Clichés abound about Scotland. Haggis, whisky, constant rain, shortbread, ‘Nessie’ and castles are just a few. But Scotland is much more than this. The country could be compared to a good wine or, more appropriately in this instance, a good dram. Akin to most strong draughts, Scotland is robust and historically rich yet features diverse, modern undertones.
Visiting the country should be on every person’s bucket list. I have been lucky enough to visit Scotland on a number of occasions – all of which occurred during their summer. So when an opportunity to visit the country during winter (at Christmas time no less) presented itself not too long ago, I jumped at the chance.
I stayed in Glasgow and decided to visit George’s Square on Christmas Eve where a festive fun fair had been set up, complete with open air ice-rink, nativity scene and soundstage. Glittering Christmas lights and decorations hung from lampposts and a massive, decorated Christmas tree dominated the scene. The smell of roasted chestnuts permeated the square’s frosty air. I spent the evening decorating a real Christmas tree - a thorny pine affair which cost £15 at the local fruit and vegetable shop.
Christmas out of the way, I was determined to see as much of Glasgow as time would allow and Glasgow Cathedral was at the top of my ‘to do’ list’. The cathedral is the only complete medieval cathedral on the Scottish mainland. Built on the original site of St Mungo’s Church, it survived the reformation and the more modern onslaught of urban sprawl. A fairly austere structure, the cathedral boasts beautiful stained glass windows and the furnishings mostly date from the 19th century. The cathedral’s decorative 15th century stone choir screen is also still intact.
A Paris inspired Western Necropolis stands on a suitably creepy hilltop just behind Glasgow Cathedral. The necropolis is exposed to the elements - including mist - and is probably better left for summer excursions particularly if you are of the superstitious persuasion.
Not far from the cathedral is Glasgow Green, Glasgow’s oldest park which has seen its own fair share of history. In days gone by locals would congregate at the Green for picnics, to hang their washing out, or catch the latest public hanging. The last execution, performed in 1865, was a real crowd puller. Over 65 000 people attended the event.
The People’s Palace and Winter Gardens (a museum and glasshouse respectively) can also be found within the Green’s boundaries. Both were opened in 1898 by the Earl of Rosebery in an effort to provide a cultural centre. Today the museum provides an interesting perspective into the evolution of Glaswegian life.
Situated just outside the entrance to the People’s Palace is the Doulton Fountain. The fountain is the largest terracotta fountain in the world and the best surviving example of its kind. It was almost frozen over at the time of my visit. One also can’t help but notice the strange building on the Green’s periphery which appears to be impersonating the Doge’s Palace in Venice. That’s because it’s doing just that.
This ‘wannabe’ Venetian palace is in fact Templeton’s Carpet Factory. Towards the end of the 19th Century, Templeton’s decided to build a factory overlooking the Green. However, given its position, the city council rejected the company’s initial designs and stipulated that the building needed to be in keeping with the prestige and history of the area. So it was that William Leiper (whether as a joke or not has never been ascertained) submitted a design based on the Doge’s Palace. Evidently the council took it seriously.
Closer to the centre of Glasgow at the Royal Exchange Square is the Gallery of Modern Art or ‘GoMA. The gallery is housed in an elegant, neo-classical building which was built in 1778 for William Cunninghame of Lainshaw, a wealthy Tobacco Lord. If you are into modern art, you can’t go wrong at GoMA. But if like me, you don’t really get a kick out of visionary artworks such as ‘The Hunter’ - a few metal poles which had been loosely connected to the ceiling by bits of tatty leather at the time of my visit - you will probably better appreciate the design of the actual building.
Also within easy reach of Glasgow is the Burrell Collection which comprises roughly 9 000 artefacts from around the globe. It was given to the city by Sir William Burrell and his wife Constance in 1944. The collection’s tapestries are particularly magnificent.
I found a visit to Kelvingrove an excellent diversion. Kelvingrove is the largest purpose- built civic museum and art gallery in the UK. Here you’ll find impressionist paintings, weaponry, natural history and much more besides. An impressive organ features in the main lobby and if you’re lucky, you might arrive in time for a recital.
Opposite Kelvingrove is the Transport Museum which is ideal for fans of planes, trains and automobiles. I felt the museum was better suited for school outings though. Other worthwhile Glasgow attractions include the Hunterian Art Gallery and Museum, Mackintosh House, the Botanical Gardens, Kelvingrove Park and the Willows Tearoom.
And, if you don’t have time to venture too far out of Glasgow to view Scotland’s many magnificent castles, don’t despair. Bothwell Castle lies within easy reach of the city. A brooding hulk of a building, Bothwell is Scotland’s largest and finest 13th Century castle. It was utilised by many famous ‘notables’ such as William Wallace and Lord Hamilton over the centuries and was a pivotal outpost during the Scottish wars of independence. As so often happens to these types of structures, its stone was later pilfered and it was finally abandoned in the late 17th Century. The cellars, dining hall and keep are still partially intact and it’s well worth a visit.
Of course Scotland has much more to offer. If you’re planning to visit it’s a good idea to decide beforehand what attractions you would like to see. There are literally hundreds of archaeological sites, ruins, castles and a significant number of towns and hamlets and unless you intend to stay a good few months in Scotland, it’s virtually impossible to see everything in one visit.
• Food: The Scots love their food. A favourite takeaway in Glasgow is fish and chips. Some takeaway shops sell huge portions of battered fish, deep fried haggis, chicken, ribs and burger patties. Good alternative restaurants are of course plentiful.
• Shopping: Prince’s Square, Sachiehall Street, Buchanan Street, Byers Road and St Enoch’s are some of Glasgow’s major shopping nodes. Sachiehall and Buchanan streets house the big retailers while Princes Square is very upmarket. St Enoch’s could be compared to our own Eastgate or Southgate. The more intimate shops, cafés and restaurants can be found on Byers Road along with an abundance of Chinese medicine shops, beauty salons and banks.
• The weather: Scotland is cold - and lives up to its reputation in winter. The average temperature usually hovers around freezing during the coldest months and the days of course are very short.
• Getting around: Making your way around Glasgow and Scotland in general is easy, safe and relatively cheap. A well maintained subway, bus and taxi network ensures a hassle free, reliable commute. A good way to see most worthwhile attractions in Glasgow is to take the ‘hop-on, hop-off’ bus tour.
• Museums: Most museums are free but other attractions such as castles and similar usually charge an entrance fee.