Nothing befitted his life like the leaving of it.
Gangsters usually have elaborate and colourful funerals and Walter Norval’s was no different. His coffin was carried by members of a biker club, his six daughters and a granddaughter all wore matching red outfits and music from the Clash blared out as the retinue made its way into the crematorium. Bankrobber, that was the song, and that was old Wattie’s business.
His daughter Rita, who had married one of the Blue Angels bikers (like Hell’s Angels, only dirtier!), added to the myth of the occasion by telling the world that her good old Da was determined not to leave the world until he know that his ‘lassies’ could look after themselves. They could. And in a summation which might bring a tear to the glassiest eye she said, “Dad wasn’t motivated by money.
“He didn’t care if he had money in his pocket. He would have given his last penny to anybody, and he often did.”
Trouble was it was someone else’s money. To quote from Norval’s musical epitaph, “My daddy was a bankrobber, but he never hurt nobody, he just loved to live that way, and he loved to steal your money.”
Which was only partly true because he hurt many nobodies.
Let’s take a critical look at the truth about Walter Norval, rather than the sepia-tinted mythology. He was born in 1928 in Possil, three years before Old Arthur Thompson, a Godfather contemporary, but one whose criminal path diverged into drugs, whereas Norval preferred to do it the old fashioned way, with a mask and a gun in an armed robbery, never mind the occasional stabbing.
Norval leaving court in 1977
He started young around the Garscube Road. At eight he was nicking potatoes from shops and coal briquettes (blocks of compacted coal dust for younger readers) from coal lorries, which he then sold on. He saw little of his father and mother – a mixed marriage in the Glasgow sense, father a Catholic, mother a Protestant – romping around the area, avoiding school and police, whatever criminal mischief was afoot Wattie was at the heart of it.
The myth has him dedicating himself to a life of crime after watching the movie Dillinger in a local fleapit. In later life he even adopted some of the late US mobster’s sartorial taste in pinstripes. The first milestone he set himself was to go to Borstal, which he achieved at 16 after breaking into a Hope Street office and holding up a newsagent with a fake gun.
He avoided service in the war – well he would, wouldn’t he? – but was later drafted for National Service, which he was determined to avoid, as he had much of school. After several escapes from camp he was sentenced to 18 months hard labour for slashing another soldier with shards of glass. His account, as it was in all subsequent violent episodes, was that the red mist had come down and he couldn’t remember a thing about it afterwards.
In 1963, in what became known as The War of Norval’s Ear, he lost a piece of it when it was bitten off in a backstreet brawl by another toerag named Big Mick Gibson. A month later Norval sought Gibson out in a pub and stabbed him eight times before going on the run. He was caught and, as criminals did at the time, called for the legendary lawyer Joe Beltrami, who hired advocate Nicky Fairbairn to defend him. Fairbairn was a ferocious right-winger who had married into the Scottish aristocracy, later became Solicitor-General – appointed by Margaret Thatcher – and died of cirrhosis of the liver. But he was able to argue an attempted murder case down to a three-year sentence in Peterhead for assault.
By this stage in his career Norval had a wife in Liddesdale Street, Milton, and a mistress, Jean, whom he housed separately, in Willowbank Street, but who remained loyal to him for the rest of his life. He might have observed the criminal code but never the marital one.
Glasgow’s original Godfather: Walter Norval
Norval made his name in local gangs, moving on to protection rackets, working pubs, clubs and bookies then, naturally, to armed robbery. Scores of large ones involving hundreds of foot soldiers, secret weapons arsenals and explosives in safe houses across Glasgow, and over three years in the mid-70s they mob carried out dozens of armed robberies, usually of payrolls, often from hospitals and major works, but also from post offices across the country.
The police breakthrough came, inevitably, from an informant and many of the gang were found in Norval’s Maryhill airt and in the south side under the noses of the authorities, just yards from the Orkney Street police office.
It’s now, as leader of what becomes known as the XYY Gang, that Norval becomes notorious. The name sticks because in 1977 its members are involved in four different trials and to avoid cross-contamination the principals are given anonymous idents, Mr X, Mr Y, and so on.
Norval’s trial has a fiery hanselling. On the eve of it the north court of the High Court in Glasgow is set on fire by Norval’s mob in attempt to burn all the files on the case they believe are held in the vaults. They don’t succeed and the trial eventually goes ahead in the south court.
The trial has to be delayed. Norval’s daughter, Rita Gunn, is charged with conspiring to damage the court but acquitted. Rita’s husband, William Gunn, the biker, isn’t so lucky, getting five years in jail for threatening to kill one of the leading witnesses. The judges in all four cases have to be constantly guarded by armed police. Jurors also come under attack and are provided with police bodyguards for the duration.
A leading prosecution witness, in prison at the time, is provided with a constant police escort and kept in solitary confinement. In spite of this, he is scalded with boiling water.
The Blue Angels attend Walter’s funeral
Norval went down for 14 years. When he came out his era had passed. It was now all about drugs and there Wattie drew the line. In his day, he said, “gangsters were hard men. They fought in the streets, they fought in the pubs and they made names for themselves – but it was amongst themselves. But nowadays, the people who call themselves gangsters don’t do any hard work themselves. They just pay someone a couple of grand to go and hurt people for them.”
For Norval the past was not just a different country but one with a language and culture he did not understand. His criminal career, however, was not quite over and his last brush with it, ironically, involved drugs. He hobbled into the Sheriff Court to plead guilty to having £15 of cannabis which he claimed he used to alleviate arthritis.
His closing years were plagued by two bouts of cancer, first of the bowel and then the lung. In August 2014 he died from pneumonia aged 85, cuing the high-profile exit at Maryhill Crematorium with musical accompaniment by the Clash. Perhaps a more fitting coda from the band might have been, “I fought the law and the law won”.
- Part I Arthur Thompson
- Part II Paul Ferris
- Part III Tam McGraw
- The McGovernment
- Part IV The Lyons v the Daniels
- Part VI Stewart Boyd
- Part VII Walter Norval
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