Getting to know you: Scottish Parliament head of visitor services Gordon Stewart
The Scottish Parliament’s head of visitor services speaks to Holyrood’s Emily Woods about Queensberry House ghosts, mac and cheese day, and getting lost at parliament
Where did you grow up? Edinburgh born and reared.
What school did you attend? What school did I go to? That’s such an Edinburgh question, I went to Craigmount at East Craigs.
And then after school, what did you do? Straight to university in Edinburgh to study Scottish history and Scottish ethnology. So, all of the Scottish stuff. I know a little bit of Gaelic as well, but my Gaelic has faded with time.
What’s your favourite Gaelic word? Oh, that’s a really difficult question. I’ve just started doing the Duolingo course, so I’ve gone right back to basics. At the moment, I think my favourite word is piseag, which is kitten, because I’ve only got to level one.
Explain your job, what do you do on a day-to-day basis? The visitor services team has four main functions: orientation and reception, so handing out passes and greeting people, we give them a flavour of what’s happening on each day, we try and encourage them to watch a committee or go to the chamber on business days or join a tour or one of our talks. We also have a call centre for admin purposes, we run the parliament shop and the guided tours and talks that I mentioned before. I head the office, but really, my role is made up of lots of different aspects.
What did you do before working at the parliament? After I studied my first degree, I studied witchcraft and then I was a ghost tour guide for various places, including Mary King’s Close and Mercat. I would do tours of Edinburgh’s underground and sometimes we would end up in Canongate graveyard. Queensberry House was not used at the time, which made it look even creepier. When the clock struck midnight, you would dare people to stare through the window and see if they could spot the cannibal of Canongate.
Did you think you would work at the Scottish Parliament? I never thought I would get in. I genuinely thought they had called the wrong person when I got the job. I think it’s an honour to be here.
Do you remember your first day at work? Yes, I was terrified. That was 15 years ago, just after this building opened, and I got such a sense of awe when I came into the building for the first time. It is like working in an enormous work of art, the architecture of the building.
Have you ever got lost? Yes, on that first day I went up in a lift and I came out in an office and I’ve never found that place ever again since. Everyone just slowly turned and looked at me and I just went back into the lift to go back to where I started and tried again. The upper-basement can be a little bit confusing if you’ve ever been there, it’s a little bit like a labyrinth.
What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened on one of your parliament tours? Weird stuff doesn’t really happen. I suppose some of the questions that people ask can take you by surprise. I think the one that I still would get floored at now is people asking how many rivets or pins are in the debating chamber ceiling, because it’s a very specific thing to want to know.
Queensberry House is meant to be haunted, is there a parliament ghost? There’s a very well-known story in Edinburgh concerning the ghost of Queensberry House. I’ve heard, though, that there’s more than one, on different floors. The most famous one is said to be the ghost of a servant boy, the ‘spit boy’ whose job was to turn the spit in the kitchen, which is now the Queensberry House lounge. You can still see the arched kitchen fireplace and that’s said to be where it took place. He was said to have been murdered, roasted on the spit and then consumed by one of the house inhabitants. I’ve no idea whether it’s true or not, it could be an example of political propaganda from the 18th century. We have had visitors on our tours who worked in Queensberry House when it was a hospital and they’ve said that hospital trolleys would move of their own accord and footsteps that sounded like a child running have been heard. But perhaps the one that really struck home was a couple of years ago, we were asked to meet with a woman, she was the daughter of the governor of the Queensberry House hospital, and the governor’s house used to stand on Holyrood Road before the parliament was built. And she got in touch to say she and her family had moved out of that house 60 years ago and could she come back and have a look? Her father, the governor, I don’t think he was a man given to flights of fancy or storytelling, and she said her father was walking down one of the staircases at Queensberry House, that actually doesn’t exist anymore – it’s now one of the meeting rooms – he came down there and at the bottom of the staircase was a little boy, who just vanished. That gives me chills. I thought, maybe there is something in it.
Have you heard anything in recent history? Not about the little boy, but I have heard that there was an office higher up, I think on the third floor, there’s a very strong smell of roses or perfumed flowers, and apparently, that’s associated with a daughter of one of the dukes of Queensberry, who died in a house fire.
Who would be at your dream dinner party? It’s going to be quite historical. First, I would go for probably quite an obvious one, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, just to say, ‘Were you guilty or were you innocent?’ Even now, 400 years after her execution, she still polarises opinion. Keir Hardie, he would be an interesting chap, and we’ve got Keir Hardie’s clock in Queensberry House. I think he would be interesting because he was one of the first working-class elected politicians. Molly Weir, that’s random, I would never have thought I would suggest Molly Weir. She was McWitch in Rentaghost – I’m showing how old I am now – from the 1980s. I remember watching her and thinking she was funny and she had a real Glasgow sense of humour.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure? It is really boring, but chocolate digestives.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had? The overwhelming message that I got, especially from my mum when I was growing up, was always treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. And I’ve tried to do that.
What’s your favourite thing to eat at parliament? Oh, it has to be macaroni and cheese day. I bet everyone says that. People’s eyes do tend to light up when it’s a macaroni day.