Ripe for Ritual

It felt very odd not switching the Christmas tree lights on this morning. I missed it. It’s a small ritual that I have carried out daily over the last three weeks or so – before the main ritual of making coffee.

We have all just moved through a period in the year that is riddled with repetitive actions. Whether based on religion or not, old or new, loved or despised, traditions and rituals underpin the festive period for many of us. A recent radio discussion inspired me to reflect a little on the need for us as humans, and as families, to create and have rituals. Think about all the things, events or actions in your family, your life, your group of friends and your community that are, or have become traditions. They may have developed organically or have been generated with a purpose in mind. For generations families and communities have created their own traditions & rituals. They have all got to start somewhere.

Over the last year the value of ritual and ceremony to serve a purpose has become rather prevalent in my life due to the various paths I am following and activities I have been undertaking. At a recent celebrant retreat we explored the skill of holding space for ancient ritual and traditional ceremony, but also the skill of collaborating and creating ceremony for any occasion. Life is ripe for opportunities for ritual.

So, what could be more suitable occasion for ceremony than the opening of a new yoga studio. Lane Yoga is a wonderful community focussed inclusive yoga studio based in Leith, Edinburgh created by Moira MacFarlane and Helen Gillespie.

Image by Agnes Pachacz

I was honoured to be asked to collaborate, write and choreograph a ceremony which was to be incorporated into a free community yoga class that was planned for the opening weekend. We decided to base the ceremony on the cardinal directions and create a ritual based on each of the elements associated with them.

The idea was that everyone present would be taken on a journey around the space. They would be introduced to the cardinal direction and it’s associated element with some words from me. They would then take a moment to ponder each element and support the positive intentions being conjured by the creation of the studio and the space with a thought, a merit or a blessing. Each cardinal direction was represented by an invited member of the Lane Yoga community. In turn they each performed a small ritual based on the elements associated with the direction accompanied by the beautiful sounds of a singing bowl.

We began in the East, where the sunrises and considered Air, the invisible element that can be lively or still. With this element, just as with a sunrise, we can find the dawn of new ideas or the light of new beginnings.

Moving South we explored the element of Fire. In this context we considered fire as a beacon of life, offering renewal, success and abundance.

Turning West we contemplated Water. Lane Yoga is next to the Water of Leith and close to the Firth of Forth. We were reminded of the stability and presence of the ever moving river and sea.

Finally to the North where we considered the solidity and generosity of the Earth element.

Image by Martha Gillespie

All the ritual elements were gently passed by the yogis to the Pūjā in the centre of the room. A Pūjā altar is a dedicated space where you can make an offering, show respect and set intentions.

The ceremony was rounded up by offering time to reflect on the collective message of support we were all offering Lane Yoga and encouragement to dedicate positive thoughts, love and merit to the space, to Moira and Helen, to everyone present and the wider community. We then flowed into a wonderful yoga practice followed by a gathering and refreshments.

Our little elemental ceremony had the ability to support everyone present to move away from their ordinary lives just for a few moments, just as a yoga practice can do, and bring their hearts and focus to themselves, the space and to the intentions of Helen, Moira and the Lane Yoga community.

Just like yoga, ritual can return you to what matters.

Language – is what we do more important than what we say?

If you’ve been following my blog you will know that I am a midwife and a celebrant. Over the last few years, while weaving the threads of both practices through my life, I have discovered so many parallels. One of the comparable areas, that I couldn’t help noticing quite quickly, is language and specifically the use of the word my.

In early 2018 the British Medical Journal published a blog which explored language used in maternity care. The authors put together an alternative language guide for midwives and medical staff and, of course, the media picked up on this with headlines in UK newspapers stating that midwives were “BANNED” (sic) from using certain terms because they could be disrespectful to women.
Well, as you know you can’t ban people from using certain words and language but you can inspire people to reflect on their communication and the words and language they use.
This discussion is not new to the maternity services. Midwifery language and communication has been researched and written about repeatedly. There is still one specific area we can’t quite agree on though – what we call the women we care for:

with kind permission:

Patients – could be disempowering, the majority of pregnant women are not sick but well and healthy, they just happen to be pregnant. Ladies – is thought of as patronising. Clients – more suited to hairdressers and therapists. I have even heard midwives call women ‘birds’, or sometimes just ‘Room 8’ or whatever room/bed number the midwife is assigned to.

Personally, I call a woman I care for by her name.

For me what is even more irksome is when midwives talk about ‘my lady’ or ‘my woman’. The woman doesn’t belong to anyone and this kind of language is paternalistic. How we frame things, how we say things influences how we practice, what we do and ultimately how we treat people.

Detail from The Great Tapestry of Scotland

I have noticed a similarity in the ceremony sector with celebrants, photographers and suppliers often talking about ‘my couple’. Even though this is very likely unconscious and well intended it is the kind of language that has the ability to disempower and can influence a relationship. The individuals that make up a couple don’t belong to anyone. No one owns the two people who, may function socially as a unit but, are individual autonomous adults and decision makers.

In our work and practice as celebrants we must promote working in partnership and recognise we are not owners but facilitators. Our language should regard and respect the current social norms, expectations and rights of the people we work with.

📷 Laura Kate Maclean

I know that in the past I have slipped into the negative terminology that dominates the culture I work in & failed to appreciate the impact my words have had, but after many years working with women, couples and families I feel I know I have made a shift and on the whole I am now mindful of the language I use. That shift came with self-awareness, reflection and a fundamental belief in respecting individuals, choice and equality.

Start reflecting on the language you use, the words you utter and type and make a shift if need be. It is not difficult to make the language we use about, and around, couples and families appropriate and respectful.

Changing the way we think can change our words and changing our words can change our way of thinking.

Dressing the Tree

Our apple tree

I’d like to share with you my script from our Agnostic Scotland launch ceremony which tells you a little about our apple tree, our Tree Dressing and more.

Hello everyone! It is so good to see you all here together in this wonderful space.

My name is Andrea Taylor and I, just like Onie and Linda, am thrilled to be a part of this new organisation and also very proud of what we have achieved so far,  specifically the seeds we have planted in regards to our Community Connection Gatherings and Community Fund.  Our commitment to nurturing human connection,  inspiring collaboration and consistently investing in the community is already thoroughly rooted.

We are honoured that you have all come together this evening to spend some of your time with us, to find out more about Agnostic Scotland and to meet and connect with others.  That step, that offering in itself, sends us a collective message of support and we thank you all so much for that.

Of course, as Celebrants, we felt it was very important to celebrate and mark this milestone through ceremony and ritual. To take a moment to recognise the potency of change and transition.

Linda introducing Agnostic Scotland

One of our intentions in holding this launch party, a ritual in itself,  is to create a demarcation, a line, between the past and the future, the old and the new and to cultivate a true course for Agnostic Scotland. 

Also, like many ceremonies, many rituals, this event is about holding a space to bring people together, to welcome you all, to create opportunity for everyone here to tap into commonalities which have the potential to unite and fortify, ourselves, our own communities and the wider community across Scotland.

Rituals can also offer a moment of reflection and time to consider someone or something that is meaningful to you and a time to tend your own wellbeing or send some positive thoughts to someone you love.

Therefore we would like to offer an opportunity for all of you to take part in a ritual this evening.

The chosen ritual is based on the long standing, rich tradition of fastening fabric and ribbons to trees that is widespread across the world. I have recently heard of this described as Tree Dressing. So this is what we have decided to call our version of this practice.

You may have heard about the ancient Scottish Clootie Tree, cloot is a Scots word for cloth, and also of the global practice of Prayer Trees or Wishing Trees.

Trees are wonderfully symbolic in their own right, representing long life and health, stability, shelter and security. Trees are a perfect example of how to live, grow, transition, change and even die with grace.

In Scotland, soaking a ‘cloot’ in spring water and tying onto a tree which was growing close to the revered well was associated with improving health and wellbeing of yourself and loved ones or often whole villages or clans.

In Canada there is reportedly an increase in Ribbon Trees appearing in remote areas placed by those who have historic ties to the land.

In Turkey and Cyprus people tie rags to low branches on ancient fig trees for good luck.

This evening, when our wee ceremony comes to an end, we invite you to do something similar to what many people have done before us over the years and are still doing across the globe.

For our ‘Agnostic Scotland Tree Dressing’ this evening we have brought,  from my garden in Portobello,  a tree that we felt was perfect for this ritual as apple trees are symbolic of nurturing energies. In Celtic mythology Apple trees are a symbol of good health, future happiness and of bringing a sense of wholeness, togetherness and connection with nature

•           this tree has been grown from a pip that had sprouted in an apple my husband, Alex, was eating one day around 10 years ago.

•           we also have some water collected from the North Sea (I swim in the sea regularly so collected the water that morning)

•           strips of natural fabric

Choose a piece of fabric and soak your fragment of cloth, or cloot, in the seawater and then hold the fabric close, take a moment to ponder and reflect, think of a word, a dedication. Send love, gratitude, a merit or positive thoughts to someone that is known to you, to yourself, the wider community,  the planet, to everyone here tonight …..

whatever inspires you  

Hold your ‘cloot’ close and take a moment to let that word, that thought, that feeling register in your mind and in your heart. When you are ready tie your soaked fabric to the tree.

The founders of Agnostic Scotland tying their ‘cloots’

At the end of the evening Alex and I will take our tree back to our garden in Portobello and one day soon we will plant it with all your wishes, blessings, hopes and aspirations attached.

The cloots/cloth will stay in place until the elements wear them away, the fabric will disintegrate dispersing your thoughts, your words into the air, into the universe.

Thank You

Dressed and back in Portobello


Agnostic Scotland Launch

Image courtesy of Marlene Lowe

Hello again ……. it’s been ages

Celebrant retreat on Loch Katrine

I have been so busy over the last few months continuing to work as a midwife, completing a Yoga Teacher Training, beginning to establish teaching yoga while undertaking further celebrancy training and building my Soulful Celebrant website and business.
What has also taken up a big share of my time, passion and love has been collaborating and creating Agnostic Scotland. A new not-for-profit belief body for Scotland.

My independent celebrant friends and colleagues, Onie Tibbitt and Linda Keys, and I became aware of the increasing interest in, and requests for, agnostic ceremonies. This then highlighted to us the lack of choice available to couples and families who wish to have ceremonies that are unique to them and their beliefs and values.

Linda and Onie
Tyninghame Beach

We launched Agnostic Scotland early November 2019 with an event in Edinburgh at a beautiful venue in Leith. Many friends, family and colleagues from the ceremony sector joined us to celebrate with a ceremony which included an introduction to Agnostic Scotland, a reading, a tree dressing ritual and a beautiful rendition of Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ and of course delicious refreshments. It was a wonderful evening. An opportunity for the three of us to draw a line between what has gone before and what is ahead and to begin to cultivate a true course for Agnostic Scotland.

For me this all feels so right. Just as my midwifery practice is underpinned by supporting choice, truly informed choice, for women and families, in my celebrancy practice I also feel strongly that families should be able to have choice and decide how to mark their own life transitions however big or small, traditional or unconventional, religious or secular.
Linda and Onie feel the same so we all got together and did something about it. We created Agnostic Scotland. Now there is an additional option for couples and families who wish to make space to celebrate, mourn, remember, declare love and use ritual to create their own ceremony.

Please browse the Agnostic Scotland website and our FAQ page to find out more about us and our ethos. Our plans for 2020 are already forming and taking shape with steering group formation and celebrant training on the agenda. You can read all about this and more on our blog.

Interested to know more about Agnosticism. Here is a recent article in The Herald inspired by Agnostic Scotland.

The Birth of Julie’s House

A Perfect Match

I found the stark reality of ‘The Ballad of Julie Cope’ very poignant.
To have the tale of a ‘fictional every-woman’ told via such large, beautiful tapestries is very powerful. With Grayson Perry’s narration of the folklore style ballad filling the gallery, you can’t help but absorb Julie’s story.

Of course, the descriptions of some of the ceremonial events in her life caught my celebrant attention. Short paragraphs highlight contrasting wedding ceremonies decades apart and the longer tale of Julie’s funeral is poetic and moving.
I won’t reveal too much here, go to see the exhibition in Edinburgh if you can.

Polyester Wedding

What I will share, because I found this part of the tale magical, is the touching moment when grieving Rob ‘knows what he has to do’. Inspired by his recollections of their trip to India where they marvelled at the Taj Mahal and the love story behind the mausoleums creation, Rob decides to build a secular chapel in Julie’s memory.

Rob and Julie

And reader, the chapel does exist, it is Perry’s ‘House for Essex’, where ‘The Ballad of Julie Cope’ tapestries are housed. This is a project built as a memorial, inspired by pilgrimage chapels and shrines. A fictional chapel built for a fictional character underpinned by a narrative of love.


Giving back to the earth ……

I took a trip to the beautiful Binning Wood in East Lothian the other day and spent some time at the Memorial Wood.

The natural burial site is a 10 acres of towering Beech trees that sits within the historic 300 acre Binning Wood, East Lothian.

The memorial wood is in a wonderful location and is such a peaceful place where one feels welcome to linger and contemplate, consider and spend time with those at rest. Dotted with small inscribed memorial stones amongst the leaves, which subtly mark the graves you can lose yourself in this labyrinth allowing time to slow down, letting your mind gently still and your heart to fill with remembrance. It was a shared experience for us today, a group of midwives remembering and paying respects to a midwifery colleague who chose to be buried at Binning.

For all at Binning from my garden

Spending time at Binning Memorial Wood got me thinking about how we are all reviewing our carbon footprint in different ways as we go through life but what about in death. Considering the impact a funeral might have on the environment is something many people are beginning to do. This environmental impact isn’t just about reducing the processes and activities we use for funerals in a bid to make them greener but in choosing natural burial we are also contributing to preserving flora and fauna and ensuring the land has a positive future.

Binning Memorial Wood

When the area at Binning is full it will revert to natural woodland but will always remain a memorial wood, protected and preserved. This is another way that those who choose a woodland burial can ensure their commitment to the environment continues long after they have died.

Say my name ….and every colour illuminates

I was baptised. I find it hard to understand why or how this came about as my family were, and are, not religious in any way but I suppose it just came down to tradition. That was the 1960’s and by the time my own daughters were born it was something we didn’t even consider. We had family gatherings and parties instead. We celebrated. A blend of the traditional baptism and secular celebration is happening today in the form of naming ceremonies.

Naming ceremonies could be seen as the modern day version of christening or baptism. They can be carried out by a Registrar or Celebrant. Secular, family focussed and personalised, naming ceremonies are a celebration, a meaningful celebration which can have as much or as little tradition, culture and symbolism as the family want. The family are in control of the content and wording of the readings which are underpinned by the love, hope, wishes and promises for their child’s, or children’s, future. Friends may be asked to become a Sparent or Odd Parent and take on the role of supporting adult for the growing child. Celebrations such as this are a way of making an announcement or a statement of intent for the child but in a beautifully creative, relevant way that suits a wide range of families.

Jonas Bendiksen

As a midwife I have been privileged to be present at the most amazing naming ceremonies. The birth. The ceremony of birth and the beautiful moments of a mother meeting her baby for the first time. Holding space for the parents to fall in love with their baby, begin their new relationships and give the baby a name.

When I facilitated ante natal classes we would discuss names and naming, I would ask everyone present to share their names, nicknames and a little of the story behind their name. It was a great ice breaker. We would discuss the fading traditions around naming. In regard to their own babies, most couples would have lists of names but some couldn’t agree. Some knew the sex of the baby and had already given he or she a name but didn’t want to share the name, some were happy to share and some even had the name tattooed. Saying that, sexing scans can be wrong. I, and many of my colleagues have been at births where the expected gender has been the opposite. No scans are 100% accurate. There are lots of things to consider when choosing a name but you’ll know if it’s right when you meet your baby. I had three names for a girl and one for a boy when my first daughter was born. My first words as I met her were ‘It’s Innes!!’

The Midwife
Loren Entz

In Scotland you have 3 weeks from the date of birth to register the birth, so plenty time for choosing names. Just make sure the Registrar spells your chosen name correctly. My brother says his daughter Poppy almost ended up having Poopy on her birth certificate.

Dead Good Film

Me and my Gladioli last summer,
flowers that symbolise strength and moral integrity

The Glasgow Film Festival hosted Rehana Rose’s documentary Dead Good Film last week and I went along with my daughter.

Motivated by a series of bereavements in her life Rose was moved to explore the world of funeral directors. She interviewed and spent time with many companies but only two agreed for filming to take place ‘behind the scenes’. The families, their experiences and the funerals were documented beautifully, and it was very thought provoking for me. I know I harp on about the parallels of the birth world and the death world but this film confirmed that connection even further.

The funeral directors she did document were very inspiring. Especially Arka. I loved their philosophy. They were so grounded, compassionate, empathic and they weren’t playing a role, it was their vocation, part of their identity. It was all so wonderfully simple, caring, beautiful and empowering. As Cara, from Arka says :

” I come from a world of empowering people and want to continue that in the funeral world’.

Yass!! That is midwifery talk. The staff at Arka work in partnership with, and facilitate choice for, families just as midwives do for childbearing women, their partners and their families. Arka are midwives. Death midwives.

Midwives and funeral directors have history

Search far enough back in history and you will find the local village handywoman or midwife performed laying out and childbearing services. As part of the evolution of midwifery, The Midwives Act 1902 prohibited the dual role but in 1907 it was amended allowing midwives to lay out after securing permission from the local supervising authority. This was thought to be due to demand from the bereaved townspeople and villagers. They were insistent that the washing of the dead be undertaken by someone known to them.

At that time it was the local joiner who became the ‘undertaker’. They had the tools, the space and the skills for coffin making. The handywoman would lay out the deceased and perform the last offices, attending to both the deceased and the bereaved. The undertaker would make the coffin and deliver it to the house where the deceased would rest in the front room or parlour until the funeral.


Here we are in 2019 and Rehana Rose’s film, and the discussion after, certainly highlighted to me all the varying needs the bereaved may have and more saliently, that this is important, must be recognised and at this time in families lives they may need the support of someone who is also an advocate.

To me, being an advocate is about honesty, information and respecting the right for people to be informed, have choices and make decisions. As midwives, funeral directors or celebrants we must appreciate that these rites of passage and rituals, whether it is birth or death, also need rites of protection. When you understand, believe and support the concept of informed choice, which is underpinned by human rights, you empower. With empowerment, even through grief, community, communication, companionship and human relationships can only be enhanced.

Go see this film.

Dead Good Film

Opening nationwide May 2019

Death grief and Poverty in Britain 1870-1914 J M Strange

Building a house, growing a baby & last but not least, getting married!

Thank you celebrancy wedding world! You have inspired me to remember my own wedding day.

Like many couples planning to get married, the logistics of getting people together can become quite a headache. Our close families were spread all over the country, indeed the world. We were in the middle of building our own house and I was in the very early stages of pregnancy so organising a big wedding was really not a top priority for us. Our priority was us! There were many, many other reasons that we chose a very quiet wedding. One of them, heartbreakingly, was that one of my best friends was terminally ill in a hospice and couldn’t be with us. That was difficult.

So yes, when planning a wedding there are so many things to consider. It’s very hard not to be influenced by the other people in your life or who you invite into your life at this time. Well meaning thoughts and wishes are very likely not intended to put pressure on you as a couple I’m sure, but it can be felt that way. We decided we were in charge therefore we made the right choices for us.

So the verbal invite went out to family & friends and went something like:

‘Alex & I are getting married Wednesday 14th of May at 2pm, come along if you like’

14th May 2003.

I was 5 months pregnant and dressed in purple tye dye and velvet. It rained all day, I later heard that a rainy day is considered lucky for a wedding – if you live in India! I remember the Dalai Lama was visiting Samye Ling and there was snow in Eskdalemuir. People were camping around the monastery to see him. I thought of them in their snowy tents. A little Tibet in Scotland.
My bouquet and Alex’s buttonhole was gifted and made by a florist friend on a tressel table in our half built house.
On the day another friend borrowed a car and chauffeurs cap, tied a ribbon on the bonnet of the car and drove us around for the day.
After bucks fizz in the morning a group of us went for a wedding lunch before the civil ceremony in Musselburgh. Once there at Brunton Hall lots more soggy friends and family turned up in wellies with dripping umbrellas.
Afternoon tea in Haddington found us taking over a hotel conservatory with the rain lashing down outside but it was warm and happy inside and we lingered over drinks. Such a raggle taggle soggy bunch we were but it was a wonderfully relaxed & happy day.
26 years later that day is remembered with such joy.

Our wedding cake, made by Alex’s mum was modelled on our self build house and home. Both created with love.

Hospital Birth or Home Birth? Hospital Death or Home Death?

‘June in bed’ Patrick George 1955

After recent discussions around burials and cremation, funeral directors and woodland burial sites I began to feel the considerations were not dissimilar to that of the choices and options made around birth. Today I watched short films about both woodland burial and funeral services at crematorium and I couldn’t help but consider the comparison to home birth and hospital birth.

Then while reading about the community group in Todmorden, Pushing up Daises, I came across a wonderful film where observations were made about the history of death in our culture and again this reminded me of the historical changes to how we birth. Currently 98% of women give birth in hospital. Hermione Elliot who is a death Doula suggests that in our culture, since the 1970’s, if not earlier, we have handed death over to health professionals and funeral directors and as a result we are not equipped emotionally, and practically, to know what to do when someone is dying and death occurs.

Whether it’s for birth or death what underpins our decisions is choice. Unbiased and evidence based therefore informed choice. As midwives we encourage couples to use the mnemonic BRAIN when making decisions in regard to birthing choices and care:

consider the Benefits,

consider the Risks,

what are the Alternatives,

what is your Instinct

if you can’t decide right now and you are safe then do Nothing for the moment

Of course not everyone will have complete choice due to a variety of reasons but in birth, and death, knowing you have some choices can be empowering. We want to give birth where we feel safe and I think this can be the same with dying and death. For some of us that will be at home, for some in a hospice or hospital.

As Hermoine points out data shows over 70% of people say they’d like to die at home but less than 20% actually do. What is it that makes this unattainable for many people? Off to see Rehana Rose’s Dead Good Film on Tuesday at the Glasgow Film Festival for more insights.