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Time to Pray - Medieval Mass Dial Sheds Light On Life At Island Abbey

21 August 2009

With no clocks or watches – how did the medieval brethren at the island abbey of Inchcolm know when to eat, sleep and pray?

The Augustinian canons lived according to a strict routine, and it was essential that everyone in the community did the right thing at the right time.

A new discovery at Inchcolm Abbey, in the Firth of Forth, reveals that the Augustinian canons who once lived on the island measured time using a mass dial.  This specialised form of sundial was carved into the south-facing walls of some churches and monastic buildings.

While well-known in England, the British Sundial Society says relatively few are known in Scotland.

The one at Inchcolm, which has been broken in two, was discovered by Historic Scotland collections registrar Hugh Morrison and medieval stones expert Mary Márkus.

They were carrying out preparatory work for a project to examine and catalogue a collection of around 50 pieces of carved medieval stone which are in safe keeping at the abbey but have never been studied.

Hugh said: “While sorting through the stones I found a fragment with distinctive radial markings carved on it that reminded me of mass dials that I had seen on churches in Gloucestershire.

“In a separate location I turned over another stone and was really pleased to discover that it fitted together with the other half of the mass dial.  

“Better still, it still has the corroded stub of the iron gnomon which would have once cast its shadow along the radial markings of the dial.

“It was good to be able to reunite the two pieces again. Eventually it may even be possible to find its original location on the south side of the abbey.”

More than 7,000 detached carved stones have been documented at Historic Scotland properties.  

They often provide key evidence for reconstructing long-lost features from castles, palaces, abbeys and many other monuments.

The mass dial will help visitors gain an insight into medieval life by showing how time was measured, and how people organised their lives, before the arrival of clocks and watches.

Hugh said: “Medieval timekeeping was very different from our present day dependency on the accurate measurement of time for catching trains, getting to work or viewing TV programs.

“Changing seasons and weather meant that mass dials could not always be used but when the sun shone they provided a relative means of coordinating community activities.”

Notes for editors:

  • Inchcolm Abbey is in the Firth of Forth and is reached by ferry service – call 0131 331 5000 or 0870 118 1866. Tickets are £4.70 for adults, £2.35 for children and £3.70 concessions.

  • Augustinians were not monks in the strict sense, but were secular canons, or priests, who lived together and followed a rule. Their lives were dedicated to contemplation and prayer but they could also go into the outside world and preach.

  • Historic Scotland has 345 historic properties and sites in its care. These include some of the leading tourism attractions in the country, including Edinburgh, Stirling, and Urquhart Castles, Fort George, Linlithgow Palace, the Border Abbeys, and Skara Brae. For further details visit:  

  • Historic Scotland’s Mission is to safeguard Scotland’s historic environment and to promote its understanding and enjoyment.

  • Historic Scotland is delighted to be supporting the 2009 Year of Homecoming with a series of initiatives including family trails, spectacular events and the creation of a Homecoming Pass for heritage attractions in association with other heritage organisations.

For further information

Rebecca Hamilton
Marketing and Media Manager
Marketing and Media
0131 668 8685 / 07788 923871