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The History of Brechin to 1864
Letter by Mr Black to William Hackett, Esq. regarding explorations in the Round Tower


Brechin, ISA April, 1842. Dear Sib,—The obstacles alluded to in my last letter having all been removed, Mr M‘Cosh and I proceeded on this day week, Wednesday, 6th April, to excavate the interior of the Round Tower of Brechin. Sir James Carnegie, Baronet* of Southesque, our principal heritor, taking an active interest in our proceedings, and Patrick Chalmers, Esquire, of Aldbar, having volunteered in the most handsome manner to pay all expenses, although, unfortunately, from bis bad state of health, he is unable to witness our proceedings, and has, in consequence of continued indisposition, been obliged to resign the seat he held in Parliament for this district of burghs, a circumstance which has thrown this quarter into a fever of politics, for it will be no easy matter to find a man possessed of all Mr Chalmers’s qualifications to fill his room.

The round tower of Brechin, you will recollect, has a doorway on the west side, the sill of which is six feet seven inches from the ground, and this door-way being filled up with stonework, our first proceeding was to open it I went down on Wednesday morning by six o'clock (I wish to be minute) accompanied by David Black, carpenter in Brechin, and James Jolly, mason in Brechin, and these tradesmen, in my presence, carefully removed the stones which blocked up the doorway, leaving the arch free and uninjured, and displaying a handsome entrance into the tower. A set of wooden steps were then fitted to give access by the door, while precautions were adopted for shutting up the tower when the workmen were not there, so as to prevent any person introducing modem antiques for our annoyance. After removing some old wood and other lumber, recently placed there by the church officers, James Jolly was left alone, as the circle of the tower did not give scope for more workmen. He then proceeded to dig amongst the loose earth, and has been so employed till to-day, being from time to time visited by Mr M'Cosh and me. Each shovelful as dug up was carefully sifted and thrown into a heap; this sifted earth, when accumulated into a small heap was then thrown out at the door of the tower and down the wooden steps alluded to; after this the earth was put, by a spadeful at a time, into a barrow, and wheeled to a corner of the churchyard. Here again, the earth was thrown by a shovel into a cart* and then driven away. By this repeated handling I think it next to impossible that anything of the least consequence could have escaped observation. I directed James Jolly to keep a regular journal of his proceedings, and each evening, when he gave up work, he brought it to the British Linen Company’s bank office, and left with the accountant, Mr Robert Lindsay, the articles found each day, and Mr Lindsay again labelled and marked the articles so found. David Black, the carpenter, is Mr M'Cosh’s tradesman, a roaster workman, and an individual of undoubted character. James Jolly is a journeyman mason, a very intelligent man, and a person upon whose integrity ample reliance can be placed; and Mr Lindsay, with whom I have been acquainted through life, and who has now been with me for thirteen years continuously, is a man of the greatest probity. I am fully satisfied, therefore, that we have got a careful and correct account of everything found in the tower.

James Jolly has now dug seven feet below the door-sill, that is, he is about five inches below the external ground line and hewn basement or plinth, and has come to where the hewn work ceases, and rude, undressed stones form the building of the tower. At this depth we stop until we hear from you. We have not reached the virgin rock on which the tower is built, but we have now reached the clay, and till or sand rock, which appears to hare been disturbed, as if it were what had been dug out for the foundation, and thrown into the centre of the tower. Until this depth we have dug through a fine mould, composed of decayed wood, and other vegetable matter, mixed up with a little animal matter. We found a quantity of peats, and a good deal of dross of peats, or refuse of moss; and we also found great varieties of bones, principally sheep bones, especially jaw-bones of sheep, some bones of oxen, and a few human bones, these last being vertebrae pieces of skulls, toes, and bits of jawbones. These bones were found at all depths, but we found no bones of any size. We have likewise got a quantity of slates, a hewn stone for the top of a lancet-shaped arch ; part of the sill of a window, with the base of a mullion traced on.it; some basement stones, and others of coarser workmanship. Oyster shells, buckies, or sea shells, old nails, buttons, bits of copperas, two small lumps of bell metal, and three little bits of stained glass have also been found at different depths, and yesterday we found the remains of a key. But what will most please your pagan friends is the fact that since we were down about three feet, we have each day found various pieces of urns or jars. None of the pieces, although put together form a complete urn, but I think amongst the pieces I can trace out three or four distinct vessels. One appears to have been of glazed earthenware, and to have had little handles as thus {figured in the letter), while round the inner ledge there are small round indentations; about a third of this vessel remains as marked by the dotted tinea Other two vessels are of clay, regularly baked apparently, but not glazed, and one is slightly ornamented round the edge, thus (figured in the letter), the in-dentations being evidently made by alternately pressing the thumb and forefinger horizontal, and the thumb perpendicular in the wet clay.

Now, how came all these things there ? I am afraid you will set me down, not for a pagan, but for a veritable heathen, when I say that my opinion is, the slates, glass, wood, and iron, had been tossed in, at what in Scotland is called the Reformation, when our Scotch apostle, John Knox, drove your Roman apostles from what he termed their rookeries; that the bones and great part of the animal and vegetable matter had been carried to the top of the tower by the rooks and jackdaws (kaes of Scotland) for building their nests, and feeding their young, and had tumbled from thence to the bottom of the tower; that the peats and the rest of the stuff had been thrown at various times into the bottom of the tower as a general receptacle for all refuse/, and that the fragments of urns or jars are just the remains of culinary articles belonging to the different kirk-officers.

After this declaration, can I expect to hear from you again, advising me what further we ought to do in regard to our round tower, which, in my eyes, remains as great a mystery as ever.

The steeple of the church of Montrose was rebuilt some eight years ago, on the site of a steeple which had existed beyond the memory of man. It was thought necessary to dig the foundation of the new tower deeper than the old had been founded, and in the course of this excavation, various skeletons were found buried amongst sand and gravel—the subsoil on which the town of Montrose stands. The fact of bodies being buried below towers and steeples then will scarce prove the erections to be either Christian or pagan.

The tracings which you sent of Cloyne Tower, represent very closely the style of building of the round tower of Brechin, especially where two or more horizontal stones are connected by a smaller perpendicular one, thus (figured in letter), and also where one is laid with a little toe, or thinner part of it projecting, as it were beyond itself, over another stone, as sketched above. In Brechin, too, as at Cloyne, we found it impossible to drive a nail into the joints of the doorway, while into some parts of the general masonry I have thrust my cane with ease for several inches. Sir William Gell, you remark, gives drawings of a similar mode of building in the vicinity of Rome, but is this not just a mode common to all nations in their rude state, who put up as large stones as they can find or move with ease, and bring them together by means of smaller pieces ?

I was prepared to have made some remarks on Mr Windele’s letters to you, but fear I have already brought sufficiency of round towers down on my head. I postpone saying anything on this subject till I see Mr Windele’s book, which you are so kind as to promise me.—Believe me, dear sir, yours very truly,

D. D. Black.

P.S.—I have, of course, carefully preserved the urns and other relics found.


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