History of the Society

When the bells were first consecrated in 1879, the leading proponent of bell ringing at the Cathedral was undoubtedly George Cunninghame. It is not known if he was at that time a bell ringer himself or if he ever learnt to ring. Indeed it seems likely that there were then no Cathedral bell-ringers at all, since all of the members of the band that rang for the consecration were visitors from Yorkshire. It is quite possible that Mr Cunninghame was able to arrange the opening ringing through his professional contacts. Two important things happened soon afterwards: firstly, a qualified bell-ringer, possibly from Leeds, was commissioned to teach a band of ringers at the Cathedral. We don't know the details but he either moved to Edinburgh for a short period of time or travelled here at weekends for example. This was a paid post but it is not understood whether the commission came from Mr Cunninghame or the Cathedral; secondly, a Society constitution was written. It seems that constitutions of several English towers were obtained in an effort to create a model tower constitution. The teaching of a band was a success because at the time of the first peal on the bells in 1886, contemporary reports indicate a band strength of ten or more people. Mr Cunningham was undoubtedly still the leading light in the Society, and helped organize the peal, even though he was not tower captain. Also at this time the Society Badges were purchased. Another introduction in the early days was the reading of a Bell Ringers Office in the ringing room by the Provost or other of the Cathedral clergy before Sunday morning service ringing. Sometimes a visiting cleric would officiate, sometimes the Bishop. One feature of the Office was The Bell Ringers' Collect in which the ten virtues and graces after which the bells are named were cited. An updated version of The Bell Ringers' Collect including the virtues after which the two new treble bells were named has been used since 2009.

Another formative influence on the Society was Charles Routledge, who came to Edinburgh from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in about 1894 to study at the University. He conducted the second peal at St. Mary's, the first peal of royal in Scotland, rung by visitors from Newcastle in August 1895. By the time he left 3 years later, he had taught the band to ring Minor and triples on tower bells and up to Caters on handbells. It appears that the band thrived and certainly it was strong enough to ring an own-band peal successfully in 1904. Though there are extensive registers of attendance, further records are scant, though the erection of a Great War memorial in 1918 for two ringers killed in the conflict indicate a still thriving company. Little seems known of the inter-war activities & probably the three-year ban on bell ringing during WWII left the band depleted. However at the time of the arrival of Dr Kate Branson from London in 1950, the band was thriving and strong enough to attempt quarter peals on 10 bells and within two years to ring a further two Society peals. It was Kate Branson who put the belfry in order, organizing proper record keeping and the minuting of all meetings of the Society. This also included a visitor’s book and a means of recording details of all Sunday Service ringing and special occasion ringing. Charles Raine was Captain in the late 1940’s and remained so until the early 1960’s when he prematurely retired from ringing because of his involvement in other activities, predominantly the Scouting Movement of which he was an influential member in Scotland. Kate Branson then took charge and it was through her efforts that ringing was maintained through otherwise very lean years. In 2000, though having long retired from active ringing, Kate achieved 50 years membership of the Society. Things began to improve in the early 1970’s when there was an influx of established ringers into Edinburgh. Some of these were students at the University so that an interest in ringing started to develop there; this ultimately resulted, via the efforts of those students ringing at St Mary’s and others, in the formation of the University of Edinburgh Guild of Change Ringers some ten years later.

© Bill Brotherton 2012