Set on the banks of the mighty River Clyde, Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, has not traditionally enjoyed the best of reputations. This former industrial giant changed its image irrevocably in 1990, however – when it energetically embraced its status as European City of Culture – and has continued to transform itself ever since, with the most recent feather in its cap being the hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2014. The cityscape has been spruced up, and many visitors are knocked out by the architecture, from long rows of sandstone terraces to the fantastical spires of the Kelvingrove Museum. Glasgow is without doubt, in its own idiosyncratic way, a cultured, vibrant and irrepressibly sociable place that’s well worth getting to know.
The city has some of the best-financed and most imaginative museums and galleries in Britain – among them the showcase Burrell Collection and the palatial Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum – nearly all of which are free. Glasgow’s architecture is some of the most striking in the UK, from the restored eighteenth-century warehouses of the Merchant City to the hulking Victorian prosperity of George Square. Most distinctive of all is the work of local luminary Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose elegantly Art Nouveau designs appear all over the city, reaching their apotheosis in the stunning School of Art. Development of the old shipyards of the Clyde, notably in the space-age shapes of the Glasgow Science Centre and the dynamic new Riverside Museum, hint at yet another string to the city’s bow: combining design with innovation. The metropolis boasts thriving live-music venues, distinctive places to eat and drink, busy theatres, concert halls and an opera house. Despite all the upbeat hype, however, Glasgow’s gentrification has passed by deprived inner-city areas such as the East End, home of the Barras market and some staunchly change-resistant pubs. Indeed, even in the more stylish quarters, there’s a gritty edge that reinforces the city’s peculiar mix of grime and glitz.
Glasgow makes an excellent base from which to explore the Clyde valley and coast, easily accessible by a reliable train service. Chief among the draws is the remarkable eighteenth-century New Lanark mills and workers’ village, a World Heritage Site, while other day-trips might take you towards the scenic Argyll sea lochs, past the old shipbuilding centres on the Clyde estuary.
Glasgow’s earliest history, like so much else in this surprisingly romantic city, is obscured in a swirl of myth. Its name is said to derive from the Celtic Glas-cu, which loosely translates as “the dear, green place”. It is generally agreed that the first settlers arrived in the sixth century to join Christian missionary Kentigern – later to become St Mungo – in his newly founded monastery on the banks of the tiny Molendinar Burn.
The university and the port
William the Lionheart granted the town an official charter in 1175, after which it continued to grow in importance, peaking in the mid-fifteenth century when the university was founded on Kentigern’s site – the second in Scotland after St Andrews. This led to the establishment of an archbishopric, and hence city status, in 1492, and, due to its situation on a large, navigable river, Glasgow soon expanded into a major industrial port. The first cargo of tobacco from Virginia offloaded in Glasgow in 1674, and the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England – despite demonstrations against it in Glasgow – led to a boom in trade with the colonies. Following the Industrial Revolution and James Watt’s innovations in steam power, coal from the abundant seams of Lanarkshire fuelled the ironworks all around the Clyde, worked by the cheap hands of the Highlanders and, later, those fleeing the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.
Shipbuilding and decline
The Victorian age transformed Glasgow beyond recognition. The population boomed from 77,000 in 1801 to nearly 800,000 at the end of the century, and new tenement blocks swept into the suburbs in an attempt to cope with the choking influxes of people. By the turn of the twentieth century, Glasgow’s industries had been honed into one massive shipbuilding culture. Everything from tugboats to transatlantic liners were fashioned out of sheet metal in the yards that straddled the Clyde. In the 1930s, however, unemployment spiralled, and Glasgow could do little to counter its popular image as a city dominated by inebriate violence and (having absorbed vast numbers of Irish emigrants) sectarian tensions. The Gorbals area in particular became notorious as one of the worst slums in Europe. The city’s image has never been helped by the depth of animosity between its two great rival football teams, Catholic Celtic and Protestant Rangers.
The city reinvented
Shipbuilding, and many associated industries, died away almost completely in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving the city depressed and directionless. Then, in the 1980s, the self-promotion campaign began, snowballing towards the year-long party as European City of Culture in 1990. Glasgow then beat off competition from Edinburgh and Liverpool to become UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999, and won the right to host the Commonwealth Games of 2014. These various titles have helped Glasgow break the industrial shackles of the past and evolve into a city of stature, confidence and style.