I BEGAN my column last week with one of my favourite Scottish trivia quiz questions about the falsitude contained in the name of an SPFL club, the answer, of course being Elgin City because there are only eight officially declared cities in Scotland, and Elgin isn’t one of them.

The same question could be asked of the Highland League and here the answer is contained in the name of Brechin City FC, although, as with Elgin, do not ever suggest to its citizens that their ancient town is not a city.

Tradition had it that if your town contained a cathedral or was at the centre of a church diocese, you could claim to be a city. For centuries Brechin both had a wonderful cathedral and was the centre of the Roman Catholic diocese of Brechin, so a city it was acclaimed. There is still a diocese of Brechin to this day, part of the Scottish Episcopal Church, though the diocesan cathedral is now St Paul’s in Dundee.

First of all, however, an update on where we are in this series about Scotland’s ancient towns. I have already written about Elgin, Falkirk, Arbroath, Ayr, Paisley, Dumbarton, Dumfries and Lanark and still to come are Stornoway, Hamilton, Kilmarnock, St Andrews, Montrose, Forfar, Kilwinning, Irvine and Renfrew. I have rejected Greenock because it doesn’t quite meet my criteria.

To be included in my list, towns have to have played a part in the history of Scotland and to have been established as a town, usually a burgh, before the Reformation in 1560.

Last week I suggested that anyone who wanted to promote their town for a column should email me at nationalhamish@gmail.com. Lo and behold, I received an impassioned plea on behalf of Tain and that will be the ancient town I will write about next week.

I am writing about towns whose history has been thoroughly researched – history writers depend on real historians for our facts – and Brechin has one of the most comprehensive local histories ever written about an ancient town of Scotland.

The History Of Brechin To 1864 was published in 1867 by David Dakers Black (1797-1875), solicitor and former town clerk. Black was an accomplished historian who used the town records and previous clerical archives to give us a comprehensive record of a place he clearly loved. Thanks are again due to electricscotland.com for publishing the entire work.

READ MORE: This truly ancient Scottish town was once a city

The name Brechin is of ancient origin and although the derivation is disputed it most likely comes from the Gaelic words for the edge of the water, or bank of the river, in this case the South Esk which flows past the town towards the North Sea.

No prehistoric or Roman remains have been found in Brechin but there is strong evidence that this area of Angus was settled by the Picts and their forebears in the first millennium.

In 2016, archaeologists discovered the remains of two Iron Age roundhouses and a cellar or subterranean room at Dubton Farm near Brechin, dated to the first or second centuries. As with every other part of Scotland, the Dark Ages were exactly that and I can shed no light on events or personalities in Brechin until after the year 900.

That it developed as a religious centre in the final years of the first millennium is, however, beyond doubt, with reports that King Kenneth II gave exemption from taxes to occupants of a religious establishment at Brechin.

This suggests there already existed a monastery or convent of Culdees – those ancient Celtic clerics who were part monks, part hermits, and were greatly revered by the Christians of Angus and elsewhere.

Black does not rely on those reports, stating: “We never saw the grant, nor any satisfactory evidence that it ever existed; but we find that ‘Leod, Abbe de Breichin,’ is witness, along with bishops and other great officials, to a grant made by King David I to his new Abbey of Dunfermline and it is thus inferred that the Culdees had an establishment in Brechin at or prior to 1150. This convent is believed to have stood a little to the west of the present parish church, in the gardens now belonging to the Kirk session, still called the College Yards.

“A small well of delightfully pure water in these gardens receives the name of the College Well, and is reported by tradition to have been the well of the Culdee convent.”

It is probable that early Brechin all but disappeared in the first years of the 11th century, razed to the ground by Danish invaders, and that may be why there are no ruins pre-dating that era.

Sometime later in the 11th century, the Culdees, who were of Irish origin, built a splendid round tower as the basis of their place of worship. It is one of only two Irish-type towers still extant in Scotland, the other being at Abernethy. The tower, now attached to the cathedral, is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland whose Statement of Significance states that it may have been a bell tower.

Just as he had done for Arbroath, King William the Lion (1142-1214, below) showered royal attention on the town, giving a charter to the clerics at Brechin.

The National:

Translated from the Latin, it states: “William, King of Scotland, to all honest men of the whole of Scotland, greeting: Know me to have granted, and by this my charter to have confirmed, to the bishops and Culdees of the church of Brechin that donation which King David, my grandfather, gave them by his charter, of market to be held in perpetuity in the city on the Lords days (or Sabbaths) as freely as the Bishop of St Andrews holds a market. Witnesses, Andrew, Bishop of Caithness and Nicholas, the chancellor. At Brechin.”

In effect, if not in law, Brechin was a burgh from that charter onwards. The cathedral was now slowly progressing, having been started in the mid-12th century by Bishop Samson or Sansane.

None of the early bishops had a major impact on national affairs but concentrated on building Brechin Cathedral over the course of a century or more, and converted the Culdees into a chapter of canons more in line with the Roman church.

A castle was also built at Brechin at this time but no remains of it exist. Royal involvement with the town occurred again when Henry, the illegitimate son of David, the Earl of Huntingdon and nephew of William the Lion, was granted the Lordship of Brechin.

His son William founded the Maison de Dieu, an early form of hospital and poor home, in the town in 1267 – the wall of the Maison’s chapel still stands – but it was his son David who, as Lord of Brechin, came to fame, notoriety or both during the Wars of Independence.

Having sworn allegiance to Edward I of England, he fought against the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296, only to switch sides and join the forces of the Scottish Guardians, being wounded at the siege of Lochmaben Castle.

He then re-ratted and once again swore allegiance to Longshanks before finally siding with Robert the Bruce. His is one of the seals on the Declaration of Arbroath in April 1320 but he was found guilty of conspiring against the Bruce and executed for treason just a few months later.

Rather more heroic was Sir Thomas Maule, who has come down to us as the Braveheart of Brechin Castle. When Longshanks laid siege to Brechin in 1298, his giant engines smashed stones against the castle walls. Maule was to be seen on the battlements, dusting down the walls where the stones had hit.

Unfortunately he was hit by one of the missiles and died a few days later from his wounds. Brechin’s bishop, John de Kinninmonth, also took a brave stance against the English by recognising the monarchy of the Bruce.

Another later Lord of Brechin, Walter Stewart, was one of the conspirators in the assassination of King James I in 1437. Like his ancestor before him, he paid with his life for his attempted regicide.

It was during the reign of James I’s son James II that Brechin was at the centre of what was effectively a civil war between the king and the mighty Douglases. Forces loyal to the king, mainly from the Gordon clan, fought the rebels who were loyal to the Douglas family, and were mostly from clan Lindsay under the command of the Earl of Crawford, in the Battle of Brechin on May 18, 1452.

Little is known about the battle except that the royalist side won when one of the rebels changed sides on the battlefield.

Black wrote: “The centre of the royal army began to give way, when John Coless or Collace of Balna-moon … who hated Crawford in consequence of some dispute regarding property … deserted to the royalists with the left wing which he commanded and which was the best equipped part of the troops, being armed with battle-axes, broadswords and spears."

The story is told that Crawford was so furious at losing that he said he would rather have endured seven years in Hell strung up by his eyelashes. He made peace with the king, however.

Having had a school since 1429, Brechin was a religious centre but the loss of religious influence was perhaps one explanation as to why Brechin did not develop as much as other towns in the 16th century and the cathedral was already deteriorating before the Reformation, the building falling into disuse almost immediately after the town turned Protestant.

Black wrote: “The records of Brechin are altogether silent on the events which occurred in the burgh when Romanism was abolished and Protestantism established, and neither tradition nor general history gives any information on the subject. We therefore infer that this change in the religion of the state had created little disturbance in the city of Brechin.”

By the 1600s, Brechin was transforming into a market town and administrative centre and the city, as the local residents still called it, acquired guilds and trades. The Court of Deans of Guilds of Scotland states: “The Guildry Incorporation of Brechin was formed in 1629 by ‘a number of merchants and maltmen’, traders within the Burgh, and in 1666 the incorporation obtained official recognition of its rights under Decree of the Convention of Burghs.”

By that time Brechin was a royal burgh, named so by King Charles I in 1641. There was a disastrous fire in the town in 1672 and perhaps that was what inspired the Maule family to completely rebuild Brechin Castle in the early 1700s. It later became the seat of the earls of Dalhousie who can trace their ancestry back to that hero of 1298, Sir Thomas Maule.

Apart from textiles, Brechin largely missed out on the Industrial Revolution but the town did catch up with the rampant growth of the sport of football.

Two local clubs, Brechin Hearts and Brechin Harp, flourished in the latter years of the 1800s but took the decision to merge in 1906 as Brechin City. Now in the Highland League, the team plays at Glebe Park, which is famous as the only senior ground in Europe which has one of its sides formed by a hedge.