Case Study: Modern Time

The literature on Scottish material culture relating to time divides into two distinct areas: sundials and horology. There has been considerable recent interest in Scottish Renaissance stone sundials following the pioneering work done by Thomas Ross, in his work with David MacGibbon in their five-volume work The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland. An amended version of Ross’s chapter subsequently appeared as an article in PSAS 1890. Andrew Somerville’s revisitation to the subject was also published by PSAS in 1985, and this version, with its accompanying fiche, was subsequently produced as a book. The formation of a London-based British Sundial Society [BSS] in the mid-1980s has meant that there has been renewed interest in the subject; however, much of their research is based in the Home Counties and much remains to be uncovered about Scottish sundials: for instance, were there many ‘scratch dials’ or ‘mass dials’ in Scotland?  Before the Second World War, five had been noted; recently the BSS has recorded 14, with a fifteenth being ‘found’ at Inchcolm Abbey: so there were and are scratch dials in Scotland, it is just that no-one has really been looking for them. The BSS records all sundials in situ, providing members only with a DVD of locations (sundials are notoriously ‘portable’ by thieves), but much remains to be done to map these where they remain.

Scottish clockmaking has fallen into the hands of the genealogists to some extent: the main work by John Smith, Old Scottish Clockmakers 1453-1850 was published in its second enlarged edition in 1921, and re-issued in 1975; information was supplemented by the clockmaker Felix Hudson’s Scottish Clockmakers: a brief History up to 1900, and a catalogue of an exhibition held in 1997, under the auspices of the Antiquarian Horological Society’s Scottish Section,  Mich Dareau’s 500 years of Scottish Clockmaking. In 2005, Donald Whyte, like Smith, also a genealogist, produced Clockmakers and  Watchmakers of Scotland. The surviving material culture of this trade is to be found all over Scotland, in domestic settings and museum collections, as well as in the hands of descendants of emigrants abroad. Specialist areas, such as the quest for ever-more accurate timekeeping can be found in National Museums Scotland’s collections, where the relationship with the Royal Observatory has meant that important astronomical regulator clocks, including important electric innovations made in Edinburgh, have been acquired. Various under-researched avenues remain, such as investigation of the so-called Edinburgh Time Circuit, pioneered by the mid-nineteenth century Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smyth in setting up the Edinburgh Time Gun at the Castle and the Time Ball on Calton Hill (and subsequently including the clock in the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art). Much of this was discussed in the Transactions of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, but the full story remains to be uncovered.

Sundials and clocks are machines to measure time. But the contexts in which they occur provides information on where, when and why it became important to measure time. The need to control and quantify labour, to arrange meetings and to co-ordinate travel all affected this (the advent of rail travel indeed led to the universal adoption of Greenwich Mean Time throughout Britain, replacing the local times that differed by a few minutes). Present day arguments about whether Scotland would be disadvantaged by the Westminster proposal to make British Summer Time a year-round standard demonstrate that time is also a political issue.


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