Scotland Homecoming: Glasgow
Story & Photos by Monique Burns
For years, I longed to see Scotland. As a child, I lived for those moments when my sister and I put away our paper dolls and jacks, and my mother drew us into a close warm circle to regale us with tales of her Scottish grandfather, my great-grandfather.
His name was Benjamin Franklin Mason. Odd for a Scotsman, perhaps. But many 18th and 19th-century Scots, recalling their ancestors’ long struggles against England, named their children after heroes of the American Revolution. Arriving in the 1880s, Frank Mason quickly set up a farm in a small Virginia town, opened a grist mill, an undertaker’s parlor and a general store, and raised a columned white manse.
My Scottish great-grandfather loomed large in my imagination. With a wee bit of exaggeration, I put him in the same heroic category as William Wallace, leader of the 13th-century Wars of Scottish Independence and subject of the 1995 Mel Gibson film, Braveheart. Wallace was said to be a giant of a man, over seven feet tall. But my great-grandfather’s photograph shows a small man, maybe 5’8,”certainly no bigger than 5’10,” dressed in a black suit and tie, with a thin, carefully trimmed mustache, pale skin, and the straight ink-black hair many Scots have.
Whatever my great-grandfather’s stature, I couldn’t have been prouder of him. He had come to an unfamiliar country and prospered. He had married, yes, married, the woman he loved, a woman as black as his hair, and had driven her regularly through town in a horse and carriage, silently daring anyone to look askance. Together, they raised a rainbow tribe, a dozen children, blond and blue-eyed, red-headed and freckled, tawny with curly brown hair and hazel eyes like me, and brown-skinned and brown-eyed, with glossy black waves or woolly locks.
I yearned to know this bold, big-hearted businessman, and the land and people that produced him. I also longed to tap into my own inner Scot, perhaps the part of me that was fiercely independent, hated prejudice or oppression in any form, liked business done fair and square, and loved, absolutely loved, wide open spaces.
I could have visited Scotland many times. Yet I waited. To me, the very idea of Scotland was a precious thing, a treasured heirloom to be taken off the shelf and quietly savored. When the time was right, I’d go in search of Scotland and, in the process, discover Frank Mason—and some part of me—in its busy cities and wild moorlands.
That time came in 2014 during the great Scotland Homecoming, a year of Highland games, theater performances, art exhibits, walking tours and whisky tastings. In 10 days, I’d visit Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city and commercial center, and Edinburgh, the capital. Aboard a sleek, white, 16-passenger Mercedes-Benz minivan operated by Rabbie’s Trail Burners, a popular Scottish tour company, I’d explore the Highlands, that vast tract of northern wilderness where, more than a century ago, two of my great-grandfather’s sisters had posed, in billowing dresses and high-button shoes, atop the moors—the only photograph we have of my family in Scotland.
I was eager to see Glasgow, a city that, in the mid-19th century, was the British Empire’s “second city” after London and one of the world’s great centers of innovation. James Watt ushered in the Industrial Revolution when he transformed the steam engine. Henry Bell established Europe’s first commercially successful steamboat service there. Charles MacIntosh waterproofed cloth by encasing it in rubber. Any one as enterprising as my great-grandfather just had to come from Glasgow, though nothing in my mother’s memories ever revealed his birthplace. Now I think that he came from a rural town, possibly in the Highlands, where his parents were farmers or merchants who catered to farmers.
For two nights, I checked into Glasgow’s Hotel Indigo, a centrally located design hotel with spacious rooms and bountiful Scottish breakfasts. To this New Yorker, visiting Glasgow was like coming home. Businessmen, university students and families, along with foreigners and out-of-towners, thronged busy streets lined with ornate red and blond sandstone buildings adorned with columns, statues and friezes. One building was topped with two larger-than-life statues of Mercury, messenger of the gods and protector of merchants: one statue held a money bag, the other a caduceus. Former company headquarters, many still had long-gone founders’ names carved into their stone facades. What high hopes these 19th-century businessmen had when they raised these buildings, each more elaborate than the next.
I strolled for miles, one day, along the River Clyde, where, in the 19th century, a third of the British Empire tonnage was constructed. The river’s fame spread far and wide, which might explain why my great-grandfather named one of his sons after it. Somewhat more pastoral now, the Clyde is plied by pleasure boats as well as barges. A riverside promenade, spanned by half moon-shaped steel bridges, passes waterfront condominiums, the armadillo-shaped Scottish Exhibition & Convention Centre, a Crowne Plaza and Hilton Garden Inn, and, on the opposite bank, the glass-fronted Scottish headquarters of the BBC—established not by an Englishman, but by a Scotsman, in 1922.
My walk ended at the award-winning Riverside Museum, housing a gleaming collection of restored vintage bicycles, automobiles, trucks, train carriages and trolley cars under a wave-like roof. Since the museum opened in June 2011, its designer, Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, has been the talk of the town. But the city’s most famous architect is native son Charles Rennie Mackintosh known for his Art Nouveau style.
Mackintosh is well represented in Glasgow. In May 2014, a fire swept through his masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, but you can take an intriguing outdoor tour while the building is under reconstruction. At the nearby Willow Tea Rooms, sit in one of his high-backed chairs, and enjoy tea, coffee and pastries. Several blocks south, there’s more Mackintosh furniture, as well as contemporary works, at The Lighthouse, which Mackintosh designed in 1895 as headquarters for the Glasgow Herald. West lies the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, with the largest collection of the architect’s works, and, nearby, the museum’s Mackintosh House, with stunning interiors from his home at 6 Florentine Terrace.
At the monumental red-sandstone Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, gawk at the huge stuffed elephant named Sir Roger, then linger over a display of the architect’s iconic furniture and stunning decorative works by his wife, Margaret Macdonald, a brilliant artist in her own right. At free daily recitals, music from the 1901 pipe organ reverberates through vast halls and off ornate barrel-vaulted ceilings.
Glasgow is also home to the world-famous Burrell Collection, with French Impressionist work, early Chinese ceramics, medieval stained glass and tapestries, and even suits of armor. The Burrell is just across the river, and getting there, by taxi or subway, can feel like a hike. But you’ll be well-rewarded, not only by the collection, but by a stroll through surrounding woods.
A crucible of contemporary art, Glasgow draws some of the world’s most innovative artists. See trendsetting works at The Gallery of Modern Art, or GoMa, in a columned neoclassical building on Royal Exchange Square. Or at the CCA, the Centre for Contemporary Arts, where you can enjoy beer, cider and wine in the atrium café. At Trongate 103, watch art being created, see exhibits of emerging artists, and sample borscht and blinis at Café-Gallery Cossachok, billed as Scotland’s only authentic Russian restaurant.
In the East End, where the city grew from a small sixth-century bishopric, 12th-century Glasgow Cathedral is steps from the hilltop Necropolis where 50,000 of Glasgow’s finest citizens rest in a 37-acre park adorned with 3,500 Victorian monuments. Nearby Café Gandolfi serves Scottish specialties like peat-smoked salmon, and haggis, the national dish consisting of a sheep’s minced heart, liver and lungs mixed with oatmeal, onion and spices, and cooked in its stomach. Often served with mashed turnips, or “neeps,” haggis is quite tasty, especially if you don’t think too hard about what went into it.
These days, haggis shows up on the menus of hip eateries as well as traditional restaurants. It’s also served at annual Burns Nights, held January 25 to celebrate the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet and, I like to think, a distant relative. Padraic Burns, my paternal great-great-grandfather, was Scotch-Irish or what the Scottish call an “Ulster Scot.” After migrating from Scotland, he stayed in Ireland so long that he morphed into an Irishman.
As for my Scottish great-grandfather, I’d felt his pioneering spirit in the bustling streets of Glasgow, the proud, self-styled “Mercantile City,” and while strolling along the River Clyde. But I had no intention of leaving town without doing some serious genealogical research. That led me to the center city’s Mitchell Library to tap into the Scottish government’s computerized birth, death and marriage records, and page through property deeds, parish registers and other written records. Aided by the library’s Senior Archivist, Dr. Irene O’Brien, I worked for a couple of hours, but to no avail.
Possibly I had the wrong birth date. Or my great-grandfather’s family had spelled their last name “Masson” or “Masoun.” Or his parents had named him James or Robert, and he later changed his name to Benjamin Franklin to sound more “American.” Possibly, he had been born in England, Wales, Ireland, or even France—where the surname originated—then come to Scotland as an infant or small boy. Since he had married and died in the States, I could only tap into Scotland’s computerized birth records.
It would take hours to go through hand-written parish and school records, scrawled in a fading, century-old script so ornate it was almost hieroglyphic. Sensing my dismay, the kindly Senior Archivist urged me, in her soft, lilting brogue, not to give up. Start in Virginia, she advised, where most of my great-grandfather’s records, including his marriage certificate, property deeds and death certificate, would be.
Visiting Scotland during the great Homecoming 2014, my chief intention had been to somehow take the measure of my great-grandfather and his people. I didn’t need a name or date on a computer screen to do that.
IF YOU GO
For a small, centrally located design hotel, consider Glasgow’s stylish Hotel Indigo. Address: 75 Waterloo St., Glasgow, G2 7DA Scotland; 44 (0) 141-226-7700. www.hotelindigoglasgow.com
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.