Niall’s Choice

We’re in Scotland again — a little under a year since our last visit.  (Sorry to disappoint Julian’s cousin Jan who, after our trip to Spain, was hoping we were working our way through the countries in alphabetical order). This time Scotland is Niall’s choice.

We wanted to take him somewhere to celebrate the finish of his BA.  He chose Scotland.  The last time we were here he was 7 years old and we averaged five castles a day.  This time we’re here to walk the West Highland Way and climb Ben Nevis, and probably to sample some of the Highland Scotch that is distilled just off the path we will follow.

We fly into Glasgow, a gritty, desperate place.  When we asked our English friend Stu where to go in Glasgow, he was stumped.  Niall posted the question online and was told, “Edinburgh.”  Glasgow isn’t the kind of place that attracts tourists.  It’s a dingy, overcast city.  The buildings in the core are massive baroque Victorians.

In Vancouver they’d be bustling with high tech companies or hipster apartments, but here they’re boarded up, windows shattered, plastered with forlorn “To Let” signs.  The streets are littered with garbage, gap-toothed fences and peeling paint.

Past glories echo in the dozens of statues in public squares — names like James Watts, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and David Livingstone.

More glory is to be found in the 12th century Cathedral.  Mounted plaques are dedicated to the Highland soldiers who fell in various colonial conflicts — India, South Africa, China — as well as the world wars.  The church is too beautiful to find these tributes depressing.  The exquisite roof is only one to survive the 17th century Reformation,  which saw the church change hands from the Catholics to the Protestants.  Even now it’s called a ‘cathedral’ in deference to its magnificence.

We spend a couple of hours at the Necropolis, a 19th century hilltop cemetery for wealthy industrialists.  They didn’t want to be buried in the “unhealthy conditions” of the graveyard for the working Irish who were dropping from cholera.  The tang of yeast permeates the air.  Later we learn the smell comes from the Tennant brewery immediately below the neatly manicured and planted rows of the cemetery.  A sign of the times, the brewery is now dedicated to producing craft beer.

The juxtaposition captures the contradiction that is Glasgow: wealth and status alongside poverty and despair.

At first people seem grim and brusque.  They push past us on the pavement, play chicken with speeding cars at the crosswalks.  But they soften when they realize we’re tourists.  Where are we from?  What are we doing here?  Their thick-accented chatter is quick and hard to follow.  They’re impressed that we’re walking the West Highland Way, even as they confess they’ve never done it.  A friendly store clerk assures us that there’s a ”heat wave” coming — it’s due to go up to 17 degrees.  I remember the five t-shirts in my bag and wonder if I can trade in a couple for another sweater.

Early the next morning Niall drags his tripod and camera gear up to the university where he captures a momentary cleaving of the clouds that lets the sun through.

“You must be lucky to get sunshine in Glasgow” comments a nearby local.  He is lucky.  In fact, we all are.

PS: Photographs provided by Niall, who is a much more talented photographer than me.


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