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A Journey into Scotland … Part 63

If you pursue the stereotype of Scotland you will soon encounter alcohol and drunkenness. And the label isn’t all the fault of disparaging English. The Scots themselves make no secret of their love of a bevy or a dram. Scottish poets, songwriters, authors and comedians have turned drunkenness into an art form. Robert Burns’ great poem Tam O Shanter takes place on a ride home from the pub after taking a skinful.

“And getting fou and unco happy”*

In the brilliant Swing Hammer Swing, Jeff Torrington depicts a drunken week in the life of Tam Cley in the Gorbals of 1961 Glasgow. James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late is an equalling brilliantly written week in the life of Sammy Samuels. The beer and whisky flow freely in both and the bleak but perceptive comedy flies from it like sparks from a welder’s torch. Heroin may be the main mind-alterer in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting but alcohol is no stranger to the pages. All three books celebrate Scotland’s complex relationship with bar culture and all three would be contenders in my list for the best novel to come out of Great Britain since 1990.

smh obits. author Jeff Torrington. small web pic

Billy Connolly, who has been sober for many years, made stories of drunkenness the central plank of his stage act. In the seventies Peter McDougall made television worth watching with his ground-breaking plays; Just Another Saturday, Elephant’s Graveyard and Just a Boys’ Game. They dealt with inter-weaving themes of Scottish Independence, sectarian troubles and the overspill of the situation in Ulster into Glasgow and the economic depression caused by the closing of the Clyde shipyards. Drink fuelled these dramas which were some of the very best of the BBCs Play For Today series. To me the best television made in this country during my lifetime.

Scotland has long been the land of the fictional detective and whether it’s Taggart or Rebus, they are rarely very far from a bar and often seriously under the influence of strong drink. Compton MacKenzie’s war-time classic Whisky Galore tells of how Hebridean life almost comes to a close when a shortage of whisky hits the islands of Great and Little Todday and how it springs back into its full glory when a ship containing 50,000 cases of whisky runs aground just offshore. Music Hall acts of men in kilts in the later stages of inebriation were popular and there is even a song called the Drunken Scotsman wherein a fellow falls asleep on the side of the road in his cups. While asleep two young women approach and decide to find out for themselves the truth of what a Scotsman wears beneath the tartan. They only have to raise the hem by an inch to be impressed and as a joke tie a blue ribbon around the exposed manhood. Upon awakening the fellow goes to relieve himself after his sleep and is surprised to find himself thus decorated. He decides that whatever it was that he had been up to in his unremembered drunken state, he had won first prize for it.

Whiskey_Galore_02In literature, a drunken Englishman is invariably either a bore or a beast. On the other hand the flying Scotsman is invariably portrayed with heroic nobility, no matter how far down life has cast him.

And yet Scotland is a country with a world-wide reputation for temperance, strict presbyterian observance and sobriety. My journey had been made to reflect the true nature of the nation and in this respect I had caught the national zeitgeist to a nicety. In Glencoe and Sutherland I had eventually taken to my bed after copious libations of beer and strong drink. In Kilmacolm and Kingussie I’d been as dry as a sixties Sunday on Benbecula.

Gothenburg pubs are a Scottish phenomena that began at the turn of the twentieth century and continues today. I’d passed a Gothenburg pub in Cowdenbeath but hadn’t gone in as it was too early in the morning. My long haul along the roads and by-passes to the south of Edinburgh had left me dry. The Dean Tavern in Newtongrange offered me a wall to prop my bicycle against and a bar to rest myself. I ordered a pint of heavy and, it being a quiet late lunch-time, was regaled with the history of the “goth’.


I’m not sure I got hold of the entire concept but the idea seemed to be to accept that the working man was going to fancy a pint at the end of the shift  but that he must be kept from drinking too much. Gothenburg pubs were designed to be as unattractive as possible and to be free from such attractions as music or gambling. The Dean Tavern seemed a reasonably accommodating sort of a place though I kept to the premise of the premises by only imbibing the one. The pubs were owned by shareholders who paid the staff and the overheads but who were then only allowed to take 5% of the profits. All of the rest was ploughed into local good works in a forerunner of the supposed precepts of our own national lottery. Profits from The tavern where I stood had provided a picture house, a row of shops, a sports ground with a pavilion and grandstand, a bowling club, a nurse’s cottage and a scout hall among other local amenities. You were served your pint, kept from having one over the eight and the profits sprouted up around you. It seemed a perfect mix of the two strands of Scottish opinion on the amber stuff that makes you wobble.

Newtongrange was built on coal. The mine had been famous and regularly appeared on news bulletins south of the border in the sixties and seventies. It closed in 1981. The effects on the local economy were obvious: there were only three of us in the bar.

From Edinburgh to the border, on the route I was taking, is really one long slow pull up the Pentland Hills and a long fast ride down the other side. Refreshed by my Gothenburg pint I made my way as best I could. I have no notes and no photographs of this stretch of the journey. I remember keeping going. I remember a typical Scottish sequence of sunshine and showers and wind and rainbows alternating like the horses on a carousel. I have never known a place like Scotland for rainbows. In England they are rare enough for people to point them out to each other or to say, “I saw a lovely rainbow this morning.” In Scotland pointing out  a rainbow would be on a par with pointing out the sky.

Borders '87 4-001I can’t remember how many cars or trees I saw that afternoon. I can remember a van selling food in a lay-by and I stopped to buy myself a sausage sandwich. I was impressed that I’d got past Edinburgh and felt I was well on my way home. The occasional showers didn’t bother me. I was making good progress. Once over the top I expected the downhill to last maybe half a mile but it kept going. Gradual but very welcome after seventy miles or more of cycling that day. The landscape changed again. I’d passed the populated central belt of the country and was now rapidly approaching the once wild lands of the Borders. I was reminded of the less populated parts of North Lancashire. It was hilly and rural with fast moving streams that had been harnessed to run small woollen mills in the villages between farms where sheep kept to the high ground and corn was being harvested on the lower slopes.

At Stowe I stopped at a delightful pub and contemplated asking if they did Bed and Breakfast. Young farmers were exchanging harvest stories in the tap room and playing a few rounds of cribbage while they waited for a fourth. I was welcomed into the conversation and invited to join the game but declined as I’ve never mastered crib. It was with the greatest reluctance that I re-mounted the bike and continued to tumble downhill in the company of Gala Water on my way towards the River Tweed and the town of Melrose.



fou = drunk