Ross Macfarlane: '˜We can't have a judge spouting from the Bible in the middle of the street. . .'

It all started so innocently'¦

The annual concert has become a firm festive favourite. Illustration by Lesley-Anne Barnes Macfarlane
The annual concert has become a firm festive favourite. Illustration by Lesley-Anne Barnes Macfarlane

It all started so innocently…November 1996: I was a ­fairly new advocate and ­having a cup of tea in the advocates’ reading room with a colleague, Eric Robertson. The reading room resembles a 19th century gentleman’s club stuffed full of antique furniture and is where advocates retire to dodge work, chat to their chums, and generally lick their wounds from their most recent mauling by the Appeal Court.

The chat turned to an enormous Christmas tree recently installed nearby, in the centre of Parliament Square. It was certainly festive.

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We joked that we half expected to see Harry Secombe under it dressed as Mr Bumble, a bell in hand, singing O Come, All Ye Faithful. Eric and I laughed, both having had long experience of singing in choirs. “Next thing you know, there’ll be a choir standing under that big tree shaking tins for the homeless…”

What happened next can only be described as a pure Hollywood moment. It was that let’s-put-the-show-on-right-here! scene. Within five minutes, we’d concocted a plan to identify any decent singers in the Faculty of Advocates and drag them out for half an hour to sing carols under that big tree and raise ­money for the homeless charity Edinburgh City Mission.

Over the next few days, we had dragooned a soprano, three altos and a temporary sheriff. Then Eric came bounding in – and the conversation went something like this:

Eric: “I’ve done it! I’ve got us a judge!”

Me (incredulous): “A judge??? A judge who’ll sing under a tree?”

Eric: “No – a judge to do a Christmas reading.”

Me: “We can’t have a judge standing under a tree in the middle of the street spouting the Bible. This is Edinburgh. We’d be arrested for a breach of the peace…”

At that point, it was decided that we’d better do the whole thing indoors. Suddenly, I felt as if I were trapped inside a giant snowball speeding down Calton Hill, gathering momentum, destined to crash into Santa’s Grotto at Jenners.

So we scrambled around and booked a venue (St Andrew’s and St George’s) and the whole event ­suddenly took on a sheen of respectability. Other Members of Faculty came forward and wanted to take part – Andrew Hardie (at that time, Dean of Faculty – later, Lord ­Hardie), Paul Cullen (at that time, the Solicitor General – later, Lord Pentland) and Sheriff Nigel ­Thomson all volunteered their ­services as readers.

Other Members of Faculty, ­families and friends stepped up to create a dedicated and formidable-sounding choir. Two and a half rehearsals later in a freezing room with a tuning fork and a clapped-out organ and we sounded like angels.

I devised the programme – and we were all ready to go. This was going to be a great (if exhausting) one-off.

Then, two days before the concert, without warning, my father died. I was too upset to take part in the event. I was too upset to sit in the audience. The first concert went ahead and I sat at home.

Later that night, there was a ring on my doorbell. A friend, the ­solicitor Sheila Barker, had come to see me. She had been at the concert. She said that it had been a “wonderful event” and we had “raised lots of money for the homeless”. As she left, almost as an afterthought, she said: “And I’m so looking forward to the concert again next year…” It hadn’t occurred to me before that moment that this would be ­anything more than a one-off event, but this week, as we prepare for our 2018 concert, this year’s concert at St Andrew’s and St George’s will be our 23rd consecutive Christmas concert.

Over that time we’ve had the great and good pitch up to do their bit for charity. With various Lord ­Presidents, Justice-Clerks, author Alexander McCall Smith, and selected grumpy judges ­reading King Herod – how could you go wrong?

Inevitably, since 1996, the changes in the choir read like the births, deaths and marriages section of The Scotsman – our choristers have come and gone with their romances, or divorces, or the birth of children. Some of the children who weren’t born at the time of that first concert have now sung with us or have done readings for us. Twenty two unbroken years, all in aid of ­helping the homeless at Christmas and raising tens of thousands of pounds over that time.

The choir itself has gone from strength to strength under the musical directorship of Neil Beynon, advocate. He has conducted us in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris and St Mark’s in ­Venice.

For me, the best part of the whole thing is the joy that comes with standing there, being with friends and singing – creating that beautiful sound.

There’s a special sound that’s ­created when friends and family sing together. And we have that.

Oh, and by the way – the choir sounds great this year. In fact, one of our choristers once sang backing vocals for Barry Manilow. But maybe that’s a story for another time...

The Faculty of Advocates Christmas Concert is tonight at 7pm (doors open at 6.30pm) at St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church, George Street, Edinburgh. The concert lasts for just over an hour and admission is free. The concert comprises community carol singing, choral singing and festive readings, sacred and secular. Children are welcome.

Readers this year include Gordon Jackson QC. All donations will go to Edinburgh City Mission.