Can a murderer change?

October in Edinburgh can be pleasantly warm. Earlier that day, Ernst and Helga had been married, and now, on a perfect evening, they were enjoying a romantic stroll in the city’s Queen’s Park. Only one of them would return.

For many years I listened as people told me they wanted their lives to change. Some needed to quit smoking, some to save their marriage, some to stop drinking, some to lose weight, some to declutter their homes, some to have better relationships. A few did change; most did not. For many the effort and sacrifice change requires was too much.

This post is the first of two about ‘change’. In this blog I’ll tell Ernst and Helga’s story which, at the time of writing, happened almost exactly 50 years ago. It’s also a story which, in a small way, I encountered personally. In the next post I’ll set out four principles for change taken from another story, this one much older and better known.

I have several sources for my narrative of Ernst and Helga, the chief of which is a detailed account given by F.W.F. O’Brien QC in an address to The Medico-Legal Society in London in 1976.[1] O’Brien was the leading defence lawyer in the 1973 trial that followed the couple’s fateful walk in the Queen’s Park.[2]

Ernst Dumoulin was born in June 1951 in Minden, West Germany. His father was Dutch, and had been held in a concentration camp during World War II. When Ernst was one-year-old the family moved to Rotterdam, but returned to Germany when he was eight.

On leaving school Ernst went to a commercial college, and then trained as a bank assistant. He got engaged when he was 20 but that relationship soon ended. A few months later, in July 1972, he placed a newspaper advert for a wife. That was unusually bold, but a reply came from Helga Konrad who was 18-years-old. She may have been lonely. Her family was wealthy but old-fashioned, and much of her youth involved working on the family farm. Marrying Ernst had a strong appeal for Helga.

Just three weeks after the advert and first contact, Ernst arrived at the farm and asked Helga’s father for permission to marry his daughter. Unsurprisingly consent was not given. Her father made it clear Ernst would need to wait at least six months. That was too long for Ernst.

In September he bought a new red Fiat car he could not afford. His cheque bounced, but he had the car and drove to the Konrad farm. Ernst asked permission to take Helga for a short drive, and her father reluctantly agreed. As she left Helga waved back to her parents. She never returned.

Ernst and Helga’s drive was anything but short. They went to France, sold the car, and with the money bought air tickets to London. During the flight, Ernst had a chance conversation with another passenger and learned that getting married in Scotland was easier than England, so they journeyed north from London to Edinburgh.[3]

Only four or five days after leaving the farm in Germany the couple rented a room in an Edinburgh boarding house owned by Herbert Wood. They told him they planned a civil wedding at the nearby Registrar’s office as soon as they’d fulfilled the three week residency qualification in Scotland.[4] Wood had no problem with that.

The following day, Ernst used the last of the car-sale money to make a large bank deposit. With the bank account came a sizeable credit allowance, and Ernst knew exactly how he would use that credit. Two days later the couple met with the senior manager of a life insurance company and filled out forms for sizeable insurances on his life and Helga’s

The insurance company had second thoughts, and passed the business to another company. Their officials met with the couple and agreed policies to insure Helga’s life for £206,184 and Ernst’s life for £190,480. In each case the pay-out would be doubled in the event of accidental death. These were enormous sums in 1972. If Helga died accidentally then, in today’s value, the company would pay between £4.4 million and £6 million.[5] If Ernst died, the amount paid would be the equivalent today of between £4 million and £5.6 million.[6] Three quick points are relevant here: 1) The amounts covered are enormous; 2) The couple had nothing like enough money to afford the premium payments – Ernst covered a partial payment of the first premium only by drawing on his newly acquired credit allowance; 3) The fact that they were both insured, especially against accidental death, is significant.

With these insurances in place, and residency requirements fulfilled, Ernst and Helga were married in a Registrar’s office at 10.30 am on Friday 13th October.[7] Witnesses were required, and the obliging landlord Herbert Wood and his wife fulfilled that duty. After the ceremony the Dumoulins and Woods had lunch at a nearby restaurant. While they enjoyed the meal, Helga explained that Ernst planned to become a financial advisor and she would be his secretary. With her parents so opposed to their marriage, they would not return to Germany.

That afternoon the couple walked in Queen’s Park, and climbed to the top of Salisbury Crags to enjoy the fabulous view of Edinburgh, especially its castle, palace and the water of the Firth of Forth not far off. Salisbury Crags is one of the most imposing features of Edinburgh’s skyline, a semi-circle of sheer cliffs part way up a hill. It formed some 340 million years ago. In the days of the Scottish Enlightenment, philosophers, politicians and other eminent citizens walked round a track at the foot of the crags while engaged in deep thought. Braver and stronger souls climbed to the top (by an accessible path) to enjoy the higher view. (During many years of living in Edinburgh, I went to the top of Salisbury Crags several times. No-one should get near the edge, especially on windy days.)[8]

Salisbury Crags Photo by Reinhold Möller CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Apparently Helga suggested they return to the same place that evening when the view across the city to the sun setting in the west would be spectacular. It was a great plan. They set off around 8 o’clock, strolled back to the park, climbed the hill and found a quiet place high above the steep cliffs. Around 9  o’clock a merchant seaman, walking on the path below the crags, found Helga’s body. She was dead.

The seaman alerted two police officers, then almost immediately Ernst appeared. He’d run down the hill and around the base of the cliffs to where Helga lay. He was shouting for someone to get an ambulance because his wife had fallen. More people arrived on the scene, and all testified that Dumoulin was greatly distressed, describing him as ‘very agitated’, ‘in shock’, ‘hysterical’, ‘very upset’, ‘shivering uncontrollably’. One of the police officers said Dumoulin was ‘crying and shaking’. All Ernst could say was that he and Helga were enjoying a special time together when she slipped and fell. That was very possible, and no-one doubted his story. He was treated at hospital for a minor injury, after which he returned to his lodgings.

Two days later – on the Sunday – Ernst telephoned Helga’s father in Germany, and told him that he and Helga had married. When Herr Konrad asked where Helga was, Ernst replied, ‘She is in heaven’.

Later that day Ernst met with a representative of the insurance company, and found that the procedures for the policies had not been completed so no payment to him would be possible. That appears to have panicked Ernst who asked if the insurance documents could be torn up. Not only did that not happen, the company decided to inform the police.

Ernst was arrested on the Monday morning, and, with his solicitor present, he was cautioned and charged with the murder of his wife. His landlord, Herbert Wood, went into Ernst’s room to tidy up, and found letters and receipts for the insurance policy. He also alerted the police, the insurance company confirmed the details of the policy, and that Ernst had already attempted to make a claim.

In answer to the charge of murdering his wife, Ernst Dumoulin made a statement that he had pushed his wife and that caused her to fall down the cliffs, but he had not intended to murder her. Nor did he have any motive to gain money. ‘I am no murderer’ he said in German.

Scotland has a strict time limit within which trial proceedings must begin, so there was no long delay before Dumoulin was in court. He lodged a plea of not guilty and a plea of self defence.  His formal trial in the High Court in Edinburgh began on 23 January, 1973. It lasted ten days.

Among those called to give evidence were representatives of the life insurance company. They were clear that the policy applications were incomplete. None of the policies had advanced enough to be effective. But did Dumoulin know that? The company official who dealt with Ernst said it had been made very clear to Dumoulin that some matters could only be finalised after the wedding, and until that was done the policies would not be operative. Ernst’s lawyer, O’Brien, believed that negated the motive for murder. He said later, ‘No one commits murder to gain money from insurance policies which he knows have not come into effect’.

The insurance issue was, of course, only part of the evidence given to the jury. Two expert witnesses from the University of Edinburgh were called, one a specialist in forensic medicine and the other in pathology and forensic medicine. Helga’s body had many injuries, including severe fractures of the skull resulting in extensive brain damage. On these details the experts were as one. However, the two men differed in their theories of how Helga had fallen, such as whether feet first or by some form of somersault off the edge. But, critically, they agreed that the girl’s injuries did not match with a slip over the edge. Rather, as one put it, her body went into an arc either because she ran and jumped or because she was pushed violently.

As an aside, my small personal encounter with this case was that I was present at the trial on the day when these experts gave their forensic evidence. I was studying criminology at the time, and decided to attend a High Court trial, which happened to be this one.

There were discrepancies between the experts’ testimonies, but, as it turned out that did not matter. With the prosecution case finished, Ernst gave evidence on February 1.

Here are key features of his evidence:

  • He confessed to planning an insurance fraud
  • Both he and Helga would be insured
  • He would disappear and Helga would claim the money (the scheme involved leaving clothing on Cramond Island, which sits just offshore from Edinburgh)
  • The insurance on Helga’s life was simply an ‘alibi’ (by insuring both, nothing would appear sinister)
  • On the crags that evening, he and Helga had sat for half an hour close to the edge
  • She stood up to leave, and as he also rose he felt a short, firm push beneath his shoulder blades
  • That shove in the back bent him forward but he did not fall
  • Helga then rushed at him trying to push him backwards towards the edge
  • He took hold of her wrists, turned her, and pushed her away, not over the cliffs but parallel to them
  • She spun round, overbalanced and fell head first over the edge
  • He did not believe Helga’s motive was money, and could think only that she was insane at that moment

In summary, Ernst’s self-defence argument was that Helga had tried to kill him, and she fell when he protected himself.

Other witnesses were heard, and then the trial ended with the judge addressing the jury for two and a half hours on matters of law, including the presumption of innocence. They could reach any one of three verdicts: guilty; not guilty, not proven. The last of these – ‘not proven’ – is unique to Scotland. It means the case has not been made for a guilty verdict, but is not sufficiently clear for a not guilty verdict. There is no difference at all between the outcome of ‘not guilty’ and ‘not proven’ – the accused goes free and generally cannot be retried on the same charges.

By a majority of 11 to 4 the jury found Dumoulin guilty of murder.[9] He was sentenced to life imprisonment and, as was usual in such cases, no minimum term for serving the sentence was set.

Why did Ernst murder Helga? It seems he actually believed the insurances were settled, and thus he’d gain a small fortune from her death. If so then, as his lawyer O’Brien said later, Helga died and Dumoulin served a life sentence only because he misunderstood what he had been told about the policies not yet being effective, or he thought he knew better and that they were in force. Whatever the explanation, Helga’s death over Salisbury Crags was an act of evil. It cost him 16 years of imprisonment in Saughton prison.

However, my story of Ernst Dumoulin does not end at this point. As I mentioned earlier I sat through at least a day of his trial, and read later about the verdict and his life imprisonment. For several months my thoughts kept returning to him.

It is hard to explain, but for some reason I felt Dumoulin needed help to change. I had no idea whether he wanted to change, but there was one thing I could do to spur him towards a better life. I owned a copy of the New Testament in German, and about two years after Ernst was convicted I felt an urge to send him that German language New Testament. I hoped he would read it, turn to God for forgiveness, and begin a new life.

I never sent it. I had good intentions, but made the dreadful mistake of not acting promptly on my intentions. Time passed. The thought drifted away. Ernst Dumoulin never got help from me.

But it seems he got help from a far superior source, and Ernst did change. I do not know the details, other than his own statement much later that during his time in prison he ‘found God’. Most people who talk like that mean not only that they come to believe in God’s existence, but that they feel forgiven and try to live a new, better life. That is what happened with Ernst.

When he emerged from Saughton, he was different on the inside from the man who entered that prison 16 years before. Ernst Dumoulin had changed. He was still only in his late 30s, and whatever happened while in prison set him on a new path. He returned to Germany, studied theology for five years, remarried, got ordained for Christian ministry and became a pastor in a small town.

In 2006, he gave a German newspaper an account of what happened 34 years earlier on Salisbury Crags. He described it as the ‘darkest night of his life’. The couple sat on the edge of the cliffs. He held Helga in his arms, wanting her to feel loved and sure they had a wonderful future ahead. Then he’d suggested they should go home. ‘I got up,’ he said, ‘put a hand on her shoulder and acted as though I had tripped up. I didn’t want her to know I was a murderer. I pulled her and her body fell, and after that everything was quiet.’ His words were a very public confession.

John Hislop, writing in The Edinburgh Reporter, told Dumoulin’s story in October 2012, exactly 40 years after Helga’s murder. Remarkably, some weeks later Ernst Dumoulin sent him a reply from Germany. It was short, saying how surprised he was that the bad deeds of his past still drew negative attention. Then he wrote this: ‘If at all, I wish for the general welfare of people, that it might for the future be shown, that God is able to raise a small pretty flower out of a heap of dung.
With kind regards,
Ernst Dumoulin[10]

His earlier life and actions, Ernst said, was a heap of dung. But that was then, not now. He had changed, and his new life was ‘a small pretty flower’.

Some will never be able to see Ernst that way. Perhaps that’s how it has been for Helga’s parents who had the terrible pain of burying their daughter’s body 300 yards from their home. But Dumoulin’s life after prison was very different from before. He was not the man he had once been.

Change is hard but possible. In the next post I’ll describe four critical steps to bring about change in our lives.


[2] Queen’s Park – also known as Holyrood Park – lies right beside Holyrood Palace (the Edinburgh residence for royalty), and only a short distance from the city centre. It is no ordinary park, measuring 5 miles in diameter with mountains, marshes, moorlands and lochs. A short summary of the Park’s features is here

[3] Parental consent has never been required for marriage in Scotland, which was the major reason young couples would elope north to Scotland for their wedding service. Until 1929, the age for marriage in Scotland was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. In 1929 the minimum age was set at 16.

[4] At that time couples were required to have been resident in Scotland for three weeks before their wedding. That law was abolished in 1977.

[5] The modern equivalents vary according to exactly which inflationary factors are taken into account.

[6] At the time of writing this blog post, £6 million = $6.7 million.

[7] I don’t believe in superstitions, but many have made a point of noting the day and date of Ernst and Helga’s wedding.

[8] Details of Salisbury Crags here and here

[9] There are 15 jurors in a Scottish criminal trial. A verdict is always reached, no matter how small the majority.

[10] From

The Forth Bridge … beginnings

A tourist was told he must see the Forth Bridge. ‘Of course,’ he replies, ‘but where are the other three bridges?’ That’s an old  joke which rests on the tourist only hearing the bridge name and not knowing the spelling is Forth, not fourth, or that the bridge in question is over the Firth of Forth[1] in east central Scotland near Edinburgh.

© Sue Brown Used with permission

The Forth Bridge is only 30 miles from where I grew up. I was young when my parents took me almost underneath the bridge, down by the river where the ferry took car and foot passengers from North Queensferry across to South Queensferry. I hardly remember the ferry, but the memory has remained of the giant bridge towering over me, carrying trains high in the sky.

When I refer to the Forth Bridge, I’m using its proper name. But for some 60 years it has been commonly referred to as the Forth Rail Bridge to distinguish it from the nearby Forth Road Bridge and from the recently constructed Queensferry Crossing, a second road bridge. All three bridges impress me, but it’s the Victorian-era rail bridge that has always taken my breath away.

I’m hoping my excitement and fascination about that bridge is contagious. At the end of October 2021 I wrote a blog about the Tay Bridge and its disastrous collapse during a storm. Around 75 lives were lost. (You’ll find it here: Many people have read that blog, including a surprising number in America. I hope this bridge story also captures interest. There’s no collapse to describe though, tragically, more died building the Forth Bridge than were lost when the Tay Bridge fell into the river.

The Tay Bridge and Forth Bridge both straddle estuaries, and they have a shared geographic connection. The Tay Bridge goes north from the county of Fife towards Dundee and the Forth Bridge goes south towards Edinburgh. As a Fifer, I like the idea that my county is at the centre.

The Forth Bridge stands where it does because it almost couldn’t have been anywhere else. The maps explain. The first one shows east central Scotland. Fife is the county in the middle – it looks like a Scottie Dog facing right. At the top of Fife lies the estuary of the River Tay. The Tay Bridge was constructed where the river narrows just south of Dundee.

Map data ©2022 Google

Look to the southern edge of Fife and you see the much wider estuary of the Forth with Edinburgh just below it. What train companies wanted was an uninterrupted route north passing through Edinburgh and Dundee. Where could a bridge be constructed over the Forth? Most of the eastern part of the estuary was too wide. To the west the river narrows the further you go upstream, but building a bridge there would be a major diversion from a straight route up the east coast of Scotland. There was just one place near the mouth of the Firth where the land to the south and north jutted out, exactly where the two Queensferry villages were located.

That point is the focus of the close-up map below. The river narrows just south of Dunfermline and Inverkeithing, which is why most ferries crossed there. That part of the river had another advantage – a small island halfway across. It’s hard to make out, but an outcrop of rock pokes its head just above the water at the midpoint. That’s Inchgarvie Island which will be a significant secure base for the central tower of the Forth Bridge.

Map data ©2022 Google

But, our story begins not just hundreds but thousands of years earlier. In this blog I’ll focus on events before the Forth Bridge was even designed.

As we begin, let me commend Anthony Murray’s book The Forth Railway Bridge,[2] one of the most valuable sources of information for me. (I suspect the book is out of print, but there are second hand copies for sale.)

The era of boats

The first crossings of the Firth of Forth happened in ancient times before history was recorded. Small boats are fragile, and the Forth estuary was no stranger to strong tides and fierce winds, so those voyages were hazardous. Yet, the people who lived by the sea or large rivers weren’t fools. They knew when to cross.

Ferry crossings also began millennia ago. Ferries would be slightly larger vessels, likely capable of carrying several people plus cows and horses. They increased in importance when Dunfermline, located just north of the river, became the ancient Scottish capital. Margaret, an English princess, married King Malcolm III of Scotland in 1070. Queen Margaret (later Saint Margaret) was a pious Christian and apparently a good influence on her husband. She became noted for her charitable works, and part of her charity was to properly establish a ferry across the Firth of Forth so pilgrims could travel more easily to St Andrews (in the north east of Fife). The ferry became known as the Queens Ferry and the villages between which the ferry crossed were called North Queensferry and South Queensferry. Some 820 years later those two places would mark the ‘ends’ of the Forth Bridge.

One of Margaret’s sons, King David I, put the ferry crossing on a sounder footing, and granted oversight of it to monks in Dunfermline. During medieval times the ferry was a profitable enterprise. In 1589 James VI (later James I of England) gave the ferry rights to his bride as a wedding present. Early in the 1600s, the ferry passage was divided between 16 feudal superiors. They didn’t operate the ferries, but raked in their share of considerable profits.

The ferrymen appear to have been rough characters, seeing off rivals trying to steal business, lacking civility to customers, and having punch-ups among themselves. In 1637 two ferrymen were fined five pounds each for fighting. That was a substantial fine but each had to pay his five pounds fine to the other, so neither won nor lost. What may have bothered the men more was an order that required them to be friends and drink together.

An oddity for us, but not for those times, was that ferry fares were charged according to the status of the passenger, ranging from three shillings and four pence for a duke, earl or viscount, down to one penny for a humble man or woman. Ordinary folk were cheaper than some animals. A horse, cow, or ox was two pennies, but 20 sheep just four pennies. Everyone and everything had its value, with a simple citizen half the price of a cow. Clearly a boatload of aristocracy was the ferryman’s dream cargo.

The ferry service was much criticised: ferries not in good condition; landing places inconvenient and dangerous; piers scarce; services irregular, and impossible when wind and tide unfavourable; no oversight of the system; ferrymen unpleasant. It was also difficult to access the shores to catch a ferry – transport was bad on the Edinburgh side and nearly non-existent on the Fife side. No airport buses departing every 15 minutes in those days.

Despite the problems, by the early 19th century ferry traffic was increasing. That stirred a demand for change. So a Board of Trustees was set up to consider what could be done. It reported that the private individuals running the ferries were not likely to take account of public convenience to the extent now required, and recommended nationalising the ferry service. The proposal was fiercely resisted by those who owned the ferries – they called it ‘a violent invasion of private property’ – but the Bill to nationalise the service was passed in 1809.

New ways to cross the river

The increased traffic, and inadequacy of the ferries, stirred ideas for other ways to cross the Forth. This was the early 1800s, close to the Age of Enlightenment, and several more-or-less enlightened ideas were put forward.

One radical proposal came from a group of Edinburgh engineers – they would tunnel under the river. They knew of a London tunnel project under the Thames, and of a mining tunnel under the Firth of Forth at Bo-ness (about 10 miles upstream) which had gone a mile out under the river without difficulty. Led by John Grieve, three engineers surveyed the bed of the Forth at Queensferry and concluded a tunnel was very possible.

But there were challenges other tunnel projects had not faced: the great depth of the water between North and South Queensferry, and the type of rock under the river bed. Both of these factors would make tunnelling difficult. They were forced to modify the route the tunnel would take, but that meant the southerly entrance would be close to Hopetoun House, considered one of Scotland’s finest stately homes with 6,500 acres of grounds. The owner, the Earl of Hopetoun, strongly objected. Grieve pressed on as best he could and drew up plans for a £160,000 project:

  • It would take four years to construct
  • There would be two separate tunnels, described by Grieve as ‘one for comers; one for goers’
  • Each passage would be 15 feet high and 15 feet wide (15 ft = approx 4.5 metres)
  • There would be a raised sidewalk for pedestrians

Grieve issued a prospectus and shares were offered at £100 each. It got little interest. He tried again the following year, but with no greater success. The scheme collapsed. Grieve was disappointed. The Earl of Hopetoun was delighted.

A quick aside: the idea of a tunnel under the Firth of Forth was revived in 1955. A Forth Road Bridge Joint Board had been set up to plan and oversee the building of a road bridge. But first the Board considered drilling a tunnel under the estuary close to the rail bridge. But, like Grieve’s proposal, after research the idea was abandoned as being too ambitious and too expensive.

Back to our main story. Between 1808 and 1817 new piers were built on both shores. These were ramped piers (sloping down into the water), allowing ferries to dock whether the tide was high or low. They were so well constructed they handled ferry traffic until 1964. It stopped then only because the Forth Road Bridge was opened, and the ferries were consigned to history.

New piers made a big difference to the ferry service, but ferries could never satisfy 19th century transport needs. This was an era of growth and innovation. Engineering flourished, new roads were built, and bridges constructed where previously they were thought impossible. Imaginative and impressive engineering projects were being developed across Scotland, and all around the world.

An Edinburgh civil engineer, John Anderson, was excited by giant wooden bridges built in China. One bridge was reported to be three miles long. Anderson’s idea was not for a wooden bridge across the Forth, but a suspension bridge so extraordinary it would be one of the wonders of the world. His favoured site was where the ferries crossed. That was the most obvious location, partly because the river at that point was narrow, and because of the small island, Inchgarvie (as explained earlier) The name Inchgarvie is Gaelic and means ‘rough island’. That’s what it is, a small island of solid rock. However, it’s not as modest as it appears, because (like an iceberg) it’s bigger below sea level than above it. Inchgarvie was barren rock but perfect for supporting the centre of a large bridge. The pillars and columns of Anderson’s bridge would be made of cast iron, and coated in linseed oil when hot to ward off rusting. The roadway would be sufficiently wide to allow two-way traffic plus pedestrians. It would be suspended by chains either 90 or 110 feet above sea level, and could be no lower as ships with tall masts had to pass underneath.

Anderson wanted his bridge to be a thing of great artistic merit. He wanted it to look very light so he would use as little iron as possible to reduce the bridge’s weight and mass. With dry humour one later writer said the bridge would indeed have looked very light and slender, almost invisible on a dull day, ‘and after a severe gale it might been no longer seen, even on a clear day’. Anderson’s imaginative but unrealistic design won no support and the plan for a near invisible bridge became exactly that: invisible.

Other developments during the 19th century were significant for the eventual construction of the Forth Bridge.

Travel by train. The first purpose built railway, a line between Liverpool and Manchester, was authorised in 1826 and opened in 1830. It was a success from the start, beating other forms of transport on time and cost. Road transport was slow and expensive. Canals were used between Liverpool and Manchester but the journey time by rail was one and three quarter hours compared to 20 hours by canal, and the charge for carriage by rail was half the cost of carriage by canal barge. From the start trains were used by the Post Office and soon after for newspaper circulation around the country.

The expansion of railways lines was fast. In 1836, 378 miles of track were open.  Eight years later that number had risen to 2210 miles and soon many more. Railways changed society. People moved out of cities because they could now commute to work. Seaside resorts were developed because they could now be reached. Businesses sent their goods throughout the nation, because transport was affordable and fast. In today’s jargon, trains were a breakthrough or disruptive technology.

Because of these economic and convenience benefits of rail travel, it was no longer realistic to think a bridge over the Firth of Forth should be designed for horses, carts and pedestrians. It must carry trains.

Oddly, though, before any bridge was built trains were already crossing the Forth estuary. They floated over.

In 1849 a young man called Thomas Bouch was appointed manager and chief engineer of the Edinburgh and Northern railway and tasked with developing travel up the east coast of Scotland. But Bouch faced two immense problems – the wide estuaries of the Tay and Forth rivers. To make a lengthy journey north or south you could take a train close to an estuary shore. Then goods and people had to detrain, board a ferry, travel through Fife by road or train, get on another ferry, and finally board another train to complete the journey. East coast travel could never prosper while those difficulties existed.

Bouch’s ambition was to build bridges, but he needed a quick fix. His initial solution for crossing the Firth of Forth was what he called a ‘floating railway’ – steam ships big enough and strong enough to carry a train. His first ferry was named ‘Leviathan’, which had proved its seaworthiness because it was built in shipyards on Scotland’s west coast, then sailed north, across the top of Scotland where wind and waves were anything but friendly, and back down the east coast to the Firth of Forth.[3]

Bouch had wasted no time. Within two years of his appointment, his train-carrying ferries began. There were already rail lines running to Granton, near Edinburgh, on the south coast of the Forth, and from Burntisland in Fife on the north coast, so the train-carrying ferries sailed between those two places. It worked, and the floating railway operated for several decades.

But Bouch’s ferries could not be a long-term solution. They had limited capacity, limited frequency, and limited convenience. The demand was for rapid and comfortable train transport, and the answer did not lie with ferries.

A bridge had to be built. And at exactly that time another major development made a large, strong bridge over the Forth a better prospect than ever before.

Reliable steel. Well into the 19th century, iron dominated the building world. It came in two forms:

  • Wrought iron – wrought is a past participle of work, so wrought iron is ‘worked iron’
  • Cast iron – iron shaped by a casting process.

Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Wrought iron is pliable when heated and reheated, so can be bent into any desired shape. It gets stronger the more it’s worked, is not prone to fatigue, and can suffer a lot of deformation before it fails. It’s been used since about 2000 BC.

Cast iron is not pure iron; it contains small elements of carbon, silicon, manganese, perhaps traces of sulphur and phosphorus. The elements are heated beyond melting point, then poured into moulds which give the cast iron its shape. It’s very hard but also brittle. When stressed it’ll break before it bends.

The advantage of cast iron is suitability for complex shapes – think of the decorative metal back to a garden seat – which would take enormous time for a blacksmith to create. But, though strong, cast iron won’t bend when pressure is put on it, and may possibly collapse.

Many buildings and bridges were built with iron. But they had limits. Several bridges collapsed because their underpinnings were cast iron.

Around the mid 1850s, Sir Henry Bessemer developed manufacturing processes to create quality steel which could be used economically in construction. He intended his work to be used for weapons, but it had wider applications. The Bessemer process is described this way: it ‘involved using oxygen in air blown through molten pig iron to burn off the impurities and thus create steel’.[4] It was revolutionary.

This new steel was sufficiently strong, resilient and economic for the grandest and greatest of engineering projects. It didn’t become used widely until about 1880, but that was exactly when it was needed for the Forth Bridge.

It was now time for a serious approach to a bridge over the Forth. The ‘beginnings’ of this story are, therefore, at an end. It’s where we pause, but the story will continue in the next blog.

Already there are lessons we can learn, including these:

  • During the early years there were people who believed a bridge spanning the Firth of Forth could never be built. They were wrong.
  • The first bridge concepts were too small and too fragile to meet the need, although understandable given the technology of the time.
  • New developments created a need and an opportunity. The creation and expansion of train services were the need. The upgrading of steel to major construction quality was the opportunity.
  • Eventually the time came to act. An age had dawned which demanded bold innovators. Those innovators emerged, and their work was and is magnificent. After more than 130 years the Forth Bridge still fulfils its purpose perfectly.

These four points make me ask these questions. What is there I could be doing but my vision is too small? Beyond me, what are the challenges of this age that need great innovators, and a population willing to adapt, so dangers like viruses, inequality, racism, and climate change can be challenged? This is not a time for saying ‘That could never be done’. It’s the time when something must be done.

Thank you for persevering through a long blog. As the story progresses, we’ll find out:

  • Was there a serious proposal for bridge supports simply to float in the river?
  • A surprising reason so many construction workers died.
  • Why Thomas Bouch was hired and then fired as bridge designer
  • When painters reached the bridge end, they began painting again at the beginning – true or false?

And many other important and not-really-important facts. So much more to come.


[1] ‘Firth’ – often used in Scotland – can refer to a river estuary or an inlet of the sea. The Firth of Forth is both.

[2] Murray, A. (1983/1988) The Forth Railway Bridge A Celebration, Mainstream Publishing Company, Edinburgh.

[3] Some of these details come from an obituary of Thomas Bouch following his death in October 1880.


The left-handed ironing board

My skills at ironing were close to non-existent. But I was alone in America for two months before Alison could join me. I needed smart shirts each day, so ironing would have to be done. Surely it couldn’t be difficult.

I was living in temporary housing so owned none of the furniture or household objects. Thankfully there was an iron and ironing board. I got it all set up, and took a shirt from the basket.

Now, Alison could probably watch TV, juggle four balls, drink tea and iron a shirt all at the same time. My ability was in a different league. A much lower league. For understandable but inconvenient reasons, shirts are not flat. They just won’t lie down and stay still on an ironing board, so I was creating creases as fast as I was removing them. It took me an hour to iron that first shirt. Shirt number two fought me as fiercely as its predecessor, but I did better – just 55 minutes for that one. However, a rate of two shirts ironed per movie watched was appalling.

As I was picking up shirt three, I stepped back and looked closely at the ironing board. That’s when I saw my problem. Whoever had lived in this house before me must have been left-handed because they’d bought a left-handed ironing board. Since I’m right-handed that explained why I was crossing my hands, reaching awkwardly, and fighting constantly to apply the iron to uncooperative shirts. But leftie was the only ironing board available, so I kept going, got marginally quicker, and drove my average down to 45 minutes a shirt. It seemed I’d be wrestling with that ironing board for a long time.

Two evenings later I assembled my left-handed ironing board again, ready to restart my inept ironing. Suddenly – iron held over a rumpled shirt – I stopped. I was experiencing an epiphany. Carefully I placed the iron off to the side, put both hands under the ironing board, picked it up, turned it round, and then stepped back and looked.

Now I had a right-handed ironing board!

How on earth had I not realised what was wrong before? Well, the first time I’d taken the ironing board from its cupboard, I’d struggled to assemble it at all. Bits moved in all directions simultaneously, almost worse than an old-fashioned deck chair. But finally I got there. The tricky beast stood in front of me. It never occurred to me that the ironing board was anything other than correct now. But it was the correct only for a left-hander. And I’d concluded that’s how it had been manufactured, as a left-handed ironing board.[1]

Looking back I see my stupidity was a mix of perspective, faulty assumptions, ignorance and inexperience. Any or all of these can cause problems. And they occur with things much more serious than ironing boards.

When we don’t really understand what we’re seeing or what’s happening

Let me explain this with a strange example. I visited friends David and Irene in Sindh Province, Pakistan. They were involved in humanitarian projects in a remote area which, to me, seemed impoverished and lawless. The journey to my friends’ home was across mile after mile of desert, at the mercy of a local driver who didn’t hesitate to steer his car off the far edge of the road in order to complete an overtake. An accident in an isolated area would have been disastrous. Thankfully I arrived safely.

David and Irene had a shelf of family photos, placed prominently so they’d see and remember their loved ones back home. Given the landscape all around, it was impossible to stop sand blowing into their home, so they employed a local lady to clean. With a smile Irene said, ‘something odd happened after the first time our cleaner dusted the shelf with the photos’. Apparently the cleaner had taken all the pictures off, wiped the shelf, and then put the photos back. ‘Except,’ Irene continued, ‘she replaced some upside down, some on their sides, and some the right way up. The problem was our cleaner had no idea what a photo was; the frames they were in were just objects to her, so she had no idea of a right or wrong way up.’

I was astonished. I’d never imagined anyone could be unaware of what a photograph was. But the cleaner was unaware. She’d never used a camera, never had her photo taken, never seen a photo. Therefore, she didn’t recognise these objects as images of people. In any case, people aren’t three or four inches tall. So, all she saw on that shelf were things with flat edges which, after dusting, she could put back any way that was convenient.

Likewise it had never occurred to me that there was a right or wrong way round for an ironing board, so, when using it was awkward, I assumed that board had been made for a left-hander.

We can all be guilty of not realising what we’re seeing, not understanding what’s really going on.

An industry magnate may gaze out across the idyllic beauty of a forest and a gently flowing stream. But what he sees isn’t beauty. Nor is it a pristine environment that must be protected. The only thing he sees is the perfect site for his new car plant. The magnate’s focus is functional, thinking only of what increases his business empire and personal fortune. He’s not concerned with aesthetics or valuable ecosystems. Hence he doesn’t see what he’s not looking for.

Colleagues criticise the woman who arrives late most days, especially because she’s also one of the first to leave when work is over. What they don’t see is her husband at home with advanced cancer. He’s too ill to work, so she must. Every day she rises at 5 a.m., and spends three hours caring for him and making sure he has everything he needs while she’s away. Then she rushes off, and after her job is done for the day, she hurries home to check he’s all right, and then to start on six hours of caring, cooking, washing, cleaning, and everything else. Day after day after day. Her colleagues see none of that and, in their ignorance, they judge her.

There are times when all of us are blind. We can’t be blamed for what we don’t know. But we can be blamed if we’re so focused on our own agenda or own opinions that we never see another point of view or make hasty judgments.

If we care, and take time, we will understand better what we’re seeing.

When we see only what we expect to see

When I unfolded that ironing board, it looked right to me. It was just like every ironing board I’d ever seen. So I assumed all was correct.

An assumption that this thing must be the same as that thing is a form of ‘cognitive bias’. I believed the ironing board I set up was identical to other ironing boards. And it took me two days to realise something fundamental was wrong. It was the wrong way round.

What is a cognitive bias? Fundamentally it’s about a skewed way of seeing things. Exactly what that involves can vary enormously. Those who’ve counted reckon there are over 150 kinds of cognitive bias. Most of them can be summed up by descriptions like these:

  • They result in prejudiced judgments – we have slanted views of things
  • They’re usually unconscious – we’re not aware of our bias
  • When we try to avoid bias, we become convinced that our perspective now is the correct one – the ‘I think it, therefore it’s true’ effect.
  • Some cognitive biases are useful – such as for those living on the grasslands of tropical Africa who can’t afford the luxury of taking time to examine whether the movement behind a bush is a pig or a lion – they must respond to their gut instinct and flee.

Almost no-one doubts the existence of cognitive biases, but many think bias doesn’t affect them. The way they see things, that’s how they are. Unfortunately pride is far from an infallible guide to reality. Here are two examples about seeing what we expect to see.

Mississippi    My first visit to America began with two weeks in Mississippi. I stayed in three different houses. None were mega-mansions but very pleasant and comfortable middle-class homes. Less than a mile away African-American people lived in very different houses. We drove through those ‘black’ neighbourhoods, and I was shocked. Almost every home was the simplest of wooden structures – small, often leaning, some needing repair, children playing out front in the dirt. I saw proud people beside their homes, but my heart went out to them. The contrast between where I was staying for two weeks and where they’d spend their whole lives was stark. One of my hosts didn’t share my feelings. He said: ‘The black people are lazy. That’s why they live like this.’ Again I was shocked. I disputed those statements as much as a guest in someone else’s culture can. My host was unmoved. That’s how he saw them. He didn’t seem to consider the legacy of slavery, the laws that still disadvantaged black people, the inferior schools their children attended, the lack of opportunities for even the brightest, and so on. ‘They’re lazy.’ That’s how he saw them.

Edinburgh    I studied theology at the University of Edinburgh. That worried my Christian friends, because they considered the university’s ‘divinity school’ to be liberal in its theological positions.[2] But it was a great experience for me. I heard mind-stretching lectures and engaged in challenging conversations. One of those conversations happened in a seminar group gathered to discuss ‘the problem of evil’ – how can a God who is almighty and all-loving allow suffering? Far from an easy subject. There were about 12 of us, and I was in a minority of one coming from an evangelical perspective. But I argued my case, and they argued theirs. We both listened and learned. Afterwards, two or three came to me privately and thanked me for what I’d said. Then each of them added a sentence like this: ‘You’re the first evangelical I’ve met who had reasons for his faith’. They thought evangelicals, faced with difficult questions, simply resorted to blind faith – ‘I don’t know why this is true, but I believe it anyway’. No thought. No evidence. Apparently I’d been different. But they were wrong, hopefully not about me but certainly about many other evangelicals. There were and are many evangelical scholars, preachers and ordinary believers who have studied and thought deeply about their faith, and then put forward sound arguments in favour of evangelical views. But my divinity school fellow-students had, at least until that day, dismissed evangelicals as people who never thought things through.

I can’t teach anyone how to rid themselves of their cognitive biases. If they’re unconscious, you can’t even identify they exist. And many a cognitive bias is comforting, reassuring, it props up our way of seeing the world and justifies the way we live in it.

But I can ask you to be open to the possibility of cognitive bias in your thinking. I suspect all of us have biases – could be about religion, or politics, or sport, or women in the workplace, or people of colour, or those with alternative lifestyles. For example, a few years ago I met people who identified with goth subculture.[3] Initially, I found it hard to get past their strange looks, dress, ideas, but eventually I got to know them. And discovered they were people who were kind, thoughtful, and really worth knowing. Biases can be unseen barriers to good people, good ideas, and good experiences.

So, this blog has taught you how to turn a left-handed ironing board into a right-handed ironing board (or right into left). About 0.0001% of the population needed to know that.

Beyond that, hopefully there’s been something here that helps you ‘see’ and therefore understand our world more completely. Nothing should be frightening about getting a truer perspective on the world. We’re better people for that. And ironing might become a bit easier.


This blog is posted the day after a new year dawned. Today is just one day more than yesterday, but psychologically most of us flip a switch – ‘off’ for the year gone by, and ‘on’ for the year ahead. It feels like a fresh start.

May this new beginning be the best it can be for you, with far more about which to be thankful than regretful. My warmest wishes.

And, if you would like to read a blog specifically for a new year, my first blog one year ago was about ‘resolutions’. You’ll find it here: (It’s dated January 2, 2021, therefore at the beginning of last January’s list.)


[1] I once told this story of my ‘left-handed ironing board’ to an audience in America. Thankfully they laughed. Afterwards, several women said to me ‘You iron? I’m impressed.’ I’m not sure now if they were surprised a man did ironing, or surprised that anyone in the household did ironing. Certainly some never did – either they only bought ‘non-iron’ clothes, or they sent out their laundry to a cleaner where it was washed, dried, ironed, and then delivered back to home.

[2] On the whole the label ‘liberal’ wasn’t wrong. But, as I told my friends, the school was so liberal that I was never marked down for my views providing I gave academically credible arguments. Besides, if we mix only with people who think exactly like us, we don’t learn much.

[3] If goth subculture is as unknown to you as it once was for me, this may help:

Can’t let it go

A news podcast I listen to ends one session each week asking presenters: Is there one thing from this week which you can’t let go? What is there that you can’t stop thinking about, perhaps could never forget? The answers they give are mostly light-hearted, but sometimes about something really significant. It’s fascinating. [Info on the podcast at the end]

So, to borrow their question, what can’t you let go? Don’t restrict your answer to just this last week. Think about things you’ve acquired but can’t part with. It might be a love letter! Or recall an event which was truly wonderful. Or maybe you trekked the Sahara and climbed Everest. Or experienced something so sad it’s darkened life ever since.

I’ll suggest some kinds of things which I’ve found people can’t let go. I’ll begin with the easiest to describe.

Can’t let go of things

I’m not the best but far from the worst about keeping ‘stuff’ I don’t need any more. But I do have a lot of possessions. I left home as a teenager with everything in a small suitcase; I shudder to think how many suitcases I’d need now for all I have.

I have no keepsakes that date from my youngest years, but I do still have the watch my parents gave me just before I left home. I’d never owned a watch but now I was 16 and heading off to work in Edinburgh. So Dad took me to the only place in town that sold watches, a tiny jeweller’s shop. There was a choice of about three, and I took the one with a grey strap and a straightforward watch face. As you’ll see from the photo, it was worn for years. It was a wind-up watch, of course, and the innards seized up a long time ago. Why do I still have the watch? Two things make it significant and memorable: it was a gift from my mum and dad, and I was given it just as I left home. So I’ve kept it.

But some folks seem to have the philosophy ‘everything we get we keep’. They let go of next to nothing. I visited one home where, once through the front door, I had to edge my way between mountains of stuff – broken appliances, stacks and stacks of papers, rails filled with old clothing, hundreds of books and magazines. I was invited to sit down. I couldn’t see where, but then my host cleared some heaps and revealed a chair. This wasn’t the only home I’ve visited like that. I can’t imagine what it was like to live there, or how great the fire risk was.

I’ve also seen overflowing work offices. I called on one senior official who had completely filled his private office with paperwork, so we met in his second office which was almost submerged as well. Apparently he was negotiating for a third office. I think it was Dale Carnegie who said a CEO offered to pay him any amount for advice on how to clear his clutter. He too had filled more than one office with ‘stuff’. Carnegie gave him just one bit of advice: pick up a piece of paper and don’t put it down again until you have done something final with it (like writing a reply or throwing it in the bin). In other words, do something that means you’ll never see that paper again. The executive called him just two weeks later. He’d done exactly what he was told, and he’d already cleared several desks of everything on them, and found two typewriters that had been missing for years.

The presenters of ‘de-clutter your home’ TV programmes often say the problem people have with parting with things is emotional. Memories are attached to everything they’ve acquired. I can only respond this way: the cost of keeping is higher than the cost of parting; parting is brief pain but keeping is pain that lasts for years.

Can’t let it go? Yes you can.

Undone and unfinished things

I studied bereavement counselling while preparing to be a pastor. I was told that, as well as grief, the most common emotion felt by bereaved relatives is guilt. Guilt – because of visits not made. Guilt- because of harsh words spoken in the last conversation. Guilt – because ‘I love you’ hadn’t been said for years. Guilt – because an argument that divided the family 20 years earlier hadn’t been resolved. When it’s too late to put things right, guilt is hard to let go.

The same is true for people who missed an opportunity which never came again. Perhaps a relationship was so special it would surely lead to marriage, but no proposal was made and the couple drifted apart. But one of them can’t let go of what might have been.

Or a missed opportunity at work. A big promotion is offered, but means moving to an overseas location. That would disrupt the family, involve learning a new language, and demand working all hours. So the promotion is turned down. But the firm is unforgiving. No other promotions are offered and as year after year of mundane work goes past, it’s hard not to think ‘If only…’.

Others have missed the chance to upgrade their skills. Martin’s employer was willing to let him study part-time for a PhD. With that qualification, he’d be on track for a top position. Martin began his studies, made good progress, but after two years got involved in significant work projects, family needs, hobbies and outdoor activities. With just one more year before getting his PhD, he paused. And he never finished. Every year since, Martin couldn’t let go of disappointment he hadn’t completed his PhD degree.

‘There is a time for everything…’ says the writer of Ecclesiastes (ch. 3:1). We mustn’t miss that time.

Everyone fails. But some failures stay with us more than others.

That’s especially true when we’ve betrayed a relationship. Cheating on a marriage is an obvious example. ‘How could I do that?’ is the lingering question.

Letting a friend down is also damaging. Imagine sympathising with a colleague who has been harassed by a fellow-worker, promising that if she complains about her harassment to the boss, you’ll support her because you’ve been harassed too. Your colleague lodges her complaint, the boss isn’t sympathetic, so now you keep quiet about your experience. Your friend feels abandoned and isolated. She resigns. You feel terrible. You let her down, and ever since you can’t let go of the fact that you failed her.

Or you promised to be with a friend at a special event – his wedding, or graduation, or a family funeral – but at the last moment someone gave you a ticket for a great seat to watch a top-level football match. You couldn’t miss the chance – you had to go to the match. But your friend never understood. You’d promised to be with him, and you abandoned him for a football match! He is hurt dreadfully, and you realise you’ve made an appalling mistake. You feel dreadful, and you can’t let that feeling go.

Choices have consequences, and those consequences can last a long time.

The good things

Usually negative experiences linger longer than positives in our minds. But, thankfully, the good things are sometimes the ones which we can’t let go. Wonderful times which we’ll never forget.

I’ll supply only one experience, though it happened four times. I’ll never let go of the immense privilege and joy at watching each of my four children come into the world. Men have it easy at childbirth. Alison took all the pain and did all the hard work while I just held her hand and said encouraging words. Then, after each of the children arrived safely, I proudly held them in my arms. I could never let go of that experience. (It’s mirrored these days with the joy of seeing how their lives have developed.)

That’s not an experience everyone has. But almost everyone has something or many things for which they’re immensely grateful. They’d never have wanted that part of their lives to have been any different. So they could never let go of those moments. We should all be grateful for them.

But, in closing, how do we let go of the bad or sad memories? I could write about counselling, about finding forgiveness, or about making a firm decision not to dwell on these times. All three of those would be appropriate.

However, on this occasion I’ll end by saying we can’t let go of certain experiences and, in one sense, we shouldn’t let go of them. Why? Because these things have shaped the person we are today. Because we got things wrong or because we went through dark times we’ve been changed. Perhaps we’re determined never to do something again, never to let down a friend, never to fail a colleague in their time of need. Or, because we’ve survived we’re stronger, and we’re more understanding when others face horrible tragedies. We can’t turn the bad thing of the past into a good thing, but we can transform its effects into something useful, something that makes us better, more careful, more considerate, and more resilient than we would otherwise have been.

So, what you can’t let go needs to become what you can’t do without to be the person you are now, or the one you are on the way to becoming. I realise that’s easy to write and hard to do, so my thoughts and prayers are with all who keep struggling.


Note 1  My apologies that this blog is posted later than I’d imagined. I anticipated a delay, but not for this long. I doubt if the gap has broken anyone’s heart, but I am sorry and hope pauses won’t happen often.

Note 2  The podcast I described is the NPR Politics Podcast:  It’s refreshingly unbiased, serious but never boring. To hear the ‘can’t let go’ segment you need to listen to the Friday edition where they sum up the week’s news and then use the last five minutes to describe what they ‘can’t let go’ from that week’s news, whether it’s about politics or anything else. Enjoy!

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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