Happy 200th birthday, St John’s Edinburgh

St John’s Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, by James Skene, in 1818, the year of its consecration. Courtesy of Edinburgh Libraries.

200 years ago this week, St John’s Church in Edinburgh was consecrated, on 19 March 1818.

This is interesting to me for two reasons. First because I have been a member of the choir of St John’s (which was founded at the same time) for almost a fifth of that time, and second because I have spent much of the past ten years researching the history of its foundation.

In its time, St John’s was truly groundbreaking. Its attention to the authentic detail of gothic architecture, and its revival of the rich Laudian traditions of liturgy, once so controversial, but unexpectedly so relevant to the romantics and industrialists of late-Enlightenment Edinburgh, were ahead of anything taking place in Anglican England, and in fact helped to inspire the Victorian revival of liturgy, architecture and rich spirituality there.

The Choir and Church of St John’s today. The memorial windows, including two to Forbes and Mackenzie, were added in the 1860s.

Having no church establishment to contend with, and a mainstream Calvinist tradition to contrast with, gave the founders of St John’s, Bishop Daniel Sandford, Sir William Forbes, and Colin Mackenzie WS, the freedom and the inspiration to create something extraordinary.

Sandford, Forbes and Mackenzie, the cleric, the banker and the lawyer, may seem an unlikely triumvirate to organise a spiritual revolution. But they were, in a way, simply the administrators of a much wider movement, shaped by people of all kinds of classes, genders and races, just as Walter Scott was simply the transcriber of the diverse voices and verses that populate his novels. These men had a cultural generosity which inevitably would lead to them giving away their power in society.

For Bishop Sandford this took the form of a passionate belief in universal education, for all boys and girls, until the kind of privilege of birth enjoyed by people like himself – unwarranted in the gospels and proved so fragile in the French Revolution – became unnecessary.

Over the coming year, St John’s will celebrate its bicentenary in many ways. Keep an eye on their facebook page for news of the lectures, exhibitions, concerts and special services they are planning, and I’ll be trying to keep up some historical tweeting on #StJohns200 (please join in!). Two particular highlights for me will be my Choir re-creating an 1818 matins on 6 May, and right at the end of the programme, I’m giving a lecture on Bishop Sandford and his successor Dean Ramsay on 21 January 2019.

Meanwhile, here is how Edinburgh’s newspaper of the day, the Caledonian Mercury, reported the consecration of St John’s:

“In our paper of Thursday we mentioned that St John’s Chapel was that day to be consecrated. — at the appointed hour a very great concourse of people attended to witnes this ceremony, which, from its novelty, was no less pleasing to our brethren of the Episcopalian persuasion than to those of the Established Church, a great many of whom were present. — The first, happy to find the dissentions which formerly separated them from their fellow citizens sinking rapidly into oblivion; the last, glad to hear testimony of their good will to all who labour in the vineyard.

We cannot allow this opportunity to escape without saying a few words on the satisfaction which we feel at the rapid progress which edifices of this description have made towards elegance and magnificence. — When we look back on that respectable, but very homely building, distinguished by the name of Peddie’s meeting house in Bristo Street; when we consider the former place of worship used by the Roman Catholics in Blackfriars Wynd, and the little chapel in which Bishop Sandford first administered to his flock, in Register Street, as well as many other places of public worship in various parts of the town, we cannot help feeling gratified in observing the improvements which have taken place within very few years. The Catholics were first to show the example. From a confined private room, as it might be called, they had the spirit to remove themselves to a large and commodious chapel, the front of which not only does credit to the architect, but is an ornament to the city. The next is the Methodist chapel in Nicholson’s Square, a plain, neat, and highly creditable building. Then follow the chapels of St Paul and St John, the one built for the accomodation of the Cowgatte Chapel congregation, the other for that of Charlotte Square Chapel.

The interior of St John’s showing its original orange-tinted clerestory windows with clear glass below, the gothic-style box pews, and the organ in the gallery.

These buildings are built in the Gothic style, and not only do great credit to the architects (Mr Elliot and Mr Burn) but to the meritorious exertions of the individuals who undertook the management of them. It is not our province to enter into any ritical or scientific examination of their merits, but taking them all in all, we consider both equally ornamental and advantageous to our city, and takng off from that sameness, with which our New Town has so frequently been accused. From all points St John’s Chapel is well seen — it is the first object that strikes the eye on enterng by the great roads leading from the north, south, east and west, and is, or perhaps must only say was, one of the most interesting objects from the new road over the Calton Hill. The interior corresponds with its exterior: the roof is of the stile of the florid Gothic of Henry the Seventh’s Chael, and the columns which support it are light and airy; no galleries are yet erected, in the hope that the congregation will be sufficiently accomodated in the body of the church. The windows above are glazed with orange coloured glass, the rest with softened glass, so as to admit the light, without being pervious to vision. The great window over the altar is not yet finished, and some alterations appear to be intended; a good deal of labour and expence has been bestowed in decorating the upper part with a representation of the Annunciation by Edington. The under part is ornamented with coats of arms, the effect of which we cannot praise, and think that good taste would have recommended the plain softened glass of the other window, with a simple border round each compartment. The organ is excellent, and very handsomely fitted up; and we were happy to find that the extent of the building was by no means beyond the extent of the Bishop’s voice, who was perfectly well heard in every part of the chapel.”

“One lamentable error we certainly have committed. are committing, and, so far as appears, will ever commit. We massacre every town tree that comes in a mason’s way; never sacrificing mortar to foliage. A group was felled about the year 1826, which stood to the west of St. John’s Chapel, on the opposite side of the Lothian road, and formed a beautiful termination of all the streets which join near that point. One half of the trees, at the least, might have been sparecj, not only without injuring, but with the effect of greatly adorning, the buildings for which they have been sacrificed.” Henry Cockburn, Memorials of His Time, 1856.

First visit to the first floor

It’s now possible to see the whole shape of Blair House for the first time.

This is a nervous moment for client and architect: will our structure look like an awful blot on the landscape?

To our huge relief, no it doesn’t: it looks as if it’s always been there, as if the old Blair House has sprung back into existence but new and better, part of the landscape under Dreish. Tom and Ollie the architects, Barry the builder and I scrambled around our creation feeling almightily pleased with ourselves.

It’s possible to start to get an idea of the vistas and glimpsed views you’ll get from inside it:

I work for Confor, a membership body for the forestry and timber industry, so I am excited to see the house being built from materials made by our member sawmills, and mainly from Scottish timber.

The joists are a special product called JJI’s made by James Jones sawmills, a clever design which allows you to bridge long spans without using steel or very expensive timber. The boards they are nailing on the roof are a breathable, insulating material made by Egger, who make all kinds of innovative products out of woodchip and sawdust: it’s likely they made your kitchen worktop.

I’ve now got an ‘interpretation board’ up on the site so people can see the story of the house, which apparently is getting a lot of interest from people going past. Do say hello if you’re one of the people who’s spotted it – either through the facebook page or email me at eleanormharris@gmail.com.


St John’s 200

About ten years ago, the Rector of St John’s Princes Street, the Edinburgh church where I sing in the choir, gathered together a very small group of us interested in history. The question was how to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the church in 2018. All of us expressed interest in different areas.

I was interested in the founding of the church, about which very little was known, and the result was my PhD, The Episcopal Congregation of Charlotte Chapel, Edinburgh, 1794-1818, which studied the congregation from its foundation until the point where they moved into St John’s in 1818.  It turned out to be a far more interesting group of people than I expected, and led me in all kinds of historical directions.

Now, the bicentenary year is upon us, and a much larger committee is organising all kinds of events. The first of these will be an exhibition of stories and pictures of people in the church. Here is a sneak preview of the stories I contributed of the first two rectors, whose acquaintance I very much enjoyed making in my studies.

Keep an eye on the St John’s Facebook and Twitter feeds for more information – and of course we must get a #StJohns200 twitter hashtag going.

St John’s in 1818, by James Skene

Bishop Daniel Sandford, 1766-1830

St John’s founder and first rector

Daniel Sandford was a junior member of a large and important family, the Sandfords of Sandford Hall, Shropshire.

His father died when he was young, and he was raised by his mother who was a member of the bluestocking circle of aristocratic female intellectuals, some of whom remained lifelong friends. Unlike some of their male counterparts in the universities, the female bluestockings never doubted that the intellectual enlightenment was compatible with Christian faith. This conviction became central to Sandford’s ministry.

It was also clear in all his writings that it never crossed his mind that women’s intellect might be in any way inferior to men’s. Of his seven children, four were girls, and his son John recalled how with his daughters he always ‘united tenderness with respect.’ This memoir was the last book read by the elderly Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was deeply impressed by this aspect of his character, and wrote that ‘I have never met with this remark in any other book’.

Equally formative for Sandford were the years he spent in Christ Church, Oxford. He specialised as a linguist, learning Greek and Hebrew when few clergy did. He retained a reputation for being a linguistic scholar all his life, and his sermons often hinge on the need for attention to linguistic detail to understand the true meaning of a text, instead of rushing to an opinion on the impression of a translation.

Oxford also inspired Sandford’s most lasting legacy. It was where he learned his love of gothic architecture, ancient liturgy, sacred music, the church year. After a 25 year ministry in Edinburgh, Sandford at last had the opportunity to recreate that worship experience, in the unlikely setting of a booming commercial, presbyterian, enlightenment Scottish city.

Sandford suffered from chronic rheumatic pain for much of his life, and perhaps because of this he could be cantankerous, fussy, anxious and unreasonable. Correspondence between exasperated vestrymen or fellow bishops record their efforts to ‘manage’ him in these moods. But he also had a wry wit, and a share in the high Regency sense of fun. He began collecting comic anecdotes late in life, which perhaps inspired his young assistant Edward Bannerman Ramsay to do the same.

Daniel Sandford

Dean Edward Bannerman Ramsay 1793-1872

St John’s second rector

Dean Ramsay is remembered as a ‘moderate’, which is often understood to mean he had no strong convictions. But this is a serious misunderstanding of the man chiefly responsible for building up the Episcopal Church from a tiny and amateurish ‘society’ into a significant denomination, and keeping it together in the face of serious threats of schism.

Between 1830 and 1872, episcopal churches were built all over Scotland, with a professionalised, trained and financially supported body of clergy. And again and again it was the energy, the practicality and organisation, the networking skills, and the detailed legwork of Dean Ramsay which brought these projects to fruition.

One of his last acts was to recruit an energetic and effective new bishop for Edinburgh, and to choose with him a design for St Mary’s Cathedral, which gave the Scottish Episcopal Church a diocesan structure equal to England for the first time.

Through the 1840s and 50s, partisan ‘tractarians’ and ‘evangelicals’ threatened schism if their demands to were not met, or if those of their opponents were. The mud they slung at Ramsay from both sides has damaged his reputation ever since, but his tireless work to keep the church together, and his deep distress at the episode, testify that he was far from a ‘lukewarm’ Christian.

While convinced episcopacy was the best form of Christianity, Ramsay refused to allow it was the only form, and therefore struck up ecumenical friendships and collaboration with anyone who would share the task of Christian evangelisation — beginning as a curate in Somerset with the local Methodists.

At St John’s, Ramsay’s ministry, like Sandford’s, was marked by a passion for education, and a conviction that the best way to preach the gospel was to teach people to think for themselves.

Whereas his most famous work is the Reminiscences of Scottish life and character, his most important was surely his Catechism for the Young Persons of St John’s, which ran into many editions and was used all over Britain. ‘The main object is, to make it the means of forming precise and correct ideas,’ he wrote in the introduction. Children learned through his catechism that to cultivate curiosity, and ask questions back instead of merely learning answers by rote, was to imitate Christ, who was found asking teachers questions as a child in the temple.

Edward Bannerman Ramsay

First floor rises

I went up on 21 December to see progress on Blair House before Christmas.

The ground floor is up which is very exciting. We had hoped to get the first floor and roof on before Christmas. But after being delayed by weather, the builder Barry decided not to risk leaving it half finished over the Christmas break. So he has been working on the timber frame in his workshop in Forfar, and it should be up by the time of my next visit in January.

Here are some photos plus a little video tour, featuring Barry discussing the staircase with Tom and Olly the architects, and Craig the QS counting up the many timbers. I’m just enjoying the view of Driesh and trying not to fall down between the joists.

New Blair House begins

It has been a very long journey, but after a great deal of planning and work by architects Tom Morton and Oliver Goddard, work has begun at last on New Blair House.

It has almost immediately been delayed again by snow, but work is still being done on the wooden construction in builder Barry Greenhill’s workshop so watch this space for more updates soon.




Tom and I also attended Tayside Landscape Partnership’s Building for Biodiversity conference in Perth on 9 November. This was the first conference of its kind, and as far as we are aware, Blair House is the first time anyone has tried to build a ‘biodiversity house’ in quite this way so it was great to be able to tell people about it.




Bee blindness

I’ve been thinking for ages about writing some articles about ecology and Christianity. But I’ve been so worried that the material about ecology for Christians would seem superstitious to the ecologists, and the material about Christianity for ecologists would seem heretical to the Christians, that I haven’t dared publish any of it. But all I really want to do is get people thinking, so on the basis that the most thought-provoking sermon is the awful, erroneous sermon, here is one about bees and Jesus. Follow the links for more information or source material.

Jesus, carpenter turned edgy stand-up comedian, told a silly story about a man with a plank in his eye, who patronisingly offered to take the speck of sawdust out of his colleague’s eye, despite the fact that he couldn’t see anything because he had a fucking great plank in his eye. (Luke 6.41-2)

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past year, ever since I read Dave Goulson’s book A Sting in the Tale in hospital, where as well as being cured of my physical ills I was enjoying an intense digital detox as my phone was broken and there was no WiFi. But what does Goulson’s tale of bumblebee adventures have to do with Jesus’s plank-man?

I’d always thought the pollinator crisis was about honeybee decline.

I didn’t know, in hospital, that a few weeks later I would begin working for Buglife, where my adventures with bumblebees would redouble. Not professionally, you understand: I’m only qualified to shuffle information and talk to people. But as soon as spring arrived, we would go out at lunchtime and start identifying things; and one of the easiest things to identify was bumblebees.

There are only six common sorts, and they wear distinctive strips like rugby players.

Red tailed bumblebees (all black with a red tail) and Common carder bees (brown or gingery) are easy. Buff tailed, White tailed and Garden look more similar and I never reliably distinguished them with their yellow-and-black stripes and a whitish tail. It took me a while to spot an Early bumblebee, black-and-yellow but with a gingery tail, and it felt like completing a collection when I did. And all before Pokemon Go even arrived.

Common carder bee on scabious, in the wildflower garden of Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh

There’s actually a seventh common sort now, the Tree bumblebee, with a ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail, which has moved in rapidly from Europe. Whereas most bumblebees nest in burrows under grassy tussocks, like rabbits, Tree bumblebees nest high up, like Blue tits – in fact they often take over their nest boxes.

Plank-man wasn’t the only story Jesus told about not being able to see. You know the phrase, “the blind leading the blind”? That’s one of his. The context was his friends warning him that he was starting to annoy influential people, to which he replied, “Leave them, they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matt 15.14)

I never said Jesus’ sense of humour was tasteful.

Bees have different roles within the colony, and I also learned a bit about distinguishing queens, workers and males. I knew before that queens are the huge ones, but I didn’t know workers could be tiny, tinier than you could imagine a bumblebee to be, little fluff-balls. Nor did I know that males generally have yellow faces, and never sting, although unlike my colleague Scott I haven’t yet been quite brave enough to test this by holding a yellow-faced bee for its portrait.


But these seven bumblebees are just the start. There are 24 UK species of bumblebee, and once you know the common ones you can tell when you’ve seen something more interesting. I spent a long time watching this Field cuckoo bumblebee and wondering what it was before another colleague Suzie enlightened me. Cuckoo bumblebees sneak into bumblebee nests, kill the queen, and let the workers raise their young.

Field cuckoo bumblebee
Field cuckoo bumblebee

Jesus was actually quite obsessed with blindness, so it’s not surprising there are so many stories of him healing physically blind people. Blindness is his central accusation against the religious teachers of the day, as in this extract from a tremendous rant:

“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, if anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple is bound by his oath. You fools! Which is greater, the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? Woe to you, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin – but you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23.16-24)

I never said Jesus was restrained.

But these 24 bumblebees are still just the start. Pollinating insects include over 200 species of solitary bees, over 250 species of wasp, as well as flies, butterflies, moths and even beetles. There are reckoned to be 1500 species of wild pollinator in the UK.

And yet, how many times when we are talking or thinking about “pollinators” do we say, or mean, “honeybees”? British honeybees are not 1,500 species, they are one species, Apis mellifera.

It was domesticated perhaps 10,000 years ago, and is not a natural part of our ecosystem, any more than an Aberdeen terrier, Herdwick sheep or Orpington chicken. Equating honeybees with pollinators is as if you were trying to tell someone about the diversity of UK mammals: Wildcat, Red squirrel, Badger, Otter, Harvest-mouse, Pine marten, Water vole, Weasel, Dormouse — but they insist on referring to them all as “sheep”. Except it’s 15 times worse because there are only 101 species of mammal in the UK, not 1,500.

Jesus didn’t make up this stuff about blindness. He got it from reading the prophets, like Isaiah, raging about the lazy, corrupt religious teachers of his day:

Israel’s watchmen are blind,
they all lack knowledge;
They are dogs with mighty appetites;
they never have enough.
They are shepherds who lack understanding;
they seek their own gain. (Isaiah 56.9-11)

I never said Jesus was original.

But why does this matter? It’s very interesting, of course, to know about Common carder bees and how to distinguish groups of hoverflies by the loops on their wings, but is this not somewhat arcane knowledge, like my arcane ability to recite that passage from Isaiah about human and environmental restoration:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. (Isaiah 35.5-7)

Eristalis hoverflies mimic bumblebees, and are distinguished by the prominent loop in the central vein near the tip of their wings.

It matters because we rely on pollinators to produce chocolate, strawberries, apples, tomatoes, carrots, cotton, peanuts, and much more: one in three mouthfuls of food, in fact.

And pollinators are under threat, from climate change, development (building houses and road etc), but most of all from intensive farming practices.

And when nature is under threat, its best defence is found in diversity. One pollinator which nests in sandy banks might go extinct, but one which nests in grass might survive. One whose grubs feed on thyme might go extinct, but one which feeds on dead-nettles might survive. A disease might wipe out one species, while another might be resistant. Nature is so complex, so full of factors we barely understand, that to rely on one species, honeybees, which did not even evolve to live here, is wilfully to blind ourselves to our own ignorance of what it is we are relying on.

We think we can march in and fix nature: “bees are declining! Start beekeeping! Hey we could be like Christian monks in the olden days!” when really we should be stepping back to let nature recover in its diversity. Over one summer, a 40-hive apiary will take enough pollen to feed four million wild bees; or in other words, four million wild bees, in all their resilient diversity, will starve: and if a disease were to come along that wiped out the honeybees, so will we.

The best blindness story about Jesus is the one where he heals a blind man, then the sceptical religious teachers come and investigate the healing. The blind man persists in calling a spade a spade, and the teachers insist he must be mistaken. It’s worth reading the whole story, (John 9) but it ends up with the teachers saying to Jesus, “What? Are we blind too?”, and Jesus saying, being blind does not make you culpable; but claiming you can see when you can’t makes you guilty.

Being a Christian does not mean being like Christian monks in the olden days: it means imitating Jesus.

The first step to imitating Jesus — along with forgetting about being tasteful, restrained, or original, and keeping your sense of humour — is taking the plank out of your eye: the plank of introverted obsession with human-made objects and human-made concerns and conventions, with which we have blocked out all knowledge of the rest of life.

The second step to imitating Jesus is to be a healer. I set up the Wild Reekie group to ‘discover and restore nature in Edinburgh’, which with the help of a little social media magic has resulted in over 150 people, mostly less knowledgeable about ecology than me (which isn’t saying much) coming to events to learn about it. We had lots of events over the summer looking at pollinators, and I had lots of fun passing on my newfound knowledge of the seven common bumblebees. But my favourite conversation was with the lady who wasn’t sure whether what she was looking at was a bee or a wasp.

“That one’s a hoverfly”, I said.
“Oh, so not very interesting,” she said.
“Not at all,” I said, “There are hundreds of species of hoverfly, they’re really interesting and very beautiful.”
“Oh — so they are interesting then!”

I don’t think she’ll ever see a hoverfly — or fail to see one — the same way again.

I didn’t even know how many species of hoverfly there are (283, according to the very good field guide); and my knowledge of why they’re interesting extends to a vague knowledge of a life cycle that begins with leathery things in muddy ponds.

An Early bumblebee posing for Wild Reekie at Lochend Park in Edinburgh

But all it had taken to discover that they’re very beautiful — meaningful — important — in Christian terminology, sacred — was looking at them: something I never really did before I was cured of blindness, and took out the plank, that week in hospital.


Follow me on Twitter @eleanormharris.

Meeting the Botanists

I had an exciting meeting today with David Knott, curator of collections at the Botanics; my friend Dr Alan Elliott also at the Botanics; Henry Marsh, former head of English at the Edinburgh Academy and Glen Doll botanist of 40 years; and Tom Morton of Arc Architects who is going to build the new Blair House.
We discussed how – without adding to budget or maintenance – we could design Blair House so as to grow some of the important shrubs, flowers, grasses, ferns, and mosses of Glen Doll on or around it.

My aim is to enable visitors to catch some of the excitement about Alpine catchfly, Woolly willow, Fragrant orchid, Silver ladies’ mantle or Blue sow-thistle which I catch when I talk to people like Henry, Alan or David.

Glen Doll is a nationally important habitat for species like these, but many of them can only be seen by scrambling up inaccessible cliffs, or hunting in remote corners of the plateau. Others are easy to walk to, but difficult to notice or identify without the help of an expert.

Blair House has the potential for providing an artificial cliff habitat, out of reach of grazing animals but within reach of people, to give a boost to the tiny populations of some of these plants, and to allow future generations of Glen Doll lovers to discover them.  
I’m also talking to Tom about making sure we replace the essential accommodation for swallows, martens, and three species of bats which the old Blair House provided.

I’m hugely grateful to Alan, David and Henry for getting involved and I’m very much looking forward to working with them on what will be a far longer project than the building of the house. As David said, the most important requirement for a project of this sort is patience. The story of the Forfar Botanists which Alan has helped tell began over 200 years ago; the story of the Blair House Botanists starts here…


You can follow Blair House on Facebook and follow me on twitter.

Blair House Redux

There’s one article I failed to post here, which made it on to the Facebook page, which was this. I hope everybody who knows Blair House has heard this news already, but what was more astonishing than the news was the little figure at the end which shows the number of people who read the story:


Over 11,000 people were interested in the news that Blair House had burned down! That’s some measure of what an important place it has been: and how important it is to restore.

I had hoped to enjoy a relatively peaceful summer, staying in the newly-restored Blair House and getting it ready to open. Instead, I have had a very busy few months arranging the demolition, securing the insurance, and appointing an architect. So here is the news, which gets better as it goes along:


The structure of the house became apparent in the fire. Blair House was an old whinstone (dry stone wall) structure with an added upper floor of old hand-made bricks, all strengthened by the harling and the internal structures.

Although very solid while it stood, once all the roof and floors had burnt out, the standing walls and chimneys were a very unstable skeleton. This was proved when the Friday before the demolition there was an unseasonal August gale, and part of the gable over the lab collapsed.

Blair House and Acharn farmhouse were demolished in the week beginning Monday 8 August – rendering all the maps out of date.


Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 09.07.35

We have salvaged a few things to reappear in the new Blair House as reminders of its predecessor.


Blair House was insured against fire for £400,000, but it was under-insured. I did take advice when setting the rebuild figure, but I guess not enough, as it was not a figure I ever expected to see again.

The insurance company agreed to give me the full amount in cash, to use how I saw fit, but this has to cover everything including demolition, architects’ fees, and the inflated cost of building a 20-bed field centre at the end of a long, narrow, winding road.


After interviewing four architects, and taking two of them to visit Blair House, I have appointed Tom Morton of Arc Architects in Cupar.  You can see examples of his work on his website.

Blair House is quite difficult to categorise or describe: a one-off piece of magic of people and place; and I was impressed by Tom’s ability to get the idea of it, and by the creativeness of our conversations about how it could be rebuilt.

Tom Morton checking out what remained of the old staffroom

What next?

Over the next few months I will be working with Tom to produce designs for a new Blair House. I hope the accommodation will be similar to what (when refurbished) it would have been, but it will look completely different – and will lose all its old inconvenient features!

I am also having discussions with potential collaborators about some very interesting ideas for biodiversity features: I will write more about this when they are further developed.

Last time around, I was shy of accepting donations for what I felt was a private exercise. As the process has gone on, and I’ve realised just how many people really are excited about the prospect of Blair House being restored, I’ve got far less proud about this, so if you’d like to contribute to new Blair House, do drop me a line (eleanormharris@gmail.com).

Please follow the facebook page for more informal updates, or let me know if you’d like to be added to the email mailing list.

The Great Bug Hug

In a weak moment, I’ve made my first bet — and I need your help to win it.

I work in Buglife Scotland, the invertebrates conservation charity. I bet my boss I could find them 100 new members in a year – so I’m hoping you might fork out £2 a month and join them.

Yesterday was fairly typical day in the office:

Craig, the head, is speaking to Radio Scotland, defending the rare Fonseca Seed Fly which inhabits dunes near Dornoch, threatened by a golf course.

“If it were pandas or tigers, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he’s saying. “This species is found only in Scotland: we have an international moral responsibility for it — and we have to speak up for it, because it can’t speak up for itself”.

Suzie leading a bug hunt on Arthur's Seat
Suzie leading a bug hunt on Arthur’s Seat

Gabby is out getting people doing a wood ant survey, #NestQuest. Suzie is also out creating green roofs and wildflower meadows on an invertebrate highway across the central belt, the John Muir Pollinator Way.

Scott, who’d probably rather be out on the 9000 year-old peat bog he is restoring, breaks off his day of wrestling spreadsheets to take me and David, the interns, for a lunchtime bug-hunt.

Lunchtime bug hunt with Scott and David
Lunchtime bug hunt with Scott and David

Buglife hosts lots of interns, and we emerge soaked in entomological expertise and enthusiasm. Both of us are tasked with passing that enthusiasm on to others: me to MSP Species Champions, and David to seemingly thousands of children.

Who knew that there are hundreds of species of micro-moth, of a dazzling array of beauty and cuteness? I thought they were just dusty things that ate one’s jumpers. I find different ones whenever I walk through long grass.

Who knew that Mayflies, those dangly things over rivers, come in over 50 British varieties: a fascinating and photogenic dancing creature, older than dinosaurs. Craig writes papers about them in his spare time.

An elegant Mayfly
An elegant Mayfly

But there’s one thing Buglife forget to speak up for: themselves. Almost without exception, when I tell people I work for Buglife, I’m met with blank looks.

This is not just a matter of modesty. Buglife is a member organisation. Having members gives it political clout — and when we are losing the environmental protection of the EU, when US investors are golf-coursing our dunes, when biodiversity is seemingly at the bottom of everyone’s political agendas — then having the weight of membership behind it is crucial.

Some of my micromoths
Some of my micromoths

Anyone who has followed Scottish and British party politics in the last few years knows how important membership is. Wildlife organisations are, in a sense, the political parties of non-human life: by joining them you lend them a great weight of endorsement.

Membership also means financial freedom. Membership funds provide the crucial core funding to pursue the unglamorous work that so often constitutes biodiversity protection. It’s hard enough for peat bogs and glow worms to compete with woodland and wildcat for funding and public awareness, never mind open mosaic habitat or the Manx Shearwater flea.

And so this was the soapbox I got up on one day in the office, when I bet Craig I could find 100 new members for Buglife in Scotland in a year.

A dinner is hanging on it.

More importantly my honour is hanging on it.

And much more importantly, 24,000 species, far more than are covered by any other conservation charity, are hanging on it (other invertebrate charities, covering the glamorous species such as butterflies and bumblebees, only cover around 1000 species). We have to speak up for them, because they can’t speak up for themselves.

So begins: the year of the Great Bug Hug.

So please join Buglife here. It will set you back £2 a month, somewhere between a bus ticket and a cup of coffee. It’s not all altruistic: you do get an excellent membership pack with invertebrate goodies.


And when you fill in the form, where it says, “Where did you hear about Buglife”, the answer is — Eleanor Harris.

And please tell your friends: on facebook, on twitter, in the pub, #BugHug — you know the stuff.

And thank you!

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Bain Bagging

Being up north last week gave me the opportunity to test out Clifton Bain’s The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland: A Companion Guide, by visiting one of the most northerly of the pinewoods in Glen Alladale.


You can read about this estate, which belongs to the enterprising and controversial Paul Lister in this article by Cameron MacNeish. My main aim was to test Clifton’s book, newly published in pocket format, and to enjoy exploring one of my favourite habitats, ancient pinewood.


I’m increasingly of the view that one should explore Scottish habitats according to the weather:

If it’s a sunny, blustery day, go to see the peat bogs sparkle.

If it’s cool with high cloud, hike up the Munros to see the alpines.

If it’s hot and sultry, go to a white-sand beach for a swim.

And if it’s rainy, go to the forest, which will shelter you and also looks its best in the rain. Just one excellent reason Scotland’s forests should be restored to a much larger extent.

20160704_131554Caledonian pine forests feel biodiverse. They buzz and flutter with things, and there’s always the hope of Red squirrels and Crossbills: I had an unconfirmed glimpse of the latter, a departing flash of crimson.


The book was all a companion guide should be: properly pocket-sized with a shower-proof cover doubling as a marker, with easily followed directions (designed so you can explore by public transport – but we didn’t), and a clear description. Ideally one would have the delicious coffee-table edition waiting back home, with the full text on the cultural heritage of these pine forests: the pocket version merely hints at a ‘sad tale of the Clearances’.

So begins the challenge of Bain Bagging: visiting all the ancient woods of Scotland. There are 38 pine forest to collect, and then there is the companion volume of the Atlantic Rainforests, which are all over Britain and Ireland.

I’m looking forward to collecting more, if I’m lucky enough to get wet days…