They've just given
city status to the
Photographs by Islay McLeod
Earlier this year on a visit to Perth, whose restoration of city status was announced yesterday, I was checked into the Salutation Hotel by a man who knew too much about my past.
'You'll remember the cheery barmaid,' he said – cheerily enough.
'The cheery barmaid,' I repeated dumbly.
'Yes, the one you met here,' he continued in the same disconcerting fashion.
Perth – the Salutation Hotel – a barmaid – my mind was racing.
'The Rotary Club was meeting that day,' he added helpfully.
'Oh, that day,' I lied.
'Well,' he said, 'she doesn't work here any more.'
'No, we don't have any cheery barmaids in the hotel now.'
'Because,' he replied, 'we've got cheery barmen instead.'
Feeling slightly dazed, I picked up the room key and wandered through to the bar. It occurred to me that Charles Edward Stuart stayed in this hotel, in the olden days when the Salutation ran to cheery barmaids. Perhaps that hopeless character had been distracted by one of them; it might explain a lot.
Sure enough it was a man who was serving the drinks. Only he wasn't cheery, not a bit. He had the look of a fellow who had just received some extremely bad news – the Rangers result, maybe. I ordered a glass of dry white wine, the first of several that evening, to fortify myself for the ordeal.
Oh, I've missed a bit. Before I left reception, the other man – the manager type – had solved the mystery of the cheery barmaid.
In 1987 – yes, they have long memories in Perth – there are people still alive in the town – sorry, city – who remember giving Bonnie Prince Charlie an enouraging wave as he arrived at the Salutation off his sturdy mare – it seems that in 1987 I did a chapter on Perth for a book of miscellaneous travels.
Here is the passage in question:
I gave my lunchtime custom to the Salutation, which advertises itself as the oldest established hotel in Scotland (1699). Upstairs, the Rotary Club of Perth was preparing to meet in a room next to the bar. An official sat at a table just inside the door, ticking off names of Members Attending.
I asked the barmaid [25 years later she would be immortalised as the cheery barmaid] for directions to St John's Church.
'St John's Kirk,' she corrected me. 'We aye call it Kirk.'
'Kirk it is, then.'
'My daughter's gettin' married there next year. For weddings, you pay somebody a fiver and they'll ring the bells. Lovely when they ring the bells.'
She laughed. 'Easy pleased, I am!'
I explained that I was going to St John's Kirk for the opening event of the Perth Festival. The barmaid said the festival was great, and getting better every year. But when I remarked on the flags [there were a lot of flags hanging around that day] she said she doubted if they were connected with the festival. More likely, she thought, the flags were for the opening of the new shopping centre.
Personally, she didn't want the new shopping centre. It would only take trade away from the High Street. Already, two chainstores had decided to quit and relocate in the St John's Centre. What would happen to their old premises? What would happen to the High Street generally?
So she really was the cheery barmaid. She will be quite an old woman now, if she's still alive, and her daughter, for whom the bells tolled for a fiver, will be celebrating her silver wedding anniversary next year, if she's still married. But, as well as being famously cheery, she was also a prophet in her own land. She saw, as few did, the folly of these new shopping centres and was among the first to predict the inevitable result, the decline of our traditional High Streets. Look at them now.
After the speech – that was the particular ordeal in January 2012 to which I alluded earlier – a woman came up to me with a rebuke.
'I do hope Scotland isn't as depressing as you made it out to be tonight,' she said.
I had not spoken of Perth, although I might easily have done. There is a subterranean problem of homelessness in the city and district which ought to temper any mood of complacent self-congratulation.
Some years ago at the Young Scotland Programme, there was a tense exchange after dinner when two of the delegates, both homeless young people living in Perth, sometimes on the streets, sometimes in hostels, challenged a local politician who happened to be with us as a speaker. They wanted to know what was being done about homelessness in Perth, and were shocked and angry when the politician denied its existence. Their distress was palpable.
The situation of these young people did not improve. One of them – a girl of 19 in poor physical health – died not long afterwards. I lost touch with the other delegate, a bright, articulate man; I wish I knew what happened to him.
'I do hope Scotland isn't as depressing as you made it out to be tonight.'
Get real, woman. But there is a keener sense of reality in some towns than in others – a greater awareness of the poverty and disadvantage lurking not far from Debenhams' front door.
If we must have more royal celebrations, and if we must have new cities to mark them, I would have given the honour in Scotland to a town less pleased with itself.
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review
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