The Bells and Clock
In the lower right hand corner of the Gow window in the south aisle is a picture of King David the psalmist playing a set of bells with hammers. It provides a fitting start to the discussion of the largest collection of bells in the British Isles.
From St. John’s tower the ‘Bells of Perth’ have rung out over the centuries, marking great state occasions, telling the time, and calling parishioners to worship. There are 63 bells, eight of which were cast before the Reformation, and might have been heard by John Knox.
The carillon, which is played regularly, consists of thirty-five of these bells. They include the largest bell in the collection, the early 16th century “Bourdon” (the Johannes Baptista), which is the keynote bell, with a further 34 bells cast in 1935. This modern carillon was promoted by Mr Melville Gray, of Bowerswell House, and installed in 1935 at a cost of £3,000, paid for by many donors, including, notably, Melville Gray, himself. Some of the donors chose to have a bell inscribed with the name of a family member killed in the Great War.
The inscription round the top of the “Bourdon” reads:
“Johannes Baptista Vocor Ego
Vox Clamantis in Deserto
Mechlin Petrus Waghevens Me Fo’ mavit
Sit Benedictus Qui Cuncta Creavit. M CCCCC VI”
(John the Baptist I am called
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness.
Peter Weghevens made me at Mechlin [in Flanders] Let Him be blest who created all things. 1506)”
Beneath the inscription is a small image of John the Baptist.
There are regular tours up the church tower - a narrow steep spiral staircase - to see the bells and the clavier. During carillon recitals, a closed circuit television relays pictures of the carilloneur, playing the bells to screens in the kirk.
Campanology in Scotland follows the North European tradition, and is quite different from the norm in England. The bells are fixed, and tunes are played on them using a Clavier, or keyboard, like an organ. This has substantial keys and pedals, each connected by a wire tracker to a hammer, which strikes the bell. The carillonneur plays the bells by hitting the keys with his fists. All types of music can be played, including hymn tunes, popular melodies, and music composed especially for bells.
The bells may also be played using an electronic console in the church. However it is not possible to play some notes loudly, and others softly, and so the quality of the music is poor.
Perth’s carilloneur, Dr. Ian Cassells, is one of the foremost carilloneurs in Europe, and plays regularly, both on Sundays, and on special days such as Remembrance Day and Burns day.
Thirteen of the bells are housed in the Bartizan Belfry, as noted earlier. They used to be played before the modern carillon was installed in 1935.
The remaining 15 bells can be seen in the south aisle of the choir, hanging in an iron frame, They include six pre-Reformation bells. The largest of these is the “Agnus Dei”, and bears the inscription:
ECCE AGNUS DEI
(Behold the Lamb of God).
Recent research suggests it was cast in Scotland in about 1340, around 160 years before the “Bourdon”, and before the tower was built. It probably came from a previous church on this site. The other five pre-Reformation bells are a tuned set cast in Mechlin in 1526. These bells with three others form an octave, and can be played in the church using a wooden hammer similar to that used by King David as illustrated in the Gow window
The Town Clock
As well as housing the bells, the tower also has the town clock. The present mechanism was presented to the city of Perth by Andrew Graham, a former Lord Provost in 1879 and chimes the hours and Guildford quarters. However, it was not the first clock. The earliest references to the clock are in a town minute for “mending and repairing the nock (sic)” in 1607, and in the 16thcentury there was a saying in the city that, “The Sun and Moon may gang wrang, but the clock of St. Johnstoun canna gang wrang”.
Perth’s Common Bell
There is another bell in Perth which properly belongs to St. John’s Kirk. This bell hangs in the tower of the derelict St. Paul’s church which is, at present, having its roof removed so that it can be converted into an outdoor space for various events.
This is almost certainly Perth’s ‘Common Bell’ referred to in the city records of 1652, and sounded in St. John’s from the early 17th century until it cracked in 1804. It called the citizens to work on weekdays at 4.00 am and 6.00 am, and on Sundays to services at 9.00 am, 11.00 am, 2.00 pm and 6.00 pm. A ‘rubbing’ preserved in Perth museum records that the inscription, which was particularly appropriate for St. John’s, on this bell was:
Johannes Baptista vocor
Nos autem gloriare opportet in cruce
Dominum nostri Jhesu Christie Anno domini 1520
In vox clamantes in deserto - Parate Viam.
(John the Baptist, I am called
We must glory in the cross
of our Lord Jesus Christ Anno domini 1520
I am the voice crying in the wilderness, Prepare the Way)
In 1805 Perth’s cracked Common Bell was sent to Thomas Mears in London to be recast, and there is no record of what happened to it. However it is recorded that when St. Paul’s was built in 1807, one of the bells from St. John’s was removed to St. Paul’s. The inscription on the bell in St. Paul’s isThomas Mears 1805. There is little doubt that this is Perth’s recast Common Bell