Dabbler Diary – The Folly of Youth

Whenever the younger generations become resentful of our elders, with their lavish pensions, big houses and long, expensive retirements, and wonder what is the point of the blasted old codgers, we should take a look at this graphic and apologise for our ingratitude:


71% of 16-17 year olds voted in favour of Scottish independence. 73% of those over 65 voted against. Glance along the line and, aside from an interesting blip in the 18-24 bracket (non-Scottish students?), what you will see is a numerical representation of the accumulation of wisdom. Goodness me, over the years the diligence of the greytops in tottering down to the polling booths every election day must have saved us from innumerable idealogues and chocolate unicorn-promisers. The only conceivable reason for Alex Salmond’s insistence that schoolchildren be allowed to vote in his referendum was that he thought they could be persuaded to go for the childish option – and so it proved.

From the above you will infer that I’m opposed to extending the vote to under-18s. The folly of youth vastly outweighs any nebulous benefits of ‘engaging’ them with politics.

On 23 October you can if you wish go to your local cinema and watch a live broadcast of ‘public figure’ (no longer ‘comedian’, note) Russell Brand in conversation with Owen Jones. To quote the blurb: “At this exclusive Guardian Live event, Brand will explain why he thinks revolution isn’t just possible, but inevitable.” If you do go along you will be able to see an audience largely comprised of ‘politically engaged’ young people. You will also be forced to listen to quite possibly the largest and most concentrated load of misconceived twaddle ever uttered in the history of the great city of London. Young people are very, very stupid. Especially the clever ones.

And that’s as it should be. When I was a revolting sixth-former I was appalled by the oldies’ mantra “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Surely that’s a terrible attitude, I would argue, a much better approach is “If it could work better, let’s improve it!” Then over time I learned about the evil of unintended consequences, and the benefits of dealing with the world as it is rather than as you wish it to be, and all the other dismal truths that, so long as the old cognitive machinery is functioning correctly, gradually turn you into an irritable pragmatist with a mortgage, pension worries and children. Scottish separatists who look at the table above and believe they only have to wait until the current pensioners die off to find themselves in a majority make a simple, profound error. Billy Bragg always thinks the future holds a socialist revolution because the rallies he attends are always full of the young and hip. It never seems to occur to him that this is precisely his problem.

But while the white-haired idealist still chuntering about the revolution and flogging The Socialist Worker on the weekend is a ridiculous figure, so too is the teenage Tory, and rightly so. Remember tiny William Hague croaking about ‘rolling back the frontiers of the State’ as Maggie T beamed on? It was grotesque. The other side of the wisdom coin is disillusion, resignation, cynicism. Without the balance provided by the enthusiastic idealism of youth would we ever get anything worthwhile done? Oh well, something else to worry about as our population gently ages.


The best possible age to be is four. For C’s fifth birthday, to commiserate her passing of the unrecoverable golden number, I took her to London for a daddy and daughter midweek trip. This was in early August and I had not appreciated, until I walked its entire length from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace with a five-year old girl and a backpack on my shoulders in the sweatstreaming summer sun, just what very long road The Mall is. My God, London is a thunderous brainboggling Eroica of a city; how laughable seems the idea that a few million Scots buggering off could in any way harm England when this unfathomable gilded mammoth of history and money and power is at its centre. C liked the Tube escalators best.

We both hated Hamleys but the Disney Store on Oxford Street was heaven: C got to wave a wand in front of a magic mirror and make princesses appear, while I got to collapse in a comfy chair and enjoy the feel of the sweat seeping off my back and into my shirt. We took turns to pose for selfies with Princess Anna from Frozen.

In case you don’t have young daughters, Frozen is an animated Disney film with which all girls are obsessed. It has very good songs which they know all the words to including a proper showstopper, worthy of any of the big musicals, called Let it Go. I heartily approve of Frozen. It’s the only Disney girl-movie which doesn’t end with a wedding. In Frozen, the handsome prince turns out to be a duplicitous baddie and the moral of the story is: don’t marry the first smooth-talking man you meet, he’s probably a bastard. This is just the sort of lesson that fathers want to see hammered home more often. C was allowed to choose one thing for her Main Present. To my surprise she ignored the mountains of princessy crap and chose a cuddly Nala (the female cub in The Lion King). She’s barely been parted from it since.

The next morning we went on the London Eye, which I talked up as a very big ride on a very big wheel. We enjoyed it well enough, but C was disappointed that it didn’t go round really really fast.


Of course the glorious architecture of politics and royalty means nothing to a five year-old. What an interesting Prime Minister David Cameron has turned out to be. Prone to blundering in rashly, largely devoid of conviction (not necessarily a bad thing), sometimes inexplicable, but in the big moments remarkably direct and decisive. I thought his 7am post-referendum speech when he bluntly vowed to resolve the unresolvable West Lothian question was as disarming and brilliant as his invitation to the Lib Dems in 2010. Cameron is definitely one of those ‘fall-at-every-hurdle-except-the-last’ Englishmen. Contrast with Alex Salmond, the precise opposite. I did feel sorry for Salmond – not many fail so close to achieving their impossible lifelong ambition. Being in the SNP must be a Sisyphean torture.


On Sunday a pipe in the bathroom began to leak. The home cover people promised to send an emergency plumber between 1pm and 5pm. At 5pm we called again, and they admitted he could arrive any time up to midnight. We put new towels down. At approximately 8.45pm, about the sort of time on a Sunday we’d be wanting to open a bottle of Aldi red and settle down in front of Boardwalk Empire, a terrible scream rent the air asunder. I raced into the girls’ bedroom.

C was holding a piece of princessy crap against her mouth. It was a hair grip, and a long needle protruding from it had apparently pieced right through her bottom lip. I looked at it, Mrs Brit looked at it, and we decided not to attempt the removal but to take her to A&E. ‘What about the emergency plumber?’ ‘Ah. Let’s phone 111 first to see if a doctor can come round.’

Eight minutes of pointless computer-generated questions about whether she had a temperature or blurred vision later, 111 told us to take her to A&E. The screaming continued all the while. ‘What about the emergency plumber?’ we asked each other, again. In the end I bundled C into the car, with Nala for moral support, and drove into Bristol. C was very brave, she held the hairgrip carefully against her mouth as I tried to drive without bumping. ‘Don’t crash, Daddy’ she advised from the back. ‘Or I will really hurt my lip.’

Parking by Christmas Steps I carried her and Nala across Park Row to the Bristol Royal Children’s Hospital. They both seemed to have grown a lot heavier since that walk down The Mall. The triage nurse examined C’s mouth, frowning. ‘Hmmmm’, she said. Sweat slithered down my back and spread unenjoyably into my shirt. The nurse took us unto an operating room. I lifted C onto the bed where she lay, tiny and quivering, clutching Nala under her arm and the hairgrip to her lip. The nurses debated. ‘Have we got wire-cutters?’ asked the Senior, a short sensible squirrel-like lady. She had a metal implement in her hand, like a sort of blunt scalpel. Or at least I thought it was blunt. ‘They’ve got some next door,’ said the Junior, and went off. While she was gone C and I squeezed each other’s hands. For some minutes the Squirrel peered very closely at C’s mouth. Then in a sudden movement she pushed the scalpel under the wire and lifted. C howled, the grip was gone and no blood flowed. It turned out that there were two wires clamped around her lip, one doubled back on itself, not a single wire penetrating it. That old magician’s trick. “Would you like to keep this?” asked the Senior, holding out the grip. “No thank you, please throw it away,” said C and I in unison.

Walking back to the car after I’d recovered, I called Mrs B to relay the good news. She said that the plumber had fixed the leak and that E was still awake at 11pm. I hoisted C into her seat and we drove off. The Sunday night roads were empty, streetlight and shadows streaking in turn across the windscreen all along the M32. In the rear-view mirror C was gazing out of her window, holding her lion cub in one hand and her pink ‘Star Patient’ Bristol Royal helium balloon in the other. I felt about a hundred and forty years old. “Well, that was a fun adventure!” said C to Nala. I kept my eyes on the road and, like a Scottish pensioner in an opinion poll, my thoughts to myself.

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Two Trees – A Poem For Alex Salmond

salmond tree

And so the Union endures. As a special tribute to Alex Salmond, here’s something by the excellent Scottish poet Don Paterson. I offer no commentary – interpret it as you wish…

Two Trees, by Don Paterson

One morning, Don Miguel got out of bed
with one idea rooted in his head:
to graft his orange to his lemon tree.
It took him the whole day to work them free,
lay open their sides, and lash them tight.
For twelve months, from the shame or from the fright
they put forth nothing; but one day there appeared
two lights in the dark leaves. Over the years
the limbs would get themselves so tangled up
each bough looked like it gave a double crop,
and not one kid in the village didn’t know
the magic tree in Miguel’s patio.

The man who bought the house had had no dream
so who can say what dark malicious whim
led him to take his axe and split the bole
along its fused seam, and then dig two holes.
And no, they did not die from solitude;
nor did their branches bear a sterile fruit;
nor did their unhealed flanks weep every spring
for those four yards that lost them everything
as each strained on its shackled root to face
the other’s empty, intricate embrace.
They were trees, and trees don’t weep or ache or shout.
And trees are all this poem is about.

From Rain (2009).

Find more Don Paterson and buy his books here.

The Dabbler’s Guide to Scottish Independence

yes no

So, The Day of Reckoning has finally arrived. As Scots – or rather, current residents of Scotland – head to the polling booth with the fate of the Union on a knife-edge, our own Daniel Kalder explains, particularly for the benefit of non-Britons, what the hell is going on with the Scottish independence referendum…

As a Scot living abroad, I am often asked questions about my homeland and its relationship with England. Indeed, for the past couple of weeks I have been fielding questions from friends, neighbours and colleagues here in Texas, all of whom are completely baffled by reports of the possibly imminent dissolution of the United Kingdom. So for those perplexed by all this independence malarkey, I decided to answer all the most important questions on the topic in one E-Z cut out n’keep guide. Let’s go!

1) Is Scotland a country, or what?
I’ve been asked this many times in both Russia and the United States, even though both countries have a federal system and the idea of a large entity made up of smaller entities should be easy to grasp. Maybe that’s the problem: Scotland is not a state, or a province- it’s a country, only it’s a country that joined with three other countries to make a kind of mega-country with (until recently) one parliament. Kind of like The Beatles, where England is John, Scotland is Paul and… I’ll let the Welsh and Northern Irish decide who gets to be Ringo.

2) So why did Scotland unite with England?
When Queen Elizabeth I died, her nearest Protestant relative was King James VI of Scotland, so he was invited south to make sure Catholics didn’t take over. Scotland retained its own parliament until a century or so later when the country went bankrupt following a disastrous attempt to colonize a wet jungle full of mosquitoes. The English bailed us out and many Scots have never forgiven them.

3) So have the English really oppressed the Scots, then?
Actually they invited us to join them in subjugating other less technologically advanced peoples around the world. We Scots were over-represented in the colonies, as well as in the parliament in London. Glasgow was the empire’s second city. Since 1707 the UK has had eleven prime ministers who were either Scots-born or of Scottish extraction. And of course, much of the hierarchy of the last Labour government was Scottish.

4) Hm. So if the union worked out OK, why the demands for independence now?
There was much skullduggery involved in 1707 to make sure the Act of Union passed, and some folk are still annoyed about it. Indeed, working on the principle that two wrongs actually do make a right, the SNP has indulged in some skullduggery of its own by disenfranchising all Scots living outside the country, doubtless on the suspicion that those exiles might vote against their cause. On the other hand, the SNP has granted schoolchildren the right to vote, just this once, on the hope that they will vote in favour.

Many of the arguments for independence are rather abstract, and involve waffle about our “dignity” and “self-respect” or metaphors about not being a “surly lodger” anymore. Some individuals are inspired by romantic/nostalgic blather about Highlanders, William Wallace, hairy men painted blue etc. Some too may have been enticed by Nationalist leader Alex Salmond’s promise that after independence nobody in Scotland will ever die, and all shall have chocolate unicorns.

Then there is the economic “argument” that since what remains of the UK’s oil and gas is mostly in Scottish waters, we would end up being one of the richest countries in the world, like Saudi sheikhs, or Norwegians afloat on a sea of free stuff.

The reasons are numerous. My own suspicion however is that for hardcore Nats Freud’s “narcissism of small differences” is in play: “…the phenomenon that it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other.”

The English and Scots are very alike, and nationalists can’t stand the fact.

5) What would change?
Many financial and governmental institutions have uttered apocalyptic prophecies about looming economic catastrophe. Some of these prophecies may even be true, but it’s hard to believe independence would be quite that awful. Slovakia still exists, after all. At the end of the day: nobody knows. We’d still live on a wet rock and chase after post-communist levels of male life expectancy. Lots of little things supposedly distinguishing us from the English would be exaggerated. There would be more bilingual signs in Gaelic and English, even though nearly all the Gaelic speakers live off the mainland and speak English anyway. Kids in school would be forced to read rubbish novels purely because their authors were Scottish, and some loons might try to force the Scots language on them as a subject.

6) What’s that then?
A synthetic fusion of regional dialects that was pioneered by the unreadable Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid. Nobody speaks this “Scots,” nobody ever has, but I once heard a major academic compare its “revival” to that of Hebrew, which was resurrected by the Jews arriving in Palestine in the 19th century and made the official language of Israel in 1948. But the Israelis had no common tongue, so that was necessary. In Scotland we speak the language everyone else in the world wants to speak. There is no comparison.

Meanwhile, if you want a bit of fun, click here and spend some time on the Scots version of Wikipedia.

7) Sounds like you’re not too impressed then?
Meh. Salmond wants an independence that is already heavily circumscribed: as soon as Scotland became completely autonomous he would seek to surrender our newly won sovereignty to the EU, where we would be about as influential as Slovenia. Even then, the EU has been quite clear that they’re not all that keen on this independence lark, and they would make Scotland jump through all kinds of hoops to rejoin. Alex Salmond has blown this off with his trademark insouciance and guaranteed (once again) chocolate unicorns and eternal life for everyone. Then there is all the malarkey about what currency we would use, etc.

But these issues are not the main thing. Everybody knows the campaigns have been pretty awful on both sides. The “Better Together” in particular failed completely to articulate a positive sense of Britishness, preferring instead to ramble on in Gradgrindian fashion about profit and loss. No, I put it like this: if the UK is the geopolitical equivalent of The Beatles, then who the **** thinks any of those guys’ solo careers were remotely comparable to what they did when they were together?

The English have been excellent neighbours and partners. We make a good team. Scottish philosophy and science flourished after the Union, as we produced the likes of Adam SmithDavid HumeJames Watt et al. I identify with that heritage. The Union has also supplies us with the pleasures of a dual identity. I think it’s marvellous that I can be Scottish and British at the same time, and access both my native and a wider culture from a position of belonging. Why would anybody seek to be deprived of such riches? Indeed, stuck out here in Texas, I am in the process of acquiring a third identity. It’s fun.

We’ve achieved great things together. I am both British and Scottish, and I will still think of myself that way even if the Union disappears – chocolate unicorns or no.

Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com.

The Lost Whisky of Port Ellen

port ellen

Ian Buxton, occasional drinks correspondent for The Dabbler and author of the superb 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, has another new book out, this time featuring the rarest and weirdest whiskies in the world. 101 Legendary Whiskies You’re Dying to Try But (Possibly) Never Will is available to buy now, and here’s an exclusive extract…

Being of a nostalgic turn of mind I’ve elected to have a picture of the distillery [above] rather than one of the many, many bottles you can find – at a price – from this silent Islay giant.

The distillery seems to have started around 1833 and was closed in 1983, so it had a pretty good run. Let’s not forget it wasn’t closed by accident – there was little or no demand back then for heavily peated whisky, either from the blenders or the nascent single malt market. The distillery needed a lot of money spent on it and Islay looked pretty down and out.

Things change, of course, but at the time closing it was a rational and understandable decision. However, quite unexpectedly, Islay and its whisky became fashionable, more and more so. There was, of course, a quantity of Port Ellen remaining in cask when the distillery was closed, and this is where things get interesting.

My friends at The Whisky Exchange kindly worked out for me that they had handled over 400 different bottlings of Port Ellen in the last seven years; although they pointed out that this flood of new releases is partly accounted for by those independent bottlers still holding stock and realising that their carefully hoarded casks are getting over the hill and won’t be improving any further.

So, eventually, peat freaks and smoke heads are going to have to face the fact that, whether from Diageo or third-party bottlers, there is no more Port Ellen (a delicious frisson of Schadenfreude passes through me as I write these words). Presumably, prices will continue to rise, as they have done quite dramatically in recent years, with Diageo’s Special Releases leading the way.

Yes, the evil capitalists who run Diageo had the temerity to more than double the price of their 2012 release, presumably after observing the instant gains made by speculators on various internet auction sites. I shudder to think what’s going to happen when stocks finally do run out, but you can’t really blame Diageo. They’ve got shareholders to think about. Here’s the official version:

Stocks of Brora and Port Ellen are inexorably diminishing. Each year’s limited-edition bottling releases one more fragment of whisky history that is unique, and can’t ever be replaced. On top of that, Port Ellen and Brora are not merely rare, old and in great demand – they are judged by most qualified commentators to be of outstanding quality, and this year’s edition will be no exception.

As a result, I haven’t tried it for years. Can’t afford it.


101 legendary whiskies

101 Legendary Whiskies You’re Dying to Try But (Possibly) Never Will is published by Headline and is available to buy now.



I’m glad that these day we can use Wikipedia to look up the answers to our questions, rather than having to roast a few cats…

Taghairm, sometimes interpreted as “spiritual echo,” or calling up the dead, was an ancient Scottish mode of divination. The definition of what was required varied, but may have included an animal sacrifice and involved torture or cruelty to animals and humans.

In one version of the taghairm said to be one of the most effective means of raising the devil, and getting unlawful wishes gratified; the ritual included roasting cats alive, one after the other, for several days, without tasting food. This supposedly summoned a legion of devils in the guise of black cats, with their master at their head, all screeching in a terrifying way.

The divination by taghairm was once a noted superstition amongst the Gael and in the northern parts of the Lowlands. When any important question concerning futurity arose, and of which a solution was, by all means, desirable, some shrewder person than his neighbour was pitched upon, to play the part of prophet. This person was wrapped in the warm smoking hide of a newly slain ox or cow, commonly an ox, and laid at full length in the wildest recess of some lonely waterfall. The question was then put to him, and the oracle left in solitude to consider it. Here he lay for some hours with the cloak of knowledge around him, and over his head, no doubt to see the better into futurity; deafened by the incessant roaring of the torrent; every sense assailed; his body steaming; his fancy in a ferment; and whatever notion had found its way into his mind from so many sources of prophecy, it was firmly believed to have been communicated by invisible beings who were supposed to haunt such solitudes.”

Scottish historical novelist Sir Walter Scott scornfully described the last method in a footnote to his influential poem Lady of the Lake. He further adds that it could involve another situation “where the scenery around him suggested nothing but objects of horror.” However, Sir Walter Scott could not speak Scottish Gaelic and his concepts of Gaelic culture were sometimes distorted.

Other variations practiced have been recorded, and the same name has also been applied to other ritual customs. One variation of the ritual was said to summon a demonic cat called Big Ears, who would grant the summoners answers to their questions, and fulfill their wishes.


The Tartan Myth Exposed

common errors in scottish history

Selling Scottish genealogy to Americans is big business. Pity it’s mostly a load of bunk…

Exploring my father’s bookcase on one of my visits home, I came across a curious little pamphlet entitled 64 Common Errors in Scottish History. My father had quite an extensive library but I had never known him to be particularly interested in Scottish history, let alone conversant with its many errors.  And why, I wondered, were there so many errors about Scotland particularly? Within the covers of this intriguing pamphlet I discovered the shocking truth that there is no such thing as a clan tartan. The whole notion of associating particular tartan patterns with particular Scottish clans was an invention of the Victorians. It developed around the time that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert became obsessed with all things Scottish, spending long holidays at Balmoral and swathing everything within sight in yards of tartan. Prince Albert himself was very fond of striding through the heather wearing a kilt. Scottish family portraits going back to the seventeenth century, however, provide persuasive evidence that Scots wore whatever tartan color and pattern took their fancy. The presumed heraldic significance of tartans is nothing but a myth, the pamphlet’s author grandly concluded.

I was reminded of this common error recently when I visited a home where my host proudly showed off the “family tartan” draperies in her living room. You will be glad to know that I controlled myself and chose not to divulge the awful truth. As myths go, belief in heraldic family tartans is a pretty harmless one. But the incident did make me wonder if I had imagined the whole thing. Did such a pamphlet actually exist? So I asked my London brother, who inherited much of my father’s book collection, to search his shelves. The answer came back that he had not found any pamphlet on Scottish history but there was one entitled Common Errors in History published by the Historical Association in 1951. That at least suggested a series, so I searched the Internet and came up with a used bookshop in England selling Common Errors in Scottish History, Historical Association, 1956. Perhaps the number 64 I remembered wasn’t part of the title but enumerated within. Since this was the closest I could come to my memory I purchased it. The wonders of modern technology, that we can browse bookshops across the world! My pamphlet arrived and I knew at once it could not be the same one. There was no mention of the number 64, in fact it contained only a paltry 18 errors, and the cover was cream, not the dark green I remembered. But it did confirm that clan tartans are a myth, albeit without mention of the role of Victoria and Albert, a detail I clearly remember from the original.

Homes and persons decorated with clan tartans, heraldic crests, and other badges of lineage are not uncommon in America. For all their staunch republicanism (in the Roman sense) Americans are touchingly enamored of the trappings of Old World aristocracy. Genealogy is big business and the Internet is crowded with companies offering to search for your family Coat of Arms, print it on genuine antique looking parchment, or even design one from scratch. Upscale boutiques offer gift items from mugs to key chains to framed affidavits of authenticity emblazoned with your Family Crest. Notwithstanding the fact that most of the nineteenth and early twentieth century immigrants to America were fleeing poverty and persecution, few Americans claim descent from the European peasantry. There is a Prince or a Lord on every family tree if you go back far enough. One branch of my husband’s family, farmers all, claims descent from Lord Nelson.

I saw the obsession with genealogy up close during my years in the public library where people often expected to find historical records. In fact in past years the public library just carried general how-to genealogy books as well as compendiums of heraldry and, of course, tartans. We often referred people to the local County Historical Society library where the passenger lists of immigrant ships arriving in America are available along with local history sources. Once the Internet came to the library it was easier to help the genealogically inclined with the wealth of online resources available. People often shared their discoveries with the librarians, proud of their research skills and family history. Some claims were dubious though. One woman researching her Irish origins excitedly told me about visiting the grave of Jane Eyre in Ireland. Fortunately this revelation left me speechless.


It is a measure of just how Americanized I have become that I too have embraced the purported Family Crest of the Byrnes. At least to the extent of hanging it on my keychain – not too pretentious. Oh but then there are the coasters casually scattered in the living room. It’s not as obvious as tartan curtains, but still. I know my younger, English, solidly socialist self would be appalled. At least I’m not the only one. A young American-born member of the Byrne clan has the Family Crest tattooed on his arm. He shall remain nameless to protect his privacy, though I think he actually posted a photo of it on Facebook. I imagine my Irish grandparents being quite mystified by this behavior. As to a clan tartan, the Irish have very few associated with family names. Perhaps because Victoria and Albert showed no enthusiasm for the Irish. If I had to choose a tartan for the Byrnes it would be one I came across in a book about an extraordinary archaeological find, The Mummies of Uramchi by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, an expert on ancient textiles. In the Uyghur region of western China perfectly preserved mummies were found dating to as long as 4,000 years ago. They were Caucasian, very tall with reddish blonde hair. The clothing they wore was also perfectly preserved, beautiful woven tartans. These ancient people had left their Celtic homelands to wander far along the Silk Road to the east, just as the modern Byrnes have wandered far to the west.

Now clan tartans have been exposed as a myth, perhaps hidden away on some obscure bookshelf is a little pamphlet entitled Common Errors in Irish History, which would reveal our Family Crest to be a myth too. If you know of one, or have a lead on the elusive 64 Common Errors in Scottish History, please let me know.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

Spinning Around – Life on Glasgow’s Clockwork Orange subway

Glasgow City2

Exclusively for The Dabbler, writer Karen Campbell takes us on a trip on Glasgow’s unique underground railway…

Getting around Glasgow – Scotland’s biggest city – can be a delight on sunny days, as you stroll by the city’s seventy-odd parks, glittering shops and sandstone boulevards; it can be an assault course on a rainy Saturday evening, vying with clubbers, pubbers and all-round nutters to scramble on the nightbus; or it can be a self-contained, circular, slightly spiritual experience – if you board the Clockwork Orange.

Hailed as the world’s third underground railway (after London and Budapest), the much-loved Glasgow subway opened in 1896, on two adjacent circular lines – which accounts for the clockwork bit. But it didn’t earn the ‘orange’ moniker until the seventies, when all the trains assumed the bright citrus livery of the local transport authority. Aged ten, I have a vivid memory of my dad taking me for a ‘hurl’ on the subway before it closed for this big refurbishment. (Please note – a hurl is Glaswegian for a ride; my father did not plan to chuck me from a moving vehicle. ) I remember the weird notion of a staircase taking me underneath the pavement, like something from the  Enid Blyton adventures I had just discovered. I remember my city above my head,  leather seats and wooden floors. But , as I stood by the mouth of the tunnel – don’t put your toes over the edge ! – the thing I remember most is the smell: damp-earth and strange; a funnelled wind blowing up from distant places. Places I wanted to go.

Cheerful and chubby, the trains of the Clockwork Orange are an essential artery for Glaswegians, running on a six mile loop that extends north and south of that other vital vein– The River Clyde. That six-mile loop has taken me to the bijoux boutiques and record stores of trendy Byres Road; once (and believe me, once was enough) to the football at Ibrox with my Rangers-daft grandpa; to hidden gems like the Mackintosh school-turned-museum in Scotland Street; to university in the days before computers where I literally  ‘cut and pasted’ an essay with scissors and Pritt-stick, sitting on the shoogly Clockwork Orange and praying I’d make it by the twelve noon deadline. The Clockwork Orange has nursed my heartbreak on a long, spinning, meditative afternoon, where I curled up and did the full circuit until my tears became sniffles, then sighs, then resolve. Better off with out him said the thrumming of the rails. And they were right.

clockwork orange 1

That’s the thing about the Clockwork Orange: climb on, and switch right off. Buy your ticket and you can sit there all afternoon. Unlike the clever, gridded interweavings of other transport systems, there’s only one way you can go on Glasgow’s subway – round. There are no ‘zones’ or termini: stay on long enough and you’ll come right back to the start. Which makes  it perfect for people-watching, or day-dreaming. Or not getting lost. When I wrote my recent novel ‘This is Where I Am’, about a Somali refugee trying to carve out a life in Glasgow, I thought a lot about how we navigate our cities. For the local, it’s all short-cuts and bus-hopping. For the stranger; you want signposts and safety. You do not want to be lost: which made the Clockwork Orange a perfect way for my hero Abdi to get about. Keen to get the detail right, and no longer living in Glasgow, I made a pilgrimage back to the subway;  I  went with my daughter,  only to find it’s undergoing yet another refurbishment. We step inside.  Bright white tiles, state-of-the-art ticket machines, and escalators sweeping you down. Standing there again, on the platform.  Admiring the view, all different, gleaming, slick; but hoping that they haven’t changed the trains.  We wait in the white-tiled tube,  the city above our heads. There is a slow shift to the density of air inside, the noise building, the distant rumble becoming a roar; here it comes – don’t put your toes over the edge – snub-nose emerging from the tunnel, snuffling: ORANGE! Yes, still orange, and the smell…the smell, thankfully,  is exactly the same. As is the only way you can go.

Full circle.

Glasgow City

Karen Campbell’s new book This is Where I Am is published by Bloomsbury Circus — £12.99

Celtic Centre – the Slang of Irvine Welsh

Irivine Welsh’s novels contain some of the densest slang writing in fiction. Jonathon takes a trip north of the border…

It is a good thing that Eric Partridge was spared Irvine Welsh. Not because the former was a bad lexicographer nor the latter a bad writer, but because ‘the Word King’, unlike your correspondent who is of course but a mere commoner, was really rather optimistic  about the lexis within which he toiled and definitely squeamish as regarded its excesses. Like a hopeful social worker donning rosy specs to render palatable the nastier morsels of reality he saw slang as the picturesquely grubby end of ‘Merrie Englande’, with some good-natured, even humorous ‘Dickensian’ villainy thrown in for good measure. He saw his slang speakers, one senses, as essentially good blokes. Sometimes they might go too far, and he owned to distaste when it came to the obscenities, and as a professional had to place duty before personal choice. Mr Welsh’s schemies, with their sex and drugs and taste for punk and Northern Soul, are not the ‘Tipperary’-singing chirpy cockney sparrers whose conversations, c. 1916, set Partridge on his life’s work. Nor was the violence he witnessed on the Somme that of Leith Castle and Environs, the geography of which one may now look up, complete with pitiless pictures, on Wikipedia. Leith, I appreciate, has largely gented up, but that had yet to take off for the decayed 1980s cockpit that offers Welsh’s dopers and bamheads their arena. (That Cables Wynd House, better known as The Banana Flats and home of Welsh’s ‘Sick Boy’, is listed as being of ‘brutalist architecture’ is too just to miss). Partridge would not have enjoyed puppies tossed down waste chutes, let alone 5-month old foetuses; he would not have relished competitions among working men as to the length of their excreta; he would have shied from the ubiquitous drugs (always his weakest area) and he would definitely have disliked the rampant nihilism that underlines Trainspotting (1993) and its prequel, this year’s Skagboys.

In a phrase, Partridge’s proles knew their place. Welsh’s do not, or if they do, then it is at the base of the social structure, dedicatedly if dysfunctionally hacking away at the foundations. Like Neil Griffiths (Grits) and Keith Sampson (Powder), who followed his  success with Trainspotting, and with each of whose similarly phonetically presented vocabularies his lexis overlaps in 250 terms,  Welsh gives us the voice of what those who loathe and fear him just as much as he does them, would term ‘the chippy yob.’ (Whether Welsh, in Skagboys, is consciously punning when he makes the college dropout Renton a carpenter, i.e. slang’s ‘chippie’, I cannot say).

What Partridge could not have resisted, however, is the pure proliferation of slang. One has to cut first through the phonetic transcriptions: isnae for is not, heid for head, whae for who and many more, but that done Welsh is good for 1300 unique slang terms (with many cropping up in multiple books).  His is some of the densest slang writing one can encounter outside a glossary (and to his credit there is never a sniff of effort; the words are there, just as was true of Dickens or of David Simons’ The Wire, because they fit there; Welsh can be exhausting but he isn’t showing off).

And then we have the added ingredient:  Scotland. Sometimes this is easily discerned. There is, for instance, strictly localized rhyming slang. For instance, Christopher Reeve = a drink (a ‘peeve’, itself either from bevvy or Romani peevo, whisky or even West Scots piver, to urinate), Danny McGrain = a vein, Dennis Law = cannabis (i.e. ‘draw’), Hampden roar = the situation (‘the score’), Ian McLagen = sexual intercourse (‘shagging’), Jam Tarts = Hearts (of Midlothian), mantovani (usually cut to manto) = women (‘fanny’) and zorba, which takes ‘the Greek’ as spoken, and as simple zorba means sick (and requires a Leith pronunciation), or as zorba’d sick of, which in turn works through Zorba the Greeked = leaked = pissed, i.e. pissed off. There is also, and very common in Welsh, scooby, as in scooby-doo, a clue, although A can also scooby B, i.e. ‘do’ (violently) or ‘screw’ (economically or emotionally) them. However scooby can also be found in English sources, and even among American students.

Alongside which are ‘straight’ Scotticisms: blooter, to kick (or as a noun, a swallow of alcohol), cowie (AIDS), draftpak, a lowlife (and as such fond of take-out sixpacks), foosty-minged, aimed at women and literally ‘smelly cunted’, cunty-baws, i.e. balls, which targets men and presumably implies effeminacy, buftie-boy, a homosexual, ganting, eager, Hun and Jambo, supporters respectively of Glasgow Rangers and Heart of Midlothian, keelie, a thief, cludgie, a lavatory, pagger or rammy, a fight, pish, invariably substituted for piss in whatever sense, stoat-the-baw, a child molester, swedge, to fight, ming a stench and thus the insult minger.

At which point, it is seemly to pause. Because while I have around 80 of Welsh’s terms marked as ‘Scots’, am I missing the point. I may mean Scottish slang, but is that correct. For some terms, yes, and some may be all Welsh’s own work – certainly there are no instances to be found outside his work – but are for instance cludgie (seemingly linked to dialect’s cludge, dense, muddy stickiness) or keelie (cited for 1888 in the EDD and defined as a ‘street arab’ or ‘pickpocket’) slang, or simply Scottish colloquialisms and part not of slang but of popularly if not formally accepted Scots. Not Scottish Standard English, of course, but part of a wide informal vocabulary that still doesn’t qualify as its antithesis. There are parallels here with Australia, where one can slip all too easily into assuming that any remotely non-standard Australianism is slang. Things are not always so simple: ‘pull out, dig, the dogs are pissing on your swag’ may use slang terms but the phrase itself is perhaps simply ‘highly informal’. Though informal presents its own problems: if, as has been suggested, ‘standard’ speech also equals ‘morally condoned’ speech, then anything that falls outside that vocabulary and is thus ‘amoral’, or at least threatening and dangerous is best corralled as slang.

Let us forget the labels. Welsh deals with what was not yet stigmatised as the underclass. Schemie, the Scottish term taken from housing scheme (estate in England) is a precursor of chav. The words, used to abuse self and others, to savage the world one inhabits and that which stands in the unattainable distance, form a true counter-language whether slang, colloquial or informal. The speech of his incoherent and ultimately impotent junkie rebels qualifies perfectly for such categorization.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

Follies of Britain: The Gates of Negapatam, Evanton

Gwyn’s speed folly-hunting trip around Scotland takes him to Ross & Cromarty…

Sir Hector Munro’s folly was built to commemorate his own heroism: a replica of the Gates of Negapatam, an Indian stronghold he had captured from the Dutch on November 12th 1781 after a four week seige. After twenty years of service in the Indian army, he retired in the 1780s to Novar House near Evanton in Cromarty. During the last years of his life he found time to develop Novar into a model estate and shared some of his fortune by paying the unemployed a penny a day to build this splendid eyecatcher on Fyrish Hill, consisting of three battlemented arches, the centre one taller, with ruined pillars standing to either side. Heavy and oppressive — and very Scottish rather than Indian — it is reminiscent of Yorke’s Folly in North Yorkshire in its situation, but much finer.

It is a spectacular eyecatcher; it can be seen for miles around, and indeed is best seen from a distance. The frustrating thing about the forty minute walk to the folly is that the goal is completely invisible until one is four minutes away. Wrap up warm for the climb; we were numbed by the May sleet on the descent. The northern flanking arch, now ruined, is set a little behind the main monument, while the southern flanking arch is pushed a little forward, presumably for better optical effect when viewed from Novar House. Only on closer inspection from the top of the hill did we discover that the indefatigable Munros had constructed two further hilltop eyecatchers — there is no shortage of suitable hills in the area-due south of the Gates.

Incidentally Fyrish is not a Munro — it was another Hector Munro who gave his name to all the Scottish peaks over 3,000 feet high. By the time you read this, the hills to the west will be wind farms.

Gwyn is the co-author of the epic Follies of England series of the county-by-county e-books – the definitive guide to the England’s architectural oddities, available to buy for just £2.99 each from www.heritage.co.uk.

Follies of Britain: The Temple of Pomona, Cullen

Gwyn has been on a speed trip folly-hunting round Scotland. The itinerary was carefully scheduled and every minute was accounted for. Here’s the first of two Scottish folly posts: a visit to Banffshire…

This sophisticated, rigidly classical monopteros is said to have been designed by William Playfair in 1788, although it was not completed until 1822, by William Robertson of Elgin for Col. F. W. Grant. Pomona was the goddess of fruits and orchards. In the plinth of the rotunda is a panelled room with underfloor heating; other than that it is as plain and dull a garden ornament as one could possibly hope to find.

Not knowing this beforehand and because time was very tight, we sought permission in advance from the estate — Cullen House itself has been divided up into flats — to see the building. On arrival in Cullen (where the butchers archaically title themselves Fleshers) we were directed to the estate office, presented our credentials, restated our written request to a representative of the factor, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Two or three times a young man sauntered through the lobby, inspecting us curiously. After 45 minutes he returned and revealed himself to be the factor. A lengthy interrogation followed, during which we just escaped being searched for incendiary devices, aerosol spray cans, underpants bombs and other implements of hooliganism which middle-aged males invariably carry. Finally, reluctantly, he lent us the key, laced with warnings, to the park gate nearest the temple. “Ye’ll have tae wade across the river, mind,” he said, and the memory of a distant ancestor’s smile flitted behind his frozen features.

We found the temple, right by the side of the road on the way out of town. It was raining steadily. The key did not fit the lock. We returned to the estate office. It had closed for lunch. On the way to Elgin the car broke down.

Now where did we put that spray can?

Gwyn is the co-author of the epic Follies of England series of the county-by-county e-books – the definitive guide to the England’s architectural oddities, available to buy for just £2.99 each from www.heritage.co.uk.