In midsummer of 2020, the Burnlaw community will celebrate its 40th anniversary. I had a lovely long chat with Garry Villiers-Stuart the other day, both of us fading now into our later years, but still, I think, fizzing with the joy of life.
In the early ’70s, Garry embarked on a life mission to find a place, a land-based community which could be a portal to heaven. He was looking, he says, for a magic spot, and he spent 8 years searching all over the British Isles, throughout Eire and Scotland, up and down England’s rural counties, until he came to Allendale. There he found the derelict Burnlaw farm, and together with university friends John Jamieson and Paul Mahony, joined later by Rosie Luard, who became Rosie Villiers-Stuart, of course, the little collective cooperatively purchased the premises.
As Garry recalls, there were two objectives foremost in his mind at that point: i. to create a private place for family and the raising of children; ii. to create a public space where the unity of life can be encompassed in a celebration of its diversity. These objectives were informed by an abiding interest and passion for the teachings of the relatively new Bahá’í faith.
The current Burnlaw community model has moved from cooperative ownership to a village model with private homes and collective public spaces that are administered by a Community Interest Company (CIC). Burnlaw Centre is run as a service to the wider community, which we might think of as a ‘church model.’ The ‘Beautiful Room’ is a community collective space, for example, and we have many memories of the annual Carol Sing in this lovely room, over the years.
Garry loves to chat about the tenets of the Bahá’í faith which is celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of its founder this year; he says that Bahá’ís seek to exalt everything which connects an individual with their higher self. Self-awareness seems to be a crucial component for the folks who live in the Burnlaw community. Incorporating a variety of faiths, within one community umbrella, is welcomed in the Baha’i perspective, so people who live at Burnlaw represent a diversity of beliefs and political persuasions.
I probably got a little lost in the earlier history of the Báb and the Bahá’u’lláh. The Báb, born in 1819, had a vision that he, like John the Baptist, was the recipient of a message that would transform humanity’s spiritual life. He foresaw a new Second Messenger, Bahá’u’lláh, who rose to prominence after the Báb was executed in 1850. Bahá’í followers believe that Bahá’u’lláh is the resurrection of the spirit of God, and will unlock the entrapping sense of exclusivity and bring an inclusiveness to the peoples of the world. Garry waxed a little euphoric about the arc of history encompassing a progression of the spirit, incorporating the wisdom of each age at an appropriate time. Bahá’u’lláh proclaimed that ‘the world is one place, and humanity its citizens.’
Bahá’ís respect the wisdom of all faiths, appreciating the contributions of all the great spiritual teachers including Jesus, Mohammed, and Siddhartha (the Buddha).
The Bahá’ís are dedicated to peace, believing that all creation is holy, but as a religion they’ve been persecuted in Persia, since the beginning to this day. Coming from an Anabaptist tradition, myself, and knowing something of the history of peoples persecuted for their religious beliefs, I tried to listen intently.
As we wrapped up our little talk (I think Garry sensed that my eyes were ever-so-slightly glazing over), we went outside to see the outdoor temple, walking through a young wood planted some twenty years ago, and passing a stone circular maze. The temple was circled with a dedication that seemed to owe some provenance to animist philosophy, and certainly the bountiful flowers in the centre formed an altar of loveliness within the perspex pyramidal panels. The temple is used by some visiting groups and it is where some of the Burnlaw community come together for special occasions. Bahá’ís usually practise worship in their own homes, though Garry mentioned that he gives devotion in the temple on most mornings. He used the word ‘practise’ in a spiritual context in the same way, I thought, as I’ve heard committed artists use it.
In an earlier email setting up our little meeting, Garry had chatted about the people who make up the Burnlaw community. “
“As well as running the Burnlaw CIC as volunteers, where, among other things, music, dance and storytelling are promoted, various among us regularly promote children’s eduction, visual art classes, music and dance. All who live at Burnlaw are self employed. This includes designing and hiring tents, healing, choreography and dance, story-telling, woodworking, authoring and illustrating books, engineering, web design and organic livestock farming. It’s definitely a small miraculous gem of a place.”
And I thought as I got back into the car, what a company of warm-hearted, generous people of giving spirit and wholesome endeavour, seeking to heal the world with goodness.