Fled Zeppelin

BlimpAnd here’s why

An obscure but interesting one, I think. If you’ve visited Edinburgh at all, you’ve likely heard of (or jumped at the report of) the One o’clock Gun – a time-keeping gun that goes off, well, every day at 1pm. These were originally practical devices that all the rage in the 19th century. Connected to a dropping ball indicator, they allowed ship’s captains, factory owners, and residents alike to keep their chronometers and watches set accurately. Now, the Edinburgh gun mainly just scares the bejeezus out of tourists. The gun is supposedly linked to another fascinating (and sad) piece of Edinburgh history – the raid by German airship L.14 on April 2 1916 that killed 13 people (including the port town of Leith). The story goes that, faced with this technological terror, the Edinburgh Castle garrison used the only heavy weapon at their disposal – the artillery piece used to fire the time signal – to try to scare off the Zeppelin using its standard issue blank rounds. The claim has propagated across tourist websites and blogs, and is on its way to becoming lore (if it wasn’t already). I decided to investigate.

I next spotted the claim on the Historic Scotland website whilst looking into the zeppelin raid itself, and despite these being the very people that run Edinburgh Castle, I was still sceptical. I traced it online to an even bolder claim in a 2001 Daily Record article featuring Normandy veteran ‘Jock’ Wilson:

“…even Mon’s Meg, uncharacteristically firing in anger, found it impossible to pierce the thick hide of the balloon as it floated high out of range.”

This is ludicrous, and I’m inclined to see it as a journalist’s misquoting of Wilson for reasons that will become apparent. Mons Meg is a 16th Century bombard – basically a massive medieval cannon. Even if such a thing could have been readied to fire in 1916 without the necessary tackle and stone ball ammunition – or even a carriage, since a replica was not supplied until 1935(!) – Mons’ firing days were long since over, as she had burst way back in 1681. The confusion likely arises from Mons’ use as a saluting gun – a role also carried out today by the timegun – but Mons Meg ceased to perform that duty two centuries before the time gun idea was even thought of. Live rounds would simply not have been kept at the castle, which had no functioning artillery aside from the timegun. Edinburgh had a true artillery fort at Leith – no chance of getting rounds from there up to the Castle in time to fire at any raider.

The oldest version of the story that I could find online dates to 1998 (July 24th) in the form of another Edinburgh Evening News article entitled ‘Gun’s Story Will Stand the Test of Time’. This is an interview with the then District Gunner, Sergeant Thomas ‘Tam the Gun’ McKay. It (unsurprisingly) follows the line of the latest Evening News reference, giving more dramatic detail;

“During the First World War a German zeppelin tried to bomb the castle and the gunners tried to fight it off.”

McKay himself is then quoted as saying;

“They manned the gun and the zeppelin was chased round the back of the castle where it dropped its bombs, killing a small number of people in the Grassmarket. “What the folk on the zeppelin didn’t know was it was only blank ammunition. It’s stories like that which need to be told.”

I reached a dead end at this point, but was able to take the search offline when I came across a copy of ‘What Time Does the One O’clock Gun Fire?’ by McKay, published in 2000 and widely available in Edinburgh gift and bookshops the few years afterward. In this we discover that Tam was not privy to special Royal Artillery or MoD information, or even unit folklore, but actually received the story orally from none other than… Jock Wilson. The story, though pre-dating the Daily Record interview with Wilson, is more akin to the History Scotland and Edinburgh Evening News versions – blank rounds fired by the timegun to put the wind up the Zeppelin. Either this was Wilson’s actual story, later corrupted by the Record journalist, or McKay adapted Wilson’s story in line with his own knowledge. Another offline source, from which I’m told the curator quoted in the Evening News took his statement, is an article from History Scotland magazine in 2004. On checking this out, it agrees with both of McKay’s accounts – the blanks/timegun combination – but gives no source of its own. Most likely it is McKay’s book and/or newspaper interview.

So from the gun firing live, to Mons Meg firing live, we’re back to the timegun again, but now firing only blanks – a much more plausible-sounding claim. Or is it? Because at that time the gun was a 32-pounder breech-loading cannon that, unlike the 25-pdr and 105mm guns that replaced it, could not have been elevated to fire in the manner of, say, a German 88mm Flak gun. From the photo, it also appears that the gun’s muzzle was permanently inserted into a masonry firing loop. The zeppelin was operating at a height of several thousand feet – achievable for an anti-aircraft gun using airbursting shells, but not in this case. There is also the fairly major complication that, despite the claim of the Evening News that it was a bright, moon-lit night, April 2-3 in fact saw a new moon – there would have been no way to locate the zeppelin in the sky, much less direct fire onto it. We also have to look for corroborating evidence, Wilson’s claim being effectively oral history – anecdotal evidence decades after the fact. There just isn’t any, and though the official report by the War Office makes mention of machine-guns on Arthur’s Seat opening fire as the zeppelin retreated, there’s nothing on any form of artillery. There is mention in the Scotsman’s archive of rifle fire from the Castle, but again, nothing about the One o’clock Gun.

Despite this, I don’t disbelieve Wilson as such. No doubt he was in the vicinity of the Castle at some point during or after the raid – just not as a 13-year-old boy within a military installation under air attack at midnight. It seems likely to me that he received his information via local hearsay, though that is speculation on my part it’s more parsimonious than Wilson’s memory being that faulty, or his lying for some reason. It’s easy to see how a desire to see the city defended, combined with the confusion of noise and light on a pitch-dark night might give rise to this idea. This snippet from a book about children’s rhymes on Google Books hints at this being popular belief at the time and afterward, though given the date it could have come from Tam the Gun’s book.

Reading McKay’s comments above, it’s easy to see why he might embrace a story told him by a fellow serviceman. Rather than being completely at the mercy of the German invaders, and the city avoiding a large death-toll only because of the limitations of the airship as a bomber, we have the stalwart and resourceful defenders of the Scottish capital saving life, limb and property. Whereas if I’m right, the 13 deaths (two of whom were children), 24 injuries and not inconsiderable damage to houses, businesses, and even a school, were a result of the zeppelin operating entirely unmolested (small-arms fire notwithstanding) due to a total lack of air defence capability. For this reason any other present-day members of the Royal Artillery have no reason to cover any embarassment with urban myth. Nor should the Royal Naval Air Service, who sent a fighter to intercept but had no way of locating the enemy. The airship was a very new and high-tech threat, and if anyone is to blame for a failure to anticipate and defend against L.14’s attack (and it’s a big if), it is the military commanders and politicians who considered the risk too small to divert resources toward.

So, I think this is myth=busted, but I am interested in any evidence of it being part of folklore beyond Jock Wilson’s account. As ever, if anyone has any more information, please do leave me a comment.


3 thoughts on “Fled Zeppelin

  1. I love your demolition of the military myths. War seems to be THE fertile ground for BS and wishful thinking. My grandmother believed that Italian fishermen refuelled Japanese submarines off the NSW South Coast, and was strong in her belief. When I pointed out the fishermen were 2nd generation Aussies, and her husband knew many of them, she told me “Well I read it in the Nowra paper so there must be something to it”.

    1. Hi Scott,

      Thanks! It’s understandable in a line of work that deals with death so intimately. I have more of these myths for future posts.


  2. Always wondered if it was possible to check the German reports on the raid, whether they encountered any threats from the castle. We had a section in the Fire Museum in Lauriston and as an ex FF used to give talks and talked about the raid which took place on my birthday but a later year !!

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