Tag Archives: Billy Connolly

It’s a Rat Trap – and I was Caught

Alan Fairley: Edinburgh, June 2021


‘Glasgow swings like a pendulum do

Bobbies on bicycles, two  by two

Bobbies on bicycles with ripped up hats

And the rosy red cheeks of the Westerton Rats’

Gang warfare was rife in Glasgow and its environs around the start of the 1970s, and due to its location, the village of Westerton, to the north west of the city, found itself, perhaps unwittingly, caught up in the whole Ya bass culture which was apparent at that time.

Westerton, a small working class enclave which clung on the skilfully embroidered coat-tails of leafy Bearsden to its north, was surrounded on its three other sides by some of the roughest areas of Glasgow and, by consequence some of the toughest gangs in the city.

If one assumed a vantage point looking down from the top of Maxwell Avenue, a glance to the right would capture the sprawling post war housing scheme of Drumchapel, an area famously described by comedian Billy Connolly as ‘a desert wi windaes’ and arguably one of the few places on the planet which, if photographed, would look the same in colour as it would in monochrome.

Drumchapel was home to the feared Drum Buck gang along with some of its wannabe offshoots like the Peel Glen Boys and, years before the Lion King hit the cinema screens, Westerton’s parents would often adopt the phrase later used by Musafa to Simba –‘son, you must never go there’.

Further along from the Drum, and just across the physical barrier of the Forth and Clyde canal, was the less terrifying area of Knightswood, whose principal group of warriors, the K-Wood would often be seen marauding through the canal tunnel towards Westerton with malice aforethought, their ranks often bolstered by stragglers from the infinitely more menacing Partick Cross gang.

Looking straight ahead from the top of the hill, one could just about pick out Temple, a small scheme right on the city frontier. I’ve no idea what gangs prowled these mean streets, I just know I got jumped by a group of neds after walking a girl home there after a date. Fortunately I was a lot lighter in these days and managed to break free and outrun them until I reached the welcoming sanctuary of the Fulton Street police station.

And finally, the main event, look left and if you look hard enough you’ll see Maryhill – home to the Fleet, without doubt the toughest, meanest and probably biggest gang in the north side of Glasgow.

All of these gangs and their associates, had one thing in common – they liked to cross their borders and terrorise the people of Westerton.

Solution – form our own gang, hence the birth of the WessyRats.

The invaders from the aforementioned areas may have regarded Westerton as something of a soft target but we had our share of guys who were not to be messed with and they formed the nucleus of the fledgling rats.

Step forward Campbell ‘Fagin’ Chaal, Iain ‘Big Stone’ Johnstone (aka the Drum Basher), George ‘Krug’ Craig and his younger brother titch, Christopher ‘Topper’ James, Billy ‘Hatchet’ Hogg and Gordon Kelly.

Gordon didn’t need a moniker. The very mention of his name was enough to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who dared cross his path, as one knife wielding Drum boy found out to his cost when he launched a daring raid on the Bearsden Academy playground only to be sent homeward tae think again after feeling the might of Gordon’s fist of fury.
Gordon, a martial arts aficionado, did sustain a slash wound across his face in the skirmish, something he wore proudly as a badge of honour in the aftermath of the incident.

Me? I never really saw myself as a street fighter. I’d been involved in a few scraps during my schooldays. Won some, lost some but I always felt capable of looking after myself should the need arise.

I was on nodding terms with most of the boys in the Rats but never really aspired to reaching that particular level howeverall that changed on the bus home from school one day when a classmate, Ewan Miller, unwisely challenged me to a ‘square go’.

I’d seen Ewan fight before. He was useful but he was a one-trick pony. His tactic was to come at you like a windmill, arms flailing at high speed and delivering rapid fire punches to his opponent’s head.

With this in mind I let him come at me but, in the style of professional boxers I’d watched on television, held both arms in the regulation defensive position to protect my face and head.  

Sure he was hitting me but only on my forearms so I soaked it up until he stopped and asked, rather hopefully, ‘had enough yet?’

My response was to deliver what was the sweetest punch I’d ever thrown in my life, a beautifully timed right hook which caught him square on the jaw and left him lying on the floor of the bus.
It was a shot the then champion Ken Buchanan would have been proud of.

I looked up and saw some senior members of the Rats nodding their approval and the next morning when I went  to catch the bus to school at the co-op, one of them shouted – ‘here he is, Fairley the hard man’.

I cringed at the comment, largely because when someone attaches a label like that on you, the one certainty is that someone else will be coming after you very soon.

However, my new found notoriety enabled me to become a fringe member of the Rats but, to be honest, I was more a rearguard member, shouting and posturing at the back of the group while those in the frontline battled against any ‘Drummies’ or ‘Knightsies’ who had made the mistake of encroaching upon our territory.

It all changed for me one day during the school holidays. We were relaxing on the school hill when the news was relayed that a gang from Drumchapel were heading in our direction.

One of the boys said ‘Ill get the pickies’ and within a few minutes I found myself holding a fearsome looking wooden pick axe handle which was to be the weapon of choice for this particular altercation.

Weapons. This was a whole new ball game for me.
To quote Nena – ‘this is it boys, this is war’ and I wasn’t comfortable with it.

We charged down the hill and met the invading gang at the old nursery school playground and the battle raged until there were only two Drum boys left, the rest having scarpered at the sight of our weaponry.
One of them then pulled what looked like a meat cleaver from his jacket and we all froze. All except one, who I will choose not to name, who raced forward and slammed his pickie across the top of the boys head.
Even now, I can still hear the thud of timber crashing against bone.

As he lay on the ground someone shouted ‘here’s the polis’ and, as two squad cars came haring down Maxwell Avenue, sirens blaring, we all scampered back up the hill, the pickies being safely secreted in their hiding place before we all split up and disappeared amongst the labyrinthine network of lanes and alleyways throughout the village.

The cops came back the following night as we hung around the co-op trying to get statements but the law of omertwas adhered to and all they got was our names and addresses.

The next day the police paid a visit to my parents house and warned them about the company their son was keeping and the likely ramifications thereof.

My Dad was no soft touch. He grew up in Govanhill, the youngest of seven brothers and I’m pretty sure he’d been involved in a few rucks during his younger days, which was probably why he was dead against the idea of his son following in these particular footsteps.

The perfunctory father/son chat took place and I made up my mind that my short lived career as a Wessy Rat was over and that I would channel my energies towards my two main interests in life, football and music.

I always looked upon the Rats as more of a peace-keeping force than a violent gang. Their actions were largely defensive rather than aggressive and, perhaps subconsciously, they viewed their existence as a means of protecting the people of Westerton from invading forces and, to that extent, their mission was, in the main, accomplished.

I enjoyed my short spell running with the pack but I’m glad it ended when I did. If it hadn’t who know where I’d have ended up. I still feel I can look after myself but I’ve adopted the philosophy subscribed to by Bruce Lee in the movie Enter the Dragon of….. ‘Fighting without Fighting.’

If you’ve seen the film you’ll know what I mean. There are more ways to win a battle than knocking ten bells out of your opponent and I can say in all honesty, that in the 50 or so years since I decked Ewan Miller on the school bus, I’ve never once struck a single human being.

C’est la guerre

the big yin and me.

(Post by Paul Fitzpatrick, of London – February 2021)

I’ve always had a strange relationship with Billy Connolly.

Not that we’ve ever met.

I call it Christopher Columbus syndrome – You find an artist, hear a song or read a book that hardly anyone else knows about, you become an early adopter and spread the word, and before you know it everyone loves them – with people even asking you if you’ve heard of them!

It drives you mad because you feel like you’re the one that DISCOVERED THEM, and if it wasn’t for you unearthing their great talent and spreading the word, they’d be nowhere.

You even begin to resent their newfound fame – they’re being greedy or they’re overreaching or they’re forgetting where they come from, or some other daft notion.

Welcome to my relationship with Billy Connolly.

I’m pretty sure the first time I heard Connolly utter a word was on the Pavilion stage in February 1974.

There was a buzz as the relative unknown had sold out several nights at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow, something only Sydney Devine (Scotland’s answer to Elvis) could do back then.

Billy promoting his stint at The Pavilion.

My pal Barry suggested we get tickets to see him on a Friday night as we had no school the next day, we were both 15 at the time and part of the plan was to find a pub and go for the full Friday night Glasgow experience.

We duly found a wee working mans pub round the corner from the venue, and foraged for a seat out of view, it was tea-time on a Friday, so the pub was busy with artisans in their work clothes finishing their shifts for the weekend.

We must have stood out like sore thumbs.

I think Barry braved the first approach to the bar and I was amazed but delighted when he came back with 2 halves of lager and 2 vodka and oranges’ (non-diluted orange squash of course).

A half and a half back then was the working mans preferred tipple, so who were we to challenge the established order of things.

The drinks were downed pretty quickly, and we enjoyed a few more bevvy’s before floating off down the road to the Pavilion in good spirits.

Stand-up comedy in the 70’s was dominated by middle aged men who wore suits and bow ties and told corny jokes about their mother in laws or minorities or Germans bombing their chip shops.

This guy Connolly was different though he was younger, he looked like a welder on acid and he spoke our language.

A bit like listening to the opening 4 tracks of Led Zeppelin IV for the first time, Connolly literally took our breath away. I had never laughed so long or so hard before, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t since, although Jerry Sadowitz has come close a couple of times.

He was loud, gallus, hilarious and the audience loved him, his stories were relatable, and he was one of us.

I remember hearing the Crucifixion sketch for the first time that night, it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard, he was irreverent and didn’t give two hoots about poking fun at religion or sectarian taboos or bodily functions or the establishment, no topic was off limits to the Big Yin.

It was a memorable evening; from the nervous bus-journey into town wondering if we’d get served or huckled for being underage, to the journey home, fish supper in hand, trying to recount all the jokes and patter and remembering we had football for the school the following morning.

We were so smitten by Connolly that we spent the next couple of weeks spreading the gospel, telling everyone we knew how great he was, mostly to blank faces however, as no one had heard of him.

Billy takes over The Apollo.

His career really took off after a live album of the Pavilion material was released in May 1974, and the following year he finally came into the general public’s consciousness.

In 1975 Connolly sold out an unprecedented 12 nights at the Glasgow Apollo, as well as appearing on Parkinson for the first of his record breaking 15 appearances.

That year he also showed off his acting chops by appearing in a powerful Peter McDougall TV play called ‘Just Another Saturday’ which was about West of Scotland culture, beliefs, innocence and sectarianism.

If that wasn’t enough, he also headlined a London gig for the first time and even had a number one single, appearing on TOTP with a parody of Tammy Wynette’s Divorce. It was the archetypal rags to riches story; the guy had gone from zero to hero in the space of 18 months.

There’s a picture that was taken in 1975 by Ronnie Anderson, a newspaper colleague of one of our contributors George Cheyne, that is my favourite Connolly portrait.

The occasion was an after-party in The Dorchester for the first of Billy’s sell out shows at the London Palladium in 1975, and it features – Billy, Alex Harvey, Jimmy Reid the shop steward, Hamish Stuart from AWB, Frankie Miller and Jimmy Dewar (a musician from Stone the Crows and Robin Trower Band).

A motley crew of 6 Glaswegians toasting their mate’s success in a foreign land.

The Glasgow Mafia – 1975

If I’m being completely honest, the parody single was the point when I started to think the Big Yin was overreaching.

A parody single? That was for Benny Hill and Rolf Harris but not for the Big Yin!

I’d also noticed that his accent had started to soften a bit and he was definitely losing some of his tough Glasgow brogue.

Of course, I look back now and understand he was just reaching out to a wider audience, the guy was a welder turned folk singer turned comedian, he had no idea how long this gravy train was going to run for.

He was simply making the most of his opportunities

As Connolly got bigger so did his global reach, hanging out with Hollywood celebs and Royalty and appearing in big budget movies and hosting TV specials.

Billy, Robin Wlliams & Dudley Moore.

There was a point where he seemed to be everyone’s favourite comedian, but he probably wasn’t mine anymore.

I had discovered American stand-up, guys like Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Bill Hicks, and I liked the cut of their jib.

Richard Pryor doing his thing.

I still liked Billy and I would go the odd gig, but for me comparing his newer, more mainstream material to his earlier stuff was like comparing Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You to Superstition or Living for the City.

And I guess I’ve just addressed some of my issues right there!

If Stevie can’t maintain unrealistic artistic excellence, who can??

On a subconscious level I also think that for some absurd reason I thought he’d forsaken his Scottish roots, which is illogical, particularly as I moved away from Scotland myself in 1984.

There’s no doubt that Connolly has had a fantastic career, he’s adored by millions and he is and always has been a wonderful ambassador for Scotland.

As he’s got older, I think he’s got back to being a bit more irreverent and a bit more outspoken, and that’s the Billy I adore.

I’ve loved stand-up comedy since I was 15 thanks to the Big Yin, he was my first and he was one of the best.

When all’s said and done, I’m glad I got to discover the Big Yin in February 1974 and share him with the rest of the world.

You’re welcome!