Gleneagles Townhouse

A Porter’s tale

13 December 2023

Emma Simpson, People & Culture Director at Gleneagles, talks to Joe Miller about his experience of working at Gleneagles across four different decades....

“The interesting thing is my father and his father before him actually built fireplaces like this for the big hotels,” says Gleneagles’ senior hall porter, Joe Miller, as he stokes the lobby fire with a brass poker.

The embers of firewood glow and crackle and he places three more logs on top.  “At this time of year, we like to ensure there’s a lovely warmth in the lobby when our guests arrive. If they’re coming from outside Scotland, the dreich weather outside can take them by surprise.  There’s nothing nicer than coming in from a day in the hills to a nip of whisky here at the fire.”

I ask him about his day so far and the guests he’s been looking after and it’s clear his approach to the job is putting himself in each guest’s shoes – imagining how they feel, anticipating what they need, picturing how their journey’s been, wondering whether they caught a salmon today, thinking about whether the weather was kind out on the golf courses.  It’s that instinctive quality of empathy that’s allowed Joe to build a successful and happy career out of it.

It’s a career that’s seen him work all over the country in some of the UK’s finest five-star hotels, yet it might never have been if Joe had accepted the apprenticeship his grandfather offered him when he was 15 years old.

“He was a marble mason and fireplace builder, and he passed those skills down to my dad who followed him into the trade.  It’s a noble and skilled craft, but it’s also dirty, hard, physical work.  I was expected to follow in the same footsteps, but I told him it wasn’t what I wanted.  He offered to pay me a wage of £2 per week, but I didn’t want to have dirty hands all day, and I just knew it wasn’t my calling.  I wanted to do something where I could meet and talk to people all day.”

A job advert Joe saw in the Glasgow Evening Times presented the perfect opportunity. “The advert was for a page boy at the North British Station Hotel in Glasgow. A page boy in those days was the most junior position in the front of house team whose job was to run errands, carry out odd jobs and do manual labour around the lobby area,” he says.  “Back then you also had a head porter, a second porter and a third porter. It was much more hierarchical, a bit like the service roles you see in Downton Abbey.”

“When I arrived for the interview, there were 15 other boys in front of me waiting to be interviewed by a Mr Wilson.  I was called in last.  Once he’d finished interviewing me, Mr Wilson said ‘Joe, I’d like to offer you the job; you can start on Monday.’ It was one of those situations that, decades later, you look back on and realise it was one of the most important moments of your life.”

Many years later, Mr Wilson would tell Joe that he’d given him the job over the other 15 boys that day because of his impeccable manners – a pre-requisite for any porter. “He recalled how I’d addressed him politely as ‘Sir’ and had said please and thank you throughout the interview.  It was just the way I’d been brought up, but it was my manners that had made me stand out from the rest.”

The job was life changing for Joe, who found the hotel environment inspiring.  “My pay was £6 a week which was a lot of money for me.  I loved it. It opened my horizons and changed the way I saw and understood the world. I had grown up in a tenement flat in a working-class community in Glasgow, and here I was mingling with people who had money and influence.  It was a different world and I found it fascinating and exciting.”

But Joe quickly realised this new world had even more excitement to offer him. The North British Station Hotel in Glasgow where he was employed was actually part of the British Transport Hotels group – the hospitality business of the nationalised railway system – that included over 70 hotels across the UK from Turnberry Hotel in Ayr, the Queen’s Hotel in Leeds, and the Royal Station Hotel in York, to the Aldephi Hotel in Liverpool and the Midland Hotel in Manchester.  Joe discovered there were career opportunities to be had by moving around the different properties in the group.

“After four years in Glasgow, I wanted a bit of a change of scene, so in 1974 I applied to become a porter at Gleneagles. It had a big reputation and I wanted to see it for myself.”

Back then, Gleneagles was only open from April to October. At the end of each season, the personnel team would find us temporary roles within other hotels in the group to keep us in employment through the winter till we could come back to our jobs in spring. “I loved that time of year,” says Joe. “Once the final guests had checked out, they’d throw us a big staff ‘closing party’ in the ballroom to mark the end of the season, and we’d all get dressed up and let our hair down. It was fantastic.”

Joe seized the opportunity to gain experience in other hotels each winter.  During one of these winter roles, he ended up staying for longer than he’d expected. In 1978, he travelled to London to work at the Great Eastern Hotel Liverpool Street for six months and ended up staying for five years on a long term ‘loan’ from Gleneagles.

During the end of that period, Joe decided to leave the hotel group.  “I did some other jobs down in London for three months, but I missed Scotland, and I missed Gleneagles so I phoned up to ask for my old job back. I was taken on again in 1983 as a porter and, forty years later, I’m still here doing the same job.  If I hadn’t left for those three months, next year I’d actually have been celebrating half a century as a continuous employee of Gleneagles.”

Working at the Glen through the 70s and 80s was a particular highlight for Joe. “Back then Gleneagles was seen as the playground of the famous,” he says. “All the big American stars of the day were coming over to stay.  I got to meet Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Sean Connery, John Travolta, Kevin Costner, Prime Ministers, Presidents and Princes. It was an exciting and glamorous time.”

“My favourite memory is meeting the American film star, James Garner.  He was one of the biggest names in Hollywood and all of us were eager to catch a glimpse of him.

“Mr Garner was standing in the lobby with his golf bag and he asked me, ‘is there any way to get my clubs taken down to the first tee?’ Back in those days, you see, we didn’t have transport to take golfers’ clubs from the hotel to the golf course – instead, we would carry them on our back. I told him I would be very happy to carry them for him.  He thanked me and we set off.”

“But as he watched me carrying them down the front steps, he insisted he do it himself. He said ‘instead of carrying my clubs, I want you to keep me company on the walk down and tell me everything about yourself – where you come from, what you do, what you enjoy, what it’s like to live in Scotland.’”

For Joe, it was a magical conversation that would stay with him for the rest of his life. “It was, and still is, one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me,” he says. “Here was a superstar with the whole world at his feet, who turned heads wherever he went, and who could have had anything he wanted, and all he wanted was a conversation with me, an 18-year-old boy from Glasgow.  I felt like I was nobody, but he made me feel special.”

While the memory is one of his fondest, Joe is quick to explain it was a one-off moment in a long career.  “Of course, you’re building connections with guests all the time, but you’re certainly not looking for special treatment or attention. The most important part of being a porter is anticipating what each guest needs and then meeting or exceeding those needs.”

He explains, “Some guests like Mr Garner might be looking to have a conversation, but others don’t want to talk. Some might want you to help them with something, while others want to be left alone. But identifying those needs and acting on them should be done without a fuss – when it’s done well, the job looks easy, but it’s a real skill.

“The porter is the first person a guest sees or speaks to, and the impression that porter makes sets the tone for their entire stay.  You have to be a great people person – with the highest levels of sensitivity and diplomacy – and you have to be on the ball to read the situation and adapt what you do and say to accommodate the needs of each individual guest.  When a guest arrives and you recognise them from the last visit, you want to offer a personalised level of service by saying “welcome back Mr X – it’s lovely to have you with us again”. But if he arrives with his girlfriend, and the following month he’s back with his wife, you’re sensitive to that guest’s need for discretion and anonymity. That’s the guest’s prerogative and his situation is none of my business.

“We have regular guests who have been coming back for years. These are guests I first met in the 70s and 80s, who then came back with their children, and now they’re coming back with their grandchildren.  There’s a genuine feeling of fondness when you’re looking after those families where you’ve got to know three generations. But to be good at this job, it’s all about hitting the right balance – you’ve to be warm and friendly but never over-familiar or presumptuous – and you need to know when to turn up the dial and when to turn it down.

“The skill is being able to recognise instantly how the guest is feeling, if they would appreciate some banter, or if they just want to be left in peace.  You need to be able to make those judgements instantly and instinctively. I might have built up a relationship with a guest over several decades, but I would never assume they wanted to talk to me.”

For Joe, Gleneagles is part of who he is now. “When I first started here 50 years ago, I didn’t expect I would still be here all these years later, but I love my job and I love being a part of this team,” he says. “It’s where I work, but it’s much more than that. It’s the place where I can be myself. It’s where my friends are. It’s a home for me.  It’s very special.”

During the pandemic, when Gleneagles closed its doors for a total of eight months during lockdown, Joe felt displaced and disenchanted and it forced him to reassess plans for future retirement. “I was stuck at home and I was miserable,” he says. “I missed my colleagues, I missed the guests, I missed the conversations, and I missed my job. I made a vow to myself that, for as long as I’m fit and able, I’ll continue to work at Gleneagles.”