Life

Scotland

A wee tour of Glasgow

By Ian Robertson, Special to the Toronto Sun

Exterior of the Glasgow City Chambers. (IAN ROBERTSON/QMI Agency)

Exterior of the Glasgow City Chambers. (IAN ROBERTSON/QMI Agency)

GLASGOW -- With only a couple of days in the hometown of two of my grandparents, the old saying of having too little time and so much to see posed a quandary.

I have visited several times over the past 40 years and keep in touch with kinfolk of my late Gramps, the one I knew best.

Archibald Hugh Macdonald, who emigrated to Canada in 1926 at age 28, was born in the city where Romans had outposts in a wide valley floor bisected by the River Clyde, in its time a major source of inbound and export shipping to destinations around the world.

Once packed with housing tenements, freighters, passenger liners and sky-blackening soot from coal-fired factories that expanded during the early-to-mid-1800s' Industrial Revolution, Glasgow was far from being a "Dear Green Place!" That's a translation from the Brythonic Celtic word "Cleschi," which is believed to be where the name came from. There's also the Scottish Gaelic name, "Glaschu."

In the years leading up to the First World War, when Gramps volunteered for a local regiment and saw action in the trenches of Europe, times were tough. He and his brother ran barefoot through the streets. Shoes were kept for Sunday chapel.

Before boarding a steamship for Canada, the future chartered accountant worked as a bank teller. Later he landed a job in his new country at Sun Life in Montreal -- dubbed "the Scotsman's Refuge" in his photo album.

The city of his youth -- now with a population of about 600,000, swelling to just over 2.5-million in its metropolitan area -- has undergone major changes since Gramps first brought me here in 1971 to "meet the family" at nearby Milngavie.

For those who have never set foot in Scotland's largest city, it is well worth a visit. First time visitors are in for some surprises about just how much there is to see, do and enjoy. With only partial days to spare on either side of one spent with my clanfolk, I went exploring -- first by foot, then via a big red, double-decker tour bus. Here are some highlights:

KELVINGROVE REVISITED

After lunching at a small cafe in front of the picturesque, family friendly Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, I headed for the sprawling red sandstone, multi-turreted building. One of Scotland's most popular attractions, which I first visited in 2008, it has 22 state-of-the-art galleries, including paintings, sculptures and artifacts ranging from natural history to medieval Scottish armour. The West Court even has a mounted elephant, above which hangs a wartime Spitfire fighter plane restored after crashing in 1949.

One of the most beautiful, poignant and thought-provoking statues is Motherless, an 1889 sculpture by George Lawson, which shows a father comforting his little girl after her mother's death. Other displays are cheeky, including a collection of old boots -- put together in the shape of a dog. Since Scotch is a major attraction in Scotland, an exhibit of Famous Grouse whisky naturally has one of the stuffed birds.

Among several mounted displays include Sir Roger the circus elephant, who developed a dangerous hormonal disorder and was shot while eating breakfast in 1900. There is also a collection of butterflies.

Artwork ranges from classic old-style paintings and carvings to Impressionist works, and the wall-size Christ of Saint John of the Cross by Spanish artist Salvador Dali (1904-89). It was bought in London in 1951 by the-then director of Glasgow museums. There is also a statue of Elvis Presley, thank you very much.

But my favourite display is of 50 hanging heads carved by Scottish artist Sophie Cave. Produced from styrofoam blocks, the "Expressions" exhibit shows a wide variety of human expressions. Since March 2010, these have hung on wires above various masks plus masquerades used for rituals and performances.

Finally, while stopping for a "cuppa" at the ground-floor cafe, music began echoing through the galleries of the building, which opened in 1901 and was revamped 105 years later at a cost of $44 million. Sipping hot tea as an organist played the large keyboard of the century-old giant pipe-organ high above the treasure-filled galleries was a perfect ending for my visit.

GRAND BUS TOUR

Hopping aboard a double-decker sightseeing bus two days later was a great way to see Glasgow's old and new sections. Instead of a live guide announcing landmarks, there was better-than-average timed commentary by author, archaeologist and historian Neil Oliver via free earplugs. His recording mixed insight with occasional whimsy.

Gramps grew up in the "gorbals" area, which I learned was a term from centuries ago when people with leprosy were allowed to cross a bridge to buy weekly essentials while ringing a "gory bell" warning anyone in their path.

With overcrowding after the Industrial Revolution, officials and wealthy residents began planning extensive parks and boulevards, public squares and communal gardens as expansion continued. Private gardens and grounds for such institutions as the renowned University of Glasgow were developed, trees were planted everywhere and statues provided passersby with histories of people who greatly influenced the city.

Oliver explained the "truly democratic statue" of Robert "Robbie" Burns (1759-1796) in 230-year-old George Square was paid for not by wealthy patrons, but by working-class residents and other Scots seeking to honour Scotland's favourite poet.

I relived earlier visits as the narrator described historic theatres, old burial grounds and sports fields, plus 1980's neighbourhood housing and financial district renewals after an economic decline. On two occasions, I hopped off for walkabouts, including narrow streets around the old Merchant City, which has numerous cafes and trendy bars.

On George Square, a tour ticket-seller suggested visiting the City Chambers, whose Renaissance Classicism design incorporates Italianate styles. It also has an unexpected roof-top statue. "Truth," the central of three symbolic statues high above the entrance, including Riches and Honour, is locally called the Statue of Liberty because of its close resemblance to the larger namesake in New York harbour.

Built in the 1880s, the city hall's interior of marble and granite pillars, wide marble, freestone, alabaster staircases, and a ceiling decorated in gold leaf topped by a stained glass dome is well worth a visit. Glasgow's coat-of-arms, reflecting legends about 6th century founding patron Saint Mungo, cover the floor in front of the council chambers.

My last stop was outside the beautiful People's Palace, beside a park where Prince Charles Edward Stuart -- "Bonnie Prince Charlie" -- rested his troops during Scotland's last Jacobite uprising in 1745. That venture failed to win him the thrones of Great Britain.

Called Glasgow Green, the peaceful setting offers a hint of the city's close-to-rural past. An 18th century law permits any resident to graze sheep there, though none were around as we drove away.

IF YOU GO TO GLASGOW, SCOTLAND

Air Transat flies direct from Pearson Airport. Sunwing Travel Group launched twice-weekly seasonal flights in April.

BITS AND PIECES

-- With brochures and suggestions from hotel staff, I hopped aboard a Red Bus Tour double-decker, which cost about $15, with plenty of hop-on-and-off stops, plus earplugs with access to narrations in several languages. A rival company uses blue double-deckers.

-- The Argyle Hotel on Sauchiehall St., with its cozy, comfortable and affordable rooms, and super Victorian-style restaurant with a fabulous breakfast buffet included, was well worth $100 a night. I also stayed at the modern Mint Hotel beside the Clyde River and former dockyards, plus the modernized Glasgow Grand Central Hotel beside the city's largest railway station, with mall shops in the heart of a bustling business district.

-- A Titan Clydebank visitor centre with educational exhibits and a cafe on Queen's Dock opened last June year.

-- The Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum is on Argyle St. at Sauchiehall St. Buses run regularly. It's a five-to 10-minute walk from Kelvinhall or Kelvinbridge subway stations. See museums@glasgowlife.org.uk. Permanent exhibits at all Glasgow public museums are free. Admission is charged to some special exhibits.

-- For over-all travel information about Scotland, check out cometoscotland.com.

ian.robertson@sunmedia.ca


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