Scotland’s greatest comedian is taking his final bow and leaving the stage next week with the screening of his last ever stand-up show. Neil Mackay explores his life and legacy, and discovers just how closely Billy Connolly’s incredible journey mirrors the journey of Scotland

“THE early years of my life were spent in grinding poverty – but it wasn’t nothing. It was something ... I come from something. I come from the working class. And most of all I come from Scotland.”

Billy Connolly’s life story has been intricately bound up with the story of Scotland since he was born a war baby in November 1942. He was raised in Dover Street in Glasgow, near Finnieston, the most achingly hip part of the city today – but back in the 40s it was a rough, hard-scrabble life for the kids who played football and marbles out on the streets, still pockmarked with bomb craters.

Connolly suffers from Parkinson’s disease and he’s now just days away from his swansong – the screening of his last-ever stand-up show in cinemas this Thursday. Although he’s about to step out of the public eye, he’s left an indelible mark on this country – and it’s about much more than comedy; it’s about the nature of Scotland itself, how we see ourselves, and how others see us.

His legacy isn’t just one of fame – he hasn’t simply given Scotland another hero to feel proud of. In many ways, Connolly’s story is Scotland’s story. It’s a story of progress and optimism.

From back street to Hollywood, from the grey claustrophobic control and deference of post-war Scotland to a new and modern Scotland, with a never-before-seen swagger in its step. In many ways, Scotland and Connolly mirror each other.

As Connolly put on his Banana Boots and strode on to the world’s stage in the 1970s, the country was doing the same – shrugging off any notion of “Scottish cringe” and getting itself noticed. Like Connolly the nation wanted change, a break with the past.

Scotland remade itself after the war, turning from a conservative rather timid land, into the cosmopolitan cultured European nation of today. It’s been a remarkable transformation for both man and country.

Connolly had a tough childhood. As he says in his biography Made In Scotland, he’s got more than enough material for any number of misery memoirs in his past – but it’s a mark of his character that Connolly doesn’t wallow in pain, or dwell on the physical, emotional and sexual abuse he suffered. Instead, he harnessed the past for his comedy, using mordant Scottish humour to turn suffering into jokes. Think of his famous routine about swimming in knitted trunks. It’s uproariously funny – but it’s also very sad. It’s a story about a kid too poor to have proper swimming gear.

Connolly learned as a child that being funny made him happy. “My way of coping was to become the class clown.” He recalls falling in a puddle aged seven and other kids gathering around to laugh. “It wasn’t that unpleasant in the puddle and I was enjoying the jollity and making everyone happy so much that I carried on sitting there. ‘Ah, now this is pretty good’, I remember thinking to myself.”

But he was a kid confused by the absurdity of life – surely key to becoming a great comedian. Social class, sectarian hatred, school, family, religion – it all seemed ridiculous to the teenage Connolly. And many young Scots felt the same.

It was music that allowed Connolly, and thousands of his contemporaries, to start transforming themselves into the people they wanted to be – not the people Scottish society or their parents, church or teachers told them to be.

Connolly talks a lot about this longing he had as a young man to be something different, to turn into some new, exotic creature – “windswept and interesting”, as he says in his routines, rather than ordinary and normal.

Hank Williams started the process for Connolly. One day at the Barras market in Glasgow he heard Long Gone Lonesome Blues. “A cowboy was born in Glasgow,” Connolly says. The album cover portrayed a character called Luke the Drifter. “Luke was walking into the sunset, with a guitar over his shoulder, and from that moment, that was how I saw myself and my future ... I wanted my life to be everything that it wasn’t while I was living a life of misery in a tenement in Glasgow.”

How many other teenagers throughout the 50s and 60s thought those same thoughts when they heard the Beatles or the Stones or Elvis? A new generation was about to change the rules in Scotland, and Connolly would find himself at the head of the charge.

Like many teens in the 1950s, part of Connolly’s rebellion lay in books, like Jack Kerouac’s handbook for alienated youth, On the Road. He hated school but loved libraries. “People often say that football and boxing are the ways out of the working class and they are your ticket out of that kind of life, if you happen to want to leave it,” he says. “But, for me, the library is the key. That is where the escape tunnel is. All the knowledge in the world is there. The great brains of the world are at your fingertips.”

However, before Connolly could escape, blossom into this as yet unformed vision of himself that he carried around in his head, the shipyards beckoned. Like nearly every working-class boy who left school in Glasgow with few qualifications, he was destined for a life on the Clyde. Connolly noticed as a young apprentice welder that when men retired they all seemed to die within 18 months – as if they were done with life and life was done with them.

Connolly was part of a generation which knew instinctively that this was not the limit of their horizons. Yet he loved the shipyards – the camaraderie, the money, but most of all he loved “the craic”. It was “rough, rude, raw and hilarious. Everybody smoked and everybody swore. Every second word was f***”. The yards were full of what he calls “patter merchants” – those Glasgow characters with the gift of the gab. “I loved those guys. I have no doubt that is what my comedy first grew out of.”

With money for the first time, he did what many young people did – he spent it on clothes.

Three-button suits with inch vents, white shorty raincoats, winklepickers and cuban heels, even pink shirts and pink pants – Connolly was taking his first steps to becoming the dandy of his stage shows. Amid the grey conformity of Scotland, little spots of colour like Connolly were starting to break out all over, as young people grew their hair, and swapped sensible clothes for beads and flares. Who wanted to look like their parents?

“Buying my own clothes let me start becoming this thing, this vision of myself that I had loosely in my mind,” he says. And he was beginning to fantasise about a life outside the shipyards. Like many of his generation, the idea of living and dying just like your parents was not for Connolly. There was a world to explore. He was also starting to awaken politically. The poverty and hardship around him made Connolly angry. “Society wasn’t right,” he says, echoing the thoughts of millions of young people in the 1960s.

Like many in Scotland, Connolly became “a union man” – but like many others he also became a “hairy hippy” who fully bought into the ethos of “peace and love, man”. Raised a Catholic, but now an atheist, he loathed the sectarianism in Scotland, and questioned the role of religion in national life – just as society began to raise the same concerns. He was transforming as the nation was transforming, rejecting the past, and looking to a better, more equal future.

“The sixties felt like a chance to start again as a person: like you weren’t just a product of your parents or your religion or your schooling,” he says. “It was up to you – you could be whatever you wanted to be.”

It was the American protest singer Pete Seeger who changed Connolly’s life. Music from the US was saturating youth culture and Connolly was no more immune than anyone else. He bought himself a banjo to be like Seeger, learned to play and was soon gigging around Glasgow. He formed a band with Gerry Rafferty, another young Scot on his way to making his mark on a changing world, called the Humblebums (named after the quick one-liner “he’s humble, and I’m a bum”).

Connolly had already started improvising comedy in between songs. Rafferty, a perfectionist, wanted to concentrate on the music and was growing weary of Connolly’s routines. The pair split in 1971 on the platform at Queen’s Street Station while waiting for a train to Dundee to play a gig. Rafferty would go on to write Stuck In The Middle With You – the line “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right” inspired by Connolly – and a long line of other classics.

Fearing obscurity, Connolly decided to give comedy a go. The routine that made his name in Scotland drew on the country’s sorest spot – religion. It was The Last Supper Routine, an iconoclastic riff on a Glaswegian Jesus hosting the Last Supper in the east end’s Sarry Heid bar. In the routine, Connolly dubbed Jesus “the Big Yin” – the name Scotland would eventually bestow on him. The routine came at just the right time for a nation throwing off the strictures of the past. Scots flocked to see him. Fundamentalists demonstrated. Theatres sold out. Connolly was now officially a big hit in his own backyard.

Connolly detested most of the comedians on TV in the 70s. “Even the black comedians were racist,” he says. He had to carve his own niche, and Connolly, along with comedians like George Carlin in America, almost single-handedly invented alternative comedy. “I wanted to go somewhere else with comedy, to get deep into ordinary life, and how people thought and talked, and politics, and to kind of be a commentator on the society that I lived in,” he said.

By fluke, a Glasgow taxi driver picked up the chat show host Michael Parkinson and told him about the wild hairy guy and the Last Supper routine. Connolly was soon on TV. “When I was very little, there were no Scottish voices on the BBC,” he said. And those that were on TV were the type Connolly hated – “the shortbread men”, as he calls the Harry Lauders of this world. “I was allergic to the f****r,” he says. They were performers who traded on a cliched, tartanised vision of Scotland that had nothing to do with the reality of modern Scottish life.

Connolly killed that all stone dead on Parkinson in 1975 when he told his famous “parking a bike in a bum” joke. The nation fell in love. He was mobbed at the airport, his fame and fortune sealed. Scotland was undergoing its own cultural renaissance at the same time, with a booming music, literary and arts scene – the nation was young, hip, angry, funny, and it was windswept and interesting.

The gilded life that now unfolded for Connolly would have once seemed incredibly un-Scottish in the era of his boyhood, but with the country brimming with confidence and a desire for change in the 1980s and 90s, the global success of Connolly seemed entirely in keeping with what was happening to Scotland and the Scots.

Hollywood movies, famous friends, TV series, sellout tours, millions in the bank. That’s what happened to great performers – being Scottish was no hindrance to superstardom.

Although Connolly has offered to be a guinea pig for any future tests of a cure for Parkinson’s, he still manages the journey home from America as much as he can. Scotland has a pull on him that will never break. When he talks of the country and its landscape, he sounds like a man in love – though he makes clear he’s no sentimental patriot. He was here for the unveiling of the murals to him around Glasgow celebrating his 75th birthday – something he found overwhelming and humbling. Let’s be honest, you don’t get murals of your face painted all over your home city unless the story of your life says something very important about the story of the nation as well.

Like Scotland, Connolly keeps changing. He’s been no supporter of independence, but with Brexit “a crime bordering on a sin”, he says that one day he might back Yes in the interests of the country.

Now 76, Connolly – as with so many of his generation – is contemplating a time when he’ll no longer be here. When he goes, expect the occasion to be as funny, flamboyant and honest as the man and the city he comes from. “I definitely fancy a grand parade through Glasgow, carrying my flower-strewn coffin to a magnificent marquee in George Square,” he says.

The Scots and the Irish – Connolly is of Irish stock as his surname tells you – have a deep cultural quirk of respecting death, but never taking it too seriously. Connolly will be keeping up that tradition. He’s told his wife Pamela Stephenson that when he dies he wants an epitaph in tiny writing so visitors will have to step close to his gravestone to read it. When they can finally see it, they’ll discover it says: “You’re standing on my b***s”.

Billy Connolly’s The Sex Life Of Bandages will be screened in cinemas this Thursday, October 10