For much of Edinburgh’s long and fraught history, the city was surrounded by a protective stone wall. Access to and from the town center was limited to a number of gates. The most prosperous and ostentatious was the Netherbow, the entry that divided the Royal Mile from the separate municipality of the Canongate to the east.
People who wanted to enter or leave the walled city had to pay a hefty toll. For many of the poorer residents living behind this barrier, this was not a viable option, forcing them to remain forever within its confines. As a consequence, the term “The World’s End” was given to this portion of the township.
As the Netherbow was a gatehouse, a bell was used to alert travelers that the gates were about to close or open. There would be a grace period allowing commuters to get out or stay behind before the gates were shut for the day.
The Netherbow Bell was part of an elaborate defense system that went as far back as far as the 14th century, though the bell itself probably didn’t appear the 16th century. The bell would have had other uses, such as to alert people of danger or a fire, as a call to arms, or to signal the announcement of a public execution.
The Netherbow gatehouse was demolished in 1764 to make the Royal Mile more accessible, and the bell was taken down and forgotten. Brass plaques among the cobblestones and a corner pub, aptly named The World’s End, were all that remain to alert modern visitors to this bygone era.
Up until the early 21st century, that is. For centuries, the lost Netherbow bell had been gathering dust in an orphanage’s basement. It was eventually moved to a local art center, where it caught the eye of a keen observer. It was cleaned up and authenticated as the actual bell that rang out for centuries over the Netherbow Gatehouse. It now has pride of place atop the third floor of the Scottish Storytelling Centre.