You’ve gone back in time and landed in medieval Scotland. On your wrist is a watch. It's an analogue one with minute and hour hands. That won't give you away as a time traveler, right?
You see a man on the road in front of you. Could you ask him what time it is? Or what year? Would he have a clue?
Were sundials the only way to tell the time in the Middle Ages?
A 10th century sundial showing the Saxon 8 hour day
If the first person you meet is a medieval laborer or mason, time is a fairly simple concept. The working day started as soon as they "can see to work skilfully." The work day ends at dusk, a surprisingly loose concept depending on how strict their boss might be!
That could mean a working day of up to fifteen hours in summer and as few as seven in winter. Lunch breaks were to "take only as long as no skilful man shall find fault in their absence."
An afternoon break was also allowed as long as it took no longer than "the time needed for a man to walk half a mile." They could give you a rough idea of time but would have little understanding of the watch in your wrist.
What about asking at an abbey? They have bells to mark their services but how do they know when to ring them?
Abbeys based their day on light and dark. The first service, matins, begins at first light. At sunrise comes prime. The next three services terce, sext, and none, are a hangover from the Roman period, based on the shift changes of the Roman guard.
Sext was at noon and none around 3pm. At sunset came vespers and finally compline when all light was gone.
One way of guessing the year would be finding out if vigils is held at midnight, a service added in later centuries for fear that Christ was expected to return at midnight and would not be happy to find the monks asleep.
Find out more here about the monastic day.
Arrive in the thirteenth century and mechanical clocks have begun to appear as have automatic alarms (like modern wind up cooking timers) to wake bellringers in abbeys.
Most clocks simply strike the hour, they do not yet have hands.
The picture below shows the earliest clock still surviving in the UK, built in 1386 at Salisbury cathedral. See a video of it here.
By the fourteenth century many towns are buying a large clock for all local people to refer to. Each one took at least a year to build and cost a small fortune, a physical symbol of a town's financial success.
An early pomander watch from 1530
The first mention of a watch occurs in France in 1518 but the minute hand did not appear until 1577. So if you arrive before then, be sure to keep your watch hidden unless you want to be asked some tough questions you might not be able to answer!