Today is the last full day of British Summer time. But the prospect of shorter days with dark mornings and evenings isn’t all bad. Apart from the appeal of curling up on a chair by a cosy fire with a hot chocolate or dram in your hand there is one other immediate advantage. At precisely 2.00am tomorrow morning the clocks will go back, meaning we can all have an extra hour in bed.
There is one clock however you might not want to set your watch by if you’re in Edinburgh. Traditionally the large clock on the tower of the Balmoral Hotel is always 3 minutes fast. It’s not because the clock mechanism is faulty in any way or keeps bad time. Actually there’s a very good reason why it has been deliberately set in advance, but the answer as to why lies in the past and the hotel’s origins.
The North British Station Hotel
The Balmoral Hotel is an imposing 10-storey building with its roots deep down in Waverley station. Its clock tower dominates the East End of Princes Street and the faces can easily be seen from different directions. However the name is a relatively new one in the hotel’s history. For the 89 years from its opening until 1991, when it was renamed the Balmoral Hotel, it had been called the North British Station Hotel.
The decision to build a luxury hotel on the site was originally taken by the North British Railway Company. In 1895 the Company launched a competition to find the best design for its flagship hotel. Earlier it had been thwarted in its wish to build an imposing railway station above ground in the area of land which lay between the Old and New Towns. So instead they poured their own resources and money raised through a Parliamentary Bill into their new hotel. The North British was to be the last word in comfort and style, a deluxe hotel for the increasing number of railway passengers. The site was in an ideal location, close to the terminus of their railway line which ran from England, where Waverley Station stands.
« Friendly Monster »
The competition winners were William Hamilton Beattie and his assistant Andrew Robb Scott. Beattie had already gained a reputation as a successful hotel designer, having planned the Clarendon Hotel, the Braid Hills Hotel and The Grand in Lerwick. In 1895 the new prestigious Jenners Department Store also opened. It too was designed by William Beattie for owner Charles Jenner, after his earlier store had burnt down. Beattie based the replacement design on the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
Unfortunately William Beattie died in 1898, so it was Scott who oversaw the completion of the hotel. It opened in October 1902 and became more commonly known as the North British Hotel, or the NB to locals. The building, with its mix of architectural styles, has been described as a « friendly monster ». It’s definitely one of Edinburgh’s iconic landmarks.
Celebrities and Royalty
As a luxury hotel, the Balmoral has had its fair share of famous guests over the years. From the 1930s with Laurel and Hardy, to the 1960s glamour of Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. Paul and Linda McCartney have stayed and in the 1970s it welcomed the Queen Mother and politicians such as Edward Heath and Harold Wilson.
Perhaps its most famous recent guest was JK Rowling who secretly wrote « Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows » there in 2007. This was the last book in the series and as a momento of her time spent writing it there, JK Rowling signed the bottom of a bust in her room.
The Balmoral Clock
And so finally to the Balmoral Clock itself, which is maintained by clockmakers James Ritchie and Sons. They are responsible for the accuracy of the Time Ball at the top of the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill. They also maintain the Floral Clock in Princes Street Gardens. So keeping the Balmoral Clock on time shouldn’t be a problem. However, traditionally from 1902 it has always been kept 3 minutes fast to ensure that people don’t miss their train.
The only exception each year is on 31st December (Hogmanay) for celebrating the incoming New Year at midnight.
An Early End to 2020
Unlike all previous years, on 31st December 2020, the hotel decided not to set the Balmoral Clock to the real time for Hogmanay celebrations. The reason given was that it wanted 3 minutes less of that year!
So next time you’re hurrying along Princes Street and glance at the Balmoral Clock – don’t panic you still have 3 extra minutes to catch the train!