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Never too late to call Glasgow ‘home’

I’m not much of a homebody. Wherever I throw my hat becomes home base. I take after my parents, globe-trotting itinerants who left Britain for a fresh start in the New World. It was 1973 and Scotland, like the rest of Great Britain, was suffering through a dismal economy.

“Right then, off to the colonies,” announced my father in his thick Scottish brogue. As a child of six I had no choice but to don my tweeds and join the party. We immigrated to the United States and then to Canada where we eventually settled.

I grew up indifferent to my Scottish background and even, on occasion, embarrassed by it. I cringed at the thought of the stereotypical tight-fisted, kilt-wearing Scot tossing the caber and baring his buttocks in battle, an unfortunate inaccuracy perpetuated by the movie “Braveheart.” Sure, I had a few relatives in “the auld country” but I never had the desire to reconnect with either them or my roots.

Fast forward to spring 2011 and I’m in Glasgow enroute to London. Glasgow is my home town, at least historically, but I don’t remember much about it because I was a toddler when I left. No matter. I’m a reporter by trade and I enjoy talking to people. That’s how I make my living. Minutes after landing I took to the streets anxious to meet my ancestral peers.

Encircled by the M8 and A8 motorways and hemmed in by the river Clyde, central Glasgow is contained and easy to navigate. Its two main thoroughfares, Buchanan Street and Sauchiehall (pronounced Saw-kee-hall) Street were turned into pedestrian malls years ago and this makes Glasgow a pedestrian’s dream.

I walked as far west on Suchiehall as I could before hiking up a steep hill to 145 Buccleuch Street and the Glasgow Tenement House, a four room Victorian flat lovingly restored and maintained by Scotland’s National Trust. I grew up in a tenement and I was anxious to see if the House generated any memories. Cramped by today’s standards, the flat consists of a parlour, a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. Susan, one of the on-site guides told me Miss Agnes Towager and her mother lived here in the early 1900’s. Miss Agnes was a typist; her mother a dressmaker and the display is jam packed with their mementoes, utensils and original furnishings. I was particularly struck by the short bed hidden behind a curtain in the kitchen, a common feature at the time.

“They took in a boarder to help pay the rent,” said Susan who stood guard over the Towager antiques “and this is where he slept.” She pulled back the curtains to reveal the tiny bed.

“Victorians slept sitting up,” she said which explained the short bed sheets that would otherwise stop at the knee. I only hoped the boarder was considerably shorter than I was. I certainly couldn’t see my forebearers squeezing into the tiny box.

Susan was a wellspring of information on Victorian Glasgow and up to date on modern Glasgow too.

“One fare, fifteen stops and whatever you do, don’t call it the Tube,” she said of Glasgow’s subway system, the third oldest in the world. “You’re not in London and it will only infuriate the locals.”

“What part of Glasgow are you from?” I asked, struck by her knowledge and proper diction.

“Ohio” she replied without missing a beat.

Decades ago Susan met a Scotsman touring the States and followed him home. The relationship soured but she stayed on. I wanted to know more about Miss Susan and less of Miss Agnes but time was pressing.

A short jaunt to nearby 154 Renfrew Street took me to the Glasgow School of Art the reputed masterpiece of local architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The pinnacle of his architectural career I was told. Finally completed in 1909 it is a massive stone structure commanding a dominant view of the city. It looked like a castle. If Glasgow were ever under siege, I thought to myself, this place could be the first line of defence. Yet there’s a delicate side to the brute. The massive north facade is interrupted by banks of geometrically massed windows giving it a lighter feel, at least on that particular side. A black iron balcony and iron railings soften its bulky face.

“Where dae ye think yer going?” the uniformed security guard enquired as I was halfway down an interior hallway. Anxious to see inside I had scurried through the main doors oblivious to the sign that tells visitors to check in with security. The administration doesn’t want tourists scouring the halls interrupting classes. Instead, volunteers are on hand to escort visitors through the building. Tour times are posted on the School’s website at

It’s an impressive structure, one of twelve Mackintosh sites the tourist board would love you to visit. I quickly found out that Mackintosh is Glasgow’s favourite son and the city fathers aren’t shy about promoting him. He’s been immortalized, idolized and commercialized. You’ll never run out of Mackintosh memorabilia when touring Glasgow.

That night, my wife and I rested at a local pub on Union Street called The Goose. Unpretentious and utilitarian, it was packed with middle-aged men talking football, young clubbers barely out of their teens and a lot of Mums and Dads nursing their lager. I retrieved two pints from the bar and made my way through the crowd to a small shelf barely wide enough to accommodate our beverages. It was awkward having a conversation with elbows and shoulders in our faces and it must have shown because halfway through our drinks an elderly couple at a much larger table got up to leave.

“Here, have oors,” said the gent as he grabbed his coat from the back of his chair. “You’ll like this one better.” He must have seen our discomfort and took pity, a rare occurrence in North America.

The next morning, anxious to learn more about the Mackintosh legacy, I set off to find The Lighthouse, a design incubator and museum just off Buchanan Street at 11 Mitchell Lane. Housed in a former newspaper building designed by Honeyman and Keppie, Mackintosh’s employer at the time, the Lighthouse is filled with noteworthy toys, textiles and furnishings created by Britain’s past and current top designers. Its most prominent feature is a brick tower that Mackintosh himself added in 1895. A vigorous romp up the circular staircase leads to a rooftop view of the city but on this particular day access to the Lighthouse’s front door was blocked by a construction fence and a front end loader. I approached it from another angle but again road work prevented me from reaching the main entrance. A young man was squatting on the sidewalk begging for change. I threw a pound coin into his hat.

“Is there another way in? I asked. “Is there a back door to this place?”

“I should think so,” he replied nonchalantly.

A passing pedestrian, a well-dressed businessman, joined in. He said there was an alleyway off Mitchell Street that led to the rear of the Lighthouse. The young man got off his haunches and stepped forward.

“Aye,” replied the young man, suddenly animated and anxious to join the conversation, “but I haven’t seen any delivery vans go doon that way this mornin’.”

“Maybe that building over there has a back door to the alleyway,” said the pedestrian pointing to an imposing stone facade.

The three of us conferred on the sidewalk trying to decide what to do next.

“Go knock on the door and see if they’ll let you go through to the back,” said the businessman as he escorted me up to the entrance and rang the bell. The office manager reluctantly opened the door. The businessman explained the situation.

“Oh aye, the back door leads onto the alley sure enough,” the office manager said. “Go past these desks and through the coffee room,”

I turned into the hallway as instructed, following the manager past the desks and through the kitchen to the back. His loading dock did indeed face the alleyway and the Lighthouse’s rear door which fortunately was left ajar.

I toured the Mackintosh display consisting of photographs, drawings and three-dimensional models and romped up the circular staircase for a rooftop view of the city,

But the Lighthouse is more than a tourist stop. It’s a meeting place for people currently working in the design industry and is alive with events, workshops, and gallery space for Glasgow’s creative community. I popped into the second floor where the staff was assembling an upcoming art show. I introduced myself to David, the curator. He seemed glad to talk. I was glad to participate. He asked me what I thought of Glasgow. I told him I hadn’t seen any kilted Scotsmen tossing the caber or baring their buttocks in battle or anywhere else for that matter. And then in a serious moment I told him Glasgow was less frenetic than I expected and that I felt very comfortable in Scotland’s largest city.

“Why are people here so friendly?” I asked. I told him about the considerate patron at the pub last night, my experience moments ago when three strangers came to my assistance and yes, even Susan the Scottish maid from Ohio and her cheery help. He told me there’s a common culture in Glasgow, a sense that everyone is cut from the same cloth, a veritable band of brothers.

“We think we should be nice to each other,” he said. “There’s a saying in Glasgow,” David continued referring to a common surname from around these parts, “that we’re all John Thomsons.”

“MY name is John Thomson,” I laughed.

I’ve thought about that exchange ever since. Indeed this sense of inclusion is celebrated in a song popularized by “The Proclaimers” in 1997 called “Scotland’s Story.” I looked up the lyrics and they go like this.

In Scotland’s story I read that they came

The Gael and the Pict, the Angle and Dane

But so did the Irishman, Jew and Ukraine

They’re all Scotland’s story and they’re all worth the same.

Whether it’s real or imagined – to my eyes Glasgow is no more cosmopolitan than other cities its size – it IS a tolerant town. I did get a sense of well-being walking the streets.

It’s too late to call Glasgow home; I hung up my hat in another continent long ago but I’m no longer indifferent to my homeland. My impromptu visit re-introduced me to the city and its people and I remember them fondly. Glasgow may not be home but I know they’ll always be a place for me in bonnie Scotland. After all we’re all John Thomsons, especially me.

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