September song…

Tree, symetrical

Autumn is close. You can feel it in the evening as the cold tickles the hairs in your nose. Or perhaps it is the wood smoke. The fact of sunny days just makes the end of the summer that much more poignant.

flower, early autumn

Something is coming to an end. But it was glorious.

exotic fruit

Nothing lives for ever but perhaps every change of season leaves behind a record of its passing, left like a tree ring on our souls; a record of our living- some good years, others lean and hard.

Life is beautiful both in the coming in, and the going out…


Promised days…

Come on in to the green stuff

I am tired almost beyond sleeping. So here I am uploading photos.

Last weekend we took some time to walk up to the view point high above Benmore Gardens. It made me think again of these words, from Song of Songs, chapter 2;

Get up, my dear friend,
fair and beautiful lover—come to me!
Look around you: Winter is over;
the winter rains are over, gone!
Spring flowers are in blossom all over.
The whole world’s a choir—and singing!
Spring warblers are filling the forest
with sweet arpeggios.
Lilacs are exuberantly purple and perfumed,
and cherry trees fragrant with blossoms.
Oh, get up, dear friend,
my fair and beautiful lover—come to me!
Come, my shy and modest dove—
leave your seclusion, come out in the open.
Let me see your face,
let me hear your voice.
For your voice is soothing
and your face is ravishing.

Looking forward to a few things…

This photo was taken looking out from the viewpoint at the top of Benmore Gardens today, where we took a picnic today, along with some friends. It somehow made me think of the year to come; looking forward into 2012. It suddenly seemed so hopeful and exciting to look forward, rather than looking back…

I love to have things on the horizon – distant goals/projects/destinations that I can move towards, even if getting there involves some graft. I think this is always even more important to me in the dark months of the year. So I started to write a list.

Yesterday we worked hard in our cellar, to continue the process of converting the space down there to a working pottery. Michaela and Pauline’s Blue Sky Craft Workshops will be planning some sessions down there. Watch this space if you are interested. I’ll post some photos when I have managed to build some of the workbenches down there.

Talking of craft/art we have  been asked if we want to use the exhibition space in Benmore Gardens- to fill it up with carvings and craftings. This is a lovely challenge, as it is a big space, and so it will need some big pieces, possibly combining work from different members of our group. Time to get in the workshop, and tidy all the things that have come out of the cellar into some kind of order!

Then there is the distant Greenbelt festival- which has become increasingly important to me also. I have a few ideas for poetry/audio installations that I am gathering soundscapes and ideas for. Not sure if it will happen, but the creativity it sparks in me is grand.

In all this mix is lots of uncertainty. A job that has been under threat for two years but may be about to finally end. Other plans to downshift and start all sorts of other micro enterprises have been long in the planning, but this will be the year one way or another, when things will change.

Then there is the Wilderness Retreats that I am planning with my mates Simon, Nick and Paul. I am really looking forward to these. I hope some of you will join us.

Then there are all the activities of the community I am part of – Aoradh. We meet to eat and laugh and pray, and to plan creative ways to celebrate our faith. Next year we are already talking about collaborations with others, bench meditation spots, community gardens, labyrinths, prayer rooms.

And to mark progress towards the new season, today Will and I attended the first of the years indoor cricket net sessions. We spent a couple of hours bowling, being bowled at and facing a bowling machine. Magic. It is hard to imagine the warm days full of the sound of leather on willow, but this too will come.

As I look at this little (incomplete) list, I feel blessed, excited, hopeful, humble, grateful. And perhaps just a little overwhelmed.

May your horizons be full of good things too!

I blinked…

I blinked

And the weekend

Went by

These days-

Like feathered things


A Victorian sugar baron and Spurgeon…

We went to the James Duncan exhibition at Benmore Gardens today.

Quite a story- which captures the character of Victorian industrial expansion, philanthropy, sponsorship of the arts and the importance of religion.

Duncan was born in Greenock, to a father wealthy from selling books, but who died young. His son was a bit of a clever lad, who did very well in his studies- particularly chemistry. As a young adult in early Victorian Britain, he had a choice of industries to apply his science within, and chose the sugar industry- one of the engines of prosperity for the West of Scotland. Perhaps even one of the reasons my house was built back in 1840.

After working for various companies, whilst on a wee trip down Loch Long, Duncan came up with a new way of refining sugar- slow boiling it to produce less waste and a higher quality product. He set up partnerships, factories first in Greenock, then in London- and made a vast fortune.

But for this Christian tycoon, born into an age of philanthropy, with such wealth came responsibility. Or perhaps guilt. Duncan began to sponsor all sorts of philanthropic schemes- sewer works, slum improvements, hospitals, libraries, churches (interestingly, despite his Free Church background, he supported both Protestant and Catholic church plants. He was reputed to be giving away 20% of his £100,000 annual income.

Around 1870, he bought Benmore Estate, and set about making huge improvements to the landscape. He built the biggest glass houses in the whole of the country, planted millions of trees, and opened his land for vistitors.

He also began to collect art. He was the first Scottish collector to buy impressionist paintings, and pretty soon, he needed more space to display his collection. He built a massive display hall next to his house at Benmore, and opened it to the public too.

He lost his fortune as the sugar market was transformed by the lifting of trade barriers, and opening the British Empire to cheap imports. He vanished into relative obscurity, forgotten within his own lifetime.

The place of my small sleepy town at the heart of the Empire is a surprise.  The morality tale of the rise of huge wealth at the expense of poor people half way across the world, whilst opening up a philanthropic urge to use this wealth responsibly at least in part for the poor people of this country, is also one that seems archetypal of the Victorian age.

There is another interesting footnote to this story. Duncan was a close friend of Charles Haddon Spurgeon– hero of the current Evangelical right wing, super-preacher and Pastor of the Christian world’s first mega church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

Spurgeon took holidays at Benmore each year, and regularly preached to thousands of people on the grass of the formal gardens- people who flocked to hear his particular brand of muscular, Bible-first theology.

Both Spurgeon and Duncan were men of their age- forged out of the fires of the enlightenment during a time when everything seemed certain and the world was ripe for improvement. God may or may not have been an Englishman, but he certainly showed favour on the righteous and industrious men of the British Empire. Or so it seemed.

The legacy that these men left is far from insignificant. But from our perspective, it is nuanced and shadowed, like a finely carved marble statue, gathering layers of grime and bird droppings, belonging to another age.



A few more pictures of autumn…

We had a lovely day today- I took a day off work and Michaela and I went a walk in the sunshine around Benmore Gardens before meeting Simon and Helen for lunch in the coffee shop.

Autumn was kind today- we did not even need coats- which is something of a contrast with the stormy weekend just past.

So, a few pics then…

kicking leaves

Benmore and the restored Fernery


We took a walk around the gardens at Benmore yesterday.

The colours that can be seen in the tree collections are astonishing at this time of year- and of course there is the Fernery- a recently restored folly half way up a cliff, housing a collection of rare ferns. It is such a lovely space- and makes me think of my friend Simon McGoo- he would love it.

So for his and your benefit- a few photographs…

Worshiping with wood 2…


As part of our worship installation for Greenbelt festival I have been working on a station called ‘history’ which uses tree rings to bring to us a sense of being part of a larger historical context. I mentioned this before- here, and the sense of worshiping God with my hands as I have worked the wood has been deep and powerful.

I obtained a slice of Scots Pine from Benmore Botanical Gardens– it had been cut with a chainsaw as part of the ongoing maintenance programme, and the slice I chose was a rough quarter of a larger tree section. It was heavy, rough and dirty, and was intended to be split for the fireplace.

I then spent many hours planing the surface as smooth as I could, then sanding it with different sandpapers in order to reveal the grain and rings of the wood. Later I oiled the surface with teak oil.

The more I worked, the more beautiful the wood became.

In counting the tree rings, the tree was planted around 1920. At that time, Benmore was owned by the famous music hall star Harry Lauder who planted and landscaped much of the land in the wake of personal tragedy- losing his only son in the first world war, then later his wife.

Walking below big old trees can be a wonderful peaceful experience- the shelter of their branches is almost parental. But they can also bring to us a sense of our own emphemeral mortality…



Time to be born…


We are just back from a lovely picnic and walk around Benmore Gardens, where the early rhododendrons are already flowering. Thought I would post a few pictures.dscf3609

So following on from my last post’s burst of optimism- heres another poem from the Ecclesiastes 3 project…

A time to be born

There is a time for all things under heaven

A time when the last bones of winter snow
Are digested by the old dogs of the mountain
And all things are possible
All things are made new

A time when hills are full of the hope of life
From creaking peak to fecund valley
Sky above trees above gorse above grass
The spring has sprung
And shaken out at last
Once tucked in rolled tight buds
Now made leaf and flower
By the prodigal sun

So here it is
Hearts bleating
Pulses buzzing
Weaving us new nests
And swaddling us bright green

For now is the time to be born