G.R.O.W- Greyfriars Recycling of Wood

The Greyfriars Community Project

G.R.O.W- Greyfriars Recycling of Wood



The Greyfriars Recycling of Wood Project has been in operation now for a year and a half. About six people turn up twice a week and transform unwanted church pews into beautiful, bespoke pieces of furniture. They work under the supervision of Tom Pringle who took on the role of project manager from Tommy Steel who ran the project for its first year and is now the overall line manager. In due course, we plan to expand our operation to more days in the week and intend the project to become a self- sustaining Social Enterprise that does not require outside funding.


Two concerns that have preoccupied me for years led to the setting up of this project at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh.


First of all, as a member of the Church of Scotland’s Art and Architecture Committee for about 14 years, I visited numerous churches around Scotland where the congregation had decided to get rid of their church pews. It is quite understandable why congregations wish to do this. Worship takes up more space than it used to and the old idea of a preaching hall that crams people in to sit of a hard, uncomfortable pew just doesn’t reflect the reality of the contemporary church scene. However, pews are often made from beautiful timber and it saddened me when I asked what people intended to do with the pews to discover that some didn’t know. I know of some beautiful material that has ended up on a skip!


The second thing that preoccupied me for years is that a lot of beautiful people end up on a skip too! We live in a very competitive, throw away society. For a variety of reasons, some people just don’t make it. They may have a mental health problem, a drug or alcohol dependency, they may have left the armed forces and struggled in civilian life, they may have had experience of homelessness. They may have experienced a combination of these problems. In our highly technical consumer society an awful lot of people feel that they are not needed. They are surplus to requirements. Just like an old church pew, they feel that no one wants them any more and they have been dumped on the scrap heap. Without self confidence and good support networks people can really struggle with isolation and loneliness and sadly many talented and creative people just never get the chance to show the world what they can do and their circumstances can go from bad to worse.


So, about 10 years ago I began to acquire unwanted church pews and stored them at a barn on a farm in Perthshire belonging to Walter Ewing, who was Session Clerk at Collace church when I was minister there. When I came to Greyfriars in Edinburgh with its long tradition of support of those vulnerable to homelessness, we embarked on the Greyfriars Community Project. This is a plan to transform a traditional soup kitchen into a place of hospitality and help to some of our most isolated and vulnerable citizens, providing opportunities for people to develop skills and create a caring and inclusive community. In 2008 we hope to start work on a £4million project to build a new building to replace the Greyfriars Kirkhouse. The new building, designed by Gareth Hoskins Architects, will be a place of excellence and aspiration providing facilities for our support work and developing social enterprises and opportunities for us to develop an arts programme and create a community that will create space for those who are often excluded. It will also provide about 13 affordable housing units.


GROW is an integral part of this vision. As well as recycling unwanted wood from churches we are “recycling” people. Here is the story of one of our volunteers:


Case study: Wullie


Wullie lives locally in the Greyfriars area of Edinburgh.  He admits to being a lonely man.  He has no family and can’t work due to ill health.  He found that having no purpose in life was gradually depressing him.


A few months ago Wullie started visiting the Greyfriars Kirkhouse where he could meet new people and have a bite to eat.  He attends the Kirkhouse twice a week where he feels it’s a way of getting himself back into mainstream society.  Through attending the Kirkhouse, Wullie heard about the woodwork project – this interested Wullie due to the fact that years ago he worked as a milling machinist.


It was obvious from the start that Wullie had “an eye” for perfection.  During the time he has spent on the project, he has played a significant part in producing tables, mirror frames, garden benches, chairs and many more beautiful pieces of work.


This project has given Wullie a “new purpose in life”.  He looks forward to Fridays and arrives on time ‘for work’, with the punctuality which reflects the effort he puts into his work.  Wullie says that he thoroughly looks forward to Fridays, and that “it’s easy to just see something in a shop, but when you’ve made the product from start to finish, it’s a great feeling of job satisfaction”.



We need to challenge our throw-away, consumer culture. Recycling is just one way of ensuring that we make the most of what we have and do not over consume and use up or discard our valuable resources of both people and things. GROW is a small sign of an alternative imagination in which people and things that are deemed of little value can be transformed in to things of beauty that bring satisfaction both to the people who own the products and those who have made them. Some of the products already made from the fine oak and pine pews we have acquired have been made into really lovely pieces of furniture that people will treasure forever. They are made all the more special because they have a story to tell about rescued pews and lives being turned around.


The government of the Himalayan State of Bhutan has a minister for happiness. Amidst all the mind boggling material comforts of western society, a great many people realise that people are not more happy or content. Indeed, consumer society seems to feed off breeding discontent. I believe passionately that a society that discards its people as carelessly as it discards its material goods will never find happiness. Happiness comes from feeling useful and being cherished. People feel happier when developing skills that bring good things, beauty and satisfaction into their own lives and the lives of others. That is what GROW is all about. 


It is a very sad thing when a church closes as Beechgrove has done. We are hugely grateful to the Beechgrove congregation for allowing us to take some of the pews and we look forward to making a pair of tables from the pews that will be used by the new congregation in their new home. Doris Meston has been very kind and hospitable to us by providing sandwiches to our small hungry workforce on out two visits.


We hope that our project and your new congregation will go from strength to strength.


Richard Frazer

Minister at Greyfriars Tolbooth & Highland Kirk, Edinburgh.