Get a taste of urban and edgy Scotland and warm to Glasgow’s gritty charm
The west coast of Scotland is notorious for bad weather, so it was kind of surprising to find myself in town for a few days and bathed in brilliant warm Spring sunshine.
The locals were typically skeptical: ‘Make the most of it! This is probably going to be all the summer we’ll have.’
I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Glasgow – generally I’m on limited time and so making smash and grab visits which consist of little more than a train station, a hotel and an office, so I’ve had a feeling for a while that I wasn’t giving Scotland’s biggest city a fighting chance to show me it’s best side.
The history of this heartland of the industrial revolution is impressive – tracing its origins back to medieval times, Glasgow has always been an important political and trading centre and is now the third most populous city in the United Kingdom. While east-coast rival Edinburgh may be more postcard-pretty, Glasgow has cultivated a gritty, urban appeal that makes it a far more interesting proposition.
Having caught the train to Glasgow from London’s Euston station (it’s a long train ride but productive with free wifi and plenty of work-space), I’d opted for the Radisson Blu hotel in Argyle Street – literally across the road from Glasgow Central Station which is always a bonus.
My first meeting was with Colin, who’s worked for Clydesdale Bank for 34 years. Desperate to make the most of the good weather, I persuaded him that we should head outside into the sun and so he led the way to a bench overlooking the River Clyde which cuts through the city.
As we talked Colin provided a regular commentary on the various river craft that sped past, keeping an eye out for the commuter sea plane that often lands in the river – ferrying passengers from more remote parts of the country. The city’s shipyards have in the past made the Clyde a fairly murky river as it runs through Glasgow, but improving water quality has seen salmon, otter and seal become regular visitors once again.
My other major piece of business was a meeting of a number of power gays from the banking sector – getting together to share experiences and opportunities to work together to raise the visibility and confidence of gays and lesbians working in finance (which is still one of Scotland’s major sources of employment despite the recent challenges faced by all banks). I was impressed by the guys at the meeting – smart, serious but also with a dry and witty sense of humor, you could see that they would make good dinner companions.
That evening, in order to expand my knowledge of the wider city, I walked from the hotel out to the West End. Every city tends to look better when bathed in sunlight, however there are stretches of inner city Glasgow that look fairly grim regardless.
I was heading up to the Glasgow University precinct, but stopped off for a crisp glass of Viognier (a dry white wine from France) in a smart bistro called Crabshakk as I passed through the Finnieston neighborhood (just near the impressive Kelvingrove Museum). Crabshakk is a small modern space dishing up what looked like excellent seafood – I was tempted to stay the night but had reservations elsewhere so pushed on.
On the recommendation of my friend Joe, I’d booked for dinner at The Ubiquitous Chip in Ashton Lane. The Ashton Lane area in the heart of Glasgow’s West End is undeniably cool – lots of bars and restaurants and The Ubiquitous Chip is clearly one of the stand-outs. The large light-filled courtyard was the perfect place to enjoy a leisurely dinner of excellent seafood.
For the gay, lesbian, bi or trans traveller, there’s a busy bar and club scene that caters to pretty much all tastes – from Bears in the West at Revolver in the city centre; to Bitter Glitter at Bennets in nearby Glassford Street; or Sugar Rush at FHQ in John Street.
Major events include Pride Scotia in June and Glasgay cultural festival in October. If you fancy a bit of exercise, the local branch of Front Runners meets every Thursday and welcomes visitors to run with them.
Blissfully, as the week rolled on the sunshine continued. I discovered the expansive Glasgow Green which sweeps from the High Court on Saltmarsh down and along the River Clyde. The Green was awash with Glaswegians making the most of the sun, tanning, picnicking, or playing football. The stately Winter Garden, housing tropical plants from around the world, seemed strangely redundant.
Another area of Glasgow worth investigating is the Merchant City – a quarter that came to prominence in the late 18th century as the location for the warehouses and residences of the wealthy shipping magnates.
Having fallen into disrepair in the 1960s, the area is undergoing a regeneration and now offers great shopping, cafes and restaurants amidst the grand Victorian buildings. I grabbed a quick lunch at Berits & Brown cafe, opting for a tasty black pudding salad as it seemed an appropriately Glaswegian dish and preferable to the more well known delicacy of a deep-fried Mars Bar. (For the non British readers, black pudding is a type of blood sausage.)
Shopping in Glasgow is also surprisingly good – all the main chains, some big name designers and a few quirky options to make it interesting. I found it difficult to resist a number of bargains while mooching around the stylish Princess Square complex, and ended up kicking back on their roof terrace enjoying a steak and a glass of red wine at the Restaurant Bar & Grill perched beneath the building’s giant greenhouse-style atrium.
As I boarded the train back to London, I was leaving with a lot more respect for this city and its people. I’m not under any illusions about the weather – I totally fluked it with a couple of days of sunshine, but you can only judge a city as you find it and I’ve found Glasgow to be warm, friendly and a place I could happily visit again.
Read more from Gareth Johnson.