Goodbye Bovril Factory

It used to be on my route to school, and then to work. We called it the Bovril Factory, because of the marmite smell of hops which hung over our whole area.

Brewing has been one of the chief industries of the south-west of Edinburgh since at least the sixteenth century. The name ‘Bristo’ (where Edinburgh University now is) comes from ‘Brewster’. The reason the area has also become a centre for the arts is thanks to the profits of brewing: both the McEwan and Usher concert halls were named after the brewers who built them.

Bristo Square and the McEwan Hall, from Layers of Edinburgh

It was McEwan’s company who built the Fountain Brewery, moving out from the now-gentrified Bristo area into a cheaper industrial suburb to the west, with the convenient transport link of the canal. The twentieth-century brewery building was the latest addition to a well-established industrial area, many of whose quirky and beautiful earlier buildings have been preserved. Sharing the Fountain Brewery site was an old Rubber Factory, whose curving profile makes it appear to be built from its own product, instead of brick — an unusual material for Edinburgh, but characteristic of Fountainbridge. It has survived the demolition so far, at last un-dwarfed by its surroundings, and I hope will be preserved.

The rubber factory (left) behind the nibbling dinosaurs which revealed it, and the last and highest part of the Fountain Brewery (right) still mainly intact in July. The foreground is the canal towpath.

Our ‘Bovril Factory’ closed in 2004. Watching its demolition this summer has been endlessly fascinating. This morning, in an Edinburgh Festival downpour, I came past to find a dinosaur pulling the gigantic bovril jar from its shelf:

It’s strangely reminiscent of the McEwans Lager ad where people are pushing giant spheres up endless flights of stairs in the rain. I hope the dinosaur gets a nice refreshing pint at the end of his day.

The photographer Dave Henniker has been recording the demolition, the strange buildings, the fantastically beautiful graffiti, elder and buddleia which has embroidered it all.

I can’t say I’m too bothered about McEwans lager, being a devotee of the rather posher Deuchars IPA (which is still brewed in Edinburgh, just about a mile out further west). But I do miss the smell of the hops: the smell, for me, of home. And I’ll miss this last sublime landmark of Fountainbridge’s industrial history, and so will the jackdaws, starlings, swallows and doves for whom, these last few years this strange derelict iron cliff was also home.

It’s supposed to be becoming hotels, shops, flats, well-kempt trees growing from paved boulevards, flash-flooding in a downpour. I hope it doesn’t. I have a dream of another brewery billionaire coming along: a modern McEwan, creating the Fountain Gardens, green, with great spreading oaks and flowerbeds, lawns where ball-games are allowed, winding paths, fantastic fountains, beehives and birdboxes, little rowing-boats to hire on the canal, a museum of Fountainbridge history in the middle … Well, one can dream. But if there are any billionaires out there, I know the perfect curator for the museum…

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Perfection and Freedom: high enlightenment in the Edinburgh New Town

I will give a half-hour talk this Sunday, 26 June, at 5pm in St John’s Church, Princes Street. Admittance is free and wine will be served in return for donations.

In August 1792, as revolutionary crowds stormed the Tuileries and
France became a republic, the Reverend Daniel Sandford arrived in the
New Town from Oxford University, and advertised for pupils ‘whose
education in the Classics he will superintend, paying particular
attention to the Grammar and Pronunciation of the English Language.’
In 1818, now Bishop of Edinburgh, Sandford built St John’s Church,
where he ministered until his death in 1830. His ideology seems
strange to us now, and was old-fashioned even to early Victorians. Yet
his unique message, which married gospel truth with enlightenment
optimism, made him an important role model and inspiration to build a
better world to his influential New Town congregation.

This half-hour talk, first given at the Modern British History Network Conference, takes you back 200 years into the mindset which shaped the architecture and liturgy of our church. It will be followed by a short time for discussion, and at 6pm by a chance to experience that architecture and liturgy, at choral evensong.

Rocks, stars, and souls

Today the Guardian reported that “Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency.” The complete article is well worth reading.

What are the practical implications of this? It means things are very bad indeed. It means that the people whose knowledge we trust the most, sensible scientists, reaching the most balanced conclusions, are making predictions which make the preachings of the crazier apocolyptic religions appear mild. It means your grandchildren’s lives will almost certainly be badly blighted. Your own life probably will be too.

What are the moral implications of this? It is that we (you and I) are collectively colluding in a holocaust many times worse than that of Nazi Germany. Like the people of Nazi Germany, we did not consciously choose it, but we bear the guilt nevertheless. Unlike them, we have no wicked leader to blame: it is a truly collective crime. It is a horror so enormous that almost the only option is to ignore it: the courage required to face it is, I think, almost too great for human strength. People say to me, ‘If you feel so strongly, why don’t you spend all your time protesting and stuff?’ The answer is, because I don’t have the strength. It would literally send me mad, and that would be messy.

What are the spiritual implications of this? Belief-systems promise happiness. Evangelical Christianity promises heaven when you die if you put your faith in Jesus. Secular liberal democracy promises happiness through freedom and prosperity. The liberal Christianity I have grown up in promises happiness through the promotion social justice, ‘God’s kingdom on earth’. All of these belief systems had much that was valuable in them. But the situation we face today shows all these belief-systems are now utterly bankrupt. If there is a ‘heaven’, our utter failure to even to face what our ‘sins’ are, let alone ‘repent’ of them or ‘turn to Christ’ ensures none of us will be going there. The secular utopia of liberal democracy has failed, because its own prophets, the scientists, are warning that the future holds not wealth and freedom, but poverty and war. The liberal Christianity, which preached that with God’s help we could build a fairer, more sustainable world, has proved itself to be the biggest pie in the sky of all. God hasn’t helped (I leave it to you to decide why!) and we were too weak.

Are there any glimmers of comfort? Well — if you take the perspective of geological time, the catastrophic climate change and mass extinction of the 21st century will be a very minor event. If you take the perspective of the universe, the events on one small planet is equally trivial. And if you look candidly at your own life or any other individual’s, with their days and years, joys and sorrows, there are in fact a million things which add or subtract to its happiness other than health, wealth or security, and the one certainty is that it will come to an end.

But if you value your soul, if the poor derided citizens of Nazi Germany have taught us anything, don’t hide. Most of us don’t want to be heroes or villains, we want to be ordinary members of the chorus, living little quiet lives (I want to write history books and novels, and sing and draw. The last thing I want to be is an environmental campaigner. For one thing, I’m dreadful at it.) But living quietly isn’t an option: not to be a hero, is to be a villain, like all those other villains of history who kept quiet in the face of gas chambers, guillotines, African slavery, or whatever it was. So screw up your courage, and find your way to be heroic.

Open your eyes. Find out the facts and face the reality of our situation. Look at the rocks and look at the stars. Understand what happiness really is. Act accordingly.

The Sad Story of James Lundin Cooper: A Charlotte Chapel Biography

You are most welcome to reproduce this article in Church magazines. You may edit it for length but please include the information and contact details at the end. I’d also love to know if you are using it.

The Charlotte Chapel Biographies is an occasional column dedicated to the subjects of my PhD, the 420 identifiable members of Charlotte Episcopal Chapel, 1794-1818, who subsequently built St John’s, Princes Street, Edinburgh.

In 1816, twenty-five-year-old James Lundin Cooper brought his bride Sarah Brown to Edinburgh to be married by Bishop Daniel Sandford in the stylish Charlotte Chapel. He was a writer in Kirkcaldy and she was the daughter of a local merchant. He appears a few years later practising his profession, administering the estate of a bankrupt businessman in Kirkcaldy.

Cooper was an ambitious man, and not content to remain merely a provincial lawyer he sought his fortune in business. By 1830 he was manager of the Kirkcaldy and London Shipping Company, which ran three ships and employed three Captains, rejoicing in the names of Moir, Morison and Mann. As the leading Manager (or vestryman) of the Episcopal Chapel in Kirkcaldy, he successfully charmed the energetic, young and dedicated priest Mr Marshall into replacing their decrepit old incumbent, even though the chapel could only offer a paltry £20 stipend. Meanwhile his family prospered: Sarah bore him three chidren, Elizabeth, Michael and Mary.

It quickly became clear to Rev Marshall, however, that Cooper and his fellow managers were running a racket, giving themselves huge discounts on seat-rents, keeping Marshall’s salary low, and ‘finding it convenient that the clause should fall into disuse’ which stipulated that the whole congregation should choose their managers annually, preferring instead to appoint themselves for life.

When the priest tried to rectify the situation, the managers went to the bishop, accusing Marshall of immorality, neglect of duty, and (when this didn’t work), insanity. This was a great mistake: Marshall was well-respected, and eloquent clergy weighed in to defend his character from this evident nonsense. Cooper, one of them reported, ‘had the modesty to offer evidence to Bishop Torry that Mr Marshall is (or was) insane, and in his hand writing came forth a document in which that gentleman was charged with going to a theatre and dining out.’ Cooper, who had been the man of education and status amongst the merchants and shoemakers on the vestry, was made to look very foolish by being represented in the lead actor in this farce.

Whereas other managers left the Episcopal Church altogether and began attending the Kirk — although they still made a point of turning up to collect the contents of the collection plate, and chattering and laughing in the porch during Mr Marshall’s service — James does appear to have put his head down and attempted to make amends with the priest.

But it was too late. Whether it was divine judgement, the discrediting of his character, bad luck or similarly bad judgement in his business dealings, Cooper went bankrupt  in 1836. In 1838 his daughters Elizabeth and Mary died, and the following year James himself went to his grave. His teenage son Michael only outlived him by two years. I don’t know what happened to Sarah. Perhaps she remarried.

One could take various morals from this story. I suppose the first might be, don’t accuse your priest of insanity if you meet him at the theatre.

Eleanor Harris.

Please let me know if you would like to be informed of future talks or publications connected with this project. You can email me at or find me on twitter @eleanormharris

Oddly Gothick

A history post rather than an art one for a change. St Paul’s and St George’s Church in Edinburgh ( used to be two churches — you can probably guess what they were called. After the small congregation of St George’s moved across the road into the big building of St Paul’s, their little chapel was later demolished. I’ve finally worked out where on York Place it used to be: its here, where the casino is! But the Rectory at no.7, which adjoined it on the left and was built at the same time, survived. It looks like a classical georgian house until you look closely. There are ‘Gothick’ crenellations on the roof, ‘Gothick’ clustered columns round the door, and ‘Gothic’ cruciform arrowslits (!) on either side of the second floor windows. As an attempt at making a building look Mediaeval it is not, to our eyes, a great success, with its round arches and its regular rectangular windows. But in 1794 there wasn’t anything better around.

A demolished architectural mishmash of a chapel might seem a bit of a footnote in cultural history, except that the Rector for whom it was built, Alexander Cleeve, was the tutor of Walter Scott, who had just begun to practice as an advocate when St George’s was built. Whereas Edinburgh Gothic went off in a scholarly direction, Scott ran away with the fantasy to weave wonderful works of fiction, and a house, Abbotsford:

(I hope Travel Destination Pictures will forgive my borrowing their picture if I tell you that they have this and lots of other lovely photos here.)

In Abbotsford, Scott invented the style known as ‘Scottish Baronial’ which was used to design pretty much every tenement in Edinburgh and Glasgow for the whole of the nineteenth century. Alexander Cleeve, sticking crenellations, clusterings and cruciforms onto his Georgian House, might have a lot to answer for!

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Ruskin’s Moss

Walking between amongst the stone walls and old trees of the Lake District this weekend I was trying to recall John Ruskin’s description of moss. I think it’s the most beautiful piece of descriptive writing I’ve ever found, so here it is, so I have it to hand when I have time to illustrate it, or learn it by heart: 

Mosses– Meek creatures! the first mercy of the earth, veiling with hushed softness its dintless rocks; creatures full of pity, covering with strange and tender honour the scarred disgrace of ruin, laying quiet finger on the trembling stones to teach them rest. No words, that I know of, will say what these mosses are. None are delicate enough, none perfect enough, none rich enough. How is one to tell of the rounded bosses of furred and beaming green, — the starred divisions of rubied bloom, fine-filmed, as if the rock spirits could spin porphyry as we do glass, — the traceries of intricate silver, and fringes of amber, lustrous, arborescent, burnished through every fibre into fitful brightness and glossy traverses of silken change, yet all subdued and pensive, and framed for simplest, sweetest offices of grace? They will not be gathered, like the flowers, for chaplet, or love-token; but of these the wild bird will make its nest, and the wearied child his pillow.

And as the earth’s first mercy, so they are its last gift to us: when all other service is vain, from plant and tree, the soft mosses and gray lichen take up their watch by the headstone. The woods, the blossoms, the gift-bearing grasses, have done their parts for a time; but these do service for ever. Trees for the builder’s yard, flowers for the bride’s chamber, corn for the granary, moss for the grave.  — John Ruskin, Frondes Agrestes 59.

A Celtic Revival

When my sister and I were little, whenever we went to a museum or castle we were always most interested in the shop, where everything was so glittering and tempting compared to the fusty old objects we should have been looking at.

This girlish consumerism was somewhat looked down upon, but on one occasion I laid out my pocket money on a little pamphlet which, for many years, changed my life: ‘Elementary Knotwork Borders, the methods of construction’, by George Bain. I got it home and had a go — and was hooked.

The knots in my sketchbooks begin laboriously, and then I begin to master it…

There were seven other pamphlets, with more knots, spirals, animal patterns, lettering and key patterns (I never got the hang of these), but after I’d collected a few my aunt bought me the full book, ‘Celtic Art, the Methods of Construction’.

To a rather obsessive compulsive teenager it was hugely inspirational. If you know any obsessive compulsive teenagers, buy it for them for Christmas!

Soon all the covers of my school exercise books began to be knotted with interlace and animal patterns. Instead of being dragged around museums of which I was really only interested in the shops, I dragged my family (especially Mum) on quests around Angus and the Mearns to find celtic standing stones to sketch.

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I loved the elusive symbolism, the eternal lines which wove from pagan to Christian, the total anonymity of the people who created this curving geometry, but whom I felt akin to because they lived in my favourite part of Scotland and taught me their designs. Here’s a page of sketches from the Meigle Sculptured Stones museum:

I collected books with reproductions of the Lindesfarne Gospels and (my favourite of all) the Book of Kells. I delved into intricacy, seeing how much design I could fit into a postcard-sized image. I went short-sighted, but it was worth it. In sixth form I was commissioned to design two official school Christmas cards. My Celtic design was almost too intricate in places to print properly.

I regarded this as a tour de force and was very disappointed when it sold far less well to parents and pupils than my alternative card, a rose window, which took about a tenth of the time and far less technical ability to draw. But the experience was a good lesson in the importance of overall design as well as detail.

I have very few original pieces from the time when I was mastering Celtic Art because they were almost all made as gifts. I found one, though, alongside some bad photographs of its companions, labelled ‘thankyou cards’.

I’d dismissed it with ‘unsent’ scrawled in biro across the top. But my seventeen-year-old self’s glowing colours and rich carpet of interlaced creatures astonished my thirty-two-year-old self when I found it. I’m not sure I could do anything so good now. But I think 2011 is the year to pick up my Celtic pen again and see what I can do.

The Christmas Falcon

It’s Christmas Eve, 1814, and the big house of Falcon Hall in Edinburgh is wrapped in snow and night. In the kitchen, the grumbling cook is preparing Christmas dinner when a mysterious child with a falcon on her shoulder comes to help him…

The Falcon Christmas is based on the true stories of Falcon Hall in Morningside, Edinburgh, and of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. It is a 6000-word story hidden inside a Christmas card which I wrote, illustrated and individually produced about half a mile from the place where the story is set.

The ideas for The Christmas Falcon came from various sources. There was research for my PhD on the Falconars of Falcon Hall and on dinner parties in the New Town of Edinburgh. There was the accidental discovery that Charles Dickens’ character Scrooge was based on a real person. And there was watching The Muppet Christmas Carol once too often. I did re-read Charles Dickens’ original version when writing my story, and discovered that Kermit and company stuck pretty closely to it.

I love that sort of story, the sort where the ingredients of snow, food, carols, historical costumes, children, animals, and a huge dose of good will to all, are mixed together into a delicious warming Christmas pudding of escapism, ideal for reading curled up by a fire with a glass of mulled wine. It’s just the right length for one of those Christmas gaps, while you’re waiting for the pudding to be done, or for the cousins to arrive, or for the long Christmas Eve evening before Midnight Mass.

But I also like stories that teach you stuff, and the Christmas Falcon, while entirely fictitious in itself, has a lot of history behind it. At the end of the ribbon-bound storybook inside the card, there’s a link to a page on my website with the historical background to the story, which I hope both Edinburgh and Dickens fans will find interesting. There’s also a snatch of poetry from one of my favourite poets, the Scottish Renaissance writer William Dunbar, of whom I hope you will hear more from me.

To be honest, the most arduous part of producing The Christmas Falcon turned out to be sticking on the glitter. But it’s worth it, because it will bring my William-Blake-y illustration to life so delightfully when it’s on your mantlepiece with fairy lights or candles around it. And as I stick it on, I think of you opening the door to the cousins, or arriving at Midnight Mass, or serving the pudding, with a warm heart, and slightly glittery.

You can buy The Christmas Falcon on Etsy or Folksy. If you have read The Christmas Falcon I would be delighted if you would take the time to review it using the comments box below. And please follow me on facebook or sign up for email updates on my website to hear about my future projects.

Christmas Cards

I became an illustrator by making my own Christmas cards. As a teenager I was obsessed by Celtic art. I would begin in January, and spend the year creating a set of designs.

At first they were closely derived from The Book of Kells and Lindesfarne Gospels, but I became more confident about designing my own layouts and patterns. I loved the philosophy of celtic art as well as the colour and intricacy: that the labour of the intricate work was a kind of prayer, that the geometric shapes, eternal lines and naturalistic designs were imitatitive of God’s own creativity, that small imperfections should always be left to ensure the artist did not become arrogant and put herself on a level with the Creator, the little symbol of three dots to represent the Holy Trinity.

Eventually exams and university caught up with me and by the time I returned to illustration, I had emerged almost literally from the Dark Ages, got a lot more sceptical and a lot less obsessive, and developed a strong interest in environmental issues. My designs still drew on the skills I’d learned copying those celtic knots, but were based on sketches of nature, like this one using my favourite weed, Herb Robert. I continued to draw on my spiritual tradition of the bible too, but instead of the abstract ideas I had entwined geometric knots around, I chose earthier ‘ecological’ passages like this one, Psalm 96.

‘Where is this stupendous stranger?’ is another design from this time, in which I finally untied myself from the knots, and experimented with the delicious possibilities of creating a colourful world out of black ink on white paper, and of earthing mystical words in quirky, modern illustration inspired by artists like Lowry and Escher.

I wanted to do more designs and draw on wider influences, and was also looking at ways to commercialise my work, so I came up with the idea of inviting people to commission a Christmas card design as a way of making these time-consuming  designs affordable. The first commissions were mostly from supportive members of my choir and the church congregation, so were dominated by carols, which were my suggested theme.

A few people commission a card from me every year, which allows me to create a series of designs, like this one which I gave the paradoxical name of ‘contemporary mediaeval’. It draws on the knotwork and calligraphy skills I learned in all those hours copying the Book of Kells, but gives it greater freedom, restraint and personality. I’ve got less afraid of blank space.

I continued to design cards for myself as well, to send and to sell, and these represent the work I want to do. My favourite themes in recent years have been nature and literature.

This year I took the literature theme a step further, because I’ve rediscovered something I’d put aside before I even began drawing those Celtic cards as a teenager: story writing. All my cards tell stories, and there with sub-plots hidden in the margins and themes running through the colours and styles. This year for the first time there’s a real story, The Falcon Christmas, based on research I’ve been doing for my history PhD. The illustration on the card illustrates the story, which is hidden in a little ribbon-bound book inside.

This doesn’t represent the complete collection of my Christmas cards. The full collection is in my Etsy shop where all their stories are told. I hope you enjoy them!

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The St John’s Garden


St John’s Church at the West End of Edinburgh have just completed a major project to improve and open up their historic and beautiful graveyard. They asked me to provide an illustration for a new interpretative sign. It’s the cherry on the cake of all the work of tree-felling, planting, path-building and monument restoration which has been going on in the background.

graveyard-panel-smallMy illustration was beautifully put together with the information on the history and facilities of the site by graphic designer Peter Blood from The Osprey Company,, who provided the signboard itself. If you want a sign, we’ve made a good team and would love to work together again!




The sign was unveiled at a special ceremony with the Bishop of Edinburgh (the guy in the pink frock…) The unveiling is being done by historian Angus Mitchell, who knows more about the people buried in the churchyard than anyone. (I’m hot on his heels, however, because the people in the graveyard are some of the subject of my history PhD which you can read about here).

The sign is on the Terrace down the steps from Lothian Road — drop in and have a look if you’re in Edinburgh!