Perfection and Freedom: high enlightenment in the Edinburgh New Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eleanor Harris.

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

Oddly Gothick

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

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

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

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

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Ruskin’s Moss

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

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

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

The Christmas Falcon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The St John’s Garden


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

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




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

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