Glazgeh, the friendly city

[First, a quick apology. Reliable wi-fi is a rare and precious commodity in the Scottish Highlands. After Glasgow we stayed overnight at hotels in Ardlui, Crianlarich and Bridge of Orchy. None of them had a satisfactory wi-fi connection. In fact in Crianlarich we were even outside mobile phone range. But five days into our Scottish odyssey here we are now in Distant Hills Guest House in the village of Spean Bridge where a wi-fi connection is possible but still very slow. So, here goes… my report from Glasgow. Fingers crossed.]

I was standing at the checkout in a Glasgow pharmacy. As the girl at the counter scanned my purchase she asked:

“De oo suidnf smdjd?

“Excuse me, could you say that again?”

She spoke very slowly.

“D’ye have a points card?”

“No.”

“Och… wde fhnsornfk djke ejsxsh?”

“Sorry?”

“Would ye like a points card? It’s free.”

“No thanks.”

She rang up my purchase and money changed hands.

“Whdb jfifk ejeod dkdk?”

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

She must have thought I was hard of hearing, or a typical tourist dullard, so she spoke syllable by syllable, a bit more loudly.

“Would’ye like a wee baggie?”

I could only guess what a wee baggie was but it sounded vaguely illicit and possibly enjoyable so I said “yes”. My purchase dropped into a small plastic supermarket bag.

The famous dialect of Glasgow is indeed a challenge. Emmy and I took a “hop on hop off” tourist bus around the city. The guide on the bus spoke with a broad Glasgow accent. Emmy claimed she understood about 50% of what he said. As a native speaker of English still clinging to the shreds of a Scottish heritage, it was a matter of honour for me to claim I understood everything he was saying but in truth I don’t think I made it past 60%. It was a shock to discover that the guide thought he was speaking standard English, because from time to time he illustrated his anecdotes by dropping into “real” Glaswegian English. And when he did he might as well have been speaking Cantonese. But around me a group of American tourists sat entranced. They almost abandoned their plans to go shopping (almost) just to prolong the pleasure of immersion in our guide’s exotic patter.

A Glasgow street scene: chunky heritage buildings in the city centre contrast with the ranks of featureless grey townhouses in the suburbs.

A Glasgow street scene: chunky heritage buildings in the city centre contrast with the ranks of featureless grey townhouses that dominate in the suburbs.

Glasgow must be the friendliest city I’ve ever visited. Forget tattooed, crew-cut football hooligans and Irvine Welsh’s foul-mouthed, head butting hard men. The people are wonderfully helpful and friendly but (and I like this) without too much smiling. It started with the immigration officer at Glasgow airport. Somewhat wearily he asked me what the purpose of my visit to Scotland was.

“I’m here to do some long-distance walking.”

I asked him if he had ever done any walking across Scotland. Instantly he brightened.

“No, but I like bike riding. I’ve ridden through the highlands and the lowlands.”

He put down his scanning wand.

“In winter too,” he added. Then he was off. A stream of advice poured over me. “Watch out for the biting midges… they’re ferocious. You should use Tabard repellent. And pack some warm clothes… the weather can change very suddenly. And it will rain at least every second day.”

I could sense restlessness in the queue behind me but he didn’t see it. He had a far-away look in his eyes. He was wandering in lands far beyond the glass walls of his cell. It was a while before he let me through.

Then on the bus into Glasgow I sat beside a Scottish passenger who had flown in on the same flight from Dubai. He quizzed me on our walking plans and (like the immigration officer) had some rich gifts of advice for us. I happened to mention that, at our first stop (Ardlui, north of Glasgow, on the banks of Loch Lomond) we would have to cross the lake by boat to set foot on the West Highland Way walking trail. A look of good-humoured horror spread across his face.

“You’re in Scotland,” he said. “Here, don’t ever say ‘lake’. You’re going to cross the loch.”

The friendliness pursued us into the streets. We were standing on the corner of an intersection waiting for the traffic lights to change. This unusual behaviour attracted the attention of a large beefy gentleman in a tradesman’s brightly coloured yellow jacket.

“Are you all right? Do ye need any help? Are ye lost?”

We assured him we were OK, just two old people waiting for the lights to change. As he turned away he couldn’t conceal his disappointment.

Maybe it’s a hangover from last year’s Commonwealth Games, but I suspect it’s just the way people are. It is strange to say this about a city with Glasgow’s reputation for toughness, but we encountered a kind of innocence here. Maybe they simply haven’t yet had enough foreign tourists squatting on them to besmirch that innocence.

The grave of Glasgow's patron saint St. Mungo underneath the main nave of Glasgow Cathedral.

The grave of Glasgow’s patron saint St. Mungo underneath the main nave of Glasgow Cathedral.

There’s a lot to talk about in Glasgow, but for me the city has a show-stopper that chases all other attractions into the shadows. It is Glasgow Cathedral. It is a big building, one that could only have been built with the ruthless coercive power of medieval religion. Its stone walls, pointed arches and massive fluted columns are darkened in places almost to black. The main nave is a vast vault of air reaching up into an arcade of curving, criss-crossed beams too distant for details of its embellishment to be seen. The space is bookended with palisades of shimmering kaleidoscopically coloured stained glass windows. There is a lower floor too. Here, squeezed among the columns that hold up the massive building lies the tomb of Saint Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow. It was once an important place of pilgrimage, and on a small scale it still is.

Around the lower level there are several small chapels and softly-lit prayer alcoves. In several of them spectacularly beautiful stained glass windows illustrate extracts from the New Testament. Of course a certain amount of military dross has been stuck on the walls too – several bronze plaques commemorating those who died in Britain’s wars of imperial aggression, plus an engraved marble relief of gallant highlanders charging into ranks of impudent Arabs in the 19th century battle of Tel El Kebir in Egypt. (Not much has changed, has it?) If there is an almighty God, and he has the dreary chore of sitting in judgement on the peccadillos of deceased soldiers, he will probably look sympathetically on the wrecked souls that have been blasted in his direction from Britain’s battlefields. But he may be less considerate of those who used the bullying power of Christian piety to decree death in distant lands for reasons utterly incompatible with – even contemptuous of – Jesus Christ’s teachings. How does this stuff get hung on the walls of a church? Beats me.

A prayer alcove

A prayer alcove, also underneath the main nave.

In the main nave stood a lectern with an enormous Bible on it lying open at the rhetorical magnificence of Job chapters eighteen to twenty-one. As other tourists jostled around me looking for good camera angles I managed to snatch up an impression or two from its pages. According to the Book of Job, travel is morally beneficial.

Have you never questioned those who travel? Have you paid no regard to their accounts that the evil man is spared from the day of calamity, that he is delivered from the day of wrath? Who denounces his conduct to his face? Who repays him for what he has done? He is carried to the grave, and watch is kept over his tomb. The soil in the valley is sweet to him; all men follow after him, and a countless throng goes before him. “So how can you console me with your nonsense? Nothing is left of your answers but falsehood!”

In_prayer_Glasgow_2

Not all the throng in the cathedral were tourists. On the other hand maybe this gentleman was was a tourist, but one who had seen too much.

Opposite the entrance to the cathedral stands the small but interesting Glasgow Museum of Religious Life and Art. It provides a pleasant counter to the Christian grandeur and barbarity of the cathedral. All the world’s major religions – and even “primal” religions – are given exactly equal status in the museum’s displays. It is a nice lesson in open-mindedness and comparative religion, especially right next door to Glasgow Cathedral. Best of all, an endless loop video allows followers of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism to talk directly and informally about aspects of their faith. Without exception, they speak with strong Scottish accents.

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