Most Americans have an image of Scotland that falls somewhere between Trainspotting and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – salted with a tartan-clad dash of Brigadoon for good measure. It’s a highland fling flung with junkies, fascist sympathizers, bumpkins, and the battle cry of Braveheart. And it doesn’t help matters that for all of their bravado, the Scots lack a strong national identity – though what assimilated arm of the British Empire doesn’t? They are a wily, difficult people to pin down, those Scots: at times surprising, often baffling, the resistance to being pigeonholed makes them all the more mysterious and magnetic.
Nowhere is the fictional image of Scotland shattered more quickly than in Glasgow. Once the Empire’s “second city,” it is a post-industrial town hell-bent on reinventing itself through a renaissance of style and architectural regeneration. It is a statement the city makes with surprising aplomb: old and new roost side-by-side and even inside out. The futuristic Glasgow Science Center and its pod-shaped IMAX Theater stand like modern beacons against the Victorian backdrop of the waterside quays of the River Clyde as you enter the city center. Nearby is the Armadillo, the affectionately named convention center that looks strangely familiar, like a riff on the famous Sydney Opera House.
The axis of Sauchiehall and Buchanan Streets marks the city’s pedestrian center. A scattering of up-market shops, cafes and galleries reinforce the city’s rebirth as the UK’s hippest urban center. The Willow Tea Rooms make for a civilized, if old fashioned, chance to take a load off with scones, clotted cream, and a proper pot of tea in one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s inspired Art Nouveau interiors. Rarely has an architect been so identified with a city as Mackintosh is with Glasgow. A hundred years on and his Glasgow School of Art remains not only a working art school but also a masterpiece of organic 20th century design. From the door signs to the lighting fixtures to the furniture, Mackintosh designed a building down to the smallest of details, creating a unified whole that is well worth the necessary hassle of arranging a tour in advance. (How Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright arrived sui generis with similar sensibilities at virtually the same point in time remains a tantalizing mystery of the universe.) Mackintosh’s home has been preserved as well, as part of the Hunterian Gallery in the university quarter. An interesting study in the practical aesthetics of his sensibility, it’s also a remarkable exercise in conservation.
Straying off Buchanan Street takes you into the old Merchant City, where it’s now impossible to walk about without passing one trendy bar or another – and the hen & stag parties the descend on the weekends. Wandering its narrow streets and bespoke shops is an afternoon in itself – as is gazing at the detailed Victorian brickwork. (Think NYC’s meatpacking district before the bus tours came and wrecked it all.) Here you’ll also find the Corinthian, Glasgow’s finest grade-A listed building. Appropriately enough it houses a piano bar, a cocktail bar and the most inviting lounge in the city. The popular (and much maligned) Gallery of Modern Art on Royal Exchange Square has a rather controversial collection of populist fare inside. But it’s the simple pointed gesture outside the entrance that seems to encapsulate the Glaswegian view of life: a classical statue of Lord Nelson astride his horse, only slightly enhanced by the traffic cone atop his head.
Glasgow’s population is a respectable 650,000, yet it’s the largest retail center (outside of London) in the UK. The rumors that Versace opened his boutique in Glasgow before London are true. There are some 800 bars, pubs and nightclubs, over 20 museums (largely free), and more than 200 cultural organizations. A scan through the weekly paper, The List, boggles the mind with all that is on offer at any given moment. It’s enough to make many an urban dweller wildly jealous. The saying may go “It’s a nice place to visit…,” but Glasgow has its share of expats who’ve never bothered to return home.