Billy Garioch recalls day he met Nelson Mandela

HE’S shaken hands with Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, shared a joke with funnyman Billy Connolly and regularly welcomed Sir Sean Connery home.

But none of that stopped long-standing concierge Billy Garioch from feeling nervous as he stepped forward to be honoured by the very industry he has served for 50 years.

The 64-year-old will retire next month, ending half a century working at the newly-renamed Caledonian, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the West End.

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Billy, a father of two with three grandchildren, was presented with an inscribed sgian dubh, badge and cuff-links by the Society of the Golden Keys – an organisation that brings together concierges from across Scotland – at a special dinner at the Princes Street hotel on Thursday night.

The presentation was made by entrepreneur Sir Tom Farmer, who first met Billy back in 1964.

A modest Billy described the presentation as “special”.

He said: “My legs were shaking though, just like the nerves on my first day 50 years ago.

“I’m still at work first thing tomorrow, though, and will be here as promised until my last and final day in March.”

Billy, who was born in Easter Road, joined the Caledonian in 1963 at the age of just 15.

He started out as a pageboy, delivering letters and papers to guests, and enjoyed the work so much that he decided not to pursue an apprenticeship with electrical engineering firm Ferranti.

“I moved into the hotel when I was 15 years old,” Billy said. “It was the first time I’d been away from home but I had trouble getting up early for work and I think the boss thought that if I lived in the building, I’d at least be on time.

“We had separate dorms for the men and women staff. It was up on the fifth floor with old wooden floorboards running between the two and the head chambermaid stood guard with her room in the middle.

“You weren’t allowed to go between them and if she heard the floorboards creaking she’d be out and on to you like a shot.”

Billy’s memorable encounters over the years have included carrying bags for Elizabeth Taylor and meeting “living legend” Cliff Richard, but an encounter with one of the world’s greatest revolutionaries sticks in his mind.

“Nelson Mandela is such a gentleman,” Billy recalled.

“I will never forget the day I shook his hand. He shook all our hands, every one of us, and said thanks for the service.

“We’d never had anybody do that before, you know, shake our hands like that. Never. It was an honour.”

Billy also carried Burt Lancaster’s golf clubs to the film star’s car every morning and described Sir Sean Connery as “one of our favourite guests”.

Despite the famous faces, Billy’s most treasured meeting through the hotel was his first encounter with eventual wife, Helen.

He said: “Her mother and her grandmother both worked here in the staff canteen. One afternoon her granny offered me down to the house for a cup of tea and there I met Helen. She was still at school and I was also very young at the time. Helen and I have been together ever since.”

Hotel general manager Dale MacPhee said of Billy: “He is so guest- focused – it’s all about the service. He’s certainly going to be missed.”

Elizabeth Taylor

FEW people can lay claim to almost telling silver screen icon Elizabeth Taylor where to go, but Billy Garioch is one.

The veteran porter can still recall the time he mistakenly went to tell the glamorous actress to leave the Capital’s Caledonian Hotel, which has long been a favourite haunt amongst celebrities.

He said: “She just looked really scruffy. Her jeans were splattered with paint.

“It all began when an MG Midget sports car rolled up and two people got out very quickly. I was on the front door and they just rushed by.

“They then sat down in the lounge and the head porter said to me, ‘have you seen them and what they are wearing?’ My boss then came through and told me to ask them to leave – they were just unsuitably dressed to be in the hotel.

“So I went over, but just as I was about to ask them to leave the lady removed a headscarf and lo and behold it was Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.

“Before I knew it there were lots of people eagerly serving them. It turned out they were in Edinburgh in connection with the filming of The Taming of the Shrew.”