Fàilte gu Alba: Welcome to Scotland (3/3)

Spring 2015: Over the years Morah and I have kept in touch. We’ve met up a few times – in London, in Lisbon, in Berlin – to catch up on old times and go on monumentally sloppy pub crawls just like the old days. She always greets me with her loudest, most ludicrous, most syrupy sweet “American accent”.

“Why, hello there ya filthy Yankee tramp! Have you had any breakfast yet?! Shall we go get some flapjacks?!”

This year for Lola’s birthday we bought tickets to see Belle & Sebastian play with a full orchestra in their hometown of Glasgow.

Day 1: At Edinburgh Airport we were greeted by a large sign in Scottish Gaelic: Fàilte gu Alba. Welcome to Scotland. We took a bus straight to Glasgow, then walked from the Buchanan Street bus station to Sauchiehall Street. We had a pint at Variety Bar which looks exactly the same as it did 16 years ago. It’s still filthy. It still smells like a clogged toilet. It was actually kind of nice, kind of refreshing. Gentrification hasn’t destroyed everything. Yet. They haven’t changed the music since I last had a drink there, either. Beta Band, My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fanclub, Arab Strap… It was like stepping back in time.

variety bar1

Variety Bar, Sauchiehall Street

We met up with our Spanish friend Sandra at the Glasgow School of Art. She received a grant to study printmaking so she threw in the towel on her life in Spain and the rat race in general for a while. She showed us around her studio which was just down the street from the Mackintosh building that was severely damaged by a fire last year. Flammable gases from a foam cannister being used in a student project ignited and destroyed the building’s famous library which was one of the world’s finest examples of Art Noveau design. Apparently an old projecter ignited gases from the expanding foam and the building’s old ventilation ducts helped the flames spread like wildfire. Original furniture and fittings, 90 oil paintings, roughly 8,000 books, as well as an ungodly amount of rare and archival materials, were destroyed in the blaze.


Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh library before the fire

We grabbed a taxi to Morah and Sean’s place at Athole Gardens. (There was an awkward moment in the taxi when I felt like I was asking the guy to take us to “Asshole Gardens” with a lisp.) Scanning Morah’s bookshelves I found a copy of Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning – my “missionary book” – with a note from me tucked inside. I wonder how many people I’ve given copies of that book to over the years… Organic beer and Indian take away for dinner.

Day 2: We were woken up by Morah and Sean’s two year old human alarm clock Nate banging on our bedroom door.

“Lolo! Kit! Now!

We strolled into the center of town, checking out the Kelvingrove Museum along the way. I had forgotten about an amazing painting they have by Scottish artist Avril Paton entitled Windows in the West of an apartment building in Glasgow covered in snow. In the artist’s own words:

“On January 11th 1993 at about 5:30pm, there came a sudden heavy blizzard. In ten minutes it was over and the view from the attic window at Athole Gardens overlooking Saltoun Street was transformed. The lilac pink sky, the lit windows, the clarity of whiteness where there had been darkness – it was magic. By morning all the snow had gone and the effect was never to be repeated during that winter.”


Windows in the West by Avril Paton

We passed King’s Café which I was surprised to find no longer looks like the scene of a recent triple homocide. The 117 year old cafe was recently bought by a burger joint with the horrific name Steak, Cattle & Roll. They fixed the place up and, out of respect for the historic cafe, kept some of the old standards on the new menu. They also allowed “Kings Café: Est. 1898” to remain on the new signage above the door. I was slightly tempted to step inside and order one of their (in)famous jumbo batter-fried sausages with chips, but I’m not in my early twenties anymore. (Gotta watch the cholesterol these days…)

Downtown we checked out the temporary exhibitions at GoMA. (Meh.) I was happy to see the Duke of Wellington still has a traffic cone on his head. Went to a pub for lunch. I ordered sandwiches at the bar and then sat down at a table. The bartender walked over looking slightly annoyed.

“You have to pay at the bar when you order.”

I’ve forgotten how things work in this country.

Met up with Morah and Sean and a couple other old acquaintances for drinks before the concert. I ordered a round, picked up the bottles, and started walking away from the bar.

Hey! Are you gonna pay for those?”

I’ve been in Spain too long. (AKA: The land where you drink all night long and when you ask for the bill the waiter asks, “What did you have?”)

The concert was good fun, but Lola had some issues. They didn’t play long enough. They could’ve played for six hours straight and she would’ve said the same thing. They didn’t play all of my favorite songs. They could’ve played every song from every one of their albums and she would’ve brought up some rare B-side from a single they only released 20 copies of in Japan that they didn’t play. (I guess what I’m trying to say here is that my wife is a hopeless Belle & Sebastian groupie.)


Kibble Palace in the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

Day 3: Strolled through the Botanic Gardens with Morah, Sean and little Nate after breakfast. We were sitting on a bench outside of Kibble Palace when Stuart Murdoch (the singer of Belle & Sebastian) walked by singing to himself. He had a little boy perched on his shoulders. Lola was playing with Nate and missed the whole thing.

“Did you see that?”


“The guy from Belle & Sebastian just walked right past you.”

“Which guy?”

Thee guy!” I couldn’t remember his name.

Her eyes nearly popped clean out of her skull. She caught a glimpse of him as he disappeared into one of the glasshouses. She went into full-on stalker mode and began following him from a good distance around the park. I saw a Book Fair sign with an arrow pointing to one of the glasshouses and ducked inside. There was a chatty, little old lady walking around the book fair talking to all the sellers. Her accent was indescribable. At first I thought she was speaking Gaelic, but every now and then I’d pick up a word or two. Sure enough, it was, at the very least, English-based.

Twenty minutes later, sitting on the park bench again, Stuart Murdoch walked past us a second time. Morah recognized the little boy on his shoulders.

“His son goes to daycare with Nate!”

“Oh dear. Don’t tell Lola.”

Speaking of the devil, Lola wasn’t far behind. She was in heaven. Some people go to Africa in the hope of seeing zebras and elephants in their natural habitat. Lola goes to Glasgow to stalk pop stars in the Botanic Gardens.

We dropped our bags at Sandra and Thomas’ place, grabbed some Mexican food, then hit the West End bookstores.


One of the owners of Voltaire & Rousseau

First stop: the completely insane Voltaire & Rousseau secondhand bookshop on Otago Lane. Leaning towers of books cover every surface of the shop. Some of the precariously teetering mountains on the floor in front of the shelves are 3 and 4 feet high and 3 and 4 books deep. I pulled a book off the shelf only to discover that another row of books was hidden from view behind the first row. You probably won’t find a particular book that you’re looking for here, but you will find a few books that you didn’t even know existed and that now you simply cannot live without. All the books in the claustrophobic front room – there must be a few thousand jam-packed from floor to ceiling in this small space – only cost ₤1 each.

I picked up a copy of My Boyhood & Youth by Scottish born naturalist and inventor John Muir for next to nothing. There is also a record store and a little coffeehouse tucked down the same alleyway. Thomas told me it’s the last bohemian area left in the city. The residents have been fighting a losing battle against developers who want to build 49 dwellings on Otago Lane. Gentrification rears its ugly head once again.

Second stop: Thistle Books/Alba Music which is hidden down another little alleyway (Otago Street) nearby. I asked the friendly old fella running Alba Music, which is all sheet music, if he had anything related to Appalachian mountain dulcimers. He apologized and said he only had sheet music and books related to music and musical instruments. For a split second I thought he was making fun of mountain dulcimers, then I realized he didn’t know what a dulcimer was.

Thomas bought me a copy of his “missionary book” – Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies. The short novel is about the Highland Clearances, the eviction of crofters from their homes between 1792 and the 1850s. It was one of the cruelest episodes in the history of Scotland. (I left Thomas a copy of William Saroyan’s The Man With the Heart in the Highlands and Other Stories, which I had brought to read on the plane, in return.) Thistle is obsessively tidy and impeccably organized, the exact opposite of Voltaire & Rousseau. And there is a bookshelf filled with beautiful Scottish first editions behind the register.

Third stop: We completed the Bermuda Triangle of West End bookshops with Caledonia Books which I remember visiting frequently back in 1999.

Thomas picked up a bottle of Jura whisky and we spent the evening at their place quietly sipping away. Jura is an island located off the West Coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides. The island is home to one pub, one distillery, one road, 200 human inhabitants and 5,000 red deer. George Orwell lived on Jura off and on during the last few years of his life. In a lonely old farmhouse known as Barnhill in the north of the island he finished his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.


Barnhill on the island of Jura

Day 4: Visited the Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery – the oldest museum in Scotland – with Thomas. The anatomist William Hunter was an avid coin and book collector. With the help of patrons and assistants he collected a bit of everything: minerals, insects, works of art, rare manuscripts, ethnographic materials, scientific instruments, etc. The museum’s collections are spread throughout various buildings belonging to the University of Glasgow. The Art Gallery’s collection includes the majority of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s watercolors and a large number of James McNeill Whistler’s paintings. There was an amazing temporary exhibition entitled “The Poetry of Place” which had 55 years of Scottish artist Duncan Shanks’s nature sketchbooks on display.

In 1776 the corpse of a smuggler recently hanged in London was turned into an anatomical specimen, or écorché (a figure with the skin and fat removed to expose the muscles, tendons and bones) by William Hunter. He then commissioned sculptor Agostino Carlini to make a bronze cast of the flayed corpse which was posed as the ancient Roman sculpture known as the Dying Gaul. The sculpture was given the mock Latin name of “Smugglerius”. It was to be used as a teaching aid for art and medical students. The original bronze has been lost, but a plaster cast copy is on display at the Edinburgh College of Art.



Had a quick outdoor pint on Ashton Lane with Thomas while reminiscing about playing gigs together in Spain. Thomas had a band in Madrid for a few years. They were getting national radio play and big festival gigs and some of their songs were licensed for a Spanish film (Anochece en la India by Chema Rodríguez).

Thomas used to ask a band I was playing in to open for him on occasion. I could never figure out why he kept inviting us to share the stage with him. We were always a mess. We barely practiced and there was always some technical problem. If it wasn’t a dead cable it was a pedal with a dead battery or a soundman who wasn’t in the mood for amateur hour.

“That’s what I liked about you guys. I never knew what was going to happen. It was exciting. There was always a sense that things were about to go completely off the rails!”

Then Lola and I hurried off to attend little Nate’s 2nd birthday party.

Morah opened the door and yelled, “Nate, look who’s here!”

Nate came running into the hallway. “Lolo! Kit!” He was very excited to have more visitors who hadn’t seen his new bike yet.

Morah’s mother is from the Highlands. We told her we were staying with a friend from her neck of the woods.

“Thomas is from the village of Ardgay.”

Fuckin’ ‘ell! That’s proper bloody Highlands, that is!”

Then Morah’s mother found out that Morah and I had met at the youth hostel.

“Oh, dear God! You worked at that place, too? You poor soul. I’ve heard all the stories. The owner taking rubbish bags full of money out of the safe and hiding it god knows where… Always out of his mind on pills… The bedbug incident… Is that place still open?”

On our way back to Sandra & Thomas’ place it started raining (it only rained about 15 minutes during our entire trip – an absolute miracle) so we ducked into a chip shop. Ordered chips & curry for old time’s sake.

Lola had her first Irn-Bru (pronounced “iron brew”) which is a bright orange, carbonated soft drink. I think it tastes like a mix between orange flavored chewing gum, ginger and a mouthful of  vomit, but who am I to judge. It is referred to by some as “Scotland’s other national drink” (after whisky) and it outsells Coca-Cola and Pepsi in Scotland.



The company has gotten into some hot water with their advertising campaigns. They released a TV commercial in 2003 which showed a midwife attempting to lure a baby from its mother’s womb with a bottle of Irn-Bru. A fairly recent billboard featured a cow along with the phrase, “When I’m a burger, I want to be washed down with Irn-Bru”. The billboard received over 700 complaints.

That evening, on our way to dinner (more amazing Indian food) with Sandra and Thomas, we took a shortcut through the park. In 1999 locals were always telling me, “Don’t walk through Kelvingrove Park at night!” Just to be on the safe side I interpreted this to mean, “Don’t walk through the park ever!” Only on this recent trip did I explore the park and discover a couple of shortcuts which would have saved me loads of time getting from point A to point B sixteen years ago. The only “path” I took through the park in 1999 was Kelvin Way – actually a road – which passes right by the Kelvingrove Museum and spits you out on University Avenue right near the Hunterian Museum.

Had a couple of pints and listened to some live jazz at a place called ’78’ afterwards. Then watched in awe as two girls fed chips to a very tame fox in the park on the walk home.

Day 5: Met Morah and Sean at the Princes Street train station and we sped off to Edinburgh for the last day of our trip. Had haggis (sheep’s heart, liver and lungs) with “neeps and tatties” (turnips and potatoes) for lunch in a pub in the Grassmarket which was originally a marketplace in the Old Town.

(Fun Haggis Fact: Competitive eater Eric “Steakbellie” Livingston set a world record in 2008 when he ate 3 lbs of haggis in 8 minutes in (where else?) Philadelphia.)


“Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!” -Robert Burns

The Grassmarket is also where public executions used to be held. The most famous hanging being that of Margaret Dickson in 1724. She was convicted of killing her illegitimate child shortly after giving birth. After the execution, as her body was being transported by cart, she woke up! Luckily for her, under Scots Law, she could not be tried twice for the same crime. Today there is a pub bearing her name in the Grassmarket.

We strolled up and down the Royal Mile – the busiest shopping street in the Old Town –and then Princes Street – the busiest shopping street in the New Town. There seemed to be a  guy playing the bagpipes every 20 feet. Morah is not a fan of the instrument. I believe her exact words (after a few pints) were: “I fucking hate the bagpipes!”

On Princes Street we stopped at the Scott Monument, the largest monument in the world dedicated to a writer. The 61 meter (200 foot) tall Victorian Gothic monument was built in honor of Edinburgh’s most famous writer Sir Walter Scott. The monument, made of Binny sandstone and containing 64 sculptures of characters from Scott’s novels, dates to the 1840s.

I remember being impressed by the monument back in 1999. It looks like a sinister alien spaceship that is going to lift off at any moment.


the Scott Monument, Edinburgh

Sean led us to a quiet pub (The Oxford Bar) on a side street away from the crowds. We got some strange looks from the locals (half a dozen old men leaning on the bar) as we entered. Sean informed us that the bar is the favorite pub of John Rebus, a fictional character in a series of detective novels by Ian Rankin, as well as a number of local police officers.

A couple of weeks before our trip we watched a documentary on Edinburgh’s Underground City. Due to space restrictions inside the walled city people started building up in the 16th century. After the Great Fire of Edinburgh in 1824 reconstruction led to the creation of many underground passages, chambers and vaults. These spaces were originally used mostly by cobblers and other tradesmen, but the dampness and bad air drove them away. The vaults then became home to the city’s poorest and most destitute citizens. The Underground City was long rumoured to have existed, but it was only rediscovered in the 1980s during excavations. In the 1990s a section of the vaults was opened for ghost tours.

“We should take a tour when we’re in Edinburgh.”

I pulled my copy of The Town Below the Ground: Edinburgh’s Legendary Underground City by Jan-Andrew Henderson off the shelf. I turned to the chapter entitled “The McKenzie Poltergeist” and read out loud:

“Most believe it is the ghost of Bloody McKenzie, a judge in the pay of King Charles I and the ruthless persecutor of a religious group known as Covenanters. Whatever its true identity, any visitors who have encountered the poltergeist in its underground lair have no doubts about its character. It is evil.”

This is followed by ten terrifying pages which recount some of the more disturbing incidents involving the Mckenzie Poltergeist such as:

“Several times visitors have reported icy fingers touching their hair and, in September 1996, a ten-year-old boy was carried unconscious from the vaults after complaining that something cold was holding on to his head.”

And this incident about a tourist named Anne Cooper:

“As the group listened attentively, leaning closer to hear the history of the vaults, there came a loud sobbing from behind them. They turned to find Anne kneeling on the vault floor crying miserably and clutching her head. When she had recovered enough to talk, she told onlookers that she had suddenly become freezing cold and something had grabbed the back of her head and begun forcing it down.”

There was no more talk of visiting the Underground City after that. For the record: Jan-Andrew Henderson may be a historian, but he is a ghost tour guide as well. The first half of the book is a simple, straight forward history of the Underground City. The second half, however, is made up solely of ghost stories and tales of paranormal activity. (I don’t believe in ghosts and I want to keep it that way.)


George “Bluidy” Mackenzie

Day 6: The following morning we had a massive fry up for breakfast (so much for watching my cholesterol) in a pub while the soothing sounds of Metallica played in the background. Then we strolled on over to the Princes Street Gardens and sat in the sun for a couple hours before we had to catch a bus to the airport. (I managed to do the impossible: I returned home from Scotland with a decent tan.) From our park bench we had a fantastic view of the Edinburgh Castle.

While we were sitting there we got to witness the firing of the One O’Clock Gun from Mill’s Mount Battery up above on Castle Rock. Originally the One O’Clock Gun was used as a time signal for ships in Leith harbor. The gun was first fired in 1861 and is still fired every day, with the exception of Sunday, Good Friday and Christmas Day. Nowadays the ceremony is more of a tourist attraction than anything else.

The flight home was perfect (ie: short and uneventful). Stepping off the plane in Madrid was like being tossed into an inferno. It was about 10C warmer than it had been when we left Scotland two and a half hours earlier.

Let’s end this with some fairly recent Tripadvisor reviews about the youth hostel where I worked in Glasgow back in 1999. Things haven’t changed much in the past decade and a half.

“Worst accommodation ever booked…”

“This hostel is one of the worst ever: dirty, dirty, dirty…”

“The worst place I have seen in 15 years on the road!”

Happy travels, everybody!


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