Following the forgotten half-mythical Molendinar Burn leads the Glasgow Chronicler and I into the heart of Glasgow’s gangster edgelands.
We edge towards the source of the Molendinar Burn. It is a sacred historical spot yet the burn is buried, diverted and culverted deep down within the subconscious of the city. Every now and then fragments of the burn burst up through the layers at obscure points in the urban landscape: a dilapidated cemetery, a former doss house, an eerie park. It is known only to engineers, architects, east Glaswegians of a certain age, devotees of cults to the arcane and forgotten and the odd tunnelling urban explorer. Yet it is crucial to Glasgow’s history, the beginning where myth and practical needs shape a city’s first tentative steps. Glasgow is a city of Victorian splendour and the Clyde, but the Molendinar Burn is Glasgow’s displaced, forgotten medieval beginnings.
We squelch about a golf course and its bunker of a clubhouse, looking for the source of the Molendinar. It’s so waterlogged from weeks of rain that it appears to emerge from a watery quagmire set amongst a group of trees.
“It’s not exactly Burton and the Blue Nile”.
The Glasgow Chronicler (GC) provides a soundscape of silences, killer one liners, burst of poetry, mournful moans, mocking laughter and arcane references that constantly has me reaching discretely for my mobile phone to look-up Wikipedia. For once I know this one.
We are not entirely convinced this is the source but conditions discourage further exploration. In any case the burn gathers itself out of the waterlogged trees and emphatically tinkles a ‘follow me’ call onwards, out of the golf course to disappear under some fenced-off wasteland.
Glasgow’s name, a Gaelic denotation meaning dear green place, comes from a beautiful wooded valley beside the Molendinar Burn where St Mungo, patron saint and founder of the city, founded a church in the 6th century. The Molendinar Burn provided essential water for the mills and craft industries of early medieval Glasgow. The culverting of the burn started in 1887 and older Glaswegians remember now-buried stretches where they could walk alongside it or play as children.
We enter the Riddrie Park cemetery in search of the lost burn. The cemetery is looking unkempt and feels slightly abandoned, roughed-up by recent storms. Amongst the fallen trees and collapsing headstones we find a child’s grave, a colourful play pit of toys, plastic flowers, and baubles, all torn asunder by the winds. We tidy it up and re-stand the flowers in their pots but it is fragile, the next gust of wind will reap it again. We search for the burn and find it gushing out of a pipe, flowing through beds choked with grasses before some fifty metres later disappearing back into a pipe and underneath the city.
Gangster edgelands: Provanmill and the Thompsons
When we leave the cemetery the atmosphere chills as we walk into a neighbourhood of stone-pebbled grey houses, rubbish-strewn gardens wild dogs touring their territory and eyeballing from passing locals. We are on someone else’s turf and they know it. It’s not the usual Glaswegian default of friendliness. Another burst of wind and rain sweeps through the deprived streets, fretting the rubbish and moulding leaves.
A burnt out shell of a pub adds to the mean feel of the place. Birds flap about inside charred and blackened rooms. GC stares oddly at the pub. Something is sparking and churning-up connections inside his legendary vaults. The faded letters, Provanmill, are telling him something. If this is Provanmill then this is Thompson territory.
This is lost on me. I know more about the Glasgow cricket scene than the Glasgow gangster scene. A dig around on the internet reveals unsurprisingly conflicting stories and myths about this world. Braggadocio claims are made to enhance reputations or sell gangster book memoires as denials are made to avoid reprisals and police attention.
Arthur Thompson was a notorious Glasgow gangster who ran organised crime for over thirty years. Thompson began his career robbing stores, extortion and lending money. He was said to crucify bad debtors by nailing them through the hands to floors or doors. He graduated to robbing banks and, allegedly, smuggling arms into Northern Ireland. M15 took an interest and in return for information Thompson was granted immunity. He also invested in legitimate business. By the 1980s Thompson and his son, Arthur Jnr, had moved into the drugs trade and controlled half the Glasgow market.
Thompson was unquestionably hard as nails. When he was shot in the groin he checked himself into a private clinic and told the police a bit had flown off from a drill. When he was ‘working’ in London and the Krays put a price on his head Thompson walked into their pub, pointed a sawn-off shotgun at them and shouted “I’m Arthur Thompson. You’ll no’ forget me.” It might have been one reason why even London gangsters such as ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser regarded the Glasgow scene “as the Wild West”.Thompson ended-up working as an enforcer for them and was their Scottish link after he returned to Glasgow. In 1966 he escaped death when a bomb exploded in his car killing his mother-in-law.
The Provanmill Inn was Thompson’s headquarters and a meeting place to plan killings, robberies and drug deals. The Molendinar has led us into the middle of Thompson turf and straight to their HQ. This area is a map littered with the pinheads of assassination attempts, beatings, shootings and murder, the most notorious being the shooting and killing of Arthur Jnr outside the family home just around the corner in 1991.
The chief suspect in the shooting of Arthur Jnr was Paul Ferris, a former enforcer for the Thompsons. One reason why they might have become enemies is that Thompson Snr possibly tipped off the police to Paul Ferris after Ferris had apparently brutally stabbed a man and his dog. The Thompsons sent Ferris to their remote Scottish island home to hide out but Ferris was shortly raided and eventually jailed for 18 months for possessing a weapon. When Arthur Jnr came out on a prison break he announced in the Provanmill a hit list that included Paul Ferris. Within hours he was shot dead.
On the day of Arthur Jnr’s funeral two of Ferris’s associates were found dead in a car left on the street so that the funeral procession passed by it. They had been shot in the back of the head and up the anus, a method that became known as a Glasgow send-off.
Thompson Snr was to die of a heart attack some 18 months later in 1993. No-one has ever fully explained the shooting of Arthur Jnr although Ferris is widely regarded as responsible. Ferris was tried for the murder but was found not guilty. He is amazingly still alive with a career in crime writing and business investment. Most recently the film, The Wee Man, was based on his life.
There is also a tendency to look back at the so-called respect and honour of old school gangsters. Certainly Glaswegian criminals were said to go to great lengths to ensure innocent bystanders were not caught-up in their vicious games. Yet their loan sharking preyed on the poor and vulnerable and the legacy of Glasgow’s heroin problems was partly created by the Thompson family.
A final insult to the memory of the Thompsons is that their old pub, ravaged in a mysterious arson attack, and where they plotted to kill Ferris, was for a while being guarded by Frontline Security, a security firm founded by…Paul Ferris.