History springs to life on Scottish stage

January 27, 2005
In a dramatic peformance during a weekend of events marking the anniversary of the 1913 visit to Edinburgh of 'Abdu'l-Baha, actor Sarah Munro played a housemaid recalling her experience of meeting 'Abdu'l-Baha.

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Episodes from the early history of the Baha'i Faith in the West came to life through dramatic performances here this month.

In the drawing room of an historic Edinburgh house once visited by Abdu'l-Baha, actor Sarah Munro played a housemaid recounting the experience of meeting Him.

The performance was part of a weekend of events that set in motion a process to acquire a new Baha'i center in the city as a venue for a wide range of activities, including the reception of distinguished visitors.

Edinburgh's significance as a capital city has increased since the re-establishment in 1999 of the Scottish Parliament after an interval of almost 300 years.

The Universal House of Justice recently called for the establishment of a new center to replace the existing one, which is no longer suitable for the growing needs of the community.

An open weekend on 8-9 January 2005 attracted more than 250 visitors who journeyed to the Scottish capital for a weekend hosted by the local Baha'i community. The program featured performances, tours, displays, and information on the proposed new center.

The weekend's events coincided with the 92nd anniversary of the visit in 1913 by Abdu'l-Baha, Who was the leader of the Baha'i Faith from the death in 1892 of His father, the Faith's Founder, Baha'u'llah, until His own passing in 1921.

'Abdu'l-Baha, then 68 years of age, had traveled to Edinburgh at the invitation of Jane Whyte, a prominent society figure in turn-of-the-century Scotland. Her husband, the Reverend Dr. Alexander Whyte was a leading figure in the Free Church of Scotland who had a broad-minded approach to religion and a desire to overcome sectarianism in the church.

Mrs. Whyte had visited 'Abdu'l-Baha with a Baha'i friend in 1905, when He was still a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire in the Holy Land.

In Edinburgh's St. George's West Church, where Dr. Alexander Whyte once preached, viola player Carolyn Sparey-Fox entertained participants in the events marking the anniversary of the 1913 visit of Abdu'l-Baha. Slideshow
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In Edinburgh's St. George's West Church, where Dr. Alexander Whyte once preached, viola player Carolyn Sparey-Fox entertained participants in the events marking the anniversary of the 1913 visit of Abdu'l-Baha.

On her return to Scotland, Mrs. Whyte told many groups and societies about the Baha'i teachings and hosted the first Baha'i meetings in Scotland in her own home.

With the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, 'Abdu'l-Baha was freed after more than 50 years of exile and imprisonment, and so could travel to the West to proclaim His father's teachings.

'Abdu'l-Baha arrived in Edinburgh on 6 January 1913 and stayed at the Whytes' residence at 7 Charlotte Square.

He told a gathering there of prominent women that they must educate and prepare themselves for great responsibility in the years to come.

During the anniversary of His stay, visitors were taken in groups to the house that had been the Whytes' residence.

The house is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and is preserved as a fine example of a family home from the Georgian era.

Normally closed to the public during the winter months, the Trust opened the house for the Baha'i visitors during the weekend -- and its own staff was on hand as guides.

On display in its rooms were precious archival items including clothing and documents belonging to 'Abdu'l-Baha that had been loaned by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United Kingdom.

Among other highlights of the weekend was a performance by a Baha'i choir in the High Kirk of St Giles where 'Abdu'l-Baha had attended a performance of Handel's oratorio Messiah, held in aid of the city's poor.

For singer Maureen Hunter-Merrick, a Baha'i from Edinburgh, the performance was the spiritual highpoint of the weekend.

"We were all very moved at being able to sing in the cathedral where Abdu'l-Baha had been," she said.

"We chose a selection of traditional songs, prayers in the Gaelic language and modern settings of Baha'i writings to try to capture the history and special nature of the place and 'Abdu'l-Baha's visit."

A Scottish cultural evening attracted more than 100 Baha'is and their friends, who enjoyed a traditional ceilidh band and folk dancing.

The open weekend ended with a program held at the Freemason's Hall in George Street where 'Abdu'l-Baha had addressed a gathering of Esperantists.

The guests enjoyed a program of prayers and music, reflections by scholar Moojan Momen on the significance of 'Abdu'l-Baha's visit, and presentations on the fundraising campaign to acquire the new center.

Baha'is throughout the United Kingdom have been organizing fund-raising events to finance the project. Baha'is do not accept financial donations from outside of the community's own membership.

"There is a strong awareness of the significance of 'Abdu'l-Baha's visit here," said John Parris, a member of the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Edinburgh, which will own the new center.

"The Baha'is here are very enthusiastic about this project, and the possibility of being able to to carry forward the train of events which was set in motion during His visit," Dr. Parris said.

(Report and photographs by Robert Weinberg.)