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Magazine Articles

Various articles from The Scotsman Magazine, Scotland on Sunday’s Spectrum Magazine, and The Herald Magazine. Copyright belongs to the respective publications. Click the blue links to read the original web version of the stories

The Butler Did It from Scotland on Sunday’s Spectrum Magazine. This was a unlikely piece to write given that, when I pitched it, Britain was mired in its worst economic depression of the postwar era. But somehow, you suspect the raffish Johnny Crichton would thrive whatever the circumstances. His chutzpah is just as singular as his taste.

NO MATTER how capricious the whims and fancies of the world’s wealthiest one per cent, Johnny Roxburgh is the man capable of turning them into glittering realities. Over the course of three decades, he has waved his magic wand in the grand chateaux of old Europe and sun-kissed tropical idylls, fulfilling the desires of clients rich or titled by birthright and those newly bestowed their fortunes through fame or the financial markets. To a global elite unconcerned by borders or budgets, he is the Great Entertainer, the most sought-after party designer around. For a Glasgow boy once forced to breakfast on the tapioca pudding he had refused the night before, does it not seem, well, unreal? “We never believe that something can’t be done,” he tells me. “I just think it up and I say, ‘This is how it’s going to be.'”

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Winding through aisles and shelves brimming with Samarkand silks, antique rosewater sprinklers and velvets from St Petersburg, Roxburgh takes me on a whirlwind tour through his “Aladdin’s cave”, a warehouse unit at the south London HQ of his company, the Admirable Crichton. It is an emporium of ritzy exotica Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen might designate as his final resting place, where a metre of flocked fabric costs a four-figure sum and Roxburgh’s decadent aesthetic is to the fore. “We served a party their dessert in these,” he enthuses, pointing to a decorative obscurity plucked from a North African souk. “It worked well because it’s what they least expected.”

Every other day, he peruses this box of tricks, hand-picking a selection of finery before spiriting it off to wherever the next soiree is being held: sometimes a 15th-century Venetian palazzo; a Moroccan palace overlooking the Atlas mountains; or even the Salle des etoiles in Monte Carlo. Often, the commute is closer to home, to Kensington Palace or Hampton Court Palace, for a prestigious royal engagement. Whatever the location, occasion or audience, Roxburgh will be on hand to evince the reputation of his firm (known in high society simply as AC) and realise its motto: We take dreams and make the reality even better.

“Forget mobile discos or karaoke machines, if it’s entertainment you seek, Roxburgh can rally together Berber horsemen, Cossack dancers, circus troupes or synchronised swimming teams”

For an appropriate appraisal, he and his business partner, Kincraig-born Rolline Frewen, along with several Scottish staff members, will secure a wondrous venue, provide a handsome and adroit infantry of waiting staff and orchestrate an entire evening in harmony with your personal tastes. Forget mobile discos or karaoke machines, if it’s entertainment you seek, Roxburgh can rally together Berber horsemen, Cossack dancers, circus troupes or synchronised swimming teams. The firm may not be well-known to the wider world, but its shimmering accoutrements have helped keep international society circles whirling for generations, affording its proprietors a little black book enviously coveted by the editors of Tatler and Harper’s Bazaar.

It was, for instance, AC that coordinated the Queen’s 80th birthday party at Kew Palace, a black-tie dinner complete with Krug on ice. Close friends with Prince Charles, 63-year-old Roxburgh has been the proud owner of a royal warrant for nine years, and is caterer of choice for the heir apparent. That is not to say that his services are the preserve of the monarchy. The bon viveur Michael Winner is a loyal customer, as are Trudie Styler and Nigella Lawson, who offers a glowing testimony of Roxburgh’s mains and canapes. “If I can’t get the cooking done for a party myself, I have to know it’ll be done by someone I can trust,” she reasons. “So I ask the Admirable Crichton.”

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On a dank and dour mid-February Monday morning, I arrive at the firm’s warren of well-appointed offices, next to a Caribbean bakery off Denmark Road. The place is abuzz as a phalanx of petite, effectual staff field telephone enquiries, discuss menus or finalise itineraries; a flutter of blonde hair, public school accents and hastily scrawled Post-it notes. At the epicentre of it all, wearing a crisp salmon shirt and cream linen trousers, Roxburgh is the personification of calm. Today he is due to meet a new supplier from Scotland – a technology firm that has devised urinal-based computer games, the on-screen action controlled by the user’s carefully guided stream – and hold a tasting session with prospective clients. Soon, though, he will be bound for some far-flung locale. “I have rather too many jobs to quote for than I can cope with,” he confides.

“At a time when a contracting economy has left the majority of Britons teetering on the precipice of yet another recession-shaped sinkhole, the prosperous one per cent who constitute the habitue of AC are carousing like never before”

A lithe, urbane figure with a full head of sweeping, silvery hair, Roxburgh wears his age well, and little wonder. The commodity in which he trades – unrestrained luxury – happens to be very much in vogue. At a time when a contracting economy has left the majority of Britons teetering on the precipice of yet another recession-shaped sinkhole, the prosperous one per cent who constitute the habitue of AC are carousing like never before.

Roxburgh and his charges arranged some 380 gatherings last year, up on 290 in 2010, and an already buoyant trade looks set to prosper, with bookings made for as far in advance as August 2013. “We had an incredibly good January,” he says, sipping coffee. “Even though it’s historically quiet, it was an amazing month. We are having a huge February and will have a really good March, and we’re always busy over Easter. After that, we have the Golden Jubilee and the London Olympics, so it’s a great time for people to celebrate.”

The company – named after the butler in JM Barrie’s play of social reversal – began in 1982, an era when its burgeoning industry had yet to confine paper tableware and party hedgehogs to history’s dustbin. Roxburgh, an old Glasgow Academy boy from the city’s Pollokshields area, was at the time a chartered accountant and lawyer who had grown weary of his work in the field of international copyright, chasing down royalties for artists such as Abba and Bob Marley; Frewen a sculptor, albeit one with culinary acumen and a refined palate. They set AC in motion from a small coachhouse in Clapham, armed only with a malfunctioning typewriter and grand intentions.

Naivete notwithstanding, the asset that would make their name was the recognition of exclusivity’s importance. For the first six months of their fledgling business, they spurned all entreaties, informing potential patrons they were too busy to meet their requests. It proved a classic example of supply and demand, the desire of their would-be suitors only inflamed by rejection. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” Roxburgh concedes. “But we were bright, and we learned.”

Word of mouth quickly spread, culminating in 1983 with a showcase job for oilfield behemoth Schlumberger, complete with one of the first starcloth ceilings, followed soon after by the two day-long 60th birthday celebrations for one Robert Maxwell, which made an Elton John bash look like a WRVS tombola.

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Nowadays, the firm is also called in to organise society weddings and film premieres, its prestige consolidated by a succession of alliances and endorsements, of which the royal warrant is but one. Take the firm’s much-vaunted catering service: its ordinary menu or canape selection is perfectly delectable but, for the most discerning tastes, chef Tom Aikens is on hand to rustle up his Michelin-starred fare. “It’s great, and we’re just starting to do all kinds of things with another celebrity chef that I can’t tell you about, but it’ll be much bigger,” Roxburgh adds.

So too, the array of venues AC can procure for your party are of an equally formidable pedigree, and includes Kensington Palace, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Tower of London, the V&A museum, the Caledonian Club in Belgravia and the Fleming Collection.

None of this matters a jot, mind you, if the most important element of a party – the guests – fail to gel. “What really matters is whether you’ve got people who are good hosts and hostesses,” implores Roxburgh.

“You can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t actually interact with your guests, if you don’t mix your guests up, you won’t host a good party.” Hosts, he says, should write down the names of every guest on a piece of paper and pin it up in their bathroom a week before the event, learning conversational segues through which to introduce people. “If you do that, a party will sound like champagne, it begins to bubble,” he says.

“I went to a very grand dinner on Saturday night and while there were people who knew each other, a lot of guests clearly didn’t. The host was absolutely crap, really, really, really bad. You just found people who knew one another staying together in pods. It struck me as rather hopeless.”

“The technical exactitude with which AC brings its visions to life is worthy of Cecil B DeMille”

The technical exactitude with which AC brings its visions to life is worthy of Cecil B DeMille – one event in Marrakech boasted a perspex dancefloor over a vast swimming pool – although the firm has at times flirted with, and skilfully avoided, disaster. One charity event featuring Prince Charles, John Travolta and Jamie Oliver saw a cucumber and melon gazpacho terrine melt in the afternoon sunshine, but Frewen had the foresight to serve it to them as espresso-style shots.

So exacting, though, is all this Masters of the Universe stuff that at times it threatens to skirt with self-parody. The venue of one early affair was furnished with dead rabbits and birds to recreate Mr Fezziwig’s ball from A Christmas Carol. More recently, Roxburgh’s staff paced the rooms of a country pile carrying smouldering logs after the client asked for a welcoming woodsmoke aroma. At another bountiful gathering for the British Fashion Awards, held at the National History Museum, the company threatened to upstage the venue’s spectacular dinosaur exhibits by turning the main stairway into a waterfall, flanked by naked young men, their bodies painted to look like zebras.

Then there is Roxburgh’s description of his in-house staff, capable of inducing apoplexy in equality campaigners. “Youthful, intelligent and good-looking,” the chairman of the party states unashamedly. Does this decadence, I wonder, know no bounds?

Over a lunch (confit of Loch Duart salmon with Scotch langoustine salad, followed by herbed lamb fillet nicoise), Roxburgh points out that, while in the 1980s “you just couldn’t be extravagant enough”, AC does not co-ordinate an endless procession of bacchanalian feasts. “Sometimes it’s about being incredibly over the top and lush and lavish, sometimes it’s about being austere, simple and pared-down,” he says.

Neither does the firm tolerate those with prosperity but no principles. “I had someone the other day who asked if they could pay for their child’s wedding entirely in cash,” he explains. “It was a big job, worth around £500,000, and I was so offended they would think I was the kind of man who would do that. I just walked away.”

Roxburgh is conscious that some deem his line of work profligate, yet holds no truck for “chippy, miserable people”, and has a stirring take on the recession. “The money doesn’t just go down the loo. It swishes around and goes somewhere else, to someone else.”

The meticulousness he bestows on parties is no less evident in his approach to business. Routinely dealing with occasions that stretch into six figures – the bill for one event came to £2.5 million – he insists on receiving 80 per cent of the fee upfront. His famed discretion regarding both customers’ identity and their outlay is absolute (“I deal with the rich and the rare, and if you say you’ve organised a party for £5 million they would drop you like a hot potato”) but the names of several incumbents of the celebrity A-list inevitably pepper the conversation. Vast multi-nationals also value Roxburgh’s bold aesthetic, and his list of corporate clientele reads like the FTSE 100 index: Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley, Cartier, Chanel, Louis Vuitton. Recession? What recession?

AC’s bespoke commissions in Britain seldom stray far from London, but Roxburgh would dearly love to increase the firm’s workload north of the border. Best known here for organising the dazzling European premiere of Rob Roy in Edinburgh, it can also arrange the exclusive hire of a clutch of Scottish venues: Fenton Castle, near Berwick; Floors Castle, in Kelso; Glenisla’s Forter Castle; and the National Museum of Scotland, in the capital’s heart.

The nation may boast around 50 individuals with fortunes of nine figures and above, but only the likes of Aberdeen’s Sir Ian Wood and Highland Spring owner Mahdi al-Tajir could be said to enjoy a status befitting the south-east’s gilded circles: the multi-billion-pound empire forged by steel magnates Lakshmi Mittal and Alisher Usmanov, or Russian tycoons of Roman Abramovich’s ilk. “It’s very sad that there isn’t the requirement for us to come to Scotland to do more events,” Roxburgh sighs. “But I guess there aren’t many very rich Arabs living there on a permanent basis, and it costs a fortune to transport equipment and staff from London to somewhere in deepest Perthshire.”

His fondness for Caledonia is not the idle romance of a Scot domiciled on the Thames’s southern bank (home is an “unpretentious little Battersea cottage”). His compatriots occupy key positions in the firm, including Glaswegian Barbara Simpson, head of royal events and senior party organiser;Edinburgh-born Gordon Robertson, head menu planner; and chefs Stuart Lyall, from Kelso, and James Murray, from Banknock in Stirlingshire, the latter being tipped for culinary stardom. “Being Scottish is a huge benefit in this line of work,” Roxburgh reflects. “We have a natural desire to entertain and are very hospitable. And, of course, the country has some of the finest ingredients in the world to work with.”

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For the moment, however, the demand is from elsewhere in the world. The day after we meet he is bound for Paris, part of a routine whirlwind tour of the world. “On Wednesday it’s Zurich, then I’ll come back before heading to Florence, where we’re doing a big party,” he explains. “I’m waiting for a phone call later today, which I expect will confirm a venue in Spain later in the week. Then I’m off to Doha, and there’s a big wedding at the weekend.” He pauses, juggling dates and countries in his head, before allowing himself a smile. “Yes, I think that’s about it for the moment.” With that, the Great Entertainer scoots off to perform yet more feats of conjury. All tomorrow’s parties will not arrange themselves.

—–

Catch Me If You Canfrom The Scotsman Magazine. While nearly all else around it has been razed to the ground courtesy of spurious regeneration initiatives, Shawfield continues to stand proudly in a corner of Glasgow. An anachronism it may be, but it makes for a hugely entertaining evening out, especially if you’re watching the people and not the dugs.

EVERY morning, he is gently stirred awake from his temperature-controlled bedroom at 7:30am, rising from his slumber to find a bountiful breakfast awaits him. Most days, it consists of sardines on toast, but his chef is no stranger to late requests at early hours, preparing soup, or even a meaty broth. Sufficiently sated, he returns beneath his fleece blanket for a nap, rousing again by mid-morning to head outside for a short canter. Another doze is followed by a beef lunch, and a spell on the treadmill, before his personal trainer offers up a pedicure and massage. Come evening, he eschews the bright lights. He is still young, in his prime. Revelry can wait. Two digestive biscuits provide his only luxury, eaten shortly before 9pm, before he returns to bed for the night.

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If sheer talent alone is not enough to ensure sporting greatness, sometimes even an unflinching dedication and discipline cannot assuage the doubters. In the case of Barnfield On Air, however, there are few waiting to be converted. Even among the punters, secretive little men who normally stand stubbornly by their own combination of labyrinthine statistical analysis and inexplicable intuition, nearly everyone is in agreement: this three-year-old is predestined for glory.

“In the Byzantine world of greyhound racing, the only thing faster than Barnfield On Air is the rate that superlatives are being used to describe him”

In the Byzantine world of greyhound racing, the only thing faster than Barnfield On Air is the rate that superlatives are being used to describe him. “The Desert Orchid of Dogs?” is a headline one racing expert recently posed. Such grand sobriquets are justified by his record to date. He has “done the clock” – dogspeak for breaking the track record – at no fewer than four British venues in the past year. Capable of speeds of 40 miles per hour, last year he brought home over £42,000 in winnings. He even has his own website.

“He’s one in a million, I’ve not seen a dog like him in 30 years,” says Paul Brown, greyhound editor of the punter’s bible, the Racing Post, and a man who has judged more dogs than a Crufts official. “Top greyhounds sell for up to £40,000, but Barnfield On Air is worth at least double that. But if he was mine I’d never sell him, he’s priceless.”

This year, many fancy Barnfield, or Barney as he is known, for the Triple Crown of greyhound racing: winning the Scottish, English and Irish derbies. It is a Herculean challenge, achieved previously only by a handful of dogs. No-one in his camp is without optimism, however.

Sam Poots, a 43-year-old recruitment agency boss from Essex, has a quarter share in Barney. It was he who bought the dog as a pup in Ireland, after receiving gushing advice from a friend in Tipperary. Now, he is Barney’s trainer, and believes him capable of clinching the “Impossible Treble” and his place in the greyhound hall of fame.

“As soon as I saw him, I knew he was special. He just flew over the track. That’s where I got the ‘on Air’ name from,” says Poots.

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SHAWFIELD GREYHOUND STADIUM offers a cold reception for potential world-beaters, even if they are of the canine variety. Located in a neglected pocket to the south-east of Glasgow city centre, it faces a grim 1970s housing estate, where sheet metal, rather than glass, adorns the windows. Across the other side of Rutherglen Road stands another monument to an aged sport: the West of Scotland Indoor Bowling Club. Around both buildings are signs of encroaching retail park anonymity; corrugated iron shells, home to the likes of Halfords and Tilemania.

The stadium opened in 1932, and thrived for many years. By 1985 however, it was closed due to plummeting attendances, before it came into the hands of Billy King, a Glasgow bookmaker and the uncle of Stefan King, the entrepreneur and bar owner. Mr King has consciously done little to bring the stadium up to date. He is said to be preserving something, though no-one quite knows what the something is.

On a resplendent spring evening, Shawfield’s aesthetic foibles are no easier on the eye. At its centre is a long sandy oval, the focus of attention. Dilapidated terraces frame one end of the stadium, above them, a roof forged out of rusting corrugated iron sheets, the odd panel of which has gone astray.

“A snack bar offers not so much a food service as a means of assisted suicide. It is all heady stodge, and there appears to be three choices on the menu: pies, chips, or pie and chips”

At the other end is a crude stand next to betting windows, featuring bulky televisions in wooden cases which date back to Thatcher’s first government. A snack bar offers not so much a food service as a means of assisted suicide. It is all heady stodge, and there appears to be three choices on the menu: pies, chips, or pie and chips. All around, the paint is peeling and cracking. If you were to take a colour photograph of this place, it would somehow develop in sepia.

Tonight, however, is a special occasion: the semi-finals of the Scottish Derby. Only six out of 12 dogs will progress to the final, where £25,000 awaits the winner. Barney is among the competitors, despite only coming second in the first heat a week earlier, when the track was muddy and heavy-going, courtesy of a Glasgow downpour. Inevitably, his previous form ensures he remains much fancied.

In the Bully Wee, one of four bars in Shawfield, a hunched man in his late fifties, unshaved, jowly, and wearing the expression of a recently burgled homeowner, surveys his copy of the night’s programme. For the price of a beer, he tells me his name is Harry Ha’penny, and he is careful where his money goes.

“Ah’ll bet big if I think I’ll win, aye, course I will, but I’m no’ a mug,” he says in a conspiratorial bark. “My ear’s to the ground, son. I know a guid dug fae a s***e dug. See yon, and yon?” he adds, pointing to the listings. “They’re s***e dugs.” I ask for his opinion on Barnfield On Air. He closes his eyes and nods. “Aye, guid dug, that. Back that and you’ll be happy, he’s a guid, guid, dug.”

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Downstairs in the café, the inhabitants are less earthy than old Harry. I approach a well-heeled woman slipping comfortably into middle-age. It turns out she is Mary Fahy, the breeder and owner of Barney’s main competitor this evening, Tyrur Kieran.

A prim, friendly woman from Galway, she believes the dog has a good chance. Tyrur Kieran is one of four dogs she has reared running tonight in races in Britain and Ireland. “Greyhound racing is a brilliantly social occasion. You see groups of people who know nothing about dogs coming along for a night’s entertainment,” she says. “It’s a very, very busy life being involved. There’s no end to it, but it’s a wonderful life.”

The dogs are big business in her home country. Funded by the government, the stadia are bright and modern, and around one in six of Ireland’s population attend at least one meet a year. On British soil, only Primark could boast of a similarly impressive footfall.

“Places like Shawfield simply don’t compare,” she adds. “I don’t want to talk it down, because the people here are really trying, but it’s a world away from the sport in Ireland. There’s not even any televisions showing replays of the races.”

“In 1960 the dogs were a regular fixture across working-class enclaves such as mining communities, with some 64 licensed racecourses the nation over, many of them wonderful art-deco structures. Now, the number stands at 29, with Shawfield the only such track in Scotland”

Mrs Fahy’s politeness not withstanding, the decline of greyhound racing in Britain is far from a secret. Sheer numbers alone show the downturn in the sport’s fortunes since it became officially recognised 82 years ago. In 1960 the dogs were a regular fixture across working-class enclaves such as mining communities, with some 64 licensed racecourses the nation over, many of them wonderful art-deco structures. Now, the number stands at 29, with Shawfield the only such track in Scotland. Well-kent tracks at Powderhall, Blantyre, Cliftonhill, Carntyne, and Clydebank are mere memories, while plans for a premier £4 million track at Wallyford in East Lothian, first mooted a decade ago, have stalled.

Independent tracks – popular with amateur trainers, but where, to the concern of animal welfare groups, there are less stringent drugs tests and no vets – have witnessed an even harsher decline, from 87 to just 14. More than a dozen have perished in the past decade alone.

The crowds have followed suit. In the glorious post-war evenings, up to 20,000 men would gather for a punt, with 15 million attending at least one race throughout the year. Today, a race will be considered a success should 600 turn up. The gates at daytime meetings, meanwhile, do well to break beyond double figures. Off-course gambling, the opening of evening betting shops, and television coverage have seen off the flat caps. Away from showpiece events such as derbies, it remains very much a pursuit of the hobbyist. The average prize money per race is a paltry £220, with the top prize at a run-of-the-mill track only £100. The shortfall must be met with passion alone.

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An independent review into the greyhound industry by Lord Donoghue, published last autumn, offers a well-disposed, but realistic account of the sport’s health. “Those familiar with the recent modernisation of the rest of the British sporting and leisure industry are struck by how, in comparison, greyhound racing appears at times to be stuck in a different time warp,” it states. “It can offer a touching reminder of earlier – and especially working-class – sports from the post-war decades before most of our leisure industry decided to modernise.

“As one of our expert assessors commented: ‘Our pubs do not now look, smell and feel like they did 30 years ago – yet many of our greyhound tracks depressingly do feel just like that.’ That feeling may be nicely nostalgic as well as depressing, but it is not necessarily a formula for future commercial success.”

At 8:11pm on the dot, after two uneventful races involving young, inexperienced dogs, the main attraction is upon Shawfield. The attendance is still poor, a flock of only a few hundred, now darting anxiously between the trackside and the bookmakers. Barney started at evens, but has drifted out to 11/8, and now, with moments to go to the race, stands at 7/4. For those unfamiliar with the betting lingo, this means that whereas before, a £20 stake would have earned you a total return of £40 had Barney won, a successful bet would now be worth £55. It is a sign the dog, for whatever reason, has fallen from favour. Undeterred, I remember Harry Ha’penny’s words and stick a fiver on him. At the betting window beside me, quantities of cash are being exchanged that are best measured in inches, not pounds.

A bell sounds, the lights dim, and a mechanical hare starts its 480-metre route round the oval. After a few seconds, the traps burst open and the dogs pound the sand. They jostle for position, their sinews and muscles stretching as they reach top speed with effortless grace. Come the first bend, Barney is in trouble, bumped sideways as he tries to turn inside. He falls back into fourth place, and never recovers. The blink of an eye later, Tyrur Kieran romps home first to scarce applause, setting a new track record in the process, 28.69 seconds.

Barney is defeated, and will not be lining up in the final, let alone taking the Triple Crown. Shawfield takes on a funereal air at the realisation. Judging by the grimaces, I count myself lucky to have lost only £5. “He’s no’ the same dog he was,” one bulb-nosed punter bemoans. I overhear another, sure of his impeccable contacts, tell a friend: “That dog was hurt last week in the mud. Injured his leg, he did. He wasn’t fit.”

I have arranged another interview with Sam Poots after the race. When I call his mobile phone, however, there is a curt answer. “It’s a pointless exercise, mate,” he says. “You seen what happened.” I try to reason with him, pointing out that Barney can still win the two remaining derbies. He does not reply, his mind focused only on the long drive back to Essex.

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Three nights later, and the mood is palpably different in Shawfield. The car park is full, with a Sky satellite truck taking up much of the room. Inside, the crowd of thousands is oiling itself on OVD and Blackthorn. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air around the open stand. The flat caps are out force, like the AGM of the Chic Murray Appreciation Society, but so too groups of young women have chosen Shawfield for their Saturday entertainment. The derby final may well have lost its favourite, but its atmosphere is intact. “It’s a big night. Normally, we’ll have around 600 to 700 people, but a derby is a one-off,” says William Reid, Shawfield’s racing manager. “There’s about 2,500 here. It’s like a football cup final.”

Inside the betting enclosure, seven bookmakers, including Billy King himself, field a wild scramble of enquiries, shouting out ever-changing odds, and taking in clumps of notes. In the space of five minutes, they take in thousands, if not tens of thousands. Little wonder more than £2.5 billion was bet on greyhound racing last year.

At 9:45pm, I watch the final get underway from a corner of the Bully Wee. Tyrur Kieran, the new favourite, races out from his trap ahead of the other dogs. He is not for catching and triumphs by a metre. Mary Fahy, resplendent in a turquoise suit jacket, punches the air, and the crowd cheer enthusiastically. “Go on, Tyrur, gies the Triple Crown!” one punter roars.

A few empty glasses away, I see Harry Ha’penny, looking out on the track like a Sioux elder surveying the rolling prairies of South Dakota. “What a guid dug,” he shouts, “I told ye a’ that was a guid wee dug.”

—–

‘Oh my God, it’s Gerry!’ from The Herald Magazine. When I wrote this piece back in 2007, Gerard Butler was making modest inroads into Hollywood, and his profile at home was far from buoyant. But when a good friend alerted me to a fan convention taking place in Glasgow, where 160 of Butler’s rabid US fans would spend several days touring his birthplace and old haunts, I knew there was a story there. Not to mention a very entertaining weekend in company of some lovely, sincere folk.

AS A place of pilgrimage, Overton Water Treatment Works in Greenock is a little unlikely. Perched atop rolling moorlands overlooking the Firth of Clyde, it boasts none of the detritus of the well-trodden tourist trail: no plaques, no souvenir shops, no discarded ticket stubs. Instead, water trickles into a cavernous storage tank, where mud is filtered out and the odd twig or leaf is removed. That’s it. Precious little to get excited about.

Melanie Greenberg, though, is captivated. On the journey over from Chicago, the vision she has lived with for the past 12 months grew vivid, each cloud and blade of grass discovering a renewed clarity. Now that she’s finally here in Greenock, the reality is too much. “Oh my God, ” she gasps, clutching her breast. “I’m gettin’ verklempt! I’m gettin’ verklempt!” Gripping on to the steel railings around the tank, she fans her flushed cheeks. “It’s Yiddish slang, ” she says breathily. “It means my heart’s about to burst.”

On either side of Greenberg stand scores of other women, all similarly impassioned. Bearing digital cameras and camcorders, they gaze down upon three blue cranes that squat over the austere beauty of the riverside. Their T-shirts, baseball caps, badges and bags are adorned with slogans: “Tarts on Tour”, “Mistress of the Tarts”, and, in one instance, simply “I Am a Tart”. One grips a small doll to her chest, a photograph of a handsome, rugged thirty something man glued to its face. “This is it. This is it, right here, ” Greenberg coos, almost inaudible. “Just think. He looked at this view once. He was here. Gerry was here.”

Meet the Gerard Butler collective: members of an internet community of more than 10,000 people who discuss and dissect the minutiae of the Glasgow-born actor’s life and work. Online at GerardButler.net (just shy of five million visitors in the past five years) they have posted drawings, photographs from premieres, inspired video homages, music, interviews, details about Paisley, where Butler grew up – and even poems and fictional stories about their hero. Merchandise, all available online via credit card, includes clothing, teddy bears, mouse pads, stickers and mugs. The “Tarts” slogan which adorns much of it came about following an online discussion about what kind of biscuit or cake Butler would be. It’s probably best not to delve too deeply.

For one week in January, the community’s most hardcore members – some 160 in all – are in Scotland for their official 2006 convention. Mostly American women, they span generations and classes: teenagers and grandmothers, company directors and housewives. Others have come from countries including Australia, Finland and Romania. There is also the odd disconsolate husband among the ranks. You can’t help wondering whether it’ll all end in restraining orders.

Let’s begin at the beginning. It is shortly before 8pm on a Saturday night, and the Buchanan Suite of the Ramada Jarvis Hotel in Ingram Street, Glasgow, is abuzz with chatter. Long dining tables, their white linen kissed with glitter, stretch across the room. Paper plates with chicken drumsticks are scattered around. Promotional movie posters are stuck to the walls with Blu-Tack. On a small stage is a DJ, the words “Bobby Mac Disco” emblazoned on his mixing desk. The atmosphere is heady with anticipation.

Melanie Greenberg is mingling with revellers, chatting with friends and exchanging stories. She, like most present, has only just arrived after a lengthy flight for the convention’s opening night. In spite of the jet lag, everyone is bright-eyed. To the right of the dancefloor stands a woman in her late fifties, her small frame wrapped in a fawn shawl. She is surrounded by a tightly packed huddle, two dozen strong. It has been this way for the past hour. Cameras flash and whirr. One by one, women step out to kiss her cheek and pose for a photograph. “I just want you to know, Margaret, your son has given me such joy and inspiration, ” purrs one woman in a soft southern US accent, taking her hand. “I know, ” comes the reply. “Me too.” The woman’s smile lights up the room.

It is a movie-star smile, and it belongs to Gerard Butler’s mother. Together with a few other members of the actor’s family, including two of his aunts and Alex Coll, his stepfather, she is a guest of honour. As the evening progresses, she will take to the stage to make a speech, delivering an anecdote about how, even from a young age, her son had an eye for the women. (“As a baby he would crawl under ladies’ skirts, ” she says at one point, with a blush. ) Bewildered and beguiled, she is nonetheless thankful. “I didn’t know whether to come tonight, ” she tells the crowd. “I thought to myself, ‘Gerry’s fans won’t be interested in his mother.’ But he told me, ‘Mum, they would.’ And, as his mother, you have no idea what this does to me.

“Gerry’s had issues and has had a hard time. His life still isn’t that easy. It gets hard travelling about and never being based somewhere for long. But my son is a survivor. I can’t tell you how highly he thinks of you and the love, encouragement and support you give him.”

Gerard Butler, it seems, isn’t your common or garden film star. For most Scots, the 36-year-old isn’t a headliner at all. His name, like that of an old school friend, is both familiar and distant. It lingers in the mind, snippets and fragments filtering through to the consciousness. “Actor. Scottish. Er, was in that movie, uh, forget its name . . . wasn’t he up to play James Bond at one point?”

For years Butler did not aspire to celebrity. His parents moved from Scotland to Toronto when he was young; when he was two and a half they split, and Margaret took her two sons and daughter back to Paisley. Butler ended up studying law at Glasgow University, and a career of writs and conveyancing appeared elementary. His heart, though, wasn’t in it. He was depressed and insecure, and drinking heavily. Police cells began to feature – and, one week short of qualifying as a solicitor, he was sacked by the Edinburgh law firm that had taken him on as a trainee. He was distraught.

He moved to London with the vague intention of getting involved in acting, and landed himself a job as a casting assistant on a stage production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, directed by Steven Berkoff. Daring to approach Berkoff for advice on breaking into acting put an end to his casting-assistant career. He quickly found himself acting in the performance instead.

Embryonic television roles in the comedy dramas The Young Person’s Guide to Becoming a Rock Star and Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married followed. He turned to film comparatively late, at the age of 27, first featuring alongside Dame Judi Dench and Billy Connolly in Mrs Brown. At the turn of the decade, he took the title role in Dracula 2001, going on to feature in the Michael Crichton adaptation Timeline, then playing opposite Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.

His biggest job came two years ago in the Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced film of The Phantom of the Opera. As the prominence of his roles increased, his star looked destined to shine. Unfortunately, several critics thought otherwise, and Butler found himself drifting amidst the slurry. One of his recent films, last year’s Beowulf & Grendel, has yet to find a US distributor. Among pockets of Americans, he is a cult. In Britain, he remains on the cusp of . . . well, if not fame, then perhaps recognition.

“‘When he appeared, my popcorn went flying everywhere’, she recalls”

To his internet admirers, however, none of this matters. Debi McMillan from Berkshire, who has spent some 12 months organising the 2006 convention, says her first experience of Butler (“popping your Gerry cherry”, as the fans call it) came with Dracula 2001. “When he appeared, my popcorn went flying everywhere, ” she recalls. “It wasn’t a great film or role. But he just looked the part. He fitted. It’s his looks, his emotions, the way he . . .” She pauses. “Excites you.”

Soon afterwards, her enthusiasm further fired after she tracked down his previous films on DVD, she caught wind that Butler was filming at Pinewood studio in Buckinghamshire. She knew he was due to celebrate his birthday in a few days. With the studios only a short drive away from her home, why not take the plunge? “I drove over to Pinewood and handed over a birthday card at the entrance. I didn’t think much more of it, ” she says. “But I included my phone number. I guess I’m ballsy like that.”

A month or so afterwards, McMillan’s telephone rang. It was Gerard Butler, thanking her for the card. “We just talked about Celtic FC. Small talk, ” she smiles. “It was like chatting to a friend.” After discovering GerardButler.net while searching the web for information about her new favourite actor, McMillan realised she was not alone in her affections. The website is the biggest one devoted to him, but there are many more. There’s Gerard Butler Angels, GerardButler’s Celtic Hearts, Gerard Butler Crazed, Northern California Gerry Fans, Butler’s Nuts – and, perhaps most disturbingly, GALS, which stands for “Gerry Addicted Lust Syndrome”. Butler keeps his own romantic life strictly private, but that only adds to his allure.

“Whatever he does, fans go en masse and he spends time with them, ” McMillan explains. “Hours, sometimes. Taking them out to dinner. It’s like a military operation. As soon as someone gets wind of an event it spreads like wildfire. That’s hormones for you.”

Early on a Tuesday morning, three days after the convention’s opening night, I am travelling on one of two luxury coaches negotiating Paisley’s interminable one-way road system. To my left, a bow-legged pensioner in a Pringle bunnett blurs past the window. On the right is the bastardised 1960s architecture of Renfrewshire Council’s headquarters.

There is a crackle and a hiss as Morag Dunbar, our tour guide, takes to the centre of the aisle with a microphone. She is resplendent in a navy blazer, a crisp white blouse, tartan slacks and pumps. “Now, Gerry stayed in the Ralston area of Paisley, so he’d definitely have been here partying in his youth, ” she informs the assembled Tarts, gesturing towards the town-centre pubs. “Unfortunately, though, his old school has been demolished.” From behind me comes a massed sigh, like a chorus of pin-pricked tyres.

Paisley, though, is a prelude. The real point of today’s outing, which will include the stop at Overton, is a tour of shooting locations for Dear Frankie, the tender Scottish drama in which Butler plays the Stranger, a stoic yet loving father-figure to a single mother and her child. Among his fans – particularly in America – it is one of his most celebrated films. Later today, the tour party will even meet Andrea Gibb, the film’s Greenock-born screenwriter, for a Q&A session and, inevitably, autographs and photos.

The motorway stretches ahead, providing a lulling interlude. A cassette of the Dear Frankie soundtrack plays over the coach’s PA, and heads weave and nod in unison. A hand taps my shoulder. “Do you want hear about my dolls?” asks its owner, handing me her card. “Pat Berschied, ” it reads. “Gerry’s Travelin’ [sic] Gerrymigo Tart.” A pin badge for her hometown of Paducah, Kentucky, is attached. Full marks for civic pride. “We have our own little Gerry community in Paducah, ” she enthuses. “We meet once a month with dolls from Gerry’s films and have parties with them. We dress ’em up like his characters.”

“It’s probably not normal playing with Gerry dolls, ” suggests Kelly Beasley, a mother of two from Chicago, “but it’s harmless enough. I don’t really know what other people would make of it back home, so I keep it quiet. But who cares? I love Gerry.”

Another voice pipes up. “I have a Gerry doll. It’s a mannequin really, but it’s full-size and anatomically correct.” Kelly’s friend Paulette Comstock, who hails from Wisconsin, moves closer. She wears a T-shirt featuring several photographs of Butler. Her hair is a shock of dark cherry, framing piercing pale green eyes. The look could be bottled: menopausal intensity. “We dress him up too, ” she says with a wink. “It’s great fun. Although it can get out of hand. You ever tried cleaning up chocolate spread?”

“Hours whizz past, as does innuendo. I hear of personalised registration plates bearing Butler’s name, and of how the actor has helped ‘reawaken the passion’ in one woman’s 16-year marriage”

Hours whizz past, as does innuendo. I hear of personalised registration plates bearing Butler’s name, and of how the actor has helped “reawaken the passion” in one woman’s 16-year marriage. I am told the tale of a retired US Army nurse who has secured a publishing deal for her fan fiction; of the vote-rigging allegations surrounding Butler’s victory in a magazine poll for Most Attractive Man; and of how Tarts regularly make six-hour cross-state trips to meet their idol. Everyone expresses amazement at Butler’s low profile in his homeland.

By mid-afternoon, the vehicles are winding through Greenock. We turn right, off the town’s esplanade, and trundle up towards Finnart Street. Here, in a key scene, the Stranger, leaving for his ship, turns and waves to the young deaf protagonist, Frankie, as he stands at a window. Tartmobiles at a halt, the women file out. Within seconds, 90 of them have commandeered the tarmac, furiously snapping, bringing traffic to a standstill. Schoolchildren tramping home look on quizzically. A man in a top-floor flat opens his window, rubbing bleary eyes. He shouts down, asking what’s happening. For a moment I contemplate an explanation. But none will do. I shrug my shoulders and he shuts the window and traipses off, presumably back to bed.

Before long, clusters of ladies – some of them, shall we say, less than limber – are easing themselves off a slipway to scuttle around a sewage-strewn beach in search of souvenir pebbles. And at Margaret Street the coaches sway with excitement at the glimpse of ornate wall tiles in a tenement close featured in the film.

The day’s events might be absurd, but they are by no means trivial. For some, retracing the steps of cast and crew is an emotional and spiritual experience. Take Kathy Horsfall. A Kalispel American Indian from Denver, Colorado, and a single mother of two, she had heard about Dear Frankie but found the film was not being distributed in her state. So she took to lobbying cinemas, eventually arranging several screenings. (Andrea Gibb, who believes Butler “should be celebrated in Scotland like Ewan McGregor or Robert Carlyle”, later tells me his fans acted like a “mini distribution arm” for the film. ) Such is Horsfall’s fervour for the feature, she saw it 22 times during its Colorado run. It was “good medicine” for her, she says, during her four-year battle with cancer. “And as a single mother, it told my story, ” she says. “It was very personal and inspiring. The film showed my life, and offered hope.

“I’d never done anything like the lobbying before, but it seemed to come naturally, because everything about the film and Gerry is very spiritual to me. I strongly believe he’s helped my health. He’s battled adversity himself and gives me strength.” I think about another story I was told; about how one woman, nursing her dying mother, received a telephone call of a few treasured, private words from Butler one Christmas Day. Maybe this isn’t all one-way.

Let’s go back to the Ramada Jarvis on Saturday night, where the festivities are in full swing. Word reaches me that Butler, a reformed alcoholic, has put £1,000 of his own money behind the bar for his fans. The Tarts, never shy, are making good use of it.

In a corner, a large projection screen flickers into life. A figure in a light grey T-shirt flashes up. It wears a thick-set black beard. The gabbing falls to a hush. For a brief moment, no longer than a skipped heartbeat, there is a collective intake of breath. Then the screaming begins. Not wailing, not shrieking, not yelping. Screaming, like Janet Leigh having her wisdom teeth out. It takes a minute or so to die down. Women are standing atop chairs and tables, heels wedged into sausage rolls, staring at one another in confusion. “Gerry! It’s Gerry! Oh my God, it’s Gerry!”

And, in a way, it is. Not Gerard Butler, film star in waiting, but Gerry fae Ralston, slouched in a trailer in Montreal at two in the morning, sans sword, steed and hair extensions. It is the Big Surprise. Butler is currently filming in Canada, playing the Spartan king Leonidas in the big-budget production 300, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel. He couldn’t make it to Glasgow, but he insisted on recording a message.

Ina rumbling west-coast accent, he delivers the opening salvo of his 13-minute address to his congregation. “When I was young, and my brother was sitting on my head on the couch, I thought, ‘One day, I will have a convention.'” There are gales of laughter, and Butlerhimself chuckles too.

“Who’d have thought you guys would be over there?” he says incredulously. “It’s crazy, beautiful, and I’m really touched and honoured. I’m blown away that even one of you would come over to my home city.” He winks. “It’s not for me, it’s for you. To get away from your partners . . . just remember, what happens in Glasgow stays in Glasgow.”

Hooting and cheering erupts. The phrase is something of a fanclub motto; clearly Butler has been online recently. He goes on to offer an ad-hoc city guide, recommending the west end and Byres Road. Oh, and the university: “Go up to the law faculty and give those bastards a punch.”

The video is punctuated by moments when Butler seems conscious of the preposterousness of the situation. Nevertheless, as with his mother’s speech, the gratitude is there for all to see. “I really love the bonds and friendships you have developed between yourselves. It’s been amazing to see this grow, ” he says. “I feel we’ve become a team. You’ve given me so much, I can’t express what it means. When I heard I had even one website I thought it was a joke [but] the care, imagination and work of you all never ceases to amaze me. I learn more about myself from you than I do from myself or anyone.” A pause, and a joke. “It helps take the pressure off.”

With that, the screen fades to black. The night will contain a second surprise when Butler, in a live telephone call, says hello over the speakers. Unfortunately, distortion on the transatlantic line renders the rest of his words unintelligible, but no-one cares. He has already made their night.

“It is a curious carnival that swirls around the nucleus of Gerard Butler. Nobody party to it, not even Butler himself, can articulate just what exists between him and his fans”

It is a curious carnival that swirls around the nucleus of Gerard Butler. Nobody party to it, not even Butler himself, can articulate just what exists between him and his fans. Actions, though, help bring meaning. The convention has a philanthropic bent: a raffle of signed props and paraphernalia from Butler’s films – including a leather loincloth from 300, the crotch of which its proud new owner rubs liberally over her face – saw the Tarts raise £5,500 for the cancer charity CLIC Sargent. The cause matters to Butler: when he was 22, his father, Edward, died of cancer. As a patron of the charity, he will match his fans’ donation. To date the fans have gathered more than dollars75,000 for good causes.

“The way the relationship between Gerry and the fans has become so strong is surprising, ” says Tamara Halstead, a mother of two from Virginia. “I consider him a friend.”

Halstead, it transpires, is the original Tart. She began the website on February 10, 2001. The intervening five years have not quelled her joy – or doubts. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve crossed a line, ” she confides. “But Gerry genuinely understands what we’re doing.”

This autumn, the fans will reconvene for another convention in Colorado. Butler’s mother has vowed to attend. As for Butler himself? His next film might send him into Hollywood’s stratosphere; if it doesn’t, perhaps the breakthrough will be Burns, the longmooted biography of the poet to which he has been linked. It matters not. For the Tarts, Gerry Butler’s star will forever be within reach.

—–

‘Killer Instinct’ from The Herald Magazine. As a keen gamer, I’d heard a good deal about the nascent movement known as e-sports. I presumed, however, that it was a phenomenon isolated to the US and Asia. When I researched the growing British teams, and uncovered a few Scots who play for a living, this magazine piece all but wrote itself.

HE IS part of an elite European team of mercenaries, sponsored by a multinational corporation to travel the world in pursuit of his next bounty. He is proficient in hand-tohand combat, counter-terrorism measures and stealth manoeuvres. His friends and family know little of his work. For weeks at a time he leads a second life, isolated in foreign countries. Training in solitude from dawn till dusk, he fires round after round from an arsenal of weaponry – pistols, submachine-guns, assault rifles, pump-action shotguns. He is equally accomplished with them all. Hours spill into days as he studies maps and architectural blueprints. Flights are arranged, hotels are booked. The corporation wishes him well. Then it is time for the kill.

Paul McGarrity is an unassuming assassin. A slightly built Scottish teenager with an unruly tussle of shoulder-length hair and a multicoloured scarf draped around his shoulders, he doesn’t look much like one of a growing breed of killers feared and revered the world over. But although McGarrity and his cohorts are renowned for spilling blood, they actually harm no-one. They are cyber-athletes: computer gamers employed and rewarded for their clinical style in simulated games of death.

Since he left school three years ago, McGarrity has been the envy of his friends. While his peers grapple with mounting student debts or poorly paid positions at the bottom of the career ladder, he has turned his passion for gaming into a profession, thanks to a growing movement known as “e-sports”. His is a world of free flights, limousines and fivestar hotels. In the past 12 months, the 19-year-old has taken in the sights of San Francisco, Oslo, Hanover and Paris, winning lucrative prizes by excelling at his chosen video game, Unreal Tournament.

“Before I started playing games competitively, I’d never been outside Britain, or even on a plane, ” he reveals over lunch in an Edinburgh cafe. “It’s changed my life, and sometimes it still seems like a fantasy. One of my best friends works as a roofer and can hardly get time off, while I’m being flown with British Airways and staying in top-class hotels with free bars.” He pauses, tugging at his scarf. “It’s all a bit weird.”

“Weird” is a pretty good description of the whole e-sports phenomenon. With hundreds of competitors, the larger tournaments are often held in conference centres or hotels. Rows and rows of computer terminals fill the floorspace, with players sitting side by side and using headsets to communicate. Large plasma screens fixed to the walls give spectators a close-up view of the action, while commentators provide rapid-fire analysis over a huge PA system. It is a jumble of wires and hormones – and, increasingly, money.

To begin with, says McGarrity, his friends and family didn’t take his e-sporting ambitions seriously. “My mum and dad thought I was wasting my time, ” he explains in his softly spoken voice. “They thought it was just a fad.” But as competing – and succeeding – became a regular occurrence, his parents accepted it, even if they couldn’t quite comprehend it.

“They’re really supportive now, ” he says. “I suppose they still don’t know much about what I do, but neither do a lot of friends. I have separate lives. I still have my family and friends in Scotland, but I’m meeting up with people all around the world. I’ve made friends in places I’d never have dreamt of visiting, like Serbia and Montenegro and Kazakhstan.

McGarrity is keen to point out that it isn’t round-the-clock glamour. Long weeks are spent with friends in Norway at gaming “boot camps”, where from first thing in the morning until late at night the only light he sees is the flicker of a monitor. But it is all in the name of practice. “You have to go and play with the best if you want to win, ” he reasons.

“When you take into account the free hardware he receives from sponsors – MP3 players, top-of-the-range PCs, games and clothes – along with the travelling, it is a privileged lifestyle for someone free from the responsibilities of a mortgage or children”

McGarrity lives at home with his parents and two brothers in Ratho, near Edinburgh, and stresses gaming has not made him rich. Nevertheless, his abilities in front of a screen have afforded him a “comfortable standard of living” over the past three years. When you take into account the free hardware he receives from sponsors – MP3 players, top-of-the-range PCs, games and clothes – along with the travelling, it is a privileged lifestyle for someone free from the responsibilities of a mortgage or children. “I keep saying to myself that I ought to be going to college or university – but, you know, you ask yourself why. If I can, I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.”

It is a far cry from the formative days of gaming in the late seventies and early eighties, when Pong and Pac-Man left young audiences agape with wonder. As technology has progressed, the notion of games as a spectacle, akin to cinema or television, has followed suit. The games popular among today’s e-sports community are fully realised, boasting formidable graphics and sound effects; often too formidable for those with a weak constitution.

Watching these titles in action brings home just how impressive the whole affair has become. In the game Unreal Tournament, for instance, the programmers have rendered an overbearing, atmospheric landscape where the hunted stalk the hunter. Gamers’ characters troop purposefully through strange, foreboding worlds, before confronting one another in a brutal showdown. It is often a gratuitously violent affair, but one replete with all the tension and excitement familiar to a well-crafted thriller.

Throughout the 1990s, the profile of gaming was raised by Sony with its best-selling PlayStation 2 console, with games specifically tailored to older audiences, predominantly twenty-something bachelors with money to spare. Now, with high-end technology costing less than ever and, more importantly, broadband internet access offering affordable superfast connection speeds, the scene seems set for the full-time gamer. A select few, if they are good (and fortunate) enough, are even being courted by corporations pushing the medium as a cultural phenomenon.

As one of the UK’s foremost cyber-athletes, McGarrity travelled to Hanover in Germany last month to compete in the European Cyber Games (ECG). It is one of the most prestigious events in e-sports, with gamers from 30 nations competing for a prize pot of £150,000. Indeed, such is the stature of the tournament that it is now sponsored by Samsung, the electronics manufacturer, which paid for the travel expenses of more than 300 of the competitors – including McGarrity, who finished a respectable fourth in his event.

McGarrity is just one member of Team Dignitas, an up-and-coming gaming fraternity – or ‘clan’, as they style themselves. A registered company, Dignitas employs around 30 gamers across Europe, some as young as 17, to participate in lucrative tournaments. The players are under legally binding contracts with the clan, and, in addition to prize money, regularly receive a bounty of equipment from its sponsor and main financier, the hardware firm ABIT.

Michael O’Dell, the managing director of Dignitas, seems an unlikely e-sports boss. A 33-year-old father of two from Surrey, for the past 16 years he has worked for a company that produces postage stamps. But his passion for gaming saw him register the clan at Companies House in 2003, in the belief that e-sports would explode in popularity. “It’s just incredibly exciting to be at the beginning of something, ” says O’Dell. “There are players who get paid salaries and have product endorsement deals, and that’s before you take into account their winnings and free trips and the like. In all, there’s about $3.5m up for grabs to gamers in 2005. The prize money will keep rising as the publicity increases.”

This year the e-sports community is buzzing with talk of the Cyber-athlete Professional League (CPL) World Tour, an event that is set to be covered by the most influential youth brand of them all: MTV. The tour is the brainchild of Angel Munoz, a former stockbroker who founded the US-based organisation in 1997. Since its inception it has hosted dozens of events across the globe, attracting around 40,000 gamers who have scooped millions of dollars in prizes.

It will be this year, Munoz believes, that the mainstream media will latch on. With sponsors such as Hitachi putting in hundreds of thousands of dollars just to be affiliated with the CPL, the logistics for the tour – which will visit countries as far afield as Sweden, China and Brazil – match the ambitions of Munoz, who unashamedly boasts of having “launched the entire concept” of competitive gaming.

“I want the CPL to be worth $1bn and I don’t think that day’s far off, ” the 45-year-old confidently announces over the phone. “I started this as a hobby but it didn’t take long before I realised it’s a real strong business plan. We’re getting in touch with an audience that no-one else knows about, and it’s a technologically savvy audience with a disposable income. It’s what I call the ‘tech gen’. The big companies, the big brands, they’ve started to catch on that this is a major untapped market.”

Are the constant references to gaming as a sport and to gamers as athletes merely a marketing ploy, or does Munoz believe in it as a form of competition? “Of course it’s a sport, ” he rasps. “The athletes train for hours a day, constantly, just like any other sport. And where there’s sport, there’s money.”

Munoz is certainly doing more than most to breathe the oxygen of publicity into e-sports, but his brashness and ego have not endeared the CPL to many players. There is a widespread belief that the organisation is threatening to turn competitive gaming into just another commodity.

“While the e-sports community is appreciative of increasing prize funds, it will not stand for homogenisation”

Kiyash Monsef, a Californian documentary maker who has explored the e-sports scene over the past three years, warns that the gaming community is a close-knit one. While it is appreciative of increasing prize funds, it will not stand for homogenisation. “Those clans who have the financial weight of sponsorship will have an unfair advantage over groups of friends playing for the fun of it, ” he explains. “There’s been a sense of community surrounding competitive games in the past, and if e-sports organisers are not careful, they may damage that community in the process of building their industry.”

Munoz, however, sees corporate interest as a good thing for everyone. While the number of professional gamers is small in comparison to casual players, he says they are the group whose specific needs drive the industry: they constantly demand faster processors, more powerful graphic cards and improved sound effects, which then become standard on the computers other gamers buy.

Perhaps inevitably, Asia provides a glimpse of the future for e-sports. One of the CPL’s major rivals is the World E-sports Games (WEG), which held its main annual tournament last month in South Korea, a country recognised as the worldwide focal point of gaming. In Seoul, gamers are treated with superstar status, and tournaments are even screened on state television. Events resemble red-carpet premieres: a flurry of flashbulbs, screaming teenagers and, above all, an earnest belief that this is not just bubblegum but a historical event.

This microcosm of celebrity has encouraged sponsors such Coca-Cola, Nike and Subway to affiliate themselves with the WEG. Indeed, the WEG’s mission statement is akin to a United Colours of Benetton advert – or at least a poor imitation of one – with its aims of “surpassing ethnic national differences, social strata and borders . . . the world’s best players will use keyboard and mouse to showcase their talents, and the WEG will offer a lifebuilding playing field.” It is a bold, if slightly humourless, ambition. Nevertheless, the pomposity of the WEG brings with it big prize money, and gamers are inevitably drawn to its bright lights.

One such player is Keir McCann, a 22-year-old who is originally from Glasgow. As a member of the Four Kings clan, the most established and successful gaming outfit in Britain, McCann attended the recent WEG tournament. He reached the final round of the Counter-Strike event, a first-person hunt-andkill game created by hackers from an existing commercial game, Half-Life.

McCann, fresh-faced for his years, with a tuft of blond highlights in his hair, seems to share McGarrity’s incredulity as to how his career fell into place. “It’s difficult to explain to people that I’m a professional game player. I tend not to bother, ” he says, speaking between practice sessions in Asia. “A lot of my friends don’t understand, and I’m not entirely sure how it came about myself. I finished university earlier than a lot of my friends, so I found myself with a lot of free time. I’d been casually playing Counter-Strike for a few years but I found myself becoming increasingly addicted to it, and becoming better too.”

McCann, whose parents left the Gorbals when he was a toddler, now lives in Bolton, Lancashire. He began competing at local events, where gamers congregate in the same room to play on linked-up machines, then began to travel further afield to play at other conventions too. As he gained experience, the notion of turning passion into profession became a tangible one. “I realised I might actually be able to make money from it, ” he says.

Tales of McCann’s gaming prowess brought him to the attention of the Four Kings clan, who approached him and asked him to join. Since then he has travelled to high-profile competitions in Las Vegas and Texas. The £9,000 debt accumulated from his short stint in further education has been cleared – but breaking even is only the beginning. The WEG event has captured his imagination. “It’s the most innovative of all the events so far, ” he says enthusiastically. “The games are broadcast on television in most of Asia, and that community is the most advanced when it comes to accepting computer games as a competitive event.”

McCann’s team, which includes two Englishmen and two Swedes, ended as the eventual runner-up at the WEG, pocketing $20,000 (almost £10,500). “We did far better that we could ever have expected, ” he says. “It was good to get recognised in such a highprofile arena. We’re officially the UK’s numberone team now.”

The money involved in clans such as Team Dignitas and Four Kings, if not astronomical, would certainly confound many people’s expectations. The latter, also a registered company, was started in 1997 by Toby Aldridge, then a poorly teenager in Swansea. Cooped up in his bedroom for long spells with a liver problem, he immersed himself in gaming, and ended up setting in motion a remarkable cash-generating operation he could never have foreseen.

Aldridge, now 22, says that over the past three years Four Kings Ltd has collectively reaped around £210,000 in prize money. The company now retains the services of a dozen full-time gamers and eight administrative staff. “The scene has been doubling in size every year, ” he says. “Who knows what will happen by 2006?”

Such is the success and status of Four Kings that Intel, one of the world’s foremost computer-chip manufacturers, now sponsors the clan, providing players with high-end Pentium processors and motherboards. Like ABIT with Dignitas, it also subsidises their travel and accommodation when they take part in international events.

Intel has even appointed its first UK games strategist, Nick Knupffer, to channel the rising marketing potential of e-sports and promote its hardware. He believes it is a matter of when, not if, the investment is recouped, and the firm is pressing for gaming to be recognised as an official sport in Britain. “Gaming is a far bigger industry than Hollywood in terms of revenue, ” he points out. “Since we got involved with Four Kings, professional gaming has gone from strength to strength. It’s a registered sport in Russia and China, and we hope the UK will be next to follow. We sponsor the foremost team in the UK and are making major inroads all the time in the international scene. The next step is to get e-sports on television, and it could take a while, but we’re confident that’ll happen. This is just the beginning.”

“It is exciting talk, but such vaulting ambition again conjures up that warning of mistaking a community for an industry. For the vast majority of players, gaming remains a pastime, a means of letting off steam”

It is exciting talk, but such vaulting ambition again conjures up that warning of mistaking a community for an industry. For the vast majority of players, gaming remains a pastime, a means of letting off steam. It is questionable whether every youth to pick up a joypad has the conviction – or the arrogance – to believe they can forge a career from it.

At the Pallas Athene internet cafe in Edinburgh, for instance, the emphasis is firmly on having fun. The cafe, which opened its doors in February 2003, offers terminals for city-dwellers to pop in and check their e-mail, but it is geared towards gamers. A side room offers around a dozen computer terminals all hooked up for network play, each installed with familiar titles such as CounterStrike and Unreal Tournament.

Dave Williams, the amiable manager of the cafe, says the move has gone down well. “The original idea was to open a gaming centre and an internet cafe in one place, but the gaming side of things has really taken over, ” he explains. “People and clans from all over Scotland come here.”

On the Saturday afternoon I visit, a group of Edinburgh gamers are immersed in CounterStrike. Baseball caps are pulled down low over pallid complexions. Not an eye flinches from a monitor, nor does a hand stray from a keyboard. The room is almost noiseless, with only the communal whirring of hard drives and the clicking of mice punctuating the silence. It all seems terribly earnest – until you look beyond the screens. The room is hazy with cigarette smoke. Ashtrays boasting crowns of butts are scattered around the tables, next to half-eaten bags of tortilla chips.

By one terminal sits a bottle of absinthe. They may love playing, but it would appear that not all gamers are the dedicated athletes Angel Munoz would have everyone believe. “It’s all just a laugh, you know?” says one gamer. “You get to meet up and have a few games, then maybe a beer. I mean, people are out watching football games every Saturday. This is no different. It’s an interest, a hobby.”

He nods at the mention of the CPL, the WEG, the Korean celebrity gaming culture, the sponsors, the whole dazzling fantasy world of e-sports. “Yeah, I know all about it, but I’m not interested. To me this is just a bit of fun. It’s not called a game for nothing.”

—–

‘On Lismore Gaelic was once a guilty secret. But these proud islanders are finding their voices once more’ from The Herald Magazine. I’ve always loved island life. The specks of land which pepper the coasts of Scotland are also an invaluable source of stories. Often, they don’t have a hard news edge, but they involve issues which are nonetheless vital and pressing. The resurgence of Lismore is one such story.

THERE are places in the world where the people can hear the music of themselves. Exalted by an innate sense of self and geography, words and melodies forged centuries before flow down to them with the ease and clarity of a freshwater brook. It is a current so vital and all-consuming, it appears almost to control them. Without forethought, they breathe new life into lost harmonies. Simply by speaking, they breach the silence.

There has, though, been too many an occasion when darkness has shrouded articulacy. Margaret MacDonald remembers growing up on the Isle of Lismore in the 1930s, part of a generation that saw the language of its forebears deadened by the authorities. School lessons, she recalls, were conducted strictly in English. Teachers and parents, many familiar with the old Argyll idiom themselves, warned their offspring against emulating their fluency, lest their prospects be shattered. “Our language and where it came from was frowned upon, ” MacDonald says wistfully. “It was treated like a guilty secret we had to hide away.” The decree was unequivocal: to speak or write Gaelic was an act of shame.

“The old stigmas gave way to guilt on the part of the mainland monoglots, and so began a halting redress”

MacDonald, however, could not betray the voice within. She was on the verge of adulthood when her mother died and she was forced to look after her father and brother, while finding work in the isle’s solitary shop. In free moments, which were rare, she took to privately poring over long-neglected tomes penned by the Liosachs. Learning the intricacy of Gaelic’s written form and the beauty of its tenor, the words soon passed through her lips. Mournful and worldly, the sound they formed fluttered like an owl’s wings. As the years passed her mastery of the language grew, and change slowly lapped against Lismore’s shores. The old stigmas gave way to guilt on the part of the mainland monoglots, and so began a halting redress. These days, approaching her ninth decade, MacDonald is helping with the isle’s resuscitation of Gaelic. A petite yet hardy woman, a peppy spirit glows behind her cobalt-blue eyes. Almost daily, she makes the short canter down a single-track road from her home to Lismore Primary, where she passes on the experience of her 78 years to the school’s 14 students. It is natural now for MacDonald to speak her adopted language, and she arranges regular Gaelic weekends and ceilidhs. They are simple acts, celebrating simple liberties.

The journey travelled by MacDonald and her language reflects the experiences of Lismore itself down the years. It is a unique, proud heritage that has persisted in spite of many small deaths. Now its survival is to be recognised like never before. Next Saturday sees the official opening of a dedicated Gaelic heritage museum. Ionad Naomh Moluag (St Moluag’s Centre), situated at the heart of the isle, is the culmination of 13 years’ work by the islanders. Home to around 125 artefacts unearthed down the years, archaeological discoveries of international importance will be displayed alongside seminal Gaelic texts of prose, poetry and song.

Items donated by present-day residents will also be included. A rummage through basements and cupboards, attics and bedside drawers has yielded an assembly of photograph albums, yellowed newspaper cuttings and faded watercolours that will keep alive the stories of families past and present. Moreover, thanks to lots charting the charming detritus of the everyday – griddles, horseshoes, teapots, brooches and clay pipes – the museum’s true meaning becomes evident. Ionad Naomh Moluag is not to be a study in antiquarianism, rather a building celebrating an entire people’s evolving social history.

Lios Mor – “great garden” – is a slender finger of land in Loch Linnhe, one that has enjoyed a profile as modest as the transport links serving its 176 residents. The people know the museum project is grand, but exude the confidence to suggest they are more than capable of matching such ambition with care and graft. The history of the isle is reason enough for this swelling collective pride. Peppered with Bronze Age burial cairns and evidence of Pictish settlements, it is of significant archaeological importance. Economically, Lismore’s glory days came in the 19th century, when, according to the 1831 census, the population reached 1790, as its limestone and linen industries made it a vital centre of commerce. Parish records show the isle was home to cobblers, millers, masons, boat builders and lime workers, alongside the traditional crofters and farmers. Though just a mile wide, Lismore was once abuzz.

“Inside, an oak table sags under pots of sweet tea, fairy cakes and cheese sandwiches (on white, sliced into quarters, just like grandma used to make)”

On a stark Tuesday in February more than 175 years later, the isle takes on a rather more sedate appearance. On board the MV Eigg’s 50-minute bob across Loch Linnhe from Oban, there is time and space to take in the peaks of Appin and Mull. Besides myself and the photographer, the only passengers on board are two Lanarkshire haulage workers, their lorry loaded down with freshly cut rolls of turf that will later be rolled out across the roof of the eco-friendly heritage museum, designed by Shauna Cameron. Nearby, four crates contain a bundle of mail, newspapers and – there was time to count – 63 loaves of bread, one of two weekly deliveries to the island. We soon reach land and make our way into a cramped, disused schoolhouse overlooking the pier. Inside, an oak table sags under pots of sweet tea, fairy cakes and cheese sandwiches (on white, sliced into quarters, just like grandma used to make). The building is home to the volunteers of Comann Eachdraidh Lios Mor, the isle’s historical society which has spearheaded the museum project. Its narrow warrens are stacked high with storage boxes, ring binders and rolls of bubble wrap ready for the move northwards to the new premises.

As the tea is poured, Archie MacColl pops into the schoolhouse. MacColl is the owner of Ballimackillichan, one of around a dozen functioning farms on Lismore. It is an industry that has been in his family for generations and, judging by MacColl, such physical endeavour has duly influenced the family gene pool. Young for his 66 years, his face appears to have been sculpted by the wind. As he takes hold of a cup, I notice thick, deep lines marking his palms, like plough lines filled with soil. He could play marbles with planets. MacColl is one of eight founders of Comann Eachdraidh Lios Mor. Born and brought up on the isle, he left school at 15 and immediately set to toiling the soil of Ballimackillichan, then 160 acres of land under his father’s ownership. He has worked the same land all his life, and overseen a modest expansion of the farm. Mostly, he has produced potatoes and turnips, a haul he puts down to Lismore’s fertility, hence its Gaelic name. To this day, MacColl braves all elements, despite being of pensionable age. Retirement, he insists, is not a concept familiar to the Liosach. “There have been hard times but, looking back on my life, I’d say I’ve had a good deal, ” he says.

His three sons, David, George and Graeme, all helped out on Ballimackillichan once, but on reaching adulthood each left the isle to pursue his own future. It is a painful yet natural process to which most of Lismore’s older residents have grown accustomed. “We’re realistic enough to know we can’t keep young people on somewhere like Lismore, but we hope to encourage them back, ” MacColl explains. The museum, he believes, offers a way of bolstering the isle’s economy and providing the incentive of employment for younger residents. “Lismore’s had no investment all my lifetime, it’s been neglected, ” he says. “This is the first big thing to happen in generations. It shows a real care and commitment among everyone here, not just a loose sense of community. This is our home.”

The creation of Ionad Naomh Moluag, it seems, is a vindication. From the loss of its industries, through to the Clearances of the 1840s and 1850s which saw around 400 people removed from Lismore, with the loss of five indigenous surnames, the isle has not had it easy. The key to its continuance is people like MacColl, suggests Catherine Gillies, who, along with Jennifer Baker, is one of the museum’s two development officers. Without the islanders speaking, recording and sculpting their histories, she stresses, the museum – itself built on land donated by Duncan MacGregor, a farmer who wanted to “give something back” – could not exist. “You don’t need extensive papers and parish records when you’ve got the people’s oral accounts, ” she says. “There’s an innate scholarship to the people, which makes it very easy – but very scary – drawing together their material.”

Much of the museum’s material has come from group and one-to-one meetings with the Liosachs – around 40 of whom speak Gaelic – during which experiences have been related and artefacts passed on. There is, Gillies admits, a lot of information that has been lost down the years, “but everything will be preserved from now on”. In time, it is hoped a people map will be created in the museum, with recordings of the islanders’ voices charting the progress of their families. Genealogical research is of great interest to many descendants of the Liosachs, who are now living as far afield as Nova Scotia and Australia. Indeed, there is a story of one American woman who visited the isle keen to find out more about her great-greatgrandfather, knowing only that he had “strong ties” to the area. Her ancestor, it turned out, was the man who sanctioned the Clearances of the 19th century.

Heritage is a shifting entity on Lismore, constantly evolving. One of the many hundreds of photographs collated by the present-day residents shows Margaret MacDonald in 1970, marking the moment her home became the first on the isle to be connected to the national grid. An attractive, dignified figure slipping comfortably into middle age, she is turned out in her Sunday best, surrounded in a semi-circle by a coterie of locals. Nearly a century after Joseph Swan devised the light bulb, the black-and-white image shows the Liosachs gazing with delight at his invention. For days afterwards, MacDonald remembers, children came to her house and played with the light switch for hours at a time. The official opening of Ionad Naomh Moluag, which more than 200 people are expected to attend, will bring more change – it will contain a cafe, a staple of community life, but one denied the people of Lismore due to the small scale of their existence. For such simple reasons, it is inconceivable for most mainlanders to imagine the importance the museum will have.

When considered against its population, one suspects the majority of economists would froth at the mouth if asked to provide a rationale for Lismore’s museum. Set against its 176 residents, the £600,000 in charitable funding that has gone into its construction – donated by the Scottish Executive, Scottish Natural Heritage, Argyll and Bute Council, and others – puts a value on the cultural and historical wellbeing of each Liosach at more than £3,400. Such crude analysis, however, falls away upon witnessing first hand the energy and optimism the museum has fostered. In the grand scale of things, the Ionad Naomh Moluag is a humble resource. It is not awash with priceless artefacts, and in reality will drive forward a modest upturn in Lismore’s tourism numbers and its economy, its collection of interest to a select audience. Its real significance, however, lies in something fundamental.

“Within its freshly emulsioned walls lie traditions and stories long perched on the edge of oblivion. Now they are preserved, bestowed upon a people eager to right the cultural transgressions of their forebears”

The museum and the act of its creation represents a speech for those who will listen. Within its freshly emulsioned walls lie traditions and stories long perched on the edge of oblivion. Now they are preserved, bestowed upon a people eager to right the cultural transgressions of their forebears. “It’s so pleasing to see our island finally taking pride in its language and culture, ” says Donald Black, the 78-year-old chair of Comann Eachdraidh Lios Mor. “Gaelic has been attacked, and people tried to kill it off. That led to a sad situation where the communities that spoke out grew indifferent and embarrassed about it.” A crofter, Black has recently compiled an anthology of Lismore stories and tales. The museum, he smiles, is the icing on the cake. “My generation thought we’d die with the Gaelic traditions, but with this building they’ll live on, ” he says.

As we take our leave from Lismore, the Eigg easing from the simple slipway under the fading afternoon light, the waters of Loch Linnhe are at once clear and flowing, solid and wavering. Iain Crichton Smith, the author and poet, once coined a Gaelic saying: “Am fear a chailleas a chanain caillidh e a shaoghal, ” which translates as: “He who loses his language loses his world.” Once again, the voices of the isle will vibrate. The silence of the Liosachs has been breached.

—–

‘Take one chicken, a tub of Vaseline, and some lipstick’ from The Herald Magazine. The prospect of attending, let alone writing 3,300 words about a poultry show is not something that has ever held much appeal. But photographer Kieron Dodds assured me the inimitable world of chickens would make for a colourful article. He wasn’t wrong.

THE following article carries with it an important warning: the next time you visit your local butcher, you may be overcome with powerful feelings of guilt. In supermarkets, the sight of a basting tray may be liable to reduce you to a whimpering mush. It is entirely possible, even, that a fully stocked shelf of Paxo will be enough to trigger a bout of emotional carnage decades of therapy will do little to curb. While no animals were harmed during the writing of this article, The Herald Magazine accepts that several birds were liberally daubed in Vaseline. Though these actions were carried out without the consent of the poultry in question, they were necessary to preserve artistic merit. And anyway, the birds seemed to enjoy it.

Poultry. They’ve always seemed something of a dud in the bird kingdom. They lack any discernible personalities or idiosyncrasies and, let’s face it, it’s difficult to find appeal in a pullet without half a dozen cloves of garlic hanging out its rear end. Try telling that to Robin McEwan, though. To him, all poultry is sacred. It’s clear by the way he handles each of his ducks, like a child holding a snowflake. “Look at that, ” he says. “A beautiful little thing. A good head. Very well presented.” In his palm, he gently cups a white female call duck. Around him, hundreds of birds line the walls of a marquee, a riot of feathers and squawking. With his free hand, McEwan reaches into a grotty brown Albert Arkwright overcoat and fishes out a pen. He is scribbling notes in an obscure personalised shorthand when a man with snow-white hair and a ruddy complexion appears at his shoulder. He wears a knee-length white coat.

“Mmm, what a lovely duck, ” he says. “Fantastic pout on her.” “Aye, ” McEwan replies, pointing at the bird’s head. “And a good eye too. A good eye . . . the eye’s where you want it to be.” “Mmm, the eye’s in the right place. It’s a good eye, right enough, that. Right in the middle of the head. Bang in the middle . . . the eye’s good.” “Aye, ” McEwan nods. “A right good eye.” Welcome to the poultry section of the Peeblesshire Agricultural Society Regional Championship Show. Here, on a sunkissed Saturday in August, beneath a small tent perched in Hay Lodge Park, there are precisely 219 birds, 29 plates of eggs, 35 exhibitors, three judges and a wealth of anticipation.

By 10am the site is bristling with a gentle, busy energy. Wooden boxes and cat carriers have been carefully stored away and hundreds of pullets – or young hens – line the walls in cages two-high. They are arranged by breed: australorps, hamburghs, Indian runner ducks, rosecombs, silkies, anconas, orpingtons, wyandottes, sebrights, Rhode Island reds, leghorns, call ducks, welsummers, black pekins. Some birds parade eagerly back and forth in their cages, others nestle in a corner oblivious to the hoo-ha. At the centre of the tent stand three collapsible tables, on top of which sit dozens of paper plates bearing eggs borne by a variety of breeds. It is a spectrum of shapes, sizes and colours: long, oblong, oval, small, large, brown, white, pink, blue, whitish-pink, whitish-blue.

“Younger viewers are well catered for too, thanks to offerings like Tractor Ted Grows Potatoes, Tractor Ted Makes Bread and the controversial sequel Tractor Ted Goes Milking, which sees the eponymous hero eschew the realm of carbohydrates for an ill-advised jaunt through the world of dairy”

Beside the eggs is scattered a selection of poultry-related literature for visitors to pore over. Magazines include Fancy Fowl (Poultry for Showing and Pleasure), Featherworld and Practical Poultry. A catalogue promotes specialist agricultural DVDs such as Tractor Story Vol 1: True Classics – Tractors of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Vintage Ploughing and Let’s Look at JCB Diggers. Younger viewers are well catered for too, thanks to offerings like Tractor Ted Grows Potatoes, Tractor Ted Makes Bread and the controversial sequel Tractor Ted Goes Milking, which sees the eponymous hero eschew the realm of carbohydrates for an ill-advised jaunt through the world of dairy.

Gradually, the poultry exhibitors pop into the tent to check up on their birds and I engage them in conversation. James Hope, a 76-year-old retired diesel engine manufacturer, has bred for more than six decades. Birds, he says, have been in his family for generations. At his home in nearby Broughton he keeps around 70 white-crested black Polish bantams in two garden sheds. Petite, delicate birds, they have sleek black bodies with white-crested heads known as ‘top hats’.

“You can’t let these run about outside like the others, ” Hope explains in the curt, confident tone of a man with experience. A multiple prizewinner himself, his birds are always in demand, with breeders paying up to £65 for a chick. “Soon as they get wet, the head blackens and that’s it, ” he continues. “Ruined. Best keep them inside, and keep the water dishes high up off the ground. Can’t let the head get wet.”

Stan Simister, meanwhile, opts for sebright bantams, small, round birds with intricate black-and-white speckled feathers. “I had my first bird when I was three, ” he says. “I’m 72 now and I’ve kept them all my days. I’ve been showing for over 40 years, and I love it. They’re lovely little birds, the sebright. Very neat and tidy, but not the easiest to breed.” Simister looks around at the birds with a delicate smile and touches my arm. “You know, it’s wonderful this. It’s special this year. For a while there, so many people were put off and stopped breeding, but there’s people here. It’s still going, ” he says.

In the scale of things – at least compared to the major national shows – the Peebles poultry exhibition is small fry. Today, though, as Simister points out, holds extra significance. It is the first time poultry has been exhibited since bird flu came to Scotland. The centuries-old competitive tradition came under grave threat on April 5, when a woman in the Fife village of Cellardyke discovered a dead whooper swan washed up on a cobbled slipway in its 16th-century harbour. The bird carried the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza, the first such case in Britain.

In the days and weeks after the discovery of the Cellardyke swan, there were fears it would presage a human flu pandemic that would put the lives of millions at risk. Panic gripped the Scottish poultry industry, with some anticipating a return of the mass funeral pyres that scarred swathes of farmland during the foot and mouth crisis. With around 16 million birds being reared north of the border at more than 5000 poultry farms, the industry – worth £110m annually – contemplated a possible worst-case scenario.

Beyond the producers, the exhibitors were also under pressure. Organisers of the country’s largest annual poultry showcase, the Royal Highland Show, which exhibits hundreds of rare farm birds including the near-extinct Scottish dumpies, banned all poultry and live birds from the June event. It was, organisers said, a cautionary move. “If the H5N1 situation escalated, we didn’t believe we could take it upon ourselves to put at risk the poultry farmers and egg producers a short distance away from the show at Ingliston, ” explains Kate Stephen, the show’s livestock and competitions manager.

Those involved in poultry exhibitions reported a downturn in membership, with many halting their breeding programmes. One exhibitor at the Peebles event speaks of his anger towards the government agencies involved in the containment of the disease. His fury is still palpable. “Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] made a complete bloody arse of it, ” he says. “It was a complete over-reaction. I know people who’ve given up breeding that were doing it for years. It was all a bloody scare story and it’s a good job not everyone swallowed it.”

By the beginning of May, with no further positive tests for H5N1, a vast quarantine zone covering a 1000-mile tract of eastern Scotland had been lifted by the Scottish Executive. Those at Peebles are visibly relieved to be here. Sam Orr, a jovial, bearded stalwart of the local poultry scene, describes his pleasure at the turnout after the trauma of recent months. He shows me the licence from the State Veterinary Service, and the foot and hand washes that have been set up. The shows, he says, cannot die. “It’s great to see people from all over Scotland and England still coming here to exhibit, ” he says. “Avian flu knocked us back a bit. Some people got frightened and got rid of their birds, but there’s no reason to do that. We’re all trying to get on our feet now.”

It was in the early 19th century that the curio of the poultry exhibition first emerged in Britain. Predominantly a pursuit of the working class, such events took place in pubs in the north of England, where participants vied for meagre, albeit practical, prizes such as copper kettles or joints of meat. It was, however, the advent of legislation banning cock-fighting in 1849 that saw interest soar. While some gamefowl breeders continued to hold fights in secret, the vast majority of their peers saw exhibitions as a legally binding incentive to continue cultivating their birds. By the 1920s, a main British show had established itself at Crystal Palace, London, attracting around 5000 poultry entries every year. Such numbers continue to be reached at today’s large national shows, particularly impressive given the choice of breeds has diversified considerably – from around 15 in 1850 to approximately six times that number today.

The British movement is overseen by the Poultry Club of Great Britain. Founded in 1877, the organisation considers itself guardian of all British poultry standards, safeguarding stock bloodlines that have been maintained for generations. The club has more than 120 affiliated organisations in Scotland, with around 1500 members UK-wide, of whom 250 or so partake in poultry exhibition. Simply put, these folk take their chooks extremely seriously.

One such aficionado is the Reverend Edward Lobb. A 54-year-old expository Bible preacher, he has been breeding poultry since the age of six. At the unconscious side of 7am on the morning of the Peebles show, I arrive at his farmhouse on the outskirts of the east Ayrshire hamlet of Lugton to witness his preparations. After a hurried slice of toast and marmalade, he hops into a pair of wellington boots and bounds out into an adjoining field.

Stepping over an electric fence erected to ward off bloodthirsty foxes, he paces towards a small coop. The thick tufts of grass are peppered with chicken droppings and the remains of field mice. He approaches the mesh, behind which bustles a gaggle of birds. At its centre lies a motionless pile of purewhite feathers. “Oh, that’s a shame, ” says Lobb, sighing as he picks up the bird’s corpse. “I thought he was a bit sick yesterday and might not make it through the night. So it seems. These times are very emotional.” Lobb’s voice drifts off for a moment, leaving only the occasional cluck to punctuate the early-morning silence. “And to think, I’d planned having him for Christmas dinner …”

Undeterred, the reverend returns to the coop. Opening the hatch, he carefully places a foot inside and shuffles towards the group. The birds emit a panicky squawk and huddle in a corner. In a flash, Lobb snatches a pair of feet from the feathered throng. They belong to Bernard, an unwieldy 10lb faverolle cock who is less than pleased at having his arse pointing skywards. Tucking the frantic pullet ungracefully beneath an armpit, Lobb makes his way over to a small stone outhouse. There, his seven-year-old daughter, Emily, has prepared the equipment for the chicken bath – a kitchen chair, a bucket containing warm water and washing-up liquid, and a scourer. Sitting down, Lobb begins scrubbing Bernard’s feet. Clean shanks, he says, are vital if a bird is to impress. It is time for the special ingredient.

“In the Edwardian era, exhibitors went to the extreme of wearing ornate ladies’ hats while handling poultry so the birds would remain calm before the public, and such methods have filtered down the years. Some people who show white birds, for example, bathe them in fabric whitener, while the odd clandestine individual will resort to using shoe polish or lipstick to enhance a bird’s colour”

Many fanciers are known to make use of bizarre implements and approaches. In the Edwardian era, exhibitors went to the extreme of wearing ornate ladies’ hats while handling poultry so the birds would remain calm before the public, and such methods have filtered down the years. Some people who show white birds, for example, bathe them in fabric whitener, while the odd clandestine individual will resort to using shoe polish or lipstick to enhance a bird’s colour. In some cases, eggs have even been stolen from shows in the hope that after incubation they will hatch a prizewinner.

Lobb’s idiosyncrasies, though, are perfectly legal. Twirling Bernard 180 degrees, he takes out a tub of Vaseline and eases the lubricant up and down the bird’s bright-red comb. “It keeps the colour and leaves it bright and shining, ” he explains. All the while, the cock wears the expression of a hyperactive toddler having its shoelaces tied. Bernard is just one of the preacher’s 100-strong flock, housed in 11 coops. Mostly, his birds are of the welsummer breed, a variety originating in the Netherlands and best resembling the Kellogg’s cockerel. He also favours araucana, faverolle and crele. Lobb normally attends around four to five shows a year and his birds have won several major prizes at the nation’s most esteemed exhibitions. Every day he records the number of eggs laid, taking note of which birds are good producers. This helps him decide which to breed with one another to produce yet another generation of prizewinners.

“Breeders are very clever, astute people, ” he says. “They are creating new hybrid lines all the time, developing lines for strong birds. They’ll maybe a breed a hen with its son, or a daughter with a cock, to make the strain stronger and create a really good bird. But if you inbreed too far, matching brothers and sisters for instance, it affects fertility and that’s the end. In some ways it’s very like a science, but I do think of it more as a hobby. You study a bird, see the eggs it lays, then use your best judgment to see how you can keep the line going. But I’m still learning.”

As with many fanciers, Lobb’s obsession is hereditary. One afternoon in 1924, his father attended a market stall in London and came across some eggs with a deep, dark-brown hue, unlike the pallid variety common at the time. Having purchased them, he took them home and tried to incubate rather than eat them. This decision was to bring about the successful birth of welsummers, making him one of the first fanciers in Britain to keep the breed. From then on, he looked after around 300 birds at any one time.

Lobb moved to Scotland from Burton-onT-rent, Staffordshire, with his family – wife Catherine, 46, and daughters Emily and Harriet, 10 – a year ago. His day job sees him working at St George’s Tron in the heart of Glasgow, and he is about to begin a new post training would-be gospel preachers. Given the demands of his work and hobby, the words of Jesus from Matthew 23 have particular resonance for Lobb: “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not.”

Bynoon at the poultry tent in Peebles, greater numbers of exhibitors are gathering in advance of the judges’ rulings. Not all are of a pensionable age, either. Harry Fletcher, 14, lives on a nearby farm. A fully paid-up member of the local agricultural society, he has been breeding since he was eight. The task combines caring for his birds with school – tricky, given the size of his brood of 65 to 70 birds. Yet nothing can dampen his enthusiasm. His black australorp sits perched peacefully on his arm like a parrot as he watches Robin McEwan and his colleagues carry out their final rounds.

A 62-year-old from Dunbar in East Lothian, McEwan, like many here, has a lifelong love of poultry – he kept araucana chickens when he was Harry’s age. He has been judging shows since 1976, a role granted by his peers in respect of his time spent in the fancy. “It’s an honour to be a judge, ” he says. “When you’re keeping birds you get to become part of the community. Over time, [the people who show] grow to value your opinion, and ask you to judge.”

It is a demanding job. Some of McEwan’s colleagues in the Poultry Club admit to having received criticism verging on abuse from exhibitors, and numerous long-standing friendships have broken down after the lacing of a rosette. Along with a thick skin, a judge requires knowledge, integrity, honesty, ability, empathy, confidence and a sprinkling of humility. Decisions are made subject to a bird’s compliance with the British Poultry Standards, a set of rules drawn up by breed clubs and administered by the Poultry Club. Heads, beaks, eyes, feathers, colours and balance are all key.

For the past hour, McEwan and his colleagues, Jimmy Finlayson, Eckkie Robertson and Jock Dalgleish, have taken every bird out of its cage and examined it in their hands, besides using an extendible lecturer’s pointer to see how it stands in its cage. Having inspected all 219 entries, they form a huddle of overcoats. It is here the impenetrable mystique of what makes a prizewinning bird is discussed. The show has not been easy for the trio. Summer is the birds’ natural moulting time and many of the entries, although good pedigrees, are missing tail and neck feathers.

“A good head, a good eye, and a good beak, ” one chimes. “Yes, a good eye, ” I hear McEwan say. “Well balanced, ” adds another judge. “Beautiful presentation.” “Mmm, the other’s not got the size on here. She hasn’t got the size, has she?” “No, not the size. Mmm. And the eye’s not as good, ” McEwan says. There follows yet further murmuring. “Good eye.”

“Yes, a very good eye.” At 12.08pm, the overall champion is announced. Class 21, pen six. Yes, the eyes have it. It is the white call duck, its cage now decorated proudly with a bright blue-and-red rosette. The bird belongs to Peter Gray, a 65-year-old from the Borders village of Newcastleton. He has bred ducks for 30 years, and shows all over Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Germany. “I’m delighted, ” he says, beaming. “I knew she was good, an ideal little duck. She’s nice and compact.” And a good eye, I say. “Oh yes, a very good eye. Right in the middle.”

For Gray, a lot of hard work has paid off. Only recently, he says, he was forced to take drastic action to prevent foxes getting at his brood. In his small back garden he has built a 26ft-long concrete pond covered by thick gauge wire netting. “I call it Callducktz, ” he says with a smile. Like Lobb, Hope and Simister, Gray eschews any pretension that breeding birds demands an amateur grasp of genetics. They prefer to see it as a social hobby. Such is their cumulative wealth of experience, though, that fancying seems neither science nor pastime, but rather a queer kind of folk art. It is not a straightforward branch of agriculture, but a labour of love, albeit one prone to subterfuge, inbreeding, lipstick and Vaseline. Once you have witnessed the fancy, every chicken dish seems that bit more difficult to digest.

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