100 Scottish Association Handbell Peals

The 100th handbell peal for the SACR has just been rung - Plain Bob Major, which was Isabella Scott's first peal. Congratulations, Isabella! To mark the occasion, here's a review of the history of Scottish handbell ringing.

The first handbell peal was in 1932, of Plain Bob Major. The band was Robert Preston, Stephen Wood, Henry Sargent and William Pickett, who were all Glasgow ringers. The peal was rung at 66 Hillhead Street, Glasgow. By checking the historical electoral registers I discovered that they rang it in Stephen Wood's flat. There was a previous peal by the same band at the same address, in 1931, which was the first peal by the St Mary's Cathedral, Glasgow, society, and predated the formation of the Scottish Association. We rang a peal for the 80th anniversary of the 1931 peal, using the same composition. I would also like to ring a peal at 66 Hillhead Street one day. The building is now owned by Glasgow University, where I work, so it should be possible to get access if I can find the right person to ask.

The next two peals, in 1936, were both rung at Kilmory Knap, in Argyll, at a house called Dun A' Bhuilg. It seems to still exist as a holiday house. The peals were on consecutive days in August with very similar bands, including Chris Woolley who wrote the Central Council booklet on handbell ringing. They rang Plain Bob Major and Plain Bob Royal. The Bob Major is claimed as the first peal in the county of Argyll, which is interesting because most peals in Argyll are tower bell peals at Inveraray. The Bob Royal was the first 10-bell peal for the association.

After that there is nothing until 1946, when there was a peal of doubles (Plain Bob, Grandsire and Stedman) at No. 4 Meiktila Camp, Kalyan Bombay Province, India. The band was the Reverend Captain Albert F Sargent (surely related to Henry Sargent), Captain John F Banks, and - wait for it - Wilfred F Moreton, who is better known as the organiser of the Hereford ringing course for many years. He is also known for teaching handbell ringing by the method of getting all the students to ring the same pair simultaneously in a mass participation exercise.

There is then a gap until 1978, which was the beginning of the first phase of regular handbell peal ringing in Scotland. From 1978 to 1990 there were a total of 30 peals, with a gradually changing population of ringers. Some of them were spending a few years in Scotland as students or for work; others were long-term residents who are still here. Activists included Steve Mitchell, who Tina and I did a lot of ringing with in Middlesex during the late 1990s; Nigel Booth, who is still around and has been to a couple of our handbell days; and Margaret and Martin Whiteley. One of the peals has a footnote for the first birthday of their son David, who we met much later while climbing David Brown's last Munro (we rang a course of Yorkshire on the summit). The peals during this period were mostly Plain Bob, from Minor to Royal, with occasional Treble Bob Major and some of Minor in several plain methods or including some Treble Bob. There was a peal of Cambridge Minor in 1987, which was the first of Surprise in hand for the association. The venue for a few peals was the Permanent Way Engineer's Office at Aberdeen Station, which would be another interesting one to try to get for a repeat performance.

From 1990 to 2007 there was another gap, interrupted by a single peal in 1999, of Plain Bob, Kent and Oxford Minor. In 2007, Mike Clay started ringing with Jonathan Frye, Lizzie Frye and William Dawson, who were students at Edinburgh University. Mike conducted several peals of Plain Bob and one of Kent, also bringing in Robin Churchill and Peter Williamson. I got involved in 2007 when we decided to practise 3 leads of Bristol to perform at the SACR 75th anniversary dinner - we did this with Mike, Jonathan and Lizzie.

Tina and I spent the autumn of 2007 in Lisbon, and when we came back, Jonathan Frye and Angela Deakin said they would like to start ringing handbells regularly. Our adventures from that point on have been well documented in the blog, and once we got up to peal standard with the Albany Quadrant band, I hope it's not too boastful to say that we advanced Scottish handbell ringing to a new level. We're still not so good at Royal and Maximus, but when it comes to Surprise Major, we can now ring anything on handbells that has been rung by the SACR on tower bells. We have also helped to develop other ringers, with several firsts of various Surprise Major methods.

The number of peals per year is fairly modest - so far, 2015 has been the peak with 11 peals. The number of ringers involved is also relatively small, with a peak of 13, also in 2015. The conducting is seriously unbalanced: since 2007 there have been 36 peals conducted by myself, 13 by Mike Clay, and 12 by Robin Churchill. The only other resident members to have conducted peals during this period are Dan Smith and Peter Kirton with one each.


Time to reach 100 peals: 85 years

Number of ringers: 58

Leading ringers: Simon Gay:40, Tina Stoecklin:36, Jonathan Frye:30

Number of conductors: 21

Leading conductors: Simon Gay:36, Mike Clay:13, Robin Churchill:12

Longest span of peal ringing: Ian Bell and Stephen Elwell-Sutton, 37 years

Leading methods: Plain Bob Major:24, Plain Bob Minor:13, Yorkshire Major:9

Number of venues: 27

Leading venue: 1 Albany Quadrant, Glasgow, 31


A Peal of Yorkshire

Yesterday we rang our peal of Yorkshire, in a rather echoey room in the buildings of St James' Leith. I called the Bernard Taylor composition, and it went smoothly, although at one point I did indeed become slightly confused about the positions of my bells vs. the positions of the tenors at a middle. The peal was somewhat slower than we usually ring, because of the difficult acoustics. However, we had a good standard of ringing and it was satisfying to be able to score a peal at the first attempt with a non-standard combination of people - it's four years since we rang a peal with that band.

The next SACR handbell peal will be the 100th. We have heard that a St Andrews band are going for a peal on Friday, which will be a first for Isabella Scott, so good luck to them.

Handbell Compositions: 5152 Yorkshire Surprise Major (No. 2) by Peter J Sanderson

In the previous article, about Bernard Taylor's composition of Yorkshire, I quoted his comment that Peter Sanderson had produced a similar composition. I think it must be this one, which is also in the handbell compositions section of www.ringing.info.

5152 Yorkshire S Major (No.2)
Peter J Sanderson

23456   M  W  H
35264   2  2
56423   -  2  3
25463      -
63254   2  -
52436   -  -
23645   -  2
63542   -     3
42635   2  -   
23456   2  2  3

Here are the coursing orders.

  M      W      H
53624  36524
65243  52643
       26543  25463
65324  53624
53246  32546
32465  24365
43652         46532
43265  32465
32546  25346
       53246  52436

Indeed it is very similar - also a palindrome, and with the same handbell-friendly properties (12 courses of coursing for 3-4 and 5-6. The difference is that there is only one block of 3 wrongs in each half, and it has a block of 3 homes inserted into it instead of the other separate block of 3 wrongs. I think I prefer Bernard Taylor's composition, because it's a little more regular. Let's see how it works out in practice.

Handbell Compositions: 5152 Yorkshire Surprise Major by Bernard H Taylor

I was looking for handbell-friendly compositions of Yorkshire in the collection at www.ringing.info, and I noticed this one by Bernard Taylor.

6048 (5152) Yorkshire Surprise Major
Bernard H Taylor
23456   M   W   H
56234   2   -
35264  (3)  -
25463   -   3
45362   -   3
63254   -   -
52436   -   -
34625   -   -
23645   3   -
42635   3   -
62534   -  (3)
23456   -   2   3
Omit both (3) for 5152.

Bernard's description of the composition is included:

Difficult to believe this is original, but have been unable to find it elsewhere. Peter Sanderson has published something similar, though this was arrived at independently. It is delightfully easy to call, with the position of 5-6 making it obvious what to do. All 12 courses of 5-6 coursing are the 'right way round' (6 before 5) and 3-4 have 12 coursing courses too.

At a casual glance, the composition looks like a series of wrongs and middles without a great deal of structure or pattern. But the claim that it is "delightfully easy to call" sounds attractive, and in line with previous articles about compositions in which the coursing order is a mnemonic for the calling. So let's unpack the composition and see what it's all about.

We can ignore the blocks of (3), because I don't think there's much demand for a 6048. Here is the first section, written out with the coursing orders in the positions of the bobs.

  M      W
53624  36524
65243  52643
65432  54632
65324  53624

The composition starts with 2M 2W, the classic "Middleton's block", which is equivalent to a before and produces the coursing order 65324, with 5-6 coursing. Notice that between the two middles the coursing order is 53462, with 3-4 coursing, and between the two wrongs it is 36524, with 5-6 coursing.

Next comes M 3W M 3W M. This is 3M with blocks of 3W inserted. The coursing order at the beginning is 65324, so the 3 middles are on 2,3,4. This means that at the bobs, the lead ends will be familiar changes: 1423xxxx, 1342xxxx, 1234xxxx, where the xxxx is 5867. If calling from 5-6, one has to not be confused by the fact that becoming  5th and 7th place bell at a bob might feel like calling a wrong.

In the blocks of 3 wrongs, 5-6 are affected in the same way that 3-4 are affected in a block of 3 homes from the plain course. They ring two courses of coursing and one course of the 3-4 position.

The third middle returns to the coursing order 65324, and then a wrong and a middle return to the plain course. These final bobs at wrong and then middle complete the 2 wrongs and 2 middles from the beginning of the composition. Overall this is a round block that inserts 10 courses into the plain course, including 5 courses with 3-4 coursing and 6 courses with 5-6 coursing.

The composition as a whole is palindromic. It's easiest to see this at first by ignoring the 3 homes at the end. The symmetrical point is the half lead in the middle of the plain course (reverse rounds). The second half of the calling is the mirror image of the first half. Wrongs and middles become interchanged, because a wrong is the same distance after the midpoint as a middle is before it. On the page, rotating the first half by 180 degrees produces the second half.

M   W                M   W
-----                -----
2   2                    -
-   3                -   -
-   3       ->       3   -
-   -                3   -
-                    2   2
-----                -----

Here are the coursing orders for the second half.

  M      W
32465  24365
24365  43265
43265  32465
32546  25346

It's the same idea with middle and wrong exchanged: calls at wrong affecting 2,3,4, and blocks of 3 middles in which 5-6 are affected. This section also has 5 courses with 3-4 coursing and 6 courses with 5-6 coursing. Finally, the block of 3 homes adds another 2 courses with 3-4 coursing.

I wondered whether there would be any benefit in starting with one or two homes, instead of having all three at the end, in order to get more of the 5-6 position for 5-6 out of the way early on. It turns out that doing this reduces the amount of coursing for 3-4 from 12 courses to 10, because the two middles at the beginning and the two wrongs at the end no longer contain courses with 3-4 coursing.

We can see how the coursing order is a mnemonic for the calling by looking at the first half, and then the same reasoning applies in reverse for the second half. Each block of 3 wrongs finishes when the coursing order is 65xxx, and the enclosing block of 3 middles finishes when the coursing order is 65324 (a rotation of the plain course).

So it should be straightforward to call, and in particular the three consecutive courses all called M W no longer look like a section that has to be counted through (it's always best to avoid counting if possible). The main pitfall I can see is forgetting that middle and wrong are consecutive leads.

We have a peal attempt of Yorkshire booked for the week after next, so I will give this composition a try.  

Performing at the Central Council Weekend

This weekend is the Central Council meeting in Edinburgh, so we've spent some time attending events and helping out. We were asked to ring handbells during the Choral Evensong at St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, this afternoon, at the end of the service instead of the usual organ voluntary.

We couldn't ring with our usual four, because Angela had to stay in Glasgow to run the evening ringing there. Instead, we engaged Graham John, who is a Central Council member, to join me, Tina and Jonathan for the occasion. The added bonus was that none of us had rung with Graham before (although we have communicated via blog comments), so it was a nice opportunity to meet him.

We decided to ring three leads of Bristol, and everything went smoothly. The handbell ringing was listed in the service sheet, and the congregation sat quietly and listened while we rang, erupting into thunderous applause when we finished. Performing handbell-ringing in public is always a little nerve-racking, and it takes concentration to maintain focus. It's different from ringing tower bells for a special occasion, which is also a performance, because of being visible to the audience. Also there is more danger on handbells that if something does go wrong, it will lead to an embarrassing total collapse. But everyone did well and it was a satisfying achievement.

A few tips for handbell ringing performances:

  • Choose a set of bells that are not too small, and nice and loud.
  • Always practice beforehand, even if you are ringing something that's well within your capabilities (and you should ring something that's well within your capabilities).
  • Start and finish with a few rounds, instead of ringing "up, down and off" and stopping as soon as the touch comes round.
  • Don't ring too quickly - the audience will appreciate it more if it's a little slower.


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