WHAT'S it like to live inside one of Scotland's best loved paintings?

SHEILA HAMILTON talks to the residents of the Dowanhill tenement made famous in the painting, Windows In The West

MAYBE the day will come when there's a plaque on the wall outside 35 Saltoun Street, Dowanhill, and we get guided tours.

But for now, all most of us can do is wander along the street just round the corner from the Byres Road and have a quick peek as we pass by and wonder what it's like to live inside a painting.

Thanks to Avril Paton's Windows In The West, this is probably the most famous tenement in the world.

And you wouldn't be a normal, nosy human being if you didn't wonder about the people into whose lives we are given a tiny glimpse.

For they are real people living real lives and the reason why this picture has such a hold on the public's imagination. Outside, it may be icy in the painting but inside the rooms they are cocooned forever in safety and warmth.

Thanks to Avril, they are immortalised - the mother with her child, the dad at his computer, the man pulling aside the curtains to peer out into the snow. Maybe he was looking for a parking space or checking on the weather.

Fourteen years on, babies are teenagers, children have grown up and left home, pets have passed on. And some residents too have gone to that great multi-occupancy tenement in the sky.

"People were thrilled to be in the painting," says Avril. "That building was a community in itself. They were colourful characters, who were always having parties."

Of course, she did use some artistic licence. "I invented a cat because I had seen a cat sitting there but later discovered it was a china cat."

She even put herself outside the front door. "That was me a lot younger. I had long hair then."

Avril believes her fascination with other people's windows comes from holidays with her grandparents in Glasgow.

"The train went through the Gorbals and for a child brought up in the country it was an amazing place, black with soot and bombed-out buildings.

"You looked straight into those windows and saw guys in their semmits washing at sinks and families gathered round."

The eight owner occupiers who remain in Saltoun Street are proud of the connection with the painting.

Award-winning writer Bernard MacLaverty - best known for Cal and Lamb, which were both made into films - and his wife, Madeline, have lived in the building for 21 years.

Being on the ground floor, they've got used to looking out the stunning oriel window of their home to see tourists stopping at the building.

"We are not too bothered about being observed," says Madeline. Bernard says: "We tend not to close the curtains. One of the stranger things is that sometimes you can be standing looking at a reproduction of Windows In The West in a shop window or even at the painting itself and someone comes up and looks at it beside you and you've a terribly strong urge to say look, those are my legs', but you mostly resist it and bite your lip."

Actually he's not quite sure whether they are his legs or Madeline's. It's still a matter of debate.

For Bernard, whose latest book, Matters of Life & Death, is due out in paperback this spring, Windows is a romantic work in which the painter imagines eight small dramas.

"It reminds me of those American plays or a Desperate Dan kind of thing where the gable wall fell off and everybody was left sitting in the bath or eating their dinner," he smiles.

"It is amazing the accuracy of Avril's eye. We are proud of the painting and if there are visitors we'll say come and see it in the gallery."

Bernard and Madeline live here alone now since their three daughters and son have flown the coop.

They came here 21 years ago and he believes he was probably working on his book of short stories, Walking the Dog, when the picture was painted Bernard says: "I've always loved living here." "It's quite hard to heat," says Madeline, "but in summer, because it's south facing, the front room is warm."

Football commentator Roddy Forsyth, his wife Marian, who runs a concierge service, and their teenage daughters have lived in their top-floor flat for 16 years now, a punishing climb but worth it when you see the view.

They rave about the flat, its proximity to the bustling Byres Road and their own private residents' gardens.

"It's like a cross between Earls Court in London and Hampstead," says Roddy. "You get your backpackers and your students and your bedsits and you've got townhouses."

They are large flats with spacious rooms, but as Roddy says, they pay for that with large heating and maintenance costs. It costs £50 to clean the 21 windows alone.

We've just recently had the whole building refurbished and it's been a big project, but it's satisfying," says Roddy.

"I've said to Marian often that I often get a real feeling of contentment. Everybody loves coming home, but this street just has a special feel to it."

And yet, when they first went to see the flat, Marian told Roddy she didn't want to live in Saltoun Street.

"It felt narrow and dark. But when we came in and saw the scale of the flat, we thought it was lovely.

"We used to say to Avril sometimes that we wondered what she was seeing and she said: I've seen everything with everybody'.

"You wonder if she'd seen you strolling about in the scud or something," laughs Roddy, "but she was discreet. If she saw anything, she didn't say."

Retired building contractor Donald Macaskill, 71, originally from Lewis, and his wife Maggie, 70, a retired lecturer, have lived here since 1966 and have an almost encyclopaedic memory about past residents.

Their flat when they saw it was "chock full of paintings".

It had been the home of a daughter of the legendary James "Paraffin" Young, who developed the process of refining oil to produce paraffin.

Maggie brings through a copy of Windows In The West and Donald points out where she is painted putting coal on the fire. "We used to wonder what Avril was doing. We thought she was painting the university on the skyline.

"It was a friend of ours who came in one night and told us the painting was showing at an exhibition in the concert hall.

"We've had a lot of fun with it over the years," says Donald. "We've probably sent copies of the painting all over the world.

"A tenement in Italy is a palazzo and we sent one card to friends in Venice, who live in a palazzo, with a message saying We thought you'd like to see our palazzo'."

There have been ups and down over the years, but mainly, it's been a very happy building, they say.

The Forsyths enjoy the fact it's the same street as it was 100 years ago.

"I really would love to think this building would still be around in two or three hundred years and that people will still love it. We plan to live here for many more years until we can't manage the stairs anymore," says Marian. "But you're only in charge of the place for so long and then it passes on to other people."

She turns to Roddy. "The night we moved in, we saw a shooting star. And it's been pretty lucky, hasn't it?"