Trendy stores, a booming cultural life, fascinating architecture, and stylish restaurants reinforce Glasgow’s claim to being Scotland’s most exciting city. After decades of decline, it has experienced an urban renaissance uniquely its own. The city’s grand architecture reflects a prosperous past built on trade and shipbuilding. Today buildings by Charles Rennie Mackintosh hold pride of place along with the Zaha Hadid–designed Riverside Museum.
Glasgow (the “dear green place,” as it was known) was founded some 1,500 years ago. Legend has it that the king of Strathclyde, irate about his wife’s infidelity, had a ring he had given her thrown into the River Clyde. (Apparently she had passed it on to an admirer.) When the king demanded to know where the ring had gone, the distraught queen asked the advice of her confessor, St. Mungo. He suggested fishing for it—and the first salmon to emerge had the ring in its mouth. The moment is commemorated on the city’s coat of arms.
The medieval city expanded when it was given a royal license to trade; the current High Street was the main thoroughfare at the time. The vast profits from American cotton and tobacco built the grand mansions of the Merchant City in the 18th century. Tobacco lords financed the building of wooden ships, and by the 19th century, the River Clyde had become the center of the vibrant shipbuilding industry, fed by the city’s iron and steelworks. The city grew again, but its internal divisions grew at the same time. The West End harbored the elegant homes of the newly rich shipyard owners. Down by the river, areas like the infamous Gorbals, with its crowded slums, or Govan, sheltered the laborers who built the ships. They came from the Highlands, expelled to make way for sheep, or from Ireland, where the potato famines drove thousands from their homes.
During the 19th century, the city’s population grew from 80,000 to more than a million. The new prosperity gave Glasgow its grand neoclassical buildings, such as those built by Alexander “Greek” Thomson, as well as the adventurous visionary buildings designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and others who produced Glasgow’s Arts and Crafts movement. The City Chambers, built in 1888, are a proud statement in marble and gold sandstone, a clear symbol of the wealthy and powerful Victorian industrialists’ hopes for the future.
The decline of shipbuilding and the closure of the factories in the later 20th century led to much speculation as to what direction the city would take now. The curious thing is that, at least in part, the past gave the city its new lease on life. It was as if people looked at their city and saw Glasgow’s beauty for the first time: its extraordinarily rich architectural heritage, its leafy parks, its artistic heritage, and its complex social history. Today Glasgow is a dynamic cultural center and a commercial hub, as well as a launching pad from which to explore the rest of Scotland, which, as it turns out, is not so far away. In fact, it takes only 40 minutes to reach Loch Lomond, where the other Scotland begins.
POINTS OF INTEREST
This neoclassical structure, built in 1823, overlooks the Brig o’ Doon. You can climb to the top (with some care!). Entrance is included in the Burns Museum ticket.
In the delightful Burns Heritage Park, this thatched cottage is where Scotland’s national poet lived for his first seven years. It has a living room, a kitchen, and a stable, one behind the other. The life and times of Burns, born in 1759, are beautifully and creatively illustrated in the fly-on-the-wall videos of daily life in the 18th century. The garden is lush with the types of vegetables the poet’s father might have grown. Take the Poet’s Path through the village to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, the spooky churchyard where Tam o’Shanter faced fearsome ghosts, and the Brig o’ Doon.
About 8 miles northeast of Ayr is the Bachelors’ Club, the 17th-century house—now fully restored—where Robert Burns learned to dance, founded a debating and literary society, and became a Freemason.
Auld Kirk Alloway is where Tam o’ Shanter, in Robert Burns’s great epic poem, unluckily passed a witches’ revel—with Old Nick himself playing the bagpipes—on his way home from a night of drinking. Tam, in flight from the witches, managed to cross the medieval Brig o’ Doon (brig is Scots for bridge; you can still see the bridge) just in time. His gray mare, Meg, lost her tail to the closest witch. (Any resident of Ayr will tell you that witches cannot cross running water.) The church is in ruins, but the graveyard includes the tomb of Burns’s father, William.
Built in the 1750s by the Adam brothers, Dumfries House has preserved unchanged the living conditions of the landed aristocracy of the time. The restored house contains a large collection of furniture by Chippendale that is original to the property, as well as pieces by other great designers of the period. Run by a charity headed by Prince Charles, the surrounding 2,000-acre estate is projected as a site for a new eco-village and centers practicing historic crafts. Entry is by guided tour only; booking is essential. The house is about 10 miles east of Ayr.
Besides being a poet of delicacy and depth, Robert Burns was also a rebel, a thinker, a lover, a good companion, and a man of the countryside. This wonderful museum explains why the Scots so admire this complex “man o’ pairts.” The imaginative displays present each of his poems in context, with commentaries sensitively written in a modern version of the Scots language in which he spoke and wrote. Headsets let you hear the poems sung or spoken. The exhibits are vibrant and interactive, with touch screens that allow you to debate his views on politics, love, taxation, revolution, and Scottishness. An elegant café offers a place to pause, while the kids can play in the adjoining garden. Included in the ticket are the Burns Cottage, a few minutes’ walk down a Burns-themed walkway, and the Burns Monument.
Opened in 2015 after a major reorganization and rebuilding, the new Biggar and Upper Clydesdale Museum presents a fascinating view of Scotland’s earlier history and its Victorian age.
Built in 1839, the gasworks is a fascinating reminder of the efforts once needed to produce gas for light and heat.
Purves Puppets, famous for its “black box” puppetry, regularly performs at the Biggar Puppet Theatre. Before and after performances (£8), puppeteers lead hands-on tours (£3). One tour ducks backstage, while the other explores the puppet museum. These tours should be booked well in advance, as should tickets for very popular performances.
The dramatic cliff-top castle of Culzean (pronounced ku-lain) is the National Trust for Scotland’s most popular property. Robert Adam designed the neoclassical mansion, complete with a walled garden, in 1777. The grounds are enormous, combining parkland, forests, and a beach looking out over the Atlantic Ocean; the surprisingly lush shrubberies reflect the warm currents that explain the mild climate. There are caves in the cliffs; tours are occasionally available. In the castle itself you can visit the armory, luxuriously appointed salons and bedchambers, and a nursery with its lovely cradle in a boat. Adams’s grand double spiral staircase is the high point of its design. There’s a free audio tour, and guided tours are available daily at 11 and 2:30. A short walk through the woods brings you to the visitor center with shops and a restaurant.
The gallery occupies the 18th-century cottage where poet Robert Burns lived and the shed where he learned to heckle—or dress—flax (the raw material for linen). Both buildings have on display paintings, photographs, and sculptures by mainly Scottish artists.
The size of a football field, this tank was where ship designs were tested. You can see how in demonstrations that are offered throughout the day—a must for anyone following the history of shipbuilding on the Clyde. Denny Tank is part of Irvine’s Scottish Maritime Museum.
On the waterfront in the coastal town of Irvine, this museum brings together ships and boats—both models and the real thing—to tell the tale of Scotland’s maritime history, as well as chronicle the lives of its boatbuilders, fishermen, and sailors. The atmospheric Linthouse Engine Building, part of a former shipyard, hosts most of the displays. The museum also includes a shipyard worker’s tenement home that you can explore and the Denny Tank. Children are admitted free.
Bute’s biggest draw is spectacular Mount Stuart, the ancestral home of the marquesses of Bute. The massive Victorian Gothic palace, constructed of red sandstone, has ornate interiors, including the eccentric Horoscope Room and the Marble Hall, with stained glass, arcaded galleries, and magnificent tapestries woven in Edinburgh in the early 20th century. The paintings and furniture throughout the house are equally outstanding. You can also appreciate the lovely gardens and grounds.
Now a World Heritage Site, New Lanark was home to a social experiment at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Robert Owen (1771–1858), together with his father-in-law David Dale (1739–1806), set out to create a model industrial community with well-designed worker homes, a school, and public buildings. Owen went on to establish other communities on similar principles, both in Britain and in the United States. Robert Owen’s son, Robert Dale Owen (1801–77), helped found the Smithsonian Institution.
After many changes of fortune, the mills eventually closed. One of the buildings has been converted into a visitor center that tells the story of this brave social experiment. You can also explore Robert Owen’s house, the school, and a mill worker’s house, and enjoy the Annie McLeod Experience, a fairground ride that takes you through the story of one mill worker’s life. Other restored structures hold various shops and eateries; one has a rooftop garden with impressive views of the entire site. Another now houses the New Lanark Mill Hotel.
The River Clyde powers its way through a beautiful wooded gorge here, and its waters were once harnessed to drive textile-mill machinery. Upstream it flows through some of the finest river scenery anywhere in Lowland Scotland, with woods and spectacular waterfalls.
A burial ground since the beginning of recorded history, the large Necropolis, modeled on the famous Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, contains some extraordinarily elaborate Victorian tombs. A great place to take it all in is from the monument of John Knox (1514–72), the leader of Scotland’s Reformation, which stands at the top of the hill at the heart of the Necropolis. Around it are grand tombs that resemble classical palaces, Egyptian tombs, or even the Chapel of the Templars in Jerusalem. You’ll also find a smattering of urns and broken columns, a Roman symbol of a great life cut short. The Necropolis was designed as a place for meditation, which is why it is much more than just a graveyard. The main gates are behind the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. Call ahead for free guided tours.
Glasgow’s oldest house, one of only four medieval buildings surviving in the city, was built in 1471 by Bishop Andrew Muirhead. Before it was rescued by the Glasgow City Council, this building had been a pub, a sweetshop, and a soft drinks factory. It is now a museum that shows the house as it might have looked when it was occupied by officers of the church. The furniture is from the 17th century. The top floor is a gallery with prints and paintings depicting the characters who might have lived in the surrounding streets. The St. Nicholas Garden behind the house is a medicinal herb garden, and the cloisters house rather disturbing carved stone heads.
An outstanding collection of artifacts, including Celtic crosses and statuettes of Hindu gods, reflects the many religious groups that have settled throughout the centuries in Glasgow and the west of Scotland. A Zen garden creates a peaceful setting for rest and contemplation, and elsewhere stained-glass windows include a depiction of St. Mungo himself. Pause to look at the beautiful Chilkat Blanketwofven, made from cedar bark and wool by the Tlingit people of North America.
This lovely museum, a 20-minute drive from Glasgow, is slightly off the beaten track but well worth the trip. Set in a rural area, it explores every aspect of the country’s agricultural heritage. In a modern building resembling a huge barn you learn about how farming transformed the land, experience the life and hardships of those who worked it, and see displays of tools and machines from across the ages. Take a tractor ride to a fully functioning 1950s farmhouse. There are also some great exhibits geared toward children.
Paisley’s 12th-century abbey dominates the town center. Founded as a Cluniac monastery and almost completely destroyed by the English in 1307, the abbey was not totally restored until the early 20th century. It’s associated with Walter Fitzallan, the high steward of Scotland, who gave his name to the Stewart monarchs of Scotland (Stewart is a corruption of “steward”). Outstanding features include the vaulted stone roof and stained glass of the choir.
The full story of the pattern and of the innovative weaving techniques introduced in Paisley is told in the Paisley Museum, which has a world-famous shawl collection.
On the site of the old Summerlee Ironworks, this vast and exciting museum re-creates a mine and the miners’ rows (the cottages where miners and their families lived). An electric tram transports you here from the huge hall where industrial machines vie with exhibits about ordinary life. Later you can stroll along the canal and take the kids to a fine playground. The drive from Glasgow takes around 15 minutes.
Fun and engaging, this museum for children has three floors packed with games, experiments, and hands-on machines from pendulums to small-scale whirlpools, soundscapes to optical illusions.
On the banks of the Clyde, its space-age home has a whole wall of glass looking out on to the river. The BodyWorks exhibition explores every aspect of our physical selves—try and reconstruct a brain. There are daily events and science shows, a lovely play area for under-sevens, a planetarium, an IMAX theater, and the spectacular Glasgow Tower, 400 feet high, from which to survey the whole city from the river to the surrounding hills. Always enquire whether the tower is open—even moderate winds will close it down. Admission is expensive, but the tower and planetarium cost less if you buy all the tickets at the same time.
Designed by Zaha Hadid to celebrate the area’s industrial heritage, this huge metal structure with curving walls echoes the covered yards where ships were built on the Clyde. Glasgow’s shipbuilding history is remembered with a world-famous collection of ship models. Locomotives built at the nearby St. Rollox yards are also on display, as are cars from every age and many countries. You can wander down Main Street, circa 1930, without leaving the building: the pawnbroker, funeral parlor, and Italian restaurant are all frozen in time. Relax with a coffee in the café, wander out onto the expansive riverside walk, or board the Tall Ship that is moored permanently behind the museum. Bus 100 from George Square brings you here, or you can walk from the Partick subway station in 10 minutes.
Built in 1896, this fine tall sailing ship now sits on the River Clyde immediately behind the Riverside Museum. The Glenlee once belonged to the Spanish Navy (under a different name), but carried cargo all over the world in her day. She returned to Glasgow and the River Clyde in 1993, and now forms part of the museum. You can wander throughout this surprisingly large cargo ship with or without an audio guide, peer into cabins and holds, and stand on the forecastle as you gaze down the river. Bus 100 from George Square brings you here, or you can walk from the Partick subway station in 10 minutes.