Creative Nonfiction From Scotland

Month: January 2022

A Dinner at Gairbraid

This piece is part history walk, part ghost story, but the historical elements are accurate.

Walk up Gairbraid Avenue in Maryhill, Glasgow, on a dreich Saturday morning. You might meet a few people walking their small dogs. You will notice the hotchpotch housing built from the post-war period to new builds with their gardens still begging for turf. You get the feeling that a building could instantly disappear and be replaced by one utterly different from anything that has been here before.

I am here on this typical Scottish day with the present, the past, and the future in mind. As I drove across Glasgow, I heard an advert on a national radio station. Tesco was advertising a deal on alcohol, and the advert ended with the statement, excluding Tesco Metro and Scotland. It creates an odd sensation when the country you were born in has the same status as a convenience store. You need to go one-hundred and ninety years into the past to fully understand it.

On Gairbraid Avenue, I imagine the housing devolving backwards in time. Factories appear, and the air is filled with smoke and fumes. The industry vanishes, the day sky turns dark, and the energy-saving street lights morph into trees. The paving stones crumble to form a gravel-covered avenue. Ahead of me is a solitary large but bland-looking house, behind me, there is a gate to the main road, and it’s 1829.

There are lights in the house’s windows, and I guess it is time to be brave or brazen, and I walk to the front door and knock. It seems that I’m expected, but I’m late. I apologise and say that I have come a long way.

I’m shown into the dining room and around the big table sit Miss Lillias Graham of Gairbraid, Miss Betsy Allan, Lillias’s lady companion and John Dunlop, Miss Graham’s nephew. Miss Graham informs me that I’ve missed the food courses, which is a relief as explaining my non-meat-eating habits may cloud the reason for my visit. I’m offered a drink and accept a glass of wine, and they return to their conversation.

‘So, John, what happened at your meeting in Greenock?’ asks Miss Graham.

John Dunlop looks uncomfortable. He has been trying to get a temperance movement started in Scotland for some time now. The meeting hadn’t achieved anything, apart from agreeing to have another.

‘Mr Collins, the publisher, is willing to help publish tracts and with some financing. But we haven’t agreed on an organisation. We need an organisation like the ones they have set up in Boston in the United States to get a movement going,’ replies John Dunlop.

Miss Graham takes a sip from her wine glass. ‘You know John, I was very persuaded by your pamphlet and how things are different in France and Belgium, even in England.’

John Dunlop brightens, ‘Yes, it’s the excessive consumption of Ferintosh which causes the drunkenness and drunkenness is a danger to the physical and moral well-being of our nation…’

‘Ferintosh?’ I ask, not having heard this word before.

‘Whisky, sir,’ says Miss Graham.

‘… on my travels, I observed little drunkenness. My dearest aunt, sobriety was common amongst all classes,’ continued John Dunlop.

I sip some wine.

‘John, how is your dear wife?’ Miss Graham asks.

‘Oh, she is better now. The death of her sister Hellen was a blow to her.’

‘Miss Allan, you were a friend of Hellen Dunsmore, too, weren’t you?’ I ask.

I look up and notice for the first time that Miss Allan has no face; history has left us none.

‘Yes, she was,’ says Miss Graham, ‘Betsy used to stay with Hellen from time to time.’

I decide not to ask about Miss Allan’s wedding, the one that Hellen Dunsmore attended, considering that was in 1807, and this is 1829, and she is still a Miss. Lillias looks at me intently. She is not a woman of looks, but her nature demands your attention.

‘Do you wish to ask another question?’

That sounds pretty much like a dare, but I’m not going to rise to it, ‘Well, I did hear that you once eloquently dealt with a scoundrel attending one of your dinner parties?’

Miss Graham laughs, and Miss Allan moves as if she was laughing too.

‘More than once, sir, I can assure you,’ says Miss Graham with a smile. ‘However, I think I know the disreputable gentleman you refer to.’

Lillias adjusts herself in her seat.

‘The reprobate had the presumption to rise and proposed a toast to: “Honest men and Bonnie Lassies.” I looked at him and said, “Very well… but that is neither you nor me.”‘

Everybody laughs.

I feel emboldened by this success and enquire if the dining room has been recently redecorated.

‘Yes, it has,’ replies Miss Graham, ‘how kind of you to notice. I like to redecorate the rooms, the outside of the house is so plain, my father had it built.’

“A square house, built by a square man,” I quote.

‘Yes, that was Robert Graham, my father. He almost bankrupted the estate with his mania for digging mines.’

‘The ground was too damp,’ I say.

‘Yes, yes it was, thank goodness for the canal,’ Miss Graham says. ‘Oh Betsy dear, do remind me to mention the redecoration to Tiger Will when I write next, though my nephew still owes me two letters.’

I can see that John Dunlop has fallen into his own thoughts.

‘Mr Dunlop, is drunkenness a big problem in this area?’ I ask.

Once again, he brightens, ‘Yes, around one-thousand three-hundred people live in the area of Maryhill…’

‘Named after my mother Mary Hill of Gairbraid,’ Miss Graham breaks in.

‘Yes, I know,’ I smile at her.

I want to tell her that Maryhill is known worldwide, in large part due to television’s fictional detective Taggart who was based in the Maryhill police station. But, describing tv would be too much. Even explaining a fictional detective would be out of reach as Arthur Conan Doyle won’t be born for another thirty years.

‘…and there is one licenced house for every fifty-seven residents. It is truly pitiful some sights you see of an evening,’ John continues.

He falls silent again. In his eyes, I can see the look I’ve seen in many others, the one that gently says, ‘I’ve had a breakdown.’

Miss Graham seems to sense something in her nephew, ‘Well John, let’s do something about it.’

‘I’m not sure what you mean?’ says John.

‘Let’s not wait for your next meeting with Mr Collins. We shall set up a society here and now, myself, Betsy and you John,’ says Lillias.

Miss Graham rings a bell, and a maid enters the dining room, ‘Please go to my study and fetch the new ledger that is on my desk and some ink and a pen.’

‘But on what terms, aunt Lillian,’ John asks, ‘this is where we were stymied at our meeting.’

‘We, John, will form a women’s society for temperance. We will concentrate on education,’ Miss Graham turns to me, ‘I built a schoolhouse, do you know?’

I do but don’t want to distract from the events, so I just smile and nod.

‘That will leave you and Mr Collins free to concentrate on the men, John,’ Miss Graham says.

While we wait for the maid to return, I spy a large object on a side table hidden under a cover. I guess this is the old family punch bowl, a relic of the disastrous Darien scheme, and a famous if not infamous element to Miss Graham’s dinner parties. However, today of all days, I don’t expect my host to make her fruit punch at the table and even less I expect any of us will be rolling home drunk as a result.

The maid returns with the ledger, pen and ink.

Miss Graham writes the first of October 1829 at the top of the page and a pledge to abstain from ardent spirits. Lillias signs it, followed by Miss Allan and John Dunlop.

‘You must get as many women as you can to sign this pledge, aunt Lillias. Women will be critical to this cause. It will be an important document for history.’

I don’t have the heart to tell him that it is now lost, but with the chauvinism typical of history, the men’s one still survives. We know that the women’s only temperance society concentrated on education, but no detailed accounts exist. Even Miss Betsy Allan is just a name. No description, portrait, or words of her own survive.

Back on Gairbraid Avenue in 2019, the rain has stopped for a bit. I can feel ghosts of my dinner companions walking with me as I leave.

We walk by the brand-new health centre with its back to the avenue. Inside posters on the walls offer help with alcohol, drug and mental health issues, and I think of John Dunlop and his lifelong battle with depression. Although he would probably be shocked by the lack of messages extolling the power of God in keeping well. However, the centre is surrounded by security cameras proving that some people still need a watchful eye in the sky to keep them on the right path. Even Gairbraid Church which John helped fund, is protected by them.

Along the towpath, an expensive new block of houses overlooks the Forth & Clyde canal, part of the regeneration in the area. The middle floor of each apartment has a square box jutting out with a door and a French balcony. Robert Graham would probably have approved of the design.

The canal itself would look like it did back in 1829, except for the lack of narrowboats or activity, except for joggers, dog walkers and cyclists. I guess these healthy pursuits would be met with approval.

We cross the canal by a lock restored at the millennium and head further along Maryhill Road. The small school that Lillias Graham donated the land for and helped fund has long since been demolished, and a garage offering cheap MOT’s now sits on the corner. However, there is a modern primary school across the street from where it stood. There is a discarded can of Stella Artois lager on the playground grass. Time to head back towards town.

On the same side of Maryhill Road stands the now burnt-out Maryhill Tavern, whose history as a pub dates back to 1881, thirteen years after John Dunlop died. When John inherited the estate, he prevented any public houses from being established on the land that he controlled.

This time we pass under the canal thanks to the foreboding aqueduct that sits astride Maryhill Road. Tourists take selfies down by the police station while quoting famous lines from the television series. We walk behind the police station, passing a women’s support centre, which I’m sure the fading ghosts would have approved of. The place where the old health centre stood, the Scottish Prison Service, proposes building an alternative to prison for women called a ‘citizen repair workshop.’ If the go-ahead is given, it may be named ‘The Lillias Centre’ after Lillias Graham of Gairbraid. I turn to ask her what she thinks of this, but they are gone.

I head to the café in the Tesco Extra on Maryhill Road for a cup of tea and something to eat as it’s well past my lunchtime. I am reminded by the earlier advert that there is no discount alcohol on sale. The concerns of the temperance society founders reach down through the years to today’s Scottish parliament, just as much as Scottish society’s problems with alcohol do.


You always hold your breath as you walk in the main door. It might be reverence, it might be the smokers standing in front of the no-smoking sign, but you always hold your breath. Once inside, you have to remember to breathe again, or the nurse on reception will give you an odd look as you gasp for breath.

The reception area is big, bright and clean. A trolly of library books sits near the entrance, it never seems to move, and the books never seem to change. The reception includes a coffee spot with tables, chairs and a coffee bar which never seems to be open no matter what time you visit. The building is mainly windows, natural light everywhere, the walls and floors are light colours and kept well cleaned. From the reception, a corridor slopes lazily up to the wards. Framed paintings and photos from various ‘art for health’ projects line the corridor walls, and they change every year or so. Occasionally you will pass someone coming the other way, but mostly you will complete the slope on your own; it’s not a busy place. Once in a while, you will meet a squirrel coming the other way, and it will look at you as if you have no right being there. After the slight standoff, it will jump up and run down the seating by the window heading to the reception; they will let it out; it’s been here before and knows the routine.

Sometimes I’ll take a seat halfway up if I’m early, take a couple of puffs from my asthma inhaler and reflect that when I’m out of puff, I take puffs. It’s more like recharging than medicine that way. Bang at the start of visiting hours, I reach the ward doors. The doors are pine veneer with safety glass windows and a number-coded lock. The lock combination isn’t so secret. It’s on the wall on the other side of the doors. I could read it by standing at the correct angle from the outside if I wanted to or type it in as it’s easy to remember. I don’t; however, I press the button and wait. If the door were open, I’d walk in. If someone were ahead of me, I’d happily tailgate them, but I’m here on my own, and the thing to do is press the bell. The truth of it is no one pays attention to the button. I stand there for a minute or so. Eventually, a staff member will spy me standing and come and open the door, or flash two fingers the polite way to say they will be with me in a couple of minutes. When opened, I walk into the ward and say, “Hi, I’m here to visit – -.” The staff member will direct me to the lunchroom, and I’ll take a seat and wait.

The lunchroom has a single solid wall, with a clock and notice boards. The information is for both patients and visitors. Opposite this wall is the kitchen serving area. The exterior wall is all windows and a door out to a garden. Only patients and staff are permitted out there. The interior wall opposite is panelled at the bottom and windows at the top; this is for observation. When a patient is on twenty-four-hour observation, a staff member will sit in the corridor. For a visitor, this has two effects. The first is to feel as if you are in a goldfish bowl. However, no one is interested in you. The second is a worry that the staff member is so far away, the windows producing a sense in the brain like looking the wrong way through a magnifying glass. The contents of the lunchroom are the same as any other, chairs, table, a water cooler.

If you have got this far, you may ask, what’s the point of describing a room, one that is, let’s face it, pretty dull? In answer, I invite you to think about these things. Think about all the images of psychiatric care facilities that you have seen on television, in films, most of them just lazy rehashes of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’
In dramas, you may see a maternity ward, or casualty and these are used for entertainment, but not at the expense of the patients. You may see a character undergoing cancer treatment, but again no one makes fun of cancer. There are no patients in this piece. That would just be voyeurism.

If you want to better understand mental health, there are many reputable sources. But here is a simple non-medical metaphor, mental health is like laying in a hammock. Three out of four people will spend their whole life peacefully lying in the hammock. However, one in four of us will find that the hammock rocks back and forth, sometimes severely. We may get tangled up in the hammock for some time, and everyday life will all but stop. We may also be dumped out of the hammock. We struggle to get back on while experiencing all of the above, and it will take months or years for the hammock to be still again. Forget any Mack Sennett slapstick images that may spring to mind. Even the movies have moved on from that.