From The Garngad – God’s Garden – to the Great Garden – High Corrie
By Peter Finlay
I started as minister to Townhead Church in 1988. Townhead Church sits atop Garngad Hill in Glasgow’s East End with its amazing 198 foot high spire. The Hill is one of the highest places near the centre of the city. The Hill whose tall spire German bombers used to guide them as they headed for the Clydebank shipyards. The Garngad – the locals would call it ‘the Good and the Bad’, or else God’s Garden, which sounds great as a place for a church. Unfortunately the Garngad was better known as a place of poverty and is depicted as such in a 1915 etching I have. Similar in name, if perhaps in little else, to An Gàrradh Mòr, the Great Garden or High Corrie, An Coire Àrd. And that is where I now live.
There is another connection of some rather special interest. Very special if you love the paintings of Joan Eardley as so many do. Even more special if you have perhaps fallen in love with the children she painted. Joan Eardley started her characteristic paintings of landscape and seascape through visits here in Corrie while attending Glasgow School of Art. Here she also drew some wonderful sketches of her friend Jeannie Kelso, sitting in her special chair at an old kitchen range. You can almost see in her work Joan’s very real love for her subject that we see again when in Townhead she befriended and painted the Samson children.
When I was in Royston, as the place was renamed to distance it from the far more interesting name of the Garngad which many locals still kept using in defiance of the official desire to give it a nice shiny new name, some of the Samson family were living nearby. Of course they were no longer the children of Joan’s paintings, and yet there they were as adults up there on ‘the Hill’ and only a few hundred yards from where Joan’s studio in St James Road had been. We would sometimes meet Pat and Ann in the street and they and their wains were often just over the road from the old Spire, which still soared into the Glasgow sky even after the body of the church had been demolished. Ann’s little girl appears in one of my photos looking a bit of a wee waif with Pat in the same photo, simply sitting on the pavement with her pals and their kids.
Pat appears again (in a green skirt) sitting just outside the graffiti adorned Church hall. They are grown up, yet somehow seeing them like this I think Joan Eardley would have been right there alongside them, just as fascinated by them as she ever was. No doubt they would have appeared again for us as adults in more paintings but just as full of character as we see them when they were young. Pat had a son called Jo-Jo who looked as tough as his mum looked – and was – gentle. Here he is in front of the Spire and the suspicion of a catapult suspended from his wrist!
Marjorie (my wife) remembers Ann telling her, with some humour, what has been recorded about them by others about how the paintings she had given them ended up as paper aeroplanes or as fire lighters! Ann also reminisced warmly about the treacle pieces Joan would give them. I begin to imagine some of Rembrandt’s early works floating through the streets of Leiden sped on their way from the hands of innocent local children!
I have a photo of my son Hamish when only 11 months old in a pram beside the same tall Spire that Pat and Ann Samson were so familiar with. The Garngad indeed – the Garden of God gone to waste! He could almost be on his way to becoming one of Joan’s street kids himself!
Then again, thinking of kids, we ran a children’s club called the Good News Club. Sometimes we held it in the wee hall on the ground floor of the huge block of flats where we lived. I don’t think any other Christian club has ever been held in such a setting! On one wall was a huge mural by a local artist. It no doubt expressed his feelings for his home turf. He had the title ‘Royston Uprising From Hell’ right across the foot of it. It depicted the church with its immense spire, which more than anything was the symbol of Royston or the Garngad, and the three 20 storey tower blocks near it, all as if they are being spewed out of a fiery furnace. Royston must have felt like a hell to many of its folk. Yet what a backdrop for a club where the children were learning about the God of Love and His Saviour Son Jesus Christ! I don’t know what Joan Eardley would have thought of the painting itself. Somehow I think she would have understood it very well in her sympathy for those she so loved to depict in her art. I think she would have been very moved. It would have connected well for her with her Samson family and many more she knew so well in the area.
Pat was especially loved by Joan – apparently on account of her squint which features over and again in the paintings of her! She had this put right, I believe, and apparently Joan was not best pleased! But, I think, better than her squint was her lovely smile. Ann could smile too, but it did not show quite so often. (Joan has a picture of the two with the contrast showing very markedly indeed! However I have a photo with Ann perhaps out-smiling Pat.)
These were amazing days with our tower block neighbours. There was the young fellow who always would introduce himself to everyone as a ‘wee Quarrier’s Home baby’. There was our next door neighbour Peter and his friend Cathy who became a rather lovely Christian in a very quiet way and who helped every week in the Good News Club, as did Peter also. Often there were students from overseas, especially Africa. One of my favourite pictures is of a Ghanaian mother with our wee baby son in her arms and her own little boy next to them. And there were others. Drug dealers and money lenders, including one who played games like once attempting to terrorise me when I was coming up in the lift with our 15 year old Labrador. He was waiting at the door with his two Pit Bulls. I thought it wiser to go to another floor but he jerked his head at me, a gesture for me to come on out of the lift. I had no choice as every time I closed the door he opened it again. Shortly after Marjorie was walking down our common corridor with our old Lab when he appeared, but without his terror dogs. He shrank back against the wall in real fear as if he’d never met such a dangerous looking dog before as our doddery old fellow! No doubt Joan could well have added him to her gallery of Townhead characters.
I would like to finish with the thought of all those lovely, so true to life paintings of the Townhead children in Joan’s gallery of humanity. The humanity that still comes across in these memories of Ann’s about 7 years ago: “Joan died poor, but at the end of the day she’s part of Townhead, part of Glasgow, and she’ll always be part of the community that stayed with her at that time. She felt part of us.” That and also that joyful Good News Club with its mural depiction of what could still represent so many tragic situations in our world today. The hells of Donetsk and Kherson; Yemen, Somalia and Gaza and so many more (and who knows if even High Corrie might not have something of the same darkness hidden in it just as much as in the Garngad or any of these places) and the same slogan over them all – ‘Rising out of Hell’. And yet the great final question that we could wish would find that same wonderful answer the children in the Good News Club heard week after week. Christ is Risen! The true Christmas is always with us!
Featured image shows the sketch of Garngad, belonging to the author, by Stuart Johnston 1915. All image credits to the author apart from the two noted.