Forgotten Scott who built a 
time machine

Every so often, our newsroom comes across a forgotten person or incident from the Borders’ past, which may be of interest to our readers today, writes Sandy Neil.

So meet self-taught astronomer and mathematical genius James Scott, known as ‘Selkirk’s mason-astronomer’.

Scott was born on May 13, 1844, at ‘The Burn’ near Midlem, and after his early education at Midlem School, he followed his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps into stone masonry, serving his apprenticeship in Galashiels, and then migrating to Selkirk, where he spent the rest of his life until he died in 1928.

Outside his trade, Scott’s hobby was mending clocks, and after watching a meteor shower in 1886, he became fascinated by the stars and their courses. Realising he knew nothing at all about the universe, he decided to discover how the heavens worked.

At first he observed the movements of the moon, until he could predict its phases and its place among the stars for any night. Then Scott studied Jupiter, the largest planet in the Solar System, whose movements appeared at times to be most erratic, first moving eastwards as it revolves around the Sun, then halting and reversing westwards across the night sky.

Scott set himself to solve this mystery, with no more than a piece of string, a piece of chalk, a nail driven into the floor, and his Selkirk workshop. The nail represented the Sun, and with a length of string attached to the nail as centre he drew a circle on the floor with his chalk to represent the Earth’s orbit. A few chalk marks on the wall represented the fixed stars.

He saw that as the Earth raced past Jupiter, the giant planet appeared to move backwards although it was really moving in the same direction as Earth. Using the simple instruments of a stone mason, Scott had solved the celestial puzzle of Jupiter’s backward movement.

It occured to Scott that with his knowledge of clocks, he might create a machine which would imitate the movements of the solar system so that in any weather and any season, by day or by night, he could see at a glance where the moon would be, or Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus or Mercury.

And so he began building his Great Clock, which took him five winters to complete, and stood 8ft high and 5ft wide at the base Scott became so interested in Jupiter and its moons he created a second clock devoted entirely to their movement, called the Jupiter Clock.

More astronomical clocks followed. One called the Equation of Time Machine (pictured), which is in the safe-keeping of Scottish Borders Council’s museum services, was designed to show the difference between solar time and Greenwich mean time. This difference is called the Equation of Time, and is indispensible to the navigator or explorer in determining longitude. Mr Scott’s clock was perpetual, and showed the equation any time any year.

His fourth clock focused on the Earth itself. You turn one dial working as a calendar to show any date, and you find the sun in its proper position over the Earth, and you see the parts of the Earth in daylight and night. At the same time you can see at once why night and day are equal at the spring and autumn equinoxes, and why the length of day or night increases or decreases as the Sun moves north or south.

Another dial rotates the globe and shows the path of the Sun round the Earth on any date, and the time at any part of the Earth when it is noon at Greenwich. The fifth and final clock made by Mr Scott was a timepiece pure and simple, but curious in that it had only two wheels.

Clock expert Alison Morrison Row, Principal Curator of Science at the National Museum of Scotland, admitted to The Wee Paper she knew nothing about Scott or the locations of his four other clocks. So, falling on the collective wisdom of the Selkirk readership, if anybody know more about James Scott, or the whereabouts of his clocks, contact