The Great Bell in the steeple is believed to be the one that came from Guelderland, a fertile province in The Netherlands. It was cast by John and William Hoehren in 1460. James II was King of Scots at that time, and his Queen, Mary of Gueldres, may well have suggested the commission. Originally the bell had on it the figure of the Virgin Mary and the coat of arms of Guelderland, along with the words ‘I mourn the dead, I call the living, I disperse thunder’ (a common medieval superstition). However, it had to be re-cast by C. and G. Mears in London in 1846 and the inscription no longer exists. It used to toll to summon people to services and to mark important occasions, but although it does not now do that, it rings the hours every day. There are also two small bells which ring the quarter hours. One was made in 1706 and the other in 1728, both by Robert Maxwell, successor of the official Edinburgh bell founder, John Meikle.
The Vesper Bell has the date 1464. Before the Reformation it was probably the Ave bell that was rung in the evening to summon the priests to prayers for peace. By 1879 it had neither rope nor clapper but hung in a dark corner of the steeple. Now, however, it is displayed on the floor of the nave, beside the south aisle.
The Carillon Bell was cast in 1699. St Giles’ had the earliest musical carillon in Britain. It consisted of 23 bronze music bells, made by John Meikle, the official Edinburgh bell-founder whose premises were near Edinburgh Castle. Every Sunday at noon a local music master played traditional melodies and popular songs for half an hour by striking a heavy keyboard. Eventually the bells wore out and were sold singly at auction in 1890. Four of them are preserved in the Museum of Edinburgh and in 1955 another of them was presented to St Giles’ by an anonymous church elder, along with its wooden stand. It is to be found at the entrance to the Chambers Aisle.
The H.M.S. Howe Bell was presented to St Giles’ by the Admiralty in 1958, to mark the ship’s close connection with the city. Built in Govan, Glasgow, it was a King George V class battleship of 35,000 tons with a crew of nearly 2,000 officers and men. When it was commissioned in 1942, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir William Y. Darling, presented it with a coat of arms of Edinburgh, which was displayed on the quarterdeck, and the people of Edinburgh then officially adopted the vessel. H.M.S. Howe played its part in the Arctic convoys of World War II, guarding supplies being transported to Russia. Eventually it was broken up at Inverkeithing in 1958 and the bell was presented to St Giles’ on Remembrance Day, 11 November. Its stand is made of timber from the ship’s quarterdeck, and inside the bell is engraved the name of Jennifer Anne Simmonds, who had been baptised on board the ship. This bell also flanks the entrance to the Chambers Aisle.