Business-as-Unusual

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.

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.

Sources
“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

The Great Blank

I’ve just rediscovered this very funny rant by John Ruskin, speaking in 1853 to the citizens of Edinburgh, about how their architecture was tasteless because they failed to allow themselves to be inspired by nature. You might not agree, but if you compare buildings built in Edinburgh after 1853 to those built before, you’ll see that they took his words to heart.

In your public capacities, as bank directors, and charity overseers, and administrators of this and that other undertaking or institution, you cannot express your feelings at all. You form committees to decide upon the style of the new building, and as you have never been in the habit of trusting to your own taste in such matters, you inquire who is the most celebrated, that is to say, the most employed, architect of the day. And you send for the great Mr. Blank, and the Great Blank sends you a plan of a great long marble box with half-a-dozen pillars at one end of it, and the same at the other; and you look at the Great Blank’s great plan in a grave manner, and you dare say it will be very handsome; and you ask the Great Blank what sort of a blank check must be filled up before the great plan can be realized; and you subscribe in a generous “burst of confidence” whatever is wanted; and when it is all done, and the great white marble box is set up in your streets, you contemplate it, not knowing what to make of it exactly, but hoping it is all right; and then there is a dinner given to the Great Blank, and the morning papers say that the new and handsome building, erected by the great Mr. Blank, is one of Mr. Blank’s happiest efforts, and reflects the greatest credit upon the intelligent inhabitants of the city of so-and-so; and the building keeps the rain out as well as another, and you remain in a placid state of impoverished satisfaction therewith; but as for having any real pleasure out of it, you never hoped for such a thing. If you really make up a party of pleasure, and get rid of the forms and fashion of public propriety for an hour or two, where do you go for it? Where do you go to eat strawberries and cream? To Roslin Chapel, I believe; not to the portico of the last-built institution. What do you see your children doing, obeying their own natural and true instincts? What are your daughters drawing upon their cardboard screens as soon as they can use a pencil? Not Parthenon fronts, I think, but the ruins of Melrose Abbey, or Linlithgow Palace, or Lochleven Castle.

Venice in Edinburgh

In a scaffy corner in the east end of Edinburgh, down the cobbled, dirty-puddled close that is West Register Street, hides a secret treasure: a Venetian Gothic warehouse, built in 1864.

The architect was William Hamilton Beattie, twenty-two years old and still operating under his father’s firm’s name of George Beattie and Sons. He signed the building, there, look, above the first floor window.

The client was 48-year-old James Cowan (1816-1895), member of a successful family firm of papermakers. I think the portraits on either side of the entrance are of his father Alexander (1775-1859) – whose biography is here – and grandfather Charles (1735-1805).

The Cowans had built a great paper industry in Penicuik to the south of Edinburgh, a spin-off industry from Edinburgh’s literary flourishing. They provided the raw material for the Edinburgh Review, Waverley Novels, Blackwoods Magazine and all the rest. During the nineteenth century they prospered, and brought Penicuik with them.

They were also religious and high-minded: idealists who, like today’s social entrepreneurs, believed a business could be both profitable for its owners and beneficial for society in a whole range of ways. Alexander had been Presbyterian but James converted to Episcopalianism, perhaps thanks to enthusiasm for Walter Scott, with whom his father was connected; perhaps to enthusiasm for a Gothic aesthetic and the ethical and religious connections with which thinkers like John Ruskin infused it.

Ruskin had written The Stones of Venice ten years earlier, and the Paper Warehouse proclaims that Cowan and Beattie had devoured it. In this work, through a detailed examination of Venetian Gothic architecture, Ruskin argued that the stones themselves testified to a more just, more expressive, more creative society than nineteenth-century industrial Britain. The recreation of the cosmopolitan cusps and corbels of Venetian Gothic in an auld reekie close is a symbol of a dream of a better society.

Every ornament is different. Star, diamond, circle, cross; different species of plant above each first-floor window; a different composition of birds and reptiles above each of the ground-floor ones, where, as John Ruskin pointed out, the richest carving should go to be clearly seen, from the bird catching a snake to the ferns to the squirrel, a lonely mammal.

All the designs are based closely on observation of nature, all express the freedom and individuality of the artist. Above the main entrance, coloured stone adds polychromatic richness, like heraldry or oriental mosaics – somewhere in there, under the grime.

I discovered the building because of an insult. Cowan was Lord Provost of Edinburgh at the time when the competition to build St Mary’s Cathedral was being run. The English Church Times was amongst Episcopalians in fits of indignation that city officials who were probably vulgar, provincial, tasteless, and Presbyterian were part of the committee choosing the architect. “The grocer’s term of Provostship expired, and his successor, a paper maker, was probably more amenable to reason. Mr Lascelles [Lessels, an Edinburgh architect whose design was inferior] was, happily, relegated to obscurity; and, by a sort of compromise […] Sir G. G. Scott, the safe architect of the present day, has been chosen”. The Church Times could sneer at George Gilbert Scott as much as they liked, but someone wrote in from Edinburgh to defend the papermaker: “The papermaker referred to is an Episcopalian, and member of a firm which has shown some taste and love for architecture in selecting the Venetian Gothic for his place of business”. (Church Times, December 1872).

Like all Cowan’s business, and like the Episcopal church at the time, it is a beautiful dream of a better society. Next time you are passing the east end of Edinburgh, step out of the crowds, away from the glossy shops, and into the dirty close, and catch the dream.

The young Beattie went on to develop his own style and to reshape Edinburgh: he built Jenners and the Balmoral.

Follow me on twitter @eleanormharris

Holy Trinity’s Hogmanay

The Choir of Holy Trinity form the setting for my novel, Ursula, but they don’t get much chance for action themselves, so I thought I would give them a short story of their own.

 

It had all been fine until the bells. It always goes wrong at the bells.

The Choir of Holy Trinity, or at any rate a quorum of six who deemed themselves the essence of that community, finding themselves still in Edinburgh at Hogmanay, and flat and weary after the excitements of Christmas singing, arranged to go into town in search of atmosphere. They all rocked up at their usual drinking den, The Half Mast, at about nine o’clock in expectation of being cheered.

‘Sophie!’ cried Penelope and Portia merrily. ‘Feels like it’s been ages!’ added Portia, whose drink was long and luminous red.

‘Longest week of the year,’ agreed Sophie. ‘What you guys been up to? No, hold that thought: I need a pint.’ She headed for the bar.

‘Hi,’ said her flatmate Dave, who had come in after Sophie like a shadow, and whose glasses had steamed up.

‘Where’s Tom?’ Penelope asked, when they came back with pints.

‘Gone off to spend quality time with his godmother,’ said Sophie. ‘Staying with Ursula’s cousin or something in Stonehaven. God, I need this!’ She sourced a beer mat with the hand not employed in tipping beer into her mouth, before putting the considerably-depleted pint down on it.

‘Oh here’s Matt,’ cried Portia. ‘Matt!’ She leaped up and gave him an embrace of greeting. ‘Merry Christmas! Muah!’

‘How come I never get that?’ said Richard to Penelope.

‘What, from me or from her?’ said Penelope.

‘Either!’

‘Well, from her, because I’d thump her.’

This reply pleased Richard sufficiently that he forgot to ask his girlfriend why he wasn’t ‘muah-ed’ by her, so he just gave her a squeeze and said across her, ‘Cheer up Soph, you’ve got that face on.’

‘She’s grumpy ’cause she won’t get a snog from Tom at the bells,’ said Dave. ‘She’s a godmother widow.’

‘No!’ Sophie disclaimed (probably disingenuously). ‘I’m just worried about this thing tomorrow.’

You’re worried?’ said Portia, sitting back down. ‘I have to play the organ on the radio — you’re only reading your thing — I assume you’ve written it?’

‘Yeah — they won’t know who you are though, and you’re just playing carols everyone likes. They’ll all be listening to me and saying “Who the fuck’s this plonker?”‘

‘I meant to do some practice this week but everyone else at work buggered off so I’ve been chained to the desk,’ said Portia. ‘Och well, as you say, they won’t know who I am. Drink, Pen, Richie?’ She bounded off to the bar.

‘I have a bad feeling about tomorrow,’ said Sophie. ‘How many of those awful red things has she had?’

‘That was only the first,’ said Richard.

‘But we have all been drinking wine and eating pizza since half past five,’ pointed out Penelope.

‘So is this New Year’s Day radio service all your fault?’ said Richard.

‘Kind of. Some BBC person rang up Peter on — whatever day it was that email came out — the day after Boxing Day — I’ve lost track.’

‘That was Monday’, said her flatmate Dave precisely. ‘I know because I went back to work on Wednesday, because we’d had Monday and Tuesday off as Bank Holiday, because of Christmas being on a Saturday.’

‘Useful to know,’ said Sophie sarcastically. ‘Anyway, Rev Pete rang up me, and said they wanted to do a morning service about hope for the planet for the New Year, and could we provide a choir and an environmentalist.’

‘Gift-wrapped,’ suggested Matt.

‘But then it turned out they were also supplying their own environmentalist who’s this guy called Roddy who’s head of Nature Scotland, so I’ve spent the whole week madly emailing him and Peter to agree what we’re all going to say.’

‘So what’s he like, this Roddy guy?’ asked Richard.

‘Ha!’ said Dave, with the knowing glee of one who’s heard the story.

‘Well,’ said Sophie. ‘I met him once at some environmental networking thing, and he said hello, how’d’you do, where are you from what d’you do, you know; and I said, I’m from the church, I run environmental initiatives with Holy Trinity Calton Hill, and he said, ah, the church: you’re that lot who think the floods in Somerset were caused by gay marriage.’

Everyone laughed. ‘He can’t have really thought that?’ said Penelope.

‘I dunno, I couldn’t tell,’ said Sophie. ‘He sounded serious.’

‘I bet he does,’ said Dave. ‘It’s what people think we think.’

‘So how did he get persuaded to do this gig?’ said Penelope.

Sophie shrugged. ‘Chance to get Nature Scotland on the radio. He’s not going to turn it down. He probably only got asked because the heads of Scottish Wildlife Trust, WWF and the RSPB are all getting drunk together in some castle in the Highlands.’

‘Are they?’ said Portia, wide eyed at the image.

‘I’ve no idea,’ said Sophie. ‘But that’s what all sensible people are doing, not scrambling around in Edinburgh with the great unwashed.’

‘Admit it, you’d be delighted to be in Edinburgh for Hogmanay if Tom was here,’ said Penelope.

Sophie scowled over the rim of her pint glass, not at the tease, but at the glance of promise which Penelope gave Richard as she finished the sentence.

Conversation moved on to gossiping about other members of the choir, and thence quickly, lubricated by another round of drinks, to singing Christmas carols. It is true that Matt sang the first phrase of Three Kings from Persian Lands afar only because it seemed the best response to the remark that Edith, George and Quentin had booked a holiday in January to Turkey, but when everyone else began singing the chorale underneath, it seemed a shame to stop, and they warmed to the performance. He grew quite operatic in verse two, and after he floated the final phrase, ‘offer thy heart,’ with the smallest of controlled vibrato into the air of the noisy pub, there was a little smattering of applause from the largely unseen people at tables around their alcove. They all burst into laughter. Richard cut into it by singing, ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out?’ in a tone of question, answered by a rousing, ‘On the feast of Stephen!’ and they sang the whole carol in rollicking pub style, stamping their feet and thumping the table. ‘Ding dong merrily’ followed in the same style.

‘Sing Twelve Days of Christmas? shouted a voice from the pub, so they all launched into that, Penelope and Sophie improvising descants, and laughing at Portia who was still forgetting all the words after ‘seven swans a swimming’ even three verses later. Then they sang the Scottish dance-carol, Ecce Novum Gaudium, and then Past Three O’Clock, although that fell apart quickly when no-one could remember the words to the verses.

‘There’s that one about the hinds’, said Matt doubtfully.

‘Cheese from the dairy, bring they a fairy,’ suggested Penelope.

‘And not for butter, money and Rutter,’ said Dave. ‘No, that can’t be right …’

‘It’s half eleven!’ said Matt suddenly.

‘Oh, come on, bells! Bells!’ cried Portia, leaping up and scrabbling for her coat.

‘Calm yourself, woman,’ said Richard.

‘It’s going to be freezing out there,’ said Sophie.

‘Oh for God’s sake, cheer up,’ said Dave. ‘You should have had more to drink.’

‘I’m in one of those moods where however much I drink, I don’t get drunk,’ said Sophie crossly.

‘Oh dear,’ said Dave.

They followed Portia and Penelope, jostling and giggling their way out of the door, into the sudden comparative silence of the traffic-less street.

Portia gasped. ‘Oh, it’s snowing!

‘Oh fuck it,’ said Penelope, who resented Nature its inconveniences. Sophie, in contrast, felt immediately calmed and cheered by this intervention of circumstances beyond her or any human control, as if an act of God.

They skipped and shuffled up the hill through the already-trampled two inches of snow. Portia grabbed Penelope’s gloved hand on one side, and Matt’s, which happened to be nearest, on the other, and led them threading through the crowds towards Princes Street, Richard, Dave and Sophie following in their wake. They found a spot with a view of the castle and a female DJ with the weariness of one who has been flannelling since 9pm broadcasting over a loudspeaker. She audibly cheered up as she realised she only had a minute to go, and a ripple went round the crowd.

‘Here we go!’ said the DJ. ‘Ten!’

The whole crowd, from one end of the city to the other, joined in. ‘Nine! Eight! Seven! Six!’

Sophie suddenly thrilled to the moment. A new year, all fresh and innocent out of the box. Maybe it will be all right after all.

‘Three! Two! One! Happy New Year!’

Edinburgh Castle went white as it stretched its first burst of fireworks like dragons’ wings. Sophie was captivated. The swirling snow filling the air was lit by red and blue spheres. Huge white explosions illuminated the great black rock of the Castle, picked out in snow like an old engraving: a sublime, unreal representation of volcano and blizzard. Snow was getting in her eyes.

‘Bugger me, look at that,’ said Dave between explosions, tugging her sleeve. Sophie startled and looked down, reluctant to tear her eyes away from the fireworks. It took her a while to recognise Portia and Matt, their faces hidden in each others’.

‘Oh,’ said Sophie. She felt sorry for Dave, whom she knew was partial to Portia. She felt even sorrier for herself, missing Tom their first New Year together.

‘Didn’t see that coming,’ said Dave.

No, me neither,’ said Sophie. ‘Well, not before tonight. Portia suddenly seemed to be on a mission.’

‘Oh well — why not bless ’em,’ said Dave. ‘Happy New Year, Soph.’ They embraced, and kissed, as you do at New Year, but forgot to stop. Dave’s mouth was warm, and opened, and Dave’s tongue was alive, and intimate, the only living, intimate, warm thing in that cold, old, unreal engraving of a historic city.

They jumped apart and Sophie looked around. Portia and Matt were still entwined, like amorous slugs. Penelope and Richard had vanished. No-one had seen.

‘Sorry,’ said Dave.

‘No, my fault,’ said Sophie, like polite strangers who had jostled in a library cafe.

‘Time to head?’ said Dave.

‘Yeah,’ said Sophie. ‘Early start.’

Everyone was freezing, and Princes Street was emptying fast. The snow fell.

* * *

‘I set off at six,’ George was saying.

‘Have you walked all the way from Colinton?’ asked Edith. George signified assent with a slight, triumphant smile. ‘Puts us to shame, doesn’t it?’ Edith said to Violet. ‘That must be, what, four miles at least?’

‘Oh more than that — five or six,’ said Quentin.

‘I confess walking from Bruntsfield was quite epic enough for me these days,’ said Violet, who, however, was dressed like an advertisement for ‘countrywear’ and whose walk across town through a foot of snow had left her looking glowing and energised.

‘It’s strange how quiet the city goes, isn’t it?’ said Ben. ‘I came over Arthur’s seat and a great golden dawn was breaking all over East Lothian. It was spectacular. You must have seen it?’ he added to George.

‘Yes, just as I came down the Mound,’ said George. ‘Crackin’, wasn’t it?’

‘Like an egg! You must have set off in pitch darkness,’ said Ben.

‘Well, except that the snow was reflecting the street lights so the whole place was bright,’ said George. ‘It was as quiet as quiet, though. I didn’t see a soul all the way here, actually.’

‘No, nor did I,’ said Edith.

‘I saw one person walking their dog on the Meadows,’ said Violet.

Sophie had stumbled in during this conversation, having discovered her wellies had sprung a leak and, having lost her good hat, wearing an absurd bobble hat with her faded mountaineering coat. Under the absurd hat she had an absurd hangover. The shame of the horrible orange bobble stood proxy for the shame of the knowledge of having kissed Dave, which she could hardly believe was less glaringly evident, although of course nobody knew about it. Dave was taking off his coat and chatting to Quentin with what seemed to Sophie to be unseemly nonchalance. She hated them all, with their smug wax jackets and experiences of sunrises and clear heads and consciences.

‘Ah, Sophie,’ said Peter, dog-collared and official-looking. ‘I’m glad you’re here. Have you met Roddy?’ He presented a tall, thin man with spectacles and a little beard, and a woolly brown jumper with a zip at the collar. Sophie remembered he looked like a meerkat.

‘Oh yes, we’ve met,’ said Sophie superciliously. ‘At the Scottish Green Cities Forum?’

‘Oh — yes,’ said the meerkat, who evidently forgotten it. ‘I think we’ve put a good script together.’

‘Yes, I’m looking forward to it,’ said Sophie, wishing she were still in bed.

‘Where is everybody?’ said Matteo the choirmaster was saying crossly. ‘It’s quarter past eight.’

‘Here’s Penelope and Richard,’ said Dave.

‘So sorry!’ panted Penelope. ‘We’ve just been haring it up Leith Walk. Gosh that snow’s deep.’

‘I don’t suppose you know what’s happened to Portia?’ Matteo asked her.

‘No — what’s happened to Portia?’

‘I don’t know! I was hoping you would. I just work here, nobody tells me anything.’

‘She was out with us last night. Give her a ring.

‘I’ve tried. Her phone’s off.’

‘She’ll be struggling through the snow. I’m sure she’ll turn up. What time are we on? Nine?

‘Yes. And Matt’s not here either. Sorry, Ben.’ Ben was the only other tenor, and not a confident singer.

‘I’m sure they’ll appear,’ said Dave, giving a conspiratorial glance at Sophie. Sophie didn’t want to be involved in any conspiracies with Dave, even ones that only involved third parties’ kisses.

‘Right we may as well have a run-through,’ said Matteo, beginning to dole out little stapled sheaves of photocopies. ‘Everything you need is in this.’

Oh Holy Night?’ said Penelope with incredulous scorn, opening the bundle at random.

‘You’re here to sing it, not to comment on it,’ said Matteo impatiently. ‘Here, have one too — feel free to join in the carols.’ He gave a sheaf to Roddy.

‘Oh — thank you — I don’t know much about –‘ stuttered Roddy inarticulately — as if he had been asked to participate in a Satanic ritual, thought Sophie.

‘This is Roddy, our environmentalist,’ said Matteo, gesturing in a welcoming manner. The meerkat nodded nervously.

‘Hi Roddy,’ said Penelope across the choir, in an awkward one-woman attempt at a chorus of welcome. Everyone else just stared at him.

‘How’d’you do, I’m Ben,’ said Ben, who happened to be standing next to him, and put out his hand to shake.

‘How’d’you do,’ said Roddy, looking tense.

‘And this is Kylie, our Producer,’ said Matteo, gesturing further away to a smiley lady ensconced like a queen wasp amongst the nest of coloured cables and button-spangled steel boxes which had encrusted the area around the pulpit.

‘Hello, everyone,’ called Kylie, who shared with Matteo the task of making this reluctant, hungover, sleepy rabble a conduit of festive cheer to the Nation at 9am on New Year’s Day.

‘Hello Kylie!’ responded a far more respectable chorus of choristers smiling back at her.

Sophie thought, now the meerkat thinks we are rude and posh as well as religious weirdos. She hated him for the prejudices she had projected on to him.

‘Do you want to run through what’s going to happen?’ Matteo asked Kylie.

‘Yes,’ said the queen wasp, deftly stepping forward out of her nest of wires while consulting her own, much thicker, sheaf of pages. She explained to the choir how the service would work, how Peter would begin it from outside, and how Roddy and Sophie would come forward to the microphone to read their spoken sections. ‘Now — do you want to have a sing through some things?’ she asked, batting their shared authority back to Matteo. The choir looked back at him like spectators at a tennis match.

‘Yes, we better had. Where the hell is Portia? I’ll have to play. We’ll start with the first one, Hark the Herald.’ The last sentence was spoken while hurrying towards the organ-loft door, and full-stopped with a bang.

‘Oh God, not Hark the Herald,’ said Quentin, voicing the thoughts of a choir who had sung it at least six times in the past month, and believed they had seen the last of it on Christmas morning.

There was a moment of tense silence, broken by the sound of Matteo’s feet hurrying up the wooden organ-loft staircase. He reappeared in sight, facing away from them, his curly hair flying about as he added a few extra loud stops to the piston setting. ‘My descant, not Willcocks’, he called, and started to play. The choir sang. ‘Skip to verse three!’ he shouted at the end of verse one, and Sophie and Penelope gave each other a slight cross-eyed glance of resignation. A descant with a hangover without having had time to warm up.

‘We sound awful,’ said Richard unconstructively at the end.

‘Dave, you’d better sing tenor with Ben,’ called Matteo.

‘Oh what?‘ said Dave, running his hands through his hair.

Sophie remembered the warmth of his tongue, and thought of Tom, and hated herself.

‘Matt’ll turn up,’ said Richard, confidently.

‘Sorry I’m so useless,’ said Ben.

‘Right, next one, O Holy Night‘, called Matteo. ‘Damn it, Matt was supposed to be singing the first verse of this as well. OK, we’ll have full men, please, unless he arrives.’

He started to play. The men, who had previously only sung the harmony part in verse two, hesitantly sang in dubious unison.

Matteo stopped before verse two.

‘It’s not the most obvious tune, is it?’ said George.

‘How long have we got?’ Matteo called to Kylie.

‘Oh, you can have five minutes yet,’ called the ever-cheerful queen of the wires.

‘Just do that again’, said Matteo, trying to sound as if everything was under control. The men read the tune again, eliminating eighty percent of the mistakes they made first time round, and they made it to the end.

‘Right, quickly, While Shepherds Watched, just the first and last verse,’ called Matteo. Everyone’s voices had warmed up a bit by now, and, with the hungover Dave adding some audible tenor, it didn’t sound too bad. The expression of strangled agony on his face wouldn’t be visible on the radio.

‘You sound great, guys,’ said smiley Kylie, coming forward again as they finished, clutching her photocopies and a pen.

‘We’re singing all the verses in the service, right?’ interrupted George.

‘Yes, of course,’ said Matteo, in the tone of one answering a stupid question.

Kylie, who had stopped with pen poised and smile fixed on her face, unfroze and continued talking. An engineer emerged, troll-like, from the shadows and moved microphones around slightly. Nobody introduced him, but Kylie said, ‘Thanks Jim.’

Kylie gave a few more instructions and Roddy and Sophie read parts of their script so Jim could check the balance. In the organ loft, Matteo was still trying to phone Portia. At three minutes to nine they still hadn’t appeared. ‘Looks like we’re not going to have a conductor. You’ll have to watch my head,’ said Matteo irritably. ‘Just do try remember diction is especially important on the radio. And do try to get the consonants together at ends of lines. I won’t be able to indicate anything, just put them where they’re supposed to be. And please turn the pages quietly.’

Dave clownishly flapped his photocopies noisily. Penelope tittered.

‘OK guys,’ called Kylie, wearing headphones. Everyone snapped into order. ‘Peter, can you hear me?’ She listened, head cocked, for the response from Peter outside, heard only through her headphones. ‘Good — ready? … Right, any minute now … OK — off you go.’

There was tense silence in the church: no-one was sure whether they were on-air or not. They stood poised, clutching Hark the Herald.

‘Jim, can we feed Peter through to here so we can hear him?’ said Kylie. Peter’s disembodied voice suddenly filled the church, mid-sentence, full of good cheer.

‘… Year to you all!’

‘Thanks,’ said Kylie to the invisible Jim.

‘I’m standing on Calton Hill, overlooking the centre of Edinburgh’, went on Peter. ‘After last night’s heavy snow, the city is white and beautiful …’ Kylie pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows in approval: Peter had re-written his introduction to take account of the snow. Sophie, who had a full script, showed it to Penelope next to her. He was supposed to be talking about the busy city waking up, with the sound of buses and traffic in the background, but, because of the snow, there was no sound of traffic. ‘… it seems appropriate to reflect, in the stillness …’ said Peter, getting himself back on-script. Suddenly there was the sound of feet running through snow and loud panting. ‘… on our place in the world, in the order of nature, at time of dire danger and grave responsibility…’ Peter’s voice inappropriately brightened up as he began to speak of the environmental crisis and the recent climate summit in Lima, and the explanation came a moment later as the church door gave a double creak-clunk, once from the outside over the loudspeakers and once in reality on the inside, and Portia and Matt, red-faced and dripping with perspiration, ran into the church. Matteo said not a word, but slipped out of the organ loft as Portia burst in. Matt tried to control his breathing as he looked through the photocopied sheet Ben handed him with a scowl. Everyone glared at the delinquents, except Dave, who looked gratefully relieved at being able to sing bass again.

Jim silenced the end of Peter’s broadcast so as not to interfere with the beginning of the carol in the church, and Matteo glued his eyes to Kylie, who had her head and pen cocked beneath her headphones. She indicated with her pen and eyebrows. Matteo pointed at Portia. Portia began the introduction to Hark the Herald, and they were off.

* * *

‘That was great guys,’ said Kylie, taking off her headphones and stepping out of her wires. ‘I’ll just go and rescue Reverend Peter, he’s been banished to the hall.’ She headed off.

‘Well, that could have been worse,’ said Richard philosophically.

Much worse,’ said Matteo. ‘Thanks guys.’

‘You looked very funny doing your O Holy Night thing,’ said Penelope to him, imitating the way Matteo had conveyed in pantomime that Matt was to sing the first verse solo after all.

‘I was so relieved we didn’t have to sing that,’ said Quentin. ‘What a peculiar tune.’

‘I’m amazed you didn’t know it,’ put in Roddy the environmentalist. ‘It’s the only one I did know.

‘Our confidence is all a front,’ said Richard. ‘We’re actually pretty ignorant.’

‘Once we were singing carols in the Balmoral and a child requested Rudolph the red-nose reindeer‘ said Penelope. ‘We made such a hash of it. We could never decide whether the tune went up or down, and no-one except Dave could remember the words.’

‘Because I’m a legend,’ said Dave ironically, in a hollow Marvin voice. His hangover had kicked in properly and his head hurt.

Kylie came back followed by Peter the vicar, and Ben’s boyfriend Frank.

‘Frank!’ cried Penelope.

‘Happy New Year everyone,’ said Frank. ‘I heard you on the radio in the hall — you sounded fab!’

‘Well, we got through it anyway,’ said Richard, voicing the feeling of the choir.

‘It’s nice and warm in there — and Peter’s got the kettle on,’ said Kylie, as they Happy-New-Yeared Frank.

‘Tea anyone?’ affirmed Peter.

‘Oh I could kill for a cup of tea,’ said Ben. ‘Come on Rod.’

‘I could kill for a bacon roll,’ said Dave.

‘You know what I could kill for,’ said Matteo. ‘An Aberdeen buttery roll.’

‘Oooooh, a buttery!’ said Sophie. ‘I wish you hadn’t made me think of that.’

‘I don’t know what one of those is,’ said Portia.

‘Amazing things you only get in Aberdeen,’ said Sophie.

‘I know where you can get them,’ said Roddy unexpectedly. ‘There’s a wee bakery at the top of Leith Walk.

‘No — is there?’ said Matteo, his eyes widening. ‘How did I never know about this?’

‘Let’s go and get some,’ said Ben putting his coat on. ‘Come on Frank. Where is it?’

Armed with the meerkat’s instructions, Frank and Ben headed out into the snow on a breakfast raid. By the time they returned, the second pot of tea was being brewed.

Ben proffered the bag of butteries to Roddy, saying, ‘You first — that was a good tip!’

‘Thanks,’ said Roddy, adding to Portia, ‘Try one.’

Portia gingerly took out one of the contents of the greasy-looking bag. ‘It looks like a squashed croissant,’ she said. Then, with her mouth full, ‘Oh, wow!’

‘I’d just like to remind everyone this was my idea,’ said Matteo, diving in to the bag.

‘You didn’t know where to get them though,’ said Sophie, following suit and looking with gratitude at Roddy, who had suddenly developed hero status.

‘It’s like … the best hangover cure ever,’ said Portia. ‘It’s so … buttery.‘ everyone laughed at her ineloquence.

‘And salty,’ added Sophie, taking a more scientific approach to its therapeutic properties.

‘I’ve got bacon rolls, too,’ said Frank, holding up a much bigger bag.

‘Oh, good man,’ said Dave, hastening thither.

‘Here, Roddy, have a cup of tea,’ said Peter, handing one into his free hand handle-first. ‘Well done in the service.’

‘Well done all three of you,’ said George, looking at Sophie, Peter and Roddy. ‘It was very well put-together. I wish I’d come to your Light for Lima vigil now.’

‘Ah!’ said Sophie significantly, meaning, ‘let that be a lesson to you’. ‘Still, there’s still time to fast for the climate. Peter’s doing it.’

‘Hang on, didn’t you say you were supposed to fast on the first day of the month?’ said Richard, looking at the second half-eaten buttery Sophie was holding. The guilt of the hypocritical environmentalist washed over Sophie.

‘We’re launching it at Holy Trinity next month,’ said Peter, coming to her rescue. ‘Sophie’s just said so on the radio.’

‘I’m not sure about it,’ said Dave. ‘It looks a bit — like you think you’re going to solve climate change by praying rather than actually by doing stuff.’

‘If you’d listened to what I was saying in the service,’ said Sophie, ‘you’d know it was about solidarity. And it’s being done all round the world by people of all faiths and none.’

‘Hm,’ said Dave, his mouth full of bacon roll. ‘My main concern in the service was staying upright.’

‘What was everyone doing last night?’ said Matteo. ‘You all look like death warmed up.’

The reprobates exchanged guilty glances, except Penelope who said, ‘We all went out for the bells. It was great — bloody freezing though.’

‘Typical Pen,’ said Sophie. ‘You lead everyone astray by trying to get them to keep pace with you, then turn up on time and looking absolutely fine. I don’t know how you do it.’

‘I was steaming,’ admitted Dave. Sophie began to wonder whether he actually remembered the disaster. She hoped not.

‘Very unprofessional. And why were you so late?’ said Matteo to Portia. ‘And you,’ he added to Matt.

‘My alarm didn’t go off,’ said Portia, trying to look brazen like Penelope, and only half-succeeding.

‘No, nor did mine,’ said Matt, looking thoroughly sheepish.

Violet, Edith and George came over, saving them from further interrogation.

‘Well, that’s the year launched,’ said Violet.

‘Shame we didn’t get any decent music to sing,’ said Penelope.

‘You can choose it next time,’ said Matteo crossly. ‘And get more than eleven singers to turn up, on time.’

‘Never mind. Only a week till Epiphany carols,’ said Violet. ‘What are we singing, Maestro?’

‘Er, Bethlehem Down …’ began Matteo.

‘Oh, lovely, my favourite!’ said Edith.

‘And the Leighton. You’re doing the solo by the way,’ Matteo said to Sophie.

‘Lully, lulla!’ croaked Sophie, more witchily than seraphically.

‘Not a drop of alcohol before then,’ said Marcus.

‘What else?’ said Penelope eagerly.

‘Oh — Good King WenceslasThree Wee KingsI Saw Three Ships — anything with the word Kings or the number three you know.’

Roddy laughed. ‘Three Wee Kings?’

‘We three,’ elucidated Ben. ‘Tedious old choir joke.’

‘Then what’s the next excitement after Epiphany?’ pressed Penelope. ‘We need things to look forward to at this time of year.’

‘Well, there’s the wedding of the century,’ said Ben.

‘Oh, who’s getting married?’ asked Roddy politely.

‘Me and Ben,’ said Frank. Sophie almost laughed out loud at the look of shock on Roddy’s face.

‘Instead of bridesmaids we’ll have all the clergy of the diocese in procession pink fluffy stoles,’ said Frank, ‘Coing all along Princes Street and up Calton Hill. It’ll be like that painting of George IV’s visit to Edinburgh, only with more people.’

‘I think you’ll find it’s against canon law to wear fluffy pink stoles in procession,’ said Peter doubtfully.

‘Isn’t it against canon law to marry us at all?’ said Ben.

‘I’m working on it,’ said Peter, slightly grimly. ‘The institutions of our esteemed religion are not always quite up to speed with the rest of society,’ he explained to Roddy. ‘But,’ he added to Frank, ‘when I officiate at your wedding, I shall wear a pink fluffy stole.’

Everyone laughed at the unlikely vision.

‘Right,’ said George, ‘Fortified by my bacon roll I think it’s time to begin the long march back to Colinton. I may be some time.’

‘Farewell Captain Oates,’ said Richard.

‘See you at Epiphany Carols, I hope,’ said Matteo.

‘You have more carols?’ said Roddy.

‘Epiphany’s the last, thank God,’ said Penelope. ‘And not for a week.’

Hobbit‘s on telly at eleven,’ said Dave, who was consulting his phone.

‘Rest of the day: sorted,’ said Peter.

* * *

It was dark already by the time Sophie and Dave listened to the broadcast on iPlayer. They’d both fallen asleep near the end of the Hobbit, then Tom had phoned. He said he and Ursula had been listening and it had sounded great.

‘You should have seen what it was like in real life,’ said Sophie. ‘Remember that farce about the theatre, Noises Off? It was like that.’

‘Did everyone get stuck in the snow?’

‘Oh, everyone: we all had to walk.’

‘Really? Wow. What, Violet and everyone?’

‘George walked from Colinton.’

‘Bloody hell.’

‘And we all went out for the bells last night, and Portia got us all pished.’

‘All entirely her fault, I’m sure,’ said Tom wryly.

‘I wasn’t as bad as some,’ said Sophie, glaring at Dave.

‘Sore heads all round?’

‘And, Matt and Portia nearly didn’t make it. Did you hear people running in the background and the door banging, in Peter’s introduction?’

‘No? I was listening to what he was saying.’

‘Listen to it again. That’s them running in!’

‘Really? What — as, in, running in together?

‘Yes! Exactly!’

‘Together together?’

‘Yes! They succumbed to the bells!’ Sophie stole a glance at Dave, but he was fiddling with his phone. She decided he must have been sufficiently drunk to have forgotten.

‘Haha! That’s funny,’ said Tom. ‘I hope it doesn’t cause angst next year — this year. Do you think it’ll last?’

‘I don’t know — I think Portia’s been angling for it, for a while. Ever since Penelope landed Richard at the choir retreat.’

‘Ha — anything Penelope can do, Portia can do better. We’re all getting old and coupling up, Soph. There won’t be wild parties like there used to be in our gay bachelor days.’

* * *

And now Dave and Sophie were drinking mugs of tea listening to the broadcast, agreeing it didn’t sound nearly as bad as they expected.

‘Hope I never meet that ruddy Roddy again,’ said Sophie.

‘I thought he was all right,’ said Dave. ‘Bit quiet. Overwhelmed probably. I’d be a bit quiet if I was thrown into the middle of us lot.’

‘There’s Quentin!’ they both chorused at one point when his distinctive voice stuck out.

‘Portia fluffed that bit,’ said Dave as the organ played a curious inharmonious pedal.

‘I’m astonished she managed to play it at all,’ said Sophie.

‘It is pretty good, considering there were only eleven of us.’

‘Let’s listen to the bit where Matt and Portia run in again.’

Dave spooled the iPlayer back, and found Peter’s voice saying, ‘… it seems appropriate to reflect, in the stillness …’ followed by the sound of two pairs of boots scrunching on snow, audible panting, and the door banging. They both laughed.

‘Who’s sending me emails on New Year’s Day?’ said Dave. ‘Oh — it’s to the choir from Peter.’

‘Oh, what’s he say?’ said Sophie.

Thank you for your efforts bla bla epic journeys bla … I thought you’d be interested to read this email I have just received from ruddy Roddy.

‘He doesn’t say that?’

‘No, he just says Roddy.’

‘What does ruddy Roddy say?’ said Sophie, beyond intrigued.

Dear Peter, many thanks for the opportunity to join Holy Trinity in their New Year morning service …

‘As if we’d have been doing it if it wasn’t on the radio!’

… I hadn’t had the best start to the day as my boiler had broken down the night before …

‘Bloody hell — no boiler this morning, can you imagine?’ Sophie shivered at the thought.

… so I hope I didn’t seem too grumpy! I must say, though, that I was completely cheered up and quite inspired by you and the choir. I’m not used to churches, but the choir were so friendly and welcoming I confess it changed all my expectations…’

‘Awww,’ said Sophie.

‘I bet he didn’t expect Ben and Frank,’ said Dave.

No one expects Ben and Frank!‘ said Sophie, with Pythonesque emphasis.

‘I mean, after his thing about gay marriage causing climate change.’

‘Oh yeah — they must have been a bit of an eye opener for him. Peter in a pink feather stole. Ha!’

‘Do you want to hear the rest of his email? You’ll like this bit.’

‘Go on?’

‘I didn’t know about the Fast for the Climate initiative but I was very impressed by the idea of a global movement of solidarity. I’m thinking of taking part myself, and will see if I can get Nature Scotland officially involved. I’ll contact Sophie in the next few days about whether we might be involved in the launch in February.’

‘Gosh,’ said Sophie.

‘There, thought you’d like that,’ said Dave. And what do we learn from this, Miss Strang?’

‘I dunno — what do we learn?’

‘Don’t go pre-judging people. Judge not, that ye be not judged.’

‘Ah — fuck off Jesus,’ said Sophie, and bombarded him with the screwed-up foil from a chocolate Santa.

* * *

Ursula is available as a Kindle novel for £2.58: search Ursula on Kindle or follow this link. All profits from its sale raise funds for my own eco-project, the refurbishment of a field centre in the Angus Glens, which you can read about here. Penelope would hate it. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas and happy New Year! Eleanor @eleanormharris.

My six Edinburgh things to do this weekend

There are six things this weekend for you to get involved in! Some are self-interested, some are a worthy, most are creative, and all are connected with Edinburgh.

1. Fast for the climate. Could you go without food on the first day of each month in solidarity with people affected by climate change, and to call for a strong international climate deal? I’d really like a few virtual friends to join me in this as frankly going without food is a slightly traumatic prospect. Would you? Find out and sign up at fastfortheclimate.org and let me know on twitter @eleanormharris. Let’s #fastfortheclimate with people round the world on Monday.

2. Souper Saturday postcard art fundraiser, this Saturday 4-7pm, St John’s Church, Princes Street. Help raise vital funds for great project to give homeless people food and love every week. You can also buy original artwork by tremendous Edinburgh artists, and me. More details here.

3. Join the Labour party. Actually, consult your “ain lichts” and join whichever party you prefer: political involvement is the thing in Scotland, even for chronically floating voters like me. But if you join the Labour Party before Monday you can vote for the new Scottish leader, and particularly for my favourite MSP Sarah Boyack whose programme of social, environmental and economic justice, policy of local empowerment, and style of dialogue and collaboration seems to me outstandingly better than anything else around.

4. Buy my Christmas cards. Many involve Christmas carols. Some feature Edinburgh and/or history. Several involve small creatures in Santa hats. And there’s a whole range with spaniels. They’re all in my online shop.

5. Read my novel. It’s called Ursula, it’s funny and thought-provoking, and it’s set on Calton Hill – with jaunts to Morningside, East Lothian, Mull and London – and it costs less than a pint of Deuchars on Kindle. Have a look at the reviews. If you’ve read it, I’d love a review on Amazon or Goodreads, or a mention of it to a friend: it’s indie-published so has no champions but its readers.

All the proceeds from Ursula and the Christmas cards will help me refurbish Blair House, my field centre in the Angus glens, which you can read about here.

6. Visit the Georgian House on St Andrew’s Day, it’s open for free! I am a volunteer room guide on Sunday afternoons so if you come between 1-3pm do hunt me out. Bring your questions on life in the Regency West End (I have a PhD in it!) I’m proud of them just now because today they’ve won a Green Tourism Gold Award, another ambition for Blair House. More info here.

6. Come to Advent Carols. End the weekend in a warm, peaceful, candlelit church and our singing waft you into the new church year. Music by Palestrina, Lloyd, Stanford, Leighton, Rachmaninov and much more. Please blow out your candle before snoozing. 6pm in St John’s Princes Street. And give us a shout-out afterwards at @stjohnschoir.

The First Clergy of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral Edinburgh

St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Palmerston Place, Edinburgh was designed by George Gilbert Scott and consecrated in 1879. St Mary’s was funded by the bequest of two sisters, Mary and Barbara Walker, whose fortune as landowners had been made by the housing and railway development of the West End of Edinburgh. How did this new Cathedral understand itself? What identity did its architect provide? Who were its congregation? How did it belong in a Presbyterian industrial city? I begin with a group of eleven clergy who were closely connected with its foundation, and who provided its spiritual vision.

The Clergy

Bishop Charles Terrot and Dean Edward Ramsay of Edinburgh, and John Sinclair were older clergy who had known the Walker sisters, and were appointed by them as Trustees to plann the Cathedral.

In March 1871 Mary Walker died and the will came into effect, but the project was launched amidst a complete change in clerical personnel. Henry Cotterill became coadjutor in 1871 then Bishop on Terrot’s death in 1872. The energetic Dean Ramsay also died in 1872. Cotterill appointed James Montgomery Dean in 1873. Finally Sinclair, last of the old guard, died in 1875.

In 1878 the Cathedral chapter was appointed. Montgomery was made Dean of the Cathedral (an office later re-named Provost) as well as of the Diocese. Sub-Dean John Cazenove and Chaplains William Meredith and Reginald Mitchell-Innes comprised the other full-time staff, while Incumbent Canons Daniel Fox Sandford of St John’s Princes Street, Gildart Jackson of St James’ Leith and William Bird Bushby of the Duke of Buccleuch’s chapel at Dalkeith were senior clergy in the diocese of Edinburgh.

Scottish or English?

The question usually first asked of a Scottish Episcopalian’s identity is, ‘were they Scottish or English?’, but the answers for this group were far from straightforward.

Bishop Terrot’s parents, who met in India where Terrot was born, were both from French Hugenot families. When his father was killed in action his family invited his mother to live with them in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Terrot was educated in Cambridge but holidayed with his uncle, incumbent of the Episcopal Chapel at Haddington, succeeding him in that post and spending his entire career in the diocese of Edinburgh.

John Sinclair, son of the editor of the Statistical Account of Scotland, grew up in Edinburgh, studied in Oxford and became Rector of Sutterby in Lincolnshire, but aged 25 returned to the diocese of Edinburgh for seventeen years, before heading in 1839 for an ecclesiastical-political career in London.
Ramsay, son of the Sheriff of Kincardineshire, was largely educated in England: at Durham and Cambridge, with his uncle in Yorkshire, and as a curate in Somerset where, in charge in the absence of the rector, he was remembered for befriending the local Methodists. He returned to the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1824 and was distinguished by his energy and intelligence, playing an important role in removing barriers between the Scottish Episcopal and Anglican church, and shining as a national literary figure.

Bishop Cotterill was the son of the evangelical Rector of Blakeney in Norfolk and educated at Cambridge. He came to Scotland as Bishop of Edinburgh late in his career, after serving for thirty-five years in Madras, Brighton and Grahamstown in South Africa. Montgomery, grandson of the Baronet of Stobo, made his career in the land of his birth, although he received his theological training in Durham and spent two years as a curate in Dorset before Terrot recruited him as curate for St Paul’s York Place.

Cazenove, from London, had a British Tractarian formation as curate at St Peter’s, Leeds, followed by twenty years as Vice-Provost then Provost of the Cathedral of the Isles on Cumbrae in Argyll, before settling in Edinburgh where he developed a distinguished educational career.

Sandford was a Scot by birth, education, and career. However, he was the grandson of a prominent English immigrant in whose diocese the elder clergy had grown up,  Bishop Daniel Sandford (d.1830), the first Englishman to become a bishop in the Scottish Episcopal Church, assisting it to emerge from post-Jacobite obscurity and into communion with the Church of England. The migrant missionary gene emerged late in his grandson’s life: he became Bishop of Tasmania in 1883.

Jackson and Bushby were English immigrants, as were the young chaplains, Meredith and Mitchell-Innes, who were at the start of careers that would lead both of them further north: Meredith after a period as Vice-Principal of Chichester Theological College returned to Scotland as Rector of Muthill and then Crieff in Fife, while Mitchell-Innes held various diocesan posts in Edinburgh, Glasgow and finally Inverness.

To categorise any individual in this group as Scottish, English or even British would be misleading: collectively, they were Episcopalians of the British Empire. What did they think about theology, Scottish identity, church establishment, social action? What shape did the teaching in the new church take? To find out you’ll have to read my full article. All I need to do is write it.

Waverley at 200

“It is, then, sixty years since Edward Waverley, the hero of the following pages, took leave of his family, to join the regiment of dragoons in which he had lately obtained a commission.”

It is, now, two hundred years since Walter Scott opened his first novel with these words, to begin a career which would make him world-famous, transform the novel, and transform Scotland.

I live in Scott’s city of Edinburgh, and move in its literary circles, yet I have met very few people who have read Waverley — very few indeed who are not much older than myself. Yet it has a strong claim to be high on any list of ‘world’s most important novels’. All historical novels, adventure novels and fantasy novels owe a debt to Waverley.

Scott literally leads his hero Waverley out of the drawing room and into a world of politics, adventure, characters and landscapes more varied and romantic than he ever imagined. At first the hero barely copes, and then he is transformed. Whereas most eighteenth-century novels had been set in the reader’s familiar world, Scott transported them. This was what was new — and why the reading public went wild.

Now, I have a job for you.
1. Go to a second-hand bookshop (or your kindle), get Waverley, and read it.
2. If you’re on Twitter, talk about it at #waverley200.
3. Use the comments section under this blog to tell us what you thought of it – or if you have your own blog write an article and link to it here.

Who’s your favourite character? How would you dramatise it for the BBC? What surprised you?

What can the modern reader expect to find in Waverley? Here are three things which I think explain why the novel went out of fashion, and why I don’t think they should bother you:

1. A leisurely journey: Scott’s readers had longer attention spans than the modern paper-back buyer, so depending on your time and patience you can choose either to settle in to, or to skim past, the long explanations and chatty characters.

2. A bit of twee… Scott’s romantic portrayal of the Scottish Highlands has inspired  every tartan outfit, Landseer-style painting, and harp-music-accompanied-helicopter-filmed sequence since. To us, it can seem a bit hackneyed. But when the first readers followed Waverley to Flora’s hidden loch, they had never been there before.

3. Not a Victorian. This is 1814. Jane Austen is just publishing Mansfield Park. Waterloo hasn’t been fought yet. Queen Victoria hasn’t been born. Victorians were influenced enormously by Scott; but Scott was a man of the Enlightenment. Edinburgh was buzzing with science, history, politics, philosophy, and above all a sense that old mistakes could be amended and men and women throughout the world could work together to create a better, fairer and more beautiful world. Scott buzzed with it as much as anyone. Scott’s authorship was anonymous: many people guessed it had been written by the political reformer, Francis Jeffrey.

The treasures you’ll find are splendid nature writing, fun adventures, and above all brilliant characters. I’ll let you explore all those for yourselves.

On its 200th birthday, we have the opportunity to read Waverley with a fresh eye, and have fresh opinions, as it is almost impossible to do with established classics like Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre. That’s why I’m excited about hearing what you have to say about it. I’m sure there will be other, far grander, better planned, Waverley projects and celebrations at Abbotsford and in English Literature departments around the world, but I hope that a few of you will be inspired by this one.

Get reading, and then get writing below. I’m going to re-read it myself.

Waverley 200 Events

Do you know of an event, talk exhibition, broadcast etc celebrating Waverley this year? Let me know and I’ll add it:

22 March, Waverley @ 200, Conference at Dundee University: for details contact d.p.cook@dundee.ac.uk
9 June 6pm, Lecture by David Hewitt at the Royal Society of Edinburgh
8-12 July, Tenth International Scott Conference, University of Aberdeen

Latest on Twitter

Tweets about “#waverley200”
 

Read Walter Scott.

When you’re finishing a PhD, doctors start to tell you the two things that got them through: usually involving sugar or caffeine. If I make it to my doctorate it’s going to be thanks to 1. spinach (I was short on iron), and 2. Walter Scott.

Walter Scott was a member of my church and lived within two miles of me. In the nineteenth century, he was the best selling author on the planet, by several orders of magnitude. He pushed his successful contemporary Jane Austen completely off the radar. In my generation, he is almost totally unread.

I’d never thought of reading Scott. I love classics, but Scott was somehow buried under layers of horrid Victorian dust of the worst sort. I thought I’d better read a few because I was writing a history of the church.

I discovered a novelist more enlightened than Jane Austen, funnier than Trollope, more observant than Dickens, more emotive than Bronte – a novelist who starts gently but gets more unputdownable with every page, who makes me laugh out loud and cry, who when I get to the end of one makes me rush to a second-hand bookshop for one of the gazillion pocket editions mouldering there to start another.

In dear old Austen, you know you’ll get ‘three or four families in a country village’, centered on a hero who is richer than the heroine, and a heroine who has no particular plans other than matrimony. You’ll always know everyone’s exact rank and financial worth; men and women have their places, and the common people are invisible and silent. It’s very funny, it’s sweet, yes I want to be Elizabeth Bennet — but it’s not actually very enlightened, is it? It’s a patriarchal hierarchy: effective anti-French revolution propaganda. I can enjoy it, but it’s a foreign worldview to me.

In Scott, you might get anything. You might get an inspirational cottage girl (Jeanie Deans, Heart of Midlothian), or a villainous lawyer (Glossin, Guy Mannering), or an adorable farmer (Dandie Dinmont, Guy Mannering). You often get wrongheaded but loveable characters who are enlightened as the book progresses (Oldbuck, The Antiquary; Darsie Latimer, Redgauntlet). You get brainy, sporty, fabulous women whose aims in life are anything but matrimony: they are spies or politicians (Di Vernon, Rob Roy) or doctors (Rebecca, Ivanhoe). You get half-mad, autistic, or beggarly-poor characters who are just as three-dimensional and heroic as the rich and clever ones (Edie Ochiltree, The Antiquary; Dominie Sampson, Guy Mannering; Norna, The Pirate) It’s a rich celebration of all the shades and variations of human life from queens to beggars, geniuses to idiots, rebels to reconcilers, villains to role models: and Scott loves them all indiscriminately. He’s an egalitarian writer. I could live by his values.

The love-stories are sometimes good, but they are far from the only or the best relationships: the most interesting are often father-daughter ones.

You also get the most fabulous, cinematic descriptions of place and action. These things are just yearning to be turned into huge, spectacular, hilarious screenplays.

If you enjoy classic literature at all you’ll love Scott. He does have a few quirks which make him a bit of a challenge to the uninitiated but if you know what they are they are minor concerns:

1. He has a reputation for being anti-feminist, nationalist and  other unenlightened bad things. This is nonsense. He was shaped by Edinburgh when it was the most enlightened city in the world,* and it shows. He was Edinburgh’s contribution to the early romantic movement, which was also the height of the Enlightenment. Look carefully at the values which are ultimately commended or criticised in the novels and decide for yourselves. They’re more or less the values I try to live my life by.

2. There is often a strange character who belongs to the first chapter to explain how the story came to be discovered: Scott plays with the novel genre, wrapping his narrative in several layers of fictional author and editor. It’s part of the fun: just go with the flow. A plot will start eventually. Once you’ve read a few you’ll realise these early chapters are some of the most delightful bits, where he toys with your sense of reality.

3. The best novels, which are set in Scotland, have quite a lot of Scots dialogue. Keep going: you’ll get used to it. He was writing for a British audience, so he made sure it was comprehensible. And he explains all difficult words in footnotes.

4. They are quite long. And they sometimes start slowly. But you know classic novels do that — and once you’re hooked, reading them is the easiest thing in the world. Someone said to me when they had M.E. the only thing they could do was read Scott’s novels, which I can well imagine. As I say, they’re getting me though my PhD.

Scott was a variable novelist (he wrote 27, for money, increasingly frantically at the end of his life). So start with some good ones. Here are a few. Take your pick:

Guy Mannering: Set in Dumfriesshire and Edinburgh in the 1770s. Lawyers (Scott was a lawyer so they come up a lot!) and gypsies, smuggling, two rather second-rate heroines, but the best characters are the farmer Dandie Dinmont, and the extraordinary Dominie Sampson. Sheer delight: I would prescribe it to anyone who is depressed.

Rob Roy: Gallivanting Highland adventure set in the er.. 1770s?, with by far the best romance starring a tremendous heroine who can translate ancient Greek and ride with hounds, and a superb anti-heroine (Helen Roy) which shows you what happens when all that female strength and talent goes bad. A visit to Glasgow for all fans of the Weege. Don’t hold your breath for Rob Roy, though: he doesn’t appear till waaaay through the book. Just enjoy the mystery!

The Antiquary: Set on the east coast of Scotland in the 1790s, a gentle comedy involving a lot of eccentric male historians, and a girl and a beggar who are far better historians than any of them. Hurrah! Will the French invade?? Or will the ladies in the post office open something scandalous?!

Heart of Midlothian:  Rightly famous. Set in Edinburgh in the err… 1730s? The heroic Jeanie Deans will melt your heart — but there’s a lot of action in the wynds and closes before she comes on scene.

Redgauntlet: This is all about Jacobites in Lancashire in the 1750s. Ideal for fans of Morecambe Bay, mist, spies, and mysterious women in green. It has some very funny bits. They all have some very funny bits.

Old Mortality: I’m not sure you should read this first: I got stuck and put it down the first time. The second time I loved it so much I think it might be my favourite. It’s set in 17thC Scotland with two gorgeous heroes, Morton and Evendale (both in love with the same girl: it has tragic bits…), and two tremendous anti-heroes (Burley the Covenanter and Claverhouse the Jacobite), and these four dance a psychological dance across muir and bog, in and out of castles and battles.

I haven’t read all the others, but I’ve read some supposedly ‘second-rate’ ones and enjoyed every one. The three I wouldn’t  start with — although do read them later — are:

Waverley and Ivanhoe: These two books totally transformed Scottish and English culture. Waverley created the romantic Highlands, and Ivanhoe created Merry England. But they were SO influential that they now read as parodies of themselves: they’re like Horrible Histories. When you do come to read them, as an experienced Scott addict, bear in mind he was the first person to write this stuff. And notice the man of the enlightenment is still there (Rebecca in Ivanhoe is one of his most enlightened characters). Also in Ivanhoe he makes a bold and not wholly successful attempt to write in a Mediaeval idiom. No-one had ever done that before either, and he keeps it up admirably, but there’s something about ‘prithee gentle swain’ that the modern reader just can’t take seriously.

Bride of Lammermoor: For some reason this is the one all English Literature people read, maybe because, being a tragedy, Eng Lit people think it’s his only proper, serious novel. And it’s difficult. The female characters happen to be the particularly flawed ones in this book, so people assume he’s anti-women. Also, there are more really hilarious laugh-out-loud passages in Bride than any other Scott I’ve read, and it makes the denoument heart-rending — but if you’re expecting it to be all deeply serious, like Donizetti’s opera version, it’s a bit peculiar.

You have spent far long reading this blog. Go and read Scott (my friend Fraser has a very smart complete set for sale if you are really confident!) And if you can bear to put it down for a moment, please come back and thank me — because you will!

* I am not just bigging up my own city. It enjoyed this status for about 10 years and then got smug and went off badly!

Love and Slavery: the story of James Grahame

The thing about writing the collective biography of 420 people, is that sometimes the people come back at you out of history and re-write you.

The advocate James Grahame (1790-1842) is one of those who inspires me more than most. An idealistic young scholar with literary aspirations, while at Cambridge University he fell in love. Matilda Robley was the daughter of a Cumbrian slave owner from St John’s-in-the-vale, owner of hundreds of acres of plantation in Jamaica, and thousands of slaves. He abandoned his literary aspirations, trained as an advocate, argued himself out of his abolitionist principles, and in 1813 married her. Her old teacher wrote,

She is by far one of the most charming women I have ever known. Young, beautiful, amiable and accomplished; with a fine fortune. She is going to be married to a Mr Grahame, a young Scotch barrister. I have the greatest reluctance to part with this precious treasure, and can only hope that Mr Grahame is worthy of so much happiness.

Grahame was so moved by the privilege of gaining her that it brought on a religious conversion, which lasted the rest of his life. His faith was described as that of ‘the early Puritans and the Scotch Covenanters; but… sober, elevated, expansive, and free from narrowness and bigotry’. Tragically, Matilda died in 1818, and Grahame was left with his religion, his children, and the wealth. In 1827 he wrote,

My children are proprietors of a ninth share of a West India estate and I have a life-rent in it. Were my children of age, I coud not make one of the negroes free, and could do nothing but appropriate or forego the share of produe the estate yielded. Often I have wished it were in my power to make the slaves free, and thought this barren wish a sufficient tribute to duty. My conscience was quite laid asleep. Like many others, I did not do what I could, because I could not do what I wished. For years past, something more than a fifth part of my income has been derived from the labour of slaves. God forgive me for having so long tainted my store! … Never more shall the price of blood enter my pocket, or help to sustain the lives or augment the enjoyment of those dear children. They sympathize with me cordially. Till we can legally divest ourselves of every share, every shilling of the produce of it is to be devoted to the use of some part of the unhappy race from whose suffering it is derived.

When his children were of age, they gave their shares up.

James Grahame loved deep and loved well, and that love shaped his life and the world around him. That’s the kind of man who comes out of history and rewrites me.

Further reading:
Joseph Quincey, ‘Memoir of James Grahame’ in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, series 3 vol.9 (Boston: Little and Brown 1846)