Happy 200th birthday, St John’s Edinburgh

St John’s Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, by James Skene, in 1818, the year of its consecration. Courtesy of Edinburgh Libraries.

200 years ago this week, St John’s Church in Edinburgh was consecrated, on 19 March 1818.

This is interesting to me for two reasons. First because I have been a member of the choir of St John’s (which was founded at the same time) for almost a fifth of that time, and second because I have spent much of the past ten years researching the history of its foundation.

In its time, St John’s was truly groundbreaking. Its attention to the authentic detail of gothic architecture, and its revival of the rich Laudian traditions of liturgy, once so controversial, but unexpectedly so relevant to the romantics and industrialists of late-Enlightenment Edinburgh, were ahead of anything taking place in Anglican England, and in fact helped to inspire the Victorian revival of liturgy, architecture and rich spirituality there.

The Choir and Church of St John’s today. The memorial windows, including two to Forbes and Mackenzie, were added in the 1860s.

Having no church establishment to contend with, and a mainstream Calvinist tradition to contrast with, gave the founders of St John’s, Bishop Daniel Sandford, Sir William Forbes, and Colin Mackenzie WS, the freedom and the inspiration to create something extraordinary.

Sandford, Forbes and Mackenzie, the cleric, the banker and the lawyer, may seem an unlikely triumvirate to organise a spiritual revolution. But they were, in a way, simply the administrators of a much wider movement, shaped by people of all kinds of classes, genders and races, just as Walter Scott was simply the transcriber of the diverse voices and verses that populate his novels. These men had a cultural generosity which inevitably would lead to them giving away their power in society.

For Bishop Sandford this took the form of a passionate belief in universal education, for all boys and girls, until the kind of privilege of birth enjoyed by people like himself – unwarranted in the gospels and proved so fragile in the French Revolution – became unnecessary.

Over the coming year, St John’s will celebrate its bicentenary in many ways. Keep an eye on their facebook page for news of the lectures, exhibitions, concerts and special services they are planning, and I’ll be trying to keep up some historical tweeting on #StJohns200 (please join in!). Two particular highlights for me will be my Choir re-creating an 1818 matins on 6 May, and right at the end of the programme, I’m giving a lecture on Bishop Sandford and his successor Dean Ramsay on 21 January 2019.

Meanwhile, here is how Edinburgh’s newspaper of the day, the Caledonian Mercury, reported the consecration of St John’s:

“In our paper of Thursday we mentioned that St John’s Chapel was that day to be consecrated. — at the appointed hour a very great concourse of people attended to witnes this ceremony, which, from its novelty, was no less pleasing to our brethren of the Episcopalian persuasion than to those of the Established Church, a great many of whom were present. — The first, happy to find the dissentions which formerly separated them from their fellow citizens sinking rapidly into oblivion; the last, glad to hear testimony of their good will to all who labour in the vineyard.

We cannot allow this opportunity to escape without saying a few words on the satisfaction which we feel at the rapid progress which edifices of this description have made towards elegance and magnificence. — When we look back on that respectable, but very homely building, distinguished by the name of Peddie’s meeting house in Bristo Street; when we consider the former place of worship used by the Roman Catholics in Blackfriars Wynd, and the little chapel in which Bishop Sandford first administered to his flock, in Register Street, as well as many other places of public worship in various parts of the town, we cannot help feeling gratified in observing the improvements which have taken place within very few years. The Catholics were first to show the example. From a confined private room, as it might be called, they had the spirit to remove themselves to a large and commodious chapel, the front of which not only does credit to the architect, but is an ornament to the city. The next is the Methodist chapel in Nicholson’s Square, a plain, neat, and highly creditable building. Then follow the chapels of St Paul and St John, the one built for the accomodation of the Cowgatte Chapel congregation, the other for that of Charlotte Square Chapel.

The interior of St John’s showing its original orange-tinted clerestory windows with clear glass below, the gothic-style box pews, and the organ in the gallery.

These buildings are built in the Gothic style, and not only do great credit to the architects (Mr Elliot and Mr Burn) but to the meritorious exertions of the individuals who undertook the management of them. It is not our province to enter into any ritical or scientific examination of their merits, but taking them all in all, we consider both equally ornamental and advantageous to our city, and takng off from that sameness, with which our New Town has so frequently been accused. From all points St John’s Chapel is well seen — it is the first object that strikes the eye on enterng by the great roads leading from the north, south, east and west, and is, or perhaps must only say was, one of the most interesting objects from the new road over the Calton Hill. The interior corresponds with its exterior: the roof is of the stile of the florid Gothic of Henry the Seventh’s Chael, and the columns which support it are light and airy; no galleries are yet erected, in the hope that the congregation will be sufficiently accomodated in the body of the church. The windows above are glazed with orange coloured glass, the rest with softened glass, so as to admit the light, without being pervious to vision. The great window over the altar is not yet finished, and some alterations appear to be intended; a good deal of labour and expence has been bestowed in decorating the upper part with a representation of the Annunciation by Edington. The under part is ornamented with coats of arms, the effect of which we cannot praise, and think that good taste would have recommended the plain softened glass of the other window, with a simple border round each compartment. The organ is excellent, and very handsomely fitted up; and we were happy to find that the extent of the building was by no means beyond the extent of the Bishop’s voice, who was perfectly well heard in every part of the chapel.”

“One lamentable error we certainly have committed. are committing, and, so far as appears, will ever commit. We massacre every town tree that comes in a mason’s way; never sacrificing mortar to foliage. A group was felled about the year 1826, which stood to the west of St. John’s Chapel, on the opposite side of the Lothian road, and formed a beautiful termination of all the streets which join near that point. One half of the trees, at the least, might have been sparecj, not only without injuring, but with the effect of greatly adorning, the buildings for which they have been sacrificed.” Henry Cockburn, Memorials of His Time, 1856.

St John’s 200

About ten years ago, the Rector of St John’s Princes Street, the Edinburgh church where I sing in the choir, gathered together a very small group of us interested in history. The question was how to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the church in 2018. All of us expressed interest in different areas.

I was interested in the founding of the church, about which very little was known, and the result was my PhD, The Episcopal Congregation of Charlotte Chapel, Edinburgh, 1794-1818, which studied the congregation from its foundation until the point where they moved into St John’s in 1818.  It turned out to be a far more interesting group of people than I expected, and led me in all kinds of historical directions.

Now, the bicentenary year is upon us, and a much larger committee is organising all kinds of events. The first of these will be an exhibition of stories and pictures of people in the church. Here is a sneak preview of the stories I contributed of the first two rectors, whose acquaintance I very much enjoyed making in my studies.

Keep an eye on the St John’s Facebook and Twitter feeds for more information – and of course we must get a #StJohns200 twitter hashtag going.

St John’s in 1818, by James Skene

Bishop Daniel Sandford, 1766-1830

St John’s founder and first rector

Daniel Sandford was a junior member of a large and important family, the Sandfords of Sandford Hall, Shropshire.

His father died when he was young, and he was raised by his mother who was a member of the bluestocking circle of aristocratic female intellectuals, some of whom remained lifelong friends. Unlike some of their male counterparts in the universities, the female bluestockings never doubted that the intellectual enlightenment was compatible with Christian faith. This conviction became central to Sandford’s ministry.

It was also clear in all his writings that it never crossed his mind that women’s intellect might be in any way inferior to men’s. Of his seven children, four were girls, and his son John recalled how with his daughters he always ‘united tenderness with respect.’ This memoir was the last book read by the elderly Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was deeply impressed by this aspect of his character, and wrote that ‘I have never met with this remark in any other book’.

Equally formative for Sandford were the years he spent in Christ Church, Oxford. He specialised as a linguist, learning Greek and Hebrew when few clergy did. He retained a reputation for being a linguistic scholar all his life, and his sermons often hinge on the need for attention to linguistic detail to understand the true meaning of a text, instead of rushing to an opinion on the impression of a translation.

Oxford also inspired Sandford’s most lasting legacy. It was where he learned his love of gothic architecture, ancient liturgy, sacred music, the church year. After a 25 year ministry in Edinburgh, Sandford at last had the opportunity to recreate that worship experience, in the unlikely setting of a booming commercial, presbyterian, enlightenment Scottish city.

Sandford suffered from chronic rheumatic pain for much of his life, and perhaps because of this he could be cantankerous, fussy, anxious and unreasonable. Correspondence between exasperated vestrymen or fellow bishops record their efforts to ‘manage’ him in these moods. But he also had a wry wit, and a share in the high Regency sense of fun. He began collecting comic anecdotes late in life, which perhaps inspired his young assistant Edward Bannerman Ramsay to do the same.

Daniel Sandford

Dean Edward Bannerman Ramsay 1793-1872

St John’s second rector

Dean Ramsay is remembered as a ‘moderate’, which is often understood to mean he had no strong convictions. But this is a serious misunderstanding of the man chiefly responsible for building up the Episcopal Church from a tiny and amateurish ‘society’ into a significant denomination, and keeping it together in the face of serious threats of schism.

Between 1830 and 1872, episcopal churches were built all over Scotland, with a professionalised, trained and financially supported body of clergy. And again and again it was the energy, the practicality and organisation, the networking skills, and the detailed legwork of Dean Ramsay which brought these projects to fruition.

One of his last acts was to recruit an energetic and effective new bishop for Edinburgh, and to choose with him a design for St Mary’s Cathedral, which gave the Scottish Episcopal Church a diocesan structure equal to England for the first time.

Through the 1840s and 50s, partisan ‘tractarians’ and ‘evangelicals’ threatened schism if their demands to were not met, or if those of their opponents were. The mud they slung at Ramsay from both sides has damaged his reputation ever since, but his tireless work to keep the church together, and his deep distress at the episode, testify that he was far from a ‘lukewarm’ Christian.

While convinced episcopacy was the best form of Christianity, Ramsay refused to allow it was the only form, and therefore struck up ecumenical friendships and collaboration with anyone who would share the task of Christian evangelisation — beginning as a curate in Somerset with the local Methodists.

At St John’s, Ramsay’s ministry, like Sandford’s, was marked by a passion for education, and a conviction that the best way to preach the gospel was to teach people to think for themselves.

Whereas his most famous work is the Reminiscences of Scottish life and character, his most important was surely his Catechism for the Young Persons of St John’s, which ran into many editions and was used all over Britain. ‘The main object is, to make it the means of forming precise and correct ideas,’ he wrote in the introduction. Children learned through his catechism that to cultivate curiosity, and ask questions back instead of merely learning answers by rote, was to imitate Christ, who was found asking teachers questions as a child in the temple.

Edward Bannerman Ramsay

Back amongst the Celts

The combination of a showery bank holiday and an exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland gave me a chance to revisit my first old artistic love, the art of the Celts.

There was knotwork of course, and the point was made that this is really characteristic of Anglo-Saxons rather than Celts, something I discovered in Jarrow and Hexham.

Knotwork
Small Anglo-saxon knotwork cross medallion, c.750 AD. The top left and (badly-drawn) bottom right are different balanced, single-line designs: the top right is three lines. Different craftsman, same craftsman after a dram, or a deep meaningful point?

But what I really enjoyed was the oldest stuff. One thing I discovered was that those naif figures which populate the Book of Kells and the like are not intrinsic to celtic art, it’s just that the Irish monks were useless at portraiture. This penny-sized face, one of dozens circling around a horse harness, is a perfectly good portrait of a pretty Czech girl, hammered from bronze when Nehemiah was busy rebuilding Jerusalem.

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There were also better examples than I’ve seen before of designs which evoke animals without feeling the need to copy them literally. This ‘deep’ art was a big theme of the exhibition, and contrasted with the literal naturalism of the Mediterranean.

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The depth of the designs was full of fun with fractals: the London bird above had a similar tiny bird flying inside its wing; and there was a spectacular torque from Germany with two bulls’ heads, each head wearing a little torque. Did the little torques have little bulls’ heads each wearing tiny torques?  The large glass cases and low light levels didn’t let us find out.

But I think my favourite bit of design on this occasion was this French pot, clearly influenced by Greek pottery but overrun by a bonkers celtic herd of nested, rotated, spiralled, extended deer:

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The top of the design is at the bottom of the page: I ran out of paper. These illustrations altogether demonstrate that I haven’t done a sketch for years. 

One of the disappointing things about this Edinburgh exhibition, as so often, was the lack of content compared with a London one. I had taken my paintbox in the hope of getting out some colour, but there was hardly any enamelwork, and the two monastic manuscripts were unfortunately placed horizontally in vertical display cases so that it was impossible to see the designs in any detail. I did find this bronze bit, however, with what I thought was just the right pleasing celticy combination of trumpet, spiral, boss and enamel.

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I liked the final section on celtic revival, and I was very glad to see the great decipherer of knotwork George Bain mentioned: I have spent hours and hours amongst the pages of his book (although I’m horrified to see his Wikipedia page features an incorrect knot!). However, I’d forgotten, if I knew, that the man who invented Edinburgh Living Landscape 100 years before it was invented, Patrick Geddes, was also a great celtic revivalist. Goodoh.

Shakespeare and Scott: the British Bards

Fashions in accolades change over time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

St Johns Edinburgh and the Battle of Waterloo

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

Charlotte Chapel, Rose Street, Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

A Rifleman’s uniform

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

St John’s Chapel, opened 1818

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

Downie Place and Port Hopetoun

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

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

The Great Blank

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

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

Venice in Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow me on twitter @eleanormharris

On physics and politics, and how to tell the difference

The tremendous thing about Scottish Independence referendum has been the engagement. The 84% turnout was the finale to weeks of often heated, yet almost without exception peaceful, political debate at every level of society. I walked through the departing crowds of the Orange March and counter-demonstrators in Edinburgh the weekend before the vote, through partisan, working-class yes- and no-voters with badges and flags. They were stickering and de-stickering the Scottish Enlightenment statues so fast they twinkled, yelling “fucker” like it was the only word in the language, as perfectly non-violently as the middle-class partisans’ more passive aggressive outbursts of “doomed” “must” and “frankly insulting”. I hope it has been apparent to people furth of Scotland what huge quantities of excellent generosity and humour there have been alongside the insults.

There was a low moment about a fortnight ago, a dreadful mud-slinging television debate, and the chat the day after from both sides was all about what a shameful embarrassment it was to live in a country where politics had reached such an abysmal standard. But then, the miracle, the divided Scotland united in a determination to raise that standard. Everyone realised that ‘Scottish pride’ couldn’t reside in waving saltires and bashing English Tories. It had to come from listening to your opponents, taking criticism on board, learning to discuss politics intelligently.

And so, crashily and noisily, we did. My complaints about the poor standard of the debate led to me discovering the excellent commentary of Professor Paul Cairney, thanks to whom I now understand the Barnett Formula. Many strong partisans realised that blind partisans were unpersuasive: anyone not already on their side simply stopped listening to them (I had to “silence” one on Facebook).

I weighed in: when some no-voting friends seemed genuinely to believe vandalism was a characteristic unique to yes-voters I made sure to find a counter-example. Although yes-voters (reasonably) huffed at my comparing them to fundamentalist Christians, they also made an effort, when talking to me at least, to demonstrate that they were thinking for themselves, not merely swept along by the rhetoric. Meanwhile, in a geeky corner of twitter, I had met and got into an enlightening discussion with a political theorist Robert Lowry about the mechanics of “groupthink”. Certainly, my own understanding of and engagement in current national politics and political debate — which like most people in their 30s has been cripplingly irrelevant and dull for our entire lifetime — has shot up. This article is a result, and an attempt to keep the momentum which everyone agrees we need to maintain.

The purpose of this article is to draw your attention to the importance of one piece of fuzzy-mindedness which has clouded the political debate and judgement of many highly intelligent people (that is to say, many of my friends!). It is the vital difference between politics and physics. It has been clarified in my mind by coincidence of the Scottish independence referendum, the global People’s Climate March movement, and my reading about the historical theory of post-structuralism, a modern philosophic reassertion of the age-old doctrine of free-will.

If you do the science carefully enough, you can make predictions about physics. Water will always evaporate at a certain rate at a given temperature and humidity. The probability of Ebola mutating to become less deadly and more infectious can be calculated. On certain ongoing phenomena, notably climate change, the science has been done very carefully indeed. This means that 99.99% of scientists can agree that it is linked to human induced carbon dioxide emissions and will result in serious consequences within the next thirty years. It also means that predictions turn out to be right, again and again.

Politics is not like this. It may be true to say that that people from certain backgrounds are more likely to vote a certain way. The most striking recent example I saw of this was a terrifyingly close correlation between membership of Anglican/ Dissenting churches in the 1851 religious census, and Tory/ Labour voting in late twentieth-century elections. If we are really so in thrall to our historic thought-patterns, do we really have any free will? However, while historic events may be explicable in terms like this, they consistently defy prediction. This is the source of the currently trendy, and very irritating, historians’ phrase, ‘the future is not my period’, which guarantees they are rarely invited to comment on political events. While demographics and votes may be linked, elections are always interesting and uncertain because, unlike the evaporating water-droplet, free-willed people can and do vote against expectations. One individual’s stirring speech, one committee’s new policy announcement, one expert’s new piece of intelligence, may unexpectedly sway enough voters to change the result. More importantly, the long-term consequences of any given result — such as Scottish independence or union — is anybody’s guess. All the predictions about independent Scottish utopias, or nightmare broken Britain scenarios, were based on nothing at all, or rather, they were not predictions at all: they were aspirations and fears. The truth is, political arrangements are created by human beings. If human beings get together to make a system work, they can. If they want to break it, they can. This is not the case when dealing with the forces of physics.

This does not mean, however, that politics is simply random. It means that you, the actor, have a power to influence political movements in a way totally impossible in the case of something like the climate. Your rhetoric, your quiet networking, your expert input at the right moment, could have a power out of all proportion to your quantity. Being one person out of ten million, one free-willed person, means a great deal more than being one water droplet out of ten million, if you want to make it so. That’s what I’m trying to do with this article, with my twitter feed. This was Foucault’s lesson about power.

Understanding this difference between politics and physics is vital to empowerment: I would almost say it is the key to your freedom. Unsurprisingly, historians are prone to imagine physics works like politics, while scientists tend to treat politics as if it will be obedient to the laws of physics, leaving both floundering.

My experience of history conferences is of a greater level of uninterest and lack of knowledge in the environmental crisis than amongst my general acquaintance. Environmental crisis is largely about events in the future: the future is unpredictable and therefore not worth worrying about because there is nothing we can do about it. They fail to realise that the predictions of mass extinction, storms, drought and so forth are not guesses to do with free will and human behaviour: they are the predictable consequences of physical actions, which can be predictably changed by changing the actions.

My experience of scientists is that they are prone to overestimate the logical behaviour of human beings. They imagine that people will act consistently and predictably, either acting logically, or (if they are more sociologically-minded scientists) acting according to demographic. They expect to be able to predict the consequences of an action such as a yes vote, and will confidently repeat the predictions of the most reliable-sounding commentator as if they were scientific results.

To me, both appear disempowered by blindness. Why should I claim any greater insight? I do not believe these friends are any less intelligent than me (on the contrary!). But I do have an unusually strong interdisciplinary tendency. I’m trained as a historian, and frankly too inaccurate and impatient to be a scientist, yet I’m strongly drawn to science because in many ways I find nature far more interesting and appealing than people. My observations on these twin blindnesses come from hanging out, a lot, with both scientists and historians, and, applying my general historian curiosity about the workings of human nature to both groups, thinking about how they are free, or unfree, as part of my own quest for empowerment and freedom (for I went to look at, and was inspired by, the Declaration of Arbroath in primary school, as much as the next Scot).

The consequences of this blindness and disempowerment are potentially disastrous. It results in the best historians, the ones who often train political leaders at university, nonchalantly observing as we blunder towards environmental crisis and scientists scream “do something”. It results in scientists weighing in to, or keeping out of political debates without really understanding how human societies work, while historians mutter, “you idiots!” For the environmental crisis, which is about a physical event caused by the political workings of global society, it is imperative that the two groups learn one anothers’ wisdom, and collaborate in action.

So, my intelligent Scottish and beyond-Scotland readers, as we continue to develop our empowered political debate over the coming years, I want you to take a deliberately interdisciplinary approach. I want you to cultivate the simultaneous virtues of confidence in your own power, and humility in your own limitations; to critique others, and to learn from them; to stay involved. And I look forward to being part of this new Scottish enlightenment in which good philosophy leads to world-changing action (because there’s nothing to stop us being inspired by historical examples, of deciding we’d like to make history repeat itself). I look forward to reading this article a year from now and thinking “gosh that sounds stupid: what a lot I have learned since then, and what a lot we have done”.

The First Clergy of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral Edinburgh

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

The Clergy

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

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

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

Scottish or English?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gothic Revival in Westminster

I was invited to St Matthew’s Westminster to give a talk on religion and environmental issues at the inaugural Just Festival Westminster, and unexpectedly found myself in a George Gilbert Scott church.

St Matthew’s, begun in 1849, was a high-church mission in a notorious slum area of Westminster known as the Devil’s Acre. I dread to think what the price of these flats might be now, but the narrow lanes and names like “Perkin’s Rents” and “Old Pye Street” recall a time when bare food and shelter were foremost in people’s minds. A church and, as so often in these missions more importantly a school, represented a great leap forward in civilization.

St Matthew’s is a strange church, because it burn down in the 1970s, so is a now a collection of rescued George Gilbert Scott fragments juxtaposed with unashamedly modern additions and reconstructions. There is still a sense of how the weary and heavy laden of Devil’s Acre might have come there to find rest amongst the beauty:

And been raised above the squalor of the lanes outside by the combined splendour and homeliness of George Gilbert Scott’s gilded reredos, depicting the nativity:

The fact that the original stained glass consists of rescued fragments makes one look at them with fresh appreciation, perhaps more as the original beholders saw them, perhaps feeling that they were rescued fragments of humanity themselves.


St Matthew’s is like a beautiful patchwork casket for new works of religious art. I particularly like this Mary and child, with her brazen nudity and all the stroppiness of the Magnificat. She isn’t just talking about God showing strength with his arm, scattering the proud and exalting the humble and meek, she’s jolly well doing it herself:

The Just Festival in which I was participating included a new piece of art showing different faces of God: much bigger and more spectacular than it appears in my picture. My friend Raymond, whose organisation of the Festival included procuring the enormous exhibition panel to display it on, was worried it would be a bit controversial but it seemed to meet with general acclaim.

Apparently the naked Mary had caused a bit of a stooshie. So did my “Earth be Glad” talk about religion and the environmental crisis. I feel I’m in good company. Whether you’re a nineteenth-century Tractarian missionary, or a twenty-first century environmental campaigner, it’s difficult to sing Mary’s song at choral evensong every week without becoming a bit revolutionary:

He hath showed strength with his arm;
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts;
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
And hath exalted the humble and meek;
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he hath sent empty away.