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Glasgow: Gritty Industry and Feisty Scottish Culture

Glasgow, Scotland

Nineteenth-century Glasgow was Britain’s second city, an industrial powerhouse that produced a quarter of the world’s ocean-going ships. Dilapidated after its industry failed, today it’s rejuvenated with great museums, a trendy cultural scene, and a ruddy love of life.

Complete Video Script

In its 19th-century heyday, Glasgow — on the River Clyde — was the second city of the British Empire. It was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. A century ago, with over a million people — that's about twice its current population — it was a powerhouse. They say it produced 25 percent of the world's oceangoing ships. But after World War II, tough times hit Glasgow, giving it a rough edge and a run-down image.

In the last generation, Glasgow embarked on a creative city-wide rejuvenation scheme. And today, the city has an energetic cultural scene and a unique flair for art and design. These days, the River Clyde produces not ships, but good times. The grand train station, busy with commuters, is a reminder of both the city's industrial past and its current recovery.

George Square sprawls before the city hall. The square is a Who's Who of statues, which are especially appreciated by the seagulls. There's the great Scotsman, James Watt, who perfected the steam engine that helped power Europe into the Industrial Age. Here are Scotland's two top literary figures: Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.

Along with its industrial and working-class heritage, the city prides itself on its playful irreverence. Here, in front of the Gallery of Modern Art, the honorable Duke of Wellington is graced with a Glaswegian crown.

One out of every five Scots lives in greater Glasgow, and Glaswegians are friendly, unpretentious, and happy to rave about their town.

The accent can be a little hard to understand.

Rick: Say it again, like, real slow and clear.
Local: [Speaking indecipherably]

Rick: I don't know what you said, but dang — all right, see you later.

But eventually I developed an ear for it.

Rick: So — and the people here are just, like, incredibly friendly?
Local: Well, those two aren't, but generally they are.

Rick: They say you guys know how to have fun.
Local: Oh, yes, we do.

Local 1: Oh, 100 percent, yes.
Rick: Yeah, I mean…
Local 2: 100%, we know how to have fun.
Local 1: Definitely, we're on our way for a cocktail.
Rick: Oh, you are?

Local: A person from Glasgow has more fun at a funeral than a person from Edinburgh does at a wedding.

Local: They don't have money to be grumpy.
Rick: Ah, they don't have money to be grumpy.

Local: I think it comes from a pessimistic kind of view. You think things are going to be bad so you make the most of them and you have a laugh.

Local: Listen, you see?
Rick: That's great!
Local: I'll tell you what's special about the people in Glasgow…
Rick: Yeah.
Local: They're honest, they're friendly, and they'll go out of their way to do anything for you at all.

Local: We like a bit of fun, we're real, we're full of integrity, and we take everybody as we find them. So…
Rick: That is…Actually, that's philosophical. I love that.
Local: Thank you for that. Don't know if that's red wine…

Rick: This is a very Scottish thing, to walk around with your golf clubs.
Local: Actually, I just carry that. I don't actually play golf, I just walk around with these.

Rick: Tell me a joke.
Local 1: Oh…dunno.
Local 2: Don't!
Rick: Don't?

Rick: To celebrate your city, what do you say? Like…?
Local: Buy us a drink.
Rick: "Buy us a drink."

Rick: Bye-bye. Bye. East End rules!

Glasgow's busy Buchanan Street is the middle of a Z-shaped pedestrian boulevard nicknamed the "Golden Zed." With the top shops in town, it's also called the "Style Mile."

The Argyll Arcade, the town's oldest shopping passage — from 1827 — is known for jewelry. Princes Square is an old building dressed with a modern facade and a delightful Art Nouveau atrium.

Buchanan Street has a lively vibe with a variety of street musicians. Music is a big part of the city's personality.

To be sure we understand all we're seeing, I'm joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Colin Mairs.

Glasgow's rough urban-scape — with its many blank walls — provides an inviting canvas for city-approved street artists.

Rick: I love these huge murals!
Colin: Yes, Glasgow's become famous for them. It's really, a thing the city has embraced, and the city council pay good street artists to put up big murals, and it avoids having just ugly tagging around the place.
Rick: So, they're taking that counterculture energy, and they're turning it into something positive?
Colin: Yes, there's even a city map — you can follow a trail going around the city center and see all these big murals.
Rick: So, this one's cool. The guy's trying to flag down the taxi, and the balloons are lifting it out of his reach.
Colin: Yeah, well, the artist actually has put himself in the painting. He's the taxi driver. That's his face there. And his name is Rogueone, which you can also see on the registration plate on the taxi. The other one up top there is the girl with a magnifying glass. That's by an artist called Smug.
Rick: And there's his name on the…
Colin: It's on her pendant, yeah. She looks like she's maybe picking someone up.
Rick: Is it just fanciful, or is there some political meaning to this?
Colin: Well, perhaps what she's making a comment on there is actually the building that she's on the side of. That is a lap-dancing club, so she's maybe picking up a small man who's going in there to the lap dancing.
Rick: Oh, she's insulting the men that go to the strip joint!
Colin: Potentially.

Rick: That is huge and just photorealistic.
Colin: It's a nice one, eh? So, this one actually probably represents our patron saint. See the halo around the back of his head?
Rick: Yeah.
Colin: And his name is Mungo. We're near to the cathedral, and one of his miracles was bringing a bird back to life.
Rick: It's an old story in a modern city.
Colin: Yes.

For more Scottish art, we're heading inside and visiting Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

The Kelvingrove's collection fills a grand, purpose-built, 100-year-old building. This "Scottish Smithsonian" displays everything from the natural world to the avant-garde, from Salvador Dalí to the city's best collection of work by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his artistic partners.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mackintosh challenged the norms of this practical port city with architecture and design that had fun with playful details, creative use of glass, and a stimulating blend of organic swoops with vertical lines. It was both stark and light at the same time.

The Kelvingrove Gallery shows how Mackintosh, his wife Margaret, and their artist friends drew inspiration from nature to create this Scottish take on Art Nouveau. Along with architecture, it was interior design and the applied arts. Their works show a strong Japanese influence. They also drew inspiration from the Arts and Crafts movement, with an eye to simplicity, clean lines, respect for tradition, and an emphasis on individuality — craftsmanship over mass production. While not really appreciated in his time, today Mackintosh single-handedly boosts tourism in his hometown.

The Kelvingrove also has several rooms dedicated to Scottish Romanticism from the 19th century. Here, you can tour the country's scenic wonders and its history on canvas.

The story of Scotland is a romantic blend of myth and history. As far back as the 14th century, Robert the Bruce heroically rallied the clans. Paintings evoke the wonder of the Highlands — vast, sparsely populated, but integral to the soul of Scotland. Proud warriors sport clan regalia, as if emboldened by kilts and plaid. The tragedy of painful struggles with England resulted in clan massacres and downtrodden Scots…left behind as loved ones follow the promise of a new land. But still, a resilient nation survives, spirit intact.