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Reverend Sutton’s Story

Reverend Peter Sutton’s Story

When Reverend Peter Sutton was ordained as minister for the Parish Church of St Cuthbert’s he wore a preaching scarf made especially for the service. It hangs now in a cupboard in his vestry and he wears it for the outdoor services and ceremonies he conducts in West Princes Street Gardens. His scarf, or stole, is made of fine cream-coloured silk. There are two Celtic crosses at the top of each panel. The dazzling silk-dyed ends of the stole are embellished with red and orange embroidered representations of the floral clock in West Princes Street Gardens, fireworks over Edinburgh Castle and the Ross Fountain. It’s a striking stole and precious to Peter, not only because he wore it for his ordination but because its decorations symbolise his connections with West Princes Street Gardens, which is at the heart of the Parish of St Cuthbert’s, and tell some of the story of his life.

Peter was a child in Fife. He remembers coming to Edinburgh with his family and playing in West Princes Street Gardens. He would admire the floral clock, planted each year by expert gardeners. ‘It’s lovely to have the floral clock in the parish,’ he says. The hands of the floral clock embroidered on to his stole are set to seven o’clock, the time of his ordination.

The fireworks bursting above the turrets of Edinburgh Castle are another of Peter’s connections to West Princes Street Gardens and are depicted in intricate gold stitching. He remembers coming as a teenager to Hogmanay parties in the Ross Theatre, watching the fireworks at the Bells and ‘wandering around on Princes Street until the early hours. So, yes, I’ve always had a lovely connection.’

The castle is special too. Before becoming a minister, before his life as a chaplain and a headteacher, Peter was an Infantry Officer in the Black Watch. He was often stationed at the Castle. One year he took some officers from the West Point Military Academy in the USA to see the American Call Statue in the Gardens. The statue commemorates the American men with Scottish connections who fought and died in the First World War. It was a moving visit; many of the officers were preparing to serve in Afghanistan or Iraq. The recruits gave him a pin in thanks and Peter wears that pin on his stole.

Also on his stole is the Ross Fountain which is a link between Peter’s childhood and young adulthood in the gardens and his ministry today. When it was restored, Peter conducted Holy Communion by the fountain for his own congregation and members of the public. ‘Flowing water encourages the sense of freshness, a fresh start, water being vital to life,’ he says. ‘We’re very lucky that in our parish we have the Ross Fountain.’ Watery-blue stitches cascade from the fountain on his stole.

Peter’s work takes him right into the heart of the gardens and it brings people to the gardens too. Each year he conducts a memorial service beside the American Call statue. The defence attaché from the embassy in London attends along with serving soldiers, the General Consul in Edinburgh and members of the public.

He conducts another outdoor service for the Polish community by the statue of Wojtek the Bear. Wojtek was a real bear and a mascot to Polish soldiers during World War Two. He spent his final years in Edinburgh zoo. Peter’s service is attended by children from the voluntary school for Polish nationals and there is singing and dancing. ‘It really is a beautiful event.’

There is a gate always open during the daytime that leads from the church grounds directly into West Princes Street gardens. It connects the gardens to the church. Some people use it as a shortcut. ‘They encounter this oasis of calm in the middle of the city. So we see them as part of the weekly St Cuthbert’s community just passing by,’ Peter says.

He is ever aware of the struggle of homeless people who spend time in the church and the gardens. ‘There is a community around the garden who are lonely, worried, troubled and distressed,’ he says. His church has a strong outreach ethos and runs a shelter for one week each month where food and mattresses are provided for seventy homeless people.

St Cuthbert’s Church and West Princes Street gardens are inextricably linked. ‘Without a garden we are much less of a church,’ Peter says. ‘A garden encourages you either to walk on your own or most excitingly to walk alongside people and journey with them as well. And I think a garden allows people to pause and to reflect and just take stock. And if as a church we can be there to help them then that’s really important.’

Peter’s favourite place within the gardens is the esplanade on which the daffodils blaze in springtime. ‘There’s a beautiful little walkway and there’s nothing like going up there and sitting among the daffodils, looking back at St Cuthbert’s and seeing it from a different perspective.’ From his spot among the daffodils he is close to all the other elements embroidered on his stole; the floral clock, the castle and the Ross Fountain. Given his history and his connection with the gardens: ‘To be responsible for St Cuthbert’s, it’s a bit of a dream come true.’

Interview by Alison Irvine – January 2019

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