Visions of Scotland 5 – Stirling

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Looking north from the Castle battlements

Heading down south to Stirling, we fall slowly out of the Scottish Highlands. It’s a shift in time and space, in terms of both physical and spiritual reorientation. On each journey there is the first step of the journey home. This is it. Thus, we find the most appropriate point of departure at the portal offered by Cava Cairns. This Bronze Age burial complex is a few miles east of the city. Perched above the river Nairn, the site nestles in a homely pastoral landscape. Timeless, in its own sweet way, but hosting the weird construct of ancient days.

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The portal is here, somewhere.

It was here that Clare (Catriona Balfe) passed back in time from postwar Britain to revolutionary Jacobite Scotland in Diane Gabaldon’s Outlander. The stones will take you a lot further back than that. Four thousand years at least. It looks quite different from the telly, mind. Claire isn’t there in her nightdress, which is a pity, if not a surprise. The absence of any televisual drama is more than compensated by the presence of … What, I can’t be sure. But Presence it is. Stark, beautiful and quite moving.

  Nearby is the field of Culloden, where Stuart hopes were dashed in a final, fatal confrontation with the Hanoverians in 1746. At least, that’s how it stands in this universe.

   There are other worlds to inhabit. Ringed by mad mountains, stalked by sentient woodland, permeated by a migrating fog of fantastical beings. Southbound again, the road rises intermittently yet falls consistently towards the centre.

The Cairngorms dream under a blanket of clouds away to the east. The road snakes its way to Blair Atholl. The House of Bruar offers a break for coffee and shopping. Here we bag our proud deer trophy. Flatback wood if you must know, but handsome nonetheless. A short hike will take you to a renowned beauty spot of Blair Falls. Macbeth’s vision of doom, Birnam Wood is further on. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Nothing is ever quite what it seems, is it?

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Stirling from the schoolhouse window

Stirling straddles that notional focus of Highland and Lowland Scotland. Near the mouth of the River Forth, it enjoys a commanding location in matters of war and trade. The approaches are suitably epic. The William Wallace Monument is a gothic tower on a volcanic crag east of the town. It is located overlooking the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where Wallace helped kickstart the cause of Scottish nationalism. More breathtaking still, Stirling Castle crowns a granite crag rising precipitously from flat marshland. The city of Stirling, with a population of nearly fifty thousand, flows down from this spectacle.

The higher part of the town is medieval and known as, logically enough, the Top o’ the Town. Here the streets are cobbled, steep and sinuous, houses piled one on the other to the giddy environs of the Castle. We put into the Stirling Highland Hotel, a converted schoolhouse of the Victorian era. There’s an astronomical observatory on the roof, so there must have been something of a Hogwarts thing going on back in the day.

Drop down to the bustling town centre for refreshment before our assault on the Castle. We have Panini on the sidewalk near where yobos loudly play. The large shopping centre takes an unsympathetic lump out of town. Still, pleasant environs heading back up the hill with pink gable front houses in that atmospheric Scots Gothic style.

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Stirling Castle

Haul ourselves onward to the Castle. Just outside is the Church of the Holy Rude, site of Christenings and coronations. Founded in the twelfth century, the present structure dates from the fifteenth. Wander through the tombs and trees, floating through time and above vast panorama of central Scotland. Talking of ancient things, for the first time I find myself characterised as such. Over sixties get discount on entry here. Hey, I’ll do it! We take the guided tour which is a good way of putting structure on the castle complex, and to assimilate the wealth of history and personality encompassed there.

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Castle tour guide

The fortress dates back to the days of Alexander I, Scotland’s royal founder in the early twelfth century. Its oldest buildings date from the fourteenth century. It was destined to develop way beyond the parameters of the typical Norman fortress. James IV (1473 – 1513) determined to establish Scotland on a par with Europe’s leading kingdoms. Stirling Castle became the leading showhouse for the project. Influenced by German and French design, the castle was reimagined as a Renaissance palace. James enlisted artists and scientists for the prestige of his court. Alchemists toiled to unlock the secrets of the fifth element. The challenge of flight was addressed, unsuccessfully. An Italian alchemist, John Damian, threw himself from the ramparts, clad only in feathers and bare hubris. Plummeting, not unexpectedly, to the ground, his life, if not his blushes, was saved by a convenient copse of trees. Unabashed, he assured the king that failure was a result of using chicken feathers, not the best choice, being a flightless fowl. Quite.

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Mary Queen of Scots, herself.

In our wanderings we meet Mary Queen of Scots, who springs to life from a painted, stilted half-myth to something close to the spirited woman she was. We gaze at rich unicorn tapestries, mingle with kitchen waxworks, whisper assignations by the postern door.

Out on the battlements, alone in a turret, this is the eyrie of the world, atop its dizzy cliff, ringed by rank marshes, a further distant circle of blue peaks ringing the horizon. It’s the real gothic fantasy. You can stand sentinel on the parapet of Dredgemarsh, imagine all the Games of Thrones that haunt the stones here. It is the best castle ever.

img_1393Time to close our evening in more mundane pursuits. Stirling is lively at night, without much by way of airs and graces, but plenty of good places to eat and drink. All you can eat at Chung’s Chinese is enough by way of temptation – the one thing I can’t resist. Return to the Hotel for a quiet beer in the bar. High windows here as in room. Schoolhouse rules apply. The ambience is pleasant and in solitude we can savour all we’ve experienced on this Scottish tour. It seems like and age, and a wee spark of time. The last day dawns damp and grey. We finish as we started on our first in Glasgow, in Wetherspoons for the best Scottish breakfast in, well, in Scotland.

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Stirling Station

Vienna

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Stephens Dom

Vienna can seem like being lost in heaven. So much perfection, art and architecture at its most opulent and grand. There are times though, when you need an angel. I’m prone to cutting corners, just that bit off kilter. On such occasions the city orbits with bewildering intensity, an electron cloud of people, trams and buildings without horizon. I should have come for longer. I should have brought an angel.

I arrive in a heatwave in September. I am carrying Boris (my leather jacket) because my apartment is not secure and Boris holds my passport and camera, my pens and stuff. And besides, I’m weird like that. It insults cities such as Vienna to swan around in shorts and vests. Find a beach! One must look one’s best.

Vienna hugs a bend in the Danube river. The mighty Danube, famously un-blue, is generated by a leak from a faulty faucet in Bavaria, before meandering through mountains and past cartoon palaces to become the highway of central Europe. The river does not actually flow through the centre of the city. A slender offshoot, the Danube Canal, outlines the northern arc of the city centre. Historically, Europe’s super-highway, you can float downstream to Bratislava, Budapest and the ocean.

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The Opera House on the Ringstrasse

Vienna finds itself at the focus of Europe. Its old city walls converted into the Ringstrasse, a grandiose avenue that delineates the city centre south of the Danube Canal. Freud’s morning constitutional was taken along the throbbing thoroughfare. Grand public buildings and palatial houses line its extent. As the Main Street of empire the imperial buildings are emphasised , arrayed in formal parkland on the south-western radial.

Amongst the many jewels in this crown is the Kunsthistorische museum. The spectacular entrance staircase leads the eyes up to The Apotheosis of the Renaissance, a Belle Epoque imagining by Hungarian artist Munkacsy. The spheres of art history and the heavenly realm merge in a celestial depiction of the glories of the Renaissance. Gustav Klimt peeps mischievously out, supplying Egyptian and Greek goddesses for support.

   

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Breughel’s Hunters 

I cool my heels in front of Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow. We had a small copy of this painting in my childhood home. It is astonishing how an almost trivial ornament can evoke such a profound attachment with the real thing. Herself was overcome by Monet’s Impression Sunrise in the Thyssen Bornemisza (Madrid), as if the gallery knew she was coming and prepared a special gift. I knew Breughel’s masterpiece would be here, and more besides, but was not prepared for the shock of seeing it. I sat a long time before the real thing. I was in the landscape whereas, as a boy, I had only a postcard of it. The static, permanent power of the composition enthralls. It is a story of human endeavour and disappointment; keep on keeping on is its constant thread. With its bold line and vivid contrasts the painting looks modern. Perhaps timeless is the word.

There’s so much more. Vienna was the centre of Europe’s cultural web. Dutch masters with their fragile hues and robust folk, Italians with burning colour and burnished souls. Titian, Bellini, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Velazquez line the corridors and rooms, all hawking their wares for our attention. Such wonders under one roof. I could stay forever and feel as if I was never indoors.

Leaving the giddy globe for the pale imitation of life without, there are still more options to consider. The Museum Quarter is nearby, and all the pleasures it implies. Still, why wallow in excess? A feast is enough for know and I seek shelter from the heat in a sidewalk bar. I am sweating again. I occupy a high table and wrap myself slowly around a tall glass. Enough art for a day, I tell myself. I need to assimilate it all.

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Schmetterling Haus

Offbeat, and off kilter, I head back across the Ringstrasse. Passing through the Burggarten  I am taken by the elegance of the glasshouse and the words of a friend brush my cheek. Of all the must-dos of Vienna this was the most idiosyncratic. Visit the Schmetterling Haus, stand in the shimmering heat of a greenhouse and let giant insects land on you. It is weird that this oasis, out of the sun, is actually hotter. Yet, I had hardly taken two steps in than I was filled with elation. The glass confines form a bubble in infinity, illuminating one manifestation of flora and fauna at this intersection in space time. Butterflies in their team colours flutter unconcerned past us brief escapees from the physical dimension. Oh, if you want a touch of heaven, visit the butterfly house, angels supplied.    

From my base at the Kunsthaus, it’s a pleasant walk of urban variety by way of Unterviaductgasse, or Oberviaductgasse even, through my local square, Radetzkyplatz, and on to Wien Mitte, with its thronged shopping centre, its convenience bars and cafes, the tabac shop with its spectacularly rude service. Across the Wien River lies the actual city centre, the Inner Stadt, the old city within the Ringstrasse. This is the place for aimless meandering through medievel streets, being pleasantly lost in a strange place. The spire of Stephens Dom is at its centre. Exuberantly gothic, the church bears the marks of centuries of adjustment. Age radiates from it, modernity encroaches. There isn’t really a good point to sit and take it in. The square is cramped and crammed, the few outdoor bars crummy.  You can go up the spire to see all of Vienna, and maybe heaven too. I’m only going to see so much in three days on the ground.

  

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Stadpark, along the Wien River

Along the linear Stadtpark, I set out on a quiet morning all the way to the Belvedere. Clipped and coiffured gardens slope upwards in the shimmering heat, the Upper Belvedere a toy palace in the distance. The main attraction is Klimt’s golden girls, seductive capsules of beauty and love. The Kiss grows more iconic by the day. It is the canvas where we want to be, loving and loved, flushed in the afterglow of it all, naked and golden. In a way that is both sensible and comic, the museum, while prohibiting photographs, has provided a selfie station where tourists can immortalise themselves before a life-size print. Better, I think, to put yourself within the painting.

   

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Vienna from the Upper Belvedere

I am much taken too with David’s depiction of Bonaparte Crossing the Alps. A vivid flash of a personal force of history if ever there was. Less impressive is the baleful manifestation of the curse of the curator. If you must push inept contemporary work, best keep it amongst its own. The view from the chapel balcony at the end of my visit would have been better left unseen. This crucifixion is a dismal work. It compares unfavourably with Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove which exhalted the spirit. Whereas this does not.

  

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and now for a pint

Beyond the gardens, Vienna beckons, a burnished mirage of domes and spires. The journey downhill is less arduous, though shade still eludes me. The clipped flora is so weird I feel I have been spirited, Alice like, to some imaginary world. Perhaps I am hallucinating in the heat, the surplus of art in my blood. Trams pass on the street where afternoon shade begins to creep from the buildings. There is a gap I noticed earlier. Time for a welcome beer in a shaded courtyard. Dappled shadows dance beneath the trees, brown timbered seating awaits, metal fittings of the bar glow and beckon. A traditionally clad dame welcomes me. Blond and tanned, clad in green, she smiles and takes my order. The feeling of fantasy persists. But then, where else would you find an angel, but in heaven?

Visions of Scotland 4 – Inverness

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East out of Kyle we retrace the road to Invergarry where we pick up the rift valley route. As in Ireland, the east of the country is more gently scenic than the wild west. This is the Highlands still, though. Inverness, our destination, is the capital of the region.  Along the shores of Lough Ness, we are unmolested by the mythical beastie. In truth, there is no chance of dinosaurs surviving anywhere, let alone a busy narrow waterway. They were here once, as Dughal Ros told us yesterday, but only their fossils remain. Still, it’s good to have fantasy.

  Inverness has grown to city status with a population of fifty thousand. It’s centered on a low rise above the eastern bank of the Ness river where it flows into the Moray Firth, heading towards the North Sea. We stay at Carrig Eden on the western approach. The area is attractive, typically Caledonian in characteristic honey coloured stone with gable fronts. Our genial hosts, Caroline and Donald, have polished their home to a welcoming jewel. We are warned of two things. One, Daniel O’Donnell is playing that night in the Eden Court theatre nearby. Two, there is a bagpipes festival in town. Looks like it’s the bagpipes so.

img_1267   The Eden Court is a modern complex by the banks of the river. From the banks we catch our first glimpse of the city. Inverness Castle is the dominant feature. Built in red sandstone it tops a steep escarpment rising from the Ness. It is not, strictly speaking, a castle. The present structure dates from 1836. It  functions as a courthouse. The first castle to stand on the site was destroyed by Robert the Bruce in 1307. The next castle stood here until sacked by the Jacobites in the rebellion of 1746. A statue of Flora MacDonald stands at the entrance park, shielding her eyes to gaze meaningfully westward. Having aided the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and doing time for it, she headed out west herself, living in America before returning to die on the isle of Skye.

  Both sides of the river are pleasant. We pass the nineteenth century gothic Cathedral on the west bank before stopping for coffee in an Italian place with outdoor seating. We are entertained by a young woman making a major production number tying up her bike. Man, you must have to mind your bike real careful in these parts.

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The strains of the pipes beckon us east across the bridge. Before that, we take a look at the House of Fraser. I reckon I’ll need to kit up, the whole nine yards, on the off-chance of running into Claire from Outlander (as portrayed by Caitriona Balfe) somewhere about town. A convincing impersonation of Jamie is quickly conjured. You can go for a variety of rental of traditional outfits here. Full dress for that formal night, half-dress for the more casual, a dashing Jacobite attire for the full blooded Scot.

  High Street slopes uphill from the bridge. It’s busy and sporadically loud with the great yarp of the bagpipes. Something stirring about them, to be sure, if not quite the first music for the car stereo. Here, in this special place, I’d opt for the Waterboys. The attractive main street jolts to an unlovely close at the harshly modern Eastgate Centre. Still, probably better to have it in town rather than dragging people out to the periphery.

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After extensive shopping, time for a quick snack. Hoping to sidestep the inertia that can pass for service in the Highlands, we opt for McDonald’s – an ominously local name now that I think of it. Inverness McDonald’s is the worst McDonald’s ever. The till is abandoned just as we reach the head of the queue. After a couple of minutes we call the attendant from the next till. He says he’ll get the manager, who is standing conveniently nearby with other staff leaning on the furniture, chatting. She informs us, cheerfully enough, that the attendant will return soon, and rejoins her discussion group. A few more minutes and we give up.

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We attempt a trip down memory lane to find the lost hostel of our youth. Still lost to us, sadly. Having followed the signs through winding residential roads we eventually lose the trail. But it’s a pleasant walk in glorious sunshine. We’ve booked dinner at the Castle Inn and, hungry and thirsty, head for it early. Nicely situated, clinging to the cliff overlooking the river, the Castle visible to the north. Rustically traditional, the place is crammed, as any good place should be. We take our drinking and dining pleasures al fresco. Good food, service and company, perfectly passing the sunny afternoon into early evening.

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Afterwards, we potter around the Castle grounds. The place itself is not open to visitors but there are plans to remedy that. We follow Flora’s gaze up towards Loch Ness, back to the wild, wild west. We head down to the nearby bank as evening falls. This is a pedestrianised river walk leading to a footbridge that will take us back to Eden Court. There’s plenty of time to stop for drinks on the lawns of the Waterside Rest, busy now as the city nightlfe clicks into gear. The sky seeps slowly to velvet blue as the first stars peep out. A stillness settles in the air. We could sit here forever, relaxing by the riverside in the chill of the endless Highland evening.img_1307

Visions of Scotland 3 – Skye

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Kyle’s main purpose is its link with the Isle of Skye. The mainland railhead here connected by ferry with the island. This was superseded by the creation of the Skye bridge, an impressive arch just north of the town. Early morning we’re across, ready to spend the day in exploration.

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It’s a large island and we’ve picked the northern portion, including the main town of Portree. Crossing the bridge is itself akin to flying, but without the anticlimax of landing. In Skye the heart soars with each vista, heaven reflected in its lakes and mountains, God’s breath in its firmament. From Kyleakin on, the scenery never dips, each corner anticipated to trump what’s gone before.

Portree

Portree

Portree is pleasant to potter around. Coming in from the empty hinterland, there’s plenty of life and commerce. The high town has a square and a couple of lively streets. There is, inevitably, a Bank Street. Plenty of shops, too, and a few decent pubs. There’s a drop down to a colourful dockside. The town curves around the bay, the housing arrayed attractively in terraces above. I’d reckon this is a good haven for sketching, although we don’t have time to indulge.

It’s a sunny day and we stop for attempted refreshments in the square where a coffee shop, or so it says, has outside seating. Sadly, we must endure another bout of Scottish service. Try to place the order inside and are told we’ll be attended on. But as regards waiting, we’re the ones doing it. Repeat process and finally give up. What is that all about? I bring money which presumably pays the wages of employees. Yet too often in Scotland there’s little interest in this transaction. Shades of Yugoslavia. Though at least the Scots are pleasant.

Old Man of Storr

Old Man of Storr

We head up the coast to the Old Man of Storr. This is a startling formation, not unlike a raised and weathered Giant’s Causeway. The geological formation is similar, being made of basalt, resulting from the rapid cooling of ancient submarine lava. There’s a well worn path snaking upwards. The destination is a bit further than we’d bargained so thirty minutes in we get to a good vantage point about halfway up and enjoy the view. Much debate on the exact configuration of the Old Man himself, but while we differ on details, I figure it’s pretty convincing.

Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park

There was a time when Dinosaurs strode the land about here. Staffin is Scotland’s Jurassic park. The name is Viking for Land of the Pillars, as evident in the alternatively descriptive Kilt Cliff. Where Mealt waterfall plunges over nearby cliffs into the sea there’s a graphic giving more details concerning the terrible lizards. Talking to a fellow traveller, we’re directed to a crofter’s cottage which local scientist, Dughall Ros has turned into a museum. You can buy ancient artifacts, large and small here. Dughall was bitten by the dino bug when just a kid and devotes his career to mining the benefits of the area. Even more precious, he’s willing and able to pass on his knowledge to the interested traveller. Time well spent talking to him, purchasing some interesting goods while we’re at it.

Further on, there’s a slightly more successful coffee stop. Strangely though, the proprietor greets us with “we’re closing in half an hour.” It’s only three o’clock! Oh well, who wants to eat anyway? Perhaps the hitchers who depart hungry and perplexed. We do manage to wolf down a tasty slice of cake.

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We continue on through the majestic and desolate landscape of Quirang at the top of the island. Returning to the mainland we continue past Kyle to Plockton, which a fellow guest has recommended for its drinking and dining pleasures. This was more how I imagined Hamish MacBeth’s stomping ground. Picturesquely situated around a secluded, wooded loch there are a number of attractive eateries. Plockton Hotel has a cozy bar in deeply gleaming wood and brass. I have an excellent local brew which may be called Schiehallion – try saying that after a few! The restaurant’s popular and we find out why. Good food and friendly service. Worth waiting for. If I ever get back to these parts, and I hope to, I think I’ll stay here.

Plockton

Plockton

Visions of Scotland – 2

Fort William to Kyle of Localsh

 

Glen Nevis

Glen Nevis

Before leaving Fort William, we must first set foot on Ben Nevis, mightiest mountain in the Celtic Isles. The mountains are obscured by clouds, but that’s just Scotland’s version of the dance of seven veils; the veils being various forms of mist and rain and translucent light. Glen Nevis is only yards from the town, but plunges immediately into giddy wilderness. We could be singing ‘I saw the rain-dirty valley, you saw Brigadoon’, indeed we probably did.

Climbing Ben Nevis

Climbing Ben Nevis

We make an assault from base camp, knowing that we lack the time to summit. Estimates of four hours up and a little less down are probably a tad conservative. Our calculations put us half way there in ninety minutes, reaching two thousand feet where a wooden bridge spans spectacular falls. And we were dawdling. Another time we’ll make it to the top. It’s a pleasant, well worn path with plenty of friendly banter from fellow travellers. The zig-zag climb is moderate, the views, slowly revealed in the waxing day, uplifting, heartstopping.

Big Ben himself

Big Ben himself

At last we hit the road, travelling up the rift valley parallel to the Caledonian Canal. At Invergarry we turn into the Highlands proper. Habitation recedes into heathland and scattered forest. We find a roadhouse at Cluanie. As we pull in, a convoy of trucks passes us uphill, each bearing a windmill propellor. What an odd juxtaposition out here! The roadhouse is sufficient for coffee and chowder, the service sporadic and homely.

Eiiean Donan

Eilean Donan

Evening approaches as we descend Glen Shiel. The castle at Oilean Donan stands proud at a craggy confluence of lochs. It’s crowded but worth the visit. The castle is well preserved and fitted, still functioning as a residence. Displays include lifesize tableaus from history creating an illusion of all time seeping through these walls. Real life folk are dotted around too, willing to converse on all aspects of the castle’s past and present. A whiskey fragrant guide in full highland garb leans casually on a waxen laird as he imparts words of wisdom. Good luck to him, he’s jovial and true. Scotland’s history is beginning to seep into me too. Half familiar but in a way that’s more storied, and sung, than factually held. So close to us also, it’s surprising it’s not more familiar back home. Only a visit can put that right. Places themselves are the living book.

Nightlife in Kyle

Nightlife in Kyle

Our destination, Kyle of Lochalsh is a couple of miles further on. I’d picked it without reference to Google Earth. I’d remembered the series, Hamish MacBeth which I thought was set here. Memory deceives, I’m afraid. Kyle’s a bit of a dump, a main road bisecting a scattered settlement, a rail terminal and a functional dockside. The Main Street is mundane, dominated by two banks with our hotel the most pleasant point at its summit. Something of a stereotype to report that while Irish main streets are lined with pubs, Scottish main streets are lined with banks. Perhaps here, men are really born to pray and save.

Still, the hotel is fine and we wave a decent meal of fish and chips in the bar. Our room is cosy old style, with a view down Main Street to the water. Raindrops mottle the window pane as the streetlights come on. Tomorrow, it’s on to Skye which is visible just across the water. We will discover too that nearby Plockton was the village I had imagined, a picture book perfect collage of mountain, woodland and water with atmospheric eateries and hotels. Look forward to telling you more.

Plockton

Plockton

Visions of Scotland

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When we did manage to extricate ourselves from Glasgow, we were plunged immediately into the Scottish wilderness of mountains, lakeland and forest. Intermittent downpours mean the scenery is revealed in installments, all the more fascinating for it. These are the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond. All sorts of other music is implied. In and around the lake, mountains come out of the sky, and they stand there. Obscured by clouds springs to mind.

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At the head of the lake, we break into open heathland. Welcome to the highlands, the sign says, in Gaelic. It’s a rollercoaster ride into Glencoe through heaven’s own mountains. This is a land of death and everlasting life, starred setting for Scotland’s savage history. Perfection, obscured by clouds, enhanced by the occlusion.

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A sporty old couple in a convertible float amongst the vales and hills, their top rolled down oblivious to the rain showers. A bit of overtaking is called for as I briefly mimic the typical lunatic highland driver. They have roadsigns up here chastising you to get out of the way of speeding drivers. Despite the remoteness and the scenery, this is life in the fast lane. Downstream there’s is a roadside place where we stop for a wee haddock and chips. Our first taste of idiosyncratic Scottish service, but good food nevertheless.

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Finally to Fort William and the Clan McDuff Hotel. Our room is fitted with balcony to overlook the lake. Fort William is busy, the long pedestrianised Main Street well kitted with shops to cater for visitors. A good selection of drinking and dining options too, although we rely on the hotel which has a good restaurant with scenic view. A walk on the lakefront leaves us a bit isolated. Man, that road is hard to cross. We retrace our steps and head back to base camp for the evening. Ben Nevis is lurking up there in the clouds. It can wait till tomorrow.

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Glasgow

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Approaching Glasgow from the south, the green, rolling countryside does not imply the pending city, so much as its ancient name, the Green Valley. Only as we plummet into the Clyde valley itself does Glasgow spring from the ground. Great buildings and soaring spires are piled in close order on the hills to the north. It’s a big city, and the aggressive architecture of the industrial nineteenth century emphatically underlines this.

Access by car is easy enough. Once off the ring road, the streets are laid out in a grid. We zig zag our way to the hotel just off Sauchihall Street. The street makes for a good point of orientation. It cuts east west through the city for, well, forever. Chameleon-like, it adopts the hue of all that it passes through. Towards the city centre it’s pedestrianised, a bustling shopping precinct. It’s a bit seedier heading west, where we breakfast at Wetherspoon’s – Full Scottish with Haggis – and ponder the possibilities of a host of Curry Houses. Passing the ring road we’re in the more salubrious West End with grand terraces, parkland and mature trees.

Busy Buchanan Street

Busy Buchanan Street

Sauntering east down Sauchihall Street towards the city centre we join a growing river of humanity. At each intersection streets head uphill and down, distances dotted with landmark spires and turrets. It’s bright and brisk as evening approaches, but we find there’s not much doing here after dark. At Buchanan Street we take a right angle. Sloping down towards the Clyde, Buchanan Street is lined with imposing commercial palaces. Above the pediment, spires and statuary sharpen the skyline. Soft yellow sandstone builds strong, impressive facedes, blood red sandstone breeds angels from the architecture.

This town was built on muscle and blood. Tobacco, cotton and slavery saw its port prosper in the eighteenth century. It was a gateway to the new world, in both directions. The Scottish Enlightenment forged its own genius, taking the city to new heights. After the Industrial Revolution, Glasgow became a European leader in industry and engineering, particularly as a centre of shipbuilding. I hadn’t realised Glasgow would be so hilly. The grid system accentuates this effect. If not quite San Francisco, it was reminiscent of Seattle, all that commercial power beneath the pale, active northern sky. There’s more than a twist of the Gothic going on here. Superheroes would be right at home amongst its architecture, villains too. If picturesque Edinburgh harboured Superman, Glasgow would have The Batman.

The Kelvingrove

The Kelvingrove

At the salubrious end of Sauchihall Street, the Kelvingrove is situated in parkland around the Kelvin River. The river’s name was appropriated for Baron Kelvin, the famous Irish physicist William Thomson, who worked from the University of Glasgow overlooking the valley. Coming to Scotland, it’s faintly humourous that he figured how low temperatures can go. The Kelvingrove Museum was completed at the start of the twentieth century. It is an impressive, pink-hued Baroque temple, housing a fine collection of international and Scottish art. Orientation was initially difficult, the museum map is a mirror image of what it should be. But Glasgow’s a bit like that, I suppose.

Dali's Christ of St. John of the Cross

Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross

Salvador Dali’s most coherent masterpiece, Christ of Saint John of the Cross, is its outstanding work. Glasgow might seem a curious repository for such a determinedly Catholic work. Indeed, the painting has suffered the attentions of a slasher, his handywork a palimpsest beneath the restoration. Still, the painting exudes an awesome serenity. It is the epitome of suspension, combining crucifixion and resurrection, appropriately enough for this city. Nearby, another startling Catholic artwork illuminates the shadow. Harry Clark’s Coronation of the Blessed Virgin was commissioned for a nearby convent in 1923. It is a fine example of Clarke’s meticulous, flowing art. It makes a most appropriate companion-piece to the Dali.

The gallery also houses paintings by Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Renoir. The ground floor houses an eclectic and dynamic exhibition, including an Elephant and a Spitfire. A haloed Elvis points the way. The main concourse is dominated by the classical pipe organ, booming into life at lunchtime when there is a regular recital.

Elvis grove

Elvis grove

It’s a hot climb through lovely parkland to the University of Glasgow atop Gilmore Hill. Its majestic spire is an ever distant destination, dominating the city from it lofty eyrie. We ghost through the quads and cloisters, seek out the Hunterian Museum where the interior of the house of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868 – 1928) is recreated. It is held within the silo of the Library and Art Gallery complex across from the main building. There is something Tardis like in exploring the interior of a house that no longer exists. Mackintosh was neglected in his late career, and for a while since, but his reputation is now universally established.

Though I fancied a stroll to Byers Road for some drinking and dining pleasure, time was tight and we had to move on. We take a bus through the West End, which is pleasantly alive with drinking and dining possibilities. We can only window shop from the bus, we will return another time.

Our quest for all things Mackintosh leads us back to the city centre. Mackintosh’s design is a pervasive strand throughout Glasgow, though scarce enough unless you know where to look. His work was an influence on Klimt and others in European Art Nouveau. Time has to be made for tea and coffee too. Tea Rooms were an intrinsic part of Glasgow life in the late Victorian age. A surge in Temperance was a motivating factor. Miss Cranston was a key figure in the business and she commissioned Mackintosh to design her Willow Tearooms on Sauchihall Street and Buchanan Street. He imbued them with that typical Art Nouveau merger of modern glass and steel craft with the exotic aesthetic of the Orient. Such places, whilst bolstering clean living on the one hand, were meant to be seductive. Coffee remains a favourite tipple in Glasgow today, but amongst other things. There’s a good arthouse feel to many of the cafes. Mind you, Glasgow’s friendly reputation took a dent in one. As I lounged with a stray arm draped over a nearby chair, a customer whipped it from under me without a by-your-leave. Somewhat harshed me buzz, that.

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse, focus for all things Mack, stands sentinel on Mitchell Street. Its corner tower results in the nickname. At night, a faint light blinks from its upper storey, the beacon of a lighthouse that isn’t, aground in the metropolis. It was designed for the Herald newspaper, and was Mackintosh’s first public commission. It’s just off Buchanan Street, by way of narrow Mitchell Lane. The approach is suitably gothic. The Lighthouse gives a comprehensive view of his career. The interior of Mrs Cranston’s Tea Room is recreated. There are models and drawings of his architectural work, a sad timeline delineating his fading career.

Glasgow ArtschoolGlasgow School of Art, as it is and as it's meant to be

There is a graphic depiction of the School of Art, his most famous architectural work. The original stands on Renfrew Street, just about. Seriously damaged by fire in 2014, it is undergoing extensive reconstruction and is clad in scaffolding when we visit. I’m envious of this building, my own Art College days having been spent in a dilapidated annex of Leinster House, a disused warehouse and the early days of the refurbishment of Power’s Distillery, now a fine home for Ireland’s National College. I’m familiar with scaffolding and art college. Glasgow has had this purpose built masterpiece since 1909, it is a testament to the city, and its creator, Mackintosh.

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We finish by doing what one must in a Lighthouse. We climb the spiral staircase to the top, where there are magnificent views over Glasgow’s rooftops. Back to the more claustrophobic confines of Mitchell Lane. Good place for a pint, and there are good eateries nearby, for later. For now, time to absorb the September heat sitting half outdoors in the gleam and gloom of the atmospheric lane. The Lighthouse looms above. There’s a feeling here of being on a faultline between past and present, of inhabiting a graphic novel with grainy realism just a squint away. That’s draping the cloak of Glasgow around you. That’s being The Batman.

A pint in Mitchell Lane, at Bar Tabac

A pint in Mitchell Lane, at Bar Tabac