Ushered into the tent of The Grand Glasgow and Greater Clyde Circus and armed with two packets of popcorn purchased at the door, Bertie and Ranald Braveheart Macpherson took their seats and waited for the show to begin. The man with the wall eye and the hook for a hand had disappeared but now came back sporting a red tailcoat and a battered top hat. He was the ringmaster, and announced himself as such to the audience, which now more or less filled the tent. As he spoke, introducing the first act, a small band, a keyboard player and a guitarist, provided background music, a hotch-potch of Harry Lauder, the Proclaimers and Bach’s Suite No 1 in G Major for Solo Cello. This was perhaps a little bit loud, as the ringmaster had difficulty in making himself heard. He threw several reproachful glances at the musicians, but they did not seem to notice, and, if anything, played slightly louder than before.
Bertie and Ranald watched with rapt attention as the first act began – a juggler who doubled up as a fire-eater.
“They have special inflammable toothpaste,” said Ranald. “I know how it works.”
Bertie was impressed. He had always admired Ranald’s independence, but the organising of this trip, along with his apparent familiarity with the ways of circuses, raised his respect for Ranald to a new level. How lucky Ranald was, Bertie thought, to have the parents he had: parents who drank and did Scottish country dancing. How lucky he was to have avoided psychotherapy and yoga, and all the other clouds that had hung over Bertie’s life for as long as he could remember, even if now, with his mother in Aberdeen, his situation had improved so dramatically. Perhaps from now on, he said to himself, my life will be more like Ranald’s; perhaps I shall be able to do the things I’ve longed to do all these years.
The juggler finished with a flourish and a final exhalation of volatile fluid and flame. There was thunderous applause, even as every parent in the tent mentally rehearsed the warning they would give to their impressionable offspring after the show: do not try that at home, darling.
Now came the clowns, two knockabout endomorphs in loud tweed jackets, tartan trousers, and outsize glengarry bonnets. These were Chuck and Chick, and in broad Glaswegian they assailed one another with comic accusations while attempting to make bread in a large mixing bowl. The resulting dough-fight brought squeals of delight from the audience, some of whom were spattered with lumps of dough in the process.
Then, with the band playing a valiant, Wagnerian fanfare, into the ring came Wee MacTavish and his Brainy Dugs. Wee MacTavish, a Glaswegian dwarf, was assisted by his wife, Ma MacTavish, also of limited stature, and their friend Sammy Cameron, a Gaelic-speaking dwarf from Mallaig.
“Sammy here’s a teuchter,” Wee MacTavish shouted to the audience. “He canna tell a banana frae an apple. You dinnae get either up in Mallaig!”
(Loud laughter. Cries of “Donald, where’re your troosers?” More laughter)
Sammy then said something in Gaelic, which brought hoots from the audience and a cry of “Aye, mine will be a double, Sammy!”
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” shouted Wee MacTavish. “Kindly shut ya gobs. Thank you. It’s time for my brainy dugs, every one of them with a degree frae Strathclyde University!”
Into the ring now ran four Highland terriers, each sporting a large tartan bow around its neck. These dogs now sat down in a line and looked expectantly at Wee MacTavish.
“Right,” said Wee MacTavish. “These dugs, ladies and gentlemen, are able to do mathematics. Aye, I’m no making this up. I shall show you if you kindly sit down on your bahookies and let me continue uninterrupted.”
“Is that how they talk in Glasgow?” asked Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, his voice lowered.
Bertie nodded. “Yes,” he whispered. “I can understand quite a bit of it, Ranald. I could translate if you like.”
“No,” said Ranald. “That’s all right, Bertie. I think I’ll understand a bit too.”
Wee MacTavish now stood on a stool and faced his brainy dugs. “Right, boys,” he said, wagging an admonitory finger at the dogs. “Noo then, what’s two plus two?”
One of the dogs raised a paw.
“Yes, Hamish?” said Wee MacTavish.
Hamish barked four times.
“See?” said Wee MacTavish. “That’s Hamish for you. Two plus two equals four. Nae flies on that dug!”
There was loud applause.
“Now something harder,” said Wee MacTavish, pointing to another dog. “What’s eight minus six, Jeanie?”
The dog barked twice.
“Is that the right answer?” Ranald asked Bertie.
“Yes,” said Bertie. “It’s amazing, Ranald. These dogs are really clever.”
Wee MacTavish turned back to the audience and took a bow, as did Ma MacTavish and Sammy Cameron.
“Now,” announced Wee MacTavish, “here’s a good question for my clever dugs: which is better – Edinburgh or Glasgow? One bark for Edinburgh; two for Glasgow.”
Without hesitating, the dogs, in unison, gave voice to two barks. This brought immediate laughter, and hissing, from the audience.
“Weegies!” shouted a voice from the back. “Weegie dugs!”
“Aye,” said Wee MacTavish. “Good Weegie dugs!”
The dogs performed a few more tricks and then, to uproarious applause, they left the ring. “That’s the best show I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Bertie.
“It was amazing,” said Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. “Those dogs are very clever, Bertie. They may come from Glasgow, but they’re very clever.”
The dogs were followed by acrobats and by the reappearance of the clowns. Then there was a strongman, who tore the Glasgow telephone directory in half with his bare hands, a pair of female tango dancers, who danced together for ten minutes, and finally a man who sang Flower of Scotland in Japanese while riding round the ring on a unicycle.
It ended far too early for Bertie and Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, and only too soon they found themselves leaving the tent with the rest of the audience. They were not quite as pushy as others, and so were out last, coming face to face with Wee MacTavish, who was smoking a cigarette outside a small caravan parked near the big top.
“Hey, youse boys,” shouted Wee MacTavish. “You want to see something?”
“It’s Mr MacTavish,” said Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, digging Bertie in the ribs. “What do you think he wants, Bertie?”