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’.


3. Wild City

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.



2. Midnight

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

1. Moving In

It is 7.45am and the removal men are eager to help us begin our new life in Edinburgh.  Our parking permit lies on the Rectory doormat, at a stroke disposing of a Catch 22 problem: to get a permit you must prove you are a resident but without a permit how can you move in to prove it?  The Council computer had seemed unaware that immigrants like us necessarily arrive without the documentation it craves.  Thankfully, a human and humane employee of the same Council had come to our rescue.  We even got a refund for booking early.

Unfortunately, a permit doesn’t buy you the right to a space but a gap quickly appears for our small and faithful banger, at the end of a line of gleaming Germanic vehicles.  We stake our claim.  However, a yellow sign, strapped to a nearby lamppost, declares that £195 may have secured permission to park in the city centre – but not this morning – not outside our flat.  After all, a 42 feet removal lorry has to go somewhere. Unfortunately, some of the locals have committed the offence of failing to notice the notice. Within minutes, a second and very different removal lorry arrives.  In the nick of time, a lady appears, driving off in one of the offending vehicles.  However, two other owners sleep on, oblivious of the fate now befalling their Audi and BMW.  We watch with incredulity, and some embarrassment, as they are lifted effortlessly off the tarmac and carried away.  I find myself reflecting that these are not exactly the best of terms on which to meet our new neighbours.

This situation might have been avoided if parking permits included the owners’ phone number, so that a five minute warning could be issued.  But these particular removal men are paid per vehicle.  They are in a hurry and there are no second chances. A lesson to the unwary, and to us: never neglect a notice on Castle Terrace.

As the name suggests, our home is near the castle.  In fact its residents are our neighbours, albeit set high above us on Castle Rock.  Our new home faces the rear of this imposing edifice – the side over whose walls centuries of human waste and rubbish have doubtless been tipped.  Today the rocks are streaked with white, but we are uncertain whether this is guano or a decorator’s joyous outpourings on finishing the eighty plus windows that overlook us.

Even gazing at the backside of the castle is an awe-inspiring thing, and I am tempted to set a Lloyd Loom chair on the pavement and admire it, while the men unload our belongings.  However this smacks too much of the colonial plantation owner on his veranda and so I settle for standing in the hallway and acting as a human signpost: books to the study; telescope to the back bedroom ….

Watching the men at work, I comment that removals must be a young-man’s game.  Russ – no spring chicken – is gracious enough to ignore my faux pax, and replies that, no, it is more of a short man’s game.  Anyone over six foot, he explains, won’t stay the course. A young chap of 6’ 5” lasted less than six months before his back gave in.  Russ, at 5’ 11” has weathered the years relatively unscathed.  As if to illustrate the point, I find Chris, his slightly taller assistant, hands on knees, severely winded after hefting yet more of my biblical commentaries into the flat.

The men are courteous to a tee; a credit to their profession.  And as we wave them off, my wife, wonders aloud how they must really feel – moving people like us into a home they could barely dream of.  The question nags but so do the untold packing cases.  We go inside and close the door.  We are ‘in’.


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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