LOOKING BACK: How pigeons made time run faster in Haddington

TOWN bells have historically been a part of our culture as one of the earliest ways to call people together or warn of imminent danger.

Before the advent of telephones and social media, the bells would call us to work, prayer and sound out celebrations for special events.

Even when the telephone took over as the first means of spreading information, the bells helped everyone keep time, and ensured a town ran smoothly.

As such it was an important job and it lay with the timekeeper.

Fifty years ago in Haddington, that job fell to 62-year-old William Barber, who, reported the Haddingtonshire Courier in 1967, was facing a particular problem with lazy pigeons.

The town clock, often relied on by the townsfolk, was being knocked out of time by pigeons who apparently had taken to resting on its hands.

Mr Barber revealed that their favourite resting place had become a problem.

He said: “Often a pigeon will land on a hand which is going down and the weight of the bird will make the clock go fast, but if the pigeon is sitting on the hand while it is going up, it will more than likely stop the clock altogether.”

Haddington Town Council’s attempts to deter the pigeons saw netting introduced to try and keep them away, but it quickly deteriorated as the pigeons used it for nests.

Mr Barber must have seen it all in his years as the official timekeeper of the town clock.

At the age of 62, he had climbed the steep stone stairs into the steeple every week for 27 years to wind up the weights which drove the hands, correct the faces and clean any obstructions.

He took over the mantle from his predecessor James Pringle, a well-known Haddington watchmaker and jeweller, when he retired, having studied at his side for a number of years, learning all the old clock’s idiosyncrasies.

The Town House, from which the clock tower rises, was built in 1748 and designed by William Adams. The steeple itself was added in 1830 and designed by Gillespie and Graham. As late as 1967, it involved some heavy work to keep the clock in check.

Working on the same principle as a grandfather clock, the weights were suspended on steel hawsers and winding them up was not as simple as turning a handle. Instead, they used machinery adapted from agriculture to move them.

And the clock itself had its own clock – a small electric one which controlled when the faces of the larger clock were lit up.

Mr Barber revealed that pigeons were far from the only problems faced as he tried to keep time for the town.

He said: “The clock is not terribly accurate but it is unusual in that it strikes the quarter, half and hour. There are not so many town clocks that do this. Besides the pigeons, there are many other factors which dictate whether the clock goes fast or slow. The weather can affect the clock badly. Quite often snow or ice sticks to the face and stops the hands from going round.”


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