I have known Bob Shields, mine host at the Twa Dugs in Ayr, for more years than I care to remember, and now he has added the title Councillor to his accomplishments. The Ayr publican and journalist, decided to stand as an independent, after years of bringing the local council to task in his regular weekly column with the Ayrshire Post, and he romped home.
Says he, “People kept saying to me, how do we change things? And I kept saying, `stand as councillor and tackle it from the inside`, then I realised that I couldn’t just say it, I needed to do it.
“It’s definitely a challenge. I took up journalism and that too was a challenge. I rose to become the Assistant Editor of the biggest paper in the country, the Daily Record. I retired and wrote a book and bought a pub. It too has been a success. Now I am hoping to be a successful councillor.
“At my age 66, most people are thinking of retiring, but I am starting a whole new chapter.”
Bob worked for the Daily Record for many years, as he mentioned, and as the paper’s Chief writer and columnist he and I used to go the length and breadth of the country checking out potential pubs for the title Pub of the Year. On one occasion we commandeered a helicopter, on another a limo with a Joanna Lumley look-a-like – Patsy from Ab Fab. We always visited the last four. And he very definitely had a view on what made a good pub.
Bob also had many friends in the Tartan Army, another of his passions, and in the licensed trade, including Don Lawson of Johnnie Foxes, and Maurice Heron to name but two. Initially, Bob dipped his toe into the licensed trade with a share in an Aviemore venture before taking on the Twa Dugs after retiring from the Record.
He said at the time he had been in 1,000 bad pubs, so he thought he knew what it took to run a good one… and today, here he is standing behind the bar with a big grin.
“This is my 15th year, and it has certainly been a huge learning curve. Just before the pandemic, I thought I had finally cracked it. We had a great team, great regulars and we were doing well. Then covid came along and unfortunately some of the guys that drank here, I will not see again. Either they are now too frail or have passed away. It was a hard one. It was a struggle on every front – not only financially but mentally too, because I am a social person and being told to stay 2m away and ordered not to go out didn’t help.
“Before the Twa Dugs re-opened the pub was redecorated. Says Bob, “We just refreshed it and put some new pictures up. Now I am back trading at about 85% of where we were.
“We’ve got some great live music, in fact, I would challenge any pub in Scotland if they think they have a better Tuesday afternoon than we have here. It’s great. We have all sorts of musicians including fiddlers and accordionists, in fact, sometimes we don’t have chairs for them all and if someone moves another musician soon takes the vacant seat.”
Talking of seats he has a new one – in May he got elected to South Ayrshire Council on an independent ticket. And when we meet he was still going through his induction and training.
Bob explains, “I have been listening to my regulars complaining about the town for years and I knew what mattered to them. I also knew what the local council kept getting wrong. I used to put suggestions in my regular column in the Ayrshire Post but no one bothered, but many readers would tell me that they agreed with me. They used to say, “What can we do, how can we get things right?” I would suggest they tried changing things with their vote or stand to be an independent, then I thought I was being a bit hypocritical by asking other people to do it and not putting myself forward. That is how it all started. To change the council we had to change the councillors.
“I did my manifesto – a four-page A4 brochure – which explained what I stood for… and because people knew me due to my column in the Ayrshire Post and the pub, they knew what I stood for, and they supported me. I wasn’t a complete stranger to them just pushing leaflets through their doors.”
It was his regulars who also helped spread the word – taking his electioneering brochure to every corner of Ayr. With 9,000 houses in his ward, the effort put in by his punters really helped. Says Bob, “Folk wandered into the pub and said I stay in xx so I will do that street. It worked out incredibly well. It was a great community effort from a great pub community.
To be frank, Bob’s electioneering brochure, and I use that word advisedly because it is not a leaflet, it is a work of electioneering art. He smiles, “Well what would you expect from a journalist? In fact, one of the rival election agents said I had set a new standard for election leaflets. Everyone was talking about it.”
Bob’s message was simple, he was “The common-sense voice that speaks up for an Ayr that’s lost its way.”
The brochure laid out what he stood for, and against – including his views on the Citadel/Town Centre Leisure proposal, which he opposed, Car Parking, the Ayr Station Hotel building and the local high flats to name but a few. And he asked people to vote for “Common Sense.”
Says he, “It got quite serious. I didn’t have a big political party assisting me – I did it all myself from all the form filling to financing it.” But on a less serious side, he even renamed his pub for the duration …’The Vote Bob Inn!’
His campaigning was a resounding success and he romped to victory in his Ayr West ward at stage one of the vote, polling 1,909 first preference votes. He says, “I couldn’t quite believe it … I had hardly arrived and already my votes had taken me over the line.” He was just beaten by the Conservative leader Martin Downey, who came in with 2,271 votes.
Bob’s presence on the council has already made an impact – as no party gained an overall majority it was thought that SNP and Labour would have done a power-sharing deal. But Labour abstained, and instead with Bob and another independent Hugh Hunter, voting for the Conservative leader Martin Downey – the Conservatives are now in power having taken all the leadership seats.
The Council has also made an impact on him. He explains, “You can’t just breeze in and expect to know everything. I am currently being trained on just about everything, from budgeting and planning to the legal side, and have been learning about various panels I had never even heard of. There is also membership of Cosla… it is a whole new ball game. The training team do an excellent job. However one thing I do have had to excuse myself from is selecting the licensing board, for obvious reasons.”
Despite being a councillor for less than a month when we met, he is pleased with the progress so far.
“I have had my first Council meeting and we have overturned the SNP hold on the Council. Now I am turning my attention to saving the high flats, which are perfectly serviceable, and halting plans for the leisure centre in the middle of town. It is all quite exciting.
“Now I will no longer be taking potshots from the side, what I write will be more informed and I hope what my readers tell me will make me a better councillor and a better columnist.”
I asked him whether he would write another book. His first one, ‘How far is the nearest Pint?’ was a great success.
He tells me, “There are some great characters in the bar, and I love their stories. When I did my original book about my Daily Record life I remember Fred McAulay interviewing me and saying, ‘I bet it is packed with Tartan army stories’, but it wasn’t. I always thought about doing one about the Tartan Army – but I haven’t yet, although we still have the merchandise side.”
So what of the future? Well he pledged the folk that voted for him that he would try and sort out the future of the town’s Station Hotel in 100 days, and not the five years that it has taken the last council. Says Bob, “The best option would be to save it, but it has been on life support for 12 years and it may not survive.”
“My pipe dream is to create an Ayr Arena. I have studied what they have done in the US – towns have arenas which are multi-purpose venues which cater for everything from ice hockey to darts, and concerts to basketball. It would be great to have something like that here.”
Bob believes, like I do, that more publicans should get involved with their local councils. “They know a lot about the community they live in and they get all the moans and groans. Who better than a person at the heart of the community to be on the council?”
And talking of the industry he believes that publicans need a cuddle now and again especially the smaller independent. “They need more recognition. The guys at Wetherspoons get wined and dined but it doesn’t trickle down to the wee independent. It also seems reps are more interested in customers that don’t pay and new customers, rather than the current customer that pays on time. There’s something wrong there and I find it very disappointing.”
He continues, “I also think there should be a government department that looks at hospitality, food and drink, distilling and such like. As for rates I am trading at 85% and that’s where my rates should be. Pubs pay VAT – our trading figures are there – it would be fairly easy for local assessors to check them and fix our rates according to our income for the next few years. That would be a help.”
For the time being Bob intends to fill every hour, but he doesn’t want to be a busy fool.
He tells me, “Maurice Heron once gave me a great bit of advice. He said you get to the stage when it’s not about all the hours working in the pub but the right hours. I might adopt that strategy. I also want to learn my council craft at a good pace. But I don’t want to get fed up with it.”
Meanwhile, he is planning to take some time off in September. It’s a joint and bleated 64th birthday celebration. He laughs, “The plan before Covid was to rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight referencing the Beatles number ‘When I’m, 64… there’s a line that says “We can rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight – if it’s not too dear.”
Then Covid struck and now we are all 66 – so we are doing Route 66. We are flying to Chicago – visiting State Street then going to Oklahoma before spending seven days driving to Amarillo, then Tulsa then Winslow Arizona, and finish in Vegas. It seemed like a good idea!”
It certainly is. Bob philosohy is, “Life’s isn’t about the number of days you get that .. it’s what you do with the days you’ve got got!”
One thing is for sure he certainly is packing it in!