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History of Handbell Ringing in Scotland

Handbells in Scotland can be traced right back to the time of the Celtic missionaries who came to spread the Christian gospel from the fifth century AD onwards. The early Scottish Christian handbells were believed to be magical and were under the care of hereditary guardians known as dewars. There were two types of bells, both quadrangular, one type of sheet iron, the other of cast bronze. The iron bells were made by riveting sheet iron and were originally coated in bronze or perhaps even gold. The bells were given a form of baptism and their perceived magical powers included those of banishing, of healing, of flight and of speech.

The bronze bells of Scotland, some dating from the 7th and 8th centuries AD still being in existence, can individually play three different notes - two of the faces produce the same note while the others were different from it and each other. They covered a minor third (e.g. the notes A, B, C). The different notes could have accompanied chanting and to indicate moments of special importance in church services. Pitched bells were certainly used in the Middle Ages to accompany singing and illustrations appear on manuscripts of the period.

The photograph above, courtesy of Heather McLean of Dunkeld Handbell Ringers, shows an example of the bronze bells of Scotland, The Little Dunkeld Bell, sitting between a present day Malmark G4 and A4. For more information about this specific bell click here for an article about The Little Dunkeld Bell

The Reformation in Scotland in 1560 led to many practices common until then being discontinued - the ringing of bells was not permitted beyond the ringing of one bell at each church for the purpose of summoning the congregation to worship and the practice of accompanying singing by any instrument in a church service ceased. Therefore the development in the 17th century in England of change-ringing, and subsequent development of handbells as we know them today, was initially largely ignored in Scotland.

The Presbyterian Church was accepted by the Scottish Parliament in 1690 as the Established Church of Scotland (which is true to this day) while in neighbouring England the Episcopalian Church was the Established Church and ringing was regarded in Presbyterian circles as being Episcopalian. Not until midway through the 19th century did a a more tolerant attitude prevail. Some handbell groups in Scotland can trace their origins to this period over a century ago, such as the St James Ringers of Paisley, formed in 1884, with the same handbells still in use today. The number of groups in Scotland remained fairly static until the beginning of the 1980s.

Dunblane Cathedral Handbell Ringers were formed in 1977, with one of the group's aims in its constitution being to encourage the formation of new handbell groups, which they did on an ad-hoc basis initially, by providing workshops or demonstrations or talks to congregations and groups, and by encouraging groups to come together in small number for performances in Dunblane. This developed to such an extent that by 1984 the first Scottish Handbell Festival was held in Dunblane. This incorporated a regional rally of ringers of the North West Region of the Handbell Ringers of Great Britain and was the first such event to have been held in Scotland - around 200 ringers were at this first event.

Three further such events were held in Dunblane (in 1987, 1991 and 1995) and one in Kirkcudbright (in 1992) - hosted by a large community group which use Britain's only Maas-Rowe handbell set (as well as Malmark handbells). These events combined rally ringing (where each individual group in turn performs from their own repertoire to all the other ringers), massed ringing (with all groups playing together some pre-prepared music), and workshop sessions or read-and-ring sessions to try out new music under different directors.

A large network of ringing groups was now in place and Dunblane Cathedral Handbell Ringers acted as co-ordinator to disseminate information about the handbell events going on in Scotland to other groups in Scotland - this included information on the many visiting groups from the USA, Australia, Canada, England, Germany and Sweden that have visited Scotland to perform over the years.

To further encourage the formation of more groups particularly in churches in Scotland (of all denominations), the Dunblane Cathedral Handbell Ringers also began organising and running Ring in Praise Handbell Seminars for Church Musicians at Dunblane Cathedral every year from 1989. This annual national event, quite unique in Britain, has directly led to the formation of many, many groups throughout the country. It caters exclusively for church groups and, as well as the talents of British directors, has had some distinguished guest lecturers and workshop leaders from overseas, including Kay Cook of Handbell Exploration, Arizona, Robert Ivey, past president of AGEHR (the American Handbell Guild) from North Carolina, Melanie Bankston of Strikepoint of Texas, Michael Bryant of Atlanta, Alison Wood, past president of the Alberta Guild in Canada, and Daniel Waits of Georgia. Each event features workshop sessions on using handbells in worship services in many different ways, read-and-ring sessions of new music for church use (whether choral or organ or hymn accompaniments, but all with handbells), lectures on the place of handbells in church, demonstrations by handbell groups with organ and choir, and displays.

With all of this activity the number of groups using handbells, handchimes or belleplates mushroomed to such an extent that it became a necessity to form a regional association of the Handbell Ringers of Great Britain to cover the geographic area of Scotland, in order to more fully serve the ringers in Scotland (Scotland having until then being included with the north of England, Northern Ireland and Wales in making the North West Region).

The Scottish Regional Association took effect from the 1st January 1996 with the first Scottish Regional Ringers' Rally being held in Aberdeen (hosted by Greyfriars Chimes, a very active church group under the direction of Elaine Duffus).  Subsequent rallies, workshops or concerts in a day have been held every 6 months since then, hosted by groups up, down and across the country.

There are now handbell, handchime or belleplate groups to be found the length and breadth of Scotland in churches, schools, uniformed and non-uniformed organisations, or serving individual communities or indeed being the pleasure of individual families. The instruments in use range from the very old handbell sets from various historic founders (many of which are no longer in existence but also including Whitechapel and Taylors which are) and more recent companies Malmark, Schulmerich and Maas-Rowe, as well as the various makes of handchimes and belleplates.

  Malcolm C Wilson


Select bibliography:

1. Scotland's Music by John Purser, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 1992.
2. Change Ringing in Scotland by Magnus Peterson, Dunblane, 1982.
3. Various Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, papers by R W M Clouston, Edinburgh.
4. Bells and Man by Percival Price, Oxford University Press, 1983.



A photograph from 1904 of Balgownie Mission Hall Handbell Ringers, with William Middleton - a group of young handbell ringers who played in and around the Balgownie Hall Mission (near Scotland’s oldest Bridge, The Brig O’ Balgownie).

They were led by the founder of the Mission, William Middleton, and performed at religious meetings and functions for local Brig O’ Don residents, often greeting people with a tune on arrival at their new homes. 

Today the Balgownie Hall is a sympathetically restored cottage with a granite memorial stone built into the gable end commemorating the life and work of William Middleton. 

Original information from “Bygone Bridge of Don” by A. Gordon Pirie published by Stenlake Publishing Ltd.

Thanks are due to Elaine Duffus of Aberdeen's Silver City Chimes for making contact with Stenlake Publishing, and for for their assistance in making contact with Brian H Watt who generously supplied photograph of the Balgownie Mission Hall Handbell Ringers with William Middleton.

Balgownie Mission Hall Handbell Ringers Balgownie Mission Hall Handbell Ringers
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