Garnethill and Blythswood Hill

The principal shopping streets of central Glasgow are Buchanan Street and Sauchiehall Street, though the latter is becoming pock-marked by empty shops (even Marks and Spencer has fled). Sauchiehall is derived from two words which mean “the wet meadow where willow trees grow” — the same as Solihull. The meadow was between Garnet Hill and Blythswood Hill. These two streets gave rise to the local description of a day’s shopping — “Up Bucky and doon Sucky”. The area for this section is bounded just to the east of Buchanan Street, to the north of Sauchiehall Street, on the west by the M8, and on the south by the River Clyde.

Buchanan Street

Start in St Enoch Square, by the red sandstone building in the middle of the square. Now a café, it was the entrance to St Enoch subway station. The shopping centre to the east was built on the site of St Enoch station (1876-1966), and the square was a bus station. Below platform level on the east side of the square, there were three travel agencies. One served the overnight buses for the 15-hour journey to London via Carlisle, York and Cambridge, and a second served sailings to Belfast and Londonderry, and all travel onwards throughout Ireland. The third had to make do with the rest of the world. My grandfather was a frequent customer of the last two, travelling to his late wife’s childhood home in Donegal, and visiting Germany and Austria (still subject to post-war sneering from others in the early 1960s) in his eighties by train to seek out composers’ museums and the Alps.

The bottom of Buchanan Street was dominated, on the left, by Wylie and Lochhead, a department store. It had a major piano department, and in the 1970s was the only place in Glasgow to have eight pianos in one place. A colleague (trainee actuary and amateur pianist) found some music by Rossini for eight pianos (32 hands): a group was formed in the office, each pair practising separately. Hoping to play through the music after the shop’s closure for the night, they approached Wylie and Lochhead to request access to the pianos. The shop manager agreed … almost. They could play the pianos, but only on a Saturday morning when the shop was full of customers. They did, and gave a repeat performance in the afternoon. These are almost certainly the only two Glasgow performances of the music, and the logistics suggest that there will not have been many more performances elsewhere.

On the right, opposite Gordon Street, the Gallery of Modern Art is housed in the former library of commerce. Outside the front of the building on Queen Street, there is an equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington, now always with a traffic cone on his head.

St Vincent Place runs eastwards to George Square, and contains some fine buildings. Gordon Street leads to Central station. Buchanan Street climbs out of the valley of the River Clyde to the junction with Cathedral Street and Bath Street. There was a pharmacy on the corner, run by one of my great-uncles, full of drawers and glass jars. All was obliterated (along with two bus stations with Art Deco bus offices) to make way for the large shopping centre to be built: it opened in 1999 and is due for demolition. Bear left at the concert hall to reach Sauchiehall Street.

Sauchiehall Street

Sauchiehall Street was comfortably the equal to Buchanan Street for shopping: among the national and local department stores, there were many different shops and even an art gallery. However, the building of the St Enoch shopping centre drew the centre of retail gravity southwards, and there are many empty premises. The former British Home Stores building is still empty, and even Marks and Spencer has abandoned Sauchiehall Street to concentrate on its newly-central shop on Argyle Street. The streets to the right are all steep, leading to the Garnethill ridge (which continued eastwards to the cathedral). On Garnethill, the Mackintosh building of Glasgow School of Art was destroyed recently by fire, and then was destroyed again by fire as the restoration work was taking place. My father attended free lectures there while unemployed during the Depression of the 1930s. On Sauchiehall Street, there are echoes of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) and the Art Nouveau “Glasgow Style” of Mackintosh and his wife in the Willow Tea Rooms.

Beyond Scott Street on the right, the Centre for Contemporary Art occupies the former home of McLellan Galleries. ahead, opposite Elmbank Street, is the stunning Art Deco Beresford building. Now flats, it was a hotel, and for some years was a student residence called Baird Hall (after John Logie Baird).

Turn left just before the motorway, and follow Newton Street to Bath Street. The elegant domed building across to your right is the Mitchell Library, the city’s premier reference library.

Blythswood Hill

Cross Bath Street and turn left. Pass the King’s Theatre (a traditional red-and-gold Victorian theatre) and turn right onto Elmbank Street. On the left is the former building of Glasgow High School. At St Vincent Street, turn left and climb the hill. In amongst the plate-glass buildings of Glasgow’s new financial quarter, the red sandstone church looks out of place. Turn left onto Pitt Street, then turn right onto West George Street. On your left, a former Greek Orthodox church (note the Greek inscription at roof level) is now the Malmaison hotel (highly recommendable). Cross to the hotel, and continue uphill to reach Blythswood Square. Turn left along its west side.

For many years, the west side of the square was taken by the Scottish headquarters of the Automobile Association, and the Monte Carlo road rally started here. Move to the north side of the square, where at the north-eastern corner you will come to the house which was the subject of a sensational society murder trial in 1857. A wealthy socialite called Madeleine Smith was accused of killing her secret lover (Pierre Emile L’Angelier, much her social inferior) with arsenic. Because nobody could confirm that the lovers had met in the weeks before L’Angelier’s death, and because L’Angelier had discussed the possibility of his suicide, the charge of murder against Smith was found “not proven” (often thought to mean “we believe that you did it but we do not have the evidence”). Turn now to the east side of the square, now occupied by a hotel, and look ahead. There is a clear view across the river to the hills beyond the city. After following the south side of the square with its corporate offices, turn left onto Douglas Street to find another view south (now a bit compromised by some new buildings in the middle distance).

When the square was laid out, the influence of the Romantics’ views of nature held sway, and the development of Blythswood Hill took up their reins. The entire hill was laid out on a grid plan, with views off the hill in all directions. This broke with the tradition of the older part of Glasgow, in the Merchant City, where streetscapes were designed to focus on a major building at the end of the street. Walk down Douglas Street (walking up to get from the station to the Malmaison certainly raises the heartbeat!)

Dougls Street

Argyle Street

Follow Douglas Street all the way down to Argyle Street and turn left. The next street on the right is James Watt Street where, in 1968, a fire in a factory killed 22 employees who were trapped behind barred windows. There is still one building of its type on the street, the bars dating from its time as a whisky bonded warehouse. Turn left off Argyle Street onto Wellington Street and right onto Waterloo Street. Cross Hope Street to Gordon Street past the corner entrance to the grand Central Hotel (built as a railway hotel), where in 1990 I spent a week organising a conference.

During the event, a visiting Soviet Academician guest found that his plastic shoe had come apart. Using local knowledge, I knew of a heel bar at Platform 8 of the station, and I knew that it was about to close. I took the shoe and marched through the throng of the evening rush-hour commuters, with the Academician in hot pursuit, one shoe off and one shoe on. I got the shoe repaired just as the KGB officer caught up, afraid that the Academician was about to defect to East Kilbride.

Pass along the station’s iron porte-cochère, and turn right to enter Central station, the terminus for trains from south-west Scotland and from England. Recent renovations have made great improvements in flow and ambience. Follow the line past Platform 8 (the KGB will not be following) and continue on to the stairs down to street level. Turn left to pass beneath the railway. The bridge is known as the Hielanman’s Umbrella, perpetuating the myth of the tight-fisted Highlander who was too mean to buy an umbrella and made for the bridge’s shelter during a rainstorm. Continue across Union Street to reach the bottom of Buchanan Street at St Enoch Square.

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