by Michael Grey.
Piping Today #71, 2014.

You know you’re a seriously regular visitor to Glasgow when someone stops you on the street, asks for directions  and you can help – and with mostly reliable info. It’s the last Friday of the Commonwealth Games and thanks to years (and years) of tramping the streets of the city, I did my bit as a sort of on-again off-again local and helped two ladies from London find their way to the bowls. I was tempted to ask them why they were interested in lawn bowling – a snoozefest to me – but then, had they known I was something of a keen piper, they’d been in their rights to ask the same: “Piping! What’s that for?” When it comes to human colour the place is unconditionally iridescent.


Loads of time spent between competitions gives a person, a piper, the gift of time for exploration. If you’re from away and have your wits about you, that’s just what you do: get your self out of the hotel, university residence or pub and walk, ride, move around and watch. In my experience, Glasgow rates at the top of the international tables for people watching.   Walking along Union Street this morning I passed an old codger wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap (and headphones) belting out, as loud as he could, an old Motown song, “I’ve got this burning, burning, yearning feelin’ inside me…”. And this was all while on the hoof; arms grooving and neck swaying. People around didn’t seem to take much notice – smiles aside. I guess you’re never to old to burn and yearn. Diana Ross and her Supremes would’ve loved it, though I doubt you’d have the same chance to catch as fine a sight in Detroit. 


It was the same when I first started coming to Glasgow. Great people. Interesting people – and no shortage of characters. People haven’t changed – aside, I guess, from there being more immigrants. But the city? It’s changed. I think then the place was grittier, darker. The buildings seemed awash in soot, the smell of diesel was everywhere and the only place to get a burger was from a place called Wimpy – or from deep in a pot of boiling water and onions at the back of traveller’s caravan at the games.  It wasn’t until 1987 (what a great year) that McDonald’s arrived in Scotland. I have to say I’m not here to give anyone a potted history of hamburgers – nor am I an especially huge fan – just looking to pass along random markers of change. 

In the pubs it was all “hauf and a haufs” or “Advocaat and lemonades” with the drink of choice generally following gender lines. Chinese and, especially, Indian restaurants were nowhere near as common as today. The place was a long way from the cosmopolitan gastro-cool restaurant culture of now. I guess that goes for a lot of cities but, on reflection, especially so for Glasgow.  Merchant City was more boarded and barred windows than anything close to resembling today’s gleaming assortment of fine food and £5 pint purveyors.        

When I first landed at the World Pipe Band Championships in 198*cough*3, the event, I think, was not much smaller than today – really – with 25 bands or so in Grade 1 – with, as today, family, friends and a peppering of curious locals making up the crowd. The Worlds was different. A lot rougher around the edges. It was – again, just as today – supremely organised, but there was hugely limited seating, and very little of today’s build-up buzz. And certainly there was no PipingLive! to help while away Worlds week hours. 

An overseas band at the Worlds was a novelty, if not a curiosity; strangers from a strange land. There was no internet, no social media and only urine-scented callboxes from which to call home – or call anyone – while in town. Pipers and drummers really didn’t know each other; not like today where intercontinental conversations happen instantly, news spreads at cyberspeed and everyone has at least 500 good Facebook friends from everywhere. Then it was all thin blue onionskin AirMail-ParAvion notes, expensive and infrequent long distance calls and the rare exchange of scratchy cassette tapes to connect with anyone. Overseas flights were generally for the well-heeled, or those with a death in the family. Oh, and when flights arrived in Scotland it was at PIK – “Glasgow” Prestwick Airport – with piper in full-blown number ones playing tunes at the bottom of the ramp. A nice, quaint touch maybe. World weary pipers might snicker today.

So all these regular visits to Glasgow and this “tramping” around town over the years – watching, living, taking a lot of it in. What have I learned? 

It’s hard to say, though, maybe, a few things.

In Glasgow: there are no fat dogs; sunglasses are only a fashion statement; the friendliest of endearments is the worst swear word at home; “that’s the rain on” is a stoic acknowledgement of the obvious and inevitable; aged cheese is never “old” (as in Canada) instead it’s the oddly more political correct “mature”; the colder the weather the less clubbing folk wear; Buckie is not only a cruel schoolyard nickname for a kid with an over-bite; people see Edinburgh through the lens of the saying, “you’ll have had your tea”; the grass is always green; and the piping, not unlike the Union Street codger, is supreme.