The Bannockburn Clock

by Robert Aitken 9th March 2008

Not long after the dawn of the nineteenth century a young boy by the name of John Wilcox of the parish of St Ninians became apprentice to Robert Spittal, sailing master of the Ann Spittal, a schooner trading between the Forth and Russia, being wartime, unluckily both master and apprentice were taken prisoner and confined at St Petersburg. Betty Willcox sat at home praying for her son, like many a Scotswoman she had faith and courage and decided to do something to save her son. Her simple plan was to send a gift of silk stockings wrapped in a petition to the Czar of Russia asking for her son to be returned to her.

Her first task was to buy the silk for which she had just enough money but not the coach fare to Paisley where the finest silk could be had so she walked the thirty miles, got the silk and walked home again. Next she knitted the stockings in the fashionable pattern of the day, the villagers pitied her and thought the task impossible. When the stockings were finished she now needed a petition, being neither able to read nor write she could not put her thoughts to paper. Undaunted she asked the schoolmaster to write exactly what she dictated, this he did mainly to humour her.

How to get the letter to Russia? There was no postal service of any kind but this would not stop betty, she searched all the ports along the Forth until she found a vessel bound for Russia. She told the captain her story and handed him the parcel, smiling he said he would do his best to deliver the parcel to Alexander 1 when the ship docked at St Petersburg, with the ships company cheering her she set off to walk again the long miles home.

When the captain reached port he ignored the British embassy and instead he made straight for the Royal Palace and asked for Sir James Wylie, a fellow Scot and a native of Kincardine-on-Forth, Sir James was doctor to the Czar and felt a kinship to any fellow Scot and amazingly without hesitation took the stockings to the Czar and read him a mother’s plea for her son, immediately the Rulers heart softened and John Wilcox was released and sent home to his mother along with a purse of gold as a gift.

There was great joy in the parish, and the youngsters built a great bonfire on the field of Bannockburn in honour of Alexander 1 of Russia, house of Romanov and the return of one of their own, Betty Wilcox then decided as a memorial to have a clock made of the finest materials by the best local clockmaker she could find, when finished the dial of the clock pictured the entire story of the illiterate peasant who touched the heart of a Czar. The clock was set up in Betty’s humble house and became famous, then the widow of her sailor son owned it for a long time and people still came to see it from far and wide.

It was last heard of in a cottage in Kippen near Dunning in Perthshire, it still had some of the original silk attached and a book with this Scots couplet.

Wha’d hae thocht it
Stockings bocht it

Does anyone know where the Bannockburn Clock is now?

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