A Scotsman abroad


This a tale of my early experiences of being a Scottish immigrant in England. It is the beginning of the 1970s. Not the best of times to leave a warm secure home and move to a damp bedsit. A tale of language and cultural misunderstandings.

imageIn 1970, I qualified as an Interior Designer at Napier College of Science and Technology, in Edinburgh. I had letters after my name and no apparent prospects. After a few weeks trolling around architects practices looking for work as an Interior Designer, in desperation, I ended up selling curtains in a furniture store in Edinburgh called Frosts, modelled closely on Grace Brothers in the TV comedy ‘Are you being served’. As I was to curtain selling to what Mike Tyson is to flower arranging, I had to look further afield for a job to suit my professional qualifications. I quickly found employment in the Architect’s Department of John Collier the men’s outfitter based in Leeds. I was about to move abroad. To England.

imageI arrived in Leeds in 1971. Then a drab industrial northern English city, after Edinburgh it was a severe cultural shock to my system. My first attempt to buy a drink in a pub proved a disaster. Uncertain of the English beers, Bitter and Mild, I asked for a Brown Ale. The barman looked down at the bar top, a mortician looking uncertainly at a body on his slab, then wandered off muttering. I leaned on the bar and examined the array of spirits at the back of the bar. In my native land this would have been row upon row of whiskies; every whisky under the sun. Or at least a weak, watery Scottish sun.

“Roight, loove.” The barman in his flat Yorkshire vowels, as he carefully placed a small glass of green liquid in front of me. “Whits that?” I asked, while simultaneously pondering on the barman addressing me as ‘love’; perhaps he thought I’m a thespian from the Grand Theatre across the street from his pub.

My request for a Brown Ale had been interpreted as a Double Pernod. To the Yorkshire barman “I’ll hae ah broon ale”, probably did sound like “Double Pernod”. I realised then that I would have to modify my, albeit mild Scottish accent, and speak slower. I wasn’t partial to Pernod.

My name also proved a hindrance. My parents christened me Alexander, after an uncle my mother was fond of, then, as customary in Scotland, called me ‘Sandy’ thereafter; a custom the English are totally unaware of. If I attended a meeting, the other party or attendees, expected someone wearing a frock, lipstick and high heels to enter the room, not a 6’2” Scotsman. When I answered the phone the caller would, having expected a woman’s voice, ask to speak to a lady called ‘Sandy’. To this day I still receive correspondence was addressed to Miss Sandy Wilson.

My brother’s name too once caused an incident. A very embarrassing incident. One lunchtime, I met up with Ann, my late wife, in the spacious and busy reception of the company where we both worked. We sat idly chatting, Ann absently leafing through a magazine. “Look at this picture! That looks just like your Willie” she exclaimed in the sort of loud voice you use when you are surprised by something. This sudden change in direction of the conversation wrong footed me, but not as much as the secretary about to climb the nearby stairs, her files falling to the floor with a clatter, as she stumbled on the first step. The receptionist, on the phone, paused mid sentence, and stared, eyebrows arched, across the top of her desk. For a few seconds the hubbub of the reception froze. A visitor sat opposite peered at the magazine, wondering if it was some sort of medical journal.

imageEarlier in our relationship, I took Ann on a date to see a well known American singer, David Gates, perform at Leeds Town Hall. It was February and the auditorium was freezing, the victim of a power cut, and everyone was dressed in winter attire; the audience a sea of fur hats, it looked like a Dr Zhivago convention. This was the 1970’s the decade of power cuts, miner’s strikes and three day weeks. Followed by more industrial disputes and power cuts. Gates heroically performed in a thin suit and a shirt with buttons undone to reveal a bare chest, no doubt covered in more goose pimples than hairs. We speculated that he must from Alaska. An equally heroic orchestra provided the music, accompanied by the castanet chatter of teeth. The audience clapped manically at the end of each number, the only way to generate bodily heat.

Periodically, during the performance the man next to Ann climbed over some empty seats in front of us, scuttled along the row and left the hall only to return again a few minutes later. When he was not seat hurdling he quietly, and annoyingly, hummed and softly whistled along with the performer. He either had a severe incontinence problem or he was one, or maybe two, notes short of an octave. At first he was an amusing diversion and Ann and I smiled at each other in the darkness.

imageAs the second half of the show starts there was a strange rustling noise from our bizarre neighbour. “What’s he doing now?” asked Ann out of the side of her mouth. I leant forward and peered through the gloom, leant back and whispered out the side of my mouth “He’s got his piece out” I answer. The seats creaked and squeaked as the audience within earshot of my sonorous stage whisper shifted uneasily, the way sheep react when they notice a dog peering with intent through a five bar gate.

“CHANGE SEATS WITH ME, NOW!” demanded Ann, now rigid with fear, in a much louder stage whisper. We changed seats and I sat next to the oddball as he noisily munched his ham sandwich … or if you are a recent immigrant from Scotland, a ham piece.


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