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Issue 54 - The time machines of Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 54
December 2010


This article is 7 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The time machines of Scotland

Niki Todd looks at the tales behind the nation's time pieces

Time Lord of Scotland, District Gunner, Jamie Shannon of the 105th Royal Artillery regiment is the man who decides exactly when it is 1pm in Edinburgh. Otherwise known as Shannon the Cannon, he fires the one O’clock gun up at Edinburgh Castle six days a week.

Dating back to1861 it was originally fired for the ships down in Leith, two miles distant but even today, it is never fired on a Sunday or on Christmas day as sailors would not set sail on Sundays.

A six ounce gunpowder charge is used in the 105mm light gun which has been active since 1974 and has seen service in the Falklands and Afghanistan. Recently repainted it is kept shining as part of the colours of the Royal Artillery and is included when ceremonial salutes are fired.

On the 5th of June, 1861 the gun was prepared for firing for the first time, however, it wasn’t until day three that it actually fired due to technical problems. It was controlled by a signal sent via the 4020 foot cable to the time gun’s clock from the Astrological Observatory Clock up on Calton Hill at the east end of Edinburgh’s Princes Street.

Even older than the gun, is the Time Ball, a five foot diameter ball weighing 15 cwt. Every day, since1853, it has been cranked up to the top of the mast on Nelson’s Column standing proud up on Calton Hill. After a message was sent via the electric clock in the Observatory to the time ball’s lifting mechanism at five minutes to one, it is raised one third of the way up the mast and at two minutes to one it is raised to the top, to be dropped at exactly one o’clock as a visible time check for sea captains in the Firth of Forth. This meant their chronometers could be corrected when the ball dropped at one o’clock. Today, even though Jamie Shannon relies on a satellite controlled clock to tell him when one clock has arrived, the time ball is still raised and he still keeps his eye on it.

He has been doing the job since 1997, full time for the past five years, out there every day drying the gun down and preparing it to be fired. Answering questions from members of the public who have come from all over the world to witness the one o’clock ceremony, he has been asked, amongst other things, “Can you fire purple smoke for us?” and three or four years ago a group of people up to Scotland on a pilgrimage for a friend’s funeral asked if it would be possible to fire their friend’s ashes out of the gun? Incredibly, he has even been asked, “What time is the one o clock gun fired?” Oldest, newest, the central belt of Scotland reveals some of its most extraordinary secrets with a walk round the centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh and never a chance of being late. Arriving at Glasgow’s Buchanan Street Bus Station, it is impossible to miss one of the newest public clocks in Scotland, simply running away with time. ‘The Clyde Clock’, 20ft high and made from stainless steel. It was commissioned by Radio Clyde to celebrate its 25th anniversary of being an independent radio station. The stainless steel clock takes centre stage outside Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in Concert Square making sure both performers and theatre goers alike arrive on time.

It was designed by George Wyllie MBE – Wellknown Scottish artist, Glasgow born himself and world-renowned for his paper boat sculpture which sailed down both the Clyde and the Hudson Rivers.

Designed to chime only once a day at 8pm the Clyde clock is upstaged in Douglas, by the oldest working clock in Scotland on the Old St Bride’s Church. This unusual clock is rumoured to have been a gift from Mary Queen of Scots. It can be heard chiming at three minutes to the hour every hour. No excuse for being late.

The church itself was built in the 14th century. It was damaged during the wars of independence then again during the 18th century by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, but stayed in use until 1781. It is a mausoleum for the Douglas Family and a reminder of their historic power during the Wars of Independence. One of the tombs within the remains of the church is The Black Douglas Knight himself who, as legend would have it, carried the heart of Robert the Bruce on Crusade.

The fifty one foot octagonal clock tower was added to the church later. The clock itself, however, is not without controversy. Originally the date of 1618 was found on it, but at a later date, during cleaning, due to the style of the clock, it was decided that it was made in 1565. Far from being a clock which you would not like to rely on, chiming three minutes in advance was specifically set to comply with the Douglas clan motto “Jamais Arrier” – “Never late.” A first of its kind in the world, is the floral clock in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh. This clock dates back to 1903 and was the result of the floral display in the Gardens for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, thanks to John Mc Hattie the then superintendent of the city’s parks.

In 1903 the clock was installed with only an hour hand whose length was 4ft 2ins long but in 1904 the clock was given its minute hand. The hands of the clock were increased to 5ft 2ins and 8ft 5ins. In 1905, it was given its famous cuckoo. As the clock was mechanical, it had to be wound daily until 1972 when it was converted to electricity.

This famous clock commemorates a different anniversary each year. The 13,000 plants in the 1930’s which were needed to create the clock, rocketed to 35,000 in the 1980s and now a staggering 16 stainless steel containers are needed.

In 1927 the first words appeared on the clock – Tempis Fugit (Time flies). In 2003 the clock’s centenary was celebrated at the Chelsea Flower Show where a full-size replica of it was created.

Up on the ramparts of the Castle in Edinburgh, Jamie Shannon is yet again time-keeper for Scotland. He, the lone piper and Mons Meg, in her time a canon at the cutting edge of military canons, are responsible for sounding in the New Year.

In 2001, after two decades inside for her protection, she was rolled outside once again where she was to celebrate her return to the battlements of Edinburgh Castle by bringing in the New Year.

Forged in 1449, she first came to Scotland in 1457, not, however, to mark the coming of the New Year. Weighing in at 6970kgs and 4.6metres long she fired 180kg canon balls up to two miles away, but only eight to ten times daily because of the tremendous heat generated. Due to her weight she could be moved a maximum of three miles (5km) per day and was retired from active service in the 1540s to be used only for ceremonial duties.

To this day this Grand Old lady, possibly the oldest timepiece in Scotland, looks out over the city of Edinburgh, bringing in each New Year along with Jamie Shannon. “Last year we were up there at 18 degrees minus,” he said, “The piper was desperately trying to keep his pipes going.” Even the bitter conditions of Hogmanay 2009, however, did not deter the Time Lord of Scotland.

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