A blog from Neil Stephen from April 2009 where he discussed the responsibility of being a ‘boss’ and the Scottish ‘banter’.


Being a “boss” is power. The bar-manager hangs a fist of keys off his belt to display his responsibility; the Heid Yin at the factory has the biggest swivel chair, and his wife-polished Italian leather shoes reflect back to staff their subservience.

I met a boss who exuded casual authority: open-shirted, smooth-chested, and surrounded by an entourage of fawning young woman. I asked him if he had any spare work, and he replied, “Why? Are you a spare?” The ladies laughed hysterically (such a clever and powerful man). I reddened, but replied honestly and said no. I must have impressed: I got the job as a bus boy.

I was 20 and working abroad for the summer. My mother was immensely proud: she crowed at a dinner party that her twins were earning good money as bum boys in Canada.

Now it’s me who’s the boss guy: the polished shoe is on the other foot. I have a key ring and swivel chair; women now laugh at my jokes. I no longer have to nervously approach someone for a job, CV polished and tie straight. Others come to me. This is when the feeling of power courses through the veins, when the gag about the spare you’ve been working on can be prosecuted to devastating effect.

But the moment is never quite right: conducting job interviews always feels too serious. You need to find good people to run a business, and the hopeful candidate is looking to you for employment and security; to help plan out their future. Every response is weighted: it’s not a time for mirth.

And yet, occasionally, you do have to bite your tongue. It can be a painful experience.

A well-turned out young man applied for a job with Hebridean Homes – our sister company that sells kits for the rural housing market. I asked him, “Are you interested in rural architecture?” He thought about it, and then replied, “No, not really.”

Another, from South Africa, struggled when he started a sentence, “I am not a racist, but…”

But the most baffling was when an applicant for a year-out position at Dualchas, who we’ll call John, turned up when we were expecting Mark. John explained that Mark was his twin, and because they had done the same course, and had similar experience, they shared a CV. OK….but he really fell down when asked about his interest in music. He sparked to life when describing the gig the night before: he was a bit shaky on account of not hitting bed till 4am, but it had been “f*ckin’ mental”.

Fortunately we found an impressive part 1 student from the Mack. He’s been with us a few months, and is a credit to his school, his parents and himself. He churns out work with unbridled enthusiasm, his eyes widening with delight at the chance of doing even a menial task, and his monstrous appetite hoovers up any food in the office that might be on the turn.

But now he’s got the job and is firmly embedded, the temptation is to unclench the tongue and take the mickey. I suffered in the past struggling to follow out my boss’s wish for a head on his pint of cider – I know people who’ve been sent on errands for tartan paint and a long stand. It’s tradition.

But with my young apprentice it’s completely unnecessary. He entertains us effortlessly.

I discovered this when telling him about a programme I saw on Discovery about a man-eating Nile crocodile which was 30 foot long, and was still alive despite being riddled with bullets.

He asked, “On Islay?”

“No, no, Nile I said. “

As I puzzled over his initial response, he asked me a question which is perhaps the most shameful indictment of the Scottish education system ever uttered.

“Do you get crocodiles in Scotland?”

I could have put this down to an aberration, until he came in to work late and ashen faced, explaining that he had skidded his car on ice at Breakish after an antelope jumped out on the road. He didn’t help his situation when he Google-searched for antelopes, got a picture of one up on screen, and said it looked just like a deer, so it was “an easy mistake to make.”

With this sort of material, it’s very tempting to ridicule. Actually, it’s impossible not to: the antelope bolted after being startled by the sudden movement of a three-toed sloth. But I do know I should restrain myself (which is why I’ve written it down for everyone to read).

Fortunately my young colleague appears to be able to put up with my equivalent of “are you a spare?” comments. But I am aware that as someone’s senior, it’s very easy to overstep the mark.

I have a sticker on my bathroom mirror which tells me “Don’t Be a D*ck.” It was left by a former lodger and employee, and I think he was trying to tell me something.

A friend of mine, concerned for my success, advises that it’s time to remove it: ladies using the facilities may find it “unsophisticated.” But it’s useful. It’s the reduction of a thousand religious morals in to one pithy jus. If the wicked queen had reflected on it, there would have been no poisoned apple, and she may have resolved the relationship issues with her daughter.

But it is very hard to adhere to – mainly because you have to be able to recognise when your behaviour is unacceptable. At what point does banter become bullying, does an innocent tease become a hurtful jibe?

I’ve been on the end of a few in my time, with my thin skin and big ears, but my sharpest memory is of a time I doled it out. There was a boy in our Scout troop who, it had been decided, was of a striking resemblance to Ghandi. I made up a song about him based on the chart-topping Candy Girl, and when the leaders requested I sang Ghandi Boy over the camp tannoy, I performed as a dutiful young Scout should, to widespread acclaim.

I returned grinning to my tent, and found John sobbing. Apparently it wasn’t as funny as I thought.

But some boys were deliberately malicious. At one camp, a particular patrol leader gathered all the boys around the campfire, and organised that everyone, from the ten year olds upwards, had to say something nasty about one boy he regularly picked out. When it came to his turn, he said, “If I was someone else, I’d hate me too.”

It was brutal.

There were sticks and stones as well. Ritual staking out of boys with sisal and tent pegs, prior to indignities being performed on them, were par for the course, and then there was something called “hampering”. A boy was secured in a wicker hamper and heaved into the river. They were retrieved once it was submerged. A kind of extreme waterboarding technique.

All this was done by feral boys on other feral boys (someone should write a book about it).

But one suffered more any.  A mocking ditty was made up about him that went, “My name is Gerald, I read the Glasgow Herald, I can’t read the small print, because my eyes are squint.”

My pal Donnie has used these lines in a song which looks back on the cruelties of youth from the distance of adulthood, and asks what it did to the victims, how did they survive. “They never faced the demons at school, but they made you what you are, they left you with the scars.”

I don’t know what happened to Gerald, I trust he’s OK; in the song he’s “back on top, he runs a barber shop.” But some people never recover. A local brickie in Skye will tearfully admit that he ruined the life of the person he remorselessly bullied at school. The man is now a hopeless alcoholic, and an apology thirty years later won’t make the slightest difference.

And of course, the bullies of childhood often end up the bullies of the workplace. Statistics show how many hours and how much money is lost due to work related stress – often caused by ill-treatment from colleagues or management.

What it doesn’t show is the human misery caused: the loss of money, self-esteem, and health.  I’ve seen this happen to someone close to me who worked for a target-driven local authority, where line-managers thought it was their job to blame those below them for their own failings. Self-awareness and common-decency were totally lacking.

We have wonderful people working at Dualchas and Heb Homes, who I know have common decency, and I think have self-awareness. They are incredibly committed. For example, Ann almost single-handedly organised the moving of our Govan office to Templeton, fitted out the interior and threw a fantastic opening party.

I was having beery dreams as she tidied up till 4 in the morning.  My only excuse is that I forgot to read my sticker that day.

Recently I found a Scout log book when I was clearing some boxes. It covers the dates 1982 -1985, and the last entry was for a weekend camp, written by me when 15. Recorded are the assault courses, trips to Stewarton, the dreadful camp food, and the obligatory staking out and humiliation of one boy.

But the one thing that jumps out the page at me is my cheek. And the desperate attempts to be funny. In fact, I’ve hardly changed, which means I’m probably the same as a “boss” as I was a child. This puts me in the David Brent category.

What makes this worse is that my brother Alasdair is known as the cheeky twin, always has been. He takes comments way beyond where I will go. It’s a bad cop worse cop routine – I just provide the back-up when his quips fall flat.

It turns out I was wrong. I am a spare after all.

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