Glasgow’s Miles Better
When I was a kid growing up in the 80s in the suburbs of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, there was a well known advertising campaign to promote the city as a tourist and commerce destination. Featuring Mr Happy (from the Mr Men) and the slogan ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ it epitomises the feeling of many residents when it comes to comparing themselves to that other city in the central belt – you know the one: the capital city that is Edinburgh. If you speak to the people of Edinburgh, they protest having no such superiority against Glasgow, but speak to any Glaswegian and most of them will jokingly wit about Edinburgh’s shortcomings and all the things that make Glasgow so much better. I’m a proud Glaswegian, born and raised, and have spent many a trip abroad regaling to people why they need to step away from the enticing vista of Edinburgh’s Castle and Princess Street Gardens, and come explore Glasgow and further afield. It seems from speaking to a lot of travellers, that Scotland draws many people to the capital city and Loch Ness (home of the mythical monster), and little else, which is a constant frustration.
I lived, grew up and studied in Glasgow until an employment opportunity took me away in my 20s. It is now 10 years since I have lived there, but I’m still a Glaswegian at heart and was excited at the prospect of playing tourist in my home city on my return there at the end of May. Armed with a walking tour outline on my phone, and hitting it off with the weather, I set off to see some spots I’d not visited before, as well as revisit some old haunts from my youth.
Arriving by bus into Buchanan bus station, I found my way to the top of Buchanan Street where a busker was playing the bagpipes, which immediately made my heart swell. It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, I always feel immensely patriotic and emotional when I hear the bagpipes. The sound of even badly played pipes, always takes me to a place where I feel at home and connected to my past. I sat for a while on the steps of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall which sits at the top of the street, and from here there is a view both down the slope of Buchanan Street and along Sauchiehall Street, 2 of Glasgow’s shopping streets. I had all day and was in no hurry, and having been devoid of one of my favourite clothes shops for many years, it was only right to do a little bit of shopping in H&M. Who knows when I’ll be in one again.
In part following the Mural Trail, and adapting it for sightseeing purposes, I passed George Square, the large expanse in front of the City Chambers, which is often used for seasonal events. The sun was out, and so were the pigeons and people enjoying a morning coffee and catch-up on what was a public holiday. Past the University of Strathclyde, I followed High Street, passing my favourite mural of a man with a bird on his hand, and continuing up to Glasgow Cathedral, a building I’d never visited before. Free to enter, there was a lot of tourists milling around, and I took my time admiring the stained glass windows, something which I always love to look at inside churches. It’s a beautiful cathedral inside and out, and sits next to the entrance to the Necropolis.
The Glasgow Necropolis is reached by crossing over the bridge behind the cathedral and then picking a route up the hill. It has a reputation for an area of crime, with people being robbed and beaten here, but on such a sunny day on a public holiday, it was full of locals and tourists alike sunning themselves on picnic rugs or wandering around the gravestones. It is a green space within the city and known as a deer-spotting location, as well as being elevated enough to act as a natural viewing spot for a panorama over the city and suburbs beyond. I felt perfectly safe wandering around, absorbing the sun’s rays and soaking in the view. Behind the Cathedral, the large Royal Infirmary nestled beside it, and in the far distance, the hills beyond the southern suburbs with their windmills atop were evident through the haze on the horizon.
I meandered around for a while, looking at the various prominent and distinct headstones and monuments, before heading back to the Cathedral. Opposite here is the St Mungo Museum and adorning the immediate area is the symbol of Glasgow from the city’s coat of arms: ‘Here’s the bird that never flew, here’s the bell that never rang, here’s the tree that never grew, here’s the fish that never swam’. Not far from here there is a juxtaposition between the old buildings of Glasgow and modern architecture, particularly around Strathclyde University.
The Merchant City is a well known area for socialising, rife with bars, cafes and restaurants. It is a popular part of the city but an area that I rarely frequented when I lived there. I went to university in the west end, and lived in a suburb to the south, so there was little reason to go there. I wandered through it, admiring the buildings, but didn’t linger long. While searching for a mural down an alley way, I stumbled across an old fashioned sweet shop which sold many of my favourites from my childhood. I stocked up on soor plooms, cola cubes, rhubarb rock and more, and continued on my happy way.
Wandering along the Clyde walkway, the good weather had brought many people out to the riverside. It’s not the prettiest of rivers, being rather discoloured and often the river banks are littered with rubbish and trolleys, but turning a blind eye to all that, there was much to see from bridges and churches to buildings and murals, and now, the walkway extends all the way to the relatively new transport museum further down the Clyde.
After a while, I left the river behind and cut north back into the city, finding myself at the Lighthouse on Mitchel Lane. Another one of the city’s free attractions, I’d never been here before and decided to head in to go to the viewing platform. A centre for design and architecture, it acts as an exhibition and gallery space and was originally designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I was starving by this point, not satiated by sugary treats, and stopped in the cafe for lunch. I had followed the signs to the viewing platform on the sixth floor, accessible only via lift. Indoors, it was a small space, a little cramped with the amount of people there, but it was an interesting view over the city rooftops that isn’t normally seen. I noticed some people in another outdoor viewing platform another floor up in an older looking building, but didn’t know how they’d gotten there. I later discovered that it was another part of the Lighthouse, and was a little annoyed that I’d missed out on this.
Back outside in the glorious sunshine, I made a convoluted path back to the Clyde walkway, passing the beautiful exterior of Central Station, a familiar site from my many years of commuting in and out of the city during my late teens and early twenties. I was sidetracked by some strange colourful blobs outside of the BT offices, before I found myself at a bridge that had appeared in the years after I had left the city and was living to the north in Aberdeen. The promenade felt lively and inviting, and was decorated with bright pink banners declaring ‘People Make Glasgow’. I felt Glaswegian and I felt like I was at home.
Heading up to Sauchiehall Street and on to Cowcaddens underground to complete the mural trail, I hopped on the underground to head west. The underground had been upgraded since I last was on it, and I had a brief moment of feeling stupid as I couldn’t work out what to do with my ticket at the barrier, whilst the staff in the booth waved frantically at me trying to give me silent direction. Embarrassed, I breathed a sigh of relief when it let me through, and I headed to Hillhead, another regular haunt from my youth. I crossed University Avenue, looking up towards the tower of the building where many of my exams were held, and continued down the hill past the restaurant I ate with my family on the day of my graduation, and round the corner, crossing the River Kelvin, and onto Argyle Street, sidling through the crowds to reach Kelvingrove Museum & Art Gallery.
This was a place where I’d last visited as a kid with my mum and my brother. Since then it had been closed down, completely renovated and reopened a few years ago. Yet another free attraction in Glasgow, I’d heard good things about it, and was particularly keen to see the ‘Heads’ installation. Like many museums, it has its set exhibits and a changing exhibit, but there are a few key pieces that the museum is famous for, including an Asian elephant and a spitfire. I was quite hot and just a little sunburnt by this point in the day, so I wasn’t really fussed about spending a lot of time here. I just wanted an overview, so wandered round admiring and looking at the displays, but didn’t particularly spend much time reading the information or descriptions that went with them. I particularly liked a painting in one of the galleries that contained every known stereotype or classically Scottish object within the one image. As the guide who was there commented, you could look at the piece multiple times and still see something new each time, the picture was just so immense.
Round the corner from the museum lies Kelvingrove Park which was unbelievably busy given it being a public holiday and such cracking weather. From the skate park to the fountain and everything in between, there was barely an inch of grass free to sit on with families and friends everywhere making the most of the cracking summer weather. I was overjoyed to spot an ice cream van and joined the long queue to wait patiently for my ’99’, and boy did it taste good. I people watched for a while, before taking a trip down memory lane by walking to Glasgow University. Here, it was eerily deserted, being outwith term time. Exams were over, and only graduations awaited in a couple of weeks’ time. I watched a grey squirrel cry out in the trees as I walked below the high tower of the main building, cutting through the arches into the quadrangles and round to the entrance gate before heading past my old student union where a hundred memories flashed through my head. It felt a lifetime ago since I’d last been there, and it might as well have been, for all that has occurred in the 11 years since I left the university life behind. It felt almost strange being there, and I headed through the busy Ashton Lane, all the pubs spilling out onto the cobbled street, and back to Hillhead underground.
Back at Buchanan Street underground station, I got stuck again trying to exit the barriers. It wouldn’t accept my ticket and with the ticket office at the far end of the floor, I was left on my own, jumping up and down and waving like an idiot trying to grab their attention. Several commuters looked at me strangely on passing, assuming I didn’t know where to put my ticket, yelling instructions at me in a tone that suggested I was stupid. Eventually a more sympathetic commuter saw my plight and went over to the ticket office to point me out to the staff. Like Cowcaddens before, they gesticulated from a distance where to put my ticket, not realising this wasn’t my problem. It felt like the longest time before eventually they pressed a button and all the barriers released, finally letting me escape. It seemed the underground did not want to be my friend that day.
Back out in the sunshine, I had one last place to go on my trip down memory lane. Heading down Buchanan Street briefly and cutting through Exchange Place, I rounded the side of the Gallery of Modern Art (another free attraction) to find one of my favourite and most iconic statues in the city: the Duke of Wellington atop his horse, standing oh-so-proudly… with a traffic cone on his head. Originally started as a joke in the 80s, it has become so iconic that it now features on souvenirs and in guidebooks for the city. The city council has tried many tactics to discourage and stop the practice, removing the cone repeatedly, only to have it replaced within hours or days, and attempts to implement more extreme measures to stop the practice have been met with petitions from locals and celebrities alike. There are few Glaswegians who even know what it looks like without its cone, and having passed it so many times when I was younger, I felt it was about time I actually took a photograph of it as a memento. There was something warming about seeing it in the flesh again after all these years.
Cutting past George Square once more, I retraced my steps from the morning back to the Royal Concert Hall, picking up a much needed iced tea for the bus ride home. It drove through suburbs of familiarity as I headed to my parent’s house, pleased with my day as a tourist in the sun. It might not have the visual draw of Edinburgh’s Castle, but Glasgow still has my heart and certainly has plenty to offer. My day tour had merely touched the surface of things to see in the city, but it had been immense fun playing tourist in my home town.