The Tay Bridge disaster

I can’t imagine what it’s like to design, construct and supervise a world leading structure, receive wide praise and recognition, and have it fail causing dozens of deaths 19 months later. Thomas Bouch knew exactly what that was like.

I learned about the Tay Bridge disaster when I was very young. I grew up in Fife, and to get to Dundee we went north by train crossing the River Tay estuary on the 2.75 mile long Tay Bridge.

Aged less than seven, I looked out the train window and down to the water, and asked ‘Why are there stone blocks in the water alongside our bridge?’

My mum explained, ‘Those large blocks held up the first bridge. But it fell down.’ That wasn’t an encouraging answer, but I wanted to know more. And I’m still interested today.

In this blog I’ll tell the story of what happened to the original Tay Bridge. This is a different kind of blog to most. It’s longer, because the story can’t be told properly without detail. And why things went so terribly wrong is a lesson or warning for all of us.

But if it’s too much, you’re about to be given a shortcut.


I’m about to provide considerable detail about the construction of the bridge, including failings that likely caused its downfall. Not everyone will have time or will wish to read this. If so, pick up the story again in the section headed ‘Collapse’.

The River Tay flows into the North Sea just east of Dundee. Its estuary is wide with fast flowing currents and strong winds. To bridge across the river near its mouth would be a massive engineering feat.

Thomas Bouch

Proposals were drawn up in 1854, but nothing done. In the 1860s, however, two rail companies rivalled each other for the route to the north east. The key to success was building a bridge over the River Tay. The North British Railway Company got approval to do that, and they appointed a noted civil engineer called Thomas Bouch. He was 49, and already experienced with major railway projects in both Scotland and England. The whole contract – design, construction and ongoing maintenance – went to him. In 1871 work began.

From earliest days Bouch’s design was criticised. The bridge would be only single track so traffic capacity would be low. The centre section needed to be built high above water to allow ships to pass underneath. Bouch’s tall and slim design appeared to lack stability.

Problems soon emerged once construction started. Bouch’s design specified piers (on which the bridge would rest) of solid masonry and brickwork. But 15 piers out from the south side, the borers who dug into the next part of the river bed found the underlying material insufficient to hold the weight of solid piers. They would shift or collapse. So Bouch redesigned these piers to be lighter and wider. Above water level, instead of masonry there would be slender cast-iron columns. He made another change: originally the centre of the bridge was to have fourteen 61-metre spans, but finally he settled on thirteen 65.5-metre spans (the gap between piers).

Three other issues are worth mentioning.

The foundry  Bouch built a foundry at Wormit, immediately beside the south end of the bridge. That was a good idea – hardly any distance was involved in transporting the iron. But numerous reports described low-quality iron emerging from that foundry – inconsistent in shape and inconsistent in quality.

The height necessary to allow vessels to pass  For most of the bridge, girders ran under the rails. But those low girders reduced the height of the bridge, far too low for ships to pass underneath. So, in the centre section the girders were constructed alongside and above the railway track, allowing trains to pass through a tunnel-like gap between the metalwork. Hence that section got the name of the High Girders.

Wind pressure  Modern standards for wind resistance did not exist in Bouch’s time, but engineers were well aware of the issue. He took advice about wind pressure. French and American engineers had already adopted 40-50 pounds per square foot for wind loading (and if a Tay Bridge was being built today that would be the design requirement). But the lowest recommendation Bouch was given was 10 pounds per square foot. He took that, believing that wind intensity at that level would not force the bolts upwards that secured the columns to their piers.

Throughout the project there was pressure on Bouch from his employers to work as fast as possible, and to keep costs down. The bridge took six years to build. The materials used included:

  • 10,000,000 bricks
  • 2,000,000 rivets
  • 87,000 cubic feet of timber
  • 15,000 casks of cement

Six hundred men were employed during the construction; 20 of them died in accidents. The bridge cost was £300,000 which was not a high amount at the time. It equates to approximately £20,000,000 today, though modern bridges cost many times that sum.

The bridge was more than two miles long. Some records say it was the longest bridge in the world; others that it was the longest iron bridge, or the longest rail bridge. It impressed many. General Ulysses Grant, who led the Union Armies to victory in the American Civil War, visited the construction in 1877 while he was President of the United States.

The Tay Bridge was opened officially on 31st May, 1878, with great celebrations. Directors were taken over the bridge in a special train. Passenger traffic commenced the next day. Profits for the rail company soared.

First Tay Bridge, viewed from the north. Note the High Girders section in the upper centre-left of the photo.

In June 1879 Queen Victoria crossed the bridge as she journeyed south from Balmoral Castle. A few days later Thomas Bouch was knighted by the Queen at Windsor Castle.


It’s now Sunday evening of the 28th December, 1879. Winter nights in Scotland are cold. This night there are also howling winds. On a naval training ship moored at Dundee, the wind speed is measured as gusting to Force 10/11.

On the south side of the River Tay a train approaches the bridge. There’s the locomotive, its tender, five passenger carriages and a luggage van. The last passengers have boarded at St Fort Station and are likely locked in, thought of as a safety measure. At Wormit, on the southern edge of the river, the train slows to 3 or 4 mph as a safety baton is passed over. At 7.13 pm the train moves on to the Tay Bridge.

It’s only 19 months since the bridge was opened. Thousands of passengers have crossed, including Queen Victoria. But not on a night like this. Gale force winds sweep down the Tay river valley. Some say no train should be using the bridge over the estuary on such a night. But this train does.

From the south signal box, through wind and rain an observer watches the tail lamps of the train as it moves on to the bridge. When it reaches 200 yards he sees sparks at the wheels. Probably the wind is pushing the wheel flanges against the edge of the rail. Those sparks fly for almost three minutes. Now the train is in the High Girders central section. The observer later described what happened next: ‘there was a sudden bright flash of light, and in an instant there was total darkness, the tail lamps of the train, the sparks and the flash of light all … disappearing at the same instant’.

He tells the signalman, who until now has been busy with other duties. Neither of them can see anything through the darkness. To be sure all is well, the signalman uses a cable phone (which was attached to the bridge) to call the signal box at the north end. He can’t get through. They don’t know what to think.

Newspaper illustration of railway officer crawling out during storm, finding central section of bridge gone.

Officials on the Dundee side expect the train to arrive. When it doesn’t, they wonder if it ever left the south bank. Still they wait, but see and hear nothing. Finally two men volunteer to go out on the bridge. Perhaps the train is stuck. Or something worse. What they’re doing is immensely risky. Many times they are almost blown off the bridge. One stops, but the other reaches the point where the high girder section starts. It’s gone. And the train is gone. Holding on to save his life, he peers out over the raging river, realising the bridge ahead, the train, the crew and the passengers have all plunged into the water.

At first light ships search the Tay. They find no survivors. To this day different numbers are given for how many died, but most agree it was around 75.

As news spreads there is nation-wide shock. Newspapers publish sensational drawings of the train plunging off the tracks into the Tay. The engineering world is stunned.

When the storm is over, divers go down to the wreck. They find the locomotive and its carriages still inside the girders. It had all come down together. Only 46 bodies are recovered.

One of the most remarkable feats of engineering now lies at the bottom of the river it spanned.

Bridge viewed from the south after the accident. The High Girders section has collapsed into the river along with the train.


After a tragedy the two immediate questions are ‘How did it happen?’ and ‘Who should we blame?’ Answers came soon.

An official Court of Inquiry was set up immediately with three commissioners. The disaster occurred on 28th December, 1879, and evidence was taken as early as 3rd January, 1880, just six days later.

They gathered eye witness testimony from people who had seen something from shore, and appointed senior engineers to investigate the wrecked sections and the remainder of the bridge. Others considered the design and construction methods. Months were spent gathering and examining expert reports and interviewing key people.

None was more key than Sir Thomas Bouch, who argued that derailment and collision with the girders explained the tragedy. His view was considered to have little supporting evidence.

The Court of Inquiry’s report was published a few months later and presented to both the Commons and the Lords in the Houses of Parliament. All points were not agreed in the report. But there was reasonable unanimity in serious criticisms of the design, the poor ironwork produced by the Wormit foundry causing some parts to fail when under heavy load, mistakes made during construction, inadequate maintenance and remedial measures. And a failure to create a structure able to withstand the strength of winds which could occur in the Tay estuary.

Here are two damning comments in the official report: *

‘…can there be any doubt that, what caused the overthrow of the bridge, was the pressure of the wind, acting upon a structure badly built, and badly maintained.’ (p.41)

‘The conclusion then, to which we have come, is that this bridge was badly designed, badly constructed, and badly maintained, and that its downfall was due to inherent defects in the structure, which must sooner or later have brought it down. For these defects both in the design, the construction, and the maintenance, Sir Thomas Bouch is, in our opinion, mainly to blame. For the faults of design he is entirely responsible.’ (p.44)

Bouch was broken by the Inquiry’s findings. He became a recluse and died of ‘stress’ in October 1880, four months after the report was published. He was 58.

Down all the years, arguments persist about what caused the bridge to fall. Bouch continues to be blamed, though perhaps a little less severely than by the official inquiry. But if the ‘buck stops at the top’, he was, unquestionably, at the top with this project.

Here’s what I think happened. Almost all the factors mentioned earlier had their part to play. Parts failed that with proper workmanship and maintenance should have stayed strong. But, fatally, when the locomotive and all its carriages entered the high girders, they created what one website calls ‘a solid broadside resistance to the gale, which was blowing full on to them’.  A yacht is moved forcefully when the flat of the sail is presented to the wind. On that night, at the highest point of the bridge, that train plus the high girders were a heavy flat surface facing directly towards a powerful wind. It was too much. The whole central section was pushed sideways, tilting the girders over, snapping the cast-iron columns, and driving the high girders and the train into the Tay.**


From the story of the Tay Bridge disaster, I have three short conclusions for our lives today.

Too much dependence on one person is risky

I wouldn’t like to have been Thomas Bouch, even at the start of the bridge project. He was a brilliant civil engineer, but there are 20 or perhaps 50 different specialised areas involved in a major construction and he didn’t and couldn’t have knowledge and skills for all these areas.

When I led churches, the mission agency, the seminary, I was uncomfortable when too much about our work depended on one person. Sometimes I asked: ‘If you were run over by a bus, who could do your job?’ If no-one could, we were vulnerable.

Some people like feeling indispensable. But for an organisation, that’s not strength; it’s weakness.

A great vision isn’t enough. Implementation really matters

No-one had built a two-mile long iron bridge before. Bouch’s vision was great. But he was pressurised on time scale and on cost. Corners were cut, too much didn’t get designed well, built well, inspected well, maintained well. Bouch’s big ideas were really good, but many things during and just after construction were lacking. Hindsight is always 20/20, but it seems it was only a matter of time before the bridge failed.

Some of us look back to when we were given a great opportunity. A new job. A wonderful spouse. Good health. University entrance. A rare skill. And we didn’t make the most of it. We didn’t study, or develop our abilities, or got distracted on to far less important things. It’s one thing to get a great opportunity. It’s another to fulfil our potential with that opportunity. Implementation really matters.

What we do is always tested

The 28th of December, 1879 – the night of the terrible storm – was the ultimate test for the Tay Bridge. And it fell. When tested, it failed.

The sobering truth is that every life faces tests.

  • Politicians know re-election time is coming when what they’ve done will be scrutinised and voted on
  • Students will face assignments and exams, and what they know will be assessed
  • Workers will have appraisals. Their performance will be evaluated.
  • Relationships will go through hard times, a test of how strongly they hold together

Knowing that there will be times of testing should motivate us to prepare and live ready to face them.

My Aunt Milla drove really badly. Her top speed on all roads was 25 mph. She couldn’t parallel park on a deserted street. She was poor at judging traffic at junctions, and solved that by just going straight through. It was terrifying to be her passenger. Question: how did she ever pass a test when she drove like that? Answer: she didn’t pass a test. She’d begun to drive before there were any tests, so she simply applied for a licence and was given one. But because she’d never prepared for a test, she was forever a dreadful and dangerous driver.

We’re living well when we’re prepared for whatever test will come. Some tests are the ordinary challenges of this life. From my Christian perspective, there’s also the ultimate test of standing before God, and accounting for what we’ve done with all that’s been entrusted to us.

May we be ready for that, the greatest of tests, and all the others along the way.


A special thanks and acknowledgment. The images in this blog are used with the permission of ‘Libraries, Leisure and Culture Dundee’. Their website is full of information, and their staff wonderfully helpful.

*  The official report can be found at:

** I’m grateful for this explanation from the Wonders of World Engineering website:

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Three extra details:

The locomotive that plunged into the Tay was recovered, restored and put back in service. Its new nickname was ‘The Diver’.

Parts of the old bridge are still in use today – suitable girders were incorporated into the structure of the replacement Tay Rail Bridge.

The new bridge is twin track, opened in 1887 without any official ceremony.

Pouring your heart into what you do

In the last blog, I asked: ‘If we are to have a life well-lived, what are (at least some) of the principles we should live by?’ I used the story of building St Vitus Cathedral to illustrate three of those principles.

I’ll use another building project this time – a building so remarkable it’s one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

My work took me to India many times. Alison was able to come with me on one of those trips. While we were in Delhi, an affluent Indian friend offered to drive us to the Taj Mahal. That’s a 115 mile (185 km) journey, not far but likely to take a long time on a crowded road. It didn’t take a long time, not with my friend observing his rules of the road, which were not many.

The Taj Mahal is every bit as impressive as its reputation and its story.

It exists because of love and loss. In 1607 the 14-year-old Shah Jahan, soon to be Mughal emperor, glimpsed a girl selling silk and glass beads. She was Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian princess aged just 15. Jahan told his father he wanted to marry this girl. Five years later he did.

He had other wives as well, but his love was supremely for Mumtaz who travelled everywhere with him, and bore him many children. In 1631 she died giving birth to their 14th child. Jahan was distraught, and vowed to build the richest and finest of mausoleums over her grave.

He kept his word.

At the heart of the Taj Mahal complex is a tomb built of white marble brought from all over India and central Asia. Throughout the site 28 varieties of precious and semi-precious stones were used for inlay work. More than 1000 elephants transported construction materials. A 9.3 mile earth ramp was built to bring the heavy stone close to the building site, where an intricate post-and-beam pulley system placed the blocks exactly in position. Overall some 20,000 skilled artisans worked on the Taj – masons, stonecutters, dome-builders, inlayers, carvers, painters, embroiderers, calligraphers.

The tomb itself consists of a large square plinth on which stands a symmetrical building topped by a large dome and four lesser domes. Four minarets are built just outside the plinth, each tilted slightly away so that they could never collapse on to the tomb. Other magnificent buildings were constructed, and beautiful gardens with long pools, paths, fountains and ornamental trees. One of the breathtaking views is to see the Taj reflected in the water, the exact hue of the white marble varying according to the intensity of the sunlight or moonlight.

It took some 22 years until the whole site was complete. As well as being one of the Seven Wonders, the Taj Mahal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It draws between 7 and 8 million visitors each year (though less during Covid virus restrictions).

From its story, I draw these lessons for how to do our best with our lives.

Not to plan is to plan to fail

I’m not a fan of the sub-heading I’ve just used; it seems to denigrate spontaneity. But it has truth. Big enterprises require good planning and preparation. Without those, they do fail.

I’ll give two examples from my home country.

Above Oban – which sits on the west coast of Scotland – stands McCaig’s Tower. It’s also known as McCaig’s Folly. John Stuart McCaig was a wealthy banker who admired Greek and Roman architecture. So, for the hill overlooking his town, he designed an elaborate building based on the Colosseum in Rome. Inside its walls would be a museum, art gallery, and a central tower in which he’d place statues of McCaig and his family. Work began in 1897, and by 1902 the outer ring had been built. It was 200 metres in circumference, with two tiers of 94 arches. It was very impressive.

But that’s all there ever was. All work stopped in 1902 because McCaig died of a cardiac arrest, aged 78.

Personally I feel a Colosseum look-a-like above a Scottish coastal town is out of place. But I commend McCaig for being a man of vision. However, I can’t commend planning which doesn’t include funds to complete the project if the benefactor dies. McCaig’s Folly has never been finished.

Edinburgh has a monument with a similar story. In 1822 wealthy Edinburgh citizens raised money for a memorial to Scots soldiers who had died in the Napoleonic wars. They wanted to replicate the Parthenon in Athens stone for stone. It would be built on Calton Hill which overlooks the centre of the city.

The work began, and twelve columns were raised. The lintels were put in place, using the largest and heaviest stone ever quarried in Scotland. It took 12 horses and 70 men to get the stone up the hill.

In 1829 the money ran out. Only half the funds needed had been raised. The wealthy citizens had not put together an adequate ‘business plan’ to take the project to completion. Perhaps they blamed others for not being generous, but the folly of bad planning was theirs. What was intended as a National Monument is sometimes called a ‘national disgrace’.

Failure to plan or prepare adequately never works.

I have interviewed dozens of people for jobs. I’d ask: ‘What do you know about our organisation? Perhaps you’ve got information from our website?’ And about 50 per cent of the time, the answer would be, ‘No, I don’t really know anything. I didn’t look at your website.’ That was a bad answer. How could people think I’d appoint them to a senior position in a major organisation about which they hadn’t bothered to do the most basic research? It was a terrible failure of preparation for an interview.

Detailed and careful preparation went into the construction of the Taj Mahal. That building really mattered to the emperor, so he ensured everything was done right.

There is a timeless principle there. What we do should matter so much, we plan and prepare well.

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well

For a few years, Alison and I helped a small church in a run-down area of Edinburgh. We ran a children’s club, did pastoral visiting, and I did occasional preaching. There were many challenges for that church, including its building. It was small and inadequate for the work the leaders wished they could do. Why so small? Because it was never meant to be more than the hall alongside the main building, but the main building had never been built.

That’s not unique. On my preaching travels around the UK, several times I went to a church which began decades earlier meeting in a hall until its main worship building was erected. But they were still in the hall. Nothing more had ever been done.

Lack of money would be one reason for the incomplete work. But, sometimes, complacency. I imagine the first members found the hall met their needs because, in those days, there weren’t many people. As the years passed, only a few more joined them. There was always enough space. Unsurprisingly the motivation to give sacrificially to erect their main sanctuary building gradually faded. Their hall was ‘good enough’. And so it had stayed for a hundred  years.

I’m no fan of millions getting spent on large church buildings, but I am a great fan of doing everything needed for the mission of the church. Originally there was a big vision for those churches, but over the years it had dimmed and died. I can’t be glad about that.

I’d say the same about any enterprise. It’s about finishing what you start. Committing all the skills and resources that are needed. Believing that if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

The Taj Mahal teaches me that lesson. Of course the Taj is extravagant, but probably not outrageously extravagant for an emperor. And not for an emperor grieving for the princess he’d loved with all his heart. He longed to give her the best he could give. And he did.

Living life well always means giving the best we can give.

Pouring your heart into what you do

We enjoyed living in Aberdeen in the north east of Scotland. Summer was Alison’s favourite season, not for the weather but because she could work in the garden until after 11.00 each evening. Aberdeen is far enough north that night-time in mid-summer is truly dark for only two or three hours. Alison could probably have gardened until midnight, so 11.00 was no problem.

She loves gardening. It’s more of a passion than a hobby. She belongs to the local gardening group where experts give lectures. She joins webinars with top gardeners sharing their knowledge. She plans out her garden work, and keeps a journal of what she’s planted and how it’s prospered. A garden is never finished, always on the way, so Alison is never quite satisfied with her flowers or vegetables. But – as the principal beneficiary – I know she does a great job.

The simple truth is that we give our best to the things we love. In high school my best marks were in English and history because I enjoyed studying those subjects. My friend David excelled in all things scientific, and became a leading research scientist. Another of my school contemporaries was great at golf, poured his heart into it, became a professional and played in the Open Championship.

We strive for excellence in the things we love. What we love isn’t always related to our career. It can be family, or church, or our sport, or our hobby, or taking on civic responsibilities, or caring for the disadvantaged in our community, or rehoming abandoned dogs, or studying philosophy. We’re all unique, and so will be our passions. And where they lie, so we will direct our energy, our time, and our skill.

It’s good and right to bring passion to bear on all we do. Emperor Shah Jahan never dreamed of building a mausoleum for his wife. But then she died, and the love he’d had for her motivated him to build a supreme tribute to her that millions today admire. He poured his heart into the Taj Mahal. And it shows.

A life well-lived involves planning and preparing wisely. Doing everything well. Pouring our heart into all we do.

One more set of principles next time, again from a construction project. But this one is different. It fell down.


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‘If only everyone thought like me, things would be much better.’ No, they wouldn’t.

During two weeks in an Aberdeen hospital I got to know most of my fellow patients. Further down the ward was the 25-year-old who’d been there for 12 weeks after smashing his leg by simply falling off his stationary bicycle. Across from me was the man whose wife visited each evening, after which he’d phone his girlfriend. Then there was the old fellow from a remote island off the north of Scotland. Until this illness, he’d never left his small island. Not once.

But the patient I never got to know was right next to me. We exchanged a few words, but that’s all because he had his own TV and watched soap operas all day. Since he had no earphones, I endured every episode too. Most evenings his wife drove a long way to see him, but they didn’t talk – they spent their hour watching one of the prime time soaps together.

I couldn’t do what he did. So much of his life spent on so little. I wanted out of that hospital to pour my energy and skills, such as they are, into things of importance. I wanted my life to matter. I wanted a life well-lived.

But perhaps I’m the odd person. Maybe more people are like the man in the next bed, thinking only about finding pleasurable ways to pass the time.

But, if we are to have a life well-lived, what are (at least some) of the principles we should live by?

Starting with the story of a building project, I’ll lay out some principles in this blog. In other blogs I’ll add some more.

Here we go.

After living in our current house for about nine years, Alison and I finally decided we had to enlarge the back of the property. We’d always disliked the smallness of our kitchen, particularly since it was also a passageway to another part of the house. It was time for a house extension.

An architect did the drawings, the necessary official permissions were granted, and we engaged a builder. He started work in February, and promised the project would be done by June. It wasn’t done by June. Not even nearly. The work continued through the summer, and finally he said it would be finished by Christmas. I almost asked him ‘Which Christmas?’ In the end, the builder kept his promise but only just – the last workman left on Christmas Eve.

It seems all building projects over-run. But our experience pales into insignificance compared to the story of building St Vitus Cathedral in Prague.

There were religious buildings on the same site from the year 960, some of which were enlarged after 1060. But I won’t include those.

We’ll start counting from when work started on the present building. It began, on the instruction of Charles IV, in 1344. Work slowed when the king diverted one of the early architects to other projects, such as the construction of the Charles Bridge. As the years ticked by, architect succeeded architect, each contributing their own features to the building.

Then the slow work became no work. In 1419 the Hussite Wars halted all construction. It wasn’t a short interruption. Little happened for a long time because of wars, a major fire, lack of funds, and probably apathy. The half-finished building stayed that way for over 400 years.

Then, mid-way through the 1800s, a society was formed with the purpose of completing the cathedral. They began by removing some elements of earlier design, repairing others, and in 1870 laid the foundation of a new nave. A whole new façade was built in the later years of the century, and a rose window created in the 1920s.

The cathedral was complete by the time of the St Wenceslas jubilee in 1929. I’ve visited it, and it is truly a remarkable building. It’s also a large building. I was told you could park a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet inside (though there would be a problem getting it through the doors). The cathedral has a prominent location, sitting inside the boundaries of Prague Castle, towering high on the hill above the Vltava River.

So, construction began in 1344 and was completed in 1929. That’s a staggering 585 years. Don’t ever complain again that your building project is taking too long.

The construction story of St Vitus Cathedral gives us some principles of living well.

The best and most lasting of things take time

Nearly 600 years was a very long time to build a cathedral. But the end result is magnificent. In the 21st century, however, what we want we want now. Waiting isn’t in our vocabulary.

While living in America, my TV viewing was interrupted by ads for the P90X fitness system. I was shown how ‘Wayne’ had lost 43 lbs in 90 days. The trainer said: ‘Work out with me and you’ll be shocked by the results.’ I’m sure I would have been shocked, though not in the way the trainer meant.

What that ad was selling was quick-fix fitness. That’s much the same as ads telling us we can speak a foreign language in a week, or look ten years younger with an instant makeover, or pass your motorcycle test after one day’s training, or have a gorgeous garden after one visit to the garden centre.

We’d like to believe these messages. We want things now. Not next week, next month, next year. And we don’t want the effort of mastering a skill, or waiting until the right time, or allowing something to mature or develop.

But that’s not how the best things happen.

I like to remember that God put Jesus on this earth and then gave him 30 years before he started his ‘public ministry’. Time had to pass. The work was too important to rush.

For the important things we do, the same principle applies. Skills must be gained. Maturity and wisdom must develop. The right time must be reached. The right preparations made. The right care put into the work.

We need to be the best we can be. We need to do the best we can do. Those take more than 90 days.

We can’t be loners

Thousands of people, with hundreds of skills, were used to build St Vitus Cathedral – architects, foundation diggers, wall builders, roof builders, creators of stain glass windows, furniture makers, painters of fine art, and so on.

But the foundation diggers couldn’t have built the walls, nor could the stone masons have erected the complex roofs, and neither of them could have installed the beautiful windows.

The important things of this world need people with many different skills and insights.

But there are two problems with this principle.

One, it offends some people’s pride. ‘Are you saying I’m not competent to do this work?’ they’d say. To which I’d want to answer: ‘That’s exactly what I’m saying’. The task requires more wisdom and skill than any one person has.

The other problem is that people don’t like to hear alternative views. They might grudgingly agree there should be input from others, but they don’t want that input to challenge their already established opinion. It should line up behind what they already want to do. It’s annoying and awkward when someone puts forward another proposal. An angry voice eventually shouts: ‘Why can’t you see things the way I do?’

In other words, ‘if only everyone thought like me, …’ ‘if only everyone agreed with my ideas…’  if only everyone had my vision…’ then things would be much better.

No, they wouldn’t. They’d be much worse.

Important things require interaction and interdependency. Ideas and abilities generated by only ‘one brain power’ and ‘one skill set’ would be seriously limited. Good work needs others.

One challenge, then, is to overcome our pride, to accept our ideas may not be the best, and to really believe others have wisdom. Then comes the second challenge, to blend several visions into a cohesive and effective whole. There’s nothing easy about those challenges. But not to try is disastrous.

We must play our part in our day

Since it took so long to build St Vitus Cathedral there’s something peculiar about the experience of the workers. The first foundation diggers toiled generation after generation, and not one of them saw a wall go up. The same was true for the early wall builders, fathers and sons raising high walls, but never seeing a roof in place. And probably those who built the roofs never saw the marvellous art placed later inside the cathedral.

So, almost none of the tens of thousands who laboured on the cathedral during  585 years of construction ever saw the end result of their work: people gathering there to worship God. They never saw the whole thing complete.

But – and here’s the essential truth – each played their part in their day and each part was needed. The wall builders couldn’t have erected towering facades if the foundation labourers hadn’t done their work. Roofers couldn’t have built steep and complex roofs if the walls hadn’t been built.

Every generation who worked on that cathedral needed the one before to have toiled hard and well on their part of the building, because they were now (literally) standing on it. And every generation after them would stand (or fall) depending on how well they did their work now that it was their day.

For the same reasons it’s important we give our best in our day, wherever that’s needed: in our workplace, our family, our church, among our neighbours, in our town or city. We stand on the shoulders of our forebears, building on the work of those who came before us. Others after us will want to stand on our shoulders, the shoulders of people who have given their whole hearts to our tasks and responsibilities. We are the forebears of the next generation.

Put simply: just as we needed those who came before us, those after us will need us to have given our best.

Today is our moment, our time, our day. It’s when we influence lives for the best, shape the world around us, and build something strong that lasts and something magnificent for which others will be grateful. Others came before us, and others will come after us. But this is our day. We cannot fail in what we’re given to do.

The green-eyed monster

What is prohibited in the Ten Commandments, included among the acts of the flesh in the New Testament, listed as one of the seven deadly sins, and described by Shakespeare as the green-eyed monster? *

The answer is envy.

It’s hard to imagine there’s anyone who hasn’t been envious. You might think it’s especially a failing in affluent societies, a temptation of people in suburbia who ‘want to keep up with the Joneses’. Whatever others have, they want it too. But envy also happens in the poorest of places. Someone has a better tea pot, or bicycle, or job, or a rich relative who sends them money, and others want these things too.

It’s an understandable sin. We all want our lives to be better, so we envy those who have things or connections or abilities which would improve our lives, if only we had them too.

Sometimes we justify our envy. ‘It’s not fair they have these things,’ we reason. ‘Why shouldn’t I have them as well?’

I studied Human Resources as part of my management degree. One paper described how staff reacted when the work was demanding but the pay poor. Interestingly, their research showed that employees would work for low wages providing everyone doing that work had the same low wage. But if some were paid more, those on less were seriously discontent. They wanted parity. They wanted what others were getting.

On the whole, though, few try to justify envy. Down the ages envy, and its close cousin jealousy, is considered wrong.

I’m going to set out three ways in which envy is harmful. I’ll finish by adding three rather different thoughts.

First, how envy harms lives.

Envy is a cruel master

I spent a lot of time trying to help Gwyn and Julie. People would think they were a great couple with two wonderful children. But they had a secret. They were lost in a maze of unpayable debts. They owed money to the bank and on five different credit cards, and when they’d maxed out on their limits, they’d borrowed from short-term lenders at astronomical interest rates. That wasn’t all. They’d bought from several catalogue companies, the kind where you pay small sums every week but the overall cost of goods is high. And they owed significant sums for unpaid utility services and local taxes.

I sat with them for hours, tried to list every outstanding amount, and, just when I thought we were done, Julie or Gwyn would remember another debt. They were deeply submerged in a financial swamp. Debt collectors phoned constantly and banged on their front door at all hours.

The couple seemed unable to think straight so, on their behalf, I began contacting credit card providers, banks and catalogue companies. Most of them were amenable to working out payment arrangements. I introduced them to a friendly bank manager, and we considered consolidating all their debts and structuring a payment plan.

But, just before any of those remedial arrangements went into effect, I saw Gwyn and Julie’s children playing on brand-new bicycles. How could they have those new bikes? I caught up with their parents, and asked for an explanation. ‘All their friends seemed to have new bicycles, and we couldn’t let our children not have them too,’ Julie said. I asked how they found money to buy them. Sheepishly she said, ‘We got them from a catalogue company we’d never used before’. More debt. Soon after Gwynn and Julie were made bankrupt. I lost touch but I believe their marriage fell apart a year or two later.

There are three hard truths from Gwynn and Julie’s story. First, the fundamental problem behind most of their debt? They saw what others had and they had to have it too. Second, their envy was uncontrolled. It got them into debt, and then more debt. Third, despite outward appearances, and despite all they bought, Gwyn and Julie were miserable. So miserable, it ended their relationship.

Envy is a cruel and destructive master.

Envy is insatiable

Envy doesn’t have limits. It’s inexhaustible. We may think, ‘If only I have this, then I’ll be satisfied.’ But we’re not. We will always see something better than what we have already, and we’ll want that too.

One of my favourite podcasts is ‘No Stupid Questions’. A recent episode had the title: Why Do We Want What We Can’t Have? ** The presenters included the story of a stone cutter who constantly wanted something better for his life.

A stone cutter is passing the house of a wealthy merchant and sees his expensive and fancy possessions, and his important visitors, and he says to himself ‘Wow, that merchant must be so powerful. It must be amazing to be like that.’

The next day he wakes up as the merchant. So he’s happy for a while. Then he sees a high-ranking, important government official being carried in a sedan by his servants. And he thinks ‘Woah! How powerful that official must be.’

The next day he becomes the official, and this trend continues and the guy becomes the sun, he becomes a big storm cloud, and he becomes the wind. Then he finds that the one thing he can’t move when he’s the wind is a massive rock so he grows envious of the rock.

And next day he’s the rock. One day he hears the sound of a hammer hitting his surface and he thinks ‘Wait a minute! Wait a minute – what could be more powerful than me, the rock? And he looks down and sees a stone cutter…

That story says it all. Envy is never satisfied. There’s always one thing more, then another and another, an unending lust for things better than those we have already. In the end it get us nowhere.

Envy is no judge of what really matters

I arrived in the car park of the golf club, and began getting my gear out of the car. I was getting ready to play in a pairs match – my partner and I against two golfers from another club. My partner arrived in his Jaguar. Then the first of our opponents drove into the car park in his Porsche. Minutes later our second opponent came in his Audi S5. I hadn’t come in any of these elite models of car. I came in my Nissan. For a moment I wished I had one of their cars. I wouldn’t have been fussy. Any of them would be fine. But I caught myself quickly, realising ‘I already have a good car. It does everything I want a car to do.’ What matters with a car is that it gets you from A to B with reasonable comfort, safety and reliability. My car does that. The brand name is not what’s important.

Envy doesn’t think like that. Envy casts greedy eyes over anything supposedly better or more desirable than what you have already, and says ‘You should have that’.

Envy doesn’t think of affordability, or climate impact, or even suitability. It considers only things like prestige, speed, and impressing others. They are not the things that really matter.

I’ll finish with three rather different points about envy. The first will seem surprising.

  • Sometimes envy pushes people to do the right thing

Envy is a bad driver, but occasionally points us in a good direction. I’ll give an example.

While I worked in America, my car was a Subaru. I’d never owned a Subaru or any 4 x 4 car before, but it was the right car to have for the snow and ice of a Chicago winter. I deeply appreciated that car’s road-holding ability when the temperature was minus 18F. But what I most enjoyed was its reversing camera. Put the car into reverse, and a rear-facing camera showed an image on the dashboard of whatever was behind. I loved showing that to friends. Some said, ‘Wow! I wish I had that feature on my car.’ That was envy. But a good envy, because reversing cameras don’t just prevent you reversing into a wall, they stop you running over the toddler who’s invisible to wing mirrors but standing right behind the car. My friends’ envy meant they’d insist on a rear-view camera when they next bought a car, which might save a life.

In that instance envy served a good purpose.

  • Envy is not inevitable. It’s a choice

Envy feels like it’s a reaction. Your neighbour builds a wonderful extension on their house, or takes their family on the vacation of a lifetime, or gets promotion at their work, or inherits a million from an aunt they never visited. And you react with ‘I want that too’ or ‘I wish that would happen to me’. It’s an instinct, the thought that inevitably comes to mind.

But envy is not inevitable. It happens so quickly and easily it feels automatic. We’ve become used to it, as if coveting what our neighbour has is a preset feature of our humanity.

But it isn’t a preset. Envy is a choice.

Envy is a choice just as greed or lust or anger is a choice. If someone puts a plate of Danish pastries in front of me, must I eat one? Or two? Or three? If I see a beautiful woman, must I imagine having sex with her? If someone is rude and insulting, must I punch them on the nose? We’d say there’s no must about any of these. We might fail, but it was never inevitable we’d fail. Nor is it inevitable we’ll fail with envy.

The hard truth is this: envy is a choice. We are not helpless beings, pushed around by irresistible instincts. We can make decisions, including a decision not to envy what others have.

  • To beat envy, turn the other way

You’ll have heard or read this: Happiness is not having everything you want, but wanting what you have. (It’s a saying attributed to many writers.) It’s rather simplistic. But what it points to is powerful: contentment.

For a time the Apostle Paul was held prisoner in Rome. From his prison he wrote letters, including the one to the church in Philippi. Given his circumstances these words are remarkable:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.  (Philippians 4:11-13)

Paul was beaten, thrown out of cities, deserted by friends, suffered poor health and, here, languished in prison. Yet, whatever his circumstances, he was content. But please notice that twice he says he has ‘learned’ to be content.

We’ve all learned things – how to use tools, how to speak a language, how to drive a car, how to grow plants, how to play chess, and many more. We didn’t know automatically how to do these things, but we learned. It took effort, time and commitment, but we got there.

The same is true with contentment. There aren’t ten easy steps to memorise and, suddenly, you’re now perfectly content. It’s choosing to be at peace with what you have, and choosing to resist the urge to chase what you don’t have. I’d never pretend that’s easy, but I know it’s possible.

And here’s an encouraging truth. If two things are in opposite directions, moving towards one takes you further from the other. Contentment and envy lie in opposite directions, so the more we walk towards contentment the further we are from envy. I can’t overcome envy by thinking constantly about things I envy, hoping that one day I’ll wake up not wanting those shiny new things others have. I overcome envy by focusing on the very many thing I have already that bring me contentment. I choose to be content, and let envy perish by neglect.

I urge you to do the same.


*  The tenth of the Ten Commandments is: ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’ (Exodus 20:17) 

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians, says this: The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.’  (Galatians 5:19-21)

Thomas Aquinas – the 13th century Italian philosopher and theologian – is considered to have defined the standard list of the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth.

Shakespeare used the term ‘green-eyed monster’ in Othello, Act 3, Scene 3:

“O beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

**  No Stupid Questions Ep. 68

Don’t kill the horse

‘God gave me a horse, and a gift to deliver. Alas, I have killed the horse and can no longer deliver the gift.’

I first read that quote many years ago, and I’ll explain the sad reason behind the statement.

The words are attributed to Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a presbyterian pastor in Dundee from 1836-1843.

M’Cheyne was born in Edinburgh in 1813 and enrolled at the city’s university when he was only 14. A few years later his Christian convictions came alive, and he began studying divinity. As he completed his theological study he wrote this: ‘Life is vanishing fast, make haste for eternity.’

That ‘make haste’ mindset controlled everything M’Cheyne did. Each moment had to be invested in profitable work. Soon he was minister of St Peter’s Church in Dundee. All around he saw people with ‘hardness of heart’ to the Christian gospel. He worked day and night for their lives to change.

After three years of constant work his health was affected. His heart was suffering ‘palpitations’ and quickly they got worse. His friends were concerned; his doctor advised complete rest. Reluctantly he agreed, and returned to the family home in Edinburgh. The following year he was persuaded to join a group of ministers assessing Christian work in Israel; M’Cheyne’s inclusion was partly because the climate would be good for his health. He was gone for six months. During the return journey he became dangerously ill and nearly died. But he recovered and, once stronger, returned to Dundee.

While M’Cheyne had been away, a ‘revival’ had broken out in Scotland including Dundee. When he returned to St Peter’s church, things were very different from when he left. The church was filled. People with a deep concern for ‘eternal realities’ cried out for God’s mercy.

He threw himself into his work with renewed passion. He met with anyone seeking God. He preached in St Peter’s, and in the open air, and at meetings across Scotland, and into England. No-one could have worked harder for his people.

In February 1843, he toured north west Scotland – an area with rugged countryside, high mountains, narrow passes, and almost everywhere exposed to the worst of weather coming off the Atlantic Ocean. M’Cheyne preached 27 times in 24 places, often struggling through heavy snow to his next engagement.

By the time he returned to Dundee he admitted he was desperately tired. But typhus fever had broken out across the city so he visited sick person after sick person, hardly taking rest. Of course he was not immune. His own burning fever began on March 12th, and after a week he became delirious and died on March 25th. M’Cheyne was engaged to be married, and aged just 29.

He died convinced that he’d given his all for God and God’s work, yet sensing that somehow he’d ‘killed the horse’ – his body – which God had given him to deliver the gift of the gospel.

The words spoken by M’Cheyne near to his death have helped me and frightened me. What’s frightened me is the warning that I could bring all I was meant to do with my life to a premature end. What’s helped me is the realisation that life is a marathon, not a sprint, and the goal is to finish, and to finish still strong.

Before explaining more, let me be clear here what I’m not talking about. People have accidents, or become victims, or develop illnesses. Everything is changed through no fault of their own. A soldier loses his legs when a roadside bomb explodes. A young health worker in Asia contracts a disease to which she has no resistance and dies. An aid worker in the Middle East is kidnapped, and though eventually released has ongoing struggles with fear and loss of confidence. A young mum contracts cancer and dies within two years, leaving behind a husband and two very young children.

These are tragedies. These are people whose lives were ended or damaged long before anyone would have expected. They never had the chance to fulfil the potential everyone believed they had. But they didn’t cause the events which happened to them.

Their circumstances are not what this blog is about. I am writing about things we do – things we control – that damage or shorten our futures.

Because these things are numerous and varied I can only give examples.

Sometimes the issue is personal management of our health. I wrote in a recent blog about back problems I’ve had throughout my adult life. (Will life always be this way?, 13.9.21) I asked the specialist I saw in America if my damaged back could be the result of a rugby accident when I was 15. (I was hit in my back by an opponent’s knee as he tackled me.) ‘No,’ he said. ‘The state of your back is not the result of an accident. You were likely born this way.’

So, no-one caused my back pain, but there has always been one person responsible for managing it. I’ve been good about that, but not as good as I should because most of the time I’ve been overweight. Carrying too much weight stresses knees and back. It was easy to find excuses. When you’re a minister you go to meetings at which the host puts out scones and cakes. As an executive leader you go to conferences where they feed you three cooked meals a day. At other times you meet with people in restaurants. While in America, I had days with meetings like that at breakfast, lunch and dinner. One breakfast meeting in a restaurant lasted so long my lunch guest arrived. That was convenient, but did serious damage to the waist line.

Weakness of will meant I often ate the wrong things. Even when I ate the right things, I ate too much. Now that I’m retired, and almost always eating at home, I choose healthy things. Sorry, I should tell the truth – Alison chooses the healthy things. And I’m very grateful she does, as I weigh a lot less now than I did.

That’s my confession – I’ve not always looked after my health. I suspect most people could make a similar confession, though not necessarily about weight. Perhaps smoking? Or drinking more than a little? Or not getting enough sleep? Or anything else that risks shortening our years.

Then there’s the issue of overwork which M’Cheyne likely got wrong. I’ve seen employment adverts which virtually spell out that they want an employee who’ll give 110 per cent, surrendering heart and soul to the company. These are invitations to abandon health, family life, friendships, recreation, for the greater profit of a business. That deal is never worth taking.

Yet many do sign up, and they go along with a culture which demands that you start early and finish late, that you don’t take most of your vacation time, and that you answer your phone or emails any time of night and day. Often the wages are good, but you pay a heavy price to get that income. Marriages break up. Children become strangers. Health breaks down. And nothing lives in your mind except work.

Work is good and honourable. But overwork kills the spirit and the body.

For some, career and much more is shortened by serious loss of reputation. It happens when someone fakes their curriculum vitae to get a top job. Or when they’re found to have given bribes to win a contract. Or they lied in court. Or they falsified accounts to make the business look more profitable. These things have significant legal consequences, but even if the legalities are escaped the actions are usually career-ending.

Sometimes the failure isn’t legal but moral. I worked beside a journalist who’d had an affair with the wife of a very prominent civic officer. The relationship ended when it became public. The wife’s marriage was damaged, and so was the journalist’s career because he had to move far away to find another job. Tragically, church ministers can fail morally in similar ways. The vast majority would be ashamed of their actions, but they were weak when they should have been strong. It’s not always ‘career’ ending – there can be restoration – but the damage done is never small.

There have always been addictions, and they have dreadful consequences. Addiction to alcohol is mostly obvious. The same can be true with drugs sold on street corners. But addictions to prescription medications are often secret. And often deadly.

This information on deaths from drug poisoning in England and Wales comes from the British government’s Office for National Statistics

Almost half of all drug poisonings continue to involve an opiate. For deaths registered in 2020, a total of 2,263 drug poisoning deaths involved opiates; this was 4.8% higher than in 2019 (2,160 deaths) and 48.2% higher than in 2010 (1,527 deaths). Opiates were involved in just under half (49.6%) of drug poisonings registered in 2020, increasing to 64.5% when we exclude deaths that had no drug type recorded on the death certificate.*

It shocks me that opiates cause almost half of drug deaths, and the number has grown by almost 50 per cent over ten years. Often few knew someone was addicted until they overdosed and died.

There are other kinds of addictions too, such as gambling and pornography. Increasingly, worries are expressed that computer gaming has become compulsive, and not just for children. Perhaps TV soap operas are also addictive. I knew someone who recorded two or three every evening, and sat up late watching them.

I find much to admire in the life of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. And I never learned how to limit my commitment to caring for people’s bodies and souls. The sacrifice always felt worth it.

But there’s also much to learn from M’Cheyne. His words about ‘killing the horse’ and so ‘can no longer deliver the gift’ are sobering. Would he have wanted to have lived and ministered for longer? I feel sure he would.

There is a challenge, then, in his words. We make choices, and what stops us fulfilling our potential will be a bad choice.


* Extract taken from

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