Watch and Clock Making

During the 18th century Scotland developed an expertise in watch and clock making unmatched by any other country according to John Smith, who wrote an excellent history of Scottish clockmakers during this period.[1]  

Parliament Square and the adjacent Luckenbooths were the centre of clockmaking in Edinburgh. Smith identifies eighteen watchmakers who had premises in these locations in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The workshops of two of these can be identified in the Painting – those of Thomas Reid and Robert Green. Both left the Square in 1809.  The addresses of most of the Edinburgh watchmakers listed by Smith are not recorded and it is quite likely that of these several more occupied the precinct.  It is a tribute to the skill and dedication of the Edinburgh craftsmen that beautiful and intricate clocks and watches were produced from the tiny and inadequate workshops around the Square. [2]

These are some of the components used in watch and clock making at the time of the Painting. These components were manufactured by the clock makers in their tiny premises with primitive tools. Engraving by Andrew Bell in first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The Incorporation of Hammermen

The training and certification of the watchmakers was controlled by the Incorporation of Hammermen of Edinburgh, founded in 1483, and one of the oldest and most powerful trade organisations in Scotland, usually with representation on the Town Council. It owned and held its meetings in the Magdalen Chapel in the Cowgate from 1547 until 1862, when lack of funds obliged them to sell the building which still retains many artefacts of the Incorporation.

The Hammermen included among its members blacksmiths, cutlers, gold and silversmiths, locksmiths, lorimers, saddlers, armourers, pewterers and from 1646 the watch and clockmakers.   Those aspiring to become members of one of these crafts had to apprentice themselves to approved trainers for a period of seven years after which they could apply to become freemen of the Incorporation of Hammermen, which was granted after they had paid their fee of admission and submitted an approved sample of their own manufacture.  

The Hammermen held monopolies of their trades which they guarded very jealously.   Smith[3] records the circumstance of Alexander Brownlie, a clockmaker, who on 2 December 1721 was fined and imprisoned by the magistrates for seizing a part of the dial of a new clock that was being installed in the steeple of St Giles Church. The clock had been manufactured by Langley Bradley of London and was being installed by a workman who was not a freeman of the Edinburgh Incorporation – hence Brownlie’s action of protest. The Deacon of Hammermen protested that the sentence of the magistrates was illegal, ‘overthrowing the privileges of the Incorporation confirmed to them by advice of the Town Council, the said Alex. Brownlie having done nothing but what is consistent and to the support of ye Incorporation’s privileges.’ 

The officials of the Incorporation consulted an advocate, Mr Boswall (sic) of Affleck[4], whose Edinburgh residence was in Parliament Close, regarding their legal rights.  Alas Mr Boswell’s opinion and the outcome of the case are not recorded.  

Another controversial case was that of John Begg. The Edinburgh Evening News 7 July 1804 reported that:- Mr John Begg, watchmaker to His Majesty, [George III] respectfully informs the Nobility, Gentry, and the Public, that he has commenced business in the Watch and Clock line, in his Chronometer workshop at the Kings Arms, Parliament Square, Edinburgh, where may be had on the most approved principles, Timepieces, viz., Longitudinal to go at sea, Duplex and detached escapements with ruby cylinders, going fusees, of which he has a large assortment.  …

Begg had served his apprenticeship in London where “He had the honour of being introduced to His Majesty, who is, without exception, the first amateur in Europe[5],…in consequence of a curious watch invented by himself, and was immediately dignified with his Majesty’ authority appointing him his watchmaker in Scotland”.

Begg was not a freeman of the Hammermen and it is probable that it was the King’s endorsement which allowed his presence to be tolerated, but he made himself increasingly unpopular by criticising the Hammermen, stating that his craft ‘being an art should be above the jurisdiction of any trade and not be hackled by any incorporated body’[6]. He left Edinburgh after three years presumably because he was made unwelcome.

Towards the end of the 18th century and in the early years of the 19th century there was a steady migration of the watchmakers from their small and inadequate premises in the Old Town to new and more prestigious shops in the developing New Town. During the 19th century the import of cheap watches and movements from the Continent and America resulted in a sharp decline in the number of Scottish watchmakers.  Shops of all kinds sold watches and the watchmakers lost their monopoly of trade, as had the goldsmiths.  Those clockmakers who survived tended to produce specialised items such as astronomical and musical clocks. The Incorporation of Hammermen survives to this day but with completely different functions – largely charitable and social. 

Two notable Clockmakers of Parliament Square and the Luckenbooths.

James Cowan worked as a clockmaker between 1744-81, first in the west end of the Luckenbooths and later in Parliament Square.  He was elected Deacon of the Hammermen from 1759-61.  A splendid long case clock made by him has pride of place, to this day, in the entrance hall of the Signet Library, Parliament Square, only a few yards away from where it was originally made.

Long case clock made by James Cowan in the entrance to the Signet Library

John Dalgleish applied to be admitted to the Incorporation in 1742 for which he paid three pounds, twelve shillings, two pence and two thirds of a penny as the half of his ‘upset and dues’, the other half being paid when he was made freeman on 12 November 1742. He set up his business in Parliament Square and was elected Deacon of the Incorporation in 1750.  His father, a locksmith, had also been Deacon.  He was employed by the Town Council to look after the town clocks and was also a captain in the Town Guard which led him into a curious confrontation with the Lord Provost.

On 10 September 1745 Prince Charles and his rebel army were on the outskirts of Edinburgh.  Dalgleish, as a captain of the town guards, had been ordered to take up a defensive position to resist the invasion, when he received a message from the Lord Provost, Archibald Stewart, who had Jacobite leanings, to lay down his arms and dismiss his company. Dalgleish at first refused but finally and reluctantly obeyed.  During the next few days Prince Charles occupied the City, without meeting any resistance and without bloodshed, to be greeted with a warm welcome from the largely Jacobite populace.  The Heralds in their robes proclaimed from the Mercat Cross that the King was James VIII and Charles Prince Regent. The Lord Provost was rumoured to have entertained the Prince secretly in his own home in Donaldson’s Close.[7]

Archibald Stewart, who was Edinburgh’s Member of Parliament as well as Lord Provost, went down to London soon after to attend Parliament and was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London for fourteen months.  He was then returned to Edinburgh to face trial on the charge of ‘Permitting the City to fall under the power of the rebels’.  Stewart was found not guilty after the longest trial on record at that time.  It was the custom then for trials to continue without interruption until conclusion. This trial ran for ninety-four hours from Tuesday, 27 October 1746 until the Saturday.  On Thursday the jury pleaded for a break because of their fatigue and were allowed a night’s rest[8].  Dalgleish was called to give evidence at the trial both for the prosecution and the defence[9].

Dalgleish handed the business over to his son Laurence, who had been his apprentice, some years before his death in 1771.

Examples of the extraordinary skill of the Edinburgh watchmakers.

William Downie, who died in 1776, had his shop in the Luckenbooths. In 1794, his widow, who had previously sold all his stock and tools, offered for sale by lottery a musical clock made by her late husband. The Edinburgh Evening Courant of 20 December 1794 described the clock as “one of the most complete pieces of mechanism of its kind ever produced.  It has dead seconds from the centre, moon’s age, and a tide table. It chimes nine tunes upon eighteen bells and is in the most perfect order.”

It was offered for sale by lottery, eighty tickets at half a guinea each being issued. All tickets were sold and number 45 was the fortunate winner[10]. Sales of expensive items by lottery were commonplace at that time.

The Edinburgh Evening Courant of 27 January 1785 reported an even more remarkable clock made by James Gray:

….Watch and Clock Maker, west end of Luckenbooths, has now, after great labour and at much expense, finished a most elegant musical clock, which is allowed by the nobility and others who have seen it to be the most complete of its kind, and containing the greatest variety of curiosities of any ever shown in this city…. The clock goes eight days, and plays a tune… three times over every three hours in the day. It plays ten different tunes, which may be shifted at pleasure by turning a hand on the dial plate.  While the music plays, two figures dance, and a musician plays on the violin, all of them keeping accurate time to the music.  There is likewise represented a landscape and rural scene, with a windmill going, and a number of figures of various character walking along in regular procession.  As also a distant view of an encampment with a soldier on duty constantly walking backward and forward.…

This clock which was valued at eighty guineas (about £10.000 today) was also offered for sale by lottery.  One hundred and sixty tickets were sold at half a guinea each and it was won by Mr Archibald Maxwell, Writer (ie a solicitor).[11] James Gray, who was appointed His Majesty’s clock and watch maker in Scotland, died in 1806 and was succeeded in the business by his son, also James Gray, who was also given the royal appointment. The shop had by then moved to 12 Parliament Square.

The manufacture of elaborate musical clocks was not confined to the big cities.  In the tiny village of Pittenweem in Fife, John Smith (1770-1814) produced musical clocks of extraordinary complexity – one was programmed so that its musical proclamations of each quarter hour were automatically silenced on the Sabbath day!  One of these was purchased by the Duke of Buccleuch and was located at one time in Dalkeith Palace.[12]

Another curious item sold by a watchmaker in the Square was advertised in the Edinburgh Herald  11 April 1791:- Improved Pedometer or Way Wiser which, when worn in the pocket, ascertains with accuracy the distance the wearer walks.  These very amusing machines are at present very much in repute in London and are now at the shop of W. Robertson, No 6 Parliament Close[13].

The shop of Thomas Reid watchmaker

The Reid-Auld partnership

One of the shops identifiable in the Painting is that of Thomas Reid, Watchmaker which can be seen in the northwest corner of the Square. Thomas Reid (1746-1831) was bound as an apprentice at the age of sixteen to his cousin James Cowan in 1762 and admitted a Hammerman twenty years later having spent eleven years in London receiving further instruction. In 1781 Cowan died and Reid took over the business in the same shop.  He constructed the first clock for the spire of St Andrew’s Parish Church in George Street in 1788, and this having given great satisfaction, he was commissioned to carry out the extensive alterations and repairs of the clock of St Giles in 1797. 

In 1790 Reid married Alexandrina, the widow of William Auld[14] who had died at the early age of 40 leaving four children. The youngest child, William, being then 13 years old, was adopted by Reid and became his apprentice. William Auld Jr. completed his apprenticeship in 1799 and was admitted a member of the Hammermen in 1806 having submitted the escapement of a clock made by himself in the shop of his master.  In that year he became a partner with his stepfather, Thomas Reid.  In 1809 the Reid-Auld partnership moved from Parliament Square to 33 Princes Street, and later to number 66 in 1823.  

The firm of Reid & Auld occupied a very high place in the art of horology in Edinburgh.  They specialised in the manufacture of complex movements known as astronomical regulators and at least three of these were in existence nearly a century later[15].  One was made for the Royal Observatory, Calton Hill, Edinburgh and was employed for many years to control the drop the Time Ball on Nelson’s Monument and to transmit the signal to the Time Gun at Edinburgh Castle. (see below) This clock became the property of the City of Edinburgh in 1895.

Reid retired in 1823 and devoted his last years to writing a book On Clock and Watch Making which he dedicated to Auld.  The book, an instructional manual for apprentices, ran to six editions.  It describes in detail the history of clock making and the complex mathematics involved in the design of the parts, not only of ordinary watches and clocks but of astronomical and musical variants.  One cannot fail to be impressed by the extraordinary skill and mathematical knowledge required of these craftsmen, who with primitive tools by modern standards, created intricate components to precise measurement.  Truly they deserved Reid’s observation  ‘that there are few who excel in this art, as in those of sculpture, painting, or engraving, which are called fine arts, a name to which watchmaking is in every sense entitled…’.   Reid died in 1831 aged eighty-five and was buried in the family vault of William Auld (see below).

William Auld Jr. also had an active retirement.  He became a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts to which he donated a Parisian timepiece, which had belonged to James Cowan, and a number of engravings.  Most importantly he left £200 (c £20,000 today) to the Society to be known as the Reid and Auld Bequest, the terms of which were ‘That the annual interest is to be given in one, two, or three prizes to Master or Journey-men clock and watch makers of the best model of anything new in that art or line of business…[16]’ If no award was made the interest was to be paid to such of the poor of the trade residing within 10 miles of Edinburgh.

Reid Auld prize of nine sovereigns was awarded to Frederick James Ritchie (1828-1906) on four occasions, the first in 1859 for his working model and description of the Clock Drop for the time ball on Nelson’s Monument.  Ritchie had devised a method whereby the timing of the drop of the ball could be controlled automatically by electrical transmission from the astronomical regulator supplied earlier by Reid and Auld to the nearby Royal Observatory. Ritchie was awarded the prize again in 1861 for devising the means by which the one o’clock time gun on Edinburgh Castle was fired with extreme accuracy, again by electrical signal from the Observatory clock[17]. The time ball drop on Nelson’s Monument and the one o‘clock gun were, as most Edinburgh citizens know, designed to allow ships in the Forth to set their chronometers with the accuracy required for navigation.  The time ball was installed in 1853 and the one o’clock gun in 1861.  Both still operate although of course their original purpose has long been superseded. 

Also in 1861 Ritchie modified the clock in St Giles Steeple from a thirty hour to an eight day mechanism. The firm of James Ritchie and Son survives to this day although the last Ritchie family member retired in 1953. Another of its achievements is the floral clock in Princes Street Gardens.  It was the first of its kind when installed in 1903. In 1912 the firm installed the faceless clock in St Giles Steeple which remains to this day. The firm recently celebrated its bicentenary and still maintains their many historic timing mechanisms.

Photograph of the William Auld vault in the Old Calton Cemetery. 

So close was the relationship of the Auld and Reid families that both share the same vault in the Old Calton Cemetery. “Possibly there are few business partnerships where two partners have shown such devotion to each other as Thomas Reid and William Auld.  Closely related by marriage ties during life, in death they were not divided”[18].  

The vault can still be seen against the south wall of the Old Calton Burial Ground not far from the tomb of David Hume the philosopher.  On the front wall there is a triptych of inscribed stone panels. The pediment states that it is the Burying-ground of William Auld. The left panel commemorates four members of the Auld family all of whom are buried elsewhere.  These are John Auld, merchant (the father of William Auld, printer), who died in 1751. He was buried in the Cathedral Church Yard, which became the site of Parliament Square, and was closed to further burials after the building of Parliament House in 1632-40. The others – William Auld, printer, died 1777, Malcolm Ogilvie, Merchant, died 1792, Alexandrina Ogilvie, widow of William Auld, printer, afterwards wife of Thomas Reid, watch maker, are all buried in Greyfriars Churchyard.

The right panel commemorates family members who are buried in the vault.  These are William Auld, clock and watch maker, died 1846, Isabella Scott his spouse, died 1850 and Catherine Scott, her sister, died 1863. 

The larger central panel is inscribed ‘To the memory of Thomas Reid, Esq H.M.W.C.M.C.L., distinguished in his profession as an eminent watch and clock maker, Author of a Literary and Scientific Work on Horology, etc, etc.  Born at Dysart, Fife, January 1746.  Died at Edinburgh 24th September 1831’.  He also is buried in the vault and the placing of his epitaph in the central panel must have been the choice of William Auld Jr. – surely an indication of his high regard for his stepfather and business partner. 

Robert Bryson (1788-1852) and the Heriot-Watt University

Robert Bryson was not one of the Parliament Square watch makers but merits inclusion in this chapter, for in the legend to the 1844 engraving, he is listed as the owner of the Painting which is the inspiration for this website.  He must have been familiar with many of the occupants of the Square.

Photograph of Robert Bryson by Hill and Adamson c1846

Bryson opened his business as a watchmaker in 1810 at the Mint, High Street, although he did not become a member of the Hammermen until 1815 when he moved to larger premises at 5 South Bridge.  There, one day in 1821, Bryson met Leonard Horner (1785-1864), a geologist with an interest in education[19].  The two men discussed the lack of technical education for the working classes. Bryson pointed out that his workmen were unable to attend classes due to the expense and to the time of day at which mathematics was usually taught.  Both men resolved to remedy the situation.  Within a few months rooms were rented in St Cecilia’s Hall and the ‘School of Arts’ teaching mathematics, chemistry and physics opened its doors on 16 October 1821. The hall was filled with 272 students and other interested individuals and some hundreds were turned away. Bryson allowed students to register at his shop and within a month 452 students had enrolled.  Charitable moneys, to which no doubt the two founders contributed, ensured that fees were a modest fifteen shillings a year.  Horner was appointed secretary and Bryson a director and Horner’s ‘right hand man’[20]. The School prospered and outgrew its premises.  In 1837 it moved to Adam Square where it became the ‘Watt Institution and School of Art’ in recognition of the achievements of the engineer James Watt. 

Watt Institution and School of Art.

When Adam Square was demolished during the building of the South Bridge, the next move was to Chambers Street where the School was built with financial help from the bequest of George Heriot and again changed its name to the ‘Heriot-Watt College’ in 1885.  From these small beginnings it has now grown into the flourishing Heriot-Watt University, the eighth oldest higher education institution in Britain.  Halls of residence in the new campus at Riccarton are named in honour of its two founders Bryson and Horner. 

The statue of James Watt which can be seen in front of the Watt Institute has now been moved to the Heriot Watt campus

In 1840 Bryson moved to 66 Princes Street, to the shop in which the partnership of Reid and Auld had ended its days.  Here he produced clocks of outstanding quality including a sidereal clock[21] which he made for the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh.  He became a member of the Royal Society of Arts and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (as was Horner). Queen Victoria gave him a royal appointment.  Two sons joined him in his business and a third became a scientific instrument maker.  His obituary in the Scotsman described him as ‘one of our best known and most respected citizens, unknown as a candidate for civic honours, and shunning the notoriety arising from keen participation in political strife …That eminently useful institution, the Edinburgh School of Arts, had its origin in a conversation held in Mr. Bryson’s premises, in which the late Leonard Horner, took part….His private charities were as numerous and liberal, as they were unostentatious….’  In 1887 the firm of Robert Bryson and Son was incorporated into the firm of Hamilton and Inches, which thrives to this day at 87 George Street.

Bryson’s Sidereal Clock now on display in the Observatory Museum on Calton Hill where it was originally employed.

[1] Smith Introduction p viii

[2] An example of what could be achieved in a confined space is described in an article in the Edinburgh Advertiser 30 April 1819 which gives an account of James Sandy.  “…deprived at an early age of the use of his legs, he contrived by dint of ingenuity not only to pass his time agreeably, but to render himself a useful member of society.  He soon displayed a taste for mechanical pursuits, and contrived as a workshop for his operations a sort of circular bed, the sides of which, being raised about eighteen inches above the clothes, were employed as a platform for turning lathes, table vices, and cases for tools of all kinds.  His genius for practical mechanics was universal.  He was skilled in all sorts of turning and constructed several curious lathes, as well as clocks and musical instruments of every description no less admired for the sweetness of their tone than the elegance of their execution.  He excelled, too, in the construction of optical instruments, and made some reflection telescopes the specula of which were not inferior to those finished by the most eminent London artists.  …his history holds out this very instructive lesson, that no difficulties are too great to be overcome by industry and perseverance.”

[3] Ibid p67-8

[4] Mr Boswall was Alexander Boswell (1706-1782) of Auchinleck which he referred to as ‘Affleck’  He became a respected judge  with the title of Lord Auchinleck and  is perhaps best known as the father of James Boswell, the companion and biographer of Samuel Johnson.

[5] George III  had an interest in all things scientific but there is no evidence that he was an amateur watchmaker..

[6] Smith p43

[7] Grant Old and New Edinburgh vol I p318

[8] Arnot p176 fn

[9] State Trials vol 18 p102-6

[10] Edinburgh Evening Courant 14 January 1796

[11] Caledonian Mercury 14 February 1788  

[12] Smith p354-8

[13] Ibid p320

[14] William Auld 1736-1777 was an Edinburgh printer and publisher who was in partnership with William Smellie from 1766-71.  He published the Scots Farmer, Caledonian Weekly, Gentleman and Lady’s Weekly and North British Intelligenser none of which survived more than a year.  The Edinburgh Weekly Journal, which lasted from1764-71, was rather more successful and for a time was a joint publication with William Smellie.  Auld’s greatest success was the Free Masons Pocket Companion which ran for several editions. His shop was in Turk’s Close in Edinburgh.  This William Auld should not be confused with William Auld goldsmith whose shop adjoined that of Thomas Reid in Parliament Square.

[15] Ibid p313-5

[16] Ibid p23

[17] Ibid p24 Ritchie received two further awards of the Reid Auld prize in1873 and 1878 for his papers on electro-sympathetic clocks. The use of electricity in horology was pioneered by an Edinburgh clockmaker, Alexander Bain, who obtained five  patents for his inventions between 1841-52

[18] Ibid p20-1

[19] Horner was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Academy and for a time warden of London University (now University College London). As commissioner on the Royal Commission on Employment of Children in Factories he contributed greatly to the improvement of working conditions for women and children at that time.

[20] Ford p64

[21] Sidereal – a true time-keeping system used by astronomers based on the Earth’s rotation relative to fixed stars.  It differs slightly but significantly from solar time based upon the Earth’s rotation round the sun.  Bryson’s sidereal clock is currently on display in the Observatory on Calton Hill.