Glasgow's forgotten 'One o'clock Gun' and why it was very quickly scrapped during testing

Glasgow very nearly had its own version of the One O'Clock Gun. Picture: Getty Images.
Glasgow very nearly had its own version of the One O'Clock Gun. Picture: Getty Images. -Credit:Tony Evans/Getty Images

To nick a line from our own Kevin Bridges, Edinburgh and Glasgow are very different cities: when a gun goes off in Edinburgh, it's one o'clock.

But while that joke still has us all in stitches, there actually was a brief period when both cities observed the practice of firing a gun at 1pm every day.

Fired from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, the boom of the famous One o'Clock Gun has been startling the bejesus out of unwitting tourists and absent-minded locals in Scotland's capital almost every single day, save for Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day, for more than 160 years.

READ MORE: The lost Glasgow lighthouse that once illuminated the Clyde

Originally devised as a means of enabling ships in the Firth of Forth and Leith Docks to accurately set their maritime clocks, the 'time gun' concept was brought to Edinburgh in 1861 by businessman John Hewat who had seen it being implemented in Paris 20 years earlier.

Inevitably, with the Clyde being one of Britain's most important shipping hubs, it wasn't long until Glasgow also looked at adopting the idea.

Glasgow already had a time ball, which dropped daily from a pole fixed to the top of the Sailors' Home at the Broomielaw. But, given that the instrument required manual adjustment each day "to compensate for its losing rate" as well as an observer to catch the moment it fell, the daily visible signal was deemed too unreliable.

Glaswegians sorely needed a system they could set their watches by.

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The much-anticipated Glasgow time gun made its debut at 1pm on October 8, 1863. Supervised by Mr Nathaniel Holmes of the Universal Private Telegraph Company, the gun was fired from a spot overlooking Sauchiehall Street, with the audible signal taking precisely three seconds to reach the Broomielaw.

"The experiment was witnessed by a large number of spectators," one newspaper reported. "And some interest has been awakened as to whether it may be established as a permanent regulator of city time."

Further trials of the new time signal were carried out at different locations in the city centre in the weeks that followed, but it soon became clear the time gun did not have a future in Glasgow.

On October 29, 1863, Nathaniel Holmes oversaw a second firing of the time gun from a rooftop on St Vincent Place. The incident caused such a disturbance that it would prove to be the death knell for the entire scheme.

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Complaints had flooded in following the St Vincent Place firing, with some concerned about the danger of fire from the ignited wadding being scattered about, and "the startling of horses in a crowded thoroughfare".

Appearing in court, Mr Holmes, who had been charged with contravening the Glasgow Police Act of 1862 for the "wanton discharge of a cannon or firearm" in a public place, defended himself, stating that due notice had been given that the gun would be publicly fired and that any fire risk had been minimal.

Holmes went on to assert that the alleged startling of horses had been nothing more than a slight movement of their heads and ears, before producing a document signed by 45 proprietors in the area who stated that there had been "no nuisance, but a great public benefit".

But while the case against Holmes was eventually dismissed by the city magistrates, the whole St Vincent Place debacle ultimately caused Glasgow's daily time gun to fall permanently silent.

In February 1864, Professor Grant, Director of Glasgow Observatory, argued successfully that a system of slave clocks controlled from Glasgow Observatory would be far superior to either a time ball or time guns which only provided a signal once a day.

This article was originally published on 26/06/2023.