Currently undergoing an urban renaissance, Scotland's largest city has experienced both dramatic decline and upswing. When Britain ruled over an empire, Glasgow pronounced itself Second City of the Empire. Steamships were built here, and great thinkers, such as Lord Kelvin and James Watt, tested their groundbreaking theories. But by the middle of the 20th century, the city's slums were notorious. "All Glasgow needs," said an architecture pundit,"is a bath and a little loving care." Today it has received both: trendy stores, a booming cultural life, and stylish restaurants reinforce Glasgow's claim to be Scotland's most exciting city.
Glasgow first came into prominence in Scottish history around 1,400 years ago, and, as the story goes, it had to do with an argument between a husband and wife. When the king of Strathclyde gave his wife a ring, she was rash enough to present it to an admirer. The king, having surreptitiously repossessed it, threw it into the Clyde before quizzing his wife about its disappearance. In her distress, the queen turned to her confessor, St. Mungo, for advise. He instructed her to fish in the river and—surprise—the first salmon she landed had the ring in its jaws. Glasgow's coat of arms is dominated by three salmon, one with a ring in its mouth. Not surprisingly, Mungo became the city's patron saint. His tomb lies in the mighty medieval cathedral that bears his name.
Growth and Development
As Glasgow prospered, its population grew. The "dear green place" (the literal meaning of the Gaelic glas cu, from which the name "Glasgow" purportedly derives) expanded beyond recognition, extending westward and to the south of the original medieval city, which centered around the cathedral and High Street. The 18th-century Merchant City, now largely rejuvenated, lies just to the south and east of George Square, where all but a few of the original merchants' houses remain in their original condition. During the 19th century the population grew from 80,000 to more than 1 million, and along with this enormous growth there developed a sense of exuberance and confidence reflected in the city's public buildings. The City Chambers, built in 1888, are a proud statement in marble and gold sandstone, a clear symbol of the wealthy and powerful Victorian industrialists' hopes for the future.
Some of the city's development has been unashamedly commercial, tied up with the wealth of its manufacturers and merchants, who constructed a vast number of civic buildings throughout the 19th century. Among those who helped shape Glasgow's unique Victorian cityscape during that great period of civic expansion was the local-born architect Alexander "Greek" Thomson (1817-75). Side by side with the Victorian, Glasgow had an architectural vision of the future in the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). The Glasgow School of Art, the Willow Tearoom, the Glasgow Herald building (now home to the Lighthouse architecture and design centre), and the churches and schools Mackintosh designed point clearly to the clarity and simplicity of the best of 20th-century design.
Present and Future
Today, as always, Glasgow's eye is trained on the future. The city, with a metro area population of 2.3 million, is Scotland's major business destination, with the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre serving as the hub of activity. It's also a nexus of rail routes and motorways that can deliver you in less than an hour to Edinburgh, Stirling, Loch Lomond, the Burns country, and the Clyde coast golfing resorts. Still, Glasgow has learned to take the best of its past and adapt it for the needs of the present day. The dear green places still remain in the city-centre parks; the medieval cathedral stands proud, as it has done for 800 years; the Merchant City is revived and thriving; the Victorian splendor has been cleansed of its grime; and the cultural legacy of museums and performing arts is stronger than ever.