Cradle of the Stewarts says the sign on the A8. I’m surrounded by patches of fenced-off land primed for retail development, no doubt designed to avoid Glasgow’s crippling business rates, reputed to be the world’s seventh most expensive. At Renfrewshire’s border, a spit from the M8 motorway and Glasgow International Airport, things are looking up. According to its website, Braehead Shopping Centre is the Scottish Retail Excellence Awards Shopping Destination of the Year 2007-8.
It’s not just Braehead, the centre of south Glasgow’s retail universe. There’s the satellites – IKEA, the Audi Showroom, InStyle Furniture, Porcelanosa – occupying the same artless acres of plate glass, corrugated steel and breezeblock sheds. It’s a non-architecture, but whose plans and elevations I’m sure are sweated over by well-meaning practitioners. Just what is it about these places that I find so depressing?
It’s not the demise of industry that once dominated this place that troubles me. With few exceptions – mainly military contracts – engineering all but vanished from Hillington, Renfrew and the Clyde a generation or more ago, though mere mention of this fact puts you at risk of sounding disaffected, reactionary, old even. I’m perplexed by one sign for a company, Picsel, with its bizarre slogan – ‘a democracy of access’ – what democracy, I wonder? And access to what? Later I find a site for the company, which specialises in mobile phone software.
Maybe it’s the built-in futility of the retail experience I despair of, the notion that once bought, goods are already past their sell-by date since fashion is no longer confined to clothing but to cars, kitchens and furniture, where designs and trends accelerate so fast that obsolescence occurs in a matter of months, not years. So it’s reassuring to arrive at Renfrew which like its close cousin, Paisley, has preserved its sense of identity by not getting round to demolishing its landmarks.
At least I’ve got the weather. August brought some of the worst rainfalls on record and nothing today is guaranteed, the forecast promising sunshine and showers. My trip brings me to Renfrew on a dual mission – to locate the Old Parish Church and – a mile or so away – to trace the Argyll Stone. Both of these sites are quoted by Harry Bell in his book, Glasgow’s Secret Geometry, so I’ve come to pay my respects and hopefully to find something more enduring and unique than what I found on my way here.
Thankfully Renfrew town centre’s is too compact to confuse me for long, in spite of the diversions caused by the £4 million facelift currently underway. The sun’s out, fitting my mood as I take in the sight – a slightly bonkers one – of the Town Hall, surely a model for Disney’s trademark or a castle out of some Mitteleuropean fairytale. Later I come across a blog detailing its history and was tickled by the description –
It’s early afternoon and the main street is teeming with pupils escaped from the nearby secondary school. Most are eating burgers and chips. The more extrovert leer into my lens. It’s good-natured enough though judging by the reaction, I get the feeling nothing much happens here. I pack up and head the short distance to my first location – Renfrew Old Parish Church, relieved to find the gates ajar. The church is surrounded by modest gravestones, many similar to those in Govan Old Parish Church, but more recent, if the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries count as recent history.
I’m not alone. Alerted by the roar of a chainsaw, I spot a couple of men rigged for tree-climbing, lopping limbs off old beeches. Not wishing to intrude, I creep with my camera, singling out the most interesting monuments. The cemetery houses a few examples of what must have been a short-lived trend – cast-iron headstones – in the form of metal frames inserted with inscribed granite lumps. After months of treading on the dead, I confess I’ve never come across these before and can only imagine that in the commerce of death, especially during its Victorian heyday, these must have been promoted as some kind of new-fangled mode of remembrance. Sadly though, the ones here are fractured and rusting, the stones inside revealed as unhewn and raw.
A man introducing himself as Fergus – sprightly, greying, late middle-age – spots my camera and invites me into the church. This is unexpected. Now I feel remorse for having relieved myself earlier in a weed-strewn corner of one of the more high-toned monuments. He tells me he’s here for maintenance but is just popping out to the bank and would I like to take some shots while he’s gone? The invitation to be left alone in this ancient church is almost unbelievable in these days of constant surveillance and security. Just as well I come across as a trustworthy sort.
Like its exterior, inside the church is modest, boasting a beautiful exposed timber roof frame and some exceptional Victorian stained glass. But the air itself gives off the fusty atmosphere of the frayed and clapped-out; old radiators, hard pews; the hymn board all appear out of another time. At a guess I put attendance here in double, not treble figures. There’s something terribly poignant here, a sense of imminent closure hanging over the place. Fergus returns, watching as I take my shots. He tells me the church is separate from the cemetery, the latter maintained these days by the local council. I mention a recent news item about the fate of Govan Old Parish Church and the decision to award funds to review its fate, now that congregations have dwindled and folded into other churches, but Fergus, evidently the stoic sort, seems unmoved by this knowledge.
Having read Harry Bell’s account, I know there are treasures to be found here. Fergus guides me up to the gallery, setting great store by the stained glass. I’m more interested in what’s below, the last resting place of Sir John Ross, reminded of Harry Bell’s story of Palm-my-Arm.
What’s interesting here is the theme of violence, the description almost jocular, cartoonish. The message seems to be – assault’s a fast track to riches. In what way does John Ross Hawkhead differ from the neds on the streets of Renfrew, Paisley or Glasgow today? And why does so much historical writing endorse, romanticise and make comedy out of injury and murder?
To his credit Harry Bell did his research and field work so thoroughly his theories are compelling. But as he says, ‘the site is flat’ – undermining his own ideas of prehistoric sight lines being just that – land high enough above sea level to afford a view, the most precious asset for those living here in ancient times and, judging by the rainfall, the times we live in. It’s hard to grasp, but I doubt the topography has shifted much in these parts since the last Ice Age, so what provenance does Renfrew Old Parish Church have over many others, apart from a few historical anecdotes and artefacts? While Harry Bell believes that ‘a long history’ confers ley status on a site, what of the sites that no longer exist, or those not man-made, eroded over thousands of years and rendered invisible?
Back on the street I try to fit the church into my viewfinder without much success. Sooner or later I know the natives will pounce. Sure enough, less than five minutes later, a man brandishes money in front of the camera and asks if I want to go for a drink. No, not just now, I’m working. Next comes a man got up as John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever – outside Somerfield supermarket on a weekday afternoon. Seeing the camera he won’t let go. He is Alex Cameron. He wears a cream suit, cream loafers, fingers festooned with heavy silver rings. Taking a deep breath, I plunge into the world of Alex. He’s an actor, he tells me. No you’re not, I counter. He backpedals quickly. Okay, I’m an extra, he admits, adding, but I’ve been in loads of things, quoting The Flying Scotsman and Taggart.
As Alex auditions for me, a man disturbs the frame, waving a brand-new passport in front of my lens. Mr Brown, he informs the street, has just mugged me for 110 quid. It turns out that he’s a friend of Alex, another Alex, Alex McEwan, off on a trip to Tunisia. On the pavement they perform a double act, regaling me with tales of all the hot spots Renfrew once had to offer. I point to the building across the road and they launch into a story about wild goings-on in the singles club above the shops. During this spiel Alex C. produces a tiny camcorder from his pocket. In all earnestness he asks, how he can get a movie made? In turn I suggest he comes up with a story. He scribbles his name and number for me before leaving.
As I pack up, the remaindered Alex invites me for a drink but I politely decline. It’s about three in the afternoon. He tempers his pitch – okay, a coffee then. Thanks, I reply, but no can do. I have another place to get to, but if only I knew where. Still, either I’m singularly charming or Renfrew could use more attractions, although I doubt anyone would class my next destination as in any way entertaining or distracting or any of those things we look for in the name of leisure. So why is it, I wonder, that some of us are prepared to travel thousands of miles to visit sites deemed to be of interest when clearly they’re not. Here I cite Plymouth Rock, which I visited in the autumn of 1996 during a trip to the East Coast of the US only to find it was exactly that – a lump of rock.
Despite my misgivings about its obscurity, fortunately – thanks to my OS map – I don’t need to journey too far to find another of Harry’s significant sites – the Argyll (or Argyle) Stone. For some reason this site holds some resonance for me, positioned in the grounds of the Normandy Hotel. Judging from outward appearances, the Normandy’s a cancerous concrete hovel with peeling black paint on the window frames, the victim of corporate neglect. During the early-mid 1970s though, this hotel was the happening spot, close but not so close to Glasgow Airport to deprive anyone of sleep, a place where airline pilots commandeered the bar, no doubt downing late night brandies and seducing their cabin crews. I envisage the scene – captured – of course – on grainy, super-saturated colour S8mm.
Today, sitting in the hotel’s pitted tarmac car park, I recall a regular client of my hairdresser mother, a woman who worked behind the bar at the Normandy, a job that seemed impossibly glamorous to me. I’m almost tempted to enter, to book a room even, just to experience the difference between how I perceived this place and what I’m certain would be a short course in disappointment. The banner at the entrance boasting ‘steak with all the trimmings’ somehow fails to invite.
The Argyll Stone, alongside its partner St. Conval’s Chariot, is surprisingly easy to find. Encased in a rectangle of Victorian gothic cast-iron, these moss-shrouded boulders succeed in looking simultaneously profound and ridiculous. I shoot my piece. At least the light’s on my side this afternoon, the sun slipping, the shadows stretching noticeably longer than they did a week ago.
Sadly the heritage trail sign accompanying the site has been totally obscured, less by graffiti, more by a determined individual going round the entire Renfrewshire Trail with a tin of emulsion. Looking for clues, I find the following in a document, Fifty Facts about Renfrewshire.
I wind up my trip on the swing bridge spanning the White Cart Water. The river’s wide here, as wide as the inner-city Clyde to where it flows. It’s rush hour now and as the traffic thunders past on the bridge, overhead aircraft loom large on their descent towards Abbotsinch and the runway for Glasgow International Airport. I take a few shots to the bemusement of passing drivers, then gaze at the water below, musing on St. Conval sailing on a stone and concluding it’s no more ludicrous a notion than flying through the sky in a piece of metal.