I discovered the Glass Bucket by chance. I had just missed a bus and I didn't fancy hanging around in Dundee bus station for an hour. So I walked up St Andrews Street and within a few hundred yards I found a pub: no music; no pictures on the walls; lots of small tables with uncomfortable stools; a subdued atmosphere.
Because it was so close to a bus station, the Glass Bucket, unlike most pubs in the 70s, lacked any regular local clientele. What the customers here had in common was a desire to catch a bus to their own small town. Or so I thought. Once I had been in there a few minutes, I realised that some of the men there did seem to know each other; some of them displayed considerable curiosity about other male customers as they walked through the door; sometimes conversations were struck up between men who had previously given every indication of being strangers. There was a steady choreographic flow of men as they moved around the pub to position themselves next to other men with whom they imagined they might have something in common. Surely discussion of the intricacies of the timetables of buses to Alyth or Carnoustie was not worthy of such precision, such finesse?
Gradually, I realised that I had stumbled into a place that was the nearest to what could be described as a gay pub in Dundee. If you had asked the bar staff if this was a gay pub, they would have denied it; all the unaccompanied men could have told you a different story, but many of them would have denied it as well. The very concept of coming out had not yet reached this part of Scotland. It was rather different from the louder, more ostentatious bars and politically contentious meeting places that I was becoming used to in London. But, in Dundee, in 1972 this was the place for gay men to go to if they wanted to meet other gay men. Quietly!
The law criminalising all male homosexual activity was, of course, a factor in intimidating gay men. Some years after my first visit to the Glass Bucket two men in Dundee were sentenced to a year's imprisonment for committing sodomy in a cubicle in a public convenience but that was an isolated incident. While a handful of men knew about legal persecution, everybody who experienced any desire for other people of the same sex knew about shame; there was the inner shame that you might feel about having an inferior sexuality; there was the more public shame that would pursue you and your family if your sexuality became public knowledge. Shame was found in other countries but Scotland was particularly noted for the unforgiving nature of its Presbyterian shame.
At first, I thought the silent, ultra-cautious behaviour of the men in the pub was indicative of their shame but over the years I changed my mind about that; there were no helplines in those days and, if you had got through the door of the pub, you had, somehow or other, come to terms with the implications of shame; you might find the atmosphere rather more constrained than you would like but you would accept it because you didn't want to rock the boat; you didn't want to be barred from going there. Far clearer examples of unresolved shame were to be found on the street outside, among the men who were too terrified to cross the threshold; the proximity of the pub to the bus station could provide a good excuse as to why they might be going in there. But so overwhelming was the guilt about the nature of their sexual desires that they couldn't even lie convincingly about their reasons for visiting the Glass Bucket. A lot of ashamed isolated men tramped up and down St Andrews Street, again and again, night after night, torn between desire and terror.
Later on in the 70s, a pub called The Gauger opened on the Seagate, about the same distance away from the bus station as The Glass Bucket. Another world! The music was deafening – you could probably hear it on the Perth Road. It let itself be known as a pub that welcomed both gay men and lesbians. In fact, the pub was divided into two areas, so that there was a kind of sexual segregation. The area with the pool tables seemed to be entirely occupied by short, eh'm-no'takin-nae-shite-frae-naebody lesbians; the area nearer the bar was the preferred area of the gay men, many of whom were drinking at a speed that suggested they were in a competition; Neddy Scrymgeour's heart would have been broken. The Gauger seemed to represent the future of gay venues. Shouting and limited physical contact became the norm. And, like it or not, more people went in there than ever went into the Glass Bucket; so, that was a bit of a setback for the prevailing climate of shame.
It was easy to have quiet conversations in the Glass Bucket and easy for your neighbours to overhear them. I recall hearing a conversation one night between two Dundonian men about the same age as myself. They had clearly known each other well in the past. One of them was explaining that they wouldn't be able to spend time with each other, now that he had a wife and bairn. No identifying words like 'gay' or even 'homosexual' were used but this was clearly a conversation between two men who had once been close; they might even have been lovers. There was no anger; no tears; no recriminations; just an air of sadness. The unmarried one appeared to accept the situation; they continued sitting quietly with each other and they were still doing so when I left to catch the bus to Kirkbuddo.
The Glass Bucket pub is no more; there is now a cafe on the site. I went to look for a photographic image of the pub as it was back in the 70s because I thought it might be of interest to the organisers of LGBT History Month. But image there was none. Back in the 70s the Glass Bucket had succeeded in being invisible, except for those who needed to know about its inner life, and the invisibility continues today. I hope that some of the former customers are able to share their memories of the times when they put shame behind them and walked into a pub to meet people like themselves.