Wednesday, 13 July 2011

City Sightseeing: Glasgow, Scotland, Part II

When our sightseeing bus stopped at George Square, I hopped off in order to grab some nibbles while waiting for the new tour guide and driver to arrive. One block over was a massive pedestrian thoroughfare that was bordered on both sides by an endless variety of stores. I saw two Starbuck's shops diagonally positioned from each other across the street, and in a stately old building with a grand and beautiful facade, I saw an Apple store. In other words, it was practically like being back home in the US. I made the mistake of going into the closest store, Urban Outfitters. I have never been into an Urban Outfitters before, and I can safely say that I will never go in one again. I have never been surrounded by so much fakery and pretentiousness in all my life. Thus, it was with a sense of annoyance and disgust that I traipsed back to the bus, ready to cleanse my brain with a new barrage of Glasgow facts.

One of the first buildings we passed belonged to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama which happened, on that very day, to be having its graduation ceremony. Grads were standing out front taking photos with their parents, and I saw more than one man dressed up in a kilt. Incidentally, my husband and I are going to a Scottish wedding this fall, and kilts are mandatory for all male guests. We investigated the possibility of buying, rather than renting, a kilt, since it's the kind of thing that can come in handy when you are in the UK and have lots of Scottish friends. It turns out that the skirt part alone costs at least 400 pounds, and the jacket--which is cut differently than a regular suit jacket--costs that much as well. Then you have to add in all the accoutrements, like the little garter and the dagger and the purse that hangs around the waist (flashes, sgian dhubs, and sporrans, if you prefer), as well as kilt pins, cuff links, a belt with a big manly buckle, a ruche tie, a Ghillie shirt, special kilt socks, and Ghillie brogues (shoes). Obviously, you don't have to purchase every last one of those, but most people have at least the first three. The bottom line is, kilt prices are outrageous. Speaking of "bottoms," men in kilts used to be banned from riding on the top level of open-air buses, because on windy days they were at risk of flashing all the other passengers (because, as everyone knows, you just don't wear undies with kilts).

The next part of our journey took us to the eastern part of the city, past the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, at which the first X-rays in the UK were taken in 1897, by John Mcintyre. Next up was the beautiful Glasgow Cathedral, which dates to the 13th century. At one point, the Scottish hero-outlaw Rob Roy was chased through the Cathedral by authorities; the building still bears "wounds" from stray musket balls.

(The Glasgow Cathedral. Thanks to for the image.)

Next to the cathedral is the Glasgow Necropolis, a large Victorian cemetery that looks more like a park that just happens to be filled with large stone monuments; it was modeled after a similar space in Paris. Although the Necropolis is next to a Christian cathedral, its first "addition" was actually Jewish--a tobacco merchant, like many of the other people buried in the cemetery.

At some point after leaving the Necropolis, we passed something that caused me to take copious notes about the first prime minister of Canada. I have no idea what that was, but I do know that Canada's first prime minister was Sir John Alexander Macdonald, who was born in Glasgow in 1815, immigrated to Canada, and served as prime minister from 1867-1873 and then again from 1878-1891. During his time in office, he oversaw the creation of the Mountees. Because he has such a magnificently 19th-century haircut, and because I have no picture of whatever it was that inspired me to jot down all this information on him, here is a portrait of the man himself:

(Sir John Alexander Macdonald, first PM of Canada, knighted for his efforts to bring about the Canadian Confederation. Thanks to for the image.)

At the southeast corner of the city (or, at least, at the southeast corner of our tour of the city) sits the People's Palace and Winter Gardens. This was opened in 1898 in order to provide a place of loveliness that all citizens could enjoy; its creation was in direct opposition to the crowded, dirty conditions that were becoming rampant in the new industrial era. The Winter Gardens are enclosed in the greenhouse behind the "palace." Supposedly, the shape of the greenhouse roof is an exact replica of the shape of the upside-down hull of Admiral Nelson's ship, the HMS Victory.

(The People's Palace and Winter Gardens, Glasgow. Thanks to for the image.)

Out in front of the Palace is the Doulton Fountain, also known as the Terracotta Fountain. It is not only the largest terracotta fountain in the world, but also the best-preserved example of that particular genre of structure. It was unveiled in 1888 at an exhibition in the aforementioned Kelvingrove Park (site of the Commonwealth bowling greens), then moved to its current location in Glasgow Green in 1890.

(Glasgow's Doulton, or Terracotta, Fountain, situated in the Glasgow Green along the River Clyde.)

Behind the fountain, you'll notice the spectacularly ornate facade of Templeton's Carpet Factory. At one point in time, there actually was a working carpet mill behind those beautiful walls, which look better suited for the residence of a shah. This magnificent building was under construction from 1888-1892. Templeton was quite prosperous; one of his many accomplishments was providing carpeting for the Titanic.

Glasgow is responsible, whether you realize it or not, for one of the most iconic animals in US television commercial history: Clydesdale horses, featured in many Budweiser ads. These working animals were once responsible for doing all the heavy lifting in many industrial settings. Three Clydesdales are in residence at Glasgow Green--Don, Ben, and Jack. Lucky for them, there are now alternatives to their kind of horsepower, so their main occupation these days is entertaining visitors.

On our way back to the western bit of the city, we passed the "Whistling Kirk," so named because singing was not allowed in churches, but if you were really desperate for some music, you could whistle a tune instead. As we approached a bridge that stretched from one side of the Clyde to the other, our tour guide informed us that a) actor Mickey Rooney's father was born in a house on the opposite side of the bank, near the base of the bridge, and b) one of the last hangings in the city had been carried out on the bridge, and the criminal--who had been convicted of "mothering" his wife--had been strung up facing the commemorative Admiral Nelson obelisk in Glasgow Green. This was the second time our tour guide had mentioned the crime of "mothering," and after quite a bit of thought I finally came to the conclusion that she must actually have been saying "murdering." However, the Scottish have a very distinctive way of pronouncing the word "murder," and it can't usually be confused with "mother." So perhaps she said "smother"? I may never know.

We were also informed that Glasgow had previously had a leper colony near here, in an area on the south bank of the Clyde called "The Gorbals." The lepers were allowed to come into the city only once a week in order to obtain supplies. Even once the colony was gone, the area maintained its reputation for being gritty and dangerous. Unsurprisingly, given the transformations one often finds in a bustling city, The Gorbals are now an increasingly prosperous suburb.

Close by was the Scotia Pub, originally founded in 1792, one on of the four original streets in town. Our tour guide stated that this is the oldest pub in Glasgow, but as I mentioned previously, there seemed to be one of those on every corner. We also drove past a statue of the Duke of Wellington sitting atop his horse, Copenhagen, in front of the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art:

It may surprise you to learn that this is not the Duke's first choice of headwear. However, there is a tradition among schoolkids to sneak the traffic cone atop his head each night, in response to which city officials remove it each morning (apparently they were a bit late on this day, given that it was about 2 PM by the time we drove past). Actually, I think the Duke probably appreciates the cone, as it prevents pigeons from sitting on, and pooing in, his hair--which they clearly have done in the past.

Again for no discernible reason, my notebook contains several comments about James Watt, the Glaswegian "instrument maker" who was responsible for developing the modern steam engine. He didn't actually invent the engine, but instead made alterations to an existing model (the Newcomen) in order to make it more efficient. Basically, he conceived of adding a separate condensation chamber so that steam could be condensed into water in such a way that only a minimal amount of heat was lost. Or something along those lines--engineering and physics aren't exactly my strong suits.

In the middle of the city, on Mitchell Street, we passed the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Lighthouse Building. That's a bit of an odd name, considering that Mackintosh was actually just an apprentice to the architect John Keppie, who actually designed the building. Also, the "lighthouse" doesn't actually function as such, but it does provide a high vantage point from which to survey the area. At one point, the facility provided space for the headquarters of the Glasgow Herald. It is now Scotland's Centre for Architecture, Design, and the City. This may sound a bit exclusive, but members of the public are welcome to swing by and walk up the spiral staircase in order to look out over Glasgow and the Clyde.

(The Lighthouse on Mitchell Street, Glasgow. Image courtesy of

The last couple stops on the tour were on the south side of the Clyde, in the neighborhood of our hotel and conference center. On our way, we passed under a massive underpass whose supporting pillars had been decorated by Australian artist Sam Bates in honor of the upcoming Commonwealth Games. Over a three-week period, using only spray-paint, he created several mini-murals and one giant mural featuring athletes performing in some of the sports that will be competed in the Games. The major mural is devoted mostly to water-based sports, and is so life-like that you feel as though your fingers would get wet if you reached out and touched it. Most impressive.

We crossed the river via the Clyde Arc, otherwise known as the "Squinty Bridge" because it goes across the river at an angle rather than taking the shortest route. Don't ask me how "diagonal" and "meandering" translate into "squinty." It must be a Scottish thing. Incidentally, Glaswegians (or perhaps the Scottish in general) appear to be very fond of nicknames. When we first arrived in the city, our driver also told us that the Clyde Auditorium, located next to our hotel, is known as The Armadillo; the IMAX theater portion of the Glasgow Science Centre is known as The Cocoon; and the BBC Scotland building across the river is known as The Biscuit Tin.

(The Squinty Bridge. The bridge-like structure at the near left is a pedestrian walkway that connects the two banks of the Clyde. However, in order to allow tall boats to pass, it can swing around like this to provide an open passage. This appears to occur particularly often on weekends, when personal craft and tour boats patrol the waters.)

(The Armadillo, as seen from our hotel room window.)

(The Cocoon, where my husband and I watched the third Transformers movie in 3D on the IMAX screen. The size of the theater was spectacular; the movie was not.)

(The Biscuit Tin. One night we were sitting in our hotel room watching the BBC evening news when we realized that the reporter was sitting in front of a backdrop featuring real-time footage shot from the Biscuit Tin. It showed the Squinty Bridge, the Clyde, a tiny bit of the conference center, and all the construction nearby.)

The Clyde is a 106-mile tidal river that rises 16 feet at high tide. On either side of the Squinty Bridge is a rotunda, one of which currently contains an Asian fusion restaurant. Back in the day, however, the purpose of the rotundas was to house the mechanics for lifts that lowered and raised horses and carts that needed to get across from one side of the Clyde to the other (obviously, this was before the Squinty Bridge was installed).

At the end of the tour, I got off the bus at the Glasgow Science Centre, rather than at my hotel, so that I could take the short walk home and collect some of the lovely photos featured above. I wanted to make sure I got a good shot of our accommodations, which were so posh that some of the guests there arrived by yacht:

(The Glasgow Crowne Plaza. I swear that neither the building nor I was tipping over when this photo was taken--that is just my strange vantage point from the foot bridge.)

I'd like to take this moment to mention that the food at both the hotel's bar and restaurant was absolutely fabulous. One night I ordered a lobster risotto starter with mango salsa that was so good I had to get it again the next night. We also had an incredible meal at the Ubiquitous Chip, an establishment near the University of Glasgow that had been recommended by a friend and was also featured in a guide book provided by our taxi driver. Everything was delicious, but the most memorable course was my oatmeal ice cream--which not only contained bits of oatmeal, but also came with an oatmeal crust. I swear, there is nothing that Scottish people can't do with oats--or, for that matter, seafood, which I ate nearly every night. I also have to recommend La Fiorentina, which I read about online. It is supposedly the best Italian restaurant in Glasgow. In a city filled with Italian restaurants (there is a large Italian community there), this is high praise. Our entire meal was delicious, from the minestrone and pomodoro e buffalo mozzarella salad starters to the panna cotta and strawberry mess desserts. Also, props to our waiter for sneaking a birthday candle into my husband's dessert and singing "Happy Birthday" while he delivered it.

Really, the only down side to our visit was the fact that we had to spend the whole time working. Also, it wasn't so great to have our flight home canceled; we had to spend an extra night...but at least we got free accommodations and a free meal. I've heard lots of people compare Glasgow unfavorably to Edinburgh, but I'm not so sure that's fair. I do love Edinburgh, but Glasgow has an awful lot going on. Even though it has a more industrial past, while Edinburgh's history is a bit more cerebral, many of the old buildings have been preserved or renovated beautifully, and the city is full of hidden gems. I bet it is a great place to explore; I could see where you might constantly be finding new and interesting places, people, and experiences. I definitely hope to go back someday and see it from a better vantage point than a bus seat.

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