“This is the Scotland you’ve always dreamed of.” Louise pulls the handle, allowing the polyphony of woodwind and strings to drift across the quiet street.
A crowd of twenty folk musicians consumes me, Glasgow’s tradition beckoning me forward.
In Edinburgh, we summit Arthur’s seat and bask in the winds of Scotland, which violently throws frigid gales at me as it desired. In Glasgow, we stroll about the Kelvingrove, with haggis. After five days, from Edinburgh’s Old Town to Glasgow’s West End, with all the pubs and on all of the hills, I am still bracing myself; Scotland surprises me on every turn. As my sixth day in Scotland winds down, I go to meet a mutual friend. Megan, a friend from Vancouver, had urged me to spend time with her friend Louise in Glasgow, warning me that Louise had become her favorite Scot of all.
Later, Louise shoves me into the orchestra at Ben Nevis, the spirit of the Highlands resounding into my ears. Ben Nevis, named after the eponymous Scottish mountain, opened in 1884, its ovular mahogany and teal-trimmed exterior thinly tucked under an apartment complex stretches around the corner of Argyle Street and Carunna Street in Glasgow. Originally a small, local pub, a group of folk musicians moved into the flat upstairs and began to frequent the bar. After they brought the party downstairs, Ben Nevis soon began its long-standing custom of live folk.
A Sunday night tradition, a cellist, a bassist, three guitarists, a drummer, at least seven fiddlers, three bagpipers, four flautists, and two clarinetists all gracefully interweave from one Scottish folk song to the next. As I listen to the historical harmony, the tempo takes a rapid change of pace, the whole crew sliding into a different song effortlessly. “Wey signal each other at the end of each song,” Louise explains. “They can switch from one tune to the next in an instant—they’ll play for an hour straight without stopping.”
The inside of Ben Nevis, despite its renovations, echoes its origins. Split into halves around the bar, the left for music and the right for conversation, faded mahogany pervades the room. The bar top, with two columns extending from the ceiling down to two tree trunks on either side, is flanked by fiddlers and glasses of mead. Hundreds of display bottles of whisky line the floor to the ceiling behind the bar on zigzagging slanted wooden slabs in a gradient of gold and glass. And at the end of the bar, Highland and Midland rocks three times the size of my head seemingly dangle from the walls overtop the musicians’ booth, looking like they will fall and break some bagpipes at any moment. Almost every patron in the bar either wears a “YES” pin on their collar or instead, exudes the essence of independence. In an aura of folk, mead, and family, I see how this moment vividly illustrates why Scots would view themselves as something completely separate from the English.
Through the percussion of the fifty pair of feet bouncing against the wooden pub floor, Louise pulls me towards a cheery, red-faced man, his eyes lit up and a beer in each hand.
“And this is my Glasgow-Uncle, Stef.” Louise embraces a white-haired man in his late 40s. “Hey, happy birthday to ya!”
“Thanks, Louise, y’er too sweet. And ’ello lads, welcome to the best fuckin’ place in all o’ Glasgow!” I hide my awe at the intense thickness of his accent. “Ye’ know, Louise is the best damn performer in this whole place! She’s going to be somebody someday—ye’r lucky that ye know ‘er.”
As Louise—bubbly and clearly, popular—traipses around the room hugging everybody instead of playing her fiddle, Stef begins naming all the people she embraces over the folk orchestra. “And that’s Joe, he fiddled for the Brave soundtrack!” Louise bounces across the crowd to a stoic fiddler, whose white smile contrasts her all black outfit. “That’s Libby McGugan, she’s a science-fiction writer, wrote this great one called The Eidolon or some shit, you just gotta look ‘er up!” Then, Louise approaches a young teen with bright red hair, swaying to his bagpipes. “That’s Allee! He’s from Orkney—the Island where Louise’s from—he’s only 16 that lad, but no one really pays attention to that here. We care more about his bagpipes than the drinking age, ya’know?”
At Midnight, Ben Nevis closes, and per tradition, the whole crew leaves for Bloc on Bath Street. We pile into Louise’s car, her on the right-side driver’s seat with me on her left, and Stef in the back of the car. Jeff Buckley comes on from Louise’s playlist, and Stef’s bass hums a sonorous tune:
Well maybe I’m just too young
To keep good love from going wrong
Oh... lover, you should've come over
'Cause it's not too late
“Oh Jeffy, lad, what happened to ya?” Stef mourns between choruses. I raise my eyebrow at Louise in curiosity—Stef’s voice has a twinge of familiarity, he talks about him like a friend.
“Back in the day, Stef and Jeff used to be real good mates, used to sing and chill and stuff in New York City when they were young.”
“The night I met Jeff, I had the best shag of my life!” Through the rear-view, between his laughter I notice a bittersweet glint in Stef’s eyes, cheery from amusement yet nostalgic from some distant memory. “Man, he used to give me the best luck whene’er I was round ‘im, that first night we met that lassie locked me down! I couldn’t e’en move, lads! That girl could do something down there like no oth’r! That was Jeff’s luck awrite!"
Louise blindly waves her hand to the back of the car in protest. “Stef, just because it’s your damn birthday and because ye knew Jeff doesn’t mean ya get to tell this story for the hundredth time again! I’m sick of you and ye’r ‘American shag,’ we get it awrite ya old man, ye used to have charm!”
Outside Bloc, the familiar sound of music wafts through the doors as we enter. Low-lit by indigo with sleek wooden booths and high-rise tables spread around the room, Bloc appears more like a regular bar. What sets Bloc apart is that, every Monday morning, the crew puts down their fiddles and pipes for karaoke, singing modern tunes from midnight until three in the morning.
It is just passing 2:50AM and I’m realizing the Scotland I wanted was with the musicians.
Stef steps up for the final act, his birthday nocturne with Joe and Allee at his side on guitar and flute.
Well, it's a marvelous night for a moondance
With the stars up above in your eyes
A fantabulous night to make romance
'Neath the cover of October skies
And all the leaves on the trees are falling
To the sound of the breezes that blow
And I'm trying to—uh, ah shit, fuck
La la la la da da da da damnit jesus Christ fuck Allee! what are the damn words!?
“Aw, fuck you guys, I’m a total wanker,” mutters Stef, shame and shock on his face. “I never do this, but I forgot the damn words…it’s my birthday, ye’ know. I’m pretty plastered, huh?”
All of Bloc erupts in laughter and immediately begins to roar a sympathetic Happy Birthday.
Through the shaking bellows of song, my eyes fixate on Louise and Stef, the spirit of Scotland so lucid within them. At three o’clock on a Monday morning, we coalesce with the blue haze of Bloc and the cradle of the chorus, letting the voices of Glasgow resonate in our ears.