Times are changing for the Cathedral clock Times are changing for the Cathedral clock

Times are changing for the Cathedral clock

After nearly a century of being wound by hand, the St Magnus Cathedral clock in Kirkwall is set to move into the automatic age. We've been finding out about the history of the old clock, and what the future will bring.


Some things in life are constant.

For the custodians of St Magnus Cathedral, that includes welcoming visitors, leading guided tours and looking after this beautiful Norse building for islanders.

It also involves a daily climb of 101 steps and traversing through tight passageways to wind the Cathedral clock.

But this afternoon, after nearly 100 years, that task was carried out by custodian Jack Drever for the very last time. An automatic clock winder is to be fitted to the mechanism, along with a pendulum regulator, helping keep the clock accurate for generations of Kirkwallians to come.

Jack Drever from St Magnus Cathedral winding the clock by hand for the last time


The current cathedral clock was built during the First World War in Edinburgh by James Ritchie and Son, makers of the famous Floral Clock in Princes Street Gardens. It was eventually transported to Orkney and installed in 1919, just as the conflict ended.

The clock features a winding mechanism, a pendulum, a set of weights and a large clock face. To wind it, custodians have had to make their way into the upper levels of the cathedral and slide the glass doors of the large winding mechanism case open. There they were faced with three large cylindrical drums wrapped in steel cables. The drums regulated the chiming of the hourly and quarterly bells from the clock tower, and the third was connected to the clock-face mechanism, turning the hands on the face itself.

The beautiful clock mechanism, made by James Ritchie and Son in Edinburgh


Each drum had to be wound by hand – about 50 winds for the drums for the bells, and 10 for the clock. All in all, it was a task that we’re reliably told took ‘a good ten minutes’ (not including the climb upwards) and was ‘not for the faint-hearted’!

The new system will see experts fit small motors and sensors to the drums which will automatically detect when the clock has wound down to a certain level. The pendulum regulator will make sure the clock time is more accurate than ever before too – essential when the start of four Kirkwall Ba’ games depend on precise timekeeping!

St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney - image by Kenny Lam


Perhaps the cathedral clock isn’t as important now as in the past, with the use of mobile phones and wristwatches reducing the need to glance up at the large clock face overlooking Broad Street. But Kirkwall just wouldn’t be Kirkwall without it and its hourly chimes. So, as times move on, let’s be thankful for the hard work of the numerous custodians over the years.

They’ll just have to find a new way of keeping fit!


If you want to see the cathedral clock for yourself then join a St Magnus Cathedral upper level tour. They’re available every Tuesday and Thursday at 11am and 2pm, costing £8 per person. Booking is essential – phone 01856 874 894 to reserve your space.

Find out more about the tours from this special blog and video on the Visit Orkney website.