Glasgow: an insider’s guide

Glasgow River Clyde
Above: The Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre at dusk on the River Clyde

Glasgow was known as the second city of the British Empire for much of the Victorian and Edwardian period. Today, the Merchant City bustles with shops and has a thriving cultural scene

Like all great cities, at the centre of Glasgow is a river. From its source in Leadhills to the south east, the Clyde flows down through the old mill towns of Lanarkshire, bending west and widening as it snakes past the sites of the shipyards which made Glasgow the Second City of the British Empire, on to the tail of the bank at Gourock, where drovers swam their cattle on the final lap of the long journey to market from the Highlands. A sharp turn and the Clyde is on its final stretch past the quaintly pretty seaside towns of Largs, Dunoon and Rothesay where Glaswegians spent their ‘fair’ holidays. The history of Glasgow and the course of the Clyde are inextricably linked.

It all started back in the 6th century, when St Mungo built his monastery on a tributary of the Clyde called the Molendinar Burn. The cathedral named for him occupies the same spot today, crouching in Gothic splendour in the lee of the Necropolis, where John Knox, the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism, glowers over the city, stern and disapproving. St Mungo’s miracles are commemorated in the bell, bird, tree and fish of Glasgow’s coat of arms, along with his prayer to “let Glasgow flourish”. Thanks in no small part to the river that brought St Mungo to settle there, flourish is exactly what the city has done.

In 1707 the Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments granted Scots access to the colonies in North America and the Indies, triggering a period of rapid expansion.

Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art
Above: Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art

Favourable trade winds gave Glaswegians up to three weeks advantage over their English competitors in the journey across the Atlantic, taking consumer goods out and bringing tobacco back. The Clyde was re-channelled and dredged in order to allow the three-mast merchant’s ships to bring their cargo straight into the hub of the city (though the largest vessels were unloaded down river at Port Glasgow and Greenock). The Tobacco Lords, as the merchants came to be known, saw themselves as the new aristocracy. In their black silk suits and red cloaks, they strutted from the warehouses where the hogsheads of tobacco were stored, to the Tobacco Exchange where the precious leaves were sold, home to their purpose-built town houses, perhaps stopping off on the way to do business at the Trade’s Hall, built by Robert Adam and serving the same purpose more than 200 years later. One of the grandest townhouses was built for merchant William Cunninghame.

The original foyer now forms the entrance to the Gallery of Modern Art on Queen Street, in those days Cow Lone, a muddy track forming the main route to the common grazing grounds in Cowcaddens.

Nowadays, the Merchant City is awash with trendy bars and eating places but its tobacco heritage is commemorated in the streets named for the main trading houses and plantations, with the mortal remains of the merchants themselves buried in the graveyard at Ramshorn Kirk. American independence signalled the decline of Glasgow’s tobacco trade. First sugar and then cotton took its place. By the time the American Civil War put an end to the export of raw cotton, the city had turned to the industry for which it is most famous. Ship building. The Clyde Room in Glasgow’s Museum of Transport has scale models of more than 250 Clyde-built ships, including the Queen Mary and both Queen Elizabeths.

Glasgow City Chambers
Above: The front of the City Chambers from George Square.

For over a hundred years, the shipbuilding and engineering works that made Glasgow great jostled for space along the Clyde. The city expanded rapidly, demonstrating its status in the magnificent civic buildings erected at the time, the most opulent of which is the City Chambers on George Square. A few steps from here in the city centre is Central Station, a stunning creation of glass and wrought iron, the departure point for the thousands of industrial workers seeking respite from the hard slog of factory life by going “doon the watter” to the Clyde Riviera.
The Industrial Revolution brought immense wealth to Glasgow. It also brought smog. For those who could afford it, a move to the West End, where the prevailing winds blew the pollution away, was essential. The University of Glasgow, which relocated from its original site near the cathedral to Gilmorehill in 1870, is a lovely place to wander round, with atmospheric cloisters and quads and an excellent view out over Kelvingrove Park, where the newly refurbished Kelvingrove Museum is situated. Here you’ll find Salvador Dalí’s Christ of St John of the Cross, as well as Glasgow Boys, Scottish Colourists and an eclectic collection of exhibits from armoury to stuffed aardvarks, housed in a baroque Victorian building which is one of the most-visited attractions in Britain, outside London. Once you’ve had your fill of culture, there’s the calm of the Botanic gardens with the restored Kibble Palace Glasshouse, or the vibrant ambiance of Byres Road.

Kelvingrove Museum Glasgow

By the 1980s, almost all the famous shipyards, including John Brown’s where the QE2 was built, were closed. Derelict warehouses and empty docks, their cranes frozen on the skyline, formed a haunting portrait of industrial decline.

Thankfully, it was short-lived. A massive rejuvenation programme began with the Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign and the 1988 Garden Festival saw the Clyde reborn. Fashionable waterfront developments occupy the filled-in docks, a walkway runs along the old railway lines from the city centre west to Finnieston, where footbridges connect the north and south of the river. The Science Centre is here, along with the ultra-modern ‘Armadillo’ (Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre).

1999 saw Glasgow named City of Architecture and Design. One of its most illustrious buildings, tucked away behind Sauchihall Street, is Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s School of Art, which celebrated its centenary in 2009. It’s an iconic structure, deceptively simple and intriguingly complex, a stunningly effective example of Mackintosh’s ambition to create clean lines and practical, naturally-lit space. Fans of his work are spoiled for choice in Glasgow, with notable examples such as the Martyrs’ School, Scotland Street School Museum, Queen’s Cro s Church, The Willow Tearooms, the Mackintosh House at the Hunterian, and the Hill House in nearby Helensburgh.

Tenement House Glasgow
Above: Tenement House, preserved since the 19th Century

A short walk uphill from the art school is the Tenement House, which gives a real taste of what it was like to live in a typical Glasgow close. The home to Miss Agnes Toward for over 50 years, the flat remains virtually unchanged from the day Miss Toward moved into it in 1911, so you really are taking a step back to another century.

There are many more sides to Glasgow. Pollok is just one of the city’s 90-plus parks. With riverside walks, the Palladian Pollok House and gardens, and the unsurpassable Burrell Collection, it’s a taste of the countryside just a short bus ride from the city centre.

For another change of scene, you can take to the water and head in style ‘doon the watter’ on the Waverley, named after Sir Walter Scott’s first novel and the last seagoing paddle steamer in the world since 1972.

Glasgow really is a multi-faceted city, locals welcome visitors and take justifiable pride in the treasures their city has to offer. More than 25 years after the phrase was coined, it is truer than ever to say that “Glasgow’s miles better”.

Discover our editor’s favourite places to visit in Glasgow!

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