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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Caledonian 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…
The combination of a showery bank holiday and an exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland gave me a chance to revisit my first old artistic love, the art of the Celts.
There was knotwork of course, and the point was made that this is really characteristic of Anglo-Saxons rather than Celts, something I discovered in Jarrow and Hexham.
But what I really enjoyed was the oldest stuff. One thing I discovered was that those naif figures which populate the Book of Kells and the like are not intrinsic to celtic art, it’s just that the Irish monks were useless at portraiture. This penny-sized face, one of dozens circling around a horse harness, is a perfectly good portrait of a pretty Czech girl, hammered from bronze when Nehemiah was busy rebuilding Jerusalem.
There were also better examples than I’ve seen before of designs which evoke animals without feeling the need to copy them literally. This ‘deep’ art was a big theme of the exhibition, and contrasted with the literal naturalism of the Mediterranean.
The depth of the designs was full of fun with fractals: the London bird above had a similar tiny bird flying inside its wing; and there was a spectacular torque from Germany with two bulls’ heads, each head wearing a little torque. Did the little torques have little bulls’ heads each wearing tiny torques? The large glass cases and low light levels didn’t let us find out.
But I think my favourite bit of design on this occasion was this French pot, clearly influenced by Greek pottery but overrun by a bonkers celtic herd of nested, rotated, spiralled, extended deer:
One of the disappointing things about this Edinburgh exhibition, as so often, was the lack of content compared with a London one. I had taken my paintbox in the hope of getting out some colour, but there was hardly any enamelwork, and the two monastic manuscripts were unfortunately placed horizontally in vertical display cases so that it was impossible to see the designs in any detail. I did find this bronze bit, however, with what I thought was just the right pleasing celticy combination of trumpet, spiral, boss and enamel.
I liked the final section on celtic revival, and I was very glad to see the great decipherer of knotwork George Bain mentioned: I have spent hours and hours amongst the pages of his book (although I’m horrified to see his Wikipedia page features an incorrect knot!). However, I’d forgotten, if I knew, that the man who invented Edinburgh Living Landscape 100 years before it was invented, Patrick Geddes, was also a great celtic revivalist. Goodoh.
We took a new route to Blair House this week, coming round north of Kirriemuir, which gave us a star Macintosh-Patrickesque view straight up the glen.
What I didn’t know taking this photo was that somewhere on top of that ridge of hills, Barry the builder was taking the opportunity to walk the 15 miles up Glen Clova from the Airlie Monument (on the far left) to Blair House, to be picked up by his man with the van and taken home for tea.
Meanwhile the man, with the van, wrestled all day repairing dodgy harling which has suffered from damp creeping in under the upstairs windows. This issue which should be resolved with some improvised slate windowsills.
By the afternoon, he was building up layers of cement over the damaged brickwork. Plenty of work for the painting parties to do in May!
Inside everything was progressing including doors, toilets, and the new kitchen. The units are white, not blue, but they have plastic covers on:
Outside, Glen Doll has burst into flower.
Of course I was getting more excited by the moss in the woods by Whitewater. The stuff on the right is ordinary Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus, which takes over your lawn, but I think the stuff on the left is Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus, similar in its bad-hair-day look, but much bigger:
Here it is under the hand-lens, with its red stem and wild spikey leaves:
I also pinned down two varieties of Polytrichum: this one is Polytrichum commune, the characteristic starry green mounds you see in the woods (apologies for the photo):
While this, which was growing all in amongst it, is Polytrichum strictum, like miniature bullrushes:
There were also lots of particularly furry grey mosses, their long hairs designed to condense mist. I think this one might be Grimmia trichophylla:
And this even wilder one might be Racomitrium heterostichum:
There were also rocks curtained with this one, like miniature pale-green ferns, which I think is Hypnum jutlandicum:
I didn’t have time to identify this bright brindled one up a tree:
Why is moss so interesting, particularly in Glen Doll? Because it is one of the richest forms of life in the area. There were scores or hundreds of varieties around us. They love the damp woodland and clean air of the glen and are an indicator of the healthy, undisturbed habitat. Also with my love for tiny, intricate, secret shapes and colours, I think their miniature, hidden worlds are particularly beautiful. And because I’m lazy, I like the fact that they’re very easy to spot and sit still for photographs.
But oh, all right, I’ll leave you with a flowering plant. There are Primroses innumerable.
I have dragged myself away from my friend Lucy Lawrie’s new story, The Last Day I Saw Her, to write a much-needed update on Blair House. Lucy was my great Blair House childhood friend and we have been longing to get back there together for years. And The Last Day I Saw Her, I discover, has a starring role for one Glen Eddle, a place of forests, rivers, crags, friendship, peace, and idyllic childhood holidays. I think my picture dated November 1987 of charging through a conifer plantation on a treasure hunt fits Lucy’s descriptions better than the elegant girls actually on the cover…
Meanwhile, the refurbishment of Blair House is coming on excellently. I went up today with Dad and found the tops turning white:
The builders are going to finish the inside before doing various bits of work on the outside, which means we can get in and start painting and moving back in much earlier than I anticipated, in May! Opening in June?!
Showers are appearing: this one replacing the bath in the downstairs bathroom, and one in a new shower room upstairs. George Harris exploring in the background:
The basin has been refitted in the big bedroom – after my sister pointed out it was really handy for families with small children. And a new toilet and an old door are just hanging out there chatting:
New windows and cupboards everywhere: these are in the former scullery, now hopefully a more convenient entrance:
This platform is solving the health-and-safety hazard which was coming straight out of the porch door and down two concrete steps. It has already been christened the Knitting Platform:
Not everything is new. Most of the doors have been put back this week: I like the way this one has “keep” pencilled on it, and still has its number 10 on it. When we are painting I think these old numbers may just have to be preserved!
The old kitchen is the new drying room/ coats room. It has also gained a cupboard thanks to a kitchen unit muddle.
I’m sorry I haven’t got a picture of the kitchen going in: it was full of builders sitting around the fire. It looks good though: I will definitely take a picture next week.
I’m hugely grateful to the builders Barry Greenhill and his team from Forfar who are making it all happen so efficiently and cheerfully.
Lady’s Mantle and turf-moss in the snow in the garden.
And if you’ve ever stayed at Blair House – or lived in Edinburgh – or wish you had – I think you’re going to like Lucy’s book.