History took its toll but city bell is ringing again

THE sombre tone of the great bell echoes across the city, stopping people in their tracks, as they know instinctively what the sound means.

From the foot of the Canongate, a horse-drawn cart passes through the city gates at the Netherbow Port carrying a condemned prisoner to his fate on the scaffold - every toll counting down his remaining seconds of life.

It is the 1600s, and while for some the tolling of the bell is a moment for prayer, for others it's a clarion call to take part in Edinburgh's biggest spectator sport - public hanging.

For more than a century, the sound of the Netherbow Bell was used to toll for prisoners being sent to their deaths, for other bereavements and for the start of curfew when the city's gates were closed for the night. But it has been silent for much longer.

Forgotten and left neglected in an orphanage's cellar and, later, a dusty art centre, it became a shadow of its former glory. Few knew about its prestigious past and even fewer expected it ever to be used in the city again.

However, following a lengthy restoration, the impressive artefact - which is believed to have once been the official city bell - will be rung once more. Over the last week, it has been hung in place at the newly-built tower at the Scottish Storytelling Centre's headquarters on the Royal Mile.

Emblazoned with the city crest, a three-headed thistle motif and a special inscription by its creator, Dutch master bell-maker Michael Burgerhuis, it takes pride of place in a two-year, 2.5 million redevelopment project at the centre.

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And although the building will not be finished and open to the public until early next year, from yesterday the centuries-old bell once again took to the city's skyline to ring out over the Canongate and the Royal Mile.

It is the end of a remarkable journey spanning almost 400 years of Edinburgh's history and taking in every aspect of city life from the reign of James VI, Oliver Cromwell and the Stuarts through to the Georgian era and beyond.

Conspiracy, treason, death, disease and civil unrest are all part of its colourful story, with the prestigious chime being used to herald some of the most notable events in the city's past.

Made in Holland in 1621 and originally intended as a gift for King James VI, it was earmarked to be placed in St Giles' Cathedral before city leaders decided that the Netherbow Port - the main ceremonial and commercial entrance to the city at the time - would be a more suitable location.

During its early life, it heralded curfews, major public events and tragedies that occurred in the city - but it soon began to be used to proclaim public executions too.

In 1650, it was rung at the execution of James Graham, the first Marquis of Montrose, who was hanged for treason on the scaffold in the High Street. More than 20,000 people lined the streets to watch - drawn by the toll of the bell to the macabre spectacle.

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In later years, it rang the news that Bonnie Prince Charlie and his clansmen had captured Edinburgh through the Netherbow gate and heralded numerous riots between commoners and Scottish nobles in the early 1700s.

And it even survived the arrival of Oliver Cromwell's army. While a commemorative plaque at the gatehouse was vandalised by Cromwell's men after the execution of Charles I, the bell escaped unharmed.

But in addition to its colourful historical story, there is also a fair amount of mystery and intrigue surrounding the bell. After the old gatehouse was demolished in 1764 and the bell was relocated to an orphan hospital by the Nor Loch - now Princes Street Gardens - no-one knows what became of it until it was mysteriously returned in the 1970s.

"It's very strange because we just haven't been able to find any records of it at all," admits the Storytelling Centre's director Donald Smith, who is overseeing the new development. "There's a gap of about 150 years where there's no information, which is very odd.

"We assume that, when the Nor Loch was drained to make way for the Victorian railways and Waverley Station, it was moved with the orphanage to its new home - which is where the modern-day Dean Gallery is.

"But even when it was returned to the Netherbow in the 70s, it was just kept on the floor rather than put on display. It's probably a case of no-one knowing what it was, and certainly not that it had once been the official bell of the city. They probably just thought that it looked nice and was worth keeping."

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And if that sounds a little bizarre, it's nothing compared to one of the other historical artefacts that has also been placed in the new Netherbow development. "We've also managed to retrieve the stone plaque that was created by the city to congratulate James VI on his escape from the Gunpowder Plot," Donald adds.

"It was the one vandalised by Cromwell but it was lost when the old gatehouse was destroyed in the 1700s.

"We think one of the labourers at the time must have taken it from the rubble and kept it as a family heirloom, because it eventually turned up as part of a garden wall at a house in Sussex.

"The family must have known about its history because when they found out that we were redeveloping the centre, they paid to have it transported to Edinburgh and put into the building."

Both historical pieces have already taken pride of place in the refurbishment project, which has seen John Knox House and the Netherbow linked together - with the latter becoming the new base for the Storytelling Centre - and a new 100-seater theatre created.

But although the centre will not be officially reopened until next April, the fully-restored and re-tuned Netherbow Bell has already sounded over the city for the first time in centuries.

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"We always wanted to re-hang it and hear it ring again," explains Donald. "It is such a stunning item that it really needed to be put on show and used. We sent it to London to get it restored and tuned and it's definitely been worth it because it sounds amazing.

"You can now see it as you're walking up from the Canongate - just like it would have been seen all those years ago. Hopefully we'll be able to find many occasions to use it in the future because it really needs to be heard as often as possible.

"We're also keen on giving groups of visitors to the centre the opportunity to go up into the tower to see and ring it. There are a lot of schoolchildren who come to visit, so it'll be a nice addition to their tour."

In the two years that the refurbishment has been taking place, workmen have also managed to uncover a great deal more of Edinburgh's forgotten history. Earlier this year, they opened up the cellars in neighbouring John Knox House and found 150-year-old time capsules full of scrolls and parchments which have now been included in the museum tour. But Donald is in no doubt as to what are the jewels in the new Storytelling Centre's crown.

"The bell and plaque really are extraordinary items," he says.

"Some people might just think that it's a bell and a bit of stone, but they have been part of some of the most important moments in Edinburgh's history. The bell in particular is a major part of the city's heritage, and we're very lucky to have been able to restore it to its former glory. Hopefully it will be used for many years to come."