The Parish of Brechin in the 17th Century

By Alan D. Junkins; published in JFA newsletter no. 7, Winter 1992

Brechin is one of the ancient Cathedral cities of Scotland. In the twelfth century, King David I founded a new dioceses and a Cathedral, dedicated to the Holy Trinity. For the next eight centuries, the Cathedral church survived despite the Covenanting controversies, the secession and disruption of wars and plague.

In 1600, the church totally dominated the life of the Scots. The Ministers and the Session ruled Scotland and the life of every Scot revolved around the church. The Church Session was equally as powerful as the town council and, in many cases, even more powerful.

Today, in the Presbyterian Church, which is the Church of Scotland, there is a Session meeting once each month. The minutes of these meetings are recorded and kept in large volumes. This has been going on for over four hundred years. In the 1600s, the Session would meet at least two times a week, Sundays and Tuesdays. The "Act of Ordinances of the Kirk and Session of Brechin" are written on the first pages of each of the two volumes of the Session minutes. The first ordinance in each volume deals with the "Sanctification of the Sabbath." "It is stated and ordained that all hail citizens and country men shall sanctify the Lord's Day and attend the hearing of God's word. Those that are absent from church on Sunday without a lawful and weighty excuse, shall pay five shillings for the first time and it shall double each time after." The Session members, who as "searchers or visitors" took turns and went through the town in the morning and in the afternoon to report those who were absent from the sermon. And, when there was suspicion that people had hidden in their houses, the searchers were to open the doors to find them.

All members of the congregation, except servants in a household, were also expected to attend the weekday service on Tuesday, which was regarded as almost as important as Sunday. "An honest man of the merchants" was assigned every Tuesday to visit the shops and report those who were open during the time of preaching and those who were found in the shops. The Session gave the deacons the power to fine all such offenders. The session was satisfied, in most cases, if the fines were in the form of contributions for the poor.

There were very strict standards of behavior in the church and the session insisted on maintaining these standards. A fine of four shillings was placed on those who left before the preaching was ended. The taking of snuff during the service was not tolerated and a fine of ten shillings could be enacted on those whose children or dogs were playing or running up and down disturbing the preacher or the hearers during the time of preaching or prayers. If there was any arguing or fighting about the possession of a chair, the persons involved were sure to be charged by the session and usually had to do repentance the following Sunday before the congregation.

To keep the Sabbath holy, the twenty-four hours had to be strictly observed, "from sun to sun."

The Bells of Brechin Cathedral

The church bells played an important part in the life of the community. The day began and ended with the ringing of the "little bells" in the steeple. The day started with the ringing of the bells at 4 o'clock in the morning and ended with the ringing at 8 o'clock in the evening. The person who is in charge of the maintenance of the Cathedral and assisting the minister at all times, is called the Beadle. The Beadle rang the "little bells" on Sunday morning to announce the time for prayers, the preliminary part of the morning service and rang the "great bell" in the steeple at the beginning of preaching. The evening bell at eight o'clock was the beginning of curfew. In addition to the church bells of Brechin, the procession of mourners at a funeral was preceded through the streets by the Beadle carrying a hand bell.


The Sacrament of Communion was conducted once a year. It was normally held during July or August. The preliminary preparation for receiving communion took a period of several months and involved everyone, young and old. In order to be eligible to accept the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, you had to be tested in your knowledge of the Scriptures.

A time-table of examination was announced from the pulpit and certain days were set aside for testing. The people were expected to come and be examined in the church. "Keeping of the examination" was obligatory. Any person absent at the appointed times, man or woman, would be fined as follows: master or mistress of the house, 4 shillings; servants, 2 shillings. At the examination, the members were instructed and questioned on the minister's sermons and their explanation of the Scripture lessons. It was necessary to be able to at least repeat the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles Creed and the Ten Commandments.

When the ministers and the elders were satisfied with the fitness of the congregation to take communion, they would distribute Communion Tokens. These were small coin-shaped pieces of lead known in Brechin at that time as "Tickets." When it came time for the communicants to sit down at the communion table, they would turn in their "Ticket" to the elders assigned to collect them.

Communion would be spread over two or three successive Sundays. For the actual service, two long tables would be set up down the center of the cathedral, with a short one set up as a cross table at the head. The minister would celebrate the Sacrament from this head table and then the elders would carry the elements to the members of the congregation who would come in relays from their own seats, to sit at the long tables.

The Wedding - William Jonking and Elspet Maull

Sometime prior to 1621, William Jonking and Elspet Maull attended a meeting of the Session of the Brechin Cathedral and indicated their intention to marry. They were expected to be able to repeat the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles Creed and the Ten Commandments. On the three Sundays thereafter, their names were proclaimed in church. Then, it was the duty of the Session Clerk, for a fee of twelve shillings, to enter their names in the "Session Book." It also was the Session Clerk's duty to keep record of marriages actually solemnized. Once the contract was made, William and Elspet needed to hold a wedding within forty days and, in order to show good faith, they had to find two witnesses who would deposit the sum of five pounds each with the Session.

All weddings had to be solemnized in the church and on fixed days, Tuesdays or Thursdays, between ten o'clock and two o'clock in the afternoon. If the wedding was arranged for any other day, it would cost an additional twelve shillings to the Session. At times, when there were several weddings at the church on the same day, there could be quite a disturbance. There was a superstition that luck attended the bride who first went out the church door, and the scramble of "hurling her to the door" could be far from edifying, but if they did not stay until the Blessing was finished, civil magistrate was empowered to go to the house where the wedding dinner was being held and apprehend the bridegroom and bride and imprison them.


In 1621, William and Elspet Jonking had their first (known) child and on Sunday, December 24, 1621 they brought their child to the cathedral to be christened — "Robert Jonking." Three years later, February 29, 1624, they brought their daughter, Agnes Jonking, to be christened. Each of these christenings were recorded by the Clerk of the Session in the Brechin Parish, Old Parochial Register. This register is now in safe keeping at the New Register House, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Robert Jonking spent the next twenty-nine years in Brechin. There is no record of either he or his sister marrying. We have not been able to search the Session records yet for record of his parents' deaths or any other other record of them. We do know a great deal of some of the hardship that Robert went through during the first twenty-nine years of his life as a member of the Brechin Parish.


The grammar school of Brechin in the early 1600s offered both elementary and advanced instruction for boys. Instruction in Latin, both language and literature, was the major part, but instruction in religion also occupied an important part. The laws and constitution of Scotland required that all boys be brought up and instruction in the fear of God and good manners. In the 1560's the Scottish Parliament pronounced that it would not be good for either their bodies or their souls if God's word was not rooted in them.

The school day was inordinately long. Six o'clock in the morning to six in the evening with a two-hour break. At Brechin, the school year was divided into four quarters beginning on February 2 and divided at May 1, August 1, and November 1. All pupils had to pay seven to 13 shillings per quarter, depending on whether they lived in the town or outside the town. The school fees were regulated by the Town Council, but were paid directly to the schoolmaster. The sons of poor parents were not kept from enrolling at Brechin Grammar School, if their ability or ambition inspired them to seek learning. The Church directed that "care be taken for putting all the children of the parish who are capable of instruction to schools, and that such amongst them as are poor have their quarter payments paid by the Session out of the penalties." The boys of the Grammar School were obliged to attend both services in the Church on Sundays and to sit with the schoolmaster in the pews allotted to their use. As part of their training, the boys of the Grammar School were called upon to repeat a portion of the Catechism in the Church every Sunday.


During 1644, when Robert was 23 years old, Brechin was occupied on five occasions by Montrose and the royalist troops of England. The first time was September 10. This was a short occupation, for the following week the Marquis of Argyll and the Scottish army arrived and made the town a rendezvous for the Covenanting troups, both horse and foot, and then continued the pursuit of the enemy. A month later Montrose's army again occupied Brechin and all the inhabitants fled into the county. A few days later Argyll, still chasing Montrose, stayed in Brechin for a few days.

In 1645, on Sunday, March 23, Montrose again occupied Brechin. The merciless enemy remained most of that week and during that time plundered the town. Half of the town was set on fire and the terror-stricken people fled once again for refuge in the country. They hid their goods in the Castle and the church steeples, which enraged the soldiers. They found their goods, plundered the Castle and half the town, and burnt about sixty houses. A week later, on April 4, part of Montrose's troops ere back in what was left of Brechin.

Then at last, Brechin was given a respite to restore things to normal. The town was in a heart-breaking state of upheaval and disorder. The church had been broken into and ransacked. The collection take on the Sunday just before Montrose's arrival had been hidden in a secret part of the church but the enemy had found it and had taken it away. The Church Bible had been attended to and was safe but one of the Session Registers was gone and never recovered.

Once again, on July 2, Montrose, with the largest army he had ever commanded, occupied Brechin for several weeks. The memory of what had happened four months before sent the people fleeing to the country again. This was not the last time that Brechin was to see Montrose. Near the end of June, Montrose's army spent almost a month outside of Brechin, which kept the people in constant fear.


When Robert was 26, two years after the havoc wrought by war, Brechin was plunged into the horror of the plague. It was a real time of hardship in Scotland. Bad harvests, death and famine. The civil war was still raging and the movements of the armies and their hosts of followers contributed to the spread of the plague that swept the south of Scotland. In Brechin, with the continual passing of the military forces, both friendly and hostile, the plague had broken out in the spring of 1647.

This was the age of dirt and squalor of wretched and poorly ventilated houses and primitive hygiene and sanitation. The streets in the 1600s were the recognized refuse heaps of the community. Here accumulated, unheeded and undisturbed, the filth and refuse of the neighboring households. From time to time in the church records, there are indications of payments to clean up the approaches to the church and the churchyard. The sanctity of the churchyard was not rated high in this age and the Session repeatedly enacted rules that "the Kirkyard be nowise polluted or defiled either by excrement of man or beast."

There were no services in the church after April 7, 1647 and all Session meetings were discontinued for seven months. The houses infected by the plague were closed and not reoccupied until the "cleansers" had cleaned the rooms and furniture, and boiled the foul clothes and bedding in cauldrons. The unfortunate victims were removed outside the bounds of Brechin and lodged in wooden huts specially built for them.

At the beginning of November, it was decided to re-open the church. The Session provided the money to have the church cleaned. Much of this work was done at night by candlelight and the whole interior of the church was washed and swept down. On Sunday, November 7, 1647, services resumed in the church with a sorely depleted congregation. The gratitude of those who had survived the misery of the last seven months was shown in the offering collected that day. During the weeks that followed, the Session received many offerings from the relatives of those who had died.

Near the end of July 1648, the plague broke out again, but this time the duration was short. The church closed again the first Sunday in August but then re-opened a few weeks later. By October, the town had recovered from the second scare.

During the time of the plague, the parish of Brechin saw over two third of its population carried off by the illness. It was an appalling tragedy for a small community of under a thousand people.

War Again

In January 1649, when Robert was 28, the Scots proclaimed Charles II their king. On January 1, 1651, he was crowned King of Scots at Scone, the last coronation on Scottish soil. Charles was committed to the Covenant and this was considered by the English as a declaration of war.

On June 26, 1650, the English Parliament appointed Oliver Cromwell, Captain-General and Commander-in-Chief of the English army, with orders to invade Scotland and put down the rebellion.

To meet the invasion, the Scottish Parliament issued a proclamation for raising an army. A Scottish army of 27,000 foot and 5,000 horse were called up. The magistrates of Brechin were called upon to supply their quota of recruits. Among those recruits was Robert Junkins, now 29. It would be the last time Robert would see his home or the Brechin Cathedral, which had been the major influence in his life for the first 29 years.

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