Five years ago, I flew to Glasgow with a single purpose: to find someone named McTavish.
It’s a name that first came to my attention in the summer of 1992, when I tended bar at a remote hotel 15 miles outside Fort William, a small town in the Scottish Highlands that lies roughly two hours north of Glasgow. One afternoon, a coworker with a severe burr announced that he was heading into “the Willie” to stock up on provisions for the dingy caravans we employees lodged in, and I begged him to let me join him. While I didn’t find the USA Today I was looking for — or the Detroit Tigers score hiding within its pages — I did spot a restaurant on the main drag called McTavish’s Kitchens.
The odd pluralization so intrigued me that I took to exclaiming “Damn your kitchens, McTavish!” at inopportune moments for the rest of the summer. It kind of became my thing. But in six weeks of working in Scotland, and the dozen years that followed, I never once encountered a McTavish in person.
In 2004, I improbably convinced a magazine editor to send me to Glasgow in pursuit of this ridiculous quest.
I figured I’d net my quarry the very first day, buy her or him a drink as a way of saying thanks, and spend the remainder of the weekend trip talking to Scottish bartenders — all of whom would no doubt be McTavishes, too. Or I’d use the free time to form a power trio called MäcTävish, play a one-off that became legend, and head home a hero.
The first indication that I’d grossly underestimated my task came right at the customs desk, where I brazenly asked after the agent’s surname. A part of me believed I’d found my first McTavish in the pert geezer perusing my passport. Instead, he looked me in the eye and said, “We don’t use names here.” Did he mean in Glasgow?
On the way to my hotel, I discussed my situation with the taxi driver (surname: Slavin). “McTavish is not really common in Glasgow,” he said. “But tell me — have yeh tried the phone book?”
I forgot to mention the ground rules. Any doofus with a dream and a dime could look in a phone book and be talking to a McTavish in minutes. Where’s the sport in that? So the basic rule was that I could only confront people who I’d come across through the normal course of business — cabbies, wasters waiting next to me in line for deep-fried pizza, homeless dudes yelling at me. There could be no distributing of flyers, no employing of barkers, no leasing of aerial ads proclaiming “Free Booze for McTavish!”
Slavin suggested that I start my search at the main library. First, I made a pit stop at my hotel and asked the chummy woman behind the desk if she thought I’d ever find my quarry. “You’ll find him,” she said. “Probably in Australia.”
The Mitchell Library is a proud building that houses an astounding Robert Burns collection. I was amazed to discover that it also contains a genealogical volume entitled “MacTavish of Dunadry.” It seems that the clan (more commonly spelled McTavish) sprouted from Clan Campbell in an area of the Highlands north and west from Glasgow. While I would soon learn that Glaswegians consider the clan to be something of a rube stereotype — one that conjures up bushy red facial hair and grunty, kilted scrambles over hillocks — the book describes them thusly: “Never a large or powerful clan, they have nevertheless been deemed a brave and honourable race.” You go, McTavish! But Ogden Nash disses them in “Geneological Reflection”:
“No McTavish/Was ever lavish.”
On a lead from the hotel conceirge, I headed to the Ubiquitous Chip, a decidedly lavish restaurant specializing in traditional Highlands fare, hoping that a little Scottish soul food might tempt a McTavish out of hiding. Not quite, but my fresh-faced server beamed when I told him my mission. “Oh, I know a John McTavish here at university,” he said excitedly. I asked if his friend would want to swing by for a rather expensive whiskey; sadly, the stinker had returned home for the summer. Even so, my anxiety diminished considerably: My first night and I was already running into people who knew McTavishes. I stuffed bacon-wrapped Perthshire pigeon into my gut with reckless abandon.
Part 2: Ever closer to McTavish.