Brendan McLaughlin, the name and the man who bore it with pride and humility, will always be a central character in any credible social, cultural and political history of Glasgow, the city he loved and served so well.

Given that, it is a shame of almost criminal proportions that no obituary has ever appeared in any Glasgow publication about this crucially important Glaswegian. This is not an obituary but an Appreciation from his publisher, of a remarkable man, a very good friend to Ringwood over many years, who eventually also became a treasured author.

Everyone in Glasgow, or so it often seemed, knew at least one version of this man, particularly the Publican, the Musician, and the Political Activist. They will soon know the Writer too.

In Glasgow’s social and cultural history, he will probably be best remembered as Brendan the culturally creative Publican. He owned the two oldest pubs in Glasgow, the Scotia Bar founded in 1792 and the Clutha Vaults established in 1819, located a few hundred yards apart. He and his ex-wife, supported by a whole team of staff including family members, transformed them from rundown decrepit bars into Glasgow’s two most significant cultural salon centres; the Scotia Bar for Literature and the Clutha Vaults for Music. Brendan dreamed a dream, and for a while  came close to making it a reality, of creating a Stockwell Village that would rival the intensity, cultural productivity and social excitement of that other cultural village, Greenwich. Even now, many years after he sold both, they continue to be a major legacy; the Scotia still a beacon for literature lovers and writers, and the Clutha Vaults for music lovers and musicians.

The other areas of his contribution to Glasgow life reflect three of the great loves of his life; music, politics and people.

Brendan the musician flourished all his adult life, playing with his group the Kingston Bridge Trio and many other spontaneous combinations of talented musicians; and latterly establishing himself as a singer/song writer of quality and distinction, producing several CDs, albums and videos. Enter his name in YouTube and hear for yourself. One CD, Independence, written as part of his contribution to the 2014 Referendum received a letter of thanks from Alex Salmond. His most recent CD, The First of May, is an accompanying soundtrack for his book.

Brendan the political activist was a fervent defender of people and principles. Eschewing political parties, as a Scotialist, all his life he fought hard and directly for the causes of fairness and justice in endless campaigns at local, national and international level.

Brendan gave a great deal of time, effort and love to people. He loved his big family unconditionally. He loved his wife, Joni, with a deep, passionate and lasting love. He loved and adored his two children, Siobhan and Kevin, with an equal intensity that also encompassed Joni’s daughter, Katie, too. He loved Eilidh, his granddaughter, who he was able to spend precious time with. He loved his loyal dog, Ruby Tuesday. He loved his fellow man and woman, his spiritual soulmates.

He loved his city, Glasgow, and served it well. He loved his country, Scotland, and fought loud and hard for its independence. He loved Ireland and cherished his Irish roots.  

He loved Glasgow Celtic, with no place in his heart for sectarian nonsense.

His love of people ran the full spectrum and his love was returned in full. Not only did he know everyone, but most of those who knew him liked him, respected him, treasured him and indeed loved him. In the words James Kelman concluded his Foreword with, “Brendan McLaughlin, the guy we loved.  All his pals.  We loved the guy.”

From Alasdair Gray, who gently nudged him away from fiction and into his destiny of writing memoirs, through the other two of the trio of greatest Scottish male novelists, his great pal James Kelman and his friend Willie McIlvanney, and beyond, he earned the respect, affection and friendship of almost all Scotland’s writers.

Two of Scotland’s greatest Billys, Connelly and McNeill, were close friends, with starring roles in his memoir The First of May. Right through the alphabet, from Alasdair and the two Billys, through every musician and artist in Scotland right up to the Zulu dancers he brought to the Clutha Vaults, his myriad legions of friends featured the great and the unknown, the rich and the poor. Because Brendan was no worshipper or collector of celebrities. He loved everyone, famous or anonymous. He cared not for a person’s fame, all he wanted was to be with people who shared his political, social and cultural priorities and philosophy. And if you weren’t quite all the way there, he would batter you verbally, loudly, articulately and incessantly, to push you further towards his notion of the right place, for hours and hours at a time, for however long it took to move you closer to him.

As well as love, Brendan had a great, sometimes fiercesome, capacity for anger. All his life he hated bullies and would always oppose them actively. He hated personal bullies, like the individuals and gangs that picked on him in his childhood, to the bikers and criminals that tried to muscle in on his pubs. Usually he found standing up to them was enough for them to back off and desist, but he grew up in, and always lived in, that harsh Glasgow world  where sometimes  you have to fight your corner literally and physically, as well as metaphorically, so he did, unflinchingly.

He had a different, more metaphorically but still actively expressed anger for the corrupt politicians, both Labour and Conservative, he saw as ruining his beloved city, serving their own selfish interests rather than protecting the people and communities they were elected to serve (maybe that’s why there has been no Obituary).

He had particular anger for the purveyors of political creeds that damaged his people, the salt of the earth; against the Holocaust deliverers on through Thatcherism, neoliberalism, institutional privilege and the whole apparatus of class oppression and defence of elitist privilege.

The noises in his head about all these injustices were never stilled, and much noise spilled out from him as he fought all his life for social justice. Much of the noise was turned into powerful music of protest and demand for change, and he received invitations from all over the world, to come and perform those hymns of protest.

For the last two decades of his life, a new focus and a new means of expressing both his love and his anger consumed him as he determined to fulfil a long-time ambition to become a writer of literature as well of music. Nudged gently by Alasdair Gray, his Tutor from his Creative Writing Masters degree course, he determined to write a book that would express the main themes of his life, and document his thoughts and struggles. It took around 16 years of constant work but he finally managed it.  

By then Brendan, the literature lover, had been a good friend of Ringwood for many years. We first met him in 2012 when he turned up at the launch of his good friend, Brian McHugh’s first novel, Torn Edges, held in the All Bar One Bar. After the official launch business, Brendan kept the party going, singing and playing his guitar, joined in a few songs by his wife, Joni. That set a pattern that continued for the next decade. Brendan came to almost every Ringwood Launch, Event, AGM or Party thereafter, usually with his guitar, almost always singing, and became good friends with Ringwood staff and authors alike.

 Unfortunately, several years ago Brendan found a bully he could not face down, terminal cancer. He stood up to it with his normal ferocious response, and amazed his doctors with his success in holding it at bay far longer than they had predicted. He knew it would win in the end, but he held on as long as he could, determined to finish his book and leave it as his memorial. It was a source of great pride and joy for him to learn in early April 2022 that he was being offered a contract by Ringwood Publishing that would guarantee his book would definitely be published. By the time he eventually formally signed it, he was already in the Beatson Centre, before being moved to the Hospice where he died shortly after arrival, on the 13th July 2022, aged 71 years.

His funeral was a massive one, held in Linn Crematorium on 1st August 2022. Crowded, with standing room only and a couple of overflow rooms as well as a live webcam broadcast, it was further proof of the extent of the regard his city and his people had for him. It lasted over two hours, with the Celebrant delivering a wonderful moving eulogy prepared by Joni and the family, and with his two great friends, the Jims, Cullen and Kelman, contributing powerful remembrances.

Then on to the Wake that evening, held in his beloved Clutha Vaults, a night of music and talk that would have moved him deeply, although he had guaranteed family and friends that he would be there too, standing beside them. And it felt like he was.

Four Ringwood authors were at his funeral and three of them have contributed to this Ringwood Appreciation.

Brian McHugh, his long time close friend, who introduced him to Ringwood and stood side by side with him at many Ringwood events over the years wrote

“I first met Brendan briefly around 1980 in a bar called ‘The Brazen Head’ in the South Side; at the time he was working as a concierge in one of the multi-storey flats around the area. He was introduced to me by an old school chum of mine, Brian Farrell, who mentioned something about Brendan being at university doing a social worker course. I bumped into him in various South Side bars over the years, and one year he told me that he had left social work and now ran a stall up the ‘Barras’. He announced that ‘Gents Outfitting’ was his speciality, I was not too sure if he was pulling my leg, I had discovered Brendan had an impish sense of humour at times.

Later on, I was quite surprised to hear that he had taken over ‘The Scotia Bar’. Oddly enough, a bar that wasn’t far from my parent’s old house at Gorbals Cross and, even odder, it was one of the few pubs in the area that I had never been in.

 We had a mutual friend at that time, Sean Tierney, a poet and a brilliant writer of parody songs with a Scottish slant, like ‘Saltcoats fur the Fair’ and  ‘Oh, its closin’ time again’. Billy Connolly and Hamish Imlach had recorded his songs in the folk boom of the Seventies. Sean had become a regular in the Scotia and he managed to persuade Brendan to get the Scotia Writers Prize off the ground. Sean asked me to be on the pre-selection panel and I agreed.

Connolly was one of the final judges and the whole event was a great success, the final was in the City Chambers and the presentation in the Winter Gardens.

Over the years I kept in touch with Brendan, I even managed to get him to sing at my Torn Edges book launch.

Brendan was a generous and good-hearted man, who always thought, quite rightly, that the Scotia Prize was his greatest achievement, and, although he had success with his music and albums, his greatest ambition was to have a book published.

I remember he was overjoyed when Ringwood decided to look at his work; it was a great pity that time ran out.

Brendan is truly a great loss, and will sadly be missed by us all.”

Alex Gordon wrote

“There was a time when I was convinced there were two Brendan McLaughlins.

The first was the Brendan who would corner you in the pub and put you through the political mangle. I suppose you could describe me as apolitical, but Brendan did his utmost to guide me towards issues relating to all things political, local, national and international.

I think my apathy eventually got through to Brendan and then the second Brendan viewed me as a lost political cause. So, instead, we turned to topics close to both our hearts; football (with Celtic a priority) and music (everything and anything).

Brendan’s vibrant enthusiasm on both subjects never ceased to amaze me. I miss our little chats from semi-finals to semiquavers. Alas, I am now only too aware there was only one Brendan McLaughlin.

We may have bemused some strangers stumbling into our company by referring to Brendan as ‘Big Brendan’ considering he was all of 5ft 5-and-a-half inches. There is a simple explanation. There was a day when we were in the pub and I was accompanied by Joe Gillane, owner of floating nightclub The Ferry, and Jack Kearney, his cordon bleu chef. 

I have to look skywards when I’m in their company. Joe is 6ft 5in and Jack is 6ft 3in. I’m the smout at 6ft 2inches. One day, when we were in the pub, Brendan let us know he was not happy being consistently referred to as ‘Wee Man’. To appease our friend, we immediately switched it to ‘Big Brendan’. It stuck from that day on.

And that’s what Brendan was to all of us who were honoured to be included among his many friends, a big, big man.”

The official launch of his book The First Of May has been organised for the 1st May 2023, in where else but the Clutha Vaults, with overflow in the Scotia Bar.

It will be another chance to honour the memory of this marvellous Glaswegian and to welcome the book that will prove to be a fitting memorial for a life well lived.

Sandy Jamieson