Holy Whitewater

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One of the most amazing parts of my job is sitting down for a couple of hours with another human being and chatting to them about their life.  Very few know where the chat will go, I often know nothing other than their name and profession and yet without exception a story always emerges. The very fact that someone is willing to trust me with this means that that integrity of the #BigPersonality article is hugely important to me. It is why this page is never for sale. People are simply invited to take part based on any one of a hundred reasons and/or my gut feeling.   

However, I did feel that I needed two rules when I set out and these were no politics and no religion. I felt that in the interests of balance, I would need to show all sides of these vastly diverse and highly emotive topics. Nothing wrong with that in principle but I happen to believe that balance means a voice for everyone and not just the mainstream. And when you start down that road in politics and religion you can find yourself in the middle of all sorts of crazy!  My opinionated facial expressions wouldn’t last an hour with a UKIPper never mind the more extreme brands of evangelical nut job.

St Matthew's Church on river tayAnd so it was almost as surprising to me as it was to him, when I invited Scott Burton, minister of St Matthews Church on Tay Street, to be this week’s Big Personality.  We met for coffee to chat about his plans and fundraising campaign for the renovation of Perth’s most photographed spire and it was during this that I realised I was being a bit precious about my ‘no politics, no religion’ rule. After all, these are two fairly sizeable ideals upon which we have built our entire social fabric; they matter.

I’m not saying I’ve changed my mind entirely about the need for balance (I’m sure I’ll find a way to fix that as I go); I’m just saying that I have realised they are too important to all of us to eliminate from the stories of our small city.  And to be fair, he wasn’t really reminiscent of the ministers in my head; there was no fire and brimstone up his sleeve, no dog collar, no stuffiness and no judgement of my repeated attempts to raise his eyebrows. (Several mild swear words, one child out of wedlock and no Faith to speak of). 

Scott Burton grew up in Glasgow’s South Florida just by Hampden Park. He was a late sixties baby and in those good old days of football and fighting, the question ‘What team do you support?’ came loaded with religious tension. For the record, he was never a huge football fan and was christened Protestant by his church going parents. In the interests of avoiding conflict and similar nonsense, Scott’s stock answer was “The Spiders” which of course was met with the response, “Aye, but what team do you really support?”.

“Hampden was this big imposing park and for us it was a landmark. The back of Hampden is where we went to play football, picking off the teams in order of strongest to weakest and organising fights for after school ‘you and me, doon the back o’ Hampden at 4 o’clock’.  It was a pretty normal childhood in all respects. I had a paper-round up the tenements and down the prefabs, we went out cycling and played games of hide and seek.

Scott SchoolAnd then my mum was taken into a psychiatric hospital for the first time and things became a bit less normal. My Dad was the sort of man who would wash dishes and do things around the house but he had to work and so a couple from the church called Mr and Mrs Jack, helped us while my mum was ill.  He was an Elder and they simply stepped in without any fuss; she would come to the house in the morning so my Dad could get to work, she’d make our breakfast and get us out to school on time. Any organisation who steps in and helps a family in a time of need will hold a special place in your heart.”

I ask Scott how long his mum was in hospital for; he tells me she was in and out a few times over his childhood but that first time is the one he remembers most. He had always had in his head that it was two years, until that is, she became ill again a few years ago and he discovered that it had in fact been only two months.

“It was strange that it had been so much bigger and longer in my head.  At the time, my primary school teacher Miss Hewitt, realising I didn’t have my mum at home, became incredibly kind towards me. I was fast approaching my teens and took a wee fancy to her but at least it made me studious and interested. I did quite well academically at primary and it was because of her. Kids respond to encouragement and positivity. It’s not difficult to understand.”

And then in 1981 came Kings Park Secondary and Scott thought he’d rather be a cool kid than a swot. At thirteen he started to smoke, drink and try a bit of hash.  (Thirteen!). At the same time, he made a conscious decision to distance himself from the church and stopped going to Sunday School and Boys Brigade.

“By the end of the BBs I was skiving anyway. We’d head out of the church on Friday teatimes for a cross country run and I’d divert into a café to meet girls and drink milkshakes. Then when I saw the first of the pack coming back I’d jog on in, huffing and puffing like I’d done the five miles. 

I remember me and my mate heading to the Botanic Gardens because we’d heard they had this plant called Mother of Hemp. So we ripped it off, stuffed it into our school bags and dried it out in the oven.  We set up stall in the toilets to sell it to all the other boys… including the ministers son! I think I knew I’d crossed a line when we did that but at the time it didn’t feel bad, it was just typical teenage stuff.”

He’s smiling as he tells me this. Half nostalgia, half wondering if it’s appropriate for a minister to admit to. We’re sitting by the window in 63 Tay Street both animated about the amazing food we’re scoffing down with gusto. He is a fellow foodie, casual, no collar, small hoop earring in his left ear and greying through his once dark hair. He’s slight of build, boyish in his face, down-to-earth and so far removed from my preconceived ideas of a minister that I wonder if he’s going to break out a hidden camera and shout ‘Bazinga! I’m actually the church janny.’

“Oh at school I had no notion of being a minister. None at all! I think the only productive thing I did was learn to play the trumpet – in fact I made Glasgow’s First Orchestra. It’s back to that idea of good teachers. My music teacher was encouraging and when I showed a wee bit of interest she was on it. But ultimately, I wanted to be cool and popular, hanging about the fire escape smoking fags.

I got into serious bother when I was fifteen. I had a girlfriend in Clarkston at the time and one of her mates was properly into Marshal Arts – samauri swords, throwing stars that kind of thing. We got into a gang fight one night and there was seven of us and all his gear in the back of an old ford capri. They put up a police roadblock and we were all arrested. I was taken to Giffnock police station and charged with breach of the peace and possession of offensive weapons. They called my house; my Dad was on nights and Mum couldn’t drive so she called my old BB band leader, Mr Hinshlewood. He came to collect me at four in the morning and all he said was ‘Scott, what’s happened to you?’ I didn’t want to talk about it and that was the last time I think I ever saw him.

I was suspended and then expelled, but thankfully my Dad talked the school into letting me back. I left as soon as I turned 16 - a Christmas Leaver they called it – and started a YTS as a plasterer in Castlemilk. Then on 26th March 1986, I was in front of Paisley Sherriff Court to face the charges. I was given a £200 fine that I had to pay off at £2 a week and I now have a record that shows up every time I go for a disclosure.”

After the fright of the arrest, Scott settled down a bit and he loved his YTS. He describes it as two great years of physical labour, mixing concrete and being outside with men’s men.

“I was staying out of bother but I was still hanging about bus stops smoking – just with a different group of lads. There was a youth club in the church beside us and they’d come out and ask us in. We were far too cool obviously but one night when it was really cold and rainy we decided to give it a go.  We went in but we took the mickey, being loud and idiotic.

It was a few weeks later when they had a guy from Barlinnie in speaking to us that I had my final wake up call. He had tattoos up both arms and a wild story full of trouble. He told us he was sitting one night watching songs of praise when he realised how much he’d hurt his Mum. He said it made his heart stop.

That had a huge impact on me; I didn’t let on but there was someone there who’d noticed and they contacted me and asked me if I’d like to get more involved.  By that time I knew I’d crossed a line; it was one thing to cheek the teachers and scive cross country but I had a record and a court fine. I was receptive to the help at that point and so I went along. 

When my YTS finished there was no actual job but by then I was helping out in the church and making new friends. I was reading – I’d never read – and my eyes were open to a bigger picture.  I’d had no ambition or drive until then, there was no expectation for me to go to uni or leave Glasgow. I was unemployed but at least I was being productive. And then I got a job as a removal man for a while and then I was unemployed again.  That’s when people started saying.. ‘You’d be a great minister.’ But in my head, all I could think was NEVER!”

I ask him why he was so against it and we talk at length about expectations and what he thought of his own limitations.  It wasn’t so much that he didn’t want it, more that he was convinced a boy like him could never do it. Finally, he headed to Crieff to do a TEV course for a year – that’s Trainee Evangelical Volunteer – where he slept in church members’ spare rooms.

“I was so excited to be getting out and seeing something new; I wasn’t frightened to leave home or be on my own in amongst strangers. I was just glad to be doing something that was bigger. Something real.

But with that came questions, because I had to start asking why I was there. The truth was I had stuck about the church because people were kind and it was better than any other choice I’d been given. So although I believed, I was wrestling with big questions about my Faith. It was daunting for a young boy. I didn’t like the conservative answers of ‘Because the Bible says so’ and I still don’t. It was a challenging time for me.”

He finished his training and was sent to Connel, just outside Oban, where he held a position as a Youth Worker. Once again he relied on the kindness of strangers from the church but had the added appeal of £50 a week wages. His job was to reach out and draw in the young people to the services and groups and being a practical man, when they didn’t come to him he went to them.

Scott Burton Mohawk“I went to pubs to meet people.  It was terribly isolated up there; remember there was no internet or mobile phones in those days.  The church members were all very traditional and they didn’t get me at all. They didn’t like me or my style or my new ideas. They saw it all as far too unorthodox and nothing like their old school methods that aimed to instil a healthy fear of God.  My having a pint was a problem and the rumours that I had a drink problem and that I was doing the Devil’s work rather than God’s became rife. I’d had enough.”

He headed to Kennoway to do the same job but this time he was working with a young minister in his thirties who was open to new ideas. By then he was enjoying the role but the reality of sleeping on other people’s beds for £50 a week was beginning to sink in and he knew he needed a long term plan.

“I was about 22 at this time and arranged to go back to school to sit in and study Higher English. At the same time as this, I met Jill when our eyes met across a folding table at a church lunch. She was in the town as a three-month supply teacher… she was also seeing someone… As was I!  We became instant friends and before long it had blossomed into romance.  We were married nine months later and after twenty-two years of being together I’d still say it was the genuine friendship at the start that has made us work.”

Nine months!? I’ve owned shoes longer than that before I’ve decided if I really like them or not.  And yet somehow, that decisive nature now seems typical of Scott. The gung-ho, easily-led boy that found trouble easier than school work had simply been looking for an outlet for his slightly offbeat outlook.  Once he’d found his way back to his path, he channelled that same energy into making positive decisions for his life.

“Gill’s teaching post became permanent and we bought an ex-council house for a song. At last my YTS came in handy and I stripped it back and remodelled it from scratch. Gill was good for me; she always has been. I wouldn’t have achieved half of what I have without her by my side. She’s my rock, she believed in me from the word go. I had completed an access course to get into Uni and just two months after we were married I joined St Andrew’s University to study Divinity.”

He tells me that Gill supported him not just financially, but also emotionally and psychologically.  It was a big deal because he hadn’t really come from a place where Uni was the norm and although his parents are proud of his role as a minister there wasn’t any great ‘Hooray’ when he was accepted to read at what is arguably Scotland’s finest university.

He graduated as a Bachelor of Divinity but before he could practice as a minister he was required to do a Diploma at Aberdeen. He travelled every day from their home in Kennaway and on gaining his final qualification felt at once, both hugely proud and riddled with disbelief at this life they had created.

“We had deliberately put off having children until I had fully graduated and when Gill fell pregnant almost straight away it was wonderful. I was sent to St Bryce Dale in Kirkcaldy which is where Gordon Brown’s father had been a minister many years before and when Eilidh was born my then boss baptised her.

So there I was. A young probationary minister, in my proper collar, thinking I’m great when one day a woman came looking to talk to the minister. As he was out I lead her through to a seat and sat her down, feeling very important in my pastoral role. And then she said “God is telling me to kill my children.” It hit me like a tonne of bricks – this wasn’t a game. This was real and I was in a position of great responsibility. I held it together, got her a bowl of soup and called social services to come. She was sectioned there and then and given the help she needed. Every ounce of pride fell out of me that day. All I could think was ‘Give yourself a slap man! This is massive!

She is one of the reasons I want to raise the funds to restore St Matthews. We need those doors open to offer help and support to anyone who might need it. I love my role, I love weddings and christenings and all the wonder of holding a new baby in my arms while the baptism takes place. But the reality is we need to be there for these troubled times in people’s lives as well as the magical moments.”

Scott Burton St MAtthewsAfter his year, Scott was given his first church and he, Gill and baby Eilidh headed to Kelty where he spent seven wonderful years of positive ministry. I ask him what that means… positive ministry? And he is thoughtful before he answers.

“That will be different for all ministers. For me, the secret of my ministry is to be as open and honest as I can. When I met Gill, I realised that her faith came from a place of community. It was liberal and was more about how you lived your life and behaved as a person. Mine had been built on more conservative bricks and at first we challenged each other and struggled with the differences. But as I progressed, I realised she was right and as there is no place in a ministers life for pretence I had to look at how I worked. Saying what was traditionally expected ‘God’s reasons are always right’ does not help a grieving widow or the mother of a young soldier killed at war. You have to be prepared to allow people to get angry at God and ask questions they need to even if it means wavering. 

Positive ministry for me is doing a good job for my parishioners and I think I’ve always tried to do that.

Not long after I arrived in Kelty a woman called Sadie Maiden said to me, ‘I hate your earring, I hate the fact you don’t wear robes, I can’t stand your new songs. But I know why you’re doing it and I’ll back you all the way.’ Sadie knew that in order for the church to move forward, ministers had to move forward and be recognised as the people they were.”

Not that Sadie’s words could help him when he moved to Kelty! His church induction there was held on his 30th Birthday. At the service one of the older members said to Gill ‘We’re of a generation who like an older minister but Scott will need to do…’. But in the 7 years he was there he grew the congregation and won round the hearts of his people.

“Well, most of them!” he laughs.

Sara was born in 2001 and with both girls now teenagers I ask him how he thinks it is for them to have a minister for a Dad.

“I think it could be worse! I don’t force it on them and they are free to come to church on Sunday or to stay at home.  I do a lot of exchange pulpits, where I swap places with ministers from all over the world. The whole family comes so of course the girls have loved Dad’s job in Denver, Florida, Los Angeles and this summer, I’m sure they’ll love it again when we’re in New York!”

Scott Disney

It all sounds marvellous – but everyone has parts of the job they hate and I wonder if a minister is going to state his own irritations. Of course he is, he’s on it without question.

“The frustration of management!  Managing the building, the conflict, the time, the lack of finances, the changes and the decline. It is very difficult to look at this amazing institution that you love and know that it is in decline. In 1966 there were 1.2 million people attended the Church of Scotland. Now there are 390,000.  Add to this that 25% of busy churches prop up 75% of small churches unable to pay their way, and you’ll begin to see our problem.

There is no other business that would sustain that sort of desertion. And we do need to think like a business in some respects – we need St Matthews to become self-funding and to offer the care and attention that the congregation and people of Perth deserve. Business needs to stop being a dirty word in the church.”

Scott’s passion and belief are unquestionable, but I wonder if he is prepared to admit that as well as a need to become more business-like in their approach to running a building, the modern day church is suffering due to reports of institutional abuse and centuries’ old attitudes towards women and homosexuality.

“Of course it’s a problem. I recently sat in a meeting where several ministers were outspoken in their belief that gay men and lesbian women in active relationships should have no role as leaders in our churches.  Some are still reeling from that fact that we let women in!  But thankfully, in my opinion, the vote went through in favour of the silent majority and we have ruled in favour. I see this more and more. It’s not perfect yet, but it is becoming accepted that you can be a good minister and allow the word of the Bible to be challenged and questioned in line with 21st century life. There are many, many passages that should not be taken as literal. The idea that our answers can be ‘Because God said so’ in a time when we are landing probes onto comets in outer space and sending back the photographs is archaic and unhelpful for everyone.

I know I’m a modern minister but at the end of the day I love my faith and my role in the church. I find it comforting, purposeful and meaningful. I do things differently, not necessarily because I want to but simply because of circumstance. I’m the minister of four different churches. Twenty years ago there would have been four of me so of course, you’d get more visits in your home and more causal drop ins from the minister. Nowadays I go where I’m needed, when I’m needed and I have to trust that my congregation knows that should they need my help, I’m always here.  The good news is there’s no call out fee!”

Scott Burton KayakI want to know about the @HolyWhitewater Twitter handle and the image of him kayaking down a river.  #BigPersonality Beaton Lindsay, had mentioned Scott to me and I was curious as to how this pair had become such friends.

“Ahh the kayaking. A few years ago I reached the brink of a nervous breakdown. I was in Kelty at the time and one of our local lads was killed in Iraq. I had sat with the family and then gone with them as one of only five permitted people, to the repatriation ceremony at Brize Norton RAF base. I will never forget his coffin coming off of the plane with the union jack covering it and his young friends carrying him. We held a local service and the church, its grounds and halls were packed out.  A few nights later, Gill was away with her friends and the girls were up in their room; I started crying uncontrollably. I couldn’t stop and when Gill got home a few days later it all started again. I took a week off and got back to normal but it has happened twice in Perth, although now I see it coming and clear some diary space to deal with the emotions.

I know you’re thinking what has this got to do with Kayaking but bear with me. We went on holiday to Lanzarote in 2007 and I had a go at windsurfing and loved it! It cleared my head and left me feeling lighter. When I got back, I looked for a club but the nearest one was Lochearnhead so I called up the Perth Canoe Club instead! I loved it instantly. As soon as I’m there all I can focus on is the fast flowing water and it empties my mind of everything else. God as the creator has always been my personal connection to Him and being out in nature, among the stunning scenery is life affirming for me.”

Early in his time on the river, a nasty incident left Scott underwater, unable to resurface and causing him to bang his head on a rock. He became fearful of his sport and realised he was going to have to address this in order to carry on.

Scott Burton White Water“I looked and looked for inspiration but at the time I just couldn’t find anything.  So I started writing down what I had learned and soon I realised that my faith and my sport were intrinsically linked. I wrote “Holy Whitewater” and had it published by Astwood Publishing in Carnoustie in 2011 which realised a lifelong ambition for me. News of it reached my pulpit exchange and when I was in Denver, I took twenty-five members of the congregation down a 26 mile stretch of the Colorado River as their spiritual guide.

There are now two Buddhist authors who have books associated with Kayaking, White Water Philosophy by Doug Ammons and Riding the Tears of Everest by Darren Clarkson King, the only human to solo kayak down the river that flows from the World’s highest peak.  He has also published the guide for the rivers of Nepal. He contacted me and came along to the church to talk about kayaking from his faith’s perspective. It was amazing; people came from all over for it.”

I’m wondering at the possibility of a minister who believes in a church that should be run by anyone with enough conviction regardless of sex and sexuality; of a minister who invites Buddhist Kayakers to give service in his church; who tweets and writes about things other than God; who allows his children the right to choose; who considers himself a business manager as well as a pastor and who has driven the quest to save the spire that our entire city loves.  What is it that the church and our city he now calls home, can offer him?

“Last June I’d been out kayaking with one of my best friends, Dave Mackay. After a couple of pints we came home with Gill and her pals for a blether. He stood up from my couch to go home and dropped dead there and then. We worked on him until the paramedics arrived but despite their superb work  they couldn’t bring him back.  He was 49. I loved him like a brother and I miss him every single day.  His death has affected me in ways I struggle to articulate. It has challenged my thoughts on my role, on how much I work and what I give my family.

In some ways it’s making me a better minister, because I have never before experienced grief in such raw and real way.  I’ve always been moved by others’ grief, but this has hit me deeply and personally, shocking and traumatic as it was.   I’ve known for a long time that we need one another. We need gathering places for communities to sit around and laugh and cry and celebrate and grieve. The pub is great, but it’s not for everyone. We need this. I need this. To be part of a questioning, praying, supporting faith community. So as long as the wider congregational and community support me, as far as I can see there is no real reason why I’d ever want to leave St Matthews.

Scott Burton FamilyI’m 45 years old. My journey has been like the river’s, with a slow start at the source, still waters, rapids, capsizes and eskimo rolls along the way. But now that I’m here, in Perth, I’m certainly content to be on the river section I am currently. Everything I need is here. My wife, my girls, my church, its people, the river, good food, great theatre, a movie when I feel like it and an amazing outdoor playground.   Right now, there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be; my only change would be to have a facility that enhances the work I long to do for the good of all.  We’ll see if that materialises or not.  It certainly won’t be for the want of trying!”


Since writing this article, St Matthews has indeed enjoyed an upgrade and is truly transformed.  Scott will give the opening remarks at the city's first Perthshire Pride Event on August 11th 2018.  More here >>>

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