For a long time my mother thought sausages were called links. Understandable, since that is all she ever heard anyone ask for when they wanted sausages: 'A pound of links, please'. Links are just joined up bangers, but it was not until she asked for a pound of square links that she became aware of this joined-up fact. The hive of activity that was our sausage shop in Shawlands became a flashbulb memory in that moment: an instant that would be forever freeze-framed in the collective psyche. As a family we were often reminded of it, and long after becoming vegetarian.
Disregarding Otto von Bismarck's caution about discussing anything to do with sausages, I mentioned this links business – though it was by that time a distant memory – to an acquaintance in Edinburgh, Peter the printer, and he all too quickly insisted it must be a 'Glasgow thing'. Edinburgh is at some distance from Glasgow and many of its inhabitants would be loathe to admit links of any sort – sausages, speech patterns, social status, or even Scottishness – an antipathy that reaches across much of Scotland. The negative perceptions held by bigots, hypocrites and self-perpetuating elites are in truth bound up with the history of class struggle, exploitation, oppression and poverty – though it is hardly a preserve of Glasgow – and we should not need to consult Marx, Hardie or Maclean to recognise that...or perhaps we do.
Peter, though he defined himself within Edinburgh's city boundaries in relation to Glasgow, and within a part of Leith in relation to Edinburgh, and to Edinburgh's New Town in particular, was fond of saying 'They're queer folk in the Shaws' – an endearing, albeit muddled reference he falsely believed applied to all Glaswegians – and in response to sausages being called links, he said it again.
By way of evidence for the weird ways of the west, he told me an old story about a young man from Glasgow who started in his shop in Easter Road. From his office, he said, he could hear him prodding another guy, a local from Edinburgh who was about the same age, to find out if he was Catholic or Protestant. 'Do you support Celtic or Rangers?' That sort of thing. Anyway, the local lad gave away nothing, until eventually the Glasgow boy blurted out the crucial question: 'What school did you go to?' Boroughmuir was the answer. He did some hard thinking for a bit, then asked: 'Would that be Saint Boroughmuir?'
The origin of the 'queer folk in the Shaws' expression is obscure. Some local historians attribute it to the perceived eccentricities of the Flemish tanners and weavers that arrived in the Glasgow village of Pollokshaws, and surrounding areas, in the late 18th or early 19th century; others ascribe its origins to the arrival of the French Huguenots who fled religious persecution in the late 1600s. The latter seems more plausible: a leather-working mill was started on the River Cart at Shawbridge in the 17th century by the Tassie family – a French or Belgian surname – and their factory provided work for tanners, skinners and glovers; given their expertise, the Huguenot refugees were ideally placed to meet the demands of this industry. Leather was the source of their livelihood, and it is likely they referred to it by its French name, 'cuir' – pronounced 'queer' – as opposed to the more difficult English translation: the 'th' sound doesn't exist in French. Strange clothes and customs apart, might this be the French connection to the 'queer folk of the Shaws'?
Whilst it says nothing of its origin, the continuity of the old saying is reflected in a ballad by Barrhead writer James Fisher, published in 1850. It offers a cautionary tale about the Pollokshaws Races:
My mither tichtly coonsell’d me before I gaed oot,
To tak’ gude care and mind my e’e wi’ what I was aboot;
Said she, 'Ye may be trod to death beneath the horses’ paws;
An’ mind ye, lad, the sayin’s true – there’s queer folk i’ the Shaws.'
And skipping to the final stanza:
...Aroused at last, I drew my fist, and gied him on the lug,
Though sairly I was worried for’t by his big collie dog;
It bit my legs, it bit my airms, it tore my Sunday braws,
And in the row I lost my watch, wi’ the queer folk i’ the Shaws.
A long time ago when I worked in a boat shed on the Clyde, the foreman, a big burly bloke from Port Glasgow (wherever that was), often referred to 'The queer folk in the Shaws'. Unlike Peter the printer, the portly Port Glaswegian narrowed it down to the district of Shawlands, where I happened to live – and to my street and close number, just about. We weren't supposed to talk during work, but this didn't apply to the foreman, who ranted endlessly. 'Where is it you comfy anyway, Shawlands is it? Oh, they're a queer lot in the Shaws! Not got barbers in Shawlands? By the way, once you go bald you'll know all there is to know about pain: the cold wind against your forehead I can only describe as being like a hammer banging down on your thumbnail!' In those boat shed days I couldn't imagine being bald, now I can't imagine the reverse.
Between violent coughing fits that caused micro clouds of fine fibreglass dust to rise from the workbench, the foreman liked to fire questions that required no more than a nodding acknowledgement. 'Was only ever in a pub in Shawlands once,' he said: 'the Corona Bar. A helluva night – howling wind, battering rain, slates blowing off roofs, lights flickering, the whole shebang – but inside people were just having their quiet confabs in cosy corners. Then suddenly the door slams open, and at first we thought it was the storm blowing in, but the pub falls silent when a man appears, just stood there blocking the entrance: broad as a corporation bus, colour of concrete, looked like Rod Steiger in 'The Illustrated Man' but without the tattoos – ever see that film? Anyway, this guy was well gone, crazy look in his eyes, shirt wide open, bare belly sagging like a spare sack of mince, then he belts out at the top of his gravelly voice, 'Hey!' Not a sound in the bar for about 20 seconds, then he bursts into song: 'Did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world?' Queer folk in the Shaws, and that's a fact!'
Through time I visited all the pubs in the area, but I never stumbled upon this Charlie Rich character. Thankfully. The pubs in Shawlands, it has to be said, were stultifyingly dull and boring to the mindset of a teenager. The Doune Castle was not bad once in a while when a band was on in the cellar, and sometimes The Kind Man further down Pollokshaws Road, but there was little else. I was only in a pub once in my life with my dad, and that happened to be a pub in Shawlands. It was The Georgic: a spit-and-sawdust men-only pub. I thought it would impress him if I ordered a real drink, and I called out one that I had heard mentioned frequently on Coronation Street: 'I'll have a sweet stout!' His face changed colour, 'You can't have that,' he said – 'that's a woman's drink!' The barman polishing a short glass slowly shook his head, as if to say I shouldn't be allowed out, let alone allowed in.
Decades later I was in one of those wonderful roccoco-themed yurts at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August with my mother listening to a reading by William McIlvanney. A perfect setting. Rain gently tapping the tarpaulin, the air warm, the scent of freshly-cut grass. McIlvanney was chuckling with his audience, adding anecdotes to an excerpt from one of his stories. At the end we queued up for the signing and my mother began to feel stressed. 'What should I ask him?' She meant by way of an inscription, but I made light of it. 'Ask him what pub he drinks in' (the pub was a foreign country to my mother). I suppose everyone shuffling along in the queue ahead of her had some words prepared, and smiles were exchanged as he closed the books and passed them on. 'Isn't a hard backed book a beautiful thing', she said, tilting her head back towards me in the line.
When my mother arrived at the book-signing table all meaningful thoughts evaporated – McIlvanney patiently waiting, a book positioned in one hand, a pen poised in the other – and in an effort to fill the silence she blurted out the last banality she heard me utter, 'What pub do you drink in, William?' He replied instantly, as though he had just been thinking about it. 'The Georgic', he said – that men-only pub in Shawlands. I don't know if McIlvanney set much store by stories about the 'queer folk in the Shaws', but I remember his eyebrows arched and momentarily froze when my mother, in something of a square links episode, promptly replied, 'The Georgic? Oh, I know it well!'