Detached round towers, ultimately of Italian inspiration, were built in Ireland between 900 and the 1180's. They were called cloichtheach in Gaelic, literally meaning bell-house. There are remains of sixty-odd in Ireland, but only a dozen complete. The others are either substantial stumps, or only foundation courses discovered by excavation. There are only two round towers in Scotland, the other being at Abernethy, and one at Peel cathedral on the Isle of Man. Although called bell-houses, they did not have the type of bell which rung out over the countryside. Celtic hand-bells were about 12 inches in height, and were of a similar shape to, and made a clanking sound like, Alpine cow-bells—sufficient only to summon the clergy to their devotions. The towers had other functions: as libraries and treasuries; and places of refuge in times of trouble. The doorways, with only a couple of exceptions, are raised above the ground, but brushwood could be set on fire to burn the door down—and from Ireland there are records of clerics and laymen being burnt to death, as the tower acted like a chimney drawing in air. Attacks on monasteries were as likely to be made by the Irish as by the Vikings, although they were first built during the Viking era.
Brechin round tower is 86 feet to the wall head, putting it in the medium height of complete towers, the highest being over 100 feet high. It is 106 feet to the apex of the octagonal cap-house, which replaced a conical one in the late 14th century. There are seven floors, the timbers supported on ledges in the stone. Only the third and fourth floors have small windows facing east and south. The top floor has four windows which were enlarged in the 17th century when a peal of bells was installed. The tower is built of irregular blocks of local sandstone dressed to the curve. The external diameter is 15 feet, the walls tapering from three and a half to two and a half feet at the top, but the internal diameter is almost constant at about eight feet. The doorway is raised six feet above the ground, the opening being two feet wide and six feet high, with the door being sunk flush with the interior. Of the Irish towers which are complete, above the doorway thirteen have flat lintels, and may be earlier than the majority which have rounded tops—of which only four are cut out of a single stone. The others are constructed of several voussoirs.
The doorway of Brechin round tower is unique in construction, as the arch is made from two slabs, one behind the other, while the jambs are each made of a single slab the thickness of the wall, rather than a number of quoins. The rich decoration is also unique. Only one Irish tower at Donaghmore in County Meath also has a crucifix above the door. Donaghmore has other features which make it appear as a prototype for the Brechin doorway. It has a plain raised flat surround with a simple bead moulding, while on each jamb is a human head rather than full-length figures.
Donaghmore was an eight century foundation, of which nothing is known in later times. Ten miles west of it, also in County Meath, is Kells which was the most prestigious Irish ecclesiastical centre next to Armagh. It was the seat of the high-abbot of the Columban order in Ireland and Scotland.
In the early ninth century, Iona was exposed to Viking attacks, so the relics of Columba were divided between Dunkeld and Kells, to where the high abbots also removed. The most famous relic, the Book of Kells, was actually created at Iona. The round tower at Kells shares a unique feature with Brechin's, in being situated close to, and south of, the west gable of the original church. Usually the towers are situated up to thirty yards to the north-west of the principal church, with their doorway facing towards the church’s west doorway. The situation of the Kells tower, which has a north-facing doorway, was determined by the fact that the relics were displayed in a sacristy over the west doorway—and it is believed a stair gave easy access to the tower for safe-keeping. The Kells tower was in existence in 1072. It is built of limestone, but the doorway, experts agree, is a later insertion of sandstone. It is unfinished, but blocked out with the apparent intention of having a crucifix and two heads like Donaghmore. Kells was in the middle of a war zone around 1100, and there are also unfinished high crosses there. So then it appears that some Brechin cleric visited Kells, which had an important school for clergy as well as the Columban relics. It is a mystery why the Brechin tower is situated similarly to the Kells one, as there was no functional reason, and its doorway faces west like that of the church. The decorative work on the doorway is closely related to the earliest phase of Irish Romanesque architecture of around 1100-1120. Although pelleted surrounds are found in Irish stone work, they are always hemispherical rather than flat; so at Brechin they were probably directly inspired by the pelleted halo on the 'St Mary' stone.
The ‘St Mary’ Stone is a surviving part of a ninth century cross-slab, now preserved in the Cathedral. It was found in a garden near the Cathedral, said to have once been part of the Kirkyard. The date, 1782, incised on the slab is believed to commemorate the year it was found. Although it is a slab in the Pictish tradition, and not a cross, there is none of the usual interlaced decoration. It is a unique assemblage of purely Christian and Trinitarian motifs—marking the Cathedral’s dedication to the Holy Trinity. These motifs are all of Byzantine or easter Mediterranean origin. In the case of the part-human, part-animal, figures of the four Evangelists, their origin is possibly from Christian Egypt. These motifs would have been transmitted, probably via Ireland and Iona, by means of small portable objects—such as ivory plaques, painted icons and textiles.
In the centre of the stone's cross is a roundel, containing images of Mary and the Christ child, with the inscription: S.MARIA MR. XRI. (St Mary the Mother of Christ) within a pelleted halo. This is flanked by an angel on each side with the figures of St Peter (with his key) and a bearded St Paul below them. Above the angels is a bird, more crow than dove-like, representing the Holy Spirit. Around the cross are the four Evangelists, the eagle of St John and the lion of St Mark below the roundel; and above left, the headless symbol of St Luke with a bull's hoof supporting a gospel book. Above on the right is a human hand representing St Matthew. The missing heads on the two Evangelists above clearly imply a lost panel at the apex of the stone, which can only have contained the usual symbol of God the Father before the 12th century—a hand issuing downward in blessing from a cloud. So, although it is known as the St Mary stone, the cross-slab actually portayed the Trinity, the later known Medieval dedication of Brechin Cathedral.
Written by the late David G. Adams MA FSA (Scot.)