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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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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You don’t know how much good you’re doing

‘You don’t know me,’ she began, ‘but my name’s Sandra and you changed my life!’

That’s not how most conversations began after I’d preached. I’d spoken to nearly 3000 at Spring Harvest, a very large Christian gathering, and afterwards several had taken their turn to thank me. I’d noticed a young lady standing off to one side, waiting until I was clear of the queue.

Sandra had stunned me with her opening sentence. ‘I need to hear how I could possibly have changed your life!’ I told her.

I listened to her story. In her late teens she’d sunk into a deep depression. Neither counselling nor medication had lifted her from a very dark place, and she’d become suicidal. Fearing for her life, doctors had committed her to a psychiatric hospital. Family and friends had visited, and her care was excellent, but nothing improved her mental health over the next two years.

Then a friend brought her a tape to listen to. ‘It was a tape of you preaching at a large gathering,’ she told me.

‘Really?’ I asked. ‘What was I talking about?’

‘You spoke about us being engraved on the palms of God’s hands, and you said that to God we are unforgettable.’

I remembered that address. I’d been asked to preach at the communion service of a national assembly, and had based my talk on verses from Isaiah chapter 49 which include these words from God: ‘See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands’ (v. 16). I’d described running my hand over an engraved bowl, feeling how the words were cut right into the glass. Engraving was deep and permanent – it was unforgettable. And the image of us being engraved on God’s hands carried the message: we are unforgettable to him.

Sandra continued: ‘I believed my life was meaningless and insignificant. I didn’t matter – I was completely forgettable. I listened to what you said, played the tape again, and then again and again. And I began to believe what you said. God had not forgotten me.’

That was the turning point in her life. She took positive steps to improve her health and, with support from family, she was released from hospital. She found work, and she found faith. And that faith had brought her to Spring Harvest where I happened to be one of the main speakers.

Until then I hadn’t known there was anything special about that ‘engraved on the palms of God’s hands’ message. It had been appreciated by those present, but that was all. Except, it wasn’t all. Someone locked in a psychiatric ward got to hear it, and her life began to change.

It happened that I met Sandra and heard her story, but I might never have done.

I suspect that often we never get to know how much good our words and actions have done. It’s hard to know exactly how often that happens, because we can’t count what we don’t know!

I’ll describe some instances of significant things I might easily never have known about. I apologise that they’re all my stories, but, of course, how could others tell me stories of things they probably know nothing about?

Here are six instances when someone didn’t realise the significance of what they said or did.

One  As a young journalist I shared a room with two others at a residential conference. As we settled down to sleep, there was a short conversation about whether we believed in God. I said I did, to which John, one of my companions, responded: ‘I respect you believing in God, but what I can’t respect is that you don’t then do anything about it.’ (Described more fully in my earlier blog ‘Serious business’ 20.2.21) Those words hit me hard. He was right. It was nonsense that I believed God was real but didn’t do anything about it. John’s statement pushed me into a much deeper search for faith. John never knew his words had that effect.

Two  A few weeks after John’s tough words, I sat with other young adults asking questions about Christianity. All sorts of issues got raised. Should Christians be pacifists? Must a Christian marry only another Christian? Aren’t churches out of touch with society? Then Irene asked: ‘What do Christians mean when they say Christ died for them?’ It was Irene’s question, but also mine, except until that moment I hadn’t known it. What Christians meant when they said Christ died for them was exactly what I needed to understand. Just over 24 hours later, late into the night, I found the answer and gave my life to Christ. From that moment everything about my future changed. Later, Irene and I often talked about faith but she never knew how significant her question had been for me.

Three  In the run-up to Christmas, BMS World Mission sent hundreds of cards to supporters. I signed all of them personally because I wanted people to know how much we valued them. I never expected I’d get a reply. But I did. Every year a few would write: ‘I live alone, hardly see anyone, and yours is the only Christmas card I’ve received. I’m so grateful you thought of me.’ I’d never imagined our Christmas card would mean so much and nearly never knew it did.

Four  Probably all preachers know that some of their sermons die in mid air. The words never reach the congregation. The people show no signs of response. Twice – in two different churches – it was on the tip of my tongue to say: ‘I’m stopping now – this sermon is not helping – let’s just move to the closing hymn’. But I slogged on. The outcome was not what I expected. On both occasions, far more than usual thanked me for the sermon, and made it clear their words weren’t just politeness; they really were grateful. I could not escape the conclusion that message had done good. It had felt dreadful but only for the preacher, not for the congregation.

Five  Every sermon can’t be a ‘fireworks’ show, and my sermon didn’t feel bad, just ordinary. It was just a straightforward message about the Holy Spirit. I reached the end. Stopped. Normally people stir, but this time they were oddly quiet. Then Don stood. He’d been a Christian for only a year and was a quiet kind of man. He looked around at the others who were present, and said, ‘Alistair, on behalf of all of us, thank you for that message. It was so clear, so encouraging and so helpful’. People around him nodded their agreement. I wanted to say ‘Really?’ Instead I had the grace and good sense to thank him for his kind words. And when the service was over I went away once again amazed at how ignorant I’d been about the effect of my sermon.

These are all positive stories, but I must include one which is unfortunately negative.

Six  It was another major conference address, this one unhelpful for one person. (Included also in blog ‘Why quit while you’re ahead? 10.7.21) During my talk I described how one of my daughters nearly drowned when caught in a fast current. If someone hadn’t spotted her, she’d have been lost. Afterwards a lady came to me. She was angry and distraught. Why? Because her son had been murdered by drowning, and what I had described about my daughter had stirred her grief enormously. Part of me thought ‘I couldn’t have known that’ but I apologised profusely for upsetting her and promised to think more carefully about stories I included in my talks. She accepted my words, but was still distressed when she left.

Truly, we don’t know the effect of our words, or, if we do, only later.

I’ve reached these conclusions.

We are not the best judges of ourselves.    We may think we’re acting rightly, or speaking profoundly, but the real judge is the person on the receiving end. And their reaction may be very different to what we expect. Our words may be ordinary but hugely significant in the life of a person facing special circumstances. Or the finest oratory, or most generous of actions, may mean nothing to them because of problems they’re facing. Our skills and abilities are not what determine the responses of those around us. Often their responses are far better than our efforts deserve. We just don’t know what effect our words or actions will have.

We’re not in control of what’s significant for someone.    As I’ve greeted those leaving church after the service, I’ve been told, ‘Thank you, Alistair. That was such a special service for me.’ So I’ve asked what part of the sermon meant so much to them. ‘No, not the sermon,’ they’ve replied. ‘It was the phrase you used near the beginning that it’s good for us all to be together. That’s such an important thing and I’m glad you reminded me.’ I nod positively, but inside I’m thinking ‘I slaved for hours preparing my sermon, but what meant so much was an unscripted, unrehearsed phrase. Frustrating!’ It is frustrating, but actually rather wonderful. Someone was helped and encouraged; that’s the only thing that matters.

If you want to know how much you’re appreciated, leave.    That’s been my not-too-serious advice to pastors and other leaders. Farewell gatherings are full of speeches expressing gratitude for the many wonderful things done by the departing colleague, and how much they meant as a friend and fellow-worker. Mostly those statements are true, but they’d never have known if they hadn’t been leaving.

We need reasonable caution about what we say.    I learned that from the lady I upset with one story in my address. It was an innocent mistake, but in the future I did my best to imagine how listeners might react to illustrations used in my talks. We can’t shy away from recounting real life experiences, but can take sensible steps to minimise any upset.

If someone doesn’t know what they should know, tell them.    At some funerals, an opportunity is given to share a good memory about the deceased person. I’ve listened as story after story was told of the good effect that person had on people’s lives, and wondered, ‘Did they ever know this?’ Probably they didn’t. When my dad was in his mid-70s I wrote him a letter thanking him for being a great father to me. From my youngest I’d known he loved me, supported me, believed in me, and taken delight in my achievements. I was privileged. So I wrote down what all that had meant for me, and thanked him from the bottom of my heart, then sealed the letter and posted it. Several days later I saw Dad. He wasn’t a man who talked about feelings, but he thanked me for the letter and then said it was the best letter he’d ever received in his whole life. He died just a few years later. I was glad I’d been able to tell him before then how much he’d meant in my life.

The overall message of this blog is simply its title: you don’t know how much good you’re doing. You really are doing good. Shyness or circumstances may have stopped people telling you. But, I promise, if you act kindly and speak wisely people are being helped. Sometimes you’ve simply encouraged them along life’s way. And sometimes what you’ve said or done was life-changing for them. Take that to heart. It’s true. It’s remarkable. It’s something worth knowing. You should feel good about it.


Perhaps the next thing you should do is tell someone what they’ve meant in your life. But another thing – if this blog has been helpful – is to share it with others. Use the ‘Share’ button, or point them to That might be life-changing for them!

When is advice good advice?

‘I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.’ The words of Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright.

Probably Wilde’s quip resonates with many of us because, while there’s no shortage of advice-givers, the advice offered often lacks wisdom or relevance.

I was frequently told ‘You must read this book. You’ll never regret it.’ They were so wrong. I almost always regretted it.

For example, Jack told me about a book that would change my understanding about demon possession. Now, demon possession was never remotely close to the forefront of my thinking, and I couldn’t imagine any book would improve its position. But Jack was persistent, enthusiastic and I reckoned he’d accuse me of having a closed mind if I wouldn’t read this book. ‘Only one bookshop in the city sells it,’ he said. That made me suspicious, but reluctantly I relented. It was absolutely as bad a book as I’d feared, virtually suggesting demons explained everything from cancer to ingrown toenails. I wasn’t helped. Jack despaired of me.

But, at the same time, some advice has really helped. During a period of deep depression, I met a few times with a psychologist. I talked about getting angry with people, and then feeling guilty about my anger. ‘Why do they make you angry?’ she asked. I described promises and confidences not kept, untrue stories told, attempts to undermine my leadership. And more like those. ‘Alistair,’ she said strongly, ‘any of us would be angry when people do things like that. You’re human! You’re bound to be angry. You need to be kinder to yourself.’ Her words hit home. Anger can get out of hand, but it’s also a natural reaction when harm is done to you. She was right: I did need to be kinder to myself. I’ve always appreciated that advice.

So, how do we know what advice to listen to? Here’s what I’ve learned.

Simon’s advice may not be equal to Sarah’s advice    The seriousness with which advice should be taken isn’t only about what’s said but about who’s saying it. If Simon is not someone you trust, but Sarah has proven her worth, you listen much more seriously to her than to him.

I met with Dan right at the start of my time heading up a large mission agency. It was a get-to-know-you conversation, during which I asked, ‘Dan, what are the important things we should be doing next?’

‘I don’t think we should be doing anything different,’ he said. ‘We’ve been through a lot of change. Now we need to settle down, consolidate, allow us to get used to things as they are.’

Since this was only an introductory chat, I didn’t tell him ‘Settling down is the last thing we need’. But he was wrong. The agency had begun to change, but only begun. We needed a sharper strategic focus, a major management reorganisation, a fresh approach to fundraising, an upgrade to technology, and a clearer message to our supporters. All of that in the next year, two years at most. Dan was only three years off retirement, and wanted a quiet life as he eased himself out. His was not the voice I needed to listen to.

Who advice comes from matters.

Does the advice-giver have the knowledge to justify their advice?    Modern-day church ministry is dogged by ‘latest fad’ movements. Maybe they’ve always happened, and movements just come and go more rapidly these days. The latest was in town – yet another ‘new move of the Spirit’ – and it was helping some people. But it promoted the idea that all you needed for holiness were supernatural experiences which would move you instantly from sinner to saint. There was no mention of denying self, and striving day by day to live God’s way. The movement offered zero to hero in half an hour. So, in a Sunday morning sermon I clarified what was right and what was wrong. When the service was over, Kevin was waiting.

‘I don’t think your theology was right this morning,’ Kevin said.

‘Okay, please tell me where you think I went wrong.’

‘Well, it was different from what I was hearing at meetings I went to last week.’

I asked Kevin to explain the ways in which my theology was different, but he wasn’t at all clear about that. A theological discussion wasn’t for Kevin who had probably never read a single book on doctrine. He was a good friend and a lovely Christian, but not equipped to give me theological advice.

Doctors have told me the patient they dread begins the consultation with: ‘I’ve looked up my symptoms on the internet, and…’ Usually they’ve concluded they have some horrible disease. They don’t, but are hard to convince. They’ve no medical training at all, but presume to tell the doctor their medical condition.

Advice-givers should have some credentials to support what they’re saying.

Does the advice-giver have the experience to justify their advice?    There’s an old saying about not judging a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes (or moccasins). The message is this: only when you see, hear, feel and think like another can you understand that person. True.

But some who gave me advice knew little of the realities of my life and work:

Life as a pastor

  • Being available 24/7, and discovering the only way to have a vacation was to leave town
  • At one hour being with parents rejoicing at the safe arrival of their new baby, at the next hour consoling a family because their ten-year-old had been knocked from his bicycle and killed
  • Having no option but to produce two 4000 word thoughtful and stimulating sermons by Sunday, with no option to postpone

 Life as a CEO

  • Having oversight of the wellbeing and work of hundreds
  • Knowing the whole organisation would be judged by what I said and did
  • Accepting responsibility for the future of a 200+ year old mission agency

And much more than these snippets.

Most who gave me advice had never lived that life, never carried major leadership responsibilities, never felt weary to the bone day after day after day, never had to end a friend’s employment because their work was poor, never had to account for an annual budget of millions, never thought about their answerability to God for the people in their care.

One businessman thought he could tell me how to manage my time. He explained that he had many appointments every day, so when his schedule was full his assistant told people they couldn’t see him until a free time came which might be weeks away. He advised me to have that policy too.

Really? As if I could refuse to see the person just told he’s got three months to live, or not visit the family whose 16-year-old has run away, or not talk with the seriously depressed person planning suicide, or not spend time with the wife whose husband has died and she has a funeral to arrange. The businessman was well-meaning but unaware of the realities of my life.

Advice is rarely good if it comes from someone who doesn’t know and empathise with your experiences and obligations . They haven’t walked in your shoes.

Is the advice-giver cranky? (Americans mostly use the word ‘cranky’ to mean irritable, but I’m using the word in the British sense of eccentric or strange.)

There’s no shortage of eccentric people. Most work places and churches have them. Their odd-ball ideas can be stimulating and challenging because they see the world differently, and we can all benefit from that. Up to a point. But when cranky people pushed their views on me, things got difficult.

Cameron was strange. He’d been in many churches, but, he said, none were really right for him. He was filled with ideas of what church should be like, one of which was that we should drop most of our modern worship songs and go back to singing the great hymns and anthems of the past. ‘That’s what people are saying they want, you know’ he assured me.

By then I’d developed a particular distrust of the phrase ‘people are saying’. I usually responded with ‘How many people?’ to which the reluctant answer would be ‘two or three’ – not too impressive.

I asked Cameron ‘Which people are saying that?’

‘All those I’ve spoken to,’ he replied.

I already knew that, because I’d heard from some of them. Cameron was about six foot three inches tall, broad chested, and equipped with a voice and force of personality that matched his physique. He’d accost someone and give his speech about the need for the old hymns. They’d listen reluctantly but patiently. And then, when his diatribe ended, he’d look them straight in the eye and say: ‘You agree…?’ And they would answer ‘yes’ because they were desperate for the conversation to end. But they didn’t mean it.

But, as far as Cameron was concerned, they shared his view. And now he was telling me we should go back to worship music of 150 years earlier. I doubted if there were even two in the congregation who really shared Cameron’s views, and I would have been derelict to follow his advice. We changed nothing. We try not to judge, but a good pastor or leader can’t follow one person’s whim.

Does the advice-giver grasp the whole picture?    There are many things wrong with the image of a CEO sitting on top of an organisational pyramid, and it’s even less appropriate for the role of a pastor. But, I’ll use it just to make the point that the person at the top has the best view of the wider landscape. Those further down will see more clearly what’s working on the ground, but not the big picture.

Leaders should see the big picture. They should know the range of strategic options. They should understand the context around them, how it’s changing, what’s in their favour and what’s against. And know the strengths and weaknesses of the organisation, including the skills of members and staff. They should be aware of the views held by staff, volunteers, supporters.

But most advice-givers can’t see the big picture. That doesn’t mean the person ‘at the top’ should make all the decisions. That would limit all wisdom to one person. But it does mean this: that the value of someone’s advice is limited by what they know of the big picture.

For example, suppose a fundraiser wants their budget tripled (‘We could make such a big impact with more investment in advertising’) but has no idea of the effect that diversion of resources would have on other areas of work. They think they have a great plan, but it’s not because they lack a wider understanding. Their ideas won’t get much attention.

But, in the end, good advice is good advice    The points I’ve listed earlier are valid. There are good reasons to be wary about whose advice you take. But – notwithstanding all the caution – good advice is always worth having, and it can come from the unlikeliest of people.

During an interview related to becoming pastor in Aberdeen, I was asked what my priority would be if appointed. I didn’t hesitate. ‘Mission!’ For several minutes I enthused about the importance of churches reaching out into their communities with the gospel message and showing practical love and care for needy people. I was passionate about mission. So passionate that when I stopped there was silence. Until one older lady spoke. ‘That’s all very well, but please remember that many of us just need a pastor who’ll look after us.’

Afterwards I mulled over her words. I didn’t really like what she’d said. A church can’t exist to benefit its existing members. Its focus must be on the world, and bringing God’s love there. That lady was representing a wrong view of what the church was for. And yet an inner voice told me not to miss the wisdom in her words about the role of the pastor. The world couldn’t be a pastor’s only focus. The members – the lonely, the sick, the worried, the broken-hearted – they had needs too. There was a lot of value in what she’d said. When I became pastor I did all I could to honour her request. It came from an unexpected person, but it was the best advice.

None of us are all-knowing or all-wise, so we need advice. There is good advice to be had, but it must come from reliable sources. Leaders who choose their advice wisely become better and stronger in their roles. They win respect, endure, and even enjoy what they do.


If there’s been any good advice in this blog, please do what Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde said and pass it on. (Use the ‘Share’ button, or forward to them.) But ignore his comment that good advice is never of use to oneself. Good advice is always good to have.