I arrived in Scotland in June of 1999. I took a ferry from Belfast to Stranraer, then a train to Glasgow. I had secured a six month work visa for the UK through Temple University in Philadelphia. I had no fixed plans. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there. I finished university at the end of 1998 and I wanted to do something that didn’t involve sitting still. I was the first member of the family, on both sides, to receive a bachelor’s degree. My parents thought this was an incredible achievement. Four years of sitting around reading history and art history books and occasionally writing a paper… What could be easier? I graduated nearly debt free. I thought that was a much greater achievement, to be perfectly honest.
I was eager to get off the train in Glasgow. A guy from Texas had latched onto me at the youth hostel the day before and I couldn’t wait to be on my own again. He was feeling lonely and homesick and was ecstatic to have run into a fellow American. He followed me around Belfast all day from museum to pub to bookstore to chip shop. He whined non-stop about how misunderstood he was by his friends and family and about how much smarter he was than all the rednecks in his hometown. He was really feeling sorry for himself. He was on his way to Edinburgh to get a master’s degree in Creative Writing. He was quite possibly the most boring person I have ever met. And to make things worse, he couldn’t hold his drink. A sloppy drunk does not a good travelling companion make.
As the train pulled into Glasgow Central Station I quickly grabbed my things, scribbled a fake address on a scrap of paper for Creative Writer (I am a terrible person) and melted into the crowd on the platform. I’ll never forget the strange smell of the place as I wandered the streets in search of a cheap place to stay. I found out later it was the smell of the Wellpark Brewery in the East End where Scotland’s biggest selling beer – Tennent’s Lager – is brewed.
I asked a couple of student types if they knew where I could find a youth hostel. They pointed me to one on Berkeley Street near Charing Cross. I dropped my backpack on a bunk in an 8 bed dormitory, grabbed a city map at reception and went off exploring. Over the next few days I went on a serious sightseeing binge and nearly OD’ed on chips & curry. One of the great things about Glasgow: the museums are free. So instead of rushing around in an attempt to see everything in order to get your money’s worth, you can take your time, have a look at one or two exhibits and return another day to continue exploring.
Some of the highlights:
-I stood in front of Salvador Dalí’s controversial Christ of Saint John of the Cross at the Saint Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. The painting depicts the crucifixion from an extreme angle – looking down from above – and without blood, nails or the crown of thorns. It first went on display at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum in the 1950s. In the 1960s a guy with mental health problems attacked the painting with a rock and a knife. In the 1980s somebody shot at it with an airgun. Fortunately the painting was safely behind a Perspex protective cover by then, so no damage was done.
Dalí with his painting Christ of Saint John of the Cross
-I was startled by a homeless man and his dog who were camping out (or living?) in the Victorian era Glasgow Necropolis (aka: the Great Grey Rock). The site contains roughly 3,500 monuments and the remains of over 50,000 people. The main entrance is a bridge over the Molendinar Burn (stream) where Saint Mungo baptized his converts in the 6th century. The imposing 70-foot monument to Scottish clergyman John Knox is the most recognizable in the Necropolis, but I’m more partial to the Charles Tennant of St. Rollox Monument.
Charles Tennant, a trained weaver with no formal scientific training, discovered that mixing chlorine and lime produced a bleaching powder. (Bleaching cloth was an important aspect of the weaving industry.) The St. Rollox Chemical Works opened in 1799, becoming the largest chemical plant in Europe. Many of Tennant’s workers suffered perforated septums and blindness due to continued exposure to toxic chemicals. They became known as “Tennant’s White Mice”. Tennant died in 1838 and newspaper articles of the day criticized the marble sculpture of the man himself atop the monument. They said the slumped figure made him look like “a casualty of the product that made his family fortune”. (Not to mention the fact that it appears as if he’s pleasuring himself.)
Charles Tennant Monument, Glasgow Necropolis
There is also a sprawling Southern Necropolis in the Gorbals area of Glasgow which I didn’t know existed until long after I had left Scotland. It was here in September of 1954 that a mob of hundreds of children, armed with knives and sharpened sticks, went vampire hunting one evening. A rumor had been spreading that a 7-foot tall vampire with iron teeth was kidnapping and eating little boys. They decided to take action. Unfortunately the rumor had reached the ears of the adult population of the city. As fear of the “Gorbals Vampire” continued to spread a scapegoat was needed. The blame was laid on American comic books like Tales From The Crypt and The Vault of Horror which were gaining in popularity among Scottish children. The government response: the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955 which banned the sale of magazines and comics which portayed “incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature” to minors.
-I was introduced to the Glasgow Boys, a Scottish art movement that was heavily influenced by Japonisme, French Realism and James McNeill Whistler at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum. The building itself is incredible. Built in Spanish Baroque style using red sandstone, a Glaswegian tradition, and housing a massive Lewis & Co. pipe organ from 1901 in the central hall, it is the most visited museum in the UK outside of London. Dalí’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross now has its very own room here.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum
-I took a bus out to Pollok Country Park to see the Burrell Collection. Sir William Burrell was a wealthy shipping magnate and art collector. He had eclectic taste and the collection contains over 9,000 pieces of medieval, Chinese, Islamic, Gothic and 19th & 20th century French art. I sat completely alone for ages – the security guard must have gone for lunch – in a room of Degas’ paintings (Burrell acquired 22 works by Degas) on a melancholy morning as the rain poured down mercilessly outside.
-I visited the Charles Rennie Mackintosh House. The Glasgow born architect, designer and watercolorist was an influential figure in the Post-Impressionist and Art Noveau movements. Along with his wife Margaret, her sister Frances and Herbert MacNair (Frances’s husband) he was a member of the “Glasgow School”. They were known as “The Four”.
The Mackintosh House was not designed by Mackintosh and is actually a concrete reconstruction built with modern materials after the original was demolished in the 1960s to make room for the expanding Glasgow University. The interior has been meticulously reassembled as closely as possible to its original state using the original fixtures, decoration and furniture from the early 1900s.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928)
Mackintosh was briefly locked up during WWI under suspicion of being a German spy. At the time he and his wife were living in self-imposed exile for financial reasons in Suffolk. The neighbors informed the police of the couple’s strange behavior which included night-time strolls on the beach and Margaret’s long trips away from home. One night Charles was having trouble with a lantern. Neighbors saw the blinking light and thought he was sending signals to a German ship. When the military arrived they found a handful of letters from artist friends in Germany which were, unfortunately for Mackintosh, written in German. Mackintosh lost his temper and unleashed a stream of Scottish obscenities which the English soldiers couldn’t understand. They concluded he was German and locked him up. When Margaret returned to town she convinced the local magistrate that her husband was not, in fact, a spy.
-I had a look around the Gallery of Modern Art in Royal Exchange Square, known to the locals as “GoMA”. There was an exhibition of Sebastiao Salgado photos on display. I’ll always remember that exhibition because I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of Salgado. (And I had just received a B.A. in History with a minor in Art History. Oh, the shame…)
Duke of Wellington statue, Glasgow
In front of the gallery there is a bronze equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington. There was a traffic cone on his head. For years the authorities have been fighting a losing battle against drunken late night revellers who started the tradition in the 1980s. The Duke has lost his spurs and half of his sword as a result of pranksters climbing all over the 170 year old statue. It costs Glasgow City Council roughly ₤10,000 a year to remove the traffic cones from the statue. Here’s an idea: Just leave the damn traffic cone on the Duke’s head. Problem solved. You’re welcome.
I returned to the hostel one afternoon and a Canadian girl working the desk handed me a note. It read: “Where are ya, ya filthy bollocks? Off to the Highlands tomorrow with Rowdy. Care to join us? -James”
“They said they’re staying at the hostel up on Park Terrace.”
James (Irish) & Brad (Australian) – two guys I had been working with on a farm in Cork earlier in the year – had arrived from Ireland. They mentioned they’d be passing through Glasgow sometime in the near future and they said they’d try to find me. (You see, we did just fine in the days before cell phones.)
Brad had a one-man tent which was fine because he wasn’t too fond of showering. James, on the other hand, had a two-man tent so my accommodation for a week in the Highlands was sorted. We caught a bus to Fort William the next day, had a couple of pints, then walked a few miles out of town. On the road we bumped into two Germans who looked a bit worse for the wear. They were just finishing the West Highland Way, a 155km footpath that starts in Milngavie (just north of Glasgow) and ends in Fort William. They had been camping out for a week. It had rained a lot and they were carrying way too much gear. They were caked with mud from head to toe and they looked miserable.
“Looks like you guys could use a shower.”
“We smeared mud all over ourselves to keep the midges from eating us alive.”
We set up the tents next to a stream at the edge of a field. We soon realized the Germans weren’t joking about the midges. We set off early the following morning (after a glorious breakfast of beans and sausages on the camping gas) for Ben Nevis which, at 1,344 meters, is the highest mountain in the UK. It was a beautiful summer day. Blue skies as far as the eye could see. We took the Pony Track (aka: the Tourist Route) to the summit where we snapped some photos and cracked open a few beers in celebration.
Upon returning to our campsite we found a note pinned to Brad’s tent. It stated that we were on private property and would we please move on immediately. We went for a swim in the stream, had more beans and sausages for dinner, and the following morning unzipped the tents to find ourselves completely surrounded by hundreds of sheep. (Note to self: create a reality TV show called “Men in tents eating beans”… Pitch it to the Travel Channel… Get it? Pitch it? A show about tents? I kill me.)
Fort William is home to the West Highland Museum where the “Secret Portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie” is kept. Bonnie Prince Charlie led the unsuccessful Jacobite uprising in 1745. Afterwards one could be charged with treason for openly supporting the Jacobite cause, therefore people did so privately in their homes. Friends and followers of BPC had a painting created via anamorphosis to show their support. The technique of mirror anamorphosis turns a flat, distorted image into a 3-D picture by placing a cylindrical mirror on a painting. The artist, who remains unknown to this day, hid BPC’s image in paint on a tray. Looking directly at the tray the paint just looks like an abstract smear, but if a goblet is placed on the tray BPC’s image is reflected on it.
Secret Portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie
We caught a bus to Inverness where we camped out for a few nights in a small forest near a stream where we fished without success. It rained non-stop nearly the entire time. Brad wanted to spend every waking hour in the pubs, James just wanted to go into town and pick up girls, and all I wanted to do was lie in my sleeping bag and read.
There was a real Lost in Translation moment in Inverness one afternoon. Tired of “cooking” on the camping gas (ie: heating up the slimy, mysterious, fart-inducing contents of tin cans) we trudged into town in search of some grub and, more importantly, a dry place to eat it. At a chip shop we ordered three chicken burgers and chips. When the food was ready we were baffled when the Chip Shop Lady brought six plates to our table: three plates containing chicken burgers and chips and three plates containing nothing but heaping mountains of chips. There were enough chips on the table for ten extremely hungry people.
Brad: What’s with all the chips?
Chip Shop Lady: You ordered three chicken suppers and three orders of chips.
Brad: We ordered three chicken burgers and three orders of chips. What’s this about a “supper”?
Chip Shop Lady: When you ordered the chicken burgers I asked if you wanted “the supper” which is a chicken burger with chips. You said, Yes. Then you asked for three orders of chips.
Brad: And you didn’t think it was strange that we would order so many chips? You didn’t think it might be a good idea to warn us that that was an awful lot of chips for only three people?
She shrugged and gave us the what the hell do you want from me I work in a chip shop look. Of course, the problem was that we didn’t understand 90% of what she was saying. When ordering the food, every time a strange snort, grunt or squawk came out of her mouth, we just nodded and said, Sure, that sounds great. What can I say? We were hungry.
The following morning we reheated the rest of the soggy chips on the camping gas with a couple of tins of baked beans. It was the most depressing breakfast I have ever eaten. After three days of camping in the rain, all of our things damp and ourselves chilled to the bone, we were completely sick of not only the weather, but each other. We decided to go our separate ways. I spent a couple of days exploring Edinburgh and then I felt Glasgow pulling me back.
I checked into the hostel on Berkeley Street again. A Scottish girl, Morah, was working the desk. She recognized me from my previous stay. She asked me if I had any intention of hanging around for a while.
“Interested in a job? It doesn’t pay anything.”
“Really? A job that doesn’t pay? Where do I sign?”
“Don’t get cheeky. I haven’t offered it to you yet.”
to be continued…
(In the meantime, Ah dinnae ken is Scottish for I don’t know.)