Brechin, Scotland - Birthplace of Robert Jonking (Junkins)

From an article in JFA Newsletter no. 11, May 1996 (with a small section linking to an account of a visit to the Cathedral by Miriam (Junkins) Proulx).

Names and Trades

The inhabitants of Brechin in the 12th century would have included both merchants and tradesmen, originally primarily to serve the clergy. The merchants exported raw materials and imported exotic foods, wine, fine cloth and manufactured goods from Europe and England. The tradesmen did the basic processing of skins and hides, wove and dyed cloth, made shoes and clothes, baked bread, etc., and killed and cut animals. So, there were eventually: Skinners, Websters (weavers), Liysyers (dyers), Cordiners or Sutors (shoemakers), Tailyeours (tailors), Baxters (bakers), and Fleshers (butchers) in Brechin.

From the 1350s, there is a record of a toft (household), apparently on the south side of Airlie Street, being leased from the Lordship of Brechin with permission to build premises for brewing, baking bread or slaughtering animals, which the latter may not always have been granted in other areas. There were also Smiths (workers in metal), Masons (stone workers), and Wrichts (wood workers). By the later middle ages, most of these occupational names occur as surnames in the city and some still practiced the trade from which they derived their surnames, because sons often followed fathers in the same trade for generations.

Other surnames that originated from trades found in the 15th and 16th centuries were: Cutlar, Saidler, Chepman (peddlar), Hornar (horn spoon maker), Capper (maker of wooden bowls), Potter and Hatmaker. The latter trade may not have been practiced in Brechin, but local potters provided crude bowls and jogs from local clay. An Allutare (potter) is recorded in the 15th century while there were lands to the north of Castle Street called Claypotts and Potterhillock.

In 1451, the bishop leased land on the east of High Street, south of the Little Mill, to John William, Tinctor (dyer). The water, of course, would be used in his trade and must have continued in this use for a time. In 1608, the same property, called Litster's (dyers) Land, was inherited by David Dempster,1 skinner, from his father who presumably practiced the same trade. Skinner also needed water to treat skins and in 1605, the "Skynner Pots" are mentioned below the Little Mill. The College or Kirk Burn only sometime later became known as the "Skinners Burn." The skinners used lime pots or pits to remove the hair from hides, and barking pots with oak bark to tan or cure the hides.


The first settlers who came to the bishops' new market town in the 12th century, whatever their origin; Gaels (Highlanders), Anglicans, Anglo-Scandinavians, French or Flemmings (some from northern England or southern Scotland) used a northern English dialect to communicate. It was the language of trade at that time, but by the 14th century, it had spread from the burghs to the edge of the Grampians. Only a minority of folk would have been bilingual. Gaelic was spoken only a few miles away in the Angus glens, into the latter 17th century and would have been heard on market days in Brechin.

The Anglo-Norman clergy, in the period about 1168 to 1218, must have communicated with their Gaelic colleagues in Latin, the language of learning and the church. The local land-owning class and some of the clergy spoke French, and the hospital, founded around 1265 in Brechin, was called Maison Dieu. French was replaced by the language of the common people by 1300. In the 12th century, incoming Anglo-Norman barons also had to communicate with their English-speaking retainers and Gaelic-speaking tenants. The local Gaelic landowners, from around 1180 to 1300, also may hve been tri-lingual. By 1300, in and around Brechin, folk of all classes were all simply Scots and called their tongue "Inglis." This middle English of early Scots basically was a Northumbrian dialect with strong Flemish and Scandinavian overtones, with a handful of Gaelic words. Hence, foil went to the Kirk rather than church, wore Sarks and Breeks rather than shirts and breeches, gave their Loun a Scone in the Lug, Redd up their Hooses, and ate an occasional Partan.


It appears that before 1200, there were only about 20 civil tenants of the bishop in Brechin, so possibly a population of 100 or less, plus 15 to 20 clergy. The 13th century was a period of peace and prosperity and so, the population probably grew to several hundred.

The Wars of Independence around 1300 and the plague of the 1340s must have disrupted and reduced the population, possibly by as much as a third, but there are clear indications of a slow expansion and growth of the economy and the population in the latter 14th century.

By 1600, there were at least 120 Tofts (households) within Brechin, so by applying a factor of five for the family and dependents of the tenants, a possible population of around 600 can be estimated.

Development along the routes to Montrose and the bridge over the river South Esk, began in the 15th century, both within and outside the burgh boundary at the Den Burn and Witch Den, and had possibly up to 50 more households. This would mean a total of about half of the 1755 population and still was so small that virtually everyone must have known everyone else.

The Lordship

The lordship originated with the abthen lands belonging to the abbots, which were interspersed with others belonging to the bishop and clergy, including some within the city limits. Although the bishop was superior of most of the city of Brechin, the inhabitants were thirled to the Meikle Mill, which belonged to the Maison Dieu hospital whose superior was the lord, while the bishop and chapter had their own Little Mill, off the High Street, to which the various church lands near the town were thirled. The land in and around the burgh north of St. David Street, St. Mary Street and Castle Street and west of Market Street originally belonged to the lordship, including that with which the Maison Dieu was endowed with around 1265.

The lords also had power as chief judicial officer over the inhabitants of Brechin, although the bishop was their superior in other things. It is not recorded how the lands with their caput Brechin castle, came to be detached from the abbatical family. The last lay abbot, Donald (c. 1179-1211) perhaps had no direct heirs and may have been persuaded to leave his estate to the crown, a not unknown practice. Around 1180, part of the abthen lands at Maryton (Old Montrose) attached to the church there, had been granted with the church and its teinds to Arbroath Abbey, while its bishop's lands and salmon fishing there were retained. One descendant of Abot Leod, Gylanders MacLod, held on to the lands of Navar, Tillyarblit, Keithock and others around 1227-1232, held feudally from the Crown by knight service.

The lands belonging to the medieval lordship included: the Haugh of Brechin (the castle grounds and Haughmuir), Kintrockit, Balnabreith, Pittendreich and Pitpollocks (Broomfield) to the west; and Burghill, Pentaskall, Leuchland, Leightonhill, Kincraig and Balbirnie on the south and east; also Hedderwick and Clayleck north of Montrose. Later the lands ov Navar (on the west side of Glen Lethnot) became attached and the title "Lord of Brechin and Navar" was used. The lordship tenants were once served by a family of hereditary smiths. In 1514, Alexander Lindsay was recognized as heir of his father, Richard Lindsay, as common smith to the lordship, and in 1605, David Lindsay, blacksmith and citizen of Brechin was served heir to his father, Robert Lindsay, in the same post. The smiths had to make and repair ploughs and sheep shears for the tenants of the lordship lands and in return were granted nine firlots of meal (or oats planted) from each plough and the wool of one mature sheep from each tenant. They also held the troft called Forkit Aker north of Latch Road. The lordship originated shortly before 1214 when the lands were given by King William I to his brother, David, Earl of Huntington and Garioch.

The Castle

The castle is situated close to the city on a triangle of land between the river South Esk on one side and the deep den of the Skinner's Burn on the other. Until 1714, when the castle was largely rebuilt, there was a deep gully or mote cut between the two waterways, defending the approach to the castle. The castle, being in a strategic position near the main north-south route on the east of Scotland, featured in the wars of Independence on several occasions. On the 10th of July 1296, it was in Brechin Castle that King John Balliol finally submitted his crown and kingdom to King Edward I of England and the Great Seal of Scotland was broken in pieces.

In 1298, Wallace seized the castle from a garrison holding it for King Edward. In 1303, David, Lord of Brechin, was absent on the English side and the Scots garrison (the body of soldiers who lived in the castle and defended it) was led by Sir Thomas Maule2, a younger brother of Sir William Maule of Panmure. When called on to surrender the Castle to King Edward, he refused and a great siege took place. Catapults or siege machines were employed as well as sulphur to burn the castle, parts of which must have been of wood. It must have had a stone ring wall to have resisted so long. The lead from the Brechin Cathedral roof was stripped to form counter weights for King Edward's greatest siege engine, War Wolf, brought in by sea via Montrose.

According to an English chronicler, Sir Thomas Maule arrogantly dusted the debris from the walls with a cloth, and continued to resist for three weeks. Eventually, Sir Thomas, standing exposed in order to direct the defense of the castle, was mortally wounded and died the same evening. His men asked if they should surrender but he said "no." However, on his death, the defenders gave up. King Edward plundered the castle of its charters and other records. In 1308, David, 3rd Lord of Brechin, occupied the castle again for a brief time until he agreed to change sides and support his brother-in-law, King Robert Bruce.

Miriam (Junkins) Proulx Goes to Brechin

Miriam9 (Junkins) Proulx (Clair Buswell8, Albert Atwood7, Henry6, Joseph5, James4, Joseph3, Alexander2, Robert1) visited Brechin very briefly on September 24, 1994. Her story appeared in JFA Newsletter no. 10, July 1995.

See Also

See also, The Parish of Brechin in the Seventeenth Century from JFA Newsletter no. 7, Winter 1992.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License