Handbells in Scotland can be traced right back to the time of the Celtic missionaries who came to spread the Christian gospel from the fifth century A.D. onwards. The early Scottish Christian handbells were believed to be magical and were under the care of hereditary guardians known as dewars. There were two types of bells, both quadrangular, one type of sheet iron, the other of cast bronze.
The iron bells were made by riveting sheet iron and were originally coated in bronze or perhaps even gold. The bells were given a form of baptism and their perceived magical powers included those of banishing, of healing, of flight and of speech. The bronze bells of Scotland, some dating from the 7th and 8th centuries A.D. still being in existence, can individually play three different notes - two of the faces produce the same note while the others were different from it and each other. They covered a minor third (e.g. the notes A, B, C). The different notes could have accompanied chanting and to indicate moments of special importance in church services. Pitched bells were certainly used in the Middle Ages to accompany singing and illustrations appear on manuscripts of the period.
The Reformation in Scotland in 1560 led to many practices common until then being discontinued. The ringing of bells was not permitted beyond the ringing of one bell at each church for the purpose of summoning the congregation to worship and the practice of accompanying singing by any instrument in a church service ceased. Therefore the development in the 17th century in England of change ringing, and subsequent development of handbells as we know them today, was initially largely ignored in Scotland.
The Presbyterian Church was accepted by the Scottish Parliament in 1690 as the Established Church of Scotland (which is true to this day) while in neighboring England the Episcopalian Church was the Established Church and ringing was regarded in Presbyterian circles as being Episcopalian. Not until midway through the 19th century did a more tolerant attitude prevail. Some handbell groups in Scotland can trace their origins to this period over a century ago, such as the St James Ringers of Paisley, formed in 1884, with the same handbells still in use today.
Handbells were provided with new tower bells in the 1800's for the ringers to practice change ringing in more comfort and without the people hearing their mistakes. The towers in England were usually very cold and drafty and by using the handbells, the "changes" could be practiced easier.
Then, the ringers started playing tunes for their own entertainment and eventually for the public.
Bells in the US
PT Barnum was traveling in England and heard a group of bell ringers in Lancashire. He was so impressed, he brought them to the US for 10 years beginning in about 1850. But he billed them as Swiss bell ringers so he paid them to not speak in public.
In the US, we usually say handbell "choir" where as in England they always say handbell "team". We at Bells of the Lake, feel the term "team" more accurately describes the group effort. It has been said it is like playing an instrument by committee. No matter how you say it, it is a lot of fun.
How Bells are Made
Handbells are cast of pure bronze in the approximate proportions of 80% copper and 20% tin. The metal is heated to 2,150° F. The molten metal is poured into sand molds.
After the bronze has hardened, the sand is broken away. The excess metal is cut off, leaving just the raw casing which is roto-blasted to remove burnt-in molding sand and scale. It is then sent to the lathe department for turning and tuning.
First, the raw casting is turned on the outside to a precisely predetermined profile or shape. To insure that the exact proper profile is maintained, the cutting tool is controlled by a stylus following a template.
Next, turning the bell on the inside where the tuning takes place. Tuning a handbell requires knowledge, skill, and experience. The ability to guide the cutting tool to bring the partials of the bell into exact alignment and pitch is the mark of a true bell-craftsman. After each cut, the lathe is stopped, the bell is struck, and the vibrations are read on a tuning scope, permitting reading the partials to an accuracy of 1/100th of a semitone. Allowance is made for polishing and final tuning.
The bell next goes to the polishing department where it is machine polished.
The other parts of the handbell- the handle, hand-guard, clapper, and yoke mechanism are assembled to produce a complete handbell.
The assembled handbell goes through an indexing procedure to determine that point on the casting, which produces the best tonal response. The bell is scribed at that point and the casting is secured in that position.
The smallest bell in our set costs about $130 where the largest is over $750. Donations received at our concerts help provide maintenance, music and ancillary equipment and money left over goes to a local charity.