Life at the heart of Edinburgh

What happens when a vicar from Yorkshire moves north of the border, to live in the centre of Scotland’s capital city?  Read on …

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12. I spy with my little eye

“No one knows we are here.”  That the thought occurred at all is a sign of the times.  We were cycling between farmer’s fields in East Lothian – no roads or houses in sight, no CCTV cameras and, crucially, without a smart phone to give us away.  In the world of surveillance capitalism the countryside is the place to go if you want to disappear.  It was where Winston and Julia escaped to for a few hours of rebellious pleasure, away from the urban world of Big Brother.  And we have walked all too willingly into that world.

This truth was born in on me a few days later, visiting Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura.  Back in 1892, the tower had been bought by Patrick Geddes, the sociologist, town planner and all round benefactor of this city.  Renaming it ‘the Outlook Tower’, he used it try to change people’s outlook on life.  He showed them the town and the surrounding countryside, and then left them in the darkened room to reflect on the wholeness and interconnectedness of life.  Today the tower is still full of things that challenge our perspective.   However, it also allows visitors to control CCTV cameras and observe other people – up on the top of the tower or in the street nearby.  Surveillance, it seems, has become entertainment.  Perhaps we are being invited to reflect, Geddes-like, on how we are colluding with this brave new world.  Perhaps – but if so I fear the message is lost, when it is just too much fun to spy on a mother berating her children, a man picking his nose, or a couple engaged in a supposedly private cuddle.

We live in an age of web-cam exhibitionism.  We walk down any street in Britain and our movements and behaviour are tracked.  We use a computer and hand over a stream of information about ourselves – to companies and governments who tell us they have our best interests at heart.

The other day I turned on my smartphone and searched for the location of an event I was going to.  On the map I found a dotted line traced to my destination, which was marked with the words “Appointment 14.00 hrs”.  I had booked on line no more than two minutes earlier.  Someone (beginning with ‘G’) had decided this would be helpful to me but had not asked my consent.  If I had been Winston or Julia I would have been whisked off to Room 101 there and then.

Sometimes I tell myself that there is nothing to fear from surveillance capitalism if I am not breaking any laws.  The trouble is, this depends on the laws being benign.  As the Winstons and Julias of the world know to their cost, there is no guarantee that this will always be so.

Is it too fanciful to imagine a society in which we are compelled to carry an ID card with a smart chip in it, so that those in authority can know where everyone is, every moment, of every day?  If not, then maybe it’s time to turn off the phone and computer and head out into the countryside for a few hours of rebellious pleasure – while we still can.


11. Art Land

The signpost points heavenwards.  Jupiter, it tells me, is a mere 893 to 964 million kilometres away.  I don’t know how accurate the sign is but it is a work of art and so can be allowed a bit of latitude.  Wandering among the sculptures of the wonder-full thing that is Jupiter Artland, I feel the cultural distance between Lothian and West Yorkshire melting away.

When we moved to Leeds, we found ourselves living not only in Yorkshire’s “Rhubarb Triangle” but also in its emerging “Sculpture Triangle” – the fabulous Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, the somewhat challenging Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, and (our favourite) the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  Coming to Scotland we find ourselves in another culture where outdoor art is highly prized.

Art in the open air has appealed to me ever since a honeymoon visit to Barbara Hepworth’s house and garden in St Ives.  Sculptures in a gallery, for all their beauty and interest, can appear as isolated, even sterile, objects.  Set outdoors, they come alive.  Art and nature interact and each enhances the other.  Seen and felt in the landscape – amidst trees, hills, waters or the ever-changing sky – the products of human creativity truly nourish the soul.

The same is true in the urban environment, if we but give ourselves time to stand and stare.  For example, to wander the streets of Scotland’s capital, or to visit the Falkirk Wheel, is to encounter a host of works by Ronald Rae.  Monumental pieces of granite are strewn around, as if dropped by retreating glaciers, except that their carved forms witness not to the slow, relentless pressure of ice sheets, but to the skill and sweat of one man; to unimaginable hours of brutal craftsmanship.  The largest – the Lion of Scotland, in the centre of Edinburgh – weighs in at a breath-taking twenty tonnes.  When I think of Ronald Rae – both his works and his craggy, though gentle, appearance – I am reminded of the words of Japanese sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, “Old men turn to stone”.

Whether out in the countryside or at the heart of the city, outdoor sculptures enrich our landscapes and are, in turn, enriched by them.  And all this enriches us.  Sughra Hussainy is a calligrapher, working in Kabul.  Despite decades of war, and the best attempts of the Taliban to stamp out art and culture, Sughra, along with other artists and craftspeople, works to keep alive her country’s ancient traditions.  Here, amidst the scars of war and continued acts of terror, she proclaims a message that is as true for us as it is for her: “The body needs food but the soul needs beauty”.

10. A City Explodes

“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.

9. Great Scot


“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.”  

8. Home Again

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.



7. Independence Day



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

are people,

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.





6. No More Silence

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.


5. On the Picket Line

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?

4. Ring out the Bells

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’.


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