From the top of the Glasgow Necropolis, a view of the biggest city in Scotland spreads out below in shades of green, grey and blue. Occupying a lush, grassy slope on the eastern edge of the city centre, the Necropolis’s moss-covered gravestones and ornate monuments pay tribute to some of Glasgow’s most important citizens of the Victorian era.
As impressive as the history of its tobacco barons, war heroes and captains of industry is, the Necropolis is in fact a relative newcomer to the neighbourhood. St. Mungo’s Cathedral at the foot of the hill was consecrated in the 12th century, and the Tennents brewery down the other slope has been operating here continuously since the mid-1700s, replacing another brewery that had already been there for two centuries before that. Between these three sites, dedicated respectively to Victorian industrialism, medieval Christianity and Scottish lager, the complex puzzle of Glasgow’s identity reveals itself.
While Edinburgh’s castles are picturesque, and Islay is Disney World for scotch lovers, Glasgow offers something altogether different and uniquely its own. From its beginnings as a sleepy backwater town to its heyday as the second city of the British empire, and from its gritty postwar hangover to its current era as a dynamic centre of museums, food and culture, Glasgow has ridden the wave of history from medieval times to present day, with each era leaving its mark on the landscape and the people. Each piece of the city’s history connects to the next, recounting the drama of human endeavour, prosperity and folly over the last thousand or so years.
Clydeside Distillery is a living tribute to Scotland’s most beloved creation
Down the hill from the Necropolis and just across town another piece of this story sits on the banks of the River Clyde. Between two of Glasgow’s most impressive latter-day additions, the undulating Zaha Hadid-designed Riverside Museum and the flying saucer-like SSE Hydro arena by Foster + Partners, the Clydeside Distillery’s historic, brick building is a living tribute to Scotland’s most beloved creation.
“There are so many variables when it comes to whisky, it’s never ending,” says Michael Burslam, the chatty Glaswegian who spends an hour walking me through the intricacies of “Scotland’s gift to the world,” Scotch whisky. From the “surgeon barbers” who prescribed aqua vitae for aches and pains in the 1500s, to the Glasgow grocers of the 1800s who refined the art of combining single-malts into more palatable blends, to the marketing whizzes of the 1900s who turned Scotch into a global phenomenon, the story of Scotland’s signature spirit is also in many ways the story of the country itself.
Built on the site of the former Queen’s Dock, the last stop for untold quantities of Scotland’s whisky before it was shipped around the globe, Clydeside is as much a working distillery as it is a cultural institution. While Clydeside’s first batch of whisky won’t be ready until 2022 (it’s been maturing in oak barrels since operations began here in 2017) the tour concludes with a tasting of three drams of spirit, each indicative of Scotland’s three primary whisky regions. “The colour of your scotch whisky always tells you what kind of oak it’s been matured in,” says Burslam, outlining the key characteristics that differentiate the output of Scotland’s 120-plus distilleries, from the source of the water, to the grain used, to the barrels in which it was aged. The whisky museum’s gift shop, with 200-plus varieties is one of the best places in town to find a rare bottle, as well as a Cuban cigar to enjoy with it.
Even at the height of Scotland’s 20th-century whisky boom, not everyone in Glasgow was a fan of the stuff. While the city’s dram shops did a brisk business, its tea rooms provided a more refined menu, as well as a gathering place for recently emancipated middle-class women, now free to roam the city unchaperoned. Foremost among these shops was Miss Cranston’s Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street, which was designed by celebrated Glaswegian architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and opened in 1903.
Kate Cranston was one of Scotland’s first female entrepreneurs
Cranston and Mackintosh, each pioneers in their own right, made a formidable team. Kate Cranston was one of Scotland’s first female entrepreneurs, running a chain of tea houses across the city, including one at the 1901 Glasgow International Exhibition. Mackintosh, considered Europe’s answer to Frank Lloyd Wright, was responsible for landmarks like The Glasgow School of the Arts and the Lighthouse. While an entire Glasgow itinerary could be dedicated to Mackintosh and his wife, artist Margaret Macdonald, Mackintosh at the Willow serves as an excellent entry point. An interactive exhibition at the adjoining visitor centre (complete with Victorian dress-up station) offers further insight into life at the turn of the 20th century, and a fitting prelude to taking tea, scones and clotted cream next door.
With no disrespect to the Willow’s watercress sandwiches, the bar for Glasgow’s dining scene has risen considerably since Miss Cranston’s day, mostly in the last decade. While there are plenty of takeaways offering such famous local delicacies as deep-fried Mars bars and the “Munchy Box,” a pizza box stuffed with chips, donair meat and chicken wings (both absolutely worth a try after a late night out), Glasgow’s culinary spectrum has grown to feature a huge range of restaurants serving everything from tweezer-plated nouveau cuisine to Malaysian street food. Among those hard at work redefining Glasgow’s culinary scene are Peter McKenna and Ian Stein, the chefs behind the Gannet.
“This place was derelict for years,” says Kevin Dow, the Gannet’s maitre d’, of the stretch of Argyle Street where the restaurant opened in 2013. “You would drive right through. There was nothing here.” From where I sit in the Gannet’s front window, making my way through a six-course tasting menu of seasonal, locally-sourced dishes, this is clearly no longer the case.
In addition to the Gannet, Finnieston, a west Glasgow neighbourhood nestled between the River Clyde and the stately Kelvingrove museum, is now home to at least half a dozen more noteworthy restaurants. Across the street is Alchemilla, whose chef Rosie Healey worked under London culinary darling Yotam Ottolenghi before bringing her vision for minimalist Mediterranean cuisine and biodynamic wine to Glasgow. Next to that is Six by Nico, a concept that sees rising star Glaswegian chef Nico Simeone reinvent his tasting menu every six weeks on diverse themes like “Forest,” “The ’70s,” and “Route 66.”
At the Gannet, meanwhile, Scottish ingredients like monkfish, scallops, lamb and venison are the stars of the ever-changing menu, each one delicately prepared and elevated with the addition of indigenous herbs and local Jersey milk butter. There isn’t a single ingredient, boasts McKenna, that doesn’t come directly from the source: a farmer, a fisher, or a forager that he’s chosen specifically for quality and provenance. It truly tastes that way.
For all of Glasgow’s stately oldness and slick newness, there is still the question of the city in between, the one that links its Victorian past to its cosmopolitan present. The decline of industry here in the mid-20th century, and the urban decay and unemployment that followed, earned Glasgow a reputation as a rough-edged place with more than its share of social problems. While much of the Glasgow of the ’80s and ’90s has been razed, aside from comedian Billy Connelly (who enjoys a godlike status here, hence the three giant murals erected for his 75th birthday) Glasgow’s music scene is one of the few things to emerge from that turbulent time.
Nowhere is this legacy as alive and well as at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow’s foremost live music venue. After opening its doors in 1990, King Tut’s quickly earned a reputation as the best place in the city – if not all of Great Britain – to catch the next indie act before they hit the big time. Blur, Oasis, The Verve, Pulp and Radiohead, among countless others, crossed the stage here on their way to global stardom. While the halcyon days of ’90s Brit-pop may be gone, King Tut’s maintains its edge in the new millennium with performers like Ellie Goulding, Metronomy and Alabama Shakes. You’ll still catch the occasional big-name act here, but the best time to come to King Tut’s is still on a random weekend night, when the headliner could be a bunch of nerdy-looking university kids from Dundee for whom Oasis and The Verve legitimately qualify as “oldies.” There, in the loud, sweaty darkness of the club, surrounded by bopping students spilling lager on each other, you might well discover your favourite new band. At the very least, when the show ends and the bouncers funnel you into the street and off to the next bar or the nearest chippy, you’ll have experienced an important piece of the centuries-spanning puzzle that is Glasgow.