Glasgow, Scotland – The Engine of Caledonia, An Introduction

I was in Edinburgh for some work, and had a weekend to explore the wonders of Scotland, and when you are in Scotland as a tourist, the question that pops is inevitably – should I check out Glasgow too?

So I did some sleuthing online, what sold me was a comment on a travel website, “there are two Scotlands. The Scotland of the highlands and the vast plains, of history and romance; then there is the Scotland of the council estates and the industry, of working class and grit.”* The former is the stereotype typified by Edinburgh, the latter the caricature embodied in Glasgow.

Comparisons between Edinburgh and Glasgow are inevitable. The former is the capital of Scotland, the latter the largest city in Scotland – sort of how New York and Washington DC, or Shanghai and Beijing are compared. There are passionate defenders of the wonders of each city, and then a middle ground that insists both cities have much to offer.

As a traveller, I am inclined to walk the middle path.

But there was another thing while doing my research about Glasgow that caught my attention, The Glasgow Effect.

A colleague of mine had written about it previously and I wanted to see if there was anything in the city that exemplified this. So a day trip to Glasgow it was (a day is hardly enough to explore this city, but that was all I had).

If Edinburgh was founded for protecting life, Glasgow was founded to enable life because it grew around the River Clyde the lifeblood of Scotland. The River Clyde is the lifeblood of the city, where fishing is a rich activity, where shipyards were built and naturally. The giver of life to this city is commonly thought to be the saint, Mungo who settled in the area and built a church to Christianise the peoples (not unlike St Gallen in Switzerland). It was first significantly populated by the Romans who set up watch posts in this area to prevent the Picts and Celts from encroaching into Roman Britannia. The religious pull of Glasgow was the catalyst of its growth, with St Mungo’s church evolving into a Cathedral and with it drawing more settlers and traders to the city.

The city was already alive with activity in 1190, with the Glasgow Fair (a sort of trade fair) organised by the religious leaders with tradesmen and merchants showing off the latest innovations to the Glaswegians of the day. Glasgows fortunes continued to improve when the University of Glasgow was founded in 1451 and the city was elevated to a bishphoric – a sign that it has joined the big leagues.

It was the advent of globalisation and global trade that brought Glasgow from growing city to metropolis, and second city of the Empire. For just as Glasgow in the early days was the engine of Scotland, Glasgow was a vital engine of the United Kingdom, an indispensible cog in the wheel that turned the colonial enterprise of the British empire dealing in the sugar, tobacco, cotton, linen and slave trade. According to the author Daniel Defoe, it was by the 18th century, “the cleanest and beautifullest, and best built city in Britain, London excepted”.

The heavy industries were where the business was at. It was a leader in shipbuilding, engineering, industrial machinery, bridge building, chemicals, explosives, coal, oil, textiles, garment-making, carpet manufacturing, leather processing, furniture-making, pottery, food, drink and cigarette making, printing and publishing. At its height a whole half of all British shipping tonnage and a quarter of all locomotives were produced in the city.

Amazing testaments were built in the city, to mark its arrival on the global stage – the Kelvingrove Art Museum one of the most impressive galleries in the UK, a subway system (one of the first in the world).

It was a triumph of British success. This was a time when Scotland and Scots were proud to be know as British.

Then the whole edifice began to collapse as the two Great Wars of the 20th century and the stunning rise of Germany and Japan after the Second World War, weakened Glasgow’s position. From 1960 onwards, Glasgow entered a time of protracted economic decline – rapid de-industrialisation, high unemployment, urban decay, population decline, welfare dependency and increasing poor health for the cities inhabitants (the Glasgow Effect).

After almost 2 decades of being stuck in a funk, a campaign was launched in 1983 called Glasgow Miles Better.

The aim was to shed the soot from the city (literally and figuratively), and improve the city’s reputation for tourism and business. It worked, most of Glasgow has been revitalised and continues to undergo revitalisation (the East End being a notable exception), it’s shopping district is the most prestigious in the UK after London, it is one of the most popular destinations in the UK.

The soothas been wiped off the engine of Glasgow and a reenergised city now stands at the precipe ready to reclaim its glory as the engine of Caledonia. Come along and check it out!

*This statement as you’d expect is not strictly true. Edinburgh is no where near the Scottish Highlands. However the spirit of the statement that there is the romanticised versus the gritty Scotland, the former embodied in Edinburgh and the latter in Glasgow, is true. And for a tourist who doesn’t have the luxury of living in a place for months, this idea is a very useful primer.

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