A love letter to Coatbridge

For Stephen Daisley Scotland’s most wonderful place is a little town in the heart of Lanarkshire.

Sinatra longed to make it in New York, London was calling for The Clash and Ray Charles had Georgia on his mind, but for my part, I belong to Coatbridge. Old Blue Eyes was always pining for small town blues to melt away; generations that followed were sold similar dreams of escape from small towns and small minds.

Things are different now, through economic necessity as much as any change in attitudes. House prices being what they are, young people today have been forced to reassess towns as places where you can afford to rent or buy a decent-sized home with a garden, to have an active social life without breaking the bank, and eventually to raise children on safe streets with good schools nearby.

The rise of home-working, Amazon and food delivery apps have made it possible to enjoy some of the perks of big city living in even small towns, while Netfiix and Prime have removed the need to travel to a city to take in the latest blockbuster.

This was part of the pitch I made to a friend a couple of years ago, when he and his partner were looking to get a house together.

Coatbridge evangelist

I hold an unofficial and self-appointed position as an evangelist for Coatbridge and was largely untroubled by the fact that I then lived in Edinburgh. I preached to this friend about a town that, yes, had more than its share of social problems, but was still an unappreciated gem of a place to live. Reader, they moved there, though I’m not sure my lobbying was as big a factor as the M8, which makes Glasgow a 30-minute car ride away.

By the time Covid finally allowed us to meet up, just before Christmas, my friend was long settled in and almost as happy-clappy about Coatbridge as I had been. Having only experienced the town in his youth, he had expected endemic poverty and street crime, the town centre a post- recession despondency of shuttered shops and prematurely old men shuffling in and out of bookmakers. What he discovered was a tough but warm little republic, proud of its past but not stuck in it, definitely earthy yet at ease with the modern world.

He wasn’t the only one who discovered these things. By now, I had also moved back, returning to live with my parents in the hopes of better managing the crippling depression and panic attacks that had made living alone impossible and increasingly unwise.

A happy return

I sought refuge in the old familiar Coatbridge, in saunters ‘Up the Street’ (as Coatbridge Main Street is universally known); to the world’s greatest sweetie shop (Tommy Tango’s, in the Whifflet); and among the speakers of the Brig accent, (Coatbridge taxi drivers pick up ferrs, not fairs; cheeky Coatbridge weans get sent up the sterrs, not stairs.)

I also found a new Coatbridge, with more — and more diverse — people, with changing habits and tastes.

Coatbridge is different now. Less white, more professional and more middle-class. — I remember when we thought Tesco coming to the Brig was the height of cosmopolitanism. Now there are multiple chain coffee franchises and rival Portuguese chicken restaurants. Best of all, Tommy Tango’s has opened a second shop — up the Street, naturally.

This dynamism lies at the heart of what makes Coatbridge so alive and its spirit so enduring. In a town where a brisk stroll can take you from Drumpellier Loch, home to an Iron Age crannog, to Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life, a celebration of Coatbridge’s heritage in the iron, steel and coal industries, you are never far from a reminder of the inevitability of change.

On that walk, you may pass by a monument to Janet Hamilton, a blind 19th century poet who called Coatbridge home. The daughter of a shoemaker, her verses capture the lives of working people in the days when the town was ‘a hunner funnels bleezin’, reekin’/ Coal charrin’, smeekin’.

She also held views on Roman Catholics that would get you asked to tone it down a bit at a post-walk Sash Bash down the local Orange Hall.

“Tho’ whiles in the dark, this is clear at the least/ Oor rulers are giein’ their power to the Beast/ I red them tak’ tent, they may hear by-an’-by/ Frae millions o’ men the ‘No Popery’ cry.”

Coatbridge is known for its Irishness and Catholicity, but it’s less realised it’s big enough to contain a memorial to a proud condemner of all things Rome.

Among the many things this town has going for it is a sense of humour blacker than the coal we once hoicked out of the ground. It probably speaks to a certain Catholic confidence, unusual in the west of Scotland, for although there was plenty of sectarian bigotry, Coatbridge Catholics had strength in numbers.

They also had a visible Catholicness in what is still to this day the most ubiquitous garment to be seen in the town, the semi-official uniform of the Brig: a Celtic top.

A well kent priest

My own brand of Catholicism was shaped not at Parkhead but at St Stephen’s parish church, as it then was, under the ministry of the late Fr Isaac McLaren.

Fr McLaren was a man of theological orthodoxy but impatient of the sort of churchly grandeur that had reigned in earlier times, when the relationship between priest or bishop and congregation was too often remote, hierarchical and even tyrannical.

I recall the imperious swish with which some senior clergy would stride into St Ambrose High (of blessed memory), expecting no doubt the trembling deference of yesteryear.

By now, however, the news reports about priests our teachers had angrily dismissed as bad apples were becoming more frequent and we had started to wonder if the whole orchard was rotten.

Many of the old certainties have fallen away in the years since. Homosexuality was still reviled and ridiculed during my teenage years, but these days I doubt there’s a single Catholic high school in Scotland today without openly gay pupils.

Divorce, too, no longer held the same stigma. Whatever the Catechism said, for the Coatbridge laity divorce became a part of life, but marrying a Rangers supporter was a mortal sin, up there with murder and stealing from the collection plate.

Changed days

A certain kind of conservative Catholic surveys these changes and mutters glumly about the destructive forces of modern life. Take a peek at the pews of Coatbridge, however, and they are not nearly as empty or as elderly as elsewhere.

True, Mass attendance isn’t what it once was and probably never will be, but there are young people who find themselves drawn to a Church that is more relevant in its social gospel of helping to stock food banks, buying toys for socially disadvantaged children, welcoming migrants and giving material as well as spiritual support to refugees.

This kind of Catholicism is practised all over Scotland and the wider world, but in Coatbridge it speaks a special and familiar liturgy to a town built on waves of poor and needy, a town which has learned that progress comes when outsiders are welcomed rather than shunned, a town where belonging is so prided yet open to all-comers. A town, as I am learning, where even a prodigal son can find refuge, draw respite from rootedness, and be a small voice in a never-ending conversation between the old and the new.

I have never been one for patriotism; appeals to Scottishness or Britishness leave me cold. But there is a patriotism I call Coatbridgeness and its flag I am proud to salute.

Stephen Daisley is a journalist and sketch-writer from Coatbridge.

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