Glasgow's Enduring Spirit

Scotland's largest city is transforming
itself from a hub of heavy industry

into a center of arts and culture

The article was written as DeAnna George. It appeared in the April 2007 issue of Orange Coast magazine.

It’s an exciting time to be in Glasgow. From the revered Italian marble halls of City Chambers, to the bustling downtown district, to the lively dining, shopping and entertainment venues, there’s a renewed sense of pride in the centuries-old heritage of Scotland’s largest city and a palpable optimism for the future.

And when locals say Glasgow has never looked better, they mean it literally. The city’s historic buildings are scrubbed clean of the layers of soot laid down during the region’s reign as a center of heavy industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially as a shipbuilding leader responsible for such maritime giants as Cunard’s Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth II.

The black clouds parted when the industrial sector waned in the years following World War I, and the economic void they left in their wake proved a difficult hurdle for the city. Today, however, little remains of that slump, and the city that once impressed the world with its engineering and manufacturing prowess is engineering a new future for itself rooted in its strong cultural legacy.

The city’s efforts took a major leap forward with the reopening of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in July, after the beloved institution completed a three-year, 28 million pound renovation. The free-admission gallery and museum, located on the city’s west end next to the 85-acre Kelvingrove Park, originally opened in 1901 as part of the International Exhibition in the Park, and its collection has been hailed as one of the greatest civic art collections in Europe. Visitors can see work from such masters as Salvador Dali, Rembrandt, Monet Botticelli and Vincent van Gogh. The 8,000-piece collection also includes natural history treasures, as well as arms, armor and other artifacts.

The extensive renovation refreshed the interior and façade of the red sandstone Spanish Baroque building, and also retrofitted it for modern technology and doubled the display space to include a below-ground level gallery for traveling exhibits and a café.

The Kelvingrove also pays tribute to the most famous Glaswegian to make his mark on the art world with its Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Glasgow Style gallery, which showcases the artist’s life, work and legacy, along with those of his collaborators – James Herbert MacNair, and Frances and Margaret Macdonald – who together are known as the Glasgow Four. The gallery includes stained glass, works on paper, textiles, jewelry, furniture, interiors and more in what is now the largest display in the city of the Glasgow Style, an art and design movement that emerged in the city about 1890, and has links to art nouveau and the arts and crafts movement.

The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is just one of the places a visitor can explore Mackintosh’s life and work.

Other examples of the former University of Glasgow student’s art, design and architecture can be found throughout the city, including the Glasgow School of Art, Mackintosh Church and Scotland Street School Museum, each of which presents a glimpse of his unique architectural design. The McLellan Galleries and Hunterian Art Gallery – a former home of Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald – house many of the artist’s artworks, furniture and decorative objects, and the Willow Tea Rooms, a commissioned work from Mackintosh that continues to serve tea and light meals, combines its utilitarian function with his artistic vision, and is perhaps the most visited example of his signature style.

While Glasgow works hard to preserve its past, it’s also honing its contemporary appeal – and travelers are taking notice. Last year, it was named the top city in the United Kingdom by Conde Nast Traveller’s readers, after placing second the previous year and eighth the year before that.

Visitors can experience the city’s creative energy at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the Theatre Royal, home of the Scottish Opera and the Scottish Ballet, and the many other venues for the performing arts, or take in the beautiful scenery n the variety of parks and public gardens, like the Glasgow Botanic Gardens, with its massive glasshouse full of tropical plants, and the Kelvingrove Park, with its statues and fountains.

Shoppers will find something to suit every taste along the city’s main shopping arteries of Sauchiehall Street, Buchanan Street and Argyle Street, which come together like a giant “Z” in the city’s center.Sauchiehall is popular with the younger crowd for its hip and bohemian flair, but it is Buchanan Street that earns raves as being one of the top shopping streets in the world, alongside New York’s Fifth Avenue and Paris’ Champs-Elysees. Buchanan Street offers a wide range of upscale and designer boutiques, as well as Princes Square, a former 19th century warehouse transformed into a multilevel specialty shopping center full of elegantly wrought iron banisters and exquisite architecture.

Princes Square also features a number of the city’s fine bars and restaurants, from Etain’s award-winning French cuisine and serene setting, to the widely acclaimed Italian dishes at the elegant Il Pavone, to November Bar and Club’s stylish café that becomes a nightclub in the later hours.

And even in the best dining rooms, the menus display the city’s burgeoning sense of cultural pride with selections of traditional Scottish fare. The country’s fresh salmon, Aberdeen Angus beef (the breed was brought to America in 1873 and is commonly called Angus or Black Angus here), and the many varieties of hard and soft Scottish cheeses are always excellent choices, and in the hands of talented local chefs, they can become the cornerstones of culinary masterpieces. The Ubiquitous Chip (12 Ashton Lane) and Corinthian (191 Ingram Street) are two acclaimed restaurants that consistently offer local and seasonal foods with laudable skill and technique, creating gourmet dishes to please even the most discerning tastes.

While there are many choices for fine and casual dining throughout the city, there are just as many when it comes to the pubs and bars. Whether you prefer a sophisticated setting like the Strata Bar (45 Queen Street) or a more traditional pub like The Pot Still (154 Hope Street), visitors who have not been to Scotland lately will probably notice something different in the air – or, more accurately, something missing from the air. A ban went into effect in March 2006 that prohibits smoking n all public places, so bars and pubs are no longer the smoke-filled dens they used to be.

One pub that should be on any visitor’s itinerary is the famous Horseshoe Bar (17 Drury Street). It is an old fashioned pub reputed to hold the record for the longest bar in the United Kingdom at 104 feet, 4 inches, but that’s just the beginning of its appeal. It consistently draws a diverse and sizable crowd, which makes it an ideal place to meet a wide range of locals. Scotch whisky aficionados will appreciated the dozens of varieties on tap, as well as the many cask ales, though visitors looking for something on the lighter side might prefer a Tennents Lager, Scotland’s best-selling lager, or an Irn-Bru (pronounced “Iron Brew”), a locally made soft drink distinguished by its bright orange color.

When it comes to deciding on where to stay in Glasgow, there is the broad range of accommodations one would expect in any metropolitan city, from world-class luxury resorts, to business-oriented hotels, to cozy family-run inns. A great way to experience the history of the region, though, is to lodge at one of the private mansion-turned-luxury hotels in the area, such as Mar Hall, alongside the River Clyde just outside Glasgow.

Formerly known as Erskine mansion, Mar Hall was designed by Sir Robert Smirke, who also designed much of the British Museum, and it was intended to be used as a home by the 11th Lord of Blantyre. The lord died before the home as finished in 1845, and starting in 1916, the building was transformed into a hospital for ex-servicemen. After undergoing an extensive renovation, the mansion opened in 2004 as a luxury hotel, featuring 53 individually designed suites with stunning views of the river and the Kilpatrick Hills. The hotel operates a fine-dining restaurant, a more casual restaurant for lighter fare and a spa café in its Aveda Concept Spa. An 18-hole golf course is scheduled to open later this year that promises to be a worthy addition to the roster of world-class courses in the country, which takes a great deal of pride in being the birthplace of the sport.

Though outwardly Mar Hall looks much as it did when it built for the lord more than a century ago, the interior offers every luxury modern travelers expect, from the exquisite furnishings, sumptuous linens and high-speed Internet access in the rooms, the attractive common rooms and attentive service by its staff. Here guests will discover a sense of belonging that rarely accompanies a stay at one of the major hotels. In no time at all, it seems, one can almost feel what it must be like for true lords and ladies of the manor.

All photos of Mar Hall by DeAnna Cameron
Photo 1: George Square
Photo 2: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Photo 3: Assembly of materials pertaining to Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Photo 4: Outdoor dining along Buchanan Street
Photo 5: Front of Mar Hall
Photo 6: Side of Mar Hall