Kirk's captain boldly goes after 27 years

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HE DIDN'T come down from the Isle of Skye, rather he came from the Highland village of Evanton in Ross-shire, but the good people of the Canongate liked the cut of Charlie Robertson's troosers. They made him their minister.

That was June 1978. He'll be 65 next month and after 27 years he is retiring. It should be said, though, that the Reverend Charles Robertson can't be called the retiring type. Not in terms of persona. He has, like they say, put himself about throughout his tenure at the Canongate Kirk and the community is much the better for it.

Times were hard and the residents few when he first hit the hallowed stretch of the Royal Mile 27 years ago.

"Nobody seemed to be living here," he recalled from the comfort of the manse he'll be loathe to leave. "And there was scant prospect of expansion. Indeed, we were in a bit of a hiatus altogether. I'd been drafted in for a period not exceeding three years and I'd heard that, so much of a wilderness had the Canongate become, the kirk was going to be closed.

"I was concerned, yes, and I wasn't alone. If we were to lose the name we'd lose a huge slice of Scottish history. But I was asked to come to see if the church could be kept open."

He adds: "I was introduced at a welcoming social evening and, as I recall, the congregation raised a cheer on hearing I was very much 'up for the job', despite the Presbytery's classification of Canongate as a 'terminable appointment'. It was a very technical thing but basically, as I understood it, I was on a month-to-month contract.

"I set out to give the impression that the kirk was very busy, with a congregation nucleus of 40 or so wonderful people."

So was this man of the cloth, a relative outsider, something of a con artist?

"Me a con man? If you must! With encouragement from the C of S magazine Life and Work and your paper, we survived. In my own case, one month led to another. Led to 27 years, in fact."

Charlie marched onward with the help of Christian soldiers.

"The Army rallied round beyond belief, thanks to the then governor of Edinburgh Castle - Lieutenant General Sir David Scott Barrett. We had the Black Watch and the Gordons marching down the Canongate, pipes, drums and everything. The Castle, of course, is within this parish.

"Then came Sir Michael Gow as governor. He was what the Americans call a five-star general. Mike, every inch a Scots Guard, who now lives in the New Town, became a pillar, the ongoing backbone of the congregation here.

"But the highest praise for the efforts to keep the kirk going must go to members of the congregation who rallied with so much enthusiasm and imagination that we were able, in due course, to completely renovate the church, modernise the manse, refurbish the church hall and install a new pipe organ."

While his flock might be construed as simple, unpretentious God-fearing souls, the job has not been short of high-falutin moments. Charlie, don't forget, is the Queen's parish minister when they fly her flag over Holyrood Palace and he is one of her ten chaplains in the UK.

"I stop being a parish minister when I retire, but I'll still be one of the ten, still be allowed to wear the special cassock - I was told to go to the tailor and have a red cassock made for me at the Queen's expense. By tradition, that comes out of Her Majesty's own purse."

What some of the congregation - and, heaven's above, perhaps even the Queen herself - don't know is that Charlie is a Weegie. I suspect he would have preferred to keep that between himself and his maker rather than have it broadcast by a confirmed Edinburgh-rules-OK, lapsed Proddy.

"Yes, I am a Glaswegian, born in Springburn [locomotives for the world were being made there when he was playing in the streets] and I would never want to be known otherwise.

"I first came to Edinburgh at 17, to study at the university."

Calls himself a Weegie. Would he call himself a good Christian? "Well... without wishing to sound po-faced and pompous, just let me say I'm still trying to be a good Christian with great delight, contentment and happiness.

"I find it all inspirational, I don't go for the Dismal Johnnie, Weary Willie, Tired Tim thing.

"What's rewarding for me is that I am leaving the Canongate in better shape, I like to think, than when I arrived.

"The face of the Canongate has changed considerably in my time, with such prestigious buildings as the Scottish Parliament, Our Dynamic Earth and the Scotsman office, each of which makes a unique contribution to the townscape.

"And older buildings have been effectively renovated, among them the Moray House gym and the ongoing rejuvenation of Dumbiedykes. Long may the old Canongate thrive."

He adds: "Just say I took the very clear view from the beginning that even if it was thought in some quarters that the Canongate Kirk wasn't needed in 1978, it would be by the end of the century.

"People would want to come and live in the centre of the city again and I saw my job in practical terms - to keep the roof of the church on and the door wide open and welcoming.

"That was the image in my mind and it has guided me all the way."

Of course, at the Canongate it's more gates than doors. The kirk's massive wrought-iron gates to the yard and place of worship itself remain open 24 hours, and as such, have become a sanctuary well known to the vicinity's down-and-outs.

"They're not the worst, they need a place to retreat to," he says.

"We've had a bit of trouble from gangs who come in and are destructive. A lot of the church windows have been put in by stones and air rifles. It's a constant battle and hugely expensive."

Lest we finish on a sour note, let's return to the genesis of cheerful, work-to-do Charlie's love affair with the Canongate. He and wife Alison arrived with their 12-year-old son and daughters of ten and two.

"For 27 years," says the man from the ministry. "We have enjoyed our life here. It's been a glorious challenge and a marvellous privilege. We are moving to a flat not too far away, on the city's Southside.

"But I won't be twiddling my thumbs. I'm not really a committee man but I'll still be chair of Queensberry House Trust, governor at St Columba's Hospice and chaplain to the Merchant Company and 603 Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. And, as you are wont to remind me, I do retain the red cassock.

"And still a Weegie after 27 years here in Edinburgh - longer than I've lived anywhere else - that's where the lightness of touch comes from, don't you think?"

Presumably I'd been conversing with someone who believes in a life hereafter? "Absolutely. I love the whole prospect that lies beyond."

No room up there, then, for a seriously-lapsed sceptic, I ventured. The Canongate's venerable mover and shaker, forever looking on the bright side of life, had news for me. "You may well get a surprise, brother, you may well get a surprise. I mean that, my dear chap."

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