Glasgow: Give It A Night, Then Go
Rainy and overcast when our train pulled into Glasgow from London, I was overjoyed. I miss rain after so many years in Texas, and Glasgow—the first stop on our two-week Scotland trip—was already exceeding expectations simply by offering rain. I was also looking forward to exploring a city with strong, working-class Irish roots like my own. I'd also heard good things about Glasgow's vegetarian scene from other visitors. We had three nights booked in a cool hotel in the heart of the city center.
Suffice to say, I was ready to give Glasgow a go.
Unfortunately, Glasgow and I didn't end up meshing all that well.
So, why didn't I end up liking it?
To put it simply, Glasgow's like Liverpool if Liverpool never had the Beatles: a gritty industrial port city, sans the iconic, working-class champions that helped Liverpool earn some endearing qualities and charm it might not have otherwise earned.
But my dislike of Glasgow was about more than its lack of the Fab Four, obviously. Only one city can own the Fab Four privilege, and that’s not Glasgow's fault.
I love history, and unfortunately, Glasgow doesn't offer the thorough look into history that I so typically enjoy when I'm in Europe. In fact, history is the number one reason I visit other countries (hell, it's the number one reason I visit other states in my own country). Much of Glasgow's medieval and older structures don't even exist anymore. A few decades ago, the city demolished Cathcart Castle, a 15th-century castle with ties to Mary, Queen of Scots (purportedly, the Queen watched the Battle of Langslide from the castle before fleeing into her lifetime imprisonment in England). The city unceremoniously left only the castle's ruins, despite it potentially being the last Scottish landmark that Mary stood in before her tragic downward spiral.
What history is there?
Most of Glasgow's oldest structures date back only to the Victorian Era. That may seem pretty great/old to some people, but considering the alternatives (places like Urquhart Castle), that's a paltry showing from a major city in a country with a long and fascinating history.
The two buildings of most historical significance in Glasgow are the 15th-century Provand's Lordship and the 12th-century Glasgow Cathedral, which may stand on the 7th-century burial site of St. Mungo (aka St. Kentigern, credited as the first bishop of Glasgow and with attracting settlers to what's now Glasgow—making him kind of the founder of the city).
Glasgow's East End still reflects some medieval-era planning, which is cool, but may also be a reason that particular part of town has fallen behind in revitalizing. This is troubling; the city appears to struggle between making room for modern architecture while preserving historic sites, and, what's more, seems to favor revitalizing based on historically religious divisions (more on that in a later, extended cut on Glasgow's religious issues).
So, with at least 1,400 years of documented civilization (and evidence of civilization predating Mungo), that's all Glasgow's got to offer a history enthusiast? Sure, the Cathedral is undeniably awesome, beautiful, and profound, but really, y'all?
Then why were we there?
Interestingly, about half a dozen Glaswegians (Glasgow natives or people who live there) asked us that same question in the few days we were there. And they weren't being snotty; they legitimately wanted to know why we were in Glasgow instead of Edinburgh, which they unequivocally called "better" than their home city. Several of them even warned us to be careful in nearly every section of Glasgow, which they said suffers from varying degrees of violence. Some of that has to do with the Celtic-Rangers rivalry that has long produced violence in the city, but most of their warnings seemed to come from a general wariness of their hometown and a genuine concern for our safety. I'll admit, I did feel a kind of ominous presence across the city as soon as we got off the train. Some of that may be attributed to me, a Texas suburbanite, simply being away from urban environments for too long, but my instincts are usually correct, and the Glaswegians with whom we spoke confirmed some of the uneasiness I'd felt.
We were in Glasgow for the same reasons we start out in any reasonably sized city when we travel: it was easy to get to; it seemed like a good place to overcome jet lag while simultaneously giving ourselves the opportunity to pop out now and again to see some sites; and, it was a good jumping-off point for our Western Scotland itinerary. What's more, Stirling Castle (possibly our number one destination in Scotland) is a quick train ride from Glasgow.
However, cities like London, Madrid, and Brussels have offered us the same first-stop-on-the-itinerary benefits while also giving us a hearty helping of history—and decidedly fewer native naysayers (which I can report, with some authority, as my first order of business in any country, is always to get to know the minds of the people who live there—once a journalist, always a journalist, eh?).
Well, assuming I survive after posting this not-so-kind review of Glasgow, I’d obviously like to return to the city someday and give it another try. I admit that I was both jet lagged and suffering from some serious fatigue issues while we were there, both of which contributed to my almost zombie-like tour of the city. I left Glasgow disappointed, not only because of the lack of historical sites I hope to find in any old city, but because I wasn’t at 100% while there. I’m also fascinated by the Celtic-Rangers rivalry (and proudly place myself on the Celtic side) and by the evolution of the city altogether. At another time, with more rest, I bet Glasgow would blow my mind.
Also, a note about the people: the Glaswegians we met were, hands-down, the NICEST Scots we met during the two weeks we traveled the country. They were also hands-down the most difficult to understand, but through a system of texting and writing down things on bar napkins, we got to know some of the nicest people we’ve ever met on our European travels. Not only were they genuinely concerned about our safety in their city, but they cared that we saw the best their country had to offer, recommending places to stop that weren't yet on our agenda. They bought us more rounds of drinks than we probably should’ve accepted, but their enthusiasm, kindness, and hospitality was impossible to turn down. While my husband talked to the lads about sports and outdoors stuff, I talked to their wives and girlfriends about life as lasses in our respective countries.
As always, I was surprised by their fascination with America and Texas—considering they live among history I travel days and across an ocean to see—and they were surprised by my fascination with their country and their history. Not for the first time in Europe (or the UK) and not even for the last time during our Scotland trip, they were all surprised my husband and I aren’t gun nuts or super Christian. Though I’m never pleased these stereotypes come up in conversation—and they inevitably do if we speak to people long enough during our travels—I am happy to have the opportunity to present an alternative version of Americans to the folks we meet abroad. In Glasgow and other places in Scotland, I noticed they, too, were happy to dispel stereotypes, such as all Scots are kilt-wearing, whiskey-swigging rumblers.
These are the best things about travel, y’all—finding diamonds in the rough, as we did in Glasgow, and the exchange of perspectives. There’s nothing like it.
Cheers, Glasgow, and hope to see you again sometime.