Trip to Scotland
August 1999

Scotland beckoned this summer because of a combination of circumstances: Brian’s tales of the homeland, along with Kim’s corroborating evidence; years of looking at Mackintosh architecture in pictures and the Mackintosh exhibition at the Metropolitan a year or two ago; the right price for a flight at the right time with Glasgow as the destination.

My flight left Newark Airport on the 4th of August at about supper time. We flew to Amsterdam on Northwest and then on to Glasgow on KLM uk (THEY use the lowercase letters for the UK part of their name). Silly me, I didn’t sleep more than a few winks on the way over (what WAS the name of that movie?), and it was late morning by the time we got to Glasgow. I didn’t find an ATM at the airport so I used Wee John’s fine gift to get into the city. John had been given a 10-pound note, and Brian and Kim sweetly lent it to me for my trip. I walked from the bus stop to Cairncross House, the University of Glasgow dorm where I stayed for 13 pounds (ca. $22) a night -- about a 15 minute walk from the city center. About a block from where I got out of the bus was my first sighting of one of the buildings on my list -- the St. Vincent Street Church by Alexander “Greek” Thomson (Greek as in Greek Revival). Checkin time was noon, so I left my bags and wandered off to find an ATM ... successfully. After checking into my dorm room, which was satisfactory, I meandered back to the city center for a general look-see and to find the Glasgow School of Art building by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It is indeed fantastic, a facade of great delight, wonderfully shaped. The interiors are largely used, as the school still meets there. The two-story space that plays heavily in the books is either off limits or so mangled as to be unrecognizable.

The city center has lots of other interesting buildings, including one of Mackintosh’s earliest buildings which is now an architecture and design center which is having a Thomson show. There are non-Mackintosh buildings around that have a similar look, though I don’t know which way the influence was going, probably both ways. Similarly, Brussels is full of buildings like those of Horta who is a great Belgian art nouveau architect, and it’s fun to see that context. The central train station has a great arched shed and is one story above street level at the middle. Downtown Glasgow has a significant change in elevation up from the river.

After taking a nap and shower, I went back out for an evening wander.

The next morning, I walked over to the Clyde River to see the Armadillo (a new exhibition hall by Norman Foster) and then along the river past downtown to the Glasgow Green. Great bridges of all sorts and vintages.

After returning downtown, I visited the Gallery of Modern Art which has a wonderful clay floor by Andy Goldsworthy (a sculptor/photographer who works with nature). The floor will basically deteriorate -- the clay is unfired. There was also a show of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) which had very interesting models and good vintage black-and-white photographs.

I wandered back past the Glasgow School of Art and found the library where I looked at several volumes on Scottish architecture, Durham, etc.

Nearby was the Tenement House which wasn’t open yet. The descriptions in the guides indicated that it was rather interesting, a bit too neat for a tenement, but I meandered on anyway ... to the Hunterian Gallery at the University of Glasgow. WOW! The interiors of Mackintosh’s own house have been reconstructed as an annex there. They are great -- the parlor is rather dark, nicely dark. The living room is pristine white. Though the days were mostly overcast, it was sunny at that moment and the room just shone. It is wonderfully ironic that the great delicate interiors are now wrapped in the 1970s brutalist concrete exterior. The Hunterian Gallery also has a fine collection of paintings, and the Hunterian Museum has a nice historical and archeological collection. The Museum is in the great Gothic Revival main building. A blurb on the gallery and museum said that the Hunter collection which had been given to the university (and formed the basis of both museums) also included some manuscripts which were in the university library. Nothing from the Hunter collection was on view at the library, but the Special Collections Department is on the 12th floor from which there was a splendid view toward downtown. After all the art, I wandered over to “Collegetown” on Byres Road and had an early supper at Whistler’s Mother (restaurant).

On Saturday morning, I got up rather early and took the train to Durham, England, to meet Lucrezia and Rob. Lucrezia worked at Cornell as a copy cataloger in the early 1980s. She was my introduction to Geocities, the web company with neighborhoods and personal web pages. Durham Cathedral is beautifully set on a hill in a horseshoe bend of a river, and it has wonderful columns with varying geometric designs. Rob and I climbed the tower. Though it was relatively hazy, you could see for miles over the town and neighboring countryside. The cathedral bookshop was in the former kitchen, a great round and tall space. After a pub lunch, we meandered around town some more and had coffee at Kõfi (who knows why the tilde is on the o, and how you say it other than “coffee”?). Luc and Rob left a bit earlier than I did, and I found a funny Greek temple folly down by the river after they left.

On the train back to Glasgow, I was reading The alienist by Caleb Carr which is this month’s bookclub selection. It is set in New York City and it was a bit strange to be reading it over there. Nonetheless, I was up until after midnight and finished the book before going to sleep.

Sunday was spent in the southern part of town, visiting the Pollok House, the Burrell Collection, and Holmwood House. The Pollok House is a neoclassical house with much newer (ca. 1900) wings, and it houses some fine Spanish paintings. The Burrell Collection is relatively young as a public collection. It’s in a fine building in a country park. The guides there gave me some public transportation assistance to get over to Holmwood House. Holmwood is a wonderful house by Thomson, done in a style rather like Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the great classical revival German architect. It has only opened this year as a house museum. The interiors are mostly not furnished so you could get a sense of the rooms. It has a wonderful roundish bay window in the parlor and Greek-themed friezes in the dining room. There’s also a wonderful pavilion at the edge of the garden.

Margaret McKay had sent me the bus schedule so I aimed at the 10 a.m. bus for my Monday trip to Anstruther. I got to the bus station way early so I bought my ticket and then wandered off to see the Glasgow Cathedral. It wasn’t open yet but it’s near the necropolis which is a cemetery full of fine monuments (not that I had time to meander around them ... this trip).

Along the way to Anstruther, I had hoped to see the new town buildings by James Stirling in Cumbernauld, the pineapple-shaped folly in Kincardine, and the standing stones in Largo (Brian had given me directions on where to look). I didn’t see any of that but did see a bunch of power plants along the Forth River near Kincardine and lots of interesting buildings in the various towns. Someone had reported that Margaret was quite surprised by the lack of good public transportation in upstate New York and now I really know why. The bus to Anstruther runs every hour and stops in a lot of towns. Not only that, it’s free for her as a pensioner.

My bus driver was new on the route and didn’t know the Dreel stop where Margaret and Bill were waiting for me. I finally convinced him to stop, several blocks along, and we did connect. Christine was home, laying out a wonderful lunch. We chatted and lunched, and then went to the Scottish Fisheries Museum in downtown Anstruther. It had changed quite a bit since Christine’s last visit. While we visited the museum, Margaret took down the decorations she’d done for some special event there. The museum includes a domestic interior from several decades ago which Margaret said was much like her childhood home -- just two rooms. After leaving the museum, Christine walked across the stones in the harbor that she and Brian had traversed as children, and then we drove to Billow Ness. The breeze from the Firth was tremendous. There's a pile of rocks at Billow Ness upon which John Knox is said to have practiced preaching. Christine and I climbed the rocks but didn't practice preaching. Since I only had one more day in Scotland and had not been to Edinburgh yet, I returned to Glasgow on the evening bus. Margaret was quite disappointed that I didn’t stay overnight but I imagine she’ll be able to tell her friends about the silly New Yorker who was in such a rush.

The neighborhood around my dorm had a number of Indian restaurants and I decided it was time to try one of them for supper. I’d been mainly snacking for supper on other days. After looking at menus in the windows, I finally picked Mother India and they didn’t have a table. Oh, well. Back to the dorm and an early to-bed.

Tuesday, I got up pretty early and took the train to Edinburgh. My first stop was the Castle, along with about 50 billion other tourists, most of whom were travelling in packs so it wasn’t too bad except in the buildings. I next went to the National Gallery which had a great show of French drawings from the collection of an American (since getting home, I’ve seen that the collection will be on view in NYC at the end of the year). The permanent collection includes lots of great old masters, including an odd El Greco. A few months ago, Milan (my boss in Fort Worth) had mentioned that Michael Gallagher who had been at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth was going to the National Gallery sometime in the summer. I checked with the guard who found his phone number. No answer, but he told me the conservation department was actually at the Gallery of Modern Art where I then went. Michael was now in his office and we had a wonderful visit and lunch. In the afternoon, I went to the Dean Gallery (newly opened and decorated in vivid colors), the National Portrait Gallery (in a great Victorian building), along the Royal Mile (lots of tourists since the Fringe Festival was just cranking up), and the new Museum of Scotland which is attached to the Royal Scottish Museum. The RSM has two great multi-story atriums, one with a dinosaur. The Museum of Scotland also had a piece by Andy Goldsworthy called “Hearth” (a burned circle on wood from the construction site).

I was surprised by the paucity of trains between Glasgow and Edinburgh, having expected them to be running several times an hour, etc. etc. Michael said that’s a real indication of the split of the cities.

My return plane on Wednesday morning left a little after 6 so I ordered a taxi on Tuesday evening after returning from Edinburgh. The cab arrived promptly at 4:30 a.m. and the checkin for the flight was pretty easy. Most of my breakfasts had been just coffee and some bread product. The airline breakfast was more vigorous and probably more like the “full Scottish breakfast” I saw advertised in various places: sausages and beans, potatoes, egg thing (shaped scrambled eggs with ham bits), stewed tomato.

The weather most of the time was overcast, but I only needed my umbrella one day and then only off and on, not all day. And it was cool -- probably in the 50s or 60s, I guess. When the temperature in Amsterdam was announced, it was 17 degrees Celsius which is probably 20 more degrees Fahrenheit than I’d seen in Scotland and England.

Since I had more than two hours in Amsterdam between flights, I had emailed Geurt to see if he could come out to the airport and we’d have a coffee. He was amenable, and we had a lovely visit.

The transatlantic flight was ok. I was in a two-person row and the other person was a big Sikh guy, taller than I am. Fortunately, he didn’t sit really big. Every time the flight attendant asked if he wanted anything to drink, he grunted “beer.” Again, fortunately, he seemed to quaff it without getting too inebriated. Neither the flight attendant nor I was particularly sympathetic, but I was more so when he asked for help with the customs form -- though he currently lives in New Jersey, he was not comfortable enough with latin characters to fill in the form. He held up his passport and license so I could fill in his name, address, etc.

So now I’m home again.

... go to Sherman's miscellany ...