Where Are The Scottish Clockmakers

Robt. McArra clockThe making of clocks in Scotland was not recognized as a separate craft until about1640. In Aberdeen in 1618 there were but three clocks, “the Kirk Knok, Tolbooth Knok, and the College Knok, all out of repair because they are auld and worne and partlie for want of skilful men to attend them.”

An eight day painted dial mahogany longcase
by Robt McArra of Dumfermline.

Having chased brass hands the arched dial has roman hour numerals with Arabic five minute markers and subsidiary seconds and calendar dials.

The superb flame mahogany case has rosewood cross banded decoration to the swan-neck pediment. Tulip carved capitals to the trunk and moulded panels to the trunk base.
Approx Height 6’ 10’’  Circa 1825
McArra has been recorded as working in High Street in 1796 to 1820

In the” Old Scottish Clockmakers” John Smith gives an account of the progress of the craft in Scotland.
The clockmakers were recognized as a branch of the Hammermen in 1646 in Edinburgh, 1649 in Glasgow, 1753 in Haddington, and not until 1800 in Aberdeen.

After 1700 the art and craft of clock and watch making increased, so that by the close of the eighteenth century Scotland was able to turn out work of the highest class.

For a number of years into the nineteenth century a high standard of craftsmanship of work was the rule; but with imports of movements and parts, the practice of assembling became more and more the rule, and so by 1850 or thereabouts the trade declined.This and the cheap American and other importations, combined to extinguish an industry and a class of craftsmen who were as necessary in every village and town as the doctor or minister.

The cheapness of these imported movements made it impossible for native Scottish craftsmen to compete, and with a wave of mistaken prejudice having arisen against the preservation of the long-case clocks, large numbers were destroyed for no other reason than that they were thought old-fashioned.”

Like the German clockmakers, the Scottish applicant for entrance into the Guild had to make a timepiece to prove his ability and to gain entrance among the Freemen.

There were a number of very distinguished Scottish makers: such men as Humphrey Mylne, 1661; Andrew Brown, 1665-1711; Alexander Brownlie, 1720-39; James Cowan, 1760-81; John Smith, 1770-1809; George Munro, 1750-99; Paul Roumieu,1692-1710; Thomas Gordon, 1703-43; being but a few of them.

Far more Scottish clocks found their way to America than most people think and even today there are many longcase clocks not just bearing the name of the maker on the dial-plate but “Corbals” which is a suburb of Glasgow, where apparently there was a clock works.

During the eighteenth century the clock making centre of Edinburgh was Parliament Square, where the shops fairly clung to the walls of the great building, like swallows’ nests

One of the many gifted Scottish clockmakers was James Cowan, of Edinburgh, who was know for his beautiful richly carved mahogany cases. He was apprentice to Archibald Straiton, Edinburgh, beginning February 4th, 1744 and was admitted freeman clockmaker to the Edinburgh Hammermen in 1754.

Then he went to Paris and studied under Julien le Roy and to London to study his craft still further, returning to Edinburgh 1760 and opening his own business. His knowledge of the craft not only gave him a great and widely extended business connection, but brought him many apprentices.

One of these, and probably the most celebrated, was Thomas Reid, successor to his business in 1781, at the time of Cowan’s death.

Andrew Leadbetter was apprenticed to Andrew Clark, Edinburgh, 1764 and he settled later in Congleton, England, and made many good substantial clocks, some of which found their way to America.

Another Scottish clockmaker, William Robb, of Montrose, who was working in 1776, made very handsome clocks, the shape of the case being somewhat in the French style, with two urns and an eagle in brass as ornaments.

Owners of these Scottish clocks are sometimes anxious to learn if they are by “good makers.” as the Scottish clock making industry does not seem so well documented, but I say “any clock, no matter who made it, which will go two hundred years or more, is a good clock!”

In many cases, particularly with country makers who sent their clocks to customers abroad, it was expected that the joiner or cabinet-maker of the neighborhood would make the case.

In the early years many Dutch movements were sent to England and Scotland without the cases, these were really bulky, and frequently the movements were hung up without the owner going to the expense and trouble of having a case made.

Such clocks ran until the dust and dirt clogged their wheels and they stopped.
If the owner was a handy man he could clean and set them going once more. Clocks such as these are often called in provincial communities by the quaint name of “wag-on-the-wall” and many Dutch clocks of this type, but much more elaborate, found their way across the Atlantic to America.

The movements were boxed-in, the box and the bracket on which the clock stood being carved and elaborately painted. In some localities these were called Friesland clocks, although they came from other parts of the Netherlands as well.

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