What happens when a vicar from Yorkshire moves north of the border, to live in the centre of Scotland’s capital city? Read on …
“You’ll be glad when it’s over.” The old hands give me a knowing look. They have lived through too many Festivals for the approach of another to be anything more than a month-long inconvenience to be borne with as much good grace as possible.
Yet as the days of preparation go by, I find myself staggered at the transformation taking place in the city. Admittedly, the proliferation of road cones and other parking restrictions needs a United Nations treaty to regulate it. And, yes, it really does take twice as long to get anywhere. But, hey, the city is getting ready to welcome the world. Cut it a bit of slack.
Rubbish bins have popped up everywhere – as have cafes and bars. It is said that, if you try a different Edinburgh cafe everyday, it would take four years to get through them all – but that’s before the Festival hits town. Right now it’s nearer eight years. And – everywhere – lampposts, tree trunks, railings and walls have disappeared under the all-consuming show-bills. Each bears witness to months of creativity, hard work, excitement and – inevitably – the unspoken, unbearable possibility that theirs might be the show that produces a ‘no show’.
Mind you there are enough people to go round. The official Festival sells 400,000 tickets for 160 performances. But that is dwarfed by the Fringe, where some 50,000 performances are watched by 2 million people. It is a cultural monster which gobbles up everything in sight – halls, churches, lecture theatres, assembly rooms, courtyards, public gardens ….
With the clock ticking, I go down into our church hall (it sits, on the side of Castle Rock, directly under the church). It too has been consumed. Only two metal pillars (which helpfully hold the church up) cut through my confusion to assure me that this is indeed the hall I know. The rest is lost behind an acre of black cloth, a hundred yards of raked seating and a maze of lighting gantries. And all this is being repeated in 300 other venues.
Day one arrives and, as Jenny and I head off to our first show, the city has exploded. Yesterday the streets were just their normal busy selves. Today, they are choked, with the queues that snake along them. It is as if the monster has become a vast, tentacled Kracken. But the image cannot survive under the irresistible sense that this swirling mayhem of creativity (warts and all) is just so life-giving and joyous, so human and God-given.
Two nights later, the official opening event is to be the epic story of life on Earth, projected onto the south wall of the castle, with a mind-bending soundtrack to match. We leave our flat to join the 27,000 people who are standing in the street outside. Well, most of them are standing. Three have seated themselves on our porch. I ask where they are from. Rio! – they have swapped Copacabana beach and the Olympics, for the Edinburgh Festival and our doorstep!
The Earth’s story climaxes with the diverse faces of humanity lighting up Castle Rock. The Brazilians take their photos and drift away. Words, which spread across the castle walls, remain for some time: “Welcome, World.”
Job done, I would say.
“The sun shines not on us but in us.” These words, on Helensburgh’s waterfront, mark one end of the John Muir Way. On other days they would be a reassuring piece of spiritual wisdom. Today I am not so sure. As we mount our bikes, to set off on the first section of the 134 miles of coast-to-coast trail, I scan the sky. The forecast is reasonable but it feels as if Muir’s wisdom is born of bitter experience – that in Scotland the only kind of sun that does shine is often the inner one.
Cycling and I parted company some decades ago and we are only now getting back on nodding terms. So, after struggling up the early, and already far too steep, hills, I whizz with child-like glee down the descents – reaping the gain for the pain. As the route levels out, I am transported back to school days when cycling felt just as care (and car) free as it does along these gentle, joyous lanes. The flower-festooned verges and hedgerows also hark back to an era when such bio-diversity had not been widely sacrificed to the gods of industrial farming.
John Muir would have had something to say about that. In 1849, as a ten year-old boy, he made this journey (in the opposite direction) from his family home in Dunbar to sail from Helensburgh for a new life in the USA. As an adult, he would champion the radical idea of the conservation of nature and become the founding father of the American National Parks.
After lunch, our route merges, firstly with the West Highland Way – on which we inch forward against a tide of European hikers making for the west coast (haven’t they heard of Brexit?) – and then with the Thomas Muir Way (no relation). Now, for several miles, we are invited to reflect on a radical political reformer, who established a Scotland-wide network of clubs inspired by the principles of the French Revolution. Following his support for a united Ireland, Thomas became a fugitive from justice, before eventually being transported to Australia. How things have changed – today he has his own long-distant path.
This is now the third trail we have travelled along dedicated to a great Scot. Last summer, Jenny and I found ourselves on the James Hutton Walk, along the Berwickshire coast. Here we were treated to “Hutton’s unconformity” – strangely folded rocks which helped this pioneering geologist to demonstrate deep geological time, transforming our understanding of the age of the earth.
Since moving north of the border, I have been struck by the way Scotland honours its intellectual heritage. More than once, I have heard it said that everything worth inventing was invented by a Scot. Even this streak of nationalistic hubris makes the point. Whereas the statues of London so often celebrate the political and military leaders of imperial Britain, Scotland’s capital heralds its writers (Walter Scot), philosophers (David Hume) town planners and environmentalists (Patrick Geddes) explorers (David Livingstone) physicists (James Clerk Maxwell) and philathropists (Catherine Sinclair) – and many more.
And often these figures were not narrow specialists but great polymaths. Is there a connection here with an education system that still does its best to preserve space for a broad, interconnected syllabus? As we reach a weary journey’s end, some other words of John Muir return to me. They were etched in a circle of stone back at the start of the day. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
I am a migrant. I have been one most of my life. I’ve lived in twelve English counties and learnt to call each one of them ‘home’. But here in Scotland I am a migrant proper. Admittedly I didn’t have to hand over my life savings to a trafficker, or spend years in a squalid border camp, or suffocate inside a container-lorry. Jenny and I just got in the car and drove up the A1 from Leeds. There were no border guards, no checkpoint or razor wire – just a sign saying ‘Welcome to Scotland’.
Two days after the Brexit vote, we drive south again. As we cross the border, there is no reciprocal sign. England does not bother to greet its returning sons and daughters, let alone it’s Scottish neighbours. It never has, but with xenophobia and racism shaping the outcome of the referendum, this lack of welcome now feels deeply troubling.
We arrive in Leeds, the most diverse city in the UK outside London, for a peace event – a celebration of men and women, past and present, of different faiths and philosophies, who stand against war and seek to build peace. Afterwards, Brexit is pretty much the only topic of conversation. There is so much shock and disbelief in the air that you can almost touch it. It is as if, overnight, the country we’ve been living in has disappeared – taken away from us. We feel like exiles in our own land.
Friends in Leeds used to quip that, if the referendum went the wrong way, they might soon be joining us in an independent Scotland. Now they repeat it but with discernibly more seriousness. It appears that Jenny and I may only be the advance party.
Arriving back in Edinburgh, I am struck afresh by the relative lack of diversity among its residents. Of course there are many migrants like me – from England and across Europe – but we tend to go unnoticed until we open our mouths. I look forward to the day when this is no longer so; whenever this city is enriched by the glorious, rainbow people of our world, whatever brings them to our shores.
However, that is for tomorrow. Today it is Jenny and I who know ourselves welcomed here. Migrants and exiles we may be, but we are home again.
I’m voting to leave the human race,
taking back control of the borders
of my self.
I blame unelected parents
for bringing me into the world,
and a faceless religious bureaucrat
who spoke about an ever closer union
– a single economy of love
requiring the free movement of people
into my life.
I mean, there are billions of them
and more are joining every day.
Any one of them
can just walk in to my world,
move in to my heart,
live off my compassion.
It has to stop now.
At least I have the advantage of being an island.
Of course there are risks:
my wife may vote to leave me
but that would be selfish of her
and its a risk worth taking.
Because, don’t get me wrong
some of my best friends
it’s just that I can negotiate better relationships
when I’m on my own.
So I’m voting mexit
and I’m on course to win a majority.
The number of churches in Edinburgh, including St Columba’s, which openly declare themselves as inclusive of LGBT people is in marked contrast to my past experience. In Leeds I was only aware of one such congregation. It was not mine. I have led churches that have been tacitly accepting of gay and lesbian people, where tolerance and equality has been preached, but where LGBT people have not been openly and unreservedly affirmed. As I guess many Church of England clergy have done, I told myself that this was out of a pastoral desire to hold together congregations of very diverse views.
In recent years, the consequences of that approach have become increasingly clear – writ large in the Anglican Communion’s disciplining of the US Church and placating of other Christians, in countries where LGBT people face persecution, prosecution and death. The brutal massacre, in Orlando, of 49 people, and the injuring of many more, has left that approach in bloody tatters.
The attack has caused widespread horror and grief to LGBT people and many others around the world. Any such attack would do so, but this has been doubly shocking because people were targeted purely because of their sexuality. This outrage has been compounded by anti-gay protests by right-wing Christians at some of the funerals.
For far too long, religion in general, and elements within Christianity in particular, have explicitly or implicitly encouraged the sorts of attitudes which fed the hatred shown in Orlando and many other attacks on LGBT people. However, in the face of hostility, violence and murder, silence and a failure to challenge homophobia is also complicit.
As a Church, we are called to repent of teaching, behaviour and attitudes, including silence, which have allowed hatred and bigotry to flourish in the Church or in a society influenced by it. And we must fearlessly declare, in word and deed, the gospel of Christ which affirms the absolute dignity and worth of every single human being, irrespective of sexuality or any other human distinction.
I say ‘we’ but I also mean ‘I’, for Pastor Niemoller reminds me:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
The biblical book of Ecclesiastes says that there is ‘a time for silence and a time to speak’. With hindsight Niemoller recognised that his was not a time for silence. Neither is ours.
The banner is assembled. The placards are prepared. We’ve only been in our new city for two months but Jenny and I are already going on a political protest – our first in eleven years. As it happens that was also in Edinburgh, when 200,000 people demanded that our leaders ‘Make Poverty History’. Today, setting off from church, there are four of us.
As we carry our banner down the Royal Mile, I think of the actor, Martin Sheen, who is compelled, as a Christian, to protest against social injustice and speaks of his joy the first time he was arrested on the picket line: ‘Your faith has to cost you something.’ I am not expecting to be arrested today. After all, we aren’t out to ban the bomb, save the whale or even stay in the EU. Our target is Sunday parking charges.
Outside the City Chambers, we find a dozen Columbans (as our church members call themselves), a TV crew ready to broadcast our cause to the nation, and a handful of other protestors, campaigning against a proposed cycle-lane. I am slightly alarmed that, on TV, we may appear to have joined the Jeremy Clarkson brigade. Not a very Columban thing to do.
Undeterred, we divide our forces. Some stay outside to heckle as the councillors arrive and ‘handle the media’. I join others in the chamber – after all, my best demo-chant lacks conviction: ‘What do we want? No parking charges before 12.30. When do want them? After 12.30.’
The committee room is soon standing-room only. Three people are seeking flood defences for their estate; one lady is promoting safe play zones for children in residential streets; the rest are from the city-centre churches.
Richard Frazer, the minister from Greyfriars, presents our case eloquently and graciously: projects that support a host of vulnerable people draw their funding and volunteers from our congregations. Parking charges will undermine the viability of some congregations and so harm those we seek to help. A Green councillor, who begins ‘I’m an atheist’, asks why worshippers can’t walk, cycle or use the bus. A fair question but I groan inwardly. Do we seem like a bunch of Clarkson-loving Christians who are in fact out to protect our own interests? From across the chamber, I nod at each of his points, in the vain hope that he will notice. Richard’s response is more effective: many have to travel by car because age, and a patchy Sunday bus service, are against them.
Our deputation is sympathetically received and a compromise solution, for afternoon charges only, is voted through – although not by the Greens. Reasonably content, we exit the chamber (the flood defenders having already departed), leaving the play-zone lady to await the outcome of her proposal.
As we make our way home, and she sits alone, a thought nags at me. If we really were lobbying for the good of the city and not for our own interests, shouldn’t we have stayed?
The phrase ‘at my institution’ might suggest that I am the inmate of a home for the demented, kept safely away from the public. To some in our society, that would be an apt analogy for becoming the rector of a church in the 21st century. But this institution is not a building but an event. Other people starting a job are shown the office, laptop or toolbox and expected to get on with it. Not so the clergy. We are ‘instituted’, by the bishop, in a special service. At its best, this is not putting the rector on a shiny new pedestal but a chance for the community to mark a new phase of their life in a night of celebration.
After two weeks of settling in to the flat and neighbourhood, the day of the service arrives. The church is full, with old friends and new. The music is uplifting, the spirit warm and the bishop’s sermon hits the spot: ‘David, you are a child of God, and your ministry is to help others know that they, too, are a child of God’. He also points out that this will be ‘Church, David, but not as you know it’. I am now, for the first time in my life, a ‘non-conformist’. I am no longer shackled nor blessed by being part of the establishment.
The differences, while not total, are immediately apparent. There is no oath of allegiance to Her Majesty, yet still a pledge to obey the bishop (in all things lawful and honest). I am still installed in the seat of the Rector but released from the obligation to ring the church bell as a sign of taking office. Given my previous record, this comes as a relief.
In one church, the bell proved so temperamental that my best efforts elicited no more than a single clang. Given the old tradition that the number of rings indicates how many years a priest will remain in post, mild alarm spread amongst members of my new congregation. ‘We may as well not bother unpacking’ I quipped. We stayed ten years.
I was determined not to repeat my failure when starting in my next parish. Striking the bell forcefully, I indicated a respectable number of years, before emerging from the belfry, covered in a mass of white ‘dust’. The bell had not been rung in a decade and the tower was now home to pigeons.
St Columba’s-by-the-Castle does possess a bell but, when it was given, the tower had not yet been completed. So a frame was made and it now sits beside the altar – surely the largest sanctuary bell in all Christendom. As the service moves on to the Eucharist, and as the beautiful song of the ‘Sanctus’ fills the church and enfolds me, the bell is struck three times: ‘Holy…Holy…Holy Lord’. The bishop raises the consecrated bread and wine, and as the bell is struck a final time, the people join in one great and joyful ‘Amen’.
Edinburgh is beautiful. We thought we knew this from weeks spent at ‘the Fringe’. Hurrying between venues, with over 400 pages of Festival programme stuffed under the arm, getting high on anything-goes culture and wacky street-performers – we still had time to register the architectural grandeur. “Do you know Edinburgh?” people asked as moving day drew closer. “Oh yes” – we nodded confidently – “its a lovely city.” But we were quite unprepared for the difference that living here makes. As we settle in to our flat, and before my ministry begins, we are not rushing anywhere. Edinburgh is no longer ‘holiday’ but ‘home’. And with time to stop and stare (which we do frequently) we see everything from a wide-eyed, child-like perspective. The almost daily word on our lips is “Wow!”
Far from living in the midst of an urban jungle, we find ourselves surrounded by seemingly endless natural beauty. The trees in front of the flat break forth into pale green leaves, with delicate, circular seed pods. We like our trees but these have us baffled. Consulting the on-line source of all knowledge, we discover that they are elms. Elms! We grew up with them but they were all felled so many years ago that the memories have died with them. Our joy diminishes when Tommy (more of him later) says that Dutch Elm Disease has reached our trees and their days are numbered.
Behind the trees, the plunging sides of Castle Rock create inaccessible patches of wilderness. Clusters of gold – wild wallflowers – cling fearlessly to high ledges, while a glimpse over a wall reveals a vast swathe of cowslips (admittedly sharing the bank with a host of discarded road cones). In these sunny, late spring days a raptor effortlessly rides the warm up-currents around the rock. Later, when it has gone, a colony of rabbits enjoy an untroubled silflay amidst a wildflower meadow below the castle walls.
And this is just one of Edinburgh’s seven hills. The city also clusters around Calton, Corstophine, Craiglockhart, Blackford, the Braids, and (most famously) Arthur’s Seat. We climb four more and each offers up its own view over city-landscape, Forth Estuary, coastline and distant mountains. It is an endlessly jaw-dropping combination.
On a different scale is Scotland’s smallest wildlife reserve. It is no bigger than a tennis court and perched on the lower slopes of Castle Rock; less than five minutes from our door. It is, for us, a little symbol of this wild city, our new home. “Wow!” indeed.
The work of moving in is eventually relieved by a walk around the neighbourhood. We cross the street, where, hidden beneath our feet, lie the “King’s Stables”. This echo of a slower, monarchical age is now home to a more egalitarian, though expensive, multi-storey car park. We look across to Castle Rock and are surprised to find its lower reaches clothed in a host of daffodils. They are resplendent in post-April-shower sunshine. Jenny, who had been planning some guerrilla gardening – secretly bringing floral beauty to the rock – now realises that these random acts of botanical kindness will not be needed.
Before long, we meet our first neighbour. Her name is Helen* and she is sitting on the pavement in a sleeping bag. She is wet and shivering. In her arms she cradles a Staffordshire bull terrier. I ask its name.
“Midnight,” Helen replies, “that’s when he was born.”
I break my resolution on the very first day and drop eleven pence into her hat. I find myself apologising: it is all that we have on us. Helen explains that she has been homeless for five months. She only has one more to do and then, she says, the Council will provide some temporary accommodation. I am too new to know if this is true, but I do know that it is five months since I applied for my new job here. All that time, through the wettest of winters, Helen has been sitting on a pavement. I look at her and wonder, even now that spring has come, whether she will make it to see the inside of a new home.
“Where do you sleep?” I ask.
“Down there.” With a jerk of the head she indicates the kirkyard of St Cuthbert’s Parish Church. It is filled with ancient memorials to past residents, who now lie in the shadow of the castle and its rock.
That night, after more hours of unpacking, we collapse into bed. After a while I wake up, my mind churning over all the possibilities for how we might arrange the furniture in our delightful, and rather grand, mid-Victorian Rectory. I put on a dressing gown and step into the hallway. Atop the rock, the castle walls are illuminated by floodlights – red, streaking into yellow. They mingle with the street lights to obliterate the heavens. I realise, rather late in the day, that my small telescope will be utterly impotent here.
I look to the left – towards St Cuthbert’s. I think of Helen and her dog lying among the dead. I make my way back to the bedroom and climb under the duvet. I look at the bedside clock. It is midnight.
* Name changed