KEITH MACKENZIE meets Alistair MacKay, Glasgow Gael, former police inspector and secretary of Queen’s Park FC
Although Alistair MacKay now spends more time in the small north Skye township of Hamara than Hampden, football is never far from his mind.
For 15 years the home of Scottish football was Alistair’s office, until the Glasgow Gael retired in 2009 from the post of club secretary at Queen’s Park FC.
It’s a place that invokes many happy memories as a young fan, and in later years being an official would allow him to get up close to some of the heroes who had graced the hallowed turf.
Perhaps no one in the venue’s illustrious history left their mark on it like the recently-departed Alfredo Di Stefano, when he starred in Real Madrid’s magical 7-3 European Cup final victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960.
Alistair was just a 17-year-old schoolboy then, but along with a crowd of 130,000 he stood mesmerised as that stellar Madrid team recorded its greatest triumph.
For Alistair, the story came full circle in 2002 when Hampden once again hosted the final. This time he was a lot closer to the action and his duties in the tunnel even led to an accidental meeting with King Juan Carlos — as the Spanish monarch made his way out of the Real dressing room after wishing his favourite team good luck.
The previous evening, Alistair had been in the company of footballing royalty.
He recalls: “I was at a civic dinner in the Art Galleries, and was fortunate enough to meet up with Ferenc Puskas, Di Stefano and Francisco Gento — the stars of that 1960 team. “I wouldn’t usually ask for autographs — but these were three I did ask to sign the menu card.”
GLASGOW has shaped Alistair’s life —he was born in Rottenrow hospital, brought up in suburban Whitecraigs and spent 30 years in the Glasgow Police prior to taking on the role at Hampden.
But his roots lie in Skye, and Hamara — where he is currently busy working to repair an old road — is very much home from home.
The house now in his family’s possession was built by great-grandfather Hugh MacKay — the patriarch of a family Alistair imagines as being “progressive in their own way” at the turn of the 20th century.
Alistair’s great uncle Donald, in what must have been a highly-unusual move for a crofting family, was sent south to be schooled at Hutchesons’ Grammar, before going on to the Glasgow School of Art.
Another of his grandmother’s brothers, Hugh, went on to become a headmaster in the Northumbrian mining village of Ashington, before returning to Skye where he helped form the Skye Crofters Union, and was influential in the local co-operative movement.
Mention of Ashington — birthplace of the Charlton brothers — inevitably turns the conversation back to football.
Alistair adds: “Who knows, great uncle Hugh may very well have taught the Charltons’ mother, who was a Milburn (and cousin of the great Tyneside hero Jackie).
“I still have my great uncle’s gold pocket watch presented to him when he retired. I wished I had it with me the last time Scotland played England at Hampden, when I did speak to Bobby Charlton in the lounge.
“But that’s just another very tenuous football connection, of which there are many.”
ALISTAIR’S CHILDHOOD holidays were spent between his two sets of grandparents — one side in Duirinish and the other in Staffin. His father Calum, who became a railway inspector, hailed from Feorlig near Dunvegan. Mother Katie — latterly a nursing sister in Mearnskirk Hospital, who at the age of 93 still lives in Giffnock — is from Glasphein. As a result Alistair has been a Gaelic speaker since childhood.
“Like Cockneys say they are born within the sound of the Bow Bells, I’m very much a proud Glaswegian as I was born in Rottenrow in the very centre of the city,” he said. “But I’m also proud of my Skye heritage.
“For as long as I can remember most of my summers were spent in Skye, principally in Staffin.
“I was brought up in East Renfrewshire, and we stayed in Whitecraigs. It was quite an upper-class area in many ways, but my father worked on the railway and we lived in a tied house.
“I can’t remember when, but I think I almost started speaking Gaelic overnight.
“My mother’s father — Johnny Cameron in Glasphein — preferred not to speak to me in English. I thought so much of him I began speaking Gaelic.”
Alistair’s Glasgow-Skye upbringing will be familiar to many of that generation, whose parents had no choice but to leave the island for work. Nevertheless, they did what they could to maintain the connection and help out at home.
“We got eight weeks’ school holidays, and seven of them I spent in Glasphein and the eighth week in Feorlig. My parents would come north for the last fortnight and spend a week in each place.
“My father got a fortnight’s holiday — but he came home to Skye to work. It was different work — but at that time they felt almost compelled to come back and help the old family.”
JOINING the Glasgow Police in 1964, Alistair became part of an institution well known for having a strong Hebridean link. And indeed one of his early colleagues in Maryhill was Murdo Beaton, who would go on to join the forensics division before returning to Skye to teach for many years at Portree High School.
Maryhill, where Alistair served for 11 years, proved a place of contrasts.
“It had its hard quarters — Possilpark, Saracen and bits of Maryhill,” he remembers. “But then from the northern side of Great Western Road to the city boundary at Knightswood we saw a high degree of affluence. At that end there there was Kelvinside and Glasgow Academy, and at the other poverty and hardship.”
His next posting was to Govanhill, where Alistair remembers the local police often being referred to as “Garda,” — such was the prevalence of Irish immigrants in the district. And a stint in Castlemilk followed before he took up an inspector’s post in Bridgeton in the east of the city.
“I would say it was a bit tougher than other parts, but it was a great place to work,” he added. “In the Barrowfield, near to Celtic Park, delivery vans used to ask for a police escort. As sure as fate if they went to deliver anything their van would be ransacked, if not gone, by the time they got back.
“On that stint in Bridgeton I put out the last shift at the old Tobago Street police office, which was almost Dickensian.
“But it was a thought, turning the key for the last time in the place — all the things that had gone on in there. Some pretty notorious characters had been locked up in that place.”
Eventually Alistair would rise up the ranks to become a chief inspector and he worked for three years as director of studies at the police college in Tulliallan Castle. His final four years were spent back at Craigie Street on Glasgow’s south side, before he retired from the force on completion of 30 years service in 1994.
Having been a member at Queens Park for several years, Alistair took up the role as secretary in 1994 — his tenure coinciding with the complete renovation of the club’s traditional home. The Hampden stadium redevelopment was not without its problems — and eventually it took a government bail-out to save it in 1999.
“I’m pleased to say my fingerprints weren’t on that one,” he stresses, although he notes that there have been recent rumours the Scottish Football Association may decide not to renew their lease on the stadium when their current 20-year arrangement runs out.
Alistair looks back fondly on his long association with Queens Park – a club which can claim to have laid the foundations for international football. The amateurs provided the 11 players who represented Scotland in the first-ever international match with England in 1872, and later helped export the game to Ireland, Wales and Scandinavia.
“They were progenitors of a lot of things in football — not just in Scottish football either,” Alistair says. “But (in the modern day) it was a job of contrasts. At our home games, on a good day, we’d maybe get 500 people. Then, at the other end of the scale Hampden would host cup finals, internationals and the European Cup Final.”
ALISTAIR is still a regular matchgoer at Hampden – as well as at the home of his “other team” at Ibrox. But in recent months his main focus has been on working at his base in Skye, and on upgrading the road which leads to his house.
The Skye link is cherished by his wife Fiona — also from Staffin, and the daughter of well-known merchant John “Bertie” MacKenzie — and their twins Malcolm and Kirsteen and youngest daughter Catriona.
He adds: “It’s the sense of ‘Tilleadh Dhachaigh’ — coming home. “But I really take my hat off to our forebears. I now appreciate the colossal amount of work that they did.
“I’m working on this road at the moment and I guess that’s a message for life — all you can do is to create a road for your family and hope they keep along it.”