Despite living in Edinburgh for 18 years, I still jump out of my skin when the one o’clock gun goes off. It’s an Edinburgh institution, having fired from Edinburgh Castle every day (except Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas day) in peace time since June 1861. But why? As part of the Edinburgh’s history and mysteries series, I set about finding out why the gun goes at one.

From Paris to Edinburgh

The idea for a time gun came to Edinburgh from France. In the 18th century, well-to-do Parisians strolling through the Jardin du Palais-Royal would check their pocket watches when the “petit canon”, a small bronze canon set on the meridian line of Paris in 1796, fired at noon. The story goes that Edinburgh businessman John Hewitt heard the “little canon” on a visit to Paris in 1846 and campaigned for Edinburgh to start an equivalent. Fifteen years later he got his wish and Edinburgh’s original one o’clock gun fired from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle for the first time in 1861.

What is the one o’clock gun for?

Nowadays the gun is mainly for making tourists jump but, once upon a time, ships in the Firth of Forth set their maritime clocks by it. Ships previously relied on a visual signal, watching the time ball atop the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill drop – look out for this next time you’re in town at lunchtime. The time ball wasn’t visible on foggy days (anyone from Edinburgh knows how impenetrable the haar can be!) so the gun’s audible bang solved that problem, firing at the same time as the time ball drops at 1pm. This is the real reason the gun fires at one, not because, as some sources suggest, the Scots were too stingy to pay the cost of more than one cannonball!

Who fires the one o’clock gun?

The gun is fired by a volunteer District Gunner from Edinburgh’s 105th Regiment Royal Artillery. The gunners have historically had nicknames, such as ‘Shannon the cannon’; the most famous and longest serving was ‘Tam the Gun‘, who fired the gun from 1979 until 2005. The first woman to fire the one o’clock gun was Bombardier Allison Jones in 2006.

Perhaps one day I’ll be a real local and stop getting such a fright when the gun goes off. Or perhaps not.

We love a bit of Edinburgh history at Edinburgh Life With Kids. Let us know if there’s anything else around the city that you’d like to learn more about.

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