Scotland’s sister cities are brimming with stories to be heard, and places to be discovered. The constant, dizzying battle of ‘Glasgow vs Edinburgh’ becomes irrelevant when you realise how much each city has to offer on its own. If you live anywhere the central belt, here is your starter kit for exploring two of the UK’s most beloved cities, and a few of the tales that come with it.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
As the most popular attraction in Scotland and most visited museum in the UK outside of London, Kelvingrove art gallery is a must visit. It currently holds over 8,000 exhibits, which means millions of possible Instagram filter combinations, and hours for rubbing your beard thoughtfully. First established in 1901, the gallery has been giving visitors a glimpse into modern, classical and abstract art ever since. Its construction was partly financed by the proceeds of the 1888 International Exhibition held in Kelvingrove Park which it faces. Urban legend says that the architect in charge accidentally built it back-to-front, and jumped from one of the towers in despair when he realised his mistake. Sadly this is only a myth. Reality sucks, doesn’t it?
In 2006, it closed its doors as part of a £24m restoration project to bring it back to its former glory, and since then, it’s been a hub for Glasgow arts and culture. Admission is free into the gallery so there’s no reason not to check it out.
Sat in the centre of the stylish west end is Oran Mor, a converted gothic church, with a neon hula hoop wedged on its spire like a drunken hipster at Coachella. It’s one of the most unique venues in the whole city, with an interesting history behind it.
Formerly known as Kelvinside Parish Church, Oran Mor was built in 1862 to supply the growing need for a place of worship in the west end. Taking influence from Italian gothic cathedrals, the intricately designed church became an instantly impressive piece of Scottish architecture thanks to its foreign look for the era.
Now, the building acts as one of the leading small venues in the city. Its upstairs auditorium features gorgeous murals by Scottish artist Alasdair Gray, but the bulk of gigs are held in its tomb-like basement. The small space feels just as intimate as some of Glasgow’s other flagship underground venues such as Stereo and Broadcast, but without the grimy aesthetic. This is in part because during the day, it is home to the acclaimed ‘a play, a pie and a pint’ lunchtime theatre event, which is just as worth checking out as the gigs. Since its opening in 2004, the venue has seen performances from Amy Winehouse, Lambchop, FKA Twigs and a slew of roots and folk acts.
All of these interesting elements prove that Oran Mor is a venue that offers more than a gimmicky appeal, bringing Glasgow a more varied way to take in entertainment along with the likes of Broadcast, Nice N Sleazy’s and the Arches.
The sticky floors of Barrowlands are the very lifeblood of the Glasgow music scene. Through its over 75 year history, the venue has been graced with some of the biggest acts in music, Oasis, U2, The Stranglers, The Clash, The Smiths, Big Country, Muse, and Foo Fighters all passing through the dingy dancehall. The venue’s age shows; the sign out front looks more like a bingo house than a concert venue, and the dancehall inside looks like the perfect place to host a school disco. But the acoustics alone are evidence enough to show why this venue has had such a prolific lineup throughout its history. Today, bands ache to play at the Barras. It has become a symbol for Glasgow’s vast and diverse culture as well as its place within modern music. A concert at the Barras is a must for any Glaswegian music fan.
University of Glasgow
If you haven’t had time to fully appreciate the rich history of Glasgow’s oldest uni, we don’t blame you. It can be hard to fully appreciate how important the room you’re sitting in is when you’re listening to your physics lecturer tell his fifth quantum theory joke of the class. Established in 1451, it is the oldest University in Scotland, and fourth oldest in the UK. Its halls have been graced with the presence of numerous important world figures, such as the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, television inventor John Logie Baird, and Emma Richards, the first woman to sail solo around the world. The uni has also been home seven Nobel laureates, one Prime Minister and Scotland’s inaugural First Minister. Albert Einstein once gave a lecture on the origins of the general theory of relativity here, and Scotland’s first female medical graduates completed their degrees here in 1894. The Uni’s current success impresses just as much as its past, sitting within the top 100 in Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Whether you’re a student or just a visitor with an interest in Glasgow’s history, The University’s daily tours are a must for exploring the rich history of a prestigious establishment. The Hogwarts-eqsue architecture is impressive enough to warrant a visit too.
Glaswegian hero Billy Connolly once stated that “Glasgow’s a bit like Nashville, Tennessee: it doesn’t care much for the living, but it really looks after the dead.” The stunning Necropolis is a prime example of this idea. Situated on a hill to the east of St Mungo’s Cathedral, the Necropolis might be the most significant burial grounds in the whole of Scotland. Fifty thousand individuals have been buried here, living up to the notion of the gardens acting as the “city of the dead”. Only a small percentage of these are named on monuments, and not every grave has a stone, and yet, there are over 3500 monuments on site. All of this sounds pretty morbid, but in reality, this city acts as a celebration of life more than a spooky-wooky tale of death. Some of the most significant figures buried here, such as Strathclyde University establisher John Anderson, are given their own elegant monuments, and the several tombs placed along the necropolis streets are striking to look at. First built in 1833, Glasgow’s necropolis continues to remember its dead through guided tours that reveal the interesting elements behind its construction, as well as the stories of those buried here.
Opening in 1797, Sloans pub is thought to be the oldest restaurant in Glasgow. Today, it still stands, celebrating the cities tradition for binge drinking in a public setting. Sloans started life as a coffee house in Morrison’s court, named after the prominent Glasgow man Baillie John Morrison. The courtyard was the scene of many famous cock-fighting contests, the sport of the day. Once called the Arcade Café, David Sloan took over at the turn of the 20th Century, and transformed it into a lavish venue containing a lounge bar, several dining rooms, a cocktail bar and even an aquarium.
Many of Sloans original features remain, including the tiled entrance, grand mahogany staircase, rich woodwork, acid-etched glass and heavily decorated ceilings, which have been newly-restored. Today, its diverse uses as a restaurant, bar and venue make it a favourite for a mix of ages. Stop by Sloans, and pretend to be cultured while you binge drink.
Chances are, you’ve already been to Edinburgh Castle. According to the Edinburgh Visitor Survey, more than 70% of leisure visitors to the city had visited the castle. If you live in the city, you can’t exactly avoid it; from its position on the Castle Rock, it dominates everything as the centre of a bustling city and the cobbled streets that surround it. From the Iron Age onwards, humans have been drawn to the rock on which the castle sits, and there has been a royal on the rock since at least the reign of David I in the 12th Century.
Today, the castle remains a hub of the city, with over 1.4 visitors yearly. As the backdrop to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo during the International Festival, it has become a symbol for the city and the rest of Scotland. The striking beauty of the fort when matched with its cultural significance will make it a focal point in Edinburgh for years down the line. Drunkards heading back from Cowgate can use the castle has a pretty good point of reference too, lit up in the hazy night sky. How romantic.
Edinburgh University is not just a place of education; Its history and impact is entangled with that of the rest of Edinburgh, and it has become synonymous with Edinburgh’s Old Town. That might sound like something you read on a swanky flyer that smells like lavender at an open day, where all you wanted to do was throw up in a Starbucks bin out of the shock of impending adulthood, but it’s actually true. Founded in 1582, the uni is the sixth-oldest in the English speaking world. Its past students are some of the major figures in modern history, such as Charles Darwin, David Hume and James Clerk Maxwell. Over 20 Nobel Prize Winners, 2 Turing award winners and Pulitzer Prize winners and three prime ministers have walk through the universities doors, and this is just for starters. Even the university’s student newspaper, ‘the student’ is the oldest in the UK, having been founded in 1887 by none other than Robert Louie Stevenson, making my gig reviews in the Strathclyde telegraph look a bit less prestigious…
The uni is far from living in the past, though, continuing to progress and push the world of modern education. It currently ranks 17th in the world by QS rankings, and the 47,000 applicants per year prove that it is a university that continues to grow past its former accomplishments. Many of the beautiful buildings in Edinburgh’s old town have a tie to the university, and are well worth exploring to get a glimpse into the rich history behind not just the school, but the city in general.
The Old children’s bookshelf
The quirky side streets of Edinburgh are home to a string of peculiar shops, many of which succeed through to their bizarre niche qualities. These odd side streets are fun to explore thanks to the curiosities that can be found within. The Old Children’s bookshop plays into this idiosyncratic aura of mystery whilst supplying something of genuinely high quality. Shoppers go in out of curiosity, expecting to have a nose and then go off to buy a mocha latte with extra diabetes. Instead, they find themselves leaving with a handful of vintage girls comics from the nineteen fifties. Nestled into the Cannongate side streets, this tiny shop sells children’s comics and books from the vintage era. It focuses on the classic works of authors such from Enid Blyton, A.A Milne and Beatrix Potter, some of which come with original illustrations, dust jackets and in the case of ‘Last term at Malory Towers’, a message from the original owner.
The shop revels in nostalgia, acting as a time capsule for the literature and memorabilia of children from yesteryear. Its charm is a reminder of why libraries are so beloved, and its walls are a symbol of not just children’s literature, but of the magic that can be found in Edinburgh’s side streets – and I’m not just talking about the mushrooms you bought from the guy who works at Reef.
Camera Obscura and World of illusion
Edinburgh’s oldest purpose built visitor attraction still finds love from guests from all over the world thanks to the simple visual pleasure their optical illusions bring. From the top of its 150 year old observatory, the Camera Obscura sits looking out, the roving mirror projecting a 360 degree panorama of the city. Below, the rest of the displays and interactive exhibitions place visitors in a world of illusion and warped images that are instantly entertaining in their disorienting feel, but also provide an excellent glimpse into Edinburgh’s history through the staff’s wide knowledge on how the Camera Obscura came to be such an attraction.
The attraction finds its origin with Maria Short, a daughter from a family of scientific instrument makers who turned her family’s ‘great telescope’ into an observation point and popular attraction in eighteenth century Edinburgh. Eventually, Patrick Geddes, the famous town planner, purchased the observation tower, turning it into a disorienting optical illusion used to make social commentary on the nature of life through its blending of images. Now, LSD enthusiasts visit the Camera Obscura ‘CAUSE OF ALL THE COLOURS. THE COLOURS MAN.
Sheep Heid Inn
By escaping out of the city centre to the village of Duddington via a long walk, half hours bus ride or very very long forward roll, you will find the deservedly famous Sheep Heid Inn. Believed to have been established in 1360, the pub is perhaps the oldest in the whole of Scotland. Mary Queen of Scots was apparently a regular patron, and was seen doing jägerbombs at the bar with her son James VI. Legend has it that James gave the landlord a ram’s head snuff box, thus giving the pub its name and explaining the heids over the walls. Snuff may be a thing of the past, but now, the pub holds a beer garden, conservatory area and most interestingly, a 19th century skittle alley, which can be hired on request. The long history of the pub is enough to make it worth the walk or acrobatics.
Grayfriars Bobby’s Statue
With tales of castles and queens being the focal point of the city’s history, it can be easy to forget the simple tales that make Edinburgh what it is. One of the best stories is that of Grayfriars Bobby and the undying loyalty of a dog for his master.
The most popular version of the Scottish yarn goes that Bobby belonged to John Gray, an Edinburgh local who worked for the city police as a night watchman. After Gray’s death, he was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, in the Old Town. Days later, the gravekeeper noticed that Bobby still sat at his master’s grave. Rain or shine, Bobby would sit guarding his master. As time went on, locals became infatuated with the terrier, feeding him and making sure he remained sheltered during his duty. In 1867, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir William Chambers paid for Bobby’s licence to stop him from being put down due to the lack of ownership, and the collar remains at the University of Edinburgh. Bobby is said to have sat at the grave for 14 years, up until his death in 1872, and was then buried alongside his master.
Now, Books and films commemorate Bobby’s life, including a novel by Eleanor Atkinson. A statue of the mutt can be seen at the corner of Candlemaker Row and George IV Bridge, and makes for a pilgrimage of sorts for those who have been touched by the story.