[Bell Historians] Ringing bells backwards as a signal

Richard Smith richard at ex-parrot.com
Sat Sep 25 20:13:35 BST 2021

Peter Rivet wrote:

> There were very few Scottish churches with more than one 
> bell in 1689, which is the year Scott was writing about, 
> and English style change ringing was unknown there at that 
> time.  The John Meikle carillon at St Giles in Edinburgh 
> was cast in 1698.  It isn't entirely clear what was there 
> earlier but I think it's pretty clear that this is a case 
> of poetic licence rather than historical accuracy.

The best thing one can say about Scott's grasp of early 
modern history is that it was better than his grasp of 
mediaeval history.  It owes far more to 19th century 
romanticism than reality, which makes for enjoyable fiction, 
but mustn't be confused with actual history.  There's no 
reason to suppose Scott had the faintest idea how bells were 
used in 17th century Scotland and we cannot take this as 
evidence of their use then.  But this does tell us that 
Scott knew about the tradition of ringing bells backwards as 
an alarm, and didn't think of it as an foreign idea.  That 
tells us it had entered the Scottish lowlanders' 
consciousness by the early 19th century which in itself is 
perhaps a bit surprising.


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