland at Glendalough and they just absolutely astound me because those skinny and tall towers are still standing after all this time.  They were built to last!

According to the intrepretative boards:

“The finest feature of the tower is the doorway. It is of upward-tapering form and is framed by a broad band, edged with pellet mouldings. The arch is cut from a single block of stone. At its apex is the figure of the crucified Christ, and there is a saint on each side of the opening. Flanking the threshold are crouching beasts.”

“The Irish examples of these towers are now thought to date mainly from the period between 950 and 1180, and a date around 1100 seems likely for Brechin. There was probably a religious community at Brechin during the reign of King Kenneth II (971-975), but the church had become the cathedral of a bishop before 1160.”

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I continued walking around the perimeter enjoying various features until I reached the Queen’s Aisle back near the front entrance where we started.

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It was a beautiful cathedral, small in stature compared to many I’ve visited, yet packed with its own unusual elements.

That was the end of our explorations for the 5th of June. We headed back up the A90 highway toward Aberdeen, stopping off at Stonehaven for some fish & chips from the Bay Chipper, and we enjoyed watching the gulls flying along the seashore at days’ end while we reflected back on all the interesting things we’d seen that day.

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Attitude of Gratitude ~ I am grateful for another 10 days left to explore Scotland on this trip. 10 more opportunities to share its many treasures – more stories and beautiful places to see yet to come!

Author: Claudia Frew

Adventuresome, independent, and fun-loving American 65-year young great-grandmother who loves to travel; often going solo!

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