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How do you tell the time in medieval Scotland?

Aug 19th, 2019
Dear Dabneyites,

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!

With love until next time,

Blanche Dabney


The Key to Her Past - Out Now!

The eagerly awaited fourth book in the Clan MacGregor series is now available!

Pick up a copy here.


The Key in the Loch - Audiobook Out Now!

The first book in the Clan MacGregor series is now available as an audiobook.


Pick up a copy here.

The audiobook of book 2, The Key in the Door, is in progress.

Expect to see it around the beginning of September.

Blanche Dabney Books


The Clan MacGregor Series

The Key in the Loch

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The Key in the Door

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The Key to Her Heart

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The Key to Her Past

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The Key to His Castle - coming October 2019

The Key to the Highlands - coming December 2019



Highlander’s Time Trilogy

Held by the Highlander

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Promised to the Highlander

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Highlander’s Revenge

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Previous Newsletters

August 5th 2019 - Fancy a night's stay in a medieval inn?

July 22nd 2019 - Did Braveheart really wear a kilt?

July 8th 2019 - Did a medieval monk once come back from the dead?

June 24th 2019 - How did medieval highlanders treat their pets?

June 10th 2019 - Want to see inside the home of the Lords of the Isles?

May 24th 2019 - Who and what were the clans of Scotland?

May 14th 2019 - What was marriage like in medieval Scotland?

April 19th 2019 - Easter Sale!

March 26th 2019 - What is medieval marginalia?

March 11th 2019 - Why was a castle taken down stone by stone?

Feb 22nd 2019 - What links King Arthur and Jamie Fraser?

Feb 8th 2019 - How did an Earl steal an abbey?

Jan 25th 2019 - Happy Burns Night

Jan 15th 2019 - What happens in a Highland New Year?

Dec 20th 2018 - Ten things I love about Christmas

Nov 28th 2018 - Knights in armor could hardly move, right?

Nov 14th 2018 - Seen Outlaw King yet?
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