Glen Doll Forest

One upon a time, there was a dark, dark moor,
and on that moor there was a dark, dark wood,
and in that wood there was a dark, dark house…

Blair House, Glen Doll, Angus

So began a beautifully-illustrated children’s book. I loved it because after the spookiness its ending is all homely, and because it made me think of Blair House, Glen Doll. I didn’t know one day Blair House would be mine, and I’d be restoring it as a field centre.

Doll is the Angus glen with the forest: the biggest on the Munro-strewn plateau that heaves between Deeside and the Mearns. Glen Doll forest clothes the midway point on Jock’s Road, the ancient drove road from Braemar to Kirriemuir.

Blair House, on the edge of the forest, was acquired from the farm which it adjoins by the Forestry Commission, who sold it on to the Edinburgh Academy after the forest was planted. Its history is entangled in the forest.

I love Glen Doll forest because it has no pretentions. It panders to no human constructs of aesthetics or authenticity: neither “picturesque plantation” nor “native restoration”. It’s a functional timber crop of spruce, larch, fir, and lodgepole pine, yet it has grown so much richer than that. It provides vital shelter and variation in habitat. It covers land which would have been forest originally, now denuded and degraded by millenia of overgrazing, nothing like the pristine bogland notoriously damaged by ill-placed spruce plantations in Sutherland.

Glen Doll Forest with the peak of Mayar (top left) above Corrie Fee, Craig Rennet (centre), and Jock’s Road running left to right.

Parts of Glen Doll forest have grown over-mature and begun tumbling down, creating glades and deadwood. Parts are being clearfelled, parts replanted, parts managed for leisure and biodiversity.

Summer larches and bilberry understory (V’s photo)

Conservationists argue incessantly about how Scotland’s landscape should be managed, but on one thing they all agree: we need more trees. We need them for biodiversity, and we need them for ourselves. Trees are our best renewable fuel and building material, and, vitally, our only effective method of carbon sequestration.

There is nothing ‘wild’ about Scotland’s landscape: humans have been shaping the Angus glens since the stone age. Glen Doll forest is a fine example of how our influence can enhance, instead of degrading it, while making our own living from it. It is practising John Ruskin’s economics: “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE”.

The woods on the Kilbo Path are strewn with boulders, full of the sound of tumbling water, and rich in mosses, ferns, and starry flowers.

Glen Doll forest has got into my Blair House refurbishment. I investigated biofuel pellets and ground source heat pumps; I was recommended oil; but I came back to log burners. I’ve contacted the foresters, and they can supply me. Instead of switching a switch to keep warm, people staying at Blair House will feel the roughness of Glen Doll timber in their hands, smell its scent, see it glow and hear it crackle. That’s being in touch with nature.

Loving the trees at Blair House. That’s me in green.

But we must plant more trees. And it is no good to say; we’ll do that later. The ease with which we can spend nature’s resources while so busy with our own thing is our downfall. There is no economics too costly, no politics too urgent, no religion too true, to delay restoring nature. The World Wildlife Fund as calculated that when Blair House first became a school field centre in 1970, there was twice as much nature in the world as there is today. Unless we put more back into nature than we take out of it every day of our lives, we will lose, catastrophically and soon. We need to write restoration into our every act.

This is why I have teamed up with Trees for Life for my Blair House fundraiser. For every £25 donation, £5 will plant a tree. When Blair House is open, guests will be invited to plant trees for the cars they drive and the wood they burn. This is not a gimmick, or a distraction, or a romance. This is writing restoration of nature into the down-to-earth running of Blair House.

Pines at Bachnagairn. (V’s photo)

Trees for Life are restoring the ancient Caledonian pine forest which once reached as far as Angus, but their work currently focuses on Dundreggan further north. You can find scraps of it around Glen Doll at the steep corrie-ends and amongst the boulders out of reach of deer: Corrie Fee, Bachnagairn, and one above the treeline above Jock’s Road which we christened ‘the magic wood’.

‘The Magic Wood’, Jock’s Road, showing the natural treeline should be far above the extent of the planted forest.

These are my tales of Glen Doll forest. If you like them, please help me restore Blair House, and plant a tree: here’s the link.

I love the larch because it is deciduous, marking the seasons like a Japanese garden. In spring it bursts out in pink flowers…
… and in autumn transform to gold. (V’s photo)

In autumn the forest’s fungus community puts on a glorious display of mushrooms: if one isn’t enough, here is an album.

In winter spruce and fir make far better shelter than larch. Looking down from Craig Mellon in December, the woods look like warm woollen rugs on the landscape.

“You struck off from Dundee, up through Angus, heading deep into the glens and up and over, aiming for Deeside. Snow covered the higher peaks. […] You were in amongst a circle of pines, gently brushing the upper inches of the thick needle blanket into a deep, dry bed. […] When you awoke you had been there long enough for a white sheet to have drifted down over you. You stood and shook yourself. […] and soon you were on a track across a moor, climbing into the dimming light. The wind rose and the snow came on more densely, piling up with astonishing speed. In a while you realised you’d made a mistake by leaving the shelter of the trees.” James Robertson, And the Land Lay Still.

 When I was very little, we used to make little houses for mice amongst the tree roots, inspired by Brambly Hedge and Beatrix Potter: a slate table and log benches, a carpet of fine red beech leaves, a feast of shiny mast, with their cuppy shells for candelabra, and lichen flames. 

Mum used to organise treasure hunts through the woods for me and my sister and my friend Lucy. Look, there’s a clue in that tree! And we’re deep in the woods on our own!

When I was twelve, Lucy, her friend Vicky and I were sent off by our parents to do the Edinburgh Academy wayfaring course right round the forest. We were into Eternal Flame, unrequited love, ghost stories, and, in my case, developing my arty photographs in darkrooms. It was October, mists rose out of the trees, and stags were bellowing on the hills all around us. We worked ourselves into an exquisite gothic terror, especially at one particular marker post, Number Ten, deep in a ride in the darkest part of a fir plantation.

I went back in 2012 to see how many of the wayfaring posts were still there, and found about half of them. I was excited to revisit Number Ten and approched it from the direction we had come almost twenty years before. But forest had been felled, and I found myself crossing a hundred yards of windblow. I thought I might never get out.

As I remembered how we had imagined Number Ten was enchanted, or cursed, it occurred to me that if I impaled myself or broke my neck here, no one would ever find me. Number Ten, when I eventually found it, was well outside the forest, amazingly still there. No, I’m not telling you where.

 We also used to love going for late night walks in the dark, letting the forest enwrap us. And when Lucy published her first novel last year, there it was:

“We let our eyes adjust to the dark, agreeing we would only use the torch if we got lost. Sound and touch became everything: the roar of the river, the crack of twigs under our feet, Jonathan’s strong, warm hand taking mine. […] After ten minutes’ steep climb we came out of the trees at the viewpoint. There was a narrow bench and we sat down. The mountains were just traceable against the sky. They seemed to have a presence in the darkness. […] “Look at the stars!” Lucy Lawrie, Tiny Acts of Love.

The landscape is always changing: the trees have grown up so far at Lucy’s “viewpoint” that it is a name one can only pronounce now in inverted commas. When she came back with her own children last year, I showed her a new path through the woods along the river, where once we had struggled like pioneers in jungle. Her children were enchanted, like we were.


It’s time for a re-enchantment of our landscape, of our society. Plant trees.
Or it’s time for an evidence-based, long-term economic policy. Plant trees.
Or it’s time to take practical action to mitigate climate change. Plant trees.
Plant trees.

Blair House will enable hundreds more people to encounter the enchanted, humble Glen Doll forest. Please follow this link to support its refurbishment – and plant a tree. You can find out about the Trees for Life Caledonian Pine Forest restoration on their website

Eleanor Harris @eleanormharris.

Photos mainly by me except for those by V who prefers to remain anonymous.

Red and green.

Looking across the forest to Craig Mellon from the window of Blair House in summer.
Larches and Scots Pines (V’s photo).
Rainbow over a forest road.
The Whitewater in summer.
I love walking in the woods in heavy rain. You are sheltered and the trees turn to diamonds.
The woods immediately behind Blair House are not Forestry Commission, but associated with the old hunting lodge, and are full of ancient treasures and mossy riches.
V’s photo.
Larches and fir at Lucy’s Viewpoint.
Fern, sorrel, anenome: rich shapes in the forest understorey.
Blair House behind a licheny bough.

The Great Glen Doll Meadow

I’ve rescued and am refurbishing an old independent school field centre in Angus. It’s a super house with which I have a long connection, but Glen Doll is even greater: a forest surrounded by a mighty Cairngorm plateau with thirteen Munros within reach. But greatest of all are its flowers.

One corner, Corrie Fee, is a site of global importance, which has inspired botanists for centuries, from the Forfar botanists who pioneered plant surveys of the British Empire, to modern Forfar botanist Alan Elliott of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, to Mum, me and forester Andy Heald, armed with a field guide, no Latin names, and not much head for heights.

Corrie Fee waterfall, Andy being brave, and all we found was a globe flower, but it was a triumphant one!

Botany forms an important part of my vision for Blair House. The house is right in the glen: all my photographs on this page were taken within a few miles’ walk of it. Learning to recognise flowers is one of the easiest ways for people of any age to reconnect with the diversity and beauty of nature. With a great variety of landscape types — forest, lowland pasture, protected and degraded upland, cliff, alpine and wetland — and good existing records, there is great potential for field trips and research.

This is why in raising the funds necessary to reopen Blair House I decided to create the Great Glen Doll Meadow. Everyone who pledges £10 or more to the crowdfund for refurbishment will receive enough seeds to plant a square metre of wildflowers – poppy, mayweed, bugloss, teasel, marigold, yarrow, knapweed, bedstraw, scabious, campion, ragged robin, vetch and more. You can sow these in your garden or a windowbox or perhaps in a neglected patch outside your office or school. I’d like you to post a photo of your flowers on the Blair House facebook page which I can collate into an album. The seeds are a mix of Scottish varieties from Scotia seeds based in Brechin, not far from Glen Doll.

So thanks to you, Blair House will not only be a place from which to look at flowers: it will also start out as a place which planted flowers, supported bees and other invertebrates, and inspired people with the wonder of the natural world — before they even arrive. Make your pledge of £10 now, and get your bit of the Great Glen Doll Meadow.

Bedstraw predominating in a summer riot of flowers and grass above the tree line on Jock’s Road
Anemone in the deep dark woods; sneezewort on the high mountain pasture.

Last April it was still all grey mist, rock, lichen: then I spotted the pink treasures: larch flowers, and high on the grey hillsides tiny purple saxifrage.
Little wild pansies, and tiny tiny eyebright: each one painted like delicate watercolours or ladies’ eyes, to draw in the bees.

Frances hunting the perfect botanical photograph in the woods on the Kilbo Path.

Even as a very amateur naturalist, by learning to recognise the common flowers I can spot something a bit more unusual. This scrap of canary-yellow crumpled silk in its cherry-coloured crinoline, prancing high up the mountain, turned out to be a rock-rose.

My enduring favourite flower is one of the commonest: harebells. They look as if spiders have been constructing an orchestra on principles of gothic architecture from scraps of summer sky.

Orchids on the mountain and by the stream. Marching armies, of whirling dervishes.

No Scottish glen would be complete without heather and ling. Tons of it.

A forget-me-not in the Blair House carpark. A symbol of love all constructed on mathematical principles, like something out of the Scottish Enlightenment.

The historic flora of Corrie Fee is symbolic of the need to restore biodiversity and people’s connection with nature. Please make your pledge today, and invite a friend to be part of the Great Glen Doll Meadow.

Knapweed, thistles and scabious: so tough, bright, profuse, Scottish.

The Year of Life

My New Year’s Resolution is to be a biodiversifier. It makes a good twitter hashtag too, look: #biodiversifier.

In 2014 we discovered that world populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish had declined by 52% since 1970. If you haven’t read the WWF Living Planet Report which announced this, you should have a look at it. It’s vitally important.

Sometimes biodiversity or ecosystems and their troubles can seem remote from our real life and concerns. Often they are discussed in scientific or romantic terms which cements this unreality. Yet this is a deep and dangerous misunderstanding. The natural world provides our food, our clothes, our shelter, our medicines. It provides the only available alternatives to mineral building materials and solid fuel. Most importantly, in its very diversity, it provides the robust systems which ensure rivers run, pollution is cleaned, even that the atmosphere stays wrapped around the earth and doesn’t burn off into space as happened on Venus.

We might not like to admit it, but biodiversity would survive just fine without social justice, without feminism or gay rights, without literature or the arts, even without peace (the area around Chernobyl is famously biodiverse). The depressing moral reality is, unless humans can change their relationship to nature, can, as an old book says, “work it and take care of it” instead of exploiting and demolishing it, the best prognosis for biodiversity would be a swift war or plague amongst the rogue species homo sapiens that would cull us sufficiently to allow nature to recover.

So, we must change our relationship to nature. We must do it urgently and profoundly. This does not require great leaps in scientific knowledge. We know a tremendous amount about the natural world, and more importantly we are aware of our ignorance and limits: that nature recovers well when we stop interfering, and ecosystem “experiments” (for example pouring carbon dioxide or CFCs into the atmosphere) often carry vast and unpredictable risks.

We need to become biodiversifiers. By protecting forests and oceans; by better land-management and agriculture; by “green cities” which replace traffic, paving and domestic cats with green roofs, sparrow-filled hedges, insect-buzzing parks and gardens; by strong and immediate measures to curb climate change, we need, person by person, nation by nation, day by day, year on year, to create more biodiversity than we destroy.

We need to question our Romantic and “scientific” attitudes which can hamper strategic action to allow nature to diversify. Giving money to the RSPCA and enjoying country walks, but hating spiders, killing greenfly and using fossil fuel wastefully is not being a biodiversifier. Creating seedbanks or maintaining a firm optimism in human ability to solve problems may be important, but unless they are only sideshows to a main event of allowing biodiversity to flourish, they will not prove to be the intellectual legacy of advanced minds but only the last ravings of self-destructive fools.

52% of nature has gone since 1970. How far can we push the experiment until we watch life on earth collapse? Another 50 years? Another ten? Another two? We face a planetary emergency: but it is one in which are by no means powerless. Every one of us, in fact, can and must be a superhero. In 2015 all our attitudes, our charitable giving, our consuming, our political campaigning, the way we use our homes and gardens, should be directed to restoring nature: to becoming biodiversifiers.

But what about the other issues? Maybe in the process a few of those — injustice, intolerance, poverty, mental health, cancer — will begin to sort themselves out. But one thing I’m sure of: without biodiversity, all the things we presently worry about will be the least of our worries.

So my 2015 New Year Resolution is to be a biodiversifier: to allow ecosystems to flourish more than I damage them, and encourage others to do the same. I can’t measure it, but I know the kinds of places to begin. Here are a few and I hope to add more over the year:

  • Buy organic milk to support insect-friendly agriculture
  • Preserve and plant forests via Woodland Trust and World Land Trust
  • Install the most low-carbon heating system I can in my Highland field centre Blair House
  • Use local and eco-friendly materials in the refurbishment of Blair House
  • Fill the window boxes at my Edinburgh flat with insect-friendly plants
  • I don’t own a car but they are necessary to reach Blair House: set up a “mitigation scheme” for myself and others to donate to an afforestation charity on each journey.
  • Use my political connections to help develop and promote policies to make Edinburgh a “green city”
  • “Fast for the Climate” on the first day of each month, in company with people around the world, to show political leaders my commitment to the need for a strong climate deal in Paris this December (More information about this here)

Rethinking my relationship to nature, committing myself to restoring it, understanding its underpinning importance to all the civilization, religion, prosperity and meaning that we know, makes sense of John Ruskin’s famous but strange statement, “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE”. If we believe that to be true, as surely we must, today is the time not merely to nod approvingly, but to put our backs into it, and act accordingly.

Eleanor M Harris is on twitter @eleanormharris. If you’re on twitter please get in touch, and make use of #biodiversifier.

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.


‘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.

Guest Post: Esther, in Advent

On Sunday during a candlelit evensong, Markus Dünzkofer managed to cover the nature of religion and scripture, identity and ‘othering’, the environmental crisis, fear and power, and fasting and partying, all on the basis of a 2000 year-old story. I liked it so much that I begged it as a guest blog post: I hope you enjoy.

A few days ago I was called a “Socialist” on national TV. The person who labelled me thus was rather angered. And one could argue that because of something I had done he was justifiably infuriated. I would say, though, that his conclusions are not mine. But there we are.

I did wonder, though, why he used this particular word: “Socialist”. Was he trying to insult me? And if so, was he trying to link me to the murderous regime of Joseph Stalin? Eventually, I had this thought: Maybe he used the word “Socialist” to imply that despite of being a priest, I am a godless person. Because that’s what Socialists are, right?

Well, if that is true, we have a problem today, because this would make the biblical book of Esther, from which we have heard earlier, “Socialist,” too. The book of Esther is one of two books in the Bible that never mentions God. It is godless. And yet, is divine revelation. Intrigued? Well, let me tell you the tale:

The story begins with Persian King Ahasuerus, whose Greek name Xerxes at least I can somewhat pronounce, having a jolly in his palace. In antiquity this often was code for an outrageous orgy. Drunk with power and with wine, hormones and lust raging, Xerxes wants to show off his wife to his equally drunk and horny guests. It doesn’t need much fantasy to realise that the showing-off would have led to other things. Understandably, the queen refuses. Xerxes, however, is so outraged that he casts her out. A man must save “his face and his manhood,” right? So, there is need for a new wife.

Meanwhile, Mordechai, a Jew, who, together with his king, Jechonja of Juda, had been forcefully exiled to the city of Susa in Persia and now, at age 120 is working at the palace in Susa — this Mordechai comes up with a cunning plan. His niece Esther, who he took in after her parents had died and whose beauty captivated many, should be shown to Xerxes as a potential future queen.

And even though there was stiff competition from a number of women from the 127 countries he governs, Xerxes picks Esther and makes her queen. And did they live happily ever after? No.

Mordechai learns of a plot to kill Xerxes. Through Esther he conveys the plan to the king, who hangs the two assassins. Mordechai’s deed, however, is written into a dusty old book.

This is when Haman, the anti-hero of the story enters the scene. Xerxes appoints him prime minister. But Haman is full of spite, envy, vanity, and ambition. And when Mordechai, because of his religion, refuses to bow to him, he completely loses his plot: He convinces Xerxes to order a day of pogrom on which all Jews throughout the Persian Empire shall be annihilated. But the lots he casts to determine the date pick a day almost a year later. This gives the Jewish community time, and they use it to fast and to pray. Not what I expected!

During this interval Mordechai approaches Esther to intervene. And this is where we find ourselves in today’s reading.

It takes some convincing of Esther, though, because she is not out as a Jew at court. Eventually Esther does agree and comes up with a shrewd plan to influence Xerxes, a plan that involves two banquets and copious amounts of alcohol. I will spare you the details and some other subplots, so that the choir can get to their own banquet in time.

But Esther knows what she is doing and convinces Xerxes to change his mind. But it isn’t so easy. He cannot just revoke his original order – what has been written has been written. Instead, he allows for the Jews to arm and defend themselves on the day of the previously appointed Reichskristalnacht.

When others side with the Jews — after all they are now in Xerxes’ good books — it all ends in a bloodbath that would make our contemporary stomachs rightfully churn. It is pretty awful. And no, Haman and his house don’t survive. Ironically, Haman ends up on the gallows he’d built for Mordechai. The end.

We could have a long discussion about the heinous ending of this biblical book, and maybe that will be the content of the sermon in three year’s time, when we will read the text again. Let me just say so much:

This is not a historical account but a historical novella that builds on numerous experiences of pogroms during the Jewish exile. Mordechai’s age is but one indicator that makes the story factually unbelievable. And there are others. Historically, there was no massive bloodshed. It’s all a hyperbole.

We have to remember, though, that the story was written from the perspective of the oppressed, of an enslaved people. This it is a scenario far away from the comforts of our 21st century mostly middle-class comfort. Achieving justice back then did look different from the ways we pursue liberation from oppression. Yet, this is not cop-out. The book of Esther still entices us to confront oppression, even at the price of one’s own safety. If injustice is not named, even at times named provocatively, then those, who shy away from naming it, enable that very injustice – even if they are only bystanders.

But enough of this part of the story, because today I would like to focus not on the end of the book of Esther, but on two principles we find within the book: the principles of faithfulness and identity.

From the reading the book of Esther it is clear that Mordechai is held up as a model of faithfulness to the covenant that God made with Moses: He doesn’t bow to Haman, because that would violate the first and second commandments, which orient our worship to God alone.

But one might ask: doesn’t exactly this refusal to bow to Haman get Mordechai into trouble? Isn’t Mordechai’s faithfulness the reason for the impending genocide? Well, you would say this only if you forgot that God’s plan for salvation is already in place. And through the faithfulness of the Jews, through their fasting and praying, God’s plan of salvation can take its course.

Fasting and praying. These are not necessarily activities we would choose. But I wonder how fasting and praying would empower our personal life and the life of our faith community? And I wonder what our planet would look like if we were to engage in more fasting and praying?

This reminds me of this year’s Lent, when we here at St John’s walked through the book of Jonah and challenged the church and society to repent from its unfaithfulness to God’s plan on matters environmental. And? Did we listen? Are we — like the Jews in the book of Esther — fasting and praying for God’s salvation and liberation both for us personally and for the planet? Are you?

And then there is Esther herself. Initially at court, she does not reveal her true identity for fear of rejection. And when she is faced with Mordechai’s charge in today’s reading, she fears her own death.

There is that little word: “Fear”. Fear of being known. Fear of confronting the powers of this earth. Fear of upsetting the applecart. Fear of being rejected. Fear of disappearing in the midst of strife. Fear seems to be everywhere.

I know what I am talking about, I have been afraid. I have feared the consequences. I have been so scared I could neither move, nor act, nor think, not pray, nor sleep. Richard Holloway once said: “Fear is the greatest enemy of the Gospel.” It is indeed a darkness that needs to be pierced.

When Esther reclaims who she is, when she embraces, who God made her to be as a woman and as a Jew in the midst of a misogynist and anti-Semitic environment, then God’s light is revealed. Identity is not a threat to our society, regardless of what that identity might be. What will eat up and destroy who and what God made us to be is fear:

  • Fear of the other, especially when the other is different.
  • Fear of losing comfort in order to support those, who have less.
  • Fear of having to give up something in order to save the planet.
  • Fear of looking like silly lunatics, when witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in prayer, in action, and in word.
  • Fear of celebrating our identity.

Fear is a powerful foe.

We are in the middle of Advent. And during Advent, we hear prophets raising difficult and provocative and maybe even fear-inciting questions. But the church must be faithful: she must be faithful to this prophetic tradition and continue to raise questions. And sometimes this might cause a stooshie.

We are in the middle of Advent. And in Advent we wait for that divine light that came into the world and that still pierces the darkness, the darkness of fear and any other kind of darkness — even the darkness of death. Our true, God-given identity is connected to embracing this light. And our identity is not connected to labels we throw at each other, nor to names by which we incite fear or exclusion — and this goes for all of us.

Our Jewish siblings commemorate the events of the book of Esther with the annual festival of Purim. And according to Jewish tradition, one should drink on Purim until you can no more make a distinction between arur Haman, which means “cursed be Haman”, and baruch Mordechai, which means “blessed be Mordechai”. Quite an alcoholic feat!

In the heavenly banquet we will also be drunk. We will be drunk with God’s love, so drunk indeed that we will longer distinguish between Greek or Jew, Male or Female, Slave or Free, young or old, outsider nor insider, gay or straight, believer or doubter.

All will be children of God — even supposed godless clergy.


Markus Dünzkofer is the Rector of St John’s Princes Street and is on twitter @homouusian.

You can find out more about the global interfaith initiative to “fast for the climate” at

How not to be cynical

My architects and I are currently trying to work out how to insulate, heat and ventilate my Glen Doll field centre Blair House effectively, affordably, and greenly. It’s a far greater challenge than we expected. We’ve had recommendations from contractors, done our own research, and consulted the excellent Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, and are still only half-way to a plan.

One contractor put a persuasive argument for LPG: ‘It’s easy to install, very cheap, and if you want to be green, it’s far more efficient than electricity, far lower carbon emissions than oil.’ Most consumers would be at the mercy of an apparently expert argument like this. But I happen to know that there are two main sources for LPG in the world today: Putin, and fracking. And I do not wish my field centre to be warmed courtesy of Putin and fracking.

Putin and fracking. Yesterday (24 November) BBC business news reported that the falling oil price is damaging the rouble and costing Russia up to $100bn a year, a sum which makes the western sanctions of $40bm look comparatively affordable. But why are oil prices low? According to the BBC business analyst, ‘abundant global supply, partly due to the US shale boom’. While I try to heat my field centre in the glens, Putin and fracking are making geopolitical economic waves.

Low oil prices. This morning (25 November) DJ Shaun Keaveny on BBC 6 Music had a little rant about energy prices: ‘When are we going to see our bills come down, eh, big energy companies? Oil prices have gone down by, what, $24 dollars a barrel is it? The benefits are supposed to trickle down, you remember?’ Then he switched to the voice of the big energy company, far off from the microphone as if shouting across a field: ‘Eh what? Can you just … Sorry I didn’t quite catch … Sorry what language are you speaking?’ ‘Oh, forget it!’ I like Shaun because he has at least one foot in the switched-on social-satire comedian school of the likes of Marcus Brigstocke and Hugh Dennis. He makes one of the joining-ups: energy companies are buying at a price that reflects abundant oil, yet charging consumers prices that suggest scarcity.

Pretend scarcity. This brings us to fuel poverty, which connects this global tangle to the hottest political issue of my immediate society: the social injustice being perpetrated by the present British government by policies which make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Yet it is easy to see that addressing this injustice alone will do nothing to lower fossil fuel consumption or avert climate change.

Today, 25 November, Obama’s climate change envoy Todd Stern is quoted in the Guardian as saying that fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground. This is very nice. But how does it fit with the fact that almost everyone in the world, from Vladimir Putin to Shaun Keaveny, is being affected by the abundant fossil fuel coming from the US shale boom?

Not least affected by the oil price fall is the Scottish nation (note the emotive identity-term). Today the BBC reports that the UK Chancellor George Osborne is under pressure from a powerful Scottish business lobby to subsidise North Sea Oil, because the fall in oil prices, caused by the US fracking boom (it’s like a nightmarish re-telling of The Old Woman and her Pig), has caused a loss of confidence in the industry and share prices to fall: which, if oil is the backbone of the Scottish economy, is bad news for Scotland.

The announcement on 20 November that Ineos, whose biggest operation is at Grangemouth in the heart of Scotland, is to invest £640m in UK shale gas exploration, elicited a storm of commentary last week. ‘With much tougher planning rules, more ambitious climate targets and a review of both health issues and licensing underway, Scotland is the last place any company should apply to frack,’ said Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland. The Scottish Green Party, who allied with the SNP to campaign for Scottish independence, agree with Friends of the Earth in regard this fracking threat as an imposition from Westminster and call for a devolution of powers on the issue.

This narrative of Scotland as a tough wee country where sharp-eyed politicians and people stand together and tell big, rapacious companies where to get off is persuasive. Scots on both sides and from all walks of life, including me, have been inspired by the political awakening, the participation, the intelligent debate, sparked by the independence referendum debate; and it is easy to draw smug contrasts with the apathetic voters of England, thoughtlessly allowing UKIP and frackers to walk all over them.

Yet I fear this confidence in Scotland’s newfound political strength is a delusion, because it ignores the geopolitical economic situation. There is tremendous pressure on Scottish politicians to strengthen the backbone of North Sea Oil with a shale boom of our own: the gas, we believe, is there to be fracked. Ineos is ready with the funds to frack it. Unless couthy wee Scotland turns its people’s and politicians’ attention from blaming Westminster to this wider global context, it risks being swept along, waving its anti-fracking plackards, in this destructive game of fossil fuel, fuel poverty and climate change. Not so sharp-eyed. It is blinded, I am afraid, by a nationalism which cuts across the political spectrum: by the desire to protect our own interests, in a world where groups protecting their own interests is the very root of all the problems.

In the last few weeks, after a lifetime of political non-involvement, I have joined Scottish Labour and then weighed in to the campaign to elect Sarah Boyack as its leader. This is not a sudden random enthusiasm. Rather, it is because in Sarah’s copious and lucid writing on a huge range of policies, I am seeing, for the first time, a leading politician who genuinely understands these connections and complications. Another political player thinking in these terms on a global scale is World Bank Climate. It gives me great hope because it has the economic understanding — so often the element that has been lacking in discussions of environmental politics — to see how a transition to a carbon-free economy could be made to work.

Their image above is part of a great infographic which joins up climate, human prosperity and biodiversity which I commend to your attention: it is a whole other joining-up piece of thinking which I am counting on readers of this article to understand already.

The technological view of the global energy question is, literally, very sunny. The Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR) at the University of Dundee, collate evidence from a whole range of sources that solar power is on track to become world’s largest energy source by 2050, like this one from Computerworld. Yet without the political and economic framework to back it up, the effect of the oil price fall that is taking place just now shows that the solar boom will not avert climate change. Abundant cheap energy from another source is a necessary condition for a prosperous, oil-free global economy, but not a sufficient one. Oil will still be drilled and burned not because it is needed for energy, but because it is central to entrenched business and, more problematically, national interests.

What I believe is missing from the World Bank Climate analysis is the political element. If the world were to agree to make a transition from oil to solar, as technologically it could Russia, Scotland, BP and Ineos risk being put in the position of cornered tigers.

John Simpson asks on the BBC today, Could we be facing a Cold War Two? I’m struck mainly by the fact that Simpson doesn’t pick up on the US shale effect on Russian oil revenue I mentioned earlier. He is one of a generation of historians and journalists who grew up with the luxury of not having to be constantly interdisciplinary. He is perhaps less exhausted than me, the young historian with threads flying everywhere, but in my opinion is an example of a commentator identifying, but failing to analyse, the problem.

I could use the metaphor of being caught in an oily web, with a quote from one of my favourite authors Walter Scott, ‘O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!’ We are deceived into thinking we can enjoy the benefits of cheap oil, deceived into believing Russia’s activity is simply unreasonable political hostility, deceived into thinking fracking is all the fault of the Tory government, deceived into thinking North Sea Oil could ever have been a backbone of a future Scottish economy. But it seems to me to be one of the tritest things Walter Scott ever said; and in any case, spiders are one of my favourite animals.

So let’s change the metaphor around. The oil economy has become a plague of horrible, disease-carrying bluebottle flies, like the ones that poured out of my fireplace by the hundred recently when a dead bird fell down the chimney, the most horrible week of my bed-sit life. What we need is some heroic spiders to weave us a fine, shining web of good policy, economics and renewable technology that incorporates everyone’s interests — poor person, western consumer, consumer energy supplier, oil-producer, national governments — into the one global interest on which we all deeply depend.

How will these wonderful policymaking spiders work? First, they need to banish thinking in terms of goodies and baddies. Who are the baddies anyway? Are they Putin, Ineos and the consumer energy suppliers? Or are they Shaun Keaveny, who wants to be able to afford to forget to switch his central heating off? Or the Scottish Green Party, threatening the viability of the Scottish economy? Or Todd Stern, talking about keeping fossil fuel in the ground while the oil price tumbles as a result of his country’s shale. Or us, who, for all our complaints of injustice and austerity, know at the back of our minds that the oil economy has got us into a position which we would not change for a slum-dweller of Mumbai, or a villager in Liberia? Going down the blame road leads so rapidly to moral absurdity, it’s not worth even trying. Clearly, there is no ‘other’. We are all in this one environment, economy, society together. We all have to live together, as very close neighbours, whose real lives link together in the headlines of one week.

The decarbonising of the economy is usually described by the gentle word ‘transition’, but what we are really talking about is a massive change, and massive change is terrifying. Think instead in terms of interests, threats, opportunities. Think who will suffer, who will be frightened by it, and understand why they are likely to strike out, and think how the change can be managed so they are brought with it, not treated as the wicked ‘other’ and left out in the cold. In the sunny solar economy there’s no need for that to happen to anyone.

So, if I were a wonderful policymaking spider, I would want the climate negotiations in Paris next December to make the final link. I would focus on making a list of the losers in a transition from a fossil to renewable economy — Russia, Scotland, BP, Ineos and so on — and focus on finding a way to transform each of them from cornered tiger to proud spider. All of them possess mighty assets: engineering expertise, financial capital, political territory, and political weight. I would offer them almighty incentives to convert these powers from the fangs, muscles and claws of a cornered tiger, into the powerful creativity of the renewable-economy weaving spider. This is where the subsidies should go.

Our spiders will need heroic courage and vision, and they will need to be working at all levels of society.

Much of the responsibility for this education falls on environmental campaigners like Friends of the Earth, who have led the way in environmental thinking so well for so long and now need to lead the way again, in dropping the discourse of blame and ‘otherhood’ in favour of a web of shared interests. I am a strong supporter of Scottish Wildlife Trust, who appear to me ahead of the game in this regard right now and have had a lot of criticism from more traditional environmental organisations for their willingness to work with business. I believe far richer policymaking would result if more organisations followed the same strategy.

Business leaders need to understand the web, and have the vision to adopt new technologies. Investors (that’s you, assuming you have any kind of pension, insurance, or savings) need to support them in that vision (the campaigns run by, for example, Operation Noah, for fossil fuel divestment, and the opportunities presented by World Bank Green Bonds for renewable investment, are perfect examples of this)

Voters (that’s you again) need to understand the web, to see the relationship between their energy bills and their fracking threats. Politicians need to understand the web, credit voters with the intelligence to understand it too, and credit businesses with the vision to share in their web-weaving and not to fly out of their country. Political party-members, too, need great courage to elect such leaders. There are two responses to a politician who treats voters as intelligent. There is the cynical response: she is a wise fool: the public won’t get it. Or there is the optimistic response: people tend to become thing they are treated as.

The cynical response is so prevalent in our society that those who step out of it look like clowns. It is not helped by the fact that the word ‘cynical’ is often used to mean ‘realistic assessment of the magnitude of the problems we face’. People often call me cynical for daring to raise the spectres of climate change and mass extinction in stark terms, but I hope this article does something to refute this charge. The cynics in the Labour leadership debate, in my opinion, are those who want to choose a leader not for the qualities of their policies, but for their capacity for running a campaign that will defeat the opposition. The hope is that, somehow, Labour will then pull out policies (tax-rises, perhaps) to deliver social justice in spite of the voters’ stupidity. It’s same cynical narrative of stupid (apathetic or nationalist) voters, evil others (Tories or nationalists), and smart politicians in suits playing the games to get themselves into power. It’s the same old politics again: it’s politics that has kept me in politicial retirement up till now, and, in this geopolitical carbon mess, the politics that could destroy us all.

I prefer the optimistic response. Again, optimism a much abused term often used to mean ‘hoping for the best’: the optimism of overtaking round a corner with your eyes shut. This is partly to do with a muddling between social and scientific methodology which I have written about elsewhere In the political context, optimism is the philosophy that good multiplies itself. If people are trusted with responsibility, like sixteen-year-old voters, they will rise to it. If people are given the opportunity to act unselfishly, like by giving to food banks, they will take it. This philosophy is in the ascendant in Scottish political culture just now, and policians need to seize it and believe it. Voters do not want someone in a suit telling them they will make them rich: voters want a solid plan for building a better society.

The Whig Henry Cockburn described the corrupt power networks in Edinburgh in the 1790s, which led him to spend his life working, successfully, for greater political freedoms. The debate was as polarised as debates on terrorism today: anyone suspected of wishing to increase the electorate, educate the people, or negotiate with America or France rather than shelling them, was regarded as a guillotine-wielding atheist, determined to overthrow all the morality and social order of Christendom. Cockburn told the story of a political reformer Joseph Gerald, transported for sedition in 1794. His defence pointed out to the judge Braxfield, pillar of the existing Scottish social order, that being a ‘reformer’ could hardly be sufficient evidence for ‘sedition’ since all great men had been reformers, ‘even our Saviour himself. ‘ “‘Muckle he made o’ that,” chuckled Braxfield in an under voice, “he was hanget.” ‘

It is easy to say ‘we need heroic vision and courage’, ‘we need a different kind of politics’, and ‘we must banish cynicism’. Yet when we spell out what that means in practice, as I have just done, we realise the scale of the task, the miracle, that is to be achieved. ‘Credit voters with intelligence? Credit businesses with vision? Reimagining Mr Putin as a good guy? Hahaha, good luck to you my sweet child!’ I can hear my readers saying. Well, my intelligent reader: that is what banishing cynicism looks like.

Whenever I hear those phrases I think of Gerald, being transported for life, thinking of Christ as a reformer; and Braxfield, pointing out that Jesus was ‘hanget’. That’s what courage versus cynicism looks like. Just as we need to get rid of goodies and baddies, we need to get rid of the super-structure of our political discussion in which we glibly accuse one another of cynicism or unrealistic idealism, without really understanding what those terms mean.

Yes, a carbon-free economy is possible: very possible indeed. Yes, achieving it will require a truly miraculous transformation of attitudes, a truly unworldly lack of cynicism, a truly self-sacrificial level of courage. Yes, it starts with you. You have to choose between being a Gerald, prepared to be hanget like Christ; or a Braxfield: cynical, and sending Gerald to Australia.

Yes, all of us would rather be quietly doing anything, anything with our lives than this: but cometh the hour, cometh the heroic spider.

Eleanor Harris is a postdoctoral historian from Edinburgh studying nineteenth-century religion and society, and author of a novel, Ursula, about ethics and the environmental crisis. More at or tweets @eleanormharris.

I’d like Sarah Boyack for Scottish Labour leader, please

When I joined Labour a few weeks ago in the wake of the referendum out of a desire to be part of the new engagement in Scottish politics, I’d no idea I’d get this involved this quickly. But I’m so delighted that Sarah Boyack is standing for Scottish Labour leader that I’m writing my first party-political blog post.

Sarah Boyack is probably top of my list of reasons for choosing Labour when I decided to join a party.

I’ve seen her portrayed as the mid-point on a spectrum of views. One reason I support her is that she understands what those who suggest this do not: that politics, is – must be – more than just series of battles on one-dimensional spectra.

Sarah Boyack is the four-dimensional candidate in this contest. Even in her short statement announcing her candidacy, it is clear she understands the ecology of politics in the world of 2014:

“We need to move the political debate on to how we use power. […] to make sure that power is used in the interests of the people of Scotland. […] Our mission must be to deliver social, environmental and economic justice.”

Never mind historical baggage. Never mind left-right opposites. The four complex processes which a political leader in the twenty-first century needs to understand are society, environment, economy and power, and Sarah Boyack knows this.

“We need to reach out not just to those who have traditionally supported us but to build a coalition to tackle social and environmental injustice and to create a more equal, prosperous economy that works for people.”

Sarah Boyack’s aim is not “the voter’s interests” or “economic growth”, but “justice” and “prosperity”. This is no compromise, cynical, vote-winning aim. This is high-minded, idealistic politics: the vision of a politician whose satisfaction comes not from winning power, but from making the world a better place. She writes more on this in an article on the Labour Hame blog today.

Are her words rooted in practice? Yes. Sarah Boyack’s career has been shaped by Holyrood: the parliament designed for coalition and collaborative discussion instead of Westminster-shaped confrontation; the system designed to stay close to voters, with ecological not reductionist politics. Her work as Environment minister was acclaimed by environmental groups, and her introduction of free bus travel is one of Holyrood’s best example of political power not as a blunt instrument, but as powerful lever for good.

Does she have the vote-winning charisma required of a party leader? My perception is that she combines this intelligent understanding of power and high-minded idealism with a memorable approachability and charm which comes across in person and on camera. I hope the media will show us much more of it.

Does she have the strength for it? Or will she be squashed or corrupted, as we see happen to politicians again and again? Well, who can tell this of any candidate? She has experience of office and of defeat. Her idealism today is not naivety: it has survived intact the messy politics of Holyrood’s history. I think Sarah Boyack has a pretty large supply of toughness and integrity.

Am I biased? Yes, of course I am. Sarah Boyack has been the most important personality in persuading this disaffected voter that politics could be relevant, could be collaborative, could make a difference and could be more than a confrontational, partisan and elitist debating society. Of course she is the kind of person I want shaping the new political landscape of Scotland. Any individual is unrepresentative, but I believe I’m typical of many in my generation who have always been passionate about political issues but cynical about party politics and politicians. In Sarah Boyack, Labour has the chance to elect a leader who could win back many more of us back.

After I wrote this blog I saw Lesley Riddoch’s fuller article which discusses all the candidates and concludes that Sarah Boyack provides the opportunity for Labour to “find its moral core”. Yes, that.

I invited Sarah Boyack to present our church with both its two (choir-led!) Eco-Congregation Awards: taking environmentalists in cassocks in her stride…

Friends of the Earth calls on Scotland to ban fracking

After a week in which fracking became a political football in the post-indyref constitutional fallout, Friends of the Earth Scotland have stepped out of the politics to ask people to email their MSP demanding that Holyrood use its existing, sufficient, powers to ban fracking in Scotland outright. You can participate here.

I know I have a rainbow readership of nationalists and internationalists, devolutionists, independents and British-constitution-revivers, environmentalists and business people; but I can think of few of you who would disagree on this issue, for the reasons I allude to below. There are few of you who would fail to join the opposition to fracking for any reason other than a apathetic sense that it probably wouldn’t work.

If you all think that, it won’t. But you won’t, because that’s not how people are thinking any more.

The Friends of the Earth Scotland action page automatically addresses your email to your MSPs when you put in your postcode; but I decided their draft text read a bit like those intercessions we have at church which explain the issues to God as if he didn’t know, so I wrote my own, with a bit more stirring rhetoric. Feel free to pinch any of it.

Dear Jim Eadie/ Neil Findlay/ Cameron Buchanan/ Sarah Boyack/ Alison Johnstone/ Kezia Dugdale/ Gavin Brown,

You are well aware of the complex issues surrounding shale gas extraction: of the imperative need to eliminate climate-changing carbon emissions from all kinds of fossil fuel, of the profound and unclear local environmental impact of this new technology, of the potential for an easy solution to badly pressing financial and energy supply problems, of the extent to which fracking has become a political football in UK constitutional debates, and of the overwhelming public opposition to fracking.

I cannot urge you strongly enough to set aside the pressures from all sides and to do what I’m sure you, like the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland, know what is right: to use the powers Holyrood already has to ban this destructive, short-term, cynical practice outright. There are other, better solutions to energy shortages and budget deficits, and I, for one, will do all I can to support realistic solutions to these real problems.

A ban on fracking will reflect well on the Scottish government, will cause Scotland to be celebrated around the world, and will have tremendous popularity amongst the Scottish people from across the political spectrum. I believe it will also be good for the Scottish economy in guaranteeing the integrity, literally, of the central belt, and in generating demand for creative renewable energy generation, which tends to create local jobs.

I look forward to your response, and to hearing of your participation in cross-party legislation that will ensure no-one in Scotland need ever be frightened of fracking again.

Best wishes,

Eleanor Harris

Do it.

So what are you actually asking us to do?

This seems to be the most frequently asked question at the talks I give on religion and the environmental crisis. I’m always slightly put out by it, because the whole talk is about what I think people ought to do. I agree people deserve more help than I give them in the talk: I’m just not sure I’m equipped to do it: the talk itself was my contribution and now it’s over to you. However, here is an attempt at a framework based on my talk which might form a useful programme for a group wishing to pursue the idea of looking for hope in the middle of mass extinction.

I think you need to learn, speak, and act.


My talk is challenging and fresh not because I’m on the pulse of the zeitgeist, but because I hunt obscure things in dusty archives — in news that doesn’t make headlines, in ancient wisdom our culture neglects. As I argued in my talk, in the face of mass extinction maybe outdated religious concepts might turn out to be useful after all. The first law of history is ‘we ain’t no smarter than our ancestors’. If you agree we need a change in discourse, the first thing I’m asking you to do is to learn with me. Your brains are as big as mine. If I’m ahead in my thinking it’s only because I’ve been puzzling over this for the past ten years. There’s only one of me and there are many of you. The world needs your brains. Your first task is, get learning.

“When people know what they are facing, that’s when they dig deep, and find that miraculous hope and courage. That’s when they stop being afraid.”

Learn about prophets

“You are Jonah. You must be thrown into the sea. You must find the courage that’s only found when you’ve sunk to the very bottom. You must be vomited up on the beach, and you must go and deliver the message. You must turn into the hope.”

A prophet in Christian tradition is not someone who foretells the future by reading entrails. It is someone whose insights about the present are so clear that they can understand the probability of future consequences. This is what climate scientists do today, as well as those involved in equally important and less controversial environmental research. However, what makes a prophet different from most scientists is the scientist must retain a detached and objective perspective, whereas the prophet commits his or her whole physical life to becoming the message. This often involves great personal sacrifice, but this is the secret of the prophet’s influence: their actions tend to speak louder than their words. A valuable study exercise for a group would to each take one of the prophets in the Bible and see how they go about this, and to do what I did with Jonah. You might be surprised. Try it for Micah, Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Elijah, and Christianity’s greatest prophet (alongside his other roles), Jesus. Have each person report back and then discuss them. What would it mean for you to take these prophets as your role models today?

– We have an environmental crisis going on, and you’re asking us to sit around doing bible study?

– How can a discourse change, can thought patterns change, without thinking and learning? The problem is, you have been used to fruitless, theoretical discussions about the bible, about theories of theology or morality that can never be put to the test or be other than subjective. I’m asking you to read it as a book of practical wisdom that’s relevant for real life now. Oh and quit the fruitless religious discussions.

“Whether you believe in God, or not, or don’t know, today it doesn’t matter, because the situation of Jonah stays the same, and our situation, so spookily similar to Jonah’s, stays the same.”  

Learn about the environmental crisis

“Ecosystems are good at recovering, but faced with increasingly violent assaults from climate change, pollution and exploitation, they cannot recover, and eventually collapse. Not decline gradually: collapse. If this is new to you, I urge you to go and find out about it. The picture has got spectacularly worse over the past few years, and the science has not been widely reported.”

Find out what scientists are saying about the environment: global deforestation, the Pacific rubbish dump, Himalayan glacier melt, what mass extinction means. Read the report on the state of the oceans ( I do commend Twitter not because it’s trendy but because it’s useful for getting at the right information quickly: many scientists use it to provide ongoing succinct updates of what they regard as their most important findings. Find a teenager to show you how to use it, then get in touch with me (@eleanormharris) and I’ll point you in the direction of useful resources.

– But Twitter sounds difficult and strange and scary!

– You asked me for hope. I’ve looked for hope and found it in you. Do you expect it to be easy? If you think Twitter sounds difficult and scary, I think you will have difficulty being the hope of the world. As Jesus said (when he wasn’t saying ‘don’t be afraid’), if you can’t be trusted with trivial things, whose going to put you in charge of more important ones?


“Either we transform our eating, or we starve. Either we transform our travelling, or we stop forever. Either we transform our living, or we die. Not modify: not reduce a bit: not next year: totally transform, now.”

I didn’t mean this metaphorically, and I wasn’t exaggerating.

It is often objected that your individual effort won’t make any difference. This is true of the individual who is merely doing things to salve their conscience, or as the result of an individual advertising campaign. But it is not true in your case, because you are prophets, and an essential part of being a prophet (as you discovered earlier) is that they are completely personally committed to their message.

“Get out of this church and demonstrate that humanity can be more than just a rogue species”

Here are two suggestions:

First suggestion:

  1. Go through the gospels and find all the passages where people ask Jesus what they should do.
  2. Make a list of his advice.
  3. Take it.

Second suggestion:
1. Make one list of all the things you do which contribute to mass extinction, by using unsustainably produced resources, polluting, or damaging ecosystems. Do this in discussion with a group and with the help of on-line resources.
2. Make a second list of all the ways you can think of to create an environmental handprint, that is, to increase biodiversity and counter mass extinction.

3. Which do you think is currently bigger, your handprint or your footprint? Challenge yourselves and one another to live so your handprint is bigger than your footprint, to leave the world more biodiverse than you found it.

Try both. How do they compare?

Handprint Ideas

tree planting and reforestation
wildlife gardening, window boxes for bees, green roofs and ‘no mow’ grass areas
using consumer power to persuade producers of food or wood to encourage biodiversity
install solar panels to generate electricity without contributing to climate change
find out about biodiversity and land use (grazing, crops, housing, recreation like golf courses and grouse moor), and support policies that improve biodiversity
give to charities and invest in projects that conserve or restore biodiversity (for example, money saved reducing your environmental footprint, or you might consider your pension and other investments)
support the global education of women: it’s the quickest, cheapest and fairest way to slow population growth and increase sustainable practices locally


“You have to be the prophets, who proclaim the message.”

Prophets speak. I got your interest by speaking. Discourse change leads policy change and happens, sometimes quite quickly, when the message of a few voices is taken up by many. My talk used the model of Jonah’s message spreading around Nineveh then being taken up as policy by the king. You think I’m naturally good at speaking: I’m not. I’m naturally inarticulate and prefer hiding in history archives, which is why I wrote my talk out word-for-word and spent much time rehearsing it. If you think what I said is right and important, it’s up to you to find ways to tell other people: not just in talks, but in conversation, by letter, by postcard, in sermons, in ten-foot-high letters on a wall, on Twitter (scary!!). I can send you the text of my talk if you like, but it would be much better to write your own. In your group, make a list of practical ways you could be prophets, and speak to the powerful.

– But speaking out is not my thing: it’s difficult and scary!

– Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of looking a fool. The only fear allowed round here is `fear of the Lord’.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Proverbs 1.7

“You’ll realise as the story unfolds that `the Lord’ represents everything that happens which isn’t human decision or will: objective scientific knowledge; the tugging voice of conscience; the uncontrollable forces of nature.”


Use your initiatives. I don’t know much and I’m not in charge of anything. I only have one brain and you have many.

If you’re reading this without having heard the talk, do invite me to come and give it. I’m told it’s thought-provoking. Clergy and non-churchgoers seem to find it most interesting, which is interesting!

And do keep in touch. Comment on this blog. My email is Do that scary Twitter thing.

There’s a discourse that needs changed. You are the prophets. Go and make more.

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. 2 Corinthians 5:11

“Nothing will ever be the same. Don’t be afraid. Turn into the hope.”

Scotland’s Future

As an undergraduate I used to regret that people in history seemed so ideological while my generation were so cynical. Yet, suddenly, dozens of my contemporaries have been fired with the great ideological cause of Scottish independence – and it terrifies me. It is a disaster.

My problem is not the cause per se. I like the principle of subsidiarity – that people control their own affairs – although I believe this requires a level of political engagement which Scotland does not yet have.

My problem is now is not the time. The environmental crisis is not one of a list of important issues. It is the issue we must deal with, globally, immediately. The recent report about global temperature rise of 4 degrees by 2100 does not mean ‘things will start getting really bad around 2100’, it means, ‘things will get worse, faster, from today onwards, and within 85 years it will all be over for most of life on earth’. Mass extinction of life in the oceans is not an interesting piece of marine science: it is the most important event in world history since the dinosaurs died out, and life on land will not escape.

If Scotland votes for independence this year, what will happen?

1. Scotland would spend the next decade or so establishing institutions, realigning parties, finding its economic feet and its diplomatic place in the world.

It may or may not be too late to avert catastrophic environmental crisis. By the time we have spent years learning to be an independent country, certainly will be. Who do we expect will lead a global turnaround in environmental destruction in the meantime? America? Denmark? Kenya? England? To expend all our energies on political restructuring in a world which is all sliding to disaster together seems to me to be the opposite of heroic, idealistic freedom: it seems to me to be a gross misuse of Scotland’s talents, influence and (as the country that produced James Watt!) considerable historical responsibility.

2. All Scottish influence would be withdrawn from Westminster.

I can’t believe that the English Tories don’t know what they are about, with their appalling ‘Better Together’ campaign which, at every turn, drives more Scots to vote for withdrawal from Westminster. Because, make no mistake, that will be by far the most significant shift in power. The Tories must be rubbing their hands with joy. Scotland already has control over most of its internal affairs (education, NHS, law, banking, religious and ethical issues, etc), and control over economy and foreign affairs will in reality be marginal given our small size and the strength of international forces. The global economy will go down with the environment. English floods are far from the worst environmental disaster in the world today: look up California and Alabama, for example, and watch out for food prices going up.

Do we really want to pull out of Westminster and lose all our influence over a country which is on our borders, far larger, far richer, of dubious prevailing political principles, equipped with a large army, and already beginning to suffer major environmental catastrophe in its most densly populated areas? If Westminster is bullying Scotland now over the pound, how might they bully us when they have an army, a refugee crisis, and a government over which we have no influence, and are under dire environmental stress of their own?

Since the SNP have brilliantly appropriated the word ‘yes’ for their campaign for Scottish withdrawal from Westminster, it is very difficult to oppose them without sounding like a negative nay-sayer. It is doubly hard when politicians who know themselves to be obnoxious to Scottish sensibilities have hijacked the opposition. Yet I do not believe I am calling for a vote for ‘Negativity and the Tories’. This yes/no thing alone is a very powerful piece of manipulation: don’t fall for it.

The delusion of Scottish independence is like the delusion of heaven keeping peasants in their places in pre-industrial Europe. The only people who will unquestionably gain – the fat wicked clergy in the Marxist fable – are the English Tories and their friends, who will be rid at last of two hundred years of tremendous, world-changing, irritating, persistent, Scottish influence in British affairs. A yes vote is an unequivocal yes for English Toryism: for everything else it is a vote for uncertainty.

There is a bit of me that is, still, excited to see you get idealistic about something. Yet I think you are chasing a dream. In the environmental crisis, there can be no social justice or economic growth. This is not negativity or pessimism, it is simply the reality. If you don’t believe me, please spend some time reading some of the latest science on the environmental crisis. If you don’t want to know, maybe your hope and optimism is really a covering for fear?

What do I want instead? I want you to realise we are not just at the dawn of a new nation: we are at the dawn of a new geological era. There has never been a more terrifying or exciting time to be human, because for good or ill, our decisions will shape it. Nothing will ever be the same. All your future life, and the future of all life on this planet will be determined by our actions in the next few years. It sounds unbelievable: it is unbelievable: but unfortunately it’s true.

Today is the day, and you are the person, to change the discourse of fear and denial around the environmental crisis: to begin to stop burning fossil fuel and destroying ecosystems, and to begin sequestering carbon and fostering biodiversity, to begin making the noise, twittering, facebooking, graffiting, vox-popping, article-writing. Get engaged in politics: really engaged, joining things as well as protesting. Join our thing @earthbeglad or start something of your own. The technology, the science, the political mechanisms: everything is all there: all we need to do is stop being afraid, and turn into the hope.

Scotland cannot have a future in a world of environmental crisis. But it could do what it has done before: be the catalyst that changes the global discourse: that changes the world. And that, to me, is the idealistic, exciting, heroic, courageous course.

If we succeed – because we’ll succeed or fail in the next couple of decades – then let’s discuss Scottish and English self-government. And, then, I will support it.