Two Scottish journeys


Saturday, 1.41pm train, Glasgow Queen Street to Aberdeen
By Kenneth Roy

At first all was well. Always mindful of the need to avoid a second pulmonary embolism (two would look like carelessness), I had gone for an aisle seat at a table for four. The middle-aged man in the window seat was no trouble. I had him down as a North Sea oil worker returning to the rigs. Engrossed in the lurid pages of the National Enquirer, he scarcely acknowledged my existence. Just the kind of fellow traveller I like, and just the two of us, giving me loads of precious leg-room.

The peace was shattered at Stirling. Four young men came noisily up the corridor and, as I dreaded, occupied the table opposite the National Enquirer reader and myself. It was at this point that civilisation broke down, as it tends to do in Scotland at the weekend.

They were well-fed – a credit to our welfare state – and well-dressed. They exhibited no symptoms of being drunk or stoned. They appeared to be all too alarmingly sober. 

Within seconds they were loudly discussing an ‘effing poof’ known to the group. Of course they did not exactly call him ‘effing’. I will leave you to work out the actual word; it shouldn’t take you long. Having disposed of one effing poof, they moved on to another, and another. It seemed that the town of Stirling was full of effing poofs and that the carriage of the Aberdeen train was not to be spared their names and the details of who was doing what to whom.

If you leave your seat in a situation of this kind, you are inevitably making a statement even if you say nothing. My advice to anyone unfamiliar with rail travel who is unhappily obliged to board a train in Scotland, and feels intimidated by offensive or threatening behaviour, is to wait until the next stop approaches and then move discreetly down the corridor as if you are leaving the train. That is the safe option. It was not, however, an option open to me. There were no stops between Stirling and Perth, where I would disembark in order to deliver a speech about Robert Burns and his connection with modern Scotland.

My choices were limited. I could suffer in silence for the next half hour. Or I could challenge the group – a high-risk strategy. Or I could get up and move to another compartment, making myself vulnerable to abuse – or worse.

I decided to move. As I did so, the leader of the group uttered words that the many uncritical admirers of Scotland would do well to ponder if they are not already blinded to reality.

‘Whit’s wrang wi’ you?’ (Yes, they spoke in the vernacular. I suppose you might even dignify it with the word Scots.)

And then, aggressively:

‘You no’ like oor sick talk?’

So these four young men of Stirling not only knew that their talk was ‘sick’ – their own word for it – but were deriving sadistic pleasure out of broadcasting it. They were verbally vomiting over us: vomiting homophobia. Were they so sexually insecure that their personal hang-ups could only be worked out in a public exhibition of utter vileness? I put the question but I’m not sure that I care about the answer. I just care about being yet another victim.

Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review

Sunday, 10.12pm train, Glasgow Central to Kilmarnock
By Islay McLeod

I said goodbye to my friend and waited two hours for my train home – Sunday service.

Relieved to finally board, I sat in the first of two carriages at a table opposite a young man in his early twenties. Further down the carriage a group of Celtic supporters were gathered – men in their late teens, early twenties – adorned with football strips and striped scarfs. Their team had won a cup game against Falkirk earlier in the day.

As we left the station, raucous singing erupted. Unintelligible lyrics, but the word ‘hun’ was audible in places – some even rose to their feet during the decimally disturbing blast. Fellow passengers tried to block out the noise, nervously studying their mobiles or gazing out of the window watching dark nothing-ness flash past.

Behind me a man was on the phone. He was clearly upset by the noise and asked the group to be quiet – he couldn’t hear. They ignored his repeated requests for silence. I turned round, tapped his shoulder and asked him to calm down and to come and sit at my table. He agreed.

He had been on the phone to a loved one about another in hospital. The group then began to taunt the man – arms and hands pointing in our direction during yet another eruption of incoherent chant.

An alliance soon formed between myself and the victim and two other passengers at the same table. We ignored insults hurled in our direction. I counted the number of stops till home. Barrhead, Dunlop, Stewarton: the agony deepened.

The police were phoned several times. Whether they made an appearance at Kilmarnock station, I don’t know.

It was a very sombre walk home from Kilmaurs station. Feeling depressed and embarrassed I was glad to turn the key in the lock of my door to safety. All of this just two weeks after a 16-year-old was violently beaten after asking four men to stop singing sectarian songs on the same train. I don’t think I’ll be getting back on a train for a while.

Islay McLeod is deputy editor of the Scottish Review

Courtesy of the Scottish Review