The firing of a
gun from the battlements of Edinburgh Castle at 1pm from
Monday to Saturday was not introduced as a tourist
attraction (though it has become one) or to alarm
pedestrians in Princes Street below (which it does, even
regular shoppers). It started as a means of giving an
accurate time check to the ships in Leith Harbour - two
In the days before
accurate clocks and when navigation was done by sextant and
knowing when mid-day had been reached, resetting ships'
clocks had to be done once the ship was back in port. A
Scot, Captain Wauchope of the Royal Navy invented a time
ball which fell from a tower to let ships know an accurate
time. Such a device was set up in 1861 on Calton Hill in
Edinburgh, visible in the harbour and in the city. It was
set up on the Nelson Tower, connected to an accurate
electric clock in the Astronomical Observatory near the
But on foggy days, the ball could not
be seen - and anyway people had to be looking at the tower
round about the right time. So Charles Piazza Smyth, who was
Astronomer Royal for Scotland at the time introduced a
complex system involving the firing of a gun from Edinburgh
Castle. It involved a signal being sent along a 4,000-foot
steel cable to the gun at Edinburgh Castle (laid by sailors
from Leith in just two days) .
In June 1861 a gathering of
Edinburgh's senior citizens gathered to watch the
inauguration. The only problem was, the gun failed to fire!
It took three attempts before the cannon worked properly.
The signal on Edinburgh's Castle was not the first (others
had operated at an earlier date in Glasgow, Greenock,
Newcastle) but it is the only one to have survived to the
present day. In addition to firing at 1300 hours, the gun is
these days called upon to fire at midnight on New Year's Eve
and appears on television in that role.
Initially, the gun used was a 18-pound
muzzle loading cannon which needed four men to set it up and
fire it. In 1953 the present 25-pounder howitzer was
introduced. This was a gun which was the mainstay of the
British artillery in the second world war. The gun used to
be fired from the "Half Moon" battery on the castle to its
present position on the Mills Mount Battery. There are four
guns there and a salute of 21 guns can be fired on
ceremonial occasions (there are at least Royal Salutes each
Ammunition (blanks, of course) for the
WW2 25-pounder is running short and a modern 105mm light gun
is to be used from September 2001.
An exhibition, telling the
story of the One O'Clock Gun and full of facts and figures
(including how far away the gun can be heard -which varies
depending on wind direction) was set up a few years ago
beside the gun at the Mills Mount Battery.
"Tam the Gun"
Almost as big an attraction as the gun itself, District
Gunner, Staff Sergeant Tom Mackay, MBE, is the longest
serving District Gunner of all time. Known affectionately as
"Tam the Gun" he has been firing the gun since 1978. He has
become identified with the gun (and has written a book about
his experiences) and has been invited to many events - with
and without his gun. He is reckoned to be one of the most
photographed people in Scotland as thousands of photos of
him firing the gun are taken by tourists every year. He
makes a theatrical experience out of the firing of the gun,
with his military bearing and stop-watch held high in the
minute before the gun is fired with a flourish - and that