Memories and Anticipations

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.

More Blair House photos and updates on the Facebook page.

Eleanor Harris

Green Gold

As the author of their recent report on Gender and Diversity in Scottish Forestry, I was invited by Confor (the forest industry body) to their Scotsman Conference in the National Gallery this morning. This brought together foresters, academics and politicians, chaired by the irrepressible Muriel Gray, like me a self-declared forest addict.

Plant More Trees

The conference was opened with what Muriel Gray described as a hand-grenade from Raymond Henderson of agribusiness consultant Bidwells, who pointed out that in 2013-15, only 3000ha of productive forestry was planted in Scotland. Scotland is 8 million ha, so to increase forest cover from 18% to 19% requires three areas the size of Edinburgh. The target for new forest by 2022 is 100,000ha, or four Edinburghs. Stuart Goodall, head of Confor, pointed out that there is no point planting new land unless you are also re-stocking felled areas (if you have travelled through the Scottish countryside recently you will know a huge amount of felling is going on), and statistics on this are sketchy. Keep an eye on this: it is important.

The City of Edinburgh area (marked here) is 26,000ha.

Jo O’Hara, head of the Forestry Commission in Scotland, said that woodland creation is the hardest part of her job: there is such a legacy of the mistakes of the ’70s and ’80s, and even then, planting rates didn’t reach 16,000ha per year.

Jo O’Hara’s slide showing forestry planting (conifer in blue, broadleaved in red) by decade since the 1970s. The line at the top is 16,000ha.

There was good news too: Andrew Vaughan, a regional manager with Tillhill forestry company, provided an inspiring case-study of their new planting scheme at Jerrah above Menstrie in the Ochils. Jerrah resulted in 1.3 million trees of 16 species over 583 hectares, and two PhDs.


Raymond Henderson identified a major problem with the grant and regulatory system as the reason so little forest had been planted. Andrew Vaughan pointed out that to deliver planting targets will require many Jerrahs, and under current regulation this would require Environmental Impact Assessment documentation amounting to three Bibles. Tillhill is working on another scheme, Hawkhill: the new Forth Bridge will be built within the time it takes Hawkhill to go through the regulatory process.

Green Gold

This phrase was coined by Professor Sean Smith, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Construction at Napier. The representatives of the forestry industry in the room were delighted with it, so prepare to hear it more often. Andrew Heald, Technical Director of Confor, pointed out that Between 2008 (the start of the recession) and 2015, there was a 50% growth in Scottish forestry jobs.

Sean pointed out that a modern timber-frame house has energy bills one seventh of the Scottish average. Faced with the need to design for climate change, wood is capable of far more resilient constructions in the face of high winds than other materials. The fact that the new Edinburgh school wall which fell down in Storm Gertrude was brick was no coincidence.

Andrew Heald wanted to challenge the perception that Scottish timber is used to make toilet roll when it is mainly used in construction. Imagine growing a crop, he said, which needs no fertilizer or maintenance, grows on poor soil, for which demand’s set to double, which produces a construction material in a landscape which people want to go mountainbiking in – and does carbon capture and storage in the process. You wouldn’t go mountainbiking in a brickworks.

Public engagement

The panelists were in agreement that the forestry industry has learned from the regulatory mistakes of the past, and now must learn from the PR mistakes of the past. Jo O’Hara said that there are over 90 million visits a year to Scottish woodlands. Yet Andrew Heald pointed out that few of those 90 million come away with any idea that they have been in the midst of a £1bn industry, of green gold: many do not realise forests such as Glen Tress are productive at all.

Andrew Vaughan said that, according to the authorities, 100,000 people a year look over the Jerrah site from the top of Dumayat, but very few turn to look that way because they are all looking at the spectacular view of the Forth Valley. Yet the Jerrah scheme had to be redesigned so as not to be visible from Dumayat, or indeed to anyone looking at the Ochils by telescope from Edinburgh. He was making a point about the amount of design work required to satisfy regulations, but some of us environmentalists at the back muttered to each other that it was a shame the opportunity was not taken to re-educate people’s perceptions of the Scottish landscape, by allowing them a glimpse of a well-designed productive forest.

City trees: Princes Street Gardens on the way to the conference

The same point emerged from Sean Smith’s presentation: he showed new timber-frame houses replacing inefficient old ones on an estate in Fife, and celebrated the fact that despite their innovative building material they look like ‘traditional’ twentieth-century harled masonry. Is wood so ugly we really need to hide it away like this?

83% of Scots agree with the statement that a lot more trees should be planted. I was pleased Andrew Heald mentioned my project Wild Reekie, aimed at ordinary city types — those 83%, in fact — as an example of the kind of public engagement the forestry sector ought to be doing. It’s the kind of engagement I, as an environmentalist, also think we ought to be doing so I’m delighted to see a £1bn Scottish industry getting behind it.

Elizabeth Barron-Majerik, head of the Scottish School of Forestry, gave an important presentation on protecting the industry’s skills base, and reversing the declining knowledge of the sector amongst young people. She did exactly what I did when writing my Gender and Diversity report: google for ‘diversity in forestry’:

Google search for ‘diversity in Scottish forestry’

Whereas I had then tried another search term, Elizabeth used the recommendations she found for growing a diverse forest as analogies for growing a diverse forestry sector. For example, in a forest you plant closely and then thin it out: similarly, forestry education should aim to have a large intake, including many people who will never become foresters, who will take their knowledge and skills into other sectors. One of her recommendations I thought particularly interesting was to develop a forestry equivalent of STEM ambassadors going into schools.

This need for education was the theme of my Diversity and Gender report which people picked up in coffee-break conversations. One suggestion I liked was to revive the Guides forestry badges.

Sheep and Water

The conference gained a buzz from the fact that the importance of forestry in Scottish upland land-use has been high on the public agenda recently, both in terms of natural flood prevention, and of diversification for sheep farmers.

Jo O’Hara mentioned the support given a few weeks ago by the National Sheep Association to productive forestry in the Scottish uplands, which she sees as a huge breakthrough and accompanied by a significant change of mood.

Andrew Vaughan talked about the potential of Jerrah for reducing flooding in Menstrie. Historic farming practices had created 96km of drainage ditches linking into the Menstrie Burn: no wonder it floods. It is obvious to anyone who has walked through a wood after rain and seen a raindrop hanging on every needle, that once a forest grows up to ‘canopy closure’, runoff from a heavy rainstorm will be enormously slowed. But long before that, the modern skills in designing drainage ditches to drain ‘uphill’, and into wetland areas rather straight into the river, should be a huge improvement on the previous improved grassland.

A larch forest preventing rain reaching the ground.

Another great case-study, of the Eddleston Water Project, was presented by Hugh Chalmers of the Tweed Forum.

Who is my community?

There were presentations on community engagement from Rural Development Consultant Amanda Bryan and Fergus Tickell, chair of the Argyll Timber Transport Group which focused on the rural community. Yet to me, this is not addressing the 70% of us who live in the Central Belt — those of us who ‘want more forests’, ‘think Scottish timber is made into toilet paper’, and have a vague dislike of conifers. The divide between the populated, urban central belt and the rural north, west coast and south is so great in Scotland, and so important to forestry, that it needs to be identified and discussed.

With my ‘diversity’ hat on, I thought the rural-urban divide was particularly evident on the political panel. Andy Wightman (Green) is a candidate for the Lothians, but Claudia Beamish (Labour), Alex Fergusson (Conservative) and Jim Hume (Liberal Democrat) are all MSPs in the South Scotland region while Michael Russell (SNP) is MSP for nearby Argyll and Bute. They were also mostly members of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee.

It was striking, and cheering for those of us who like consensus, how far the political panel were in agreement with each other and with the foresters. Michael Russell said the two top priorities for the next parliament should be reducing the bureaucracy involved in new planting schemes, and improving deer control. The other parties were generally in agreement. I was surprised that the only spontaneous applause from this rural industry was for the Green, Andy Wightman, who said that instead of having a Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, who claims to ‘represent farmers’, with an Environment Minister underneath, there should be a Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, with Agriculture and Forestry Ministers underneath.

But I did wonder, how many of the urban colleagues of that well-informed and consensual cross-party panel would understand or care about the timber industry, natural flood management, or ensuring planting or re-stocking targets are met? Was this a ‘forestry interest’ just talking to itself? It’s the politicians who have the strong links into the rest of society, and so this is my challenge to them: over the election period and in the next parliament, to get their central belt colleagues out into the woods with some of those forward-thinking foresters — or their party risks getting left behind at the place where £1bn industry meets environmental crisis.

Before you go, spend two minutes watching the new Confor video — and make sure you go into a wood next weekend…

Eleanor Harris is a historian and environmentalist. She can be found @eleanormharris or on her rather out-of-date website at

Refurbishment underway

It’s taken 18 months, at least 7 experts (the Bat and Freshwater Pearl Mussel ecologists were my favourites), at the serious illnesses of 2 of the team to get to this point, but Blair House is at last being refurbished. The contractor is Barry Greenhill of Forfar and he is due to finish in early summer, after which it will be over to me and my eager volunteers to get it painted and ready to reopen.

Please follow the Blair House page on Facebook for updates and photos over the coming weeks.
Discussing gutters with Barry
New car park in progress – and in use – it will have grass over it eventually
Everywhere has been insulated to within an inch of its life. This is the plumber and I discussing refurbishing and re-fitting the old washroom sinks (behind me) in new places.
Two varieties of interesting wallpaper which appeared in a bedroom!
Creating an upstairs bathroom: out with the old immersion heater; in with a new door.
Re-plumbing, re-wiring, insulation, door re-hanging: it was like DIY SOS!
New (unfinished) platform in the porch, dictated by the need to prevent the scenario of coming out of the door and falling down the steps. In my head it is called the “knitting platform” and where all that insulation is will have a comfy chair on it looking out of the window…
There were changes up the glen too: the great flood in December has changed the river in many places and created a more natural course after years or centuries of human intervention. Here it’s scoured out all the old branches and gubbins which used to disfigure this waterfall.
Red deer among the birks of Clova. Did you know the Scottish deer population is now over half a million, and was already considered too high in terms of ecology and crop damage when it was a mere 100,000 in 1959? *

Simon Pepper, A brief history of “the deer problem” in Scotland, 2015.

Meanwhile, I’ve developed a craze for moss, something Glen Doll has in abundance and deer don’t eat.
Some pretty cool lichens too…
The obligatory Corrie Fee with frozen waterfall photo.


The aim of Natural Capital is to engage business, which accounts for the majority of human exploitation of the environment, as a force for valuing and restoring it. It draws on many other ideas such as environmental footprinting and social enterprise. It is based in a recognition that many decades of “traditional environmentalism” — traditionally somewhat antagonistic to business — have demonstrably and spectacularly failed to change anything.

The World Forum on Natural Capital 2015, organised by Scottish Wildlife Trust, took place ten minutes from my house. I was there as a volunteer but managed to participate in almost the whole event, although some frantic last-minute registration meant I missed the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who, according to all the reports I heard, skilfully name-checked such an incredible number of initiatives that everyone came out feeling special. There were plenty of Scottish participants including SNH; good news of new initiatives especially the launch of the Peatland Code which could have important impacts on the Scottish landscape; and a specific Scottish Natural Capital ‘stream’ of breakout meetings which I hope to hear a report from. I think, however, that the question someone asked about how North Sea Oil fits into Scottish Natural Capital accounting, which wasn’t answered, needs to keep being asked.

I hope that the sceptical environmentalists, of whom there were many present, were won over by the possibilities even if they remained healthily critical of the claims of specific businesses and governments. “In the sustainability sector we love reinventing the wheel and preaching to the converted”, said one speaker welcoming the hundreds of business participants. “Today we have a chance not to do that”. “I’m from a financial background,” said Michael Meehan, “and I’ve been working for this convergence with environmentalism all my life — as I know many people in the business community have”.

We learned about a proliferation of initiatives to turn the theory of Natural Capital into practice. The Inclusive Wealth Index, which combines produced capital, human capital and natural capital and demonstrates that most countries are experiencing serious economic decline; Natural Captains, a Dutch-based coalition of businesses committed to leadership in Natural Capital processes; and Cradle to Cradle, one of the tools they use to improve product design, are just three.

The fact that this multiplication of experiments makes the whole area impossibly confusing especially for smaller businesses was discussed, illustrated by the clip of Robin Williams playing a Soviet immigrant to the US having a melt-down trying to choose from a whole aisle of types of coffee. The launch of the consultation on the first draft of the Natural Capital Protocol was a key event of the Forum which aims to address this issue.

We heard inspiring case studies of state-scale approaches to Natural Capital policy making. A telling graph from Botswana (below) showed how water use in different sectors had been compared to GDP and employment: either agriculture (far left) is using far too much water, or its contribution to Botswana’s society is drastically undervalued, or perhaps both.

Pakistan, a country which is one of the smallest contributors to and one of the biggest victims of climate injustice to date, has used natural capital accounting to implement state-scale strategies for climate change resilience (below), including a project to (I could have cheered at this) plant a billion trees in five years. “Resilience” was one of the key words of the project: it is why biodiversity per se is the most valuable asset we have.

An example from Canada demonstrated how collaboration is required in public-sector policymaking as much as in business: from the mountain behind our town to the sea, said one speaker, a cubic metre of water passes through six different policy regions.

What struck me as the conference went on was how radical the thinking was within the business paradigm, that is, amongst CEOs, accountants, insurance underwriters, who had no intention of closing their operations down, getting out of the way, and waiting for some kind of experiment in social organisation to emerge. “Our challenge is not to monetarise nature but to naturalise the economy” was one phrase I noted down, which was my most-shared on twitter although someone pointed out it needed a good deal of unpacking to mean anything. “We must standardise our Natural Capital accounting in a few years, not the 150 years it took global financial reporting” was another. “It’s my firm belief”, said another, “we are building a better system, which takes genuine account of environmental and social as well as financial value”. “Our current economic models are as unscientific as the flat-earth movement”, said a fourth. “We can and must change our whole concept of money and value”. The urgent need for rapid, profound, fundamental change was everywhere, and the one concept which was completely absent was any possibility of “business as usual”.

What I found most interesting, because I hear the environmental viewpoints all the time, were the contributions from the business side. The ones I noted included these. Natural Capital assets are great assets to have because if maintained properly they maintain their value, never depreciating or having to be replaced. The average life of a business is less than ten years, so the biggest sector to be engaged to create change in 20 or 40 years are businesses not yet started. (I heard a practical way to address this capacity-building issue in another session: get sustainability tools into MBAs.) “I bet he’s a pretty hard-nosed businessman though”, said my forester friend Simon as we discussed Peter Bakker of the CEO-led World Business Council for Sustainable Development. “That thing he said: ‘you can come and talk to me about anything, but you have to tell me which of the Sustainable Development Goals it relates to first'”.

Also inspiring were the large-scale examples of rapid ecosystem restoration. An experiment in creating “no-take” marine zones (initially to the chagrin of local fishermen) showed that it only took three years for fishermen to start increasing their income as the regeneration of fish in the no-take zone spilled out into neighbouring areas. The National Geographic Pristine Seas project is preserving the last remaining unexploited marine ecosystems as priceless examples of how the seas should be, yielding surprising scientific discoveries for example that the biomass of top predators (like sharks) is greater than everything else — as if the African plains had two lions for every wildebeest. “One of the most important stories I’ve ever covered”, said film-maker John Liu (below), describing such transformations in China and Mali, “is that it is possible to restore degraded ecosystems”.

One of the points made in the closing plenary was that these extraordinary stories of nature’s restoration, which inspire people to participate in ‘doing their bit’ are far too rarely told compared to disaster stories which cause people to give up.

I am most personally grateful to the Forum for its coffee breaks where I met all sorts of wonderful people for the first time: Angelika Końko from the Forestry Commission, Maggie Keegan of Scottish Wildlife Trust, James Nikitine of Green TV, Matthew Roy of Greener Leith, Nicky Chambers of the Future Centre and Alex Kinninmonth of Scottish Wildlife Trust amongst others.

What do I hope the Forum will achieve? One small hope of mine is it might provoke the venue, the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, to consider its natural capital management – especially if the Forum takes place there for the third time in 2017. I walk through its environs almost every day and always imagine what it could be like if the piazzas were ‘de-paved’, with more trees, wild-flower beds and flowering shrubs humming with pollinators and birds and soaking up the perpetual puddles which block my path.

I also noticed the EICC lights were halogen, tangibly warming the rooms beneath: when we calculated the energy savings of switching from halogen to LED’s at St John’s Church just around the corner, we found the payback time was so short that the replacement was made instantly. I did, however, love the EICC’s classy tap-water dispensers which I hope appear at all conferences not just sustainability ones — although as someone pointed out, you could make havoc with a bottle of vodka…

I had one reflection as a historian. Most references to “the current system”, our capitalist economy, seemed to assume that it was the problem, an unprecedented new curse creating an unprecedented new crisis. This was the implication of the speaker from the Netherlands, when he put up an image (below) of the charter of the first (Dutch) commercial company in 1606, commenting that this model of business which separates money and ideals was no longer sufficient.

But one speaker gave a different narrative. Every civilisation in human history has met with the fate we face: they over-reached their natural resources and collapsed. The only unprecedented thing about our predicament is that our civilisation is planetary. People nodded sagely at both these narratives, but they conflict. Moreover, the second narrative (which I find much more historically satisfactory) challenges the oft-repeated idea that “traditional cultures” can provide alternative models of human existence we can use. They are not civilisations; and whether we like it or not, we are. Our challenge is to be the first civilisation in history not to destroy itself.

I put this to Nicky Chambers in the final coffee break, and she said, “As a biologist, I’d go further: the challenge is, can we do better than yeast?” The environmental crisis is not just a crisis of civilisation: it is a crisis of humanity. We are at the point where we prove whether we are, or aren’t, in any way more intelligent or moral than yeast, eating up its food source until it runs out and dies. At the World Forum on Natural Capital, every mind was focused on demonstrating that we are.

I hope to hear more reflections, plans, and outcomes of the World Forum on Natural Capital. “I insist you go out of these doors as a leader”, said Jonny Hughes in the final plenary. If the 500+ delegates (not to mention us volunteers) took that insistence to heart, armed with the information and connections we made in the last two days — well, I always said I believed in miracles.

Shakespeare and Scott: the British Bards

Fashions in accolades change over time.

When he was still the anonymous author of the Waverley Novels, Walter Scott was frequently described as a new William Shakespeare. Nowadays, Scott is more likely to be credited with the invention of the historical novel. To our modern artistic tastes, in which originality is all, the comparison with Britain’s greatest Bard seems simultaneously overblown and less impressive than the invention of a new genre.

I discovered Scott, once so world-famous and now so maligned and little read, while doing my PhD on Regency Edinburgh. His novels are chunky reads, but not nearly as heavy as a Shakespeare play, and once your brain clocks into the gentle pace and Scottish dialect the rewards are great. If you’re thinking of trying one, here’s an article briefly introducing the ones I think are best.

I encountered Shakespeare long before Scott, but with the exception of the obligatory grim educational experiences, almost only his comedies. I’ve always had an impression of swathes of Shakespeare – all the “deep” stuff – of which I knew almost nothing. I resolved almost every year to educate myself at the Edinburgh fringe, but the productions offered danced myopically around the familiar handbags A Midsummer Nights Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth. So this summer, struck with Lupus and hardly able to walk, type or talk, I seized my opportunity and procured the complete BBC Shakespeare on DVD.

I was particularly keen to watch the historical plays, and as a historian, I was interested especially in Shakespeare’s portrayal of history, so I began watching them not in the order Shakespeare wrote them, nor in the order the BBC interpreted them, but in order of historical setting, a scheme on which I am sure literary scholars would pour scorn:

  • Troilus and Cressida 1190 BC
  • King Lear 800B
  • Coriolanus 490 BC
  • Timon of Athens 400 BC
  • Julius Caesar 40 BC
  • Antony and Cleopatra 35 BC
  • Cymbeline 16A
  • Titus Andronicus AD 250–450 A
  • Macbeth 1039AD

(I skipped Hamlet this time having seen it quite recently)

I was struck forcefully and unexpectedly by how much these history plays and historical tragedies reminded me of Walter Scott’s novels. Both writers were spectacularly prolific, populist, and consequently variable, or at least debatable, in quality. This is well known of Walter Scott, although many of his “second rate” novels are in fact great fun and full of excellent material. Given Shakespeare’s demigod status and the patchy information on when and how his plays were written, critics tend to conclude “second rate” plays, such as Cymbeline, must be largely by another hand, although why Shakespeare shouldn’t have off-days as much as Scott I am not sure: they were both professional writers driven by the need to make a living. Anyway personally I agree with Keats that Cymbeline is superb and undeservedly neglected, whatever the cantankerous Dr Johnson might have opined.

Where both these writers were outstanding, and where Scott’s original readers were reminded of Shakespeare, is in the characterisation. The range and depth of humanity populating the imagined worlds of these two white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males would win awards from any diversity committee. It is not only that women, foreigners and the poor play prominent roles. It is that the attributes of humanity – nobility, depravity, altruism, selfishness, wit, obtuseness, compassion, stubbornness, shyness, ambition, deviant sexual passion, strict morality – are distributed throughout humanity evenly. A woman or beggar is as likely to be clever, noble, ambitious or articulate as an aristocratic man. I have not encountered such a broad vision of humanity in any other writers, and it is what gives their work such tremendous richness. This is why Scott is worthily compared to Shakespeare.

Yet to Shakespeare may also be worthily compared to Scott the historical novelist, because their historical visions are essential to this understanding of humanity which underpins their characterisation. While all humans are equal in their moral potential, they have not been historically equal in their role in society. In choosing different historical settings, Shakespeare and Scott were able to characterise individual women, poor people, powerful men, black people, Jews, gypsies or witches, within the constraints under which members of those groups would operate in those societies. This results in rich insights both into the society and into the nature of humanity as it acts under certain social constraints. How, for example, do strong, educated women (Imogen in Cymbeline, or Jeanie in Heart of Midlothian) or innocent ones (Cressida in Troilus and Cressida or Clara in St Ronan’s Well) cope with the tremendous social pressure to remain chaste in a society determined to keep them naive? Clearly neither writer was completely free of the prejudices of their own times and circumstances, but their successful efforts to see through and over those prejudices are more extraordinary than the fact they are constrained by them. Lots of us moderns could learn from this kind of broadminded humility, I think.

The position of women differed little through most of the historical and contemporary societies Shakespeare and Scott examined. Where Scott gained his reputation as the first historical novelist, and where I think Shakespeare achieved the same two centuries earlier, is in the use of real historical research to distinguish one period from another, so characters in behave differently, despite their equal humanity, because of their different historical situations. This is evident in Shakespeare’s classical plays. Troilus and Cressida, set in the Trojan Wars, explores amongst other things the liberating and exploitative consequences of homosexuality being socially acceptable. Timon of Athens explores what happens to a man who runs his life according to the Greek philosophies of Epicureanism and Cynicism. Coriolanus is the tragedy of a shy, proud soldier who is expected to participate in populist republican politics. In Julius Caesar, the Romans are obsessed by excellent rhetoric (useful for a play) and ideas of honour. I studied this play at school, and had forgotten how we laughed at one character after another falling on his sword towards the denoument. The historical drama takes us into another world, where expectations are different, and people act in funny ways, although the humanity is the same.

The final shared quality I found in Scott and Shakespeare’s work, which follows from their characterisation and historical authenticity, is their importance as British bards. By this, I mean that they wrote about both England and Scotland, as inside and outside observers, and in doing so were deeply influential in shaping Britain’s ideas of itself. Again, this is well known of Scott. Writing at the high point of Britain, when the union of Parliament was bringing Scotland economic prosperity through the empire, and Scotland was acknowledged as a great cultural and intellectual influence on England, Scott not only created “tartan” Scotland, but through novels like Ivanhoe and Kenilworth created the idea of “Merry England”. Countless pub signs, films, village fairs, and also serious historical re-enactments and history books have been influenced by his vision of the late mediaeval and Tudor eras.

Re-watching Macbeth, having last encountered it in a GCSE exam paper (B. I hadn’t got literature yet), I realised Shakespeare had done the same. Macbeth was written about the time of the accession of James VI and I, the union of crowns, the very beginning of modern Britain. The appearance of a Scottish king on the English throne must have been of tremendous interest to the English public, and Macbeth is a hardly sympathetic but very well researched attempt to provide that public with an idea of what Scotland and Scottish kingship was about. Regarding the latter, the Stuart dynasty of James was obsessed by the idea of a line of kings, a prominent feature of contemporary Scottish histories which Shakespeare incorporated into Macbeth’s visions.

Regarding the idea of Scotland generally (I boldly propose), Shakespeare’s Macbeth gathered most of the key elements of “Scottish Gothic” which are regarded as one of the most exciting elements of indigenous Scotland’s literary heritage from the eighteenth century until today.

Before 1600, Scottish Gothic was not “a thing”. That was the era of the Scottish Renaissance: enlightened, humanist poetry in a European mindworld. The Scottish Renaissance writers like William Dunbar, Robert Henryson and Gavin Douglas are amongst my favourites, and their beautiful poetry is sadly forgotten, partly because the modern Scot has difficulty understanding their dialect: even the strongest modern Scots is gae anglicised, aye do ye ken by the way, and it’s no been used as a literary language. This was true even by the time of Burns: it had a lot to do with a convenient English translation of the Bible being available for Scots reformers to use, so they never made their own, meaning the nation’s defining sacred text from 1560 was in English.

Those pre-Shakespearean Scottish poems were distinctly lacking in gloom, witches, thistles or revenge: they preferred classical themes. Here, for example, is Gavin Douglas describing a June twilight in his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid:

The licht begouth to quenschyng out and fall,The day to dirken, decline and devall;The gummis rise, doun fallis the donk rime;Baith here and there skuggis and shadows dim,Up goes the bak with her peelit leddren flicht,The larkis descendis from the skyis hicht,Singand her compline sang efter her guise,To tak her rest, at matin hour to rise:Out owre the swyre swimmis the soppis of mist,The nicht furth spread her cloak with sable lyst;That all the beauty of the fructous fieldWas with the earthis umbrage clean owerheild:Baith man and beast, firth, flood and woodis wildInvolvit in the shadows war inslyde…All creature where so them likis bestBownis to tak the halesome nichtis rest.

Despite three words for mist (gummis and donk rime should definitely get back into the vocabulary), several types of shadowy darkness, and a leathery bat (“bak”), the creatures in the fertile fields settling down for the night hardly present a spooky scene, especially as a few lines later the “merry nichtingale” launches into “mirthful nottis” all night.

But Macbeth has it all: witches hubble-bubbling on blasted heaths every second scene, ghosts, daggers, ramparts, wars with even more godforsaken outposts like Norway, and occasional escapes to the civilised refuge of England (cue greensward and sunlight). It’s hardly surprising in such a dive that the characters all go mad and murder each other.

Yet, seemingly, the Scots lapped it up. I would not like to say how far Shakespeare was responsible for any of the witchhunts of the seventeenth century. But surely the Scottish Gothic literary tradition was influenced by Macbeth. Compare Macbeth’s witches, “Tho his bark cannot be lost, yet it shall be tempest tossed”, with Robert Burns’ Nannie in Tam o Shanter, who “perished many a bonnie boat”; Shakespeare’s “finger of birth strangled babe” with Burns’ “twa span lang, wee unchristened bairns”. Scottish commentators, again giving too much airtime to the opinions of Dr Johnson, tend to speak as if everyone perceived the Scottish landscape as depressing and drab until Scottish Romantics like Walter Scott reimagined it in terms of sparkling heathery richness. Yet the blasted heaths of Macbeth are far from drab and barren: they are sublime, with their dramatic lightning and marching forests, and rich in biodiversity (“magot-pies and choughs and rooks” were my favourite) all steeped in sublime meaning and power and open to manipulation. Macbeth is determined to hear that which is full till his future whatever the consequences for sailing ships or cornfields: “though the treasure of nature’s germens tumble all together”.

I have only read a little on the origins of Scottish Gothic literature, but my impression is that the consensus is it was an indigenous phenomenon which emerged in response to the twin intellectual pressures of strict presbyterianism and rapid enlightenment. The external literary influence, German romanticism, did not appear until Walter Scott and his friends discovered it in the early nineteenth century. Yet Shakespeare was tremendously popular in Scotland, and Macbeth was surely read by Scots with literary pretensions throughout the eighteenth century. It seems extremely likely to me that just as Scott created Merry England, so Shakespeare created Scottish Gothic.

Shakespearean scholars don’t like to be told that he had off-days, or a competitor. Walter Scott scholars don’t like to be told that someone else invented the historical novel first. The guardians of Scottish literature don’t like to be told that Scotland’s image of itself was invented by an English writer, just as England’s later was by a Scot. Yet this is what my forays into Scott and Shakespeare suggested to me. This is not in any way to diminish the achievements of either. I still believe their characterisation is second to none, and intrinsically linked to their sense of humanity and history: they achieve what I as a historian aspire to. Their use of language is masterful, and should be studied by anyone aspiring to be a writer, richly repaying the initial difficulty of understanding archaic or Scottish dialect. Their trick of inserting their best humour at moments of most poignant tragedy – like the chap who brings Cleopatra the serpent (“the worm’s an odd worm”) In Anthony and Cleopatra, or the two coaches-and-six racing towards the castle in The Bride of Lammermoor – is one which charms me to pieces. They probably deserve their reputations as Britain’s greatest writers.

I believe their influence on British identity was firstly, enormous; and secondly, has been poorly and partially understood. Scott and Shakespeare were, I think, the Bards who taught us, in the words of the rather different bard Robert Burns, “tae see ourselves as others see us”. I wish in our nationalist age our literary commentators would have the generosity to acknowledge the fact. Perhaps reading more Shakespeare and Scott would give them the broadened minds required to do so.



Illness Project, Six Months In

I have just spent a fun and fascinating week being investigated in hospital. I’m not sure this is how one is supposed to experience hospital, but that was how it was: the food was delicious and I had a view of the Edinburgh Tattoo fireworks. It might have been different had the various tests to rule out serious complications unearthed any new demons, but I appear to be safe. This seems a good moment, six months after the crippling joint pains of what turned out to be Lupus first appeared, to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned from my “illness project” so far…

Give me a broken rock, a little moss…
And I would ask no more; for I would dream
Of greater things associated with these,
Would see a mighty river in my stream,
And, in my rock, a mountain clothed with trees.
John Ruskin
  • The only limit to your horizons is your imagination.
  • Show-offs are naturally cheerful in debility because it’s the only way they can still impress people.
  • It is difficult to do an ECG scan through breasts.
  • Serious misfortune is as necessary as a good education to give a lucky and privileged individual confidence in their convictions.
  • Physiotherapists are magicians.
  • Lupus gets its name from the belief when it was first discovered in the eighteenth century to be caused by a wolf bite. Cool!
  • Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels are rubbish.
  • The CT scanner is by far the most exciting piece of hospital equipment: like a trip in the Large Hadron Collider.
  • I can still remember almost all the words of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat after thirty years.
  • The staff of the Department for Work and Pensions are in fact quite helpful and sympathetic, and not mere Ian Duncan Smith robots out to meet welfare sanctions targets.
  • If I had to choose between an iron lung or an unhappy marriage, I would choose the former.
  • However often you take paracetamol, it doesn’t get any easier to swallow.
  • It is difficult not to regard the size of the bottle for a 24 hour urine sample as a challenge.
  • If you can’t sing or move your fingers, you can still make music on the swannee whistle.
  • It is difficult to find the spleen on an ultrasound scan.
  • Church folk are hilarious when you are ill. NO I DON’T NEED PRAYED FOR!!
  • Most interesting side effect so far: Tramadol makes your nose cold.
  • Shakespeare’s classical plays are splendid.
  • If you have to have a fasting blood test, it is wise to lie down.
  • The environmental crisis is more important than anything, and should be at the top of everyone’s agenda – not just those lucky enough to have nothing else to worry about.


Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels: I’ve read them, so you don’t have to

Can You Forgive Her? (1865)
Phineas Finn (1869)
The Eustace Diamonds (1873)
Phineas Redux (1874)
The Prime Minister (1876)
The Duke’s Children (1880)

When I was mad keen on all things Celtic, I remember being hugely amused by a scribe’s marginal note which went something like this: “Here endeth the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. The longest, most tedious work ever written. Thank God, thank God, and again thank God!”

This was pretty much my reaction to reaching the end of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser Chronicles.

One of the good things about being ill all summer has been the opportunity to engage in some extended reading projects. I’ve always meant to read Palliser. Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles were the first grown-up classic novels I read. Warm, gently insightful and frequently hilarious, the cathedral precincts and rural parishes of Barchester with that subtle and loveable characters remain amongst my favourite fictional escapes. The first one, The Warden, was the inspiration for my modern retelling, “Ursula. The Last Chronicle of Barset is on a short list of novels which have made me cry.

So I decided it was high time I read Trollope’s other series. Written after Barchester, and dealing with the grander world of national politics, rather than the politics of an English diocese, I have heard them spoken of as the greater of the two. I found they were longwinded, humourless, snobbish, and shallowly sententious. That is (according to Kindle timings) 74 hours of my life I will never get back.

There are endless minor variations on the same handful of plot devices and character types. The narratives all hinge, not on any events or revelations, but on one character remaining unerringly and unreasonably stubborn until the denoument where they suddenly and inexplicably relent. Most depressingly, the only characters with a fragment of personality and pluck, Bergo Fitzgerald, Mrs Sexty Parker and Major Tifto, all fall victim to their own personality flaws and the grinding inevitability of the narratives, and all have their loose ends tied up by being made pensioned objects of aristocratic charity, with no hope of rising in the world again. The reader is supposed to be satisfied.

The final novel, The Duke’s Children, has a little more spark than the rest. At last, the comedy that pervades Barchester makes an appearance as election candidates go canvassing in pouring rain. The relationship of the shy and geeky Duke of Omnium, whose career we have followed throughout the series, with his grown-up children, is sweetly and delicately portrayed.

Yet one cannot dismiss the suspicion that Trollope created the love-interests in The Duke’s Children, the noble but low-born Frank Treagar and the angelic American Isabel Boncassen, to atone for his deeply snobbish treatment of the characters in the previous novel, The Prime Minister. The hero Arthur Fletcher, blonde, loyal, principled, with a landed pedigree going back to the Normans; and anti-hero Ferdinand Lopez, dark, charming, lying, obsessed with money, of obscure Portuguese parentage, are a shocking pair of feeble racist stereotypes.

If you get as far as The Duke’s Children you are doing well. You have to wade through the first one, Can You Forgive Her? nicknamed at the time, Can You Finish It? Phineas Finn is innocuous enough, and if you survive the cast of unpleasant characters which populate The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux feels like a breath of fresh air in comparison. After struggling through the unpleasantnesses of The Prime Minister, one hopes that genial and now mature statesman Finn might make play some part in The Duke’s Children. He doesn’t.

I realise I did not read these novels as Trollope intended. They were the soap operas of the day, published in instalments over fifteen years in magazines. They served a purpose at the time: they made money, and passed the time of bored Victorians. The commercial nature of the project is evident in the numerous hunting scenes, which are by far the most exciting episode in the books. Trollope does not conceal his moral qualms about hunting: the swathes of land designated to aristocratic pleasure, the harsh crackdowns on poaching, the worldly pretension, display and waste of the whole charade. But he can write a gripping gallop over the fences, so he cannot resist doing it again and again, with only the mildest of authorial censure.

Our descendants may well acknowledge that Eastenders, Neighbours or The Archers were great cultural institutions of our time. Someone might well read through the entire scripts and write an interesting PhD on them. But we would not expect these compositions to be widely read as literature.

Everyone should read Anthony Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers. But don’t read his Palliser Chronicles. I did, so you don’t have to.



Prawn Wars

I was impressed by the BBC Scotland Landward special, “Prawn Wars”, still available on iPlayer until Wednesday.

I thought I was well-informed about Scottish fishing issues, a subject I first encountered in long “Church and Nation” reports at the Church of Scotland General Assembly, agonising about the state of Scottish coastal parishes. Earlier this year I discovered the excellent visitor interpretation at FSC Millport, which highlights the impact of scallop dredging on the delicate ecosystems of the Firth of Clyde estuary, and lets you practice sustainable hand-diving of scuttling scallops in big Belfast sinks.

However, I felt much better briefed after the Landward special, which discusses the similar conflict between trawlers and creelers fishing prawns off the west coast of Scotland. It is in-depth and impartial, exploring the interrelations between sustainability, economics and human communities.

The most important thing I learned was that in the nineteenth century a three-mile limit on trawling in inshore waters was established to conserve fisheries, regulation removed by the Thatcher government in 1984.

It also made me look again at a picture on my wall, painted around 1980 by my grandmother Margaret Jackson who was inspired by the Scottish artist Lowry.

It depicts a Scottish fishing community, although it is not on the west coast, but North Berwick, on the east. It’s based on a real scene, although there is not a little dash of fantasy. I believe that may be myself, being pushed in a buggy by my mum in red trousers.

Although the harbour is busy, the fishing industry seems to be struggling. One of the fishermen has retired to take tourist excursions to the Bass Rock. The boat in the foreground, which seems to be a trawler, has caught some rare bycatch. The little boats on the right, which look busy and businesslike, are perhaps creelers, enjoying the last few years of protected fishing.

Perhaps this fantasy scene of pipe-bands and mermaids does not add much to our understanding of the “prawn wars”. But, painted at a crucial moment in the history of Scottish fishing, it captures the entanglement of economics, employment, environment, tourism, history, and romance which form the human ecosystem of the Scottish coast.

Thank you, Landward, for making the picture so much more interesting.




The Pope, the Poor and the Plankton: Reasons to Read Laudato Si

This article began as “ten reasons you should read Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment”, although it descends into a more rambling analysis. I hope nevertheless it contains some useful insights and pointers for my environmentalist and Christian friends alike, and encourages you to read the whole thing. I have deliberately written it before any of the other commentary on it (which I now look forward to doing with interest), so I don’t know whether it will echo much which is already being said, or provide a fresh alternative angle. Like all my recent articles, I’ve written it with dictation software, which occasionally inserts howlers of mishearings, so if I have failed to fish all of these out they might provide amusement.

It is written to you. “I wish to address every person living on this planet” (3).

From the start, Francis makes it clear that nature has a value qualitatively equivalent to humanity, and emphasises that humanity is part of nature: “The earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor… We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements” (2).

There is no sense of religion-science debate: rather, religious insights emerge from the scientific knowledge. “We have forgotten is that man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature” (6). Francis explains the four-tier structure of the encyclical. First, “the best scientific research available today … provide[s] a concrete foundation”. His analysis of the problems, possibilities and myths surrounding GM crops struck me as particularly balanced and well-informed (133). Then, “principles drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition … can render our commitment to the environment more coherent”. This ancient sociological wisdom provides a key to understanding the “deepest causes” of the scientific environmental crisis, and to developing a modern “approach to ecology which respect our unique place as human beings … and our relationship to our surroundings”. Finally, built on this, are the solutions, rooted in education, “Convinced as I am that change is impossible without motivation and a process of education”. (15) Francis points out that divisions are often not between religion and science, but within them: it is necessary for “religions to dialogue among themselves for the sake of protecting nature”, and “dialogue among the various sciences is likewise needed, since each can tend to become enclosed in its own language” (201).

It has moments of poetry. “It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation” (9). “An authentic humanity … Seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door” (112). “There is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor persons face” (233).

Things you thought were modern ideas turn out to have been mediaeval catholic practices. For example, did you know St Francis was a wildlife gardener? “Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty” (12).

A theme running throughout Laudato Si is the human injustice caused by the environmental crisis. For example, migrants fleeing “poverty caused by environmental degradation… are not recognised by international conventions as refugees” (25). “Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity” (30). “We have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (49).

Yet Francis also emphasises throughout the intrinsic value of nature, and the sinfulness of our destruction of it, independent of any human involvement. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, no convey the message to us” (33). “We seem to think that we can substitute and irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves” (34). “Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems… Biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things” (190).

A third theme is the spiritual necessity of nature to humanity. “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature” (44). “Jesus worked with his hands, in daily contact with that matter created by God, to which he gave form by his craftsmanship. It is striking that most of his life was dedicated to this task … which awakened no admiration at all” (98).

These religious insights reflect back on the need for science: “Greater investment needs to be made in research aimed at understanding more fully the functioning of ecosystems … Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect … Each area is responsible for the care of this family. This will require undertaking a careful inventory of the species it hosts, With a view to developing programs and strategies of protection” (42). Good news for the IUCN red list; and is it coincidence that this paragraph number is the answer to life, the universe, and everything? In assessing environmental impacts of project “it is essential to give researchers are there do you roll, to facilitate their interaction, and to ensure broader academic freedom” (140). Francis has no time for a backward-looking, anti-technological approach: “it is right to rejoice in [technological] advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us … How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications?” (102). The problem with technology is when it becomes an end in itself. “It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology” (108). I like this kind of insight, which liberates the reader to examine their own lifestyle and values. “A decrease in the pace of production and consumption can … give rise to another form of progress … It is a matter of openness to different possibilities which do not involve stifling human creativity and it ideals of progress, but rather directing that energy along new channels… To find every new ways of despoiling nature, purely for the sake of new consumer items… would be, in human terms, less worthy and creative, and more superficial” (191-2).

None of this requires believe in a Christian God, or indeed a God at all. When Francis writes about Christian theology, he deals with the question of its relevance head on: “why should this document, addressed to all people of goodwill, include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers?” (62). His answer is certainly not, because Catholics are right and other people are wrong. Rather, it is that is it distinctive insights of catholicism form one piece of the patchwork of human wisdom: “solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality. Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality” (63). “Is it reasonable and enlightened to dismiss certain writing is simply because they arose in the context of religious belief? It would be quite simplistic to think that ethical principles present themselves purely in the abstract, detached from any context … The ethical principles capable of being apprehended by reason can always reappear in different guise and find expression in a variety of languages, including religious language” (199).

I was struck by the thoughtfulness with which he treats potential secular readers: having explained why he prefers the word “creation” to “nature”, he nevertheless speaks of “nature” throughout, aware that the word “creation” would jar on a secular reader every time. Francis is not hoping that by reading this you will be converted to Christianity, but that you will learn something interesting. He encourages readers to turn the light of sceptical thinking with which they might critique religion onto the assumptions of scientific rationalism: “Modern anthropocentrism has paradoxically ended up prizing technical thought over reality” (115). “The fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality” (138). If you don’t believe in God, you will disagree with Francis suggestion that “our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God”; However, you might agree with the problematic attitude he identifies: “romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence”, and you might be prompted to ponder your own solutions (119).

When it comes to global politics, Francis does not mince words. “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been” (54). “An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour” (55). Yet the psychology of our irrational behaviour is explicable: “as often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear” (59). He subtly explores the power dynamics of the local and global to identify levers for change, to explain how “all it takes is one good person to restore hope!” (71). His comment “there can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology” (118) comes from a Christian perspective, but states in different words the insight I heard from a practical ecologist describing how to achieve conservation ends: “Conservation is 20% biology and 80% public engagement”. This chimes in with something I have been pondering for a while, that conservation organisations could benefit greatly by learning from the methods of the missionary church, and relying less on business models – not in doctrine, but in people organisation. The tiny, individual action might seem unlikely to “change the world”, but “they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tend to spread” (212). There is a dynamic of change which it sets up in ourselves and in those around us.

Francis is equally uncompromising when it comes to the Christian contribution to environmental destruction: “We Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures … We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures” (67). He quotes texts from throughout the Bible to demonstrate that, “clearly, the Bible has no place for tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures” (68). Religion is no use if it merely serves itself: “More than in ideas or concepts as such, I am interested in how such a spirituality can motivate us to have more passionate concern for the protection of our world. A commitment this lofty cannot be sustained by doctrine alone, without a spirituality capable of inspiring us” (216). Christians require “an ecological conversion, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them” (217). People who call themselves Christians yet fail to care for nature have not really encountered Jesus Christ? That’s pretty radical stuff. I love it.

These virtues and right relationships are often contrasted with romanticism: “a sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings” (91). “We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people” (92). St Francis’ love for nature, which cannot love us back, was no more “romantic” than Jesus commandment to love your enemies: “fraternal love can only be gratuitous; it can never be a means of repaying others for what they have done or will do for us” (228), So we can and should “love” the natural world.

The crux of Laudato Si, it seems to me, is Francis’ call for “an integral ecology, one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions” (137). He further explains separate elements of this “integral ecology”. There is the need for a threefold balance of “environmental, economic and social ecology” (138) – a political trinity I have admired elsewhere. There is “cultural ecology”, a section which puts into words why it makes sense for me to be a historian and an ecologist: “it is not a matter of tearing down and building new cities, supposedly more respectful of the environment yet not always more attractive to live in. Rather, there is a need to incorporate the history, culture and architecture of each place, thus preserving its original identity. Ecology, then, also involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense” (143). Integral ecology has a kind of fractal structure: at one end, “it is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organised international institutions” (175); at the other, there is the “ecology of daily life”, the tiny detail of human society: the “admirable creativity and generosity… shown by persons and groups who respond to environmental limitations by alleviating the adverse effects of their surroundings” (148). Francis loves the word “subsidiarity”.

An “integral ecology” will take into account all these elements. Francis demonstrates the application of these principles in some down-to-earth examples: “environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition … It should be part of the process from the beginning” (183). “In any discussion about a proposed venture, a number of questions need to be asked in order to discern whether or not it will contribute to genuine integral development. What will it accomplish?… For whom? What are the risks? What are the costs? Who will pay these costs and how?” (185). All this requires and the emphasises the need for “a path of dialogue which requires patience, self-discipline and generosity, always keeping in mind that realities are greater than ideas” (201). The key leave it for a change is the one Francis mentioned in the introduction: education.”If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple” (215).

A commentator I heard on the radio commended Francis for telling Catholics to turn to the heating down and stop driving. He doesn’t. Francis, unlike the commentator, understands the difference between law and grace: “we are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness” (226). He does not command changes in action, but in attitude, and predicts that different behaviour will flow from changed hearts: “a person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating or wears warm clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions … Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it … can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity” (211). At present, “a constant flood of new products can exists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything” (113). A consequentialist morality, says Francis, will be insufficient to motivate people to action: it leads too easily to a passive “gaia” approach. “What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough … simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity” (160).

At the same time, there is no ambiguity about what needs to be done: “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuel – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – need to be progressively replaced without delay” (165). There is no question that the Pope is knocking the heads of states’ heads together: “international negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good. Those who will have to suffer the consequences of what we are trying to hide will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility” (169).

I don’t like everything in Laudato Si. In particular, the patriarchal paradigm jars on me: “The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world” (75). But such passages, in awakening my indignant disagreement, do more to inspire my own creative thinking than the passages I agree with. If I don’t like Francis’ “figure of a Father”, how would I solve the problem instead? I thought he was a bit romantic about “indigenous peoples”, as if they were a better type of people than us – an unfortunate implication since Christianity affirms that every individual is equal in the sight of God. I would have preferred “indigenous cultures” (179). But these are minor points, and I mentioned them only to show that I was reading critically.

Francis’ title for Laudato Si comes from St Francis’ famous song of praise with all of nature. At the end of his encyclical, Francis restates this reference to end on a note of hope: “in union of all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God … Let us sing as we go” (244). Sounds a good plan to me.

St Johns Edinburgh and the Battle of Waterloo

The congregation of Bishop Sandford in Edinburgh, the subject of my PhD research, built their striking new chapel of St Johns in 1818. So it is not surprising that a few years earlier, when still meeting in their little classical Charlotte Chapel in Rose Street, they should have some Waterloo connections.

Charlotte Chapel, Rose Street, Edinburgh

Mary McLeod, daughter of the chief of clan McLeod, came from Skye to marry David Ramsay, a Royal Navy captain. Now in their sixties, they lived at 24 Dublin Street, a house with “an excellent dining room… an elegant drawing-room… a large room lighted from the street, well-suited for a writing-chamber”,  and “a three-stalled stable and coach house”. Between 1793 and 1808 David had commanded the Queen, the Agreeable, the Pomona, and the Euridice. Since then he had been responsible for overseeing the defence of the Port of Leith, and organising the press-gang. Trinity House presented him with a silver snuff box in recognition of his work in 1813.

Major Norman Ramsay Galloping his Troop Through the French Army
to Safety at the Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro, 1811

Yet, the following years were ones of tragedy. Their daughter Catherine died in October 1814, and was buried by Bishop Sandford. The following February they gave up the house in Dublin Street. In January 1815 their second son Alexander, a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, was killed at New Orleans, although news did not reach Edinburgh until March. On 19 June 1815, their eldest son William was killed at Waterloo. finally, on 31 July 1815, their youngest son David, a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, died in Jamaica. David himself died in November 1818. Mary, who still had three surviving daughters, outlived him by ten years. The pride they took in their gallant sons is demonstrated by the monumental tomb they commissioned for them in Inveresk churchyard.

Part of the family of Ramsay of Balnain, David was related to Bishop Sandford’s successor, Edward Bannerman Ramsay, Dean of Edinburgh and St John’s most eminent Rector. However, this was not just a church for those in high society, as its other Waterloo connection demonstrates.

Margaret Mitchell gave birth to a daughter in March 1813, a fortnight before her husband John joined as a Private in Captain Miller’s Company in the Rifle Brigade. The daughter, Eleanor, was baptised by Bishop Sandford the following June. As fans of the Sharp novels know, the Rifle Brigade were an innovative part of the British Army, in which soldiers were highly trained, armed with the accurate Baker Rifle, dressed in close-fitting green uniforms, and expected to operate independently ahead of the main army, with officers and men working closely together. John was wounded at Waterloo, but was invalided home to Margaret and little Eleanor.

A Rifleman’s uniform

Waterloo was, however, a long way from the west end of Edinburgh, where members of Charlotte Chapel were engaged in church wars and canal wars. Bishop Sandfords congregation had recently begun discussing the construction of the new chapel, and on 8 June proposed to the neighbouring episcopal congregation that they unite to build one splendid church. On 12 June, a week before Waterloo, the proposal was rejected by the Cowgate Chapel. The ostensible reason was that one large chapel might “create jealousy against us in the established [Presbyterian] church”, but one suspects that the “very respectable number” of the congregation who were “decidedly of the opinion that the union… is inexpedient” were thinking more about the fact that Bishop Sandford’s congregation contained a lot of riflemen and sea captains, not to mention shopkeepers, nabobs, and suchlike. The Cowgate Chapel congregation was, as its Rector Archibald Alison explained in 1820, “of a peculiar kind… composed almost entirely of persons in the higher ranks, or in the more respectable conditions of society”. It seems likely that the Cowgate congregation, which built St Pauls in York Place, wished to retain its exclusivity. The two churches raced to complete their new chapels in 1818, a little ecclesiastical battle which St Paul’s won, thanks to a huge storm which blew the newly-erected Gothic pinnacles of St Johns tower through its roof, just before it was due to open.

St John’s Chapel, opened 1818

Meanwhile, on the day of Waterloo itself, one of those St John’s nabobs and a future vestry member, Robert Downie, convened a meeting of the Subscribers to the Union Canal. The “Union Line” which Downie was promoting with the support of various members of the Whig party, was fiercely opposed by the Tory city council who preferred an alternative “Upper Line”. Downie, whose immense wealth made his proposals difficult to argue with despite his humble social origins, so the Union Canal through to a successful completion, and gave his name to Downie Place, the section of Lothian Road which overlooked the canal’s terminus, Port Hopetoun.

Downie Place and Port Hopetoun

For the west end of Edinburgh, Waterloo symbolised far more than military victory. After twenty-five years of war, it signified a moment of social, technological, institutional and cultural advance (an anonymous member of the community had just published Waverley and Guy Mannering). The following years witnessed social unrest, economic depression, and ultimately the eclipse of Edinburgh by Glasgow and other industrial cities. Yet, 200 years ago, in Bishop Sandford’s congregation, it might have felt like the optimistic dawn of the modern world.

“Box, presented to Captain David Ramsay”, National Museums of Scotland
George Caldwell and Robert Cooper, Rifle Green at Waterloo
Caledonian Mercury newspaper
Minutes of St John’s vestry
Sermons of Archibald Allison
Letters of Walter Scott