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Issue 15 - Glasgow and the Clyde Valley – culture on the Clyde

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 15
July 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Glasgow and the Clyde Valley – culture on the Clyde

Glasgow may not be the obvious destination in Europe for a cultural city break but it has enough art, architecture and style to rival the likes of Barcelona argues Kate Ennis

When picking a destination in Europe for a cultural city break, Paris with its wealth of art galleries or Barcelona with its fabulous Gaudi architecture, instantly spring to mind. Where else would you find such a rich tapestry of buildings dominated by the legacy of renowned architects, a city packed with superb museums and art collections, an extensive programme of cultural events, chic cafés, boutique hotels and general style in abundance? On the west coast of Scotland, actually.

Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city has got it all. OK, so the Scottish weather might not match up to the Mediterranean sunshine of Barcelona. But if you disregard the drizzle, Glasgow has as much to offer those searching for a culture filled break as its European counterparts.

Surprised? Well, with a heritage as a trading centre and then the world’s shipbuilding capital, the subsequent industrial decline that Glasgow suffered painted a grey picture for potential visitors. But in the last two decades, the level to which Scotland’s largest city has reinvented itself is remarkable.

The city today is vibrant, cosmopolitan and a hub of style and creativity.

Glasgow was awarded the title of ‘European City of Culture’ back in 1990 and more recently ‘UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999’, and celebrating its unique cultural assets has proved key to Glasgow’s makeover success.

The biggest asset by far is the legacy of the world-renowned Glaswegian architect and designer – Charles Rennie Mackintosh. A master of the art nouveau style, rivalled only by Barcelona’s Gaudi, his innovative work inspired a generation of European designers at the turn of the 20th century.

His quirky geometric designs and flower motifs have become synonymous with Glasgow’s image and style – they are used everywhere on signs throughout the city.

All his greatest work is concentrated in the Glasgow area so you can really appreciate his genius while staying in the city.

If you are feeling in the dark about where to start your Mackintosh trail, The Lighthouse is your best orientation point. This Mackintosh building, a celebrated landmark and formerly the headquarters for Glasgow’s Herald newspaper, has found new life as Scotland’s centre for Architecture, Design and the City.

A tower rises up from one corner (hence the building’s name) and if you climb up its spiral stairs to the viewing platform, you are rewarded with inspiring views of the city skyline, from where you can spot some of Mackintosh’s creations.

For a more close-up view, you can go back inside to the Mackintosh Interpretation Centre, to view models of his buildings, plans, photographs, computer and video displays.

On the various levels you will also find temporary exhibitions on design and architecture and before leaving it’s worth taking a look in Form – the Lighthouses’ shop – to see the best of today’s hottest talents in contemporary crafts and design.

If you can’t make it to all the Mackintosh sights, make sure you at least see the Glasgow School of Art – his greatest creation. It is still a working art school so only small groups can be taken round on daily-guided tours. What makes this tour so fascinating is that you are shown around by current art students who are extremely passionate and knowledgeable about their workplace and its creator. As you walk round you pass fresh paintings that are hanging to dry and students in paint-covered aprons scuttle in and out of various studios, which really brings the place to life. The centrepiece is the library, the most elaborate room, which feels like a clearing in a forest and is the best place to see Mackintosh’s detailed designs in all their glory.

You can also see this attention to detail at Hill House, the finest example of Mackintosh’s domestic architecture, which is only a short trip down the Clyde at Helensburgh. His most flamboyant building, House for an Art Lover, was one he never saw built but it was constructed in 1996 using the plans he has submitted for a competition and can be found at Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park. Mackintosh designed few religious buildings and the Queens Cross Church in the north-west of the city is the only one standing, which now hosts the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society.

In terms of architectural riches, Glasgow can boast another great architect, Alexander ‘the Greek’ Thomson, although he has been somewhat neglected in the shadow of Mackintosh. As his nickname suggests he was inspired by classic Greek architecture, but used these classical ideas and fused them with Eastern influences.

This was very original for his time – the latter half of the 19th century, when gothic architecture was all the rage. Thomson designed a wider range of buildings than Mackintosh, from tenement blocks to churches and residential villas.

Although some were sadly lost to the wrecker’s ball, his buildings are now coming to the prominence they deserve. St Vincent Square Church remains in its full glory and Holmwood House – Thomson’s finest domestic building, has been lovingly restored by the National Trust for Scotland and is now open to the public.

In general, the diversity and heritage of Glasgow’s buildings make the city a delight. Merchants City and the Italian centre, areas originally built during the cotton, tobacco and sugar trading boom of the 18th century have been rejuvenated, now filled with cafés, restaurants and chic boutiques.

To celebrate the cultural richness of the city’s old commercial quarter, a nine-day festival is taking place this September with theatre, music, visual arts and comedy all on offer.

If you prefer more cutting-edge contemporary architecture, down on the River Clyde is the place to be with the futuristic glass fronted Glasgow Science Centre and the distinctive armadillo shaped Clyde Auditorium. The riverside looks set to remain the city’s focus of the future too with exciting plans to convert former shipyards and dockland into new retail, leisure and public space.

Also in the pipeline are attractions to highlight the role of the River Clyde in the city’s past. This is certainly a city that is not standing still. Once you’ve quenched your thirst for architecture, you can then start on the city’s 20 art galleries and museums, containing some of the richest art collections in Europe and almost all offering free admission.

The Burrell Collection, set in the beautiful Pollok Park, is probably the most renowned. With over 800 art objects, it has something for every artistic taste. The collection helped to first establish the city’s cultural reputation and is celebrating its 21st year of being open to the public. It boasts paintings by Degas, sculptures by Rodin, medieval tapestries and oriental porcelain.

Close by is Pollok House, a beautiful 18th century mansion designed by William Adam, which should not be missed if only to see the impressive Spanish art on display including paintings by El Greco and Goya.

On occasions, major Scottish auction houses hold sales here, which makes a trip to Pollok all the more worthwhile for art and antique lovers.

Up until 2003, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum was Glasgow’s most visited attraction, loved by locals and visitors alike. It is now closed until 2006 for a multimillion pound refurbishment but you won’t miss out because the best of Kelvingrove’s treasures are on display at the McLellan Galleries in Sauchiehall Street.

To name drop yet again, works by artistic giants such as Botticelli, Constable, Reubens, Rembrandt and Turner can still be enjoyed here.

Of course that ubiquitous Glasgow hero Mackintosh is represented here too with a display of recently acquired furniture.

The Hunterian Art Gallery at the University meanwhile is a must for any James McNeill Whistler fans and can lay claim to one of the world’s most important permanent collections of works by the American-born painter, printmaker designer and writer.

Modern art lovers can make their way to the distinctive Royal Exchange Square where a grandiose former merchant’s mansion is now the home the Gallery of Modern Art.

If you have more of a passion for the performing arts, then the city will still not disappoint. Glasgow is home to the Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, who all regularly perform.

Musically, you should also not miss out on Celtic Connections, one of the world’s largest Celtic music festival held every January. This year’s performers included Dougie MacLean, Capercaillie and The Dubliners. Every summer, the city also hosts ‘Bard in the Botanics’ – an outdoor Shakespeare Festival.

So Glasgow’s attractions may be able to compete with the cultural city giants but what about eating and accommodation?

If you think deep fried haggis is the only local culinary speciality then you are much mistaken. There is a plethora of fine restaurants, from traditional brasseries, through to the latest minimalist eateries. Design guru Sir Terence Conran has opened Etain, his first destination restaurant outside London here, so that’s saying something.

And when you need a good rest from absorbing the arts, you still don’t have to compromise with Glasgow’s hotels maintaining the city’s reputation for style and design.

There’s the centrally placed Radisson SAS, with its bold copper frontage that offers rooms in three different styles: Nordic, Modern and City. If you prefer smaller boutique hotels, then the likes of One Devonshire Gardens and The Arthouse are perfect places to relax in stylish surroundings after your cultural expeditions.

Still thinking of booking Barcelona? Glasgow may not have all the sunshine but then you can’t admire a painting or enjoy a Mackintosh interior outdoors anyway. The forecast for Glasgow used to be grey but now the city’s prospects as a top destination for culture lovers is very bright indeed. Glasgow has become very much à la mode and if the city can’t always bask in the sunshine it can certainly bask in it’s own glory.


Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society
870 Garscube Road Glasgow, G20 7EL
Tel: +44 (0)141 946 6600

Glasgow School of Art
167 Renfrew Street Glasgow, G3 6RQ
Tel: +44 (0)141 353 4526

The Lighthouse
11 Mitchell Lane Glasgow, G1 3NU
Tel: +44 (0)141 221 6362

The Burrell Collection
Pollok Country Park 2060 Pollokshaws Road Glasgow, G43 1AT
Tel: +44 (0)141 287 2550

Gallery of Modern Art
Royal Exchange Square Glasgow, G1 3AH
Tel: +44 (0)141 229 1996

61-63 Netherlee Road, Cathcart, Glasgow, G44 3YU
Tel: +44 (0)141 637 2129

House for an Art Lover
10 Dumbreck Road Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, G41 5BW
Tel: +44 (0)141 353 4770

Hunterian Art Gallery
University of Glasgow 82 Hillhead Street, Glasgow, G12 8QQ
Tel: +44 (0)141 330 5431

McLellan Galleries
270 Sauchiehall Street Glasgow, G2 3EH
Tel: +44 (0)141 565 4137

Pollok House
Pollok Country Park 2060 Pollokshaws Road Glasgow, G43 1AT
Tel: +44 (0)141 616 6410