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Issue 71 - The architecture of cities

Scotland Magazine Issue 71
October 2013


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The architecture of cities

?John Hannavy follows in the footsteps of our 19th century novelist and clergyman travelling through Scotland

The second city in the kingdom” wrote Bede, “can rival the first in its slums as well as its palaces; and, notwithstanding sunshine and blue sky, and despite those picturesque peculiarities of Scottish architecture that make the closes and wynds of Glasgow and Edinburgh look so well upon paper, they are equally filthy to the outward and moral senses as are the slums of any other great city.” Architecturally, much of Glasgow was, in fact, about to undergo a dramatic remodelling. The Glasgow City Improvement Act would be passed in 1866 – just four years after the Bradleys visited the city – and many of the buildings he saw would be swept away as the city fathers embarked on much-needed modernisation. The pressing need for such fundamental improvement was clearly not lost on our traveller.

There then followed detailed descriptions of Glasgow University’s buildings – long before the university moved to Gilmourhill – and an equally detailed account of the history and architecture of the Cathedral. Bradley was writing only a few years after the ill-conceived remodelling of the west front of the church, and he was not inclined to hold back on his criticism of the work. “A portion of the so-called ‘restoration’ was” he wrote, “nothing more nor less that destruction, viz, the pulling down of the western tower, and the substitution of modern pinnacles and ornaments. It is true that this tower – in the state to which it had been brought by miscalled improvements – was frightfully ugly, and a blemish to the edifice (to judge it from prints); but surely, its disfigurements might have been removed, and the tower restored to what we may believe to have been its original condition, so as to harmonise with the rest of the structure.” ‘Bede’ devoted an entire chapter to Glasgow’s vast Necropolis which “crowns the rugged ‘Fir-park Hill,’ a block of rock that rises precipitously to the height of nearly 300 feet, and on whose summit Druids are supposed to have worshipped. Far below, a small stream, called ‘the Molendinar burn’, runs rapidly through the deep ravine that separates the Necropolis from the high plateau on which the cathedral is built. A lofty bridge, bearing the poetical name of ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, spans the ravine, and connects the Cathedral Yard with the lower portion of the Necropolis.” The bridge remains, but the burn has, since the 1870s, disappeared into pipework beneath Wishart Street. “This City of the dead” he continued, “stands in the midst of the City of the Living; the precincts of the grave connected with the world of life and motion by the Bridge of Sighs—a type of that sorrow that divides the dead from the living.”Some of the Reverend Bradley’s little observations fascinate. Not least amongst them, his references to costs – reminding today’s reader of the unstoppable advances of inflation. Travelling by train to Greenock – and telling his readers that the view from the train, especially of Dumbarton Rock, was much better than that afforded by the steamer – he noted that “Bishopton is situated on a long ridge of whinstone rock, through which the line of railway had to be blasted for a distance of 2,300 yards, at a great expenses, the gunpowder along costing twelve thousand pounds.” Today, the cost of explosives for blasting a cutting over a mile and a third long would run into several millions. “This whinstone ridge,” he continued, “passes under the Clyde, and then emerges abruply in the rock of Dumbarton, which is 560 feet high and a mile in circumference.” Bishopton was, as its name suggests, once the site of the country residence of the bishops and archbishops of Glasgow, a fact not lost on ‘Bede’ who wrote “As the old Primate of Glasgow looked across the Clyde from his palace on the heights of Bishopton, this rock of Dumbarton may have reminded him of his episcopal crown; for halfway to the summit it is cleft into two parts, much in the same way as a mitre.” Keeping the metaphor going, he later referred to “Dumbarton’s mitred rock, rising sheer from the river’s edge, where the Leven Water has come down from Loch Lomond to meet the Clyde.” Like many travelers before him and since, Loch Lomond was a magnet, to which he was inexorably.

Taking the train from Glasgow to Loch Lomond, our clerical traveler, ‘Cuthbert Bede’, recommended an hour’s visit to Dumbarton – town, castle and rock – that last being “one of the places where the true Scottish thistle may be found in considerable quantities. It is a rarer plant than many might suppose, and may be known from others of the thistle tribe by its light green leaves, veined with white. It is curious that it should be found growing about all those castles and prisons where Mary Queen of Scots spent her happiest and most wretched days; and it is thought by her firm champion and best biographer that this is to be accounted for by supposing that they are produced from seed originally sown by herself, or admirers (political or otherwise) of this beautiful and unfortunate queen.” There is nothing quite like a good yarn to liven up a story, and four and a half centuries after the event, who is to say otherwise!

But before travelling to Loch Lomond, the Bradleys visited Paisley with its ancient abbey, and Greenock where “like Wordsworth we found the streets crowded and cheerful; the feminine portion of the community quiet as to their naked feet, but lively enough with their tongues”. The story of ‘Highland Mary’ gave him an opportunity to explore the heritage of Robert Burns.

Then to Loch Lomond where the views brought out the poet in him. “It is a lovely morning in the early autumn as I sit on Balloch Pier, and, looking up Loch Lomond, try my best to carry away a water-colour sketch of the scene before me.” The pier was thronging with visitors, most of whom, Bede, surmised, had travelled that day by train from Glasgow and were about to take the steamer twenty miles up the loch. From Inversnaid, he mused, a coach would take them to Stronachlachar for the sail down Loch Katrine on board the steamer Rob Roy. Today, the second part of that journey is still possible – on board the 1901 steamer Sir Walter Scott. Even in 1862, there were photographers at the loch, amongst them, noted ‘Bede’, “an adventurous amateur photographer, who, after a fatal hesitation of five minutes, has straddled out his three-legged camera, and has no sooner decided upon his point of view, and hidden his head beneath the hood like a hunted ostrich, than the signal for departure is given, and the ‘Now then, sir, if you please!’ of the captain compels him to pack up his traps, and leave his performance as incomplete as that of Mr. Punch when Policeman X bids him to ‘Move on!’ ere his tragedy has reached halfway to its diabolic denouement.” ‘Bede’ devoted several chapters to Loch Lomond, relishing the beauty, and drawing on the writings of many who had tried before him to capture the magic of the place in words. Amongst them were several of the writers whose published journeys form an essential part of Scotland history – including Professor John Wilson, better known as Christopher North, whose writing Bede quotes – “It is out of our power to look on Loch Lomond without a feeling of perfection. The ‘diffusion of water’ is indeed great; but in what a world it floats! at first sight of it, how our soul expands!” The Reverend Bradley was inclined to agree. Not everyone shared his enthusiasm for the place. One person to whom he was introduced back at his Tarbet hotel had a question over dinner – “Would it be pothible to fill up Loch Lomond?”, answering his own question with the suggestion “Ah! by tumbling Ben Lomond into it, I thuppothe! Now, how many acres of good land would you gain?” Bradley’s journey through ‘Tartan-land’ was undertaken in the earliest years of mass tourism, his disdain for which is evident. Pandering to the visitors with pseudo-Scottishness was something the Bradleys had little time for. The incessant music on board the steamer earned his deep opprobrium. “The blind fiddler, who was also on board, and to whose merits a printed testimony had been posted up by the cabin door, was a mitigated nuisance; but the bagpiper was an unmitigated evil, and ought never have been permitted to walk the deck.” As his steamer headed north up the loch, they passed another, heavily laden with passengers, heading south. “Here for example,” he wrote, “is a steamer bearing down upon us, chartered expressly for a monster excursion. These excursionists left Edinburgh shortly after six in the morning; they came by rail to Callender, stopping at Stirling for breakfast; they coached through the Trossacks [sic]; sailed up Loch Katrine; crossed Rob Roy’s country; dined at Inversnaid; and are now sailing down Loch Lomond. They will reach Glasgow this evening, and will sail at an early hour in the morning, by the ‘Iona’ to Oban, through the Crinan Canal. On the next day they will have a peep at Staffa, and Iona, and will then return to Glasgow. They are thus the victims of a programme of speed and cheapness, which may be made dear at any price if the weather is unfavourable. For the present, however, they are in luck; the sun smiles upon them and we are sharers in their good fortune.” The age of the package holiday had arrived, with Thomas Cook at the forefront of that development, and the allure of ‘romantic Scotland’ in the ascendancy.

As might be expected from a well-read and erudite traveller, the Reverend Mr Bradley had taken with him on his tour, some earlier accounts of Scotland – including Dorothy Wordsworth’s diaries. While he relished some of Dorothy’s descriptions of the Scottish scenery, and revelled in some of William’s verses, one aspect troubled him as a vicar. Near Inversnaid he described the place “where Wordsworth fell over head and ears in love (platonically, it is to be hoped) with his ‘Sweet Highland Girl’, that rustic young lady whom he apostrophised in such an extravagant fashion, and on whose head he heaped such a burden of praise and benediction.” “So then,” he continued, “Mrs. Wordsworth had been left for six weeks in the company of her first and newly-born child! and during this period her husband was taking his pleasure, and sustaining his affection for his absent wife by indicting an erotic poem to the first pretty girl he sees. It is all very well to say that the young lady in question was only fourteen years of age, that she was as ignorant of the stranger’s poetic raptures as she was of ‘English speech’, and that his various couplets meant nothing more than so many integral ports of a composition in verse.” He seems to have been genuinely affronted by the whole affair, even regretting the fact that half a century later “Inversnaid is nowadays never referred to without some mention of this wonderful damsel, and as tourists, on her account, flock to ‘the noisy falls made classical by Wordsworth.” It was warm and the sun was shining – what more did he want?

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