Okay, I’ll skip over my experiences in Fifth and Sixth Years in Bellahouston Academy. If I describe my educational triumphs in detail, readers will interpret these effusions, as, at best, a crude exploitation of self, or worse, a home-knitted ego trip.. I won’t mention the passes I gained in the Higher Leaving Certificate exams, but I will pay my respects to two of my teachers. Jake MacDonald, Principal Teacher of Gaelic, adopted me and a friend, John Finlayson, whose parents hailed from Bernisdale in Skye. He encouraged me to read Celtic Languages and Literature at the University of Glasgow. Jake had the appearance of a cockeyed pirate – the fierce kind of warrior who’d think nothing of eating a sickly infant in a lifeboat – and when he told you to do something, you did it. In addition, he played a recording of Mo Nighean Donn nam Meal-Shùilean I’d made for him earlier for our Principal Teacher of Music, Mrs Jean Kidd. She liked it and enlisted me in her itinerant group of male and female singers. She had me singing extracts from the Messiah and the aria, Un Aura Amarosa, from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti at church halls and community centres throughout the city. So profound was her influence over me that since my late teens to the present day I have listened only to classical music and some Scottish Gaelic vocalists. Anglo-American pop I try my hardest to avoid. I am not writing this to provoke a particular reaction. I have no desire to thwart the present worldwide tendency of the millions of people to worship the Beatles and David Bowie. Enjoy, a chlann.
So I entered uni. and immediately got my widowed mother to buy me the multi-coloured scarf of the Arts Faculty. One lunchtime during ‘Freshers Week’ I find myself in the company of a man from South Uist. Ailig Eàirdsidh, formerly from Lochboisdale but now resident of Ruthven Street, Hillhead, is the guy who sweet-talks me into giving up football games on a Saturday morning and coming to practices in the OTC Headquarters in University Avenue.
We’re standing at the counter of the public bar in The Curlers’Tavern on Byres Road having curative pints of ‘heavy’ draught beer. Mr. MacLennan comes right out the gate – first, he’ll ensure I am made Pipe Major because the band members are all products of independent and fee-paying schools and haven’t been taught to play pipes properly. Fancy that. Of course I do. He tells me in Gaelic of the delights that await. Every month I’ll get the pick of pipe chanter reeds from P/M Donald MacLean of Balentrushal who works in RG Lawrie’s shop in Renfield Street. A free sheepskin bag will be provided every six months. After attending annual camp in July I’ll be given a considerable sum of cash. This money is known as the ‘Bounty.’ Needless to say, with my booze habit intensifying as an undergraduate with access to subsidized liquor in the ‘Union’ this bribe of ‘lowey’ appeals to my larcenous soul. There are also trips abroad to look forward to.
“Trobhad, a Thormoid, ciamar a chòrdadh e riut a dhol a Phanama, Listen, Norman, how would you fancy a trip to Panama?” Ailig Eairdsidh asks.
“Chòrdadh glè mhath tha mi a’ smaointinn, I think I’d like it fine.”
“Well,” Mr MacLennan says in English with his palm alongside his mouth as if to underline the secrecy and the importance of what he is about to reveal, “I think I have the influence with the CO to persuade him that if those Americans in the Canal Zone want a solo piper to perform at their annual Burns Supper next January, I know the very man who’ll do it with dignity.”
Ailig had a pleading look on his face, the look parents affect when showing off their children’s photos. “Bheil thu a’ tighinn còmhla ruinn, a Thormoid, Are you going to join us, Norman?
“Chan eil fhios a’am, I don’t know.”
“An gabh thu pinnt eile, Are you for another pint?”
And that was his trump card.