This was intro text to a guidebook chapter on Glasgow, Scotland, but due to a mixup in the brief for the chapter, it will never be published.
Slightly ammended for a North American audience…
There is a well-worn story about the new, successful Glasgow that has become an orthodoxy in recent years. It spans more than three centuries and follows a classical arc of boom, bust and reinvention. Like most stories, it starts once upon a time…
The city’s access to the western seaways, via the River Clyde, and its commercial spirit had seen it make fortunes for tobacco and sugar merchants in the 18th century, while factors like its proximity to Scottish coalfields and improvements to the river’s navigability set the scene for its later success during the Industrial Revolution. Glasgow subsequently became the second city of the British Empire, a Victorian powerhouse of shipbuilding and heavy engineering that sucked in people from Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, growing to an astonishing population peak of around 1.1 million just before the Second World War. Along with this status came parks and buildings that reflected its importance to the Great British imperial project: the City Chambers in George Square for example, completed in 1888, or Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum which opened in 1901.
Then came the 20th century bust. Two world wars, periods of dire economic depression and industrial competition from overseas brought an end to the glory days. Not everyone had shared fully in the prosperity anyway and after the Second World War, slums were cleared and people moved out to bland, planned ‘new towns’ like East Kilbride and Cumbernauld. Shipyards and engineering plants closed, jobs disappeared and so did the people. In the 1960s, the population fell by around 15%, then from 1981 to 2001 it collapsed again by more than a third. Glasgow had long suffered a fatally tough street culture but in the closing decades of the 20th century traditional working class qualities of discipline and self respect were eroded by drunkenness, poverty and unemployment – then drug use.
In areas like the East End and the city’s peripheral housing estates, such problems endure to this day – a scandal that sees parts of Glasgow scoring very badly indeed in health and life expectancy statistics. The more antique issue of sectarianism, with its origin in Protestant Scots setting their face against the Catholicism of poor Irish immigrants, was just the icing on a particularly poisonous cake.
In the early 1980s, the powers that be decided “something must be done”. First came an advertising campaign that tried to convince all and sundry that “Glasgow’s Miles Better” but it was buttressed by real investment and high profile events that led to a cultural renaissance. The world-class Burrell Collection of art and artefacts opened in Pollok Park in 1983, the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre opened on the Clyde in 1985 then the highlights came thick and fast. There was the Glasgow Garden Festival, Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, millions spent on new facilities like the Royal Concert Hall or the Gallery of Modern Art and another blue riband year as European City of Architecture and Design in 1999 where associations with local architects like Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Alexander Thomson came to the fore. Into the new century, Glasgow Science Centre opened its doors, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum enjoyed a major refurbishment, while Trongate 103 brought together many of the city’s independent galleries and creative organisations in an ambitious revamp of a stately, Edwardian warehouse.
Reflecting the cultural rebirth, Glasgow also enjoyed an economic upswing in the nineties and noughties with many service sector jobs taking up the slack left by the demise of old industries decades before. A new generation of restaurants and café-bars piggy-backed on this buoyancy making the Glasgow of today a radically different proposition to the depressed city of 30 years ago. The core population may have declined but central Glasgow is still the hub of a massive West of Scotland conurbation, networked together by the UK’s biggest suburban rail system outside London. Glasgow and its immediately neighbouring districts muster an aggregate population of nearly 1.6 million, most of whom look to the city centre as a natural and accessible destination for entertainment, nightlife and shopping. In Scottish terms, everything about Glasgow is biggest: city, economy, soccer teams and more. Given the Glaswegian reputation for friendliness and good humour you could also say that Glasgow had the biggest heart of any Scottish city.
This is the story that has worn smooth in the telling, a tale that ends on a happy note: Glasgow saved itself from post-industrial decline to become a shining example reinvention and a great place to visit – roll credits, everyone lives happily ever after. Although there is a postscript.
The city’s industrial and working class heritage makes it bold, brash and allergic to fuss. There are some very decent restaurants here for example but no Michelin stars; robust curry houses thrive although Heston Blumenthal (currently the UK’s leading chef, based in Berkshire, just west of London) would struggle to sell sufficient quantities of nitro-poached green tea and lime mousse to survive. Meanwhile, the executive apartments down the Clyde may look good, and the party people might be dressed in designer labels, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that metrosexuality has won the day. Those chronic social problems – although largely outside the city centre – lend Glasgow a certain grittiness even now. Its sheer gravitational pull also tends to drain the life out of nearby towns – no one goes to Airdrie, Barrhead or Coatbridge for fun. An interesting day trip usually means going as far as the southern reaches of Loch Lomond, the Firth of Clyde coast or visiting idiosyncratic attractions like the Carfin Lourdes Grotto near Motherwell.
All that said, the civic advertising campaign that started in 1983, “Glasgow’s Miles Better”, does now ring true. Glasgow is assuredly miles better than it used to be.