Journalists are not supposed to admit that they missed out on a story or the chance to meet one of the giants of history. Fearless seekers of truth are not caught napping, literally, when the former President of the United States and First Lady are visiting the Scottish church their parents then attended. But that – to my eternal shame – is what happened to me in late 1991 when I was staying with my parents and slept in.
On the Saturday evening, the Castlehead Kirk gossip network was buzzing with hot news. It was said, revealed my mother, that President Reagan and Nancy Reagan were going to visit the church down the road that they attended every week and I didn’t. Tomorrow, in Paisley, Scotland. Ronald and Nancy Reagan. What about that?
This rumour sounded improbable to me, even when a neighbour came round to explain excitedly that the minister had been on the telephone and wanted to ensure a good turnout but the members of the Kirk were not to tell anyone else because of the security risk. It still sounded most unlikely. Why would one of the world’s most famous and previously most powerful men travel all the way to Paisley? There was some kind of family connection, it was said, but in 1991 with no World Wide Web on which to look it up there was no way of us checking. Of course Reagan wouldn’t show up. I went to bed and slept.
The next morning, my father was out walking the dogs and realised from the sight of helicopters above the church that there must be something substantial in these rumours. As my parents left the house that morning they gave me one last chance to walk down the road and sit in church with the Reagans. I mumbled something along the lines of “no, I’m okay here, I’m an atheist, I think, bye” and returned to my agnostic slumber.
The subsequent scene at Castlehead church resembled something from House of Cards (the US edition) or In the Line of Fire with Clint Eastwood. There was heavy security and the graveyard was full of US agents in raincoats speaking into walkie talkies. Assorted hacks and photographers were on their way, including future colleagues of mine from the Scottish edition of The Sunday Times, such as Gerald Warner and a photographer called Frank who it is said was wrestled to the ground by Secret Service agents. That was later. A few of the members of the kirk, among them my parents, were standing in the driveway at the entrance to the church when assorted black limousines arrived at the gate. Out got Ronald Reagan and Nancy, who then strolled towards the church where some of his antecedents had been married in the 19th century before they emigrated to America. What were the Downies – his relatives – thinking when they left Paisley? Honestly, who could prefer sunny California to the West of Scotland?
Good morning said my parents and several others to the Reagans. Good morning said Ronnie very affably, although it seems that Nancy looked a little perplexed. The couple stayed for a typically Presbyterian service and were welcomed warmly in remarks made by the minister, Gordon Kirkwood. Amazing Grace was sung and on the way out the President admired an excellent painting of the church hung near the front doorway. It was by a local artist, Margaret Barrie, and the minister insisted that the Reagans must take it as a souvenir to remind them of their Paisley connection. That is how the canvas ended up winging its way to the Reagan ranch in California.
I missed all this, and duly felt like a complete dolt when my parents returned home for lunch.
But what was Reagan doing in Scotland in 1991? He had it turns out agreed to accept an invitation to become a Keeper of the Quaich, Scotch whisky’s highest accolade, an ancient and venerable order invented by very clever marketing men three years earlier in 1988 to promote the whisky industry on or near its 500th anniversary. No nation on earth does manufactured heritage quite like the Scots. A quaich, by the way, is a small, flat dish, from which whisky is traditionally drunk, now only as part of a ceremonial or a toast. Even those of us who like Scotland’s greatest product prefer to drink it from a glass.
Reagan had been persuaded to travel to Perthshire to accept this great honour, and Paisley was a neat diversion on the way. Why not pop into the Church his family had worshipped in?
That Sunday afternoon he and Nancy travelled to the whisky dinner and he delivered what sounds like a pretty good acceptance speech. It was written by the Scottish comic actor Johnnie Beattie, as he revealed in the Daily Record in 2012.
“It was kept very quiet because it would not have looked good for his entourage. They had written a speech for him to give after he had been officially inducted as a Keeper of the Quaich to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Scotch whisky industry, but the Earl of Elgin decreed it was not suitable. So I got a call just after noon on a Saturday and was asked to write another. I thought it was a joke, but they assured me they were serious. I asked them for some information and told them I would have it done by the following week and they said, ‘No, no. We need it in six hours – it’s for tomorrow night.’ I said, ‘A speech for the American president in six hours?’ but they phoned me back half an hour later and gave me the information. It was on the telly on the Monday night and, whatever you say of Ronald Reagan, he could deliver a line – his delivery was fantastic. Let’s face it, he was an ex-film star.”
Beattie recalls one of the gags he scripted for the former President that day, about his ancestors who left Scotland and arrived in the US:
“In common with other migrants who left Scotland and went to America, they were given a horse, a plough, 10 acres of land and two tickets for Frank Sinatra’s first farewell concert.”
So there you go. Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s trip to Scotland, and how I almost met them but didn’t and wish I had.