Edinburgh/Caledonian: Page names Suite
Staying at Edinburgh’s Waldorf Astoria recently I was surprised to find my suite in the attic was named after Billy Garioch. The hotel, which was built 110 years ago as The Caledonian, is still known locally as “The Caley”. It has suites named after Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott but who was Billy Garioch? It seems the tense of the question is wrong. Billy Garioch still is.
After a little research I discovered his story in an interview Billy had given to the hotel before he retired. Last July, after Scotland’s famous railway hotel had been rebranded The Caledonian, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, a suite of rooms on the fifth floor was also rebranded, named after a the legendary Head of Baggage who was leaving the hotel after a lifetime's service.
Thomas William Garioch joined The Caledonian straight from school at the age of 15 to work as a page boy. He never intended to stay, but he met his future wife in the hotel - her mother and grandmother both worked in the Caledonian’s staff canteen – and The Caley became his life.
As a page Billy’s job involved taking letters and papers to guests in their rooms on a silver tray. “We wore white gloves so we never actually touched the letters,” he recalled. “We used to get a penny for every paper we delivered.”
Later, as Head of Baggage, Billy met many of the celebrities who stayed at the Caledonian including Burt Lancaster who used to tip him 2/6d (the equivalent of six or seven euros today) whenever Billy carried his golf clubs to the car. He also met the singer Cliff Richard and was very impressed that when Cliff heard two girls from Glasgow had been waiting outside all night in the hope of an autograph he invited them in for tea and toast. Billy’s proudest moment was meeting Nelson Mandela. “He was such a gentleman. I will never forget the day I shook his hand. I hadn't realised the man was so tall.” Billy was impressed when the former president made a point of shaking hands with all the staff who served him. “All our hands, every one of us, and he said thanks for the service. We’d never had anybody do that before, you know, shake our hands like that. Never. It was an honour.”
One of Billy’s less enjoyable jobs was helping one of the head porters exclude people who were not dressed suitably for The Caley. “Anyone who came in without a tie or in jeans. Andy used to follow them around until they left. He used to hunt them out, it upset him so much," says Billy. "I remember this one time a lady and a man pulled up to the front door. She had a black sombrero type hat on with a black veil over her face and he had a pair of jeans on and an old donkey jacket that was ripped at the side. I had been sitting in a little red seat in the hall and my boss tapped his pencil on the desk, summoned me up to him and told me to go and see what these people wanted, as they were unsuitably dressed. I was supposed to go and ask them to leave, but as I approached them, she unveiled her veil. My heart stopped. It was Liz Taylor. The man was Richard Burton and they were up filming The Taming of the Shrew. So it was lucky I didn’t ask them to leave!”
“Billy from The Caley” became such an institution in Edinburgh that guests would ask after him if he were not on duty to welcome them. When Billy finally retired last year as Baggage Master he said he didn’t want fuss: "I’m a very private person, I don’t like big parties." So it must have come as a really big surprise then to have a new suite of rooms named after him last year!
The night before No 502 was formally unveiled by General Manager Dale MacPhee, Billy was actually invited to stay in “his” suite. It’s a pleasant sequence of grey/blue rooms with the kind of rooftop views of Edinburgh that any photographer would die for. The reason why Billy’s suite is up here on the fifth floor is that this is where hotel servants lived in the 1960s.
“We had separate dorms in the hotel for the men and women staff," Billy explained. "This was up on the fifth floor with old wooden floorboards running between the two and the head chambermaid standing guard with her room in the middle. You weren't allowed to go between them and if she heard the floorboards creaking she’d be out and onto you like a shot. The only place you could meet each other at was the ‘Ironing Room’ which joined the two. You’d go there to get your uniform pressed, but you needed a chitty signed by your boss to get in, and you were timed on how long you stayed!”
"It was very regimental then," explained Billy. "The waiters in the lounge had tails and bow ties and all the heads of the departments were a legend on their own. They ran their departments the way that they wanted. We had a Mister Moulin, a French chap in charge of ours. There were three of us page boys at the time and he used to come out of his office in the morning and look at our shoes, our hair, our fingernails, even behind our ears. He used to say: ‘This is your family, the receptionists over there are your sisters and I am the father’. We used to look up to him like he was the Sergeant Major.”
“That first week was mind-boggling," he admits. "I had a wee round pillbox hat and a uniform jacket with buttons all down the front. I went to the Old Waverley Hotel first [looking for a job] but then I walked in here and it was like, my God. I mean, I’d never been in a place that looked like a palace before.”
Billy only intended to stay at The Caley until he was 16 and old enough to start a factory apprenticeship, but in fact he stayed for fifty years and became a hotel legend. It’s good to think that all his years of service are now commemorated in The Billy Garioch Suite.
The schoolboy from Easter Road, near Hibs Football Ground, could never have dreamed that one day, alongside Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, he would be honoured by The Caledonian and Waldorf Astoria.
The book The Caledonian by Andreas Augustin and Roddy Martine is available from our BOOKSHOP page.