Glasgow and Scottish Passions
Glasgow, once an industrial powerhouse, offers a fun look at Scotland's vibrantly gritty urban side — full of edgy street art, trendy dining, and the striking architecture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Leaving town, we'll tap into Scottish passions as we tour historic Stirling Castle and nearby battlefields, sample a dram at the land's most beloved distilleries on the Speyside Whisky Trail, watch a sheepdog demonstration, and struggle to lift the Manhood Stone at a Highland Games.
This huge institution displays everything from a stuffed elephant to paintings by the great masters; the collection of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's work is a major highlight. The well-described contents are impressively displayed in a grand, 100-year-old, Spanish Baroque-style building. The Kelvingrove claims to be one of the most-visited museums in Britain — presumably because of all the field-trip groups you'll see here. Watching all the excited Scottish kids — their imaginations ablaze — is as much fun as the collection itself.
For a fun and free activity surrounded by relaxed locals, try your hand at lawn bowling. The perfectly manicured greens next to the Kelvingrove Museum are dedicated to keeping young people interested in the traditional sport. It's all free and tourists are welcome; balls are provided and attendants can explain the rules. While sunny weekends may be too busy to get a court time, you'll always find a court on a cloudy weekday. It's a fine evening activity, and you can bowl rain or shine.
Stirling Castle's prized position — perched on a volcanic crag overlooking a bridge over the River Forth, the primary passage between the Lowlands and the Highlands — has long been the key to Scotland. Today it's one of the most historic — and most popular — castles in Scotland. While its interiors are pretty empty and new-feeling, the castle still has plenty to offer: spectacular views over a gentle countryside, tales of the dynamic Stuart monarchs, and several exhibits that try to bring the place to life. The included guided tour helps you get your bearings — both to the castle, and to Scottish history — and docents posted throughout can tell you more.
Unveiled in 2014 and standing over a hundred feet tall, these dramatic, energy-charged statues make for an entertaining photo op. A 30-minute guided tour through the inside of one of the great beasts shows how they're supported by a sleek steel skeleton: 300 tons of steel apiece, sitting upon a foundation of 1,200 tons of steel-reinforced concrete, and gleaming with 990 steel panels.
At the opposite end of Falkirk stands this remarkable modern incarnation of Scottish technical know-how. You can watch the beautiful, slow-motion contraption as it spins — like a nautical Ferris wheel — to efficiently shuttle ships between two canals separated by 80 vertical feet.
At this busy workshop on the outskirts of Craigellachie, 14 coopers — some of the last of a dying breed — are still at work. (While just about everything used to be transported in barrels, today it's only booze.) Visitors first view an engaging short film, then follow a guide up to an observation deck peering down over the factory floor.
This sprawling but charming factory — with a name that means "Valley of the Deer" (hence the logo) — offers excellent tours and tastings. After a short promotional video, a kilted guide walks visitors through the impressive plant, which includes a busy bottling hall — and tours finish with an extensive tasting session.
Throughout the summer, communities in central and northern Scotland host traditional festivals of Highland Games (sometimes called Highland Gatherings), which range from huge and glitzy (such as the Braemar Gathering, which the Queen attends, or the Cowal Highland Gathering, Scotland's biggest) to humble and small-town (which I find more fun). Some of the more modern games come with loud pop music and corporate sponsorship, but still manage to celebrate the Highland spirit. Most take place between mid-June and late August (usually on Saturdays, but occasionally on weekdays). The games are typically a one-day affair, kicking off around noon and winding down in the late afternoon. Events are rain or shine (so bring layers) and expect to pay a nominal admission fee at smaller games. If you're traveling to Scotland in the summer, check schedules online to see if you'll be near any Highland Games before locking in your itinerary.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're acquiring a taste for all things Scottish! This is "Glasgow and Scottish Passions." Thanks for joining us.
Glasgow, one of Britain's most underrated stops, is bursting with history, pride, and a love of life. Its people like to joke that they're "British by passport…Scottish by the grace of God." And that is perfectly clear in this vibrant city.
We'll enjoy Glasgow, with its thriving commercial center. We'll be charmed by Glaswegians…
Local: Buy us a drink.
Rick: Buy us a drink.
We'll see some amazing public art, and then admire the designs of Glasgow's most beloved artist, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and kick back with locals in a pub. Then, we'll head out for the ultimate Scottish castle, and experience some true Scottish passions: We'll sample some whisky where it's made, [and] get a lesson on the bagpipes, before enjoying the Highland Games.
The island called "Great Britain" includes England, Wales, and Scotland. Just an hour west of Edinburgh is Glasgow. From there, we'll visit Stirling Castle, Falkirk, Speyside (for whisky), and Airth (for the Highland Games).
In its 19th-century heyday, Glasgow — on the River Clyde — was the second city of the British Empire. It was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. A century ago, with over a million people — that's about twice its current population — it was a powerhouse. They say it produced 25 percent of the world's oceangoing ships. But after World War II, tough times hit Glasgow, giving it a rough edge and a run-down image.
In the last generation, Glasgow embarked on a creative city-wide rejuvenation scheme. And today, the city has an energetic cultural scene and a unique flair for art and design. These days, the River Clyde produces not ships, but good times. The grand train station, busy with commuters, is a reminder of both the city's industrial past and its current recovery.
George Square sprawls before the city hall. The square is a Who's Who of statues, which are especially appreciated by the seagulls. There's the great Scotsman, James Watt, who perfected the steam engine that helped power Europe into the Industrial Age. Here are Scotland's two top literary figures: Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.
Along with its industrial and working-class heritage, the city prides itself on its playful irreverence. Here, in front of the Gallery of Modern Art, the honorable Duke of Wellington is graced with a Glaswegian crown.
One out of every five Scots lives in greater Glasgow, and Glaswegians are friendly, unpretentious, and happy to rave about their town.
The accent can be a little hard to understand.
Rick: Say it again, like, real slow and clear.
Local: [Speaking indecipherably]
Rick: I don't know what you said, but dang — all right, see you later.
But eventually I developed an ear for it.
Rick: So — and the people here are just, like, incredibly friendly?
Local: Well, those two aren't, but generally they are.
Rick: They say you guys know how to have fun.
Local: Oh, yes, we do.
Local 1: Oh, 100 percent, yes.
Rick: Yeah, I mean…
Local 2: 100%, we know how to have fun.
Local 1: Definitely, we're on our way for a cocktail.
Rick: Oh, you are?
Local: A person from Glasgow has more fun at a funeral than a person from Edinburgh does at a wedding.
Local: They don't have money to be grumpy.
Rick: Ah, they don't have money to be grumpy.
Local: I think it comes from a pessimistic kind of view. You think things are going to be bad so you make the most of them and you have a laugh.
Local: Listen, you see?
Rick: That's great!
Local: I'll tell you what's special about the people in Glasgow…
Local: They're honest, they're friendly, and they'll go out of their way to do anything for you at all.
Local: We like a bit of fun, we're real, we're full of integrity, and we take everybody as we find them. So…
Rick: That is… Actually, that's philosophical. I love that.
Local: Thank you for that. Don't know if that's red wine…
Rick: This is a very Scottish thing, to walk around with your golf clubs.
Local: Actually, I just carry that. I don't actually play golf, I just walk around with these.
Rick: Tell me a joke.
Local 1: Oh… dunno.
Local 2: Don't!
Rick: To celebrate your city, what do you say? Like…?
Local: Buy us a drink.
Rick: "Buy us a drink."
Rick: Bye-bye. Bye. East End rules!
Glasgow's busy Buchanan Street is the middle of a Z-shaped pedestrian boulevard nicknamed the "Golden Zed." With the top shops in town, it's also called the "Style Mile."
The Argyll Arcade, the town's oldest shopping passage — from 1827 — is known for jewelry. Princes Square is an old building dressed with a modern facade and a delightful Art Nouveau atrium.
Buchanan Street has a lively vibe with a variety of street musicians. Music is a big part of the city's personality.
To be sure we understand all we're seeing, I'm joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Colin Mairs.
Glasgow's rough urban-scape — with its many blank walls — provides an inviting canvas for city-approved street artists.
Rick: I love these huge murals!
Colin: Yes, Glasgow's become famous for them. It's really, a thing the city has embraced, and the city council pay good street artists to put up big murals, and it avoids having just ugly tagging around the place.
Rick: So, they're taking that counterculture energy, and they're turning it into something positive?
Colin: Yes, there's even a city map — you can follow a trail going around the city center and see all these big murals.
Rick: So, this one's cool. The guy's trying to flag down the taxi, and the balloons are lifting it out of his reach.
Colin: Yeah, well, the artist actually has put himself in the painting. He's the taxi driver. That's his face there. And his name is Rogueone, which you can also see on the registration plate on the taxi. The other one up top there is the girl with a magnifying glass. That's by an artist called Smug.
Rick: And there's his name on the…
Colin: It's on her pendant, yeah. She looks like she's maybe picking someone up.
Rick: Is it just fanciful, or is there some political meaning to this?
Colin: Well, perhaps what she's making a comment on there is actually the building that she's on the side of. That is a lap-dancing club, so she's maybe picking up a small man who's going in there to the lap dancing.
Rick: Oh, she's insulting the men that go to the strip joint!
Rick: That is huge and just photorealistic.
Colin: It's a nice one, eh? So, this one actually probably represents our patron saint. See the halo around the back of his head?
Colin: And his name is Mungo. We're near to the cathedral, and one of his miracles was bringing a bird back to life.
Rick: It's an old story in a modern city.
For more Scottish art, we're heading inside and visiting Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
The Kelvingrove's collection fills a grand, purpose-built, 100-year-old building. This "Scottish Smithsonian" displays everything from the natural world to the avant-garde, from Salvador Dalí to the city's best collection of work by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his artistic partners.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mackintosh challenged the norms of this practical port city with architecture and design that had fun with playful details, creative use of glass, and a stimulating blend of organic swoops with vertical lines. It was both stark and light at the same time.
The Kelvingrove Gallery shows how Mackintosh, his wife Margaret, and their artist friends drew inspiration from nature to create this Scottish take on Art Nouveau. Along with architecture, it was interior design and the applied arts. Their works show a strong Japanese influence. They also drew inspiration from the Arts and Crafts movement, with an eye to simplicity, clean lines, respect for tradition, and an emphasis on individuality — craftsmanship over mass production. While not really appreciated in his time, today Mackintosh single-handedly boosts tourism in his hometown.
The Kelvingrove also has several rooms dedicated to Scottish Romanticism from the 19th century. Here, you can tour the country's scenic wonders and its history on canvas.
The story of Scotland is a romantic blend of myth and history. As far back as the 14th century, Robert the Bruce heroically rallied the clans. Paintings evoke the wonder of the Highlands — vast, sparsely populated, but integral to the soul of Scotland. Proud warriors sport clan regalia, as if emboldened by kilts and plaid. The tragedy of painful struggles with England resulted in clan massacres and downtrodden Scots…left behind as loved ones follow the promise of a new land. But still, a resilient nation survives, spirit intact.
The adjacent park has a finely manicured green dedicated to lawn bowling. By providing this to the public for free, the city wants to keep people interested in this traditional sport. Tourists are welcome to give it a try. Lawn bowling is a lot like bocce or pétanque — but the balls are bigger and "biased" (that means they're lopsided on purpose to let players throw curves). The object: to get your ball as close as you can to the little ball — and have fun at the same time.
This part of town, Glasgow's West End, is thriving with a new energy. As better times are taking hold, there are plenty of trendy restaurants and bars.
And we're capping our day at the Ben Nevis pub — because tonight there's a traditional session. That means music — not a formal concert, but a casual gathering of musical friends. For the price of a beer we've got an evening of good conversation and live music.
Tonight, the group's a United Kingdom of musicians — young men from England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and, of course, Scotland.
We're driving across the Lowlands to the castle of Stirling. This historic castle is at the crossroads of Scotland: midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Rising above a plain where the Lowlands meet the Highlands, it's no surprise that this strategic castle has hosted many of the biggest names (and biggest battles) of Scottish history.
Stirling was the seat of the kings and queens of Scotland. Imagine — Mary, Queen of Scots passed through these imposing gates. To the Scots, this patriotic heart of Scotland is like Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and the Alamo, all rolled into one.
From these ramparts, you can see where the three pivotal battles of Scotland's 13th- and 14th-century Wars of Independence from English rule took place: the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where, against all odds, the courageous William Wallace defeated the English army; the Battle of Falkirk, where Wallace was then toppled by a vengeful English king; and the Battle of Bannockburn, where — in the wake of Wallace's defeat — Robert the Bruce rallied the Scots to kick out the English once and for all (well, at least for a few generations).
It was said, "He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland." This castle was the preferred home of Scottish kings and queens in the Middle Ages and Renaissance — and their 500-year-old statues still decorate the walls. In the 16th century, the Stuart monarchs turned this castle into a showpiece of Scotland — and a symbol of one-upmanship against England.
Much later, in the 18th century, Scotland was embroiled in a civil war: Scottish rebels, called the "Jacobites," wanted to put a Catholic Stuart on the throne in London. They failed, and the British military took over Scotland's beloved Stirling Castle. It became a garrison — filled with Redcoats.
To this day, Stirling Castle provides a base for the British — not the Scottish — military. In 1746, these vary cannon fired on Scottish rebels. And you'll notice the castle still flies the Union Jack of the United Kingdom.
Within a short drive of Stirling, near the town of Falkirk, is a hard-to-miss roadside attraction: the Kelpies.
Towering above the tourists, these giant steel horse heads have become a symbol of this region.
They're rooted in a mix of mythology and real history: Kelpies are magical, waterborne, shape-shifting spirits of Scottish lore, who often took the form of a horse. And, historically, horses were used as beasts of burden to power Scotland's industrial output.
The Kelpies stand beside an actual historic canal where, two centuries ago, hardworking real horses towed heavily laden barges.
Scotland was an important player in the Industrial Revolution, thanks partly to its network of shipping canals. Using dozens of locks to lift barges up and across Scotland's hilly spine, these canals moved cargo efficiently…but were slow.
The Falkirk Wheel is a clever modern solution to the age-old problem of a slow series of locks. The innovative contraption slowly turns like a nautical Ferris wheel — raising or lowering boats between two canals separated by 80 vertical feet. What used to take hours now takes about five minutes.
The Falkirk Wheel is an important link in an ambitious project to restore the long-neglected canals connecting Edinburgh and Glasgow. Today this 70-mile-long aquatic connection between Scotland's leading cities — while no longer industrial — is much enjoyed by walkers and canal boaters.
A four-hour drive takes us to the River Spey. Speyside marks the heart of Scotland's whisky country. It's practically a pilgrimage for aficionados of Scotch whisky.
Of the hundred or so whisky distilleries in Scotland, about half lie near the valley of the River Spey. Its prized waters, along with a favorable climate and soil for barley, have attracted distillers here for centuries.
Along with natural resources, a critical element in the Scotch-making process is quality barrels. The Speyside Cooperage welcomes visitors with guided tours. From an observation deck, you'll watch master coopers making casks for distilleries throughout Scotland. Perhaps the single biggest factor in defining whisky's unique flavor is the barrel it's aged in.
The process is essentially the same today as it was centuries ago. In order to be watertight, the oak staves are lassoed tightly by metal hoops. Tight-fitting lids are banged into place and sealed with a calking of fresh-water reeds. Finally, the inside is artfully charred, creating a carbonized coating that helps give whisky its golden hue and flavor.
The United States actually contributes to the character of Scotch whisky because most of the barrels used in Scotland are made from the staves of hand-me-down bourbon casks from Kentucky. It's impressive to watch the coopers — who are paid by the piece — work with such intensity and focus.
The distilleries that put Speyside on the map for whisky-lovers are bigger and more corporate than others in Scotland, and they include some famous names — including one of the world's best-selling brands, Glenfiddich.
The sprawling Glenfiddich Distillery offers tours that show the basic steps in making Scotland's beloved spirit.
They've been turning barley into whisky here since 1886. After the grain has been germinated, or "malted," it's put in these tanks called "mash tuns." Water — distinctive to each region — is added to this mash to extract the sugars.
The resulting liquid, or "wort," is transferred to tanks called "washbacks." Yeast is added to ferment the sugars into alcohol. The liquid at this stage is called the "wash."
The wash is then heated in copper stills where it's concentrated, or "distilled," into spirits. The shape of the stills and the combination of various strengths of the spirits are unique to each distillery. It's like moonshine gone corporate.
The spirit is then put into wooden casks, where it matures for a minimum of three years before it can be called "whisky" in Scotland.
Each distillery keeps its secrets about making its whisky, but they're wide open about sharing the result. As I'm not driving, I get to experience this Scottish treasure right where it's made.
A wee dram of whisky puts me in the mood for the stirring drone of Scottish bagpipes…and a good-looking Scotsman in a kilt. The Scottish are particularly passionate about their pipes.
Rick: Beautiful. I love that, and I love the way it's just solid, and then — soft. Can you give me a tour of your bagpipe to explain how it works?
Bagpiper: So, on here, we have a bag which contains the air, which is traditionally made of sheep skin. And to power it, this is a blowpipe. You just blow in there, and you have a little one-way valve, which stops the air coming out. And you have your drones, which creates the background harmonics and a steady hum. You have your chanter, which the music and melody comes from, similar to a clarinet or an oboe.
Rick: So, basically you fill the bladder with air —
Bagpiper: You fill it with air.
Rick: You power it by squeezing —
Bagpiper: Power it by squeezing, and then you play the melody on the chanter.
Rick: Can you show me the whole thing working together?
Bagpiper: Let's see how it works, yeah.
Anywhere in Scotland, pipers stir the soul…and lead the parade. This parade is kicking off the Highland Games in the town of Airth. The band is led by the local clan chieftain. After a lap around the field, the competition begins.
And today, communities throughout Scotland still host a Highland Games, where kilted athletes from the surrounding countryside gather to show off their speed, strength…and grace.
A Highland Games is an all-day celebration of local sport and culture, like a track meet and a county fair rolled into one. It's a fine day out for the family.
In the heavy events — billed as feats of Highland strength — brawny, kilted athletes push their limits. In the weight throw, competitors spin like bulky ballerinas before releasing a heavy ball on a chain. The hammer throw involves a similar technique with an iron ball on a long stick, and the "stone put" has been adopted in international sports as the shot put. In this event, Highlanders swing a 56-pound weight over a horizontal bar that keeps getting higher and higher. And, of course, there's the caber toss: Pick up a giant log (called a "caber"), get a running start, and release it end over end with enough force to make the caber flip all the way over and land at the 12 o'clock position.
Meanwhile, the track events run circles around all that muscle.
The races offer fun for all those attending — including events for the kids.
And visitors from faraway lands are welcome to join in as well.
OK, I think I've found my sport. Lifting what's called a "manhood stone" is a standard part of these games. Brawny lads impress their girls with a show of strength.
With a wee dram of courage, competitors lift and carry the 250-pound stone…or at least give it a good try. I taught this guy everything he knows. There's always a show-off.
And it's not all brute strength. Highland dancing shows off both athleticism and grace. With years of practice, young girls dance with an impressive confidence and fluidity. A lone piper accompanies serious wee dancers who toe their routines with intense concentration. Within a few years they'll likely be dancing with the same mastery as the older girls.
Thanks for sharing with us a few of the experiences that make Scotland a unique and rewarding land to visit. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.