Alex ‘Tattie’ Marshall going for gold again as Scottish bowls icon recalls Kelvingrove glory and that celebration after victory over England

We know the type well. They’ve been coming to games since the old king died and have pretty much seen it all. They might wear bunnets, they possibly have ciggies drooping from their bottom lips, or did when that was socially acceptable, and they always have a firm opinion. And they don’t just exist in football, according to Alex “Tattie” Marshall, but lawn bowls, too.

Five-times Commonwealth Games gold medalist Alex "Tattie" Marshall is bound for Birmingham intent on more glory on the bowling green.
Five-times Commonwealth Games gold medalist Alex "Tattie" Marshall is bound for Birmingham intent on more glory on the bowling green.

He explains: “I was nine years old, it was a juniors tournament at Balerno and from the back of the rink this old-timer piped up: “That laddie will never make a bowler.’ I was playing left-handed because that’s what I am, but according to the guy this was the problem. So I swapped over to my right and have done it that way ever since.”

Marshall never saw this sagely fellow again but has a lot to thank him for. All of Scotland does, in fact, because Tattie is our most decorated Commonwealth Games competitor of all time with five gold medals strung up on the wall of his man-cave in Tranent, East Lothian. Tomorrow he’s Birmingham-bound which will tie him with fellow bowler Willie Wood on seven editions of the great sporting festival.

You might wonder, if his left is his “good” hand, how much more he would have won if he’d found a way to play with it. Or if he hadn’t, and the career had never taken off, what he might have done with his life instead. “Who knows?” he chuckles. “Maybe become the Hearts goalie!”

Marshall was a promising keeper in his youth, a protege of the famous Hutchie Vale juvenile club in Edinburgh, and the Jam Tarts, as they were known back then, were his team. “I lived in Gorgie Road, three minutes from Tynecastle, and was a ballboy there, hoping Jim Cruickshank would notice my catching skills. But at school, instead of football in the playground, I was always running round to the Gorgie Mills bowling club. Even in the 15-minute morning break I could play four ends.

“I never told anyone what I was doing. If any kid or a teacher asked where I’d been I’d say I had to nip home. I couldn’t admit I’d been bowling or they’d have gone: ‘Why are you playing that old guys’ sport? I’d have been teased rotten.”

But look at Tattie now. All the self-consciousness has long gone. He’s not just a top sportsman but a cultural icon. That left hand, curled into a fist for a gesture widely interpreted to mean “Get it right up yez”, has seen to that.

We’ll return to Glasgow 2014 and the exuberant celebration which transformed him into the folk-hero of those Games, but he’s keen to impart his relief at being fit and ready for Brum after a couple of recent scares.

“I caught Covid bad, tested positive for 12 days straight until the start of this week, haven’t been able to sleep and didn’t get back on the green until the other day, which just happened to be Scotland’s hottest on record. But it had to be done.

“I was also worried I might have cancer. My dad had it, died at 57, and now I’m 55. I was passing blood and that wouldn’t stop. My doctor sent me for a colonoscopy which was a load of fun. I worry about everything so I was wondering: ‘How long am I going to have left?’ When I got the all-clear I wanted to run through the hospital naked.”

That’s good news - and good news for the nurses that he didn’t streak - but hang on, I hear the snidey among you carp, what are “fit” and “bowling” doing in the same sentence?

Obviously, Marshall says, bowlers have no need for the same punishing training regimes as 400m runners or gymnasts, though a degree of fitness is required for a sport that, unlike just about any other in Birmingham, will involve him, team-mates and rivals in daily competition, sometimes to the extent of six hours at a time.

But, as a leader column in The Scotsman put it when he returned from the last Commonwealths with Gold Coast gold: “We couldn’t be happier that this great champion is anything but a musclebound specimen of physical perfection … more everyman than superman.”

Today Tattie is sat on his sofa with a plate of biscuits between us. While I’m invited to help myself he seems to be testing out his resolve, concentration and fortitude for upcoming challenges in the pairs and fours by ignoring the treats. The cuddly physique may form part of what’s amusing and endearing about our man, but he worries about his weight, too.

“I was doing really well a couple of months ago by cutting out all the snacks and managed to lose two stones.” What’s his weakness? “Crisps. There’s so few in a packet now that a second one’s too tempting.” He should fight Gary Lineker for a lucrative advertising contract. “Well, I did write to Golden Wonder a few years ago but never got a reply.” A man called Tattie promoting tattie crisps? What a missed opportunity!

The nickname, by the way, has nothing to do with a fondness for crisps, potatoes or chips. It dates from childhood when he couldn’t say “Daddy” and has stuck ever since. “If we were to take a stroll round town 80 percent of folk would call me Tattie. Some don’t even know my name is Alex.”

Marshall is a househusband right now and while wife Diane is at work he must fight the temptation, after a spot of dusting while listening to Smooth Radio, with something from the fridge. He also ’fesses up to a weakness for kebabs. It’s been known for him to round off a night out, which has already involved dinner, with a visit to the local carryout - “and that’s 2,000 calories.”

He’s awaiting delivery of his Team Scotland clobber. “I’ve had to order a five-XL top but there’s no way that’s me. The sizing’s definitely been altered.” Long walks over abandoned railway lines maintain a fighting weight and focus the mind. “I listen to the birds and tell myself: ‘I’m the best bowler in the world.’”

An unparalleled six world indoor singles titles can be produced as evidence. The trophies - large engraved bowls - commandeer just about every flat surface of Marshall’s trim abode. Diane likes to fill them with potpourri and indeed there are so many that one appears to function as a waste-paper bin.

But he’s won more worlds as part of a team. All his Commonwealth golds have come that way and he pays tribute to his Birmingham pairs buddy Paul Foster and the rest of his four - Foster, Darren Burnett and Stuart Anderson - who’ve seen Marshall garner most of the attention accorded their sport by dint of his burly, bullet-headed demeanour, nickname and that celebration but are always standing by with the wind-ups.

Marshall’s goalie prowess took him as far as trials for Scotland under-15 schoolboys until he was required to choose between football and bowls. He wonders if he could have cut it at darts - the night when “Big Cliff” Lazarenko challenged all of the Longstone Inn to try and beat him, 17-year-old Tattie being the only one who did - but by then his mind was made up.

“My dad played bowls as did my grandad so I wanted to follow them.” His father Robert, a glazier, missed his son’s Commonwealths. “He saw me win my first world but died when Diane and I were on honeymoon. I think he would have been proud, though.” Now Diane is his biggest fan, the couple having been matchmade by Willie Wood 30 years ago. “He got me along to present the prizes at our club in Gifford. Diane kept coming up for cups so she got five or six kisses from me. She admitted later she’d seen me play on the telly and, despite the terrible moustache I had at the time, quite fancied me. Willie knew this and set the whole thing up.” Wood, by the way, is still going strong at 84 and tends the Gifford green.

Wood was an obvious inspiration for Marshall in the early years, as was the pipe-sooking David Bryant. Richard Corsie started out a teenage rival and is now a firm friend. For some reason Scots excel at bowling, same with the sister sport of curling, and Marshall wonders if that’s down to its sociability. “It’s a very friendly sport,” he says. What, even when gold medals are at stake? Oh yes, he says, and at the Glasgow Games the Kelvingrove venue had a pub handily situated nearby for post-match beers. There can sometimes be needle, the odd bit of gamesmanship, but bowling is generally gentle and good-mannered, which might explain why Tattie’s pumped fist caused such a stir.

His first Commonwealths were in Vancouver in 1994. Not fully appreciating their enormity, he was gobsmacked by the stadium roar for Team Scotland at the opening ceremony. “At that time I still had hairs on the back of my neck and they stood right up.”

For Birmingham, Tattie and his team-mates will be installed in a house near the Games Village so they can still enjoy the latter’s buzz when its needed. Such privileges are down to their successes previously, boosting the funding for bowling. They will repeat their zero-tolerance approach to alcohol of the last two Games - no booze until the competition is over. “There used to the jibe from the other athletes, friendly enough, that we liked our drink. So we decided to stop.”

How will they fare this time? The other home nations will be strong, he says, including Wales who pipped Scotland to the fours title on the Gold Coast. Australia, meanwhile, have already set up camp in the Midlands, which sounds a bit like a holiday deckchair-grab. Then there are the Malaysians. Government-funded while Marshall’s team-mates have day jobs on the policeman’s beat and driving taxis, they recently took part in a five-week camp to familiarise themselves with conditions in Birmingham. Tattie, though, is confident the Scots can win medals - “and hopefully they’ll be the right colour.” His silvers and bronzes, you see, tend to be tucked away in drawers.

The pre-match routine has stayed secret ever since revealing he listened to Westlife’s big blousy ballad “Flying Without Wings” and was ribbed for it. One thing he will admit is that before every match, without fail, he’ll watch back his clinching shots from the semi-finals of the Glasgow pairs - “the two best I’ve ever played.”

Marshall is renowned for “big bowls” but with him and Foster under pressure that whole match, even his loyal playing partner wasn’t sure he could pull them off. “Paul’s reaction when I told him what I was going to do was: ‘Aye, okay Tattie.’” This was against England, so when Marshall marked the victory in his special way it was viewed as a taunt of the Auld Enemy.

Not true. “Obviously beating England was great but their players are pals of ours. Oddly enough there had been a bit of heckling from someone in the crowd during the match with me being accused of time-wasting but I couldn’t say that was the reason for my celebration. Those Games in 2014 were the best. Gorgeous venue, fantastic fans. So it was all about pure emotion.”

Marshall was ticked off by Games officialdom but by then his gesture was well on the way to immortality alongside the victory signatures of Usain Bolt and Mo Farah and whenever he’s wanted for a selfie he must revive it.

For some time after Glasgow, he couldn’t pass Kelvingrove without welling up. Eventually, though, trophies become part of the furniture, at risk of being turned into dried petal receptacles.

But Marshall, part of the Commonwealth Games furniture, isn’t finished with winning. “The only place I don’t worry is the bowling green,” he says. So, after recent alarms and diversions, this Tattie may be about to come to the boil.

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