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 omerta was 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