Serving Her Majesty's religious needs

HEAVEN sent. You might say that of the job Neil Gardner has landed. He is the new minister at the Canongate Kirk and, you might say this too, it's one of the jewels in the Church of Scotland crown.

There is no other parish quite like it in that within its embrace are the Queen and Prince Philip (when they hang out at Holyrood Palace), the Castle, the Scottish Parliament (when the roof's not falling in), the brand new Edinburgh City Council headquarters (once the builders depart) and, for heaven's sake, strategic command HQ of the Scotsman Publications.

You might want to throw in Dynamic Earth, Whitefoord House for ex-service personnel and Benes, the renowned Royal Mile chippie and suppliers of deep-fried Mars bars to the Palace on request.

But the Rev Gardner will tell you the nitty gritty for him will be the resident population of some 2500 on his doorstep.

They've long been accustomed to a man of the cloth who readily and genuinely mingles with the "locals." Cheerful Charlie Robertson, the wee Weegie who retired in October, was for all of 27 years such a mingler.

And, before him, the fabled in-with-the-bricks Selby Wright, a ground-breaking stalwart from 1937 up to retiring in 1977.

Will the new man serve this parish for a quarter of a century? He is only 40 and a 25-year stint would take him ever so neatly up to the 65 milestone. He was checking out the spacious furniture-less manse when we met, having motored down from Perthshire for the day.

"Looking round these rooms, I'm very conscious that I'll be following in the footsteps of Charlie and Selby. Undoubtedly they are hard acts to follow. But quarter of a century? Who knows? Obviously that scenario appeals but the duration of my stay here will rest largely with the congregation.

"I preached to them for the first time on Sunday April 9. If some members expected or indeed craved fire and brimstone from the pulpit, they'd be disappointed. That's rarely been my style."

Up there in the village he could count on worshippers regularly turning up in strength while contrastingly it's been many a year since standing-room-only signs have been posted in Edinburgh's churches.

"I'm well aware that congregations have dwindled here but I'm by no means disheartened by the state of the Church today, if that's the next question. We are working on it. You might say the Church of Scotland is cutting its cloth accordingly."

The sun was shining, glinting on the BMW that had brought him down in the Lord's care from berry-picking country (Selby Wright used a bike), the daffs were out and I seemed to have caught Dunbar-born and bred Neil Norman Gardner in onward-Christian-soldiers mode.

Soldiering isn't at all new to him. After training at Sandhurst, his seven years as an Army chaplain took him to Germany and West Belfast with the Scots Guards and to Hong Kong with the Black Watch. "Being a chaplain in the Army is like being a medic. The distinguishing feature between the role of Army chaplain and parish minister is that when there's danger in the Army, where there's conflict, you go with your flock. Ultimately I was posted to the Army's training regiment at Pirbright, Surrey . . . well away from Deepcut."

He adds: "One of the attractions about Alyth was that it was deep in the heart of Black Watch country. Three years ago, when the first of the regiment's soldiers was killed in Iraq, I took his funeral at Scone, his birthplace near Perth.

"I left the Army in 1998 but you never really lose your feeling and respect for the military once you've served and, as his minister and close friend, I was privileged to know Alfred Anderson, who died in November at 109.

"Alfred was the last surviving member of the famous First World War Christmas Eve truce between the British and German armies in France at Loos in 1914."

What's crystal clear to Neil, apart from the fact that when Her Majesty's flag is flying over Holyrood he will be the Queen's parish minister, is that he is now shrouded in history. The Canongate Kirk (renovation in 1990 cost half a million) housed prisoners after the Battle of Prestonpans in the mid-1700s and in the cholera epidemic in Edinburgh in the 1830s this parish played a major role in showing the world how to treat the disease.

Charlie Robertson was never fazed by the graveyard's we-never-close policy, saying of the winos, some of whom bed down among the graves: "They're not the worst, they need a place to retreat to."

Cans in hand and breaking into song and profanities from time to time at the entrance, they have become a tourist distraction.

The Rev Gardner will have to live with that. He was schooled at Dunbar Grammar until he left the East Lothian town in 1983 with highers in English, French, German, music and history and on to university at St Andrews and Edinburgh. Termtime placements took him to Mayfield here and Prestonkirk, Stenton and Whittingehame in East Lothian before he was licensed by Lothian Presbytery in 1990 and joined the Royal Army Chaplains Department the following year.

You get the impression that here's a man fit and qualified for this history-steeped pulpit. Tell me, I asked, as he measured me and his new abode up, do you have difficulty with belief?

"None at all. I am a very traditional, some might say old-fashioned, parish minister."

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