Whig matriarchs and tory missionaries: episcopalian women in early nineteenth-century Edinburgh

A Paper delivered to the Scottish Church History Society, 3 November 2018

Edinburgh at the beginning of the nineteenth century: the height of the Scottish Enlightenment, the start of the romantic period. Scotland is enjoying peace after years of Jacobite civil war, but the French Revolution has challenged the idea that progress will be plain-sailing. Science and invention are galloping ahead, but the social implications of industrial revolution are beginning to unfold. Having almost literally died out at the end of the previous century, the Scottish Episcopal Church is enjoying an extraordinary transformation and revival. How did women fit in to this world, and how did they help to shape it? I’m going to attempt to paint a group portrait of some of the women of the episcopal church, and catch a sense of how they conceived their own life and mission. 

Historiography 

Gender history in this period has been dominated by the ‘separate spheres’ debate. Davidoff and Hall argued that men and women in the 1830s had a more rigid idea of gender difference than their predecessors in the 1790s, under the influence of evangelical revival.(1) However, this narrative has been challenged by Amanda Vickery and subsequent studies, whose research suggested a continuity of experience of women and men, based on a shared understanding of the roles and relationships of genders, as of ranks, persisting through centuries, with considerable space for choice and self-expression within this framework. The collection of essays edited by Sue Morgan and Jacqueline de Vries, Women, gender and religious cultures in Britain, 1800-1940, is an important contributor to this revisionist narrative in terms of religious cultures. Closest to our subject is Jane Rendall’s study of the progressive daughters of Scottish Whig professors at the turn of the nineteenth century.(2)

Good ladies and the shadow of a shade

At the end of the eighteenth century, an important group sustaining a moribund Scottish episcopalianism were high-ranking, elderly Jacobite ladies. Whereas men faced business and political penalties for being episcopalian right up to 1792, women, largely excluded from business and politics, were under far less pressure to conform. As a young English clergyman newly arrived in Edinburgh, Daniel Sandford was disconcerted by an old lady ‘in the habit of starting from her knees during the most solemn parts of divine service’, because she maintained that ‘prayer for the house of Hanover […] was little short of sacrilege’.(3) It might have been Margaret Hay, aged eleven when her father was Bonnie Prince Charlie’s treasurer, an ‘old lady kind and venerable’, whose funeral in 1814 took Sandford to the old burial ground of nonjuring episcopalians in Restalrig; or Margaret Urquhart, whose father never ceased to give thanks for the special divine favour which preserved him from slaughter at Sheriffmuir and capture at Clova.(4)

For a generation brought up on David Hume’s political economy, this episcopalian belief in a God who appointed rightful kings (demonstrably unsuccessfully) seemed evident nonsense; for a generation exploring John Sinclair’s Statistics, the idea of divine interventionism was testable and disprovable. ‘Grown up people talked at this time of nothing but the French Revolution and its supposed consequences; younger men of good education were immersed in chemistry and political economy’, wrote Henry Cockburn, explaining how religion had been out of fashion in his youth.(5) In 1807 William Forbes, head of arguably the most important family in Scottish episcopalianism, published an edited collection of anti-enlightenment episcopalian writings. It was reviewed by Francis Jeffrey and Walter Scott, who concluded that the work had been ‘dandled into popularity by bishops and good ladies, […] though made up of such stuff, as we really believe no grown man […] could possibly go through without nausea and compassion.’(6) In the face of enlightenment thinking, episcopalian teachings had come to look childish to university-educated men. The result was, as his successor recalled, ‘The late Bishop Sandford told me that when he first came to Edinburgh […] few gentlemen attended church […] Sydney Smith […] seeing how almost exclusively congregations were made up of ladies, took for his text […] “O that men would therefore praise the Lord!” and […] laid the emphasis on the word “men”.’(7) 

Whig matriarchs

I’ll come back to how the episcopal church responded, but first I want to explore the male chauvanist dark side of the Enlightenment at which the quote about ‘good ladies’ hints. 

Several Edinburgh lawyers and businessmen in the whig Edinburgh Review circle had their children baptised in Sandford’s episcopal chapel, which was not only fashionable, but the most convenient place of worship if you lived in Charlotte Square. But, as Henry Cockburn had said, they were not demonstrably religious. Their worldview was classical republicanism: the ‘Athens of the North’. In public life this meant free exchange of ideas, extension of privilege, and meritocracy: the French Revolution without the Terror. What I found striking about this group, highly educated but not the academics studied by Rendall, was that, while they preached equality, they seemed to be modelling a more patriarchal and gendered way of life than their predecessors, successors or opponents. I found it difficult to find out much about the wives of these men, and what I did find did not provide much support for Jane Rendall’s picture of enlightened women engaged in social improvement and activism. It is not a new insight that ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’ tended to masculinise politics, by replacing the old aristocratic informal networks of influence with meritocratic processes; but what is perhaps more surprising is the gendering of these classical whigs’ domestic life. 

A group of these young whig Charlotte Square families, keeping Daniel Sandford busy in baptisms, met for dinner at one of their new houses in 1809: ‘Fine country butter and country honey and country bread, slaked with […] cups of tea with cream from our own cow‘ as Henry Cockburn reported they boasted proudly.(8) Cockburn ‘set up his rural household gods’, as he put it, two years later, ‘and’, he wrote, ‘unless some avenging angel shall expel me, I shall never leave that paradise.’ He planted trees and wrote odes in the style of Horace on his Pentland Linn. ‘Every thing […] is my own work, and to a great extent the work of my own hands,’ he wrote.(9) This was the generation associated with agricultural improvement and Scotland’s first reforestation movement. Fruitful fields and a fruitful wife, a lavish landscape and homely hospitality, peace, plenty, and the pursuit of happiness in a promised land: this was the classical ideal of the generation which followed David Hume, in his own Edinburgh just as in America. 

The wives of these whig patriarchs had a clear role: raising their children, and spending their money. Domestic happiness made for numerous children. Elizabeth Cockburn had 11 (‘read Malthus every nine months’, Henry wryly and ineffectually schooled himself as he awaited the eighth and wondered how he would provide for them all). Elizabeth’s sister Isabella, who married Henry’s friend Thomas Maitland, had 9. Another who had been at the ‘cream from our own cow’ party, Helen Tod, had 12. 

Another characteristic legacy, literally, was numerous keepsakes described in loving detail in their wills: ‘my Brussels lace scarf’, ‘the bracelet and locket of Malakite’, ‘my Topaz ring set in pearl’, ‘the portrait of a lady by Georgione’, ‘a landscape by Hobbina’, ‘Blue china jars are Jane’s[,] the hexagons I wish Graham to have’, ‘Your father’s the best likeness I ever saw should be Archie’s’, ‘The bust of my beloved Maitland is Stuart’s, also the china table, the Aberdeen stand, the blue Christening jug and bowl’, ‘The small silver tea pot I give to Graham. The short silver candlesticks I would wish to be given to my dear James’ boy, that if spared he may know he had a grandfather who gave them to his grandmother the day he was made a judge.’(10) These objects, testament to the material success of the whig men, were chiefly important to the women for their associations. As Helen Tod wrote, ‘I think my children will kindly value them as remembrances from me and associated with their early, or home recollections.’(11)

This generation of whigs, buying acres, building houses, filling them with china and paintings, commissioning portraits and sculptures, and dressing in Brussels lace and jewels, were undoubtedly materialistic, but their wealth had a very particular meaning and purpose. It was not for show: in public life they dressed unostentatiously and had a relatively small Edinburgh establishment, and all this luxury was kept hidden in the country. Nor was it for power, which they were ideologically committed to being earned through wit and merit. Rather, it was for its associations: it was the stuff of happiness. One of the Edinburgh Whigs, Archibald Alison, was an episcopal clergyman, slightly older than Daniel Sandford. His essays on ‘Associationism’ made his name as Britain’s leading philosopher of aesthetics. His lesson, which he recognised had the good classical genealogy of Platonism, was that ‘Matter is not beautiful in itself, but derives Beauty from the Expression of MIND.’(12) ‘it was impossible to hear Alison preach without being moved and delighted’, said Henry Cockburn. Alison ‘made me truly see what was before me’.(13) Each of the many objects cherished by these whig families was imbued with happy memories: of a loving relationship, of a happy holiday, of a public success, or a private commitment. 

Tory missionaries

I’ve said lot elsewhere about Daniel Sandford’s work to reinvent that moribund Scottish episcopalianism for this modern society which seemed to be rejecting Christianity in favour of Horace and Plato. This reinvention combined three elements. First, an evangelical emphasis on the equal call of every person to an active mission, in contrast to the old episcopalian hierarchical, mystical providentialism. Second, a sacramentalist reassurance of regeneration through baptism, in opposition to presbyterian Calvinist predestination. Both of these aligned his denomination with the enlightenment mood of optimism, progress and personal fulfilment and choice. Third, a development of the episcopalian traditions of fast, festival, liturgy and sanctuary: structuring the church year, the church service, the church building with poetic, choreographic, musical and architectural elements which reinfused Scotland’s plain, cerebral religious landscape with the art and heart of the romantic movement. 

What my previous papers have not emphasised enough, is how much I think Sandford was the conduit for women’s ideas. His father died in his infancy, and he was brought up by his mother and by her support network who were the original Bluestocking circle. These remarkable women, some of whom lived to great ages, oversaw his upbringing and remained his friends throughout his life. Whereas from the outside, the Bluestockings were regarded with suspicion — too aristocratic, trying too hard to make a point, pretentious, inelegant — Sandford, on the inside, seems simply to have absorbed their worldview. And the lessons I think Sandford learned from the Bluestockings were that women’s minds were just as powerful as men’s; that there was no conflict between religion, enlightenment and art, and that party conflicts were artificial and damaging dualities obscuring unified divine truth. This case deserves a fuller argument, but today I want to move on from the women who influenced Sandford, to the women that he influenced in turn, who went on to amplify his message through considerable influence of their own.

The women of the next generation of Scottish episcopalians, brought up in Sandford’s congregation, left very different wills to those of their whig sisters. Jane Duff, the wife of one of Sandford’s closest supporters, made her will ’trusting in the mercies of my Blessed Redeemer that when I am drawing near to my great change I will be supported by him & that my mind may be free from worldly anxiety’.(14) The wealthy Falconar sisters left legacies to a hundred Edinburgh charities, and a thousand pounds to its two episcopal churches; while Barbara and Mary Walker left their wealth to found Edinburgh Cathedral. Whereas the whig women’s wills look backwards and inwards, to little treasures which recall loved ones and happy times in the past, the tory episcopalian wills look forward: towards heaven for themselves and to the social good that their wealth can do after their death.

It was not just so in wills. When Sandford’s daughter Francis married his curate and they moved to London to become urban missionaries, she was no stay-at-home wife or consigned to the more domestic side of the project: she sought her father’s advice on how best to argue with parishioners who had been reading Tom Paine, while her husband ‘attend[ed] the sick poor, and hear[d] their little story, and relieve[d] their wants.’(15)

Anne and Alice Mackenzie, daughters of a close friend of Sandford, became assistants to their brother when he was made Bishop of Central Africa. Anne, who went on to edit a missionary periodical, looked backwards not to recall fond associations, but to criticise: ‘she doubted whether there was much real religion’ in her family as children, their ostensibly fervent episcopalianism ‘consisting in thinking ourselves superior to our Presbyterian neighbours’.(17)

The aristocratic women whom I discussed in my last paper to this society, who competitively founded tractarian churches south of Edinburgh in the 1840s, seem similarly motivated by a desire to exercise their wealth in shaping the world. 

Catherine Sinclair, daughter of that John Sinclair the statistician, grew up in Sandford’s Sunday School. She became an author of children’s stories filled with lively, mischievous, curious, active, self-critical and high-principled girls and boys who are finding their way to becoming forces for good in the world. 

Margaret Douglas Clephane and Spencer Compton were married by Bishop Sandford in 1815. Both were poets, giving us a glimpse into their thought-worlds. Compton’s poems, for all their romantic imagery of wild Highlands, remained in the arcadian, assocationist tradition. Margaret was more original. Her paraphrase of the opening of the book of Ezekiel might have been inspired by Sandford’s lesson to young people that that the Psalms were ‘inspired compositions of the greatest sublimity and piety’(17)

I saw—and lo! a whirlwind from the North
Came rolling on—cloud above cloud, and fire,
Now flashing dim and lurid through the dark,
Now brightly issuing to enwrap the storm
In one vast blaze!
And high
O’er all—bright as the firmament—invisible
From overpowering brightness—sat the Likeness
Man was created from.(18)

I never like the word feminist, especially when it is anacronistic, but it is difficult to think of another word for Margaret’s major narrative poem Irene, which explores the impact of ‘man’s inconstancy’ on women. 

These ‘tory episcopalian’ women were not content to seek fulfilment in domestic happiness and prosperity. Whereas their episcopalian mothers and grandmothers had longed for the return of the divinely-appointed Bonnie Prince, these women internalised, developed and modelled their own divine, regal mission. 

Conclusion

I argue in line with Morgan and de Vreis, that Davidoff and Hall were right that evangelicalism was transformative for women between 1790 and 1830, but not by putting them in a restricted sphere; rather by making them determined to break out of it. Jane Rendall and I have painted very different pictures of women in early nineteenth-century Edinburgh, based on very small samples. And both our papers focus on the higher ranks: most of the women I encountered in my study of Sandford’s congregation are merely glimpsed struggling to survive life, not musing on its meaning. There is a lot more work to be done to understand their world. 

It is difficult for me to be objective about this history, because I’m a direct product of the world I’ve been describing. I grew up in Daniel Sandford’s church, my father taught at the boys’ school Henry Cockburn founded to teach Greek and Latin, and my own school, St Georges, was founded in 1888 by women who were members of the Edinburgh episcopal church which Sandford revived: Sarah Mair, Charlotte Carmichael, Anne Dundas. The gamble that I have described these early nineteenth-century women facing — between risking imprisonment or happiness in rational materialism; and risking madness or holiness in a restless, heroic mission — precisely reflects the gamble in which I find I frame my own life. How far they have shaped me, or how far I have reshaped them, will be something for the next generation of Edinburgh historians to debate. 

REFERENCES

1.  Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850 (revised edition) (Routledge, London, 2002) p.75.

2.  Jane Rendall, ‘“Women that would plague me with rational conversation”: aspiring women and Scottish Whigs, c.1790-1830’ in Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor (eds), Women, gender, and Enlightenment (Palgrave MacMillan 2005) PP.326-347.

3. John Sandford, Remains of the late Right Reverend Daniel Sandford, vol. 1, (Edinburgh: Waugh and Innes, 1830) p. 45. 

4. Margaret Hay’s Will, National Archives of Scotland SC70/1/11/583; Francis Grant, Register of burials in the Churchyard of Restalrig 1728-1854 (Scottish Record Society, Edinburgh 1908); James Grant, Old and New Edinburgh (London, Cassell, 1880s) vol.5 p.13; H. Gordon Slade, ‘Craigston Castle, Aberdeenshire’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 108 (1976), 262–300. 

5. Henry Cockburn, Memorials of his time (T.N.Foulis, Edinburgh and London 1909) p.40-41.

6. [Walter Scott and Francis Jeffrey] `An Account of the Life and Writings of James Beattie, by Sir W. Forbes of Pitsligo’, Edinburgh Review, April 1807 vol.10 pp.171-199.

7. Edward Bannerman Ramsay, Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character (Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1857) p. 57. 

8. Alan Bell, Lord Cockburn: Selected Letters (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2005) p. 28 (Cockburn’s italics). 

9. Henry Cockburn, Memorials, p.242.

10. National Records of Scotland wills: Jane Anderson, SC70/4/107/437; Elizabeth MacDowell; Isabella MacDowell.

11. Helen Duff’s will, National Records of Scotland, SC70/1/164/755.

12. Archibald Alison, Essays on Taste, p.410-11.

13. Cockburn Memorials p.290; Karl Miller, Cockburn’s Millenium (London: Duckworth, 1975) p.162. .

14. Jane’s Inventory National Records of Scotland SC70/1/58/701.

15. Sandford, Remains p.364.

16. Frances Awdrey, An Elder Sister. A short sketch of Anne MacKenzie and her Brother the Missionary Bishop (London, Bemrose and Sons, 1878).

17. Sandford, Sermons for young persons, p.264. 

18. Spencer Compton, Lord Northhampton, The Tribute: a collection of miscellaneous unpublished poems by various authors (London, John Murray, 1837) p.54-57.

Turf, clay and timber

Like all the best grand designs, Blair House has had one delay after another over the summer: the special heat exchange system took a long time to come from Germany, the drought over the summer halted the turf wall as it was too hard to cut, and some eager bats moved in to the roof before we were ready for them. But last week I went up to find work progressing again at last, the house looking beautiful, and hopefully on track to be finished before the end of the year. Photos and more details below:

The larch cladding, ‘moss substrate’ roof, solar panes and Ventive heat exchange system are all in place:

 

Barry’s staircase is in: he built the bottom flight one day, and fitted it in the afternoon, and the same with the top flight the following day. Getting the dimensions right took weeks of planning, though! The corner window is in too, and today’s discussion was how the wee library and window seat will be built around it.

 

The insertion of the corner window had to be scheduled around not one but two broods of Swallows who fledged amongst the timbers upstairs. You can see the nest just above Barry and Tom’s heads:

We’ll all be competing for the window seat though…

 

The current major piece of work was putting clay plaster onto the walls that are not already built from clay block. This made the whole place smell like a stable, but this should not be a permanent state of affairs and the effect is magical. It should also be very good for regulating the temperature and humidity inside.

 

Those essential Blair House places like the drying room, porch, kitchen serving hatch and huge bookcase are taking their new shapes:

 

Outside, work will soon be restarting on the turf wall, which has already been colonised by at least three species of moss:

 

Timber is being harvested up the Kilbo path, so wagons were dashing up and down outside bringing out the materials to build the next house:

While having our site meeting in the caravan we noticed Blair House seems to have become a stopping point of considerable excitement for walkers and groups on tour with the ranger. I’m glad I put a notice outside:

 

As I work for a membership organisation for the forestry and timber industry, Confor, I was pleased to see products from at least four of our members going into the house: a breathable board called panelvent from Egger in Hexham, ‘oriented strand board’ from Norboard in Inverness, ‘JJI’ joists and sawn timber from James Jones in Lockerbie, and sawn timber from Glennons in Troon. The larch cladding is very local, from Rosemill sawmill near Edzell.

 

Now we wait for the plaster to dry, build the balcony, finish the turf wall, and get the inside fitted out. It will be worth the wait!

 

Roofed

Despite a huge amount of time lost to snow, Blair House is making good progress and this week I arrived to find the roof going on.

Inside, my new heat exchange system had arrived, which should allow the air in the building to stay warm and fresh largely through passive solar gain and the people inside it. Olly the architect made friends with the dalek while the builder and I discussed the possibilities for adding a sink plunger and egg whisk…

Round the south side, the solar PV panels were going on, leading to a long discussion as to whether they should be portrait or landscape. The man on the roof is playing an important role modelling a dalek, I mean heat-exchanger, to demonstrate that they panels will not get in its way.

The larch cladding and windows are looking lovely on the west end: achieving the appearance of ‘studied randomness’ was a lot more difficult than it looks.

Inside, my favourite view of Craig Rennet is appearing in the little bedroom:

… and the window seat on the staircase is being cut out of the east end. I can’t wait to see this next time.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.
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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.  
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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…

Eleanor

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