Balloch Open Mic – Interview with Billy Scobie

song of the river

People often have a strong connection with and a passion for one particular place. Some spend their whole lives in such a place and never feel the need to go elsewhere.  In my opinion such a man is Billy Scobie, as his poems reveal and confirm. Some time ago I interviewed Billy via email and decided to share the thoughts of a multi-talented man of ‘The Vale’, Mary Irvine. 

Interview with Billy Scobie (conducted via email)

I believe you were born in the Highlands so how did you end up in Dumbarton?

I was born in Braeholm Maternity Hospital in Helensburgh – technically in the Highlands, but lived my first six years in Clyde Street in Dumbarton East.

Do you have any special memories of childhood?

I attended the old Knoxland Primary School from the age of four. I have many, many memories of childhood (they would fill a book in themselves). We lived so close to the La Scala cinema that my father used to pop over to “the pictures” in his slippers. Films (not “movies” in those days) which made an impression in those formative years were Peter Pan and Robin Hood.

When I was six years old we (my Father, Mother and I – I was an only child) moved to Bridge Street in Alexandria. Both of my parents had been born in the Vale of Leven. There I attended Main Street Primary School.

Did anyone at school recognise/encourage one or more of your talents?

One of my teachers – Mrs. McIntyre – encouraged my artistic efforts and remarked to my mother that I had a very good vocabulary (something which, I suspect, came from listening to the sermons of the ministers at Jamestown Parish Church).

You are obviously multi-talented. Which of the arts came first? Painting or writing? Short stories or novels? Poetry or prose? Fact or fiction?

I think drawing and painting came before writing. My father encouraged me in Art and gave me some basic tuition. In fact, even in my adult years he was still giving me advice in that regard. I recall an occasion when I was working on my “Three Bonhill Bridges“; he looked over my shoulder and advised me to paint the buildings in the distance a shade darker. I did so and it clearly improved the work. I sold that painting to the local Council. For a while it hung in Alexandria Library, then for a number of years in my then workplace, the Council Offices at Garshake, Dumbarton. Presently it hangs in Bonhill Primary School.

Do you have a personal preference? Is there something different you ‘get’ from each?

I have no preference between painting and writing. Since my sons and my daughter were born, however (Jamie is now 14, Johnny 12 and Maggie 8), I have not had the peace and space to paint. (My last painting was of my mother’s hands. I wanted to say something about the lifetime of work those hands had done for me, the tears they had wiped away, the embraces…).

So it’s been just the writing for those fourteen years really. Again I have no preference as to the nature of the work. I loved working on my novels, though, perhaps more than the short stories. Poetry is, I feel, more intensely personal. I think I’m getting more satisfaction from getting my poetry “out there” and from the feedback I’ve received for “Song of the River” than from any of my novels. I can never leave fact behind and stray entirely into fiction. I always have to have my writing anchored in some way to reality. I am besotted with Scottish history.

Was there any painter or writer you wanted to emulate/who influenced your work?

When I was around eight years old, with my father I saw the Tony Hancock film “The Rebel“. There is a scene in that comedy in which Hancock (farcically devoid of authentic talent) enters a studio which he is to share with an artist friend. Something of the atmosphere of that room spoke to me. Canvases, brushes, tubes of paint. The vast window looking over the chimneys of Paris at night. Its romance seduced me. From then on I wanted to be an artist.

I was impressed with Van Gogh, but curiously more by the man than by his paintings. I admired the way he struggled to be a sincere Christian preacher and how he stuck doggedly to his Art in spite of receiving no recognition during his lifetime. I owe a certain amount to my old Vale of Leven Academy Art teacher, Farquhar Fraser, who taught me not so much how to draw and paint, but how to think as an artist. 

When I was eight years old my Aunt Cathie took me on holiday to Butlin’s holiday camp in Bognor Regis. There was a day trip from the camp to Arundel Castle. When I got home after the holiday I wrote a wee poem about our visit to the castle. I think that was my first ever poem. My father was a Robert Burns enthusiast. I recall an occasion when he and I were walking along Alexandria Main Street, near the old Albert Hotel. I asked him if Burns had ever been a soldier. He thought for a moment and replied – “Some men fight with a pen”. I’ve never forgotten that.

Is there an overall philosophy about your work/life?

It would be pretentious to say that I have a “philosophy”. I profess to be a Christian. I believe entirely in God, but I must confess to struggling with doubts on a daily basis with aspects of the Bible – such as “eternal damnation”. A friend recently pointed out that in my poetry I relate the spiritual to the worldly. I had not consciously realised I was doing this, but Yes – that is what I try to do – “A white rose growing from that dark, sacred earth. God in those very petals.”

As I get older I realise more painfully how we grow up living Life to please and impress our parents and other loved ones, and when they are no longer in this world it is like playing to an empty theatre. We have to believe that they are up there, in the balcony. We just can’t see them.                                                               

I was intrigued by your painting ‘Evangelical Union’. Why Lenin? Does it reflect politics (don’t answer/ tell me to mind own business if you wish!)  The bottom, left corner I see as biblical. Is there a special significance there?

Why is Lenin in the painting of the Evangelical Union? Well… it isn’t Lenin! I literally tried to paint the memory of a dream I had in childhood. There was this man (who just happened to look like Lenin) delivering an incredibly important message (don’t know what) to mankind from the EU Church. Yes – I did try to rationalise it into a conscious religious statement. The clue is on the noticeboard – Romans: Chapter 4 – where God promises Abraham that “Your descendants shall be as many as the stars”.

What did the production of the stained glass window mean to you?

How can I measure the debt I owe to Rev. Ian Miller? He has been a tremendous guide and support to me in so many ways in the years since I joined Bonhill Church in 1997. He paid me a huge compliment in asking me to design a stained glass window to commemorate his ministry at Bonhill. The design illustrates the soldiers and the Jewish leaders confronted with the Empty Tomb – the evidence of the Resurrection – the very foundation of the Christian Faith. I often think of that window as being (though by no means my most skilful or imaginative work) my most fulfilling effort.                                                                                            

All of your work revolves around The Vale. ‘Song of the River’ reflects quite strongly the passion you feel for this area. Is there a favourite poem in the collection? Have you ever left The Vale artistically speaking?

Do I have a favourite poem from “Song of the River”? No… I think every day I would give you a different answer . . . but it is wonderful to write a poem for the woman you love.

The Vale? I am a Vale man, born of Vale folk. I have never left the Vale physically, spiritually, artistically or in any other way. This valley and its people have made me who I am.

Song of the River by Billy Scobie,  Kindle edition available on Amazon at £5.30

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Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

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