Home, Home on the Clyde
Seeking to understand the fascination with America and cowboys that courses through a Scottish subculture, a Canadian writer joins a gun club for its weekly practice of quick shooting. Returning for club night, when Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry is packed with people dressed in cowboy gear, Patterson observes a ceremony involving the Confederate flag. In an era when specific groups feel the need to rally around outdated or offensive symbols, he concludes, it’s always important to ask, Why?
“Fire in the hole!” I crow, before pulling my pistol and clumsily catching the iron sight on the leather holster attached to my thigh. By the time I level it and fire, precious seconds have passed and I’m as good as dead. Only, not really.
“Breathe, boy!” Lonestar, my would-be coach says. As he speaks, he absentmindedly twirls his large revolver on his finger, sliding it coolly in and out of its holster. “It’s about speed, not accuracy. Don’t worry about hitting anything. Just point anywhere and fire.”
This is far from any rule of gunfire I’ve been taught, all of which can be abridged to “don’t point a gun at anything you aren’t prepared to see die,” but I do as he says, starting with a few deep breaths. When the light of the shot timer flashes a bright white, moving as quick as I can, I lean back, yank the revolver from the holster fastened to my hip, cock the hammer, and fire. The display on the timer, which measures the interval between the flash of the light and the report of the gun to the thousandth of a second, reads 0.743.
“Not bad for a beginner,” says Lonestar. He’s a dark, diminutive Irishman and has been a member of Glasgow’s gun club for just over three years. He takes my place in front of the timer and, at the signal light, throws down. The time it takes him to pull and fire flashes on the electronic timer, 0.358 seconds. “Not bad, either,” he says. He twirls the gun on his finger, re-holsters, steadies himself, and prepares for the next signal. His next four shots are all fired in between 0.3 and 0.5 of a second. Then, with his last bullet in the chamber, his gun jams.
“Goddamn ting,” he says. He smacks the gun hard with his hand, points it casually into the air, and fires with a bang.
If we were discharging real bullets, the building we’re in, the cavernous cinema-turned-dance hall that is Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry, would be riddled with holes. But the building, along with the guns and bullets we’re using, are replicas, Scotland’s answer to the Nashville country music institution and the National Rifle Association.
Nestled against the southern bank of the River Clyde, the Opry almost strains under the influence of its inspiration. It’s far from an exact nail-and-board reproduction of the original country-music venue in Tennessee and almost strains under its sense of duty to the original. A plethora of American signage (all my exes live in texas, keep calm and redneck on, etc.) is tacked onto the mirror behind the bar, which is stocked with American beers and whiskeys. Large murals covering the walls depict scenes out of a typical western film—large, sprawling vistas of mesas and bluffs, covered wagons heading toward a distant horizon, cowboys galloping after wandering calves. Hanging loosely from the overhead rafters are the flags—the Scottish Saltire, the Lion Rampant of Scotland, the Stars and Stripes, and the Confederate battle flag.
Operating since the 1970s, Glasgow’s Opry has thrived as a source of cheap drinks, country music, and gunplay. As a dance hall, it’s the only place in the country that religiously provides country and western and stomping ground for line dancers. Of late, it’s gained small notoriety as a backdrop in the film Wild Rose, a Glaswegian take on Coal Miner’s Daughter that follows a singer who croons to a full Glasgow Opry while dreaming of heading to Nashville and the real deal.
Operating since the 1970s, Glasgow’s Opry has thrived as a source of cheap drinks, country music, and gunplay.
On this Monday night, there are no crowds. Only eight of us have gathered to talk guns and practice our quickdraw. The number is considered on the high side. Among these committed gunslingers, names are traded for aliases so North American that, when hollered out in Glaswegian brogues, they waver on the brink of sarcasm. Spread through the hall oiling, polishing, and loading their guns are Lonestar, Big D, John Wayne, Doc Holliday, Tennessee, Annie Oakley, and Cheyenne. I’m told that I too will need a nickname if I’m going to shoot.
I’ve come expecting a lark, or at least a jovial atmosphere, but to these faux cowpokes, this is serious business. A palpable aura of solemnity pervades in the air. Mondays are their chance to practice with the timer and train against other gunfighters. The rest of the week they’ll train their quickdraw at home in front of the mirror (“I can never beat myself!” they all say to me, individually) and make new bullets (by packing blank powder and Styrofoam wads into empty shells) in preparation for the official gunfights that take place each weekend.
While being the speediest drawer is desirable, having good gear and the look of a proper cowboy is just as important. It isn’t easy to accomplish five-thousand miles from the heart of Texas—the Stetsons and rawhide boots I see on the shooters are impossible local buys. Lonestar tells me he regularly goes Stateside in search of gear, returning from each trip with various hats, boots, belt buckles, bolo ties, spurs. Big D, the lanky, pockmarked club president, offers to buy me a beer (a bottle of Budweiser, at his insistence) and tells me he owns a large collection of boots, hats, and other western gear. “I wear a different hat every weekend I’m here,” he says. He also makes his own ammunition in a specially designated room within his house.
“No one knows I do it,” he says. “Only these folks in the club. No one in the real world would like it much, knowing I go around with guns and stuff.”
I compliment him on the coiled silver snakes adorning the handle of his pistol, the kind Clint Eastwood used in the television series Rawhide and later in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. He beams and taps the snakes. “You like them? Cost me seventy-five pounds each, these, down in Texas.” He draws the word out, hanging on the final syllable like a silver serpent. The state has spiritual status here—I can tell even uttering the word has an ambrosial effect on Big D. The suggestion that members visit at least once solidifies its status as the mecca of their imported cowboy behavior.
Being a gunslinger in the UK isn’t easy. Gun laws are tight and, although they are only replicas, everyone is obliged to carry their guns in solid metal cases. All the cases are adorned with various stickers reading don’t mess with texas, don’t tread on me, keep it country, etc. The one sticker common to them all is the Scottish Independence sticker, its blue and white cross emblazoned with the word yes.
Blustering, Cheyenne opens his case and produces a menacing-looking pistol. Newly polished, it shines under the lights, its muzzle as long as a forearm. “How’d you like this, pal?” he shouts while he waves the gun triumphantly in the air. Everyone crowds around for a look and to heft the new weapon, an ersatz Smith & Wesson.
I ask Lonestar how much a gun like that would cost. “A grand, easy,” he says, then, “If you’s interested, I got me an old Colt replica I can sells you for seventy quid. It ain’t pretty but it’ll get you shooting. I’ll even trow in a holster wit’ it.”
“It seems like a lot for a fake,” I say.
He recoils, struck by my words as though by a salvo of lead. “These ain’t fakes,” he says. “They’re replicas.”
So chastised, I mutter an excuse about my wife not liking weapons—a true enough statement, and one that seems more tactful than debating the semantics of fake and replica. Like in most enthusiast clubs, loyalty is paramount. In this case, loyalty obliges one to a hefty suspension of disbelief.
The tier of respectability among the gunfighters is arranged by a member’s commitment to the craft—the time they put into practicing and the money they sink into paraphernalia are signs of that dedication. Pointing out a fake pistol as a pointless, idiotic possession gives me the impression I’d be fit for a hogtying. Indeed, Lonestar is still looking at me hard and sidelong. I decide to keep up my end of the deal and join him in his aimed silence. Finally, with the tenseness of a Mexican standoff, it’s broken. “You need a new hat,” he says. I take off my battered Outback Kodiak. It’s sweat-stained and the oilskin is rupturing. In comparison, Lonestar’s white Stetson is pristine, the felt crisp and unspoiled. It’s the look of a hat that hasn’t seen a single day on a ranch.
“I sells them too,” he says. “Hats, buckles, the whole lot.” I take his offer as an olive branch and peaceably decline.
Coming as I do from a cattle ranch on the backwater haunts of rural Canada, I find the idea of these familiar items—cowboy hats, belt buckles, guns—having appeal in the postindustrial city of Glasgow strange and derivative. Silly, even. The guns especially.
In the UK, there is no gun culture to speak of.
Guns have always been a reality in my life. Not as playthings or as collector’s items, but as dangerous tools with irreversible consequences, like a handsaw, or dynamite. Any misuse—above all taking one up needlessly—would get you classified as a maniac. From that perspective, fooling around with replicas, straddling the line between toy and weapon, seems senseless. In the UK, there is no gun culture to speak of, certainly not one in the likes of any other country in the stretch of Pan-America. Genuine handguns are blanket banned. In Glasgow, people are much more likely to be admitted to hospital with knife wounds or bruises from being battered with fists and clubs than they are as gunshot victims. The eponymous “Glasgow smile”—a scar reaching from the corners of the mouth to the ear lobes—is commonly seen on the streets. Taken aback by the unbridled enthusiasm for pistols at the Opry (makes, models, years, and calibers are knowledgeably discussed in detail), I expected the club members might be advocates for looser gun laws. When I broach the subject, they say they’ve no desire for real weapons. Not for self-defense or even the classic plea of personal freedom. They were satisfied with their make-believe arsenals. “We like guns,” Lonestar said, “but it’s not just about guns. It’s a whole community around the idea of the West, like.”
This fascination with ten-gallon hats and Manifest Destiny is deep and long-lived in Scotland. When Buffalo Bill’s Wild West visited the country in 1891, it packed stadiums and dominated the local news. It was so popular, he visited again in 1904, once more parading the glory of the Wild West with gunfights, “Indian savages,” and buffalo hunts (a statue of the man riding a bucking bronco sits in Glasgow’s east end). Skip ahead to today, and the Opry isn’t even the only place carrying the flame of Bill’s act.
If the Opry is Glasgow’s answer to Nashville, then Tranquility, a clapboard town located on a private, grassy field outside the northeastern town of Huntly, is its answer to Tombstone, Arizona. Although cartoonish and crude, the one street settlement is a labor of love and devotion—nothing else can explain the existence, in a Scottish meadow, of a saloon, a marshal’s office (fitted with a small wooden-barred jail cell), a general store (stocked with tin cans re-adorned with styled labels printed from the internet), a town hall, a telegraph office, a carpenter-cum-undertaker’s workshop, a corral, a well, and a cemetery. Becoming a member of the town is as easy as joining its resident reenactment group (the Northern Rough Riders) and paying the thirty-five-pound annual membership fee. Like the Opry, it’s an inclusive affair—members are expected to wear western gear while in town and, for all intents and purposes, adopt an American accent. On July 4th, there is a celebration of American Independence Day (somewhat incongruous as they are the ones America was gaining independence from), and in November they sit down for a Thanksgiving meal.
I have the inclination to ask the gunslingers (but I don’t) that if they are partial to dressing up and strapping on a weapon, why don’t they do so within the confines of their own history? There are certainly enough that do: in the small town of Bannockburn, kilts and broadswords regularly bash out the 1314 routing of England’s King Edward II from Stirling Castle by the Scottish king Robert the Bruce. On the coasts, yearly Viking festivals enact the burning of longships while armor-clad barbarians look on. In these instances, the theme of the reenactments is not only history but national pride. Scotland’s version of patriotism is half unapologetic, half masochistic, proffering its past as the plucky dog under England’s lion paw. Most of the reenactments endorse that idea. The Highland Rising show in Newtonmore portrays a day during the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and dramatizes Jacobite attempts to overthrow the encamped Redcoats. In the North Sea coastal town of Dunbar, the 1650 Battle of Dunbar reimagines the Scots’ heroic but crushing defeat at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s English forces. As gentle reminders disguised as school lessons, these bouts of historical roughhousing play into the national psyche, helping to keep sensitive wounds raw by reminding England and Scottish separatists alike about half-buried grievances.
Embracing North American history, then, is safer—no local populations to alienate and, rather than history, it can offer simple, unadulterated escapism. Adopting a symbolic ethnicity is not unique to Scotland—at festivals across Europe, teepees are pitched, suede fringe is slipped on, long hair is tied into braids, peace pipes are lit, and powwows are held in reenactment of traditional North American Indigenous life. In Germany, this has become such a common event that the term Indianthusiasm has been used to describe those who have appropriated the “classical” aspects of Indigenous society. Never mind that much of what is celebrated is taken from Hollywood’s idea of Native Americans and is widely disparaged by that community. The Germans saw themselves and others in the struggles of the Native Americans as a repressed people and found comfort in the Indigenous embrace of tribalism and naturalism. The German mercenary Johann Gottfried Seume, writing about the Huron tribe in his poem “Der Wilde,” even compared Native American tribes with Scottish clans in their shared fight against the English. Under the lens of history, it’s not such a stretch to parallel that historic British clash with the Confederate/Union divide in the United States.
Scotland has long maintained the culture of the underdog, though not so much the plucky, intrepid kind of Hollywood as the growling, browbeaten one found in pubs and hillsides the whole country over. Britain was a divided nation centuries before the Confederation was a glint in George Washington’s eye. Some (at least 44.7 percent of Scottish voters in 2014) feel Scotland’s independence from England is long overdue; that their membership in the United Kingdom is not one of union but one of coercion and oppression. Self-loathing has been one side of it—consider Scotland’s twentieth-century Walter Scott-ish cultural icon Irvine Welsh, who, rather than droning on about bagpipes and wee bonny lasses, wrote: “It’s shite being Scottish!” By giving a platform to Scottish Cringe—a feeling of cultural inferiority felt by Scots crushed under the weight of London—Irvine brought to light the stark reality of modern Scotland, with all the addiction, destitution, and gallows humor it implied. His contemporary Rob Roy character, Mark Renton, voiced the nation when he screamed into the moors, “We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fuckin’ earth . . . Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonized by. We’re ruled by effete arseholes.”
Those words are not difficult to imagine coming from the mouth of a Confederate sympathizer, especially one bitter over history or one who feels the Union should have been left to form its own nation. Irrespective of moral rightness, there are still those who think of the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression” and feel the South received a raw deal in history.
Here, the United States plays a tantalizing dual role for Scotland. As a whole nation, they were successful in getting themselves out from under the foot of England
Here, the United States plays a tantalizing dual role for Scotland. As a whole nation, they were successful in getting themselves out from under the foot of England. Once free, they became a powerful, self-regulating nation that, if they erred, did so by their own hand. Subsequently, as one half of a divided nation, the Confederacy can arouse Scottish compassion under the pretext of a sister nation unduly repressed. Outside of slavery, the parallels of the Confederation and Scotland are remarkable. After being brought to heel, both nations suffered a shaken economy, population loss, and reestablishment of the social pecking order. Cultural identities were sent adrift (for a time, the Scots were banned from owning “warlike weapons” and wearing kilts and tartan) and then reintroduced as exaggerated reproductions (think Burns Suppers and the modern Highland Games—both were Victorian-era inventions). Most of all, the two populations suffered a humiliation that evoked a bitterness that fuels sovereignty movements to this day. Just as, for the Northern Union states, the Southern Cause which rose up to protect Civil War–era monuments was abandoned in 1865, so too was the idea of Scottish independence in Britain. Until, that is, 2014’s near dead-heat independence referendum. The Opry’s pervasive Vote Yes for Scottish Independence stickers are a signpost for its members’ reveries. It takes little imagination to conceive why these Scottish midnight cowboys might have compassion for other nations that dream of secession. For the same reason the flags of Catalonia, Palestine, and Cuba can be found flapping on poles throughout Scotland, the Confederacy finds a home at the Opry not in homage, but in solidarity. It may be the North of England, but Scotland is the South. All the Opry needed was a little dress-up to complete the image.
* * *
For a few more hours we rattle off rounds, chasing elusively low draw times while the air becomes thick with the acidic, smoky odor of gunpowder. The members tool around, practicing their drawing, chatting, pulling guns and pretending to shoot one another. I watch as Big D steps up to the timer. There is a long-limbed clumsiness to his bearing, a shy gawkishness that hints at an awkward growth spurt he never grew out of. All that slides away the moment he straps on his silver inlaid gun-belt, and, as he holsters his smoke-wagon, the thousands of hours of quickdraw practice he has behind him become evident. When the light shines, he draws with his right hand, cocks the hammer with the palm of his left, and fires a blaze of sparks from the barrel of his revolver. All in 0.335 of a second. According to the World Fast Draw Association, the world record for drawing and shooting (and hitting) a target is 0.208 seconds, less than a quarter of a second.
Like most subsections of gun culture, the world of fast draw (also known as quickdraw) is deep. Lonestar lists off the many different styles of quickdraws that are practiced at the club: hands on head, western, long arm, freestyle, and thumbing.
“Tumbing is the way of the purists,” Lonestar says, dragging his thumb over the curved hammer of his weapon. “But it’s slower. Still, I use me tum and I win here all the time. It does slow me down, though, and when I go into a contest somewhere else where the fellas all use their palms, sometimes I don’t win.” He leans in conspiratorially. “Somma these guys, here, they alter their guns, like. Put a larger hammer on or extend the flint to make dem easier and quicker to shoot.”
“All these guns here are totally legal in the UK,” Lonestar says, twirling his colt and slipping it seamlessly back into its holster. “Well, maybe not all of them. But I ain’t going to say whose.” He levels a short-lived, menacing stare at me then whips out his pistol, fires blindly into the air, and winks.
By the end of the night, the once-thrilling feeling of firing endless rounds has worn down to nothing but tedium. I’ve got blood blisters on my hands from cocking the hammer, and my draw times are no better for it. But the club is still keen to have me—they’ve already decided on my nickname, Mountie. “Come back on Saturday, Mountie,” Big D says. “That’s club night. You’ll see the big show then.”
Before I leave, Cheyenne offers me one of his spare pistols, suggesting I take it home to practice in preparation for Saturday’s showdown. I decline and he seems hurt. “Maybe just as well,” he says, dejectedly. “If you’re seen outside with this, you’d get five years in jail. Minimum.”
* * *
The following Saturday, I’m back at the Opry. It’s club night, and to my surprise, the place is packed. From high above the dance floor and between the melted papier-mâché portraits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a neon Glasgow’s Grand Old Opry swathes the busy dance floor in soft blue light. On stage, a five-piece country band, complete with a whining pedal steel guitar, hammers out a boot-stomping tune for the crowd of young and old line dancers. The atmosphere is funhouse, the surreal air of a costume party.
Scanning the room, the regulars are easy to find. Even on a club night, they stand out. Out of the gloom of south Glasgow, their cowboy hats, trim guayabera shirts, and pistol belts shine like beacons. Most of the older cowboys are ensconced on the velvet upholstered benches that line the edges of the hall, and I have the sense they’ve been pushed there by the large groups of youths who, commanding the good tables, carry birthday balloons, wear stag-party sashes bandoleer style, and don ill-fitting plastic pound-store hats at jaunty, mocking angles. With that to contend with, it’s easy to think the “real” cowboys and girls on the periphery might not be having a good time. Looking grim and somber, their arms folded over their bellies, few of them appear to be drinking anything stronger than soda. Those that are favor bottles of Budweiser and Miller Genuine Draft. Scattered throughout are bushy mustaches, frying-pan belt buckles, and fringed-sleeved jackets.
I find Big D, Lonestar, and Doc Holliday holed away in a corner, behind a table littered with bottles of Budweiser and Coors Light. The shoulders of Big D’s western dress shirt are adorned with Ford and Wrangler logos, and the silver tips of his boots reflect the blues and reds of the neon. Lonestar looks like a flag—indeed, his shirt is the Texan flag.
I’ve come just in time to see the quickdraw gunfights but too late to sign up. Lonestar shakes his head disappointedly. “You’ve got to have your name in well in advance,” he says, repeating it. “Well in advance. Too late now.” More seriousness, I think. I wasn’t that late, just fashionably so. And anyway, I’d expected that as a newcomer I’d be welcomed to join in even at the last minute—a greenhorn set up to compete among the old hands, played for a laugh and to emphasize the speed they had against the common man. But no—I was out.
There is something about a grown-up in costume that makes them particularly sensitive to mockery.
This disciplinary atmosphere feels like a by-product of playing dress-up. There is something about a grown-up in costume that makes them particularly sensitive to mockery. The notion they look different, even ridiculous, makes them a stickler for any rule that gives them a sense of authority and gives them something to leverage. That the club supports a pedantry for tardiness while its patrons wave guns around willy-nilly made the place feel more like Blazing Saddles than True Grit.
Across the dance floor, the gunslingers: a dozen or so men and women stand huddled in a group along the wall. In their multifarious and cobbled cowboy gear, they look like a gang of high school misfits. The band clatters to a halt, and, as the dance floor clears, large transparent barriers are put up. Through the crowd, several people stand with their mouths agape, uncertain as to what’s coming, their phones up and ready to record. An acoustic sensor is set up between the barriers, and two fighters amble up and take their places, their backs to the plastic guard. One, Wild Bill, has a raccoon tail flopping from his hat and a bolo tie cinching his neck skin tight. The other, Tennessee Dan, has his leather vest buttoned tightly around his slumping potbelly.
Doc Holliday, acting as gun marshal, raises his hand. “Gunfighters, are you ready?”
“Ready!” they say in turn.
A pair of close-knit blasts ring out, each gun blasting a shower of sparks onto the ground. They sounded equivalent, but the acoustic sensor is lit only on one side.
“Tennessee Dan has it!” Doc calls out.
After one more round (of a possible three), Tennessee Dan has his victory in spades. He and Wild Bill mosey off and are replaced by Big D and Lonestar.
The rigamarole is repeated: fighters square off, hands twitching near their holsters, Doc issues the command to fire. Bang! Bang! They take a round each and go for a tie-breaker. Palpable electricity hangs in the room. The crowd is gathered along the edges of the dance floor like rapt townsfolk.
Silence, the call and answer, “Fire!” and a single deafening boom.
While Big D’s massive cannon roars out, Lonestar’s failed to fire. However, a defunct bullet is not a cause for a redraw (another rule)—Big D is the victor. The bloodless duel ends with a friendly handshake, and the combatants saunter bowlegged off to their seats. Immediately, two more cowpokes file into position and the spectacle resumes.
While most of the crowd is rapt, howling out their encouragement, I notice a man paying it no mind at all, instead busying himself with counting raffle tickets. I sidle over and ask him what he thinks of the dueling. “I’ve been coming here for twenty years and I’ve seen it all before,” he says. “Nobody dies, nobody wins. I’m just here for the dancing.” He smiles a crooked, yellow smile. “When it comes to cowboys, let’s just say I’m an Indian!”
Onstage, the band kicks into their final set. As though on cue, they lead in the Hank Williams song “Kaw-Liga.” The song, which revolves around the love life of a wooden drugstore Indian, is catchy but hasn’t aged well in the light of modern Indigenous rights activism in North America. This has no bearing in Glasgow’s Opry.
“Let’s hear some Indian noises!” the bandleader cries. “Give me some whoops!”
Spurred on, the crowd hammers their open palms over their mouths and yelps the hackneyed war cry of the Hollywood Indian. It’s a wincing moment of obliviousness that I could only imagine finding in the most witless North American bars.
My raffle-counting friend must notice surprise on my face because he leans over to me and says, “Have you nae been here before?” he asks.
I shook my head. “First time,” I say.
“Ah, you’ve nae seen the flag ceremony then? Let me tell ya—if you’re easily offended,” he pauses to look over his shoulder, “you may want to give the end of the night a miss.”
I run into Lonestar again and ask him about the ceremony. “Oh, you’ll sees fer yourself, like. I weren’t into it me-self in the beginning, with the whole Confederate ting going on. But after a while, I joined in. Now it’s really the most special part of the night.” He rubs the sleeve of his forearm with the long muzzle of his pistol. “Goosebumps, I get,” he says.
Waiting for the ceremony, I wander through the crowd. It’s clear some people are there for the ironic, Halloween-type fun the Opry provides—principally the groups of young people who ironically laugh and dance along to the music and pose for selfies in their absurdly ill-fitting cowboy hats. The occasional gunslinger peels himself from the fringes of the place, but with the dueling over, their night has hit a lull.
Whenever a break in the live music occurs, old vinyl records spun by the resident DJ (aka Rowdy Yates) fill the interim. The music is firmly entrenched in the Nashville Sound of the 1950s—the smooth, gliding sounds of Kitty Wells, Jim Reeves, and Ray Price come yodeling over the speakers. Here again, the clean-cut, Roy Rogers–styled image raises its head. The Nashville sound—the musical prelude to country pop and crossover artists such as Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood—was strategically commercialized to embrace the anti-rock ’n’ roll movement, satiating the desire among Nashville’s Opry crowd for down-home, antiquated values. Subtle but benign, and drowning in a syrupy slush of orchestral arrangements, it was also the music that, in the early 1970s, sent the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser, and Kris Kristofferson escaping to Texas, where they established the outlaw country movement. Gritty and introspective, outlaw country artists turned their back on Nashville to ride a broad-minded line between rock ’n’ roll and folk. Songs about Native rights, unjust land seizures, and drug addiction positioned their new, realistic ethos far to the left of the buttoned-down idealism of the Grand Ole Opry. Sidling between the tables in the Glasgow facsimile, I suspect that, like in Nashville, Johnny Cash the Opry country star would be welcome. Johnny Cash the drug-addicted, convicted criminal, not so much. “Okie from Muskogee” comes warbling on. As the crowd sings along, my mind hangs on the line “a place where even squares can have a ball.”
At eleven-thirty, the music is abruptly cut and a woman whose tight white curls poke out like springs from under her porkpie hat commandeers the microphone. “We’re about to commence the American Trilogy flag ceremony,” she hollers. “We’ll be forming a circle on the dance floor and anyone who wishes to join may do so. You can stay or go as you please, but we ask that you remain silent and respectful for the duration.” As some of the crowd peel off to join in the ritual, the Confederate flag is carefully unfolded and held aloft by four women.
I catch an old cowboy by the sleeve and question him as to why it’s the Confederate and not a Scottish flag being used. His horseshoe mustache quivers and his brow furrows into uncertainty. “’Cause we’ve always used it!” he says, scampering off.
Murmurs ripple through the crowd at the realization of what is about to happen. Some faces are stony in anger, others in boredom. Some people, with a look of disgust, gather their belongings and make for the door. Despite my reservations, I decide to join those taking part in the ceremony. I squeeze between a man and a woman, taking their hands in my own. Inside the circle is a smaller ring of gunfighters—one hand pressing their hat onto hearts, the other resting deftly on their pistol.
As the four women with the Confederate Flag held between them commence folding, the somber voice of Elvis Presley comes over the loudspeaker.
Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton
Old times there are not forgotten
Look away, look away, look away Dixieland.
I recognize the song. It’s “An American Trilogy,” a medley of three songs: “All My Trials,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “I Wish I Was in Dixie,” a minstrel-show staple and adopted anthem of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
While there aren’t many others who are willing to speak about the ceremony, the Opry’s website provides some insight. Because the Confederacy is singled out as the loser—the perpetual underdog—and because those southern states provide the music, dress, and dances of the evening, it is their flag that is folded. The website, in its fumbling, goes far to perpetuate the “Lost Cause” myth, that the causes for the American Civil War were just and honorable, without outright stating it. It does state that the overall ceremony is dedicated to the men and women lost on both sides of the 1836 Battle for the Alamo and the American Civil War. Reverently, the website states that the population killed in that conflict (approximately 620,000 people, or 2 percent of the population) accounts for the largest percentage toll on a single population, before or since. A simple web search refutes this to a large degree: the Spanish Civil War had a 4 percent impact on Spain’s population. Conservative estimates of the Mexican Civil War put that country’s losses around 10 percent. In World War I, France, Greece, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Germany, and, by some estimates, Britain all lost a higher percentage. In World War II, twenty-three countries lost a higher percentage of their populations, including a staggering 13 percent in Russia (for fascination’s sake, the largest percentage change was during the Paraguayan War, which saw 57 percent of that country’s population killed). More than anything, in this quantifying justification, the Opry betrays itself—those Civil War figures being curiously remembered in place of their own Scottish independence fighters, now too far back in history to count.
While the music plays, I tell myself that none of what’s going on around me is quite what it seems. Ultimately, the flags, the guns, the hats, and all the rest are merely symbols, albeit poor ones, that these Scotch cowboys have adopted as the mastheads of their make-believe world. Although to scores of people these are symbols associated with pain, suffering, and indignation, at the Opry, whether out of disregard or ignorance, they are used without intention to hurt or offend. These hearts behind the floppy plastic hats held to their chests don’t beat for slavery, the right to bear arms, or racial segregation. The flag, the guns, although loaded with contention and controversy, carry none of their true historical weight here. These Scots are not the Sons of Confederate Veterans or the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They don’t advocate for the genocide of Native Americans, nor are they basing anything on racial inequality.
These men and women are far from the cowboys they have dreamed themselves into becoming. They’re retired electricians, accountants, and bankers, only a few of whom admit to having been within spitting distance of a cow.
It may not even be based on a shared dream of secession, for there’s no denying these men and women are far from the cowboys they have dreamed themselves into becoming. They’re retired electricians, accountants, and bankers, only a few of whom admit to having been within spitting distance of a cow. It feels so much like play-acting because it is. Inside the Opry, they’re safe to affect the demeanor and symbols of their childhood heroes. If they dressed in bolo-ties and ten-gallon hats on the streets of Glasgow, there’s no doubt they would be laughingstocks. “I park around back and sneak in every week,” Big D confided in me, chuckling softly. “That way I don’t have to put up with all the ‘yeehaw’ and ‘where’ve you parked your horse?’ and all the other things people yell out. These clothes, I just like to wear them.” Behind the chuckling, there’s a boyish shyness and a palpable sense of relief at being tucked safely within his sanctuary.
Although there is something undeniably ridiculous, juvenile, and self-indulgent about these grown men and women strapping pretend pistols to their legs and adopting a bow-legged walk, it’s just harmless fantasy, something that is done to live out a dream of living in a bygone era of gun battles and the indomitable West. As the rough, old guard of a rapidly gentrifying city, these Glaswegians find security in a world that never seems to change. More than anything, they have a need to rally their affinity for a bygone, Hollywood delusion around a symbol. Even one that smacks of ignorance to an outsider.
As the rough, old guard of a rapidly gentrifying city, these Glaswegians find security in a world that never seems to change.
The music soars as the flag is tucked into tight triangles. As I scan the faces around the circle, I see a wobbling chin here, a watery eye there. Then Doc Holliday, once again presiding as gun marshal, straightens his back and calls out, “Gunfighters, one round for the flag.” As one, the motley rabble of cowboys draw their pistols, aim downward, and, with a nod, open fire in a deafening blast of smoke and sparks. The boom of their guns reverberates through the hall, and the woman to my left gives my hand a double squeeze. The crowd whoops and cheers as a chorus of guitars and fiddles kicks up, and I twirl my new partner across the dance floor and into the illusory past.