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Hidden History in Edinburgh: The Bell Ringers

by robcarr00032

Hidden History of Edinburgh

The Bell Ringers at St Giles Cathedral

Welcome to the second edition of the Hidden History of Edinburgh blog. Here we will unravel an intriguing tale about two ambitious young men who tried all in their power to leave poverty behind. But it didn’t come easily! 

In 1776, Edinburgh was in the height of constructing the New Town, but for two penniless young labourers, Hamish Munro and Malachy O’Shea, the city held no golden promise. Hailing from impoverished mother-widowed families, they grinded hard for wages under local builder Simon McMean, who took advantage of their desperation.

The city was going through its “Golden Age” of intellectual and artistic advancement. A period which saw Scotland’s cleverest people gravitating towards the capital. However, Hamish and Malachy only saw the filth and decay of the Old Town where the elite avoided the squalid streets, electing sedan chairs carried by durable, well-paid Highlanders.

However, the duo watched these Highlanders in awe and it quickly became their dream to become sedan chairmen. At this point it seemed an impossible task to buy a sedan chair given their financial constraints but this wasn’t going to stop them. Malachy was always having ideas. His first idea backfired miserably, they approached McMean for a loan to buy a chair, to which he sneered, gave them nothing and were subsequently fired them weeks later.

Now unemployed, they sat outside of St Giles Cathedral as the church bell rang at noon. Malachy all of a sudden came to life like a kid at Christmas. This had sparked one of his spectacular ideas but this one a lot more desperate and considerably riskier. He wanted to “borrow” a rope from the St Giles’ Cathedral bell tower, which they could sell to fund their dream.

The following evening in early November 1788, they entered the church. After ensuring their privacy, they discreetly nipped into a side altar and hid. It was late when the beadle arrived and locked the church door from the inside, to their dismay, he had also secured the door to the narrow spiral staircase leading to the belfry, where the bell hung.

This unexpected development ruined their plan to reach the belfry where they intended to cut the bell rope. Baffled, they stood gazing at the rope coiled on the floor at their feet. Defeated? Absolutely not. In a sudden revelation, Malachy, watching the rope, had another one of his remarkable ideas. He put his knife in his mouth like rambo and started to climb the rope whilst Hamish held it firm. In no time he was halfway. He paused to look down and beneath him lay the very rope they needed. With two smart slashes of his blade, he cut the rope below which tumbled straight onto Hamish’s head, knocking him to the stone floor.

“Get up!” Malachy shouted to Hamish, now suspended 30 feet in the air. “Come down!” Hamish struggled to free himself from the pile of heavy rope that had fallen upon him. Then, in another flash of inspiration, Malachy decided to cut the rope above him instead of below. He executed two more swift slashes, causing the rope to fall once again. This time, Malachy hurtled towards Hamish, who had just managed to regain his feet. Like a dart heading straight for the bullseye he smashed into him, completely wiping him out. The two of them cried in pain as the great bell began to ring loudly, before you knew it the beadle had arrived on the scene, clutching a lit candle in each hand and the Town Guard pounded on the door. To put the icing on the cake he hurried to unlock the church door and the two severely injured men were dragged out and thrown in the Tollbooth jail.

Two days later, in a courtroom filled like sardines, the honourable and most feared judge Lord Newton, known for his heavy drinking, stern judgments and renowned for harsh sentences, listened to the charges. Their defence attorney, Henry Cockburn, emphasised their good intentions and poverty, arguing they had stolen nothing and only sought a means to support their families.

In rage, Lord Newton hammered the bench for silence and reached for his bottle of claret, only to reveal he needed it to crack open his second. Taking two big swigs and a deep breath to calm down he came to his conclusion. It wasn’t a verdict that anyone expected. Instead of the being sent to the gallows or Bedlam, the prisoners were to repay the church for the damaged bell rope with their future earnings. He quipped that they might end up hanging themselves eventually without his intervention.

Following their recovery, Hamish and Malachy paid their debt and soon found work. To their astonishment, an anonymous letter instructed them to collect a brand-new sedan chair, with an affordable payment plan. As fate would have it, their very first customer was none other than Lord Newton, who continued to patronise their services. Although they never accepted his fare, he continued to ride with them until the end of his days.

And so, the two young men, who once faced the gallows, found an unexpected twist of fate, living their dream as successful sedan chairmen in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Their mysterious benefactor remained unknown, but they were forever grateful for the second chance they’d been given in the “decaying old town” they had learned to call home.

If you have enjoyed this blog leave us a like, comment or share with your friends! You can meet us again in part 3 of the series or join us for more fascinating Edinburgh history on our walking tours.

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