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26 March 2007

Land of the Rennie Mackintosh oven mitt

Why is vibrant new Scotland still being marketed with a wee dram, tartan shortbread and a Scotty dog

By Lucy Sweet

Glasgow’s weather is on its default setting – rain – and some infernal fiddle-de-dee music plays in my headphones, interrupted by a running commentary from a pre-recorded Glasgow tourist guide. “On our right is St Mungo’s Cathedral,” the guide says in a cut-glass accent. Behind me, there’s another running commentary, from a group of annoying Welsh tourists. “Fran’s had a kidney infection,” one Welsh woman is screaming into her mobile. “It’s OK, she’s resting now. Ooh, yes, it’s lovely weather up here. No, it isn’t – it’s BUCKETING DOWN. Ha ha!”

I wipe the condensation from the window to see the sights, but the only thing that’s visible is a chippy called the Merry Fryer, which is shut.

Give me strength.

This is the Glasgow City sightseeing bus, and I’m pretending to be a tourist in the place where I live. Exploring differences between the reality of living in Scotland and the tartan-and-shortbread image presented to visitors seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I want to kill myself. The tour, which takes me round a city I see every day, is costing nine quid and there’s a big Norwegian woman practically sitting in my lap.

For want of anything better to do, I text my husband: “I want to go home. Oh, wait a minute – I already am.”

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Or am I? Although I’ve lived in Glasgow for 11 years, my day as a fake tourist bears no resemblance to my everyday experiences of the place. The tourist office is like a weird parallel universe inhabited by ex-cast members of Take the High Road. Here, the city I admire for its drunken spontaneity, creative diversity and ready, self-deprecating humour has been replaced with a Rennie Mackintosh oven mitt and leaflets documenting a variety of bizarre attractions. “Visit Taylor’s Bowls!” says one flyer. “If you are a bowler or you are simply interested in our manufacturing process, you will enjoy our factory tour.” No? Well, if you don’t fancy that, £30 will buy you a lunch with a genuine Scottish person called Gordon, who will invite you into his home to enjoy a glass of whisky around his beautiful lounge fire. (Er, no thanks.)

In the past ten years, Glasgow has enjoyed a startling image renaissance. The newly restored Kelvingrove Art Gallery is world-class, while the Norman Foster-designed “Armadillo” building forms the backbone of a flourishing modern cityscape. The art school, far from being just another fusty Mackintosh tourist attraction, is continuously pumping out music and fashion mavericks. And, despite its infamous grit, the city recently came first in a UK politeness poll.

But twee, clapped-out Scottishness still sticks to Glasgow’s boots like porridge to a spurtle. (For the uninitiated, a spurtle is a stick to stir your oats with, available from the Edinburgh Woollen Mill, priced £4.99.) For all its recent progress, Glasgow – to the average tourist – is not a hotbed of art, architecture, music, DIY culture and burgeoning multiculturalism: it’s a wee dram and a Scotty dog paperweight. The tourist office happily conspires with this fantasy, directing its charges to kilt-makers, whisky shops and Mackintosh-designed cafés like the Willow Tea Rooms, where you can enjoy the artistic flair of Glasgow’s most relentlessly celebrated architect while eating a round of cheap ham on Kingsmill and a luminous lemon meringue pie.

This emphasis on mythical American-pleasing Scottishness does Glasgow a great disservice and, ironically, is the least Scottish thing about the city. Glasgow’s true identity can be found in its rough charms, like the old man having a crafty fag outside the Whistlin’ Kirk pub, or the insane acid casualty who wanders around wearing neon and annoying bus drivers, or the amusingly menacing plastic pizza in the window of Dino’s, Glasgow’s Italian institution, which looks as if it’s about to cut your throat. Wouldn’t it be infinitely more entertaining for foreign visitors if we just dropped the kilts and bared all?

Thankfully, the city’s tourist industry is not completely stuck in tartan tea-towel territory. The Scotland with Style campaign, which celebrates its third anniversary this month, was an attempt to rebrand Glasgow, with an emphasis on the retail and restaurant trades. To cynical residents, it once seemed like a pitiful attempt to bolster a city often troubled by people whose idea of style was a Farmfoods bag and a flick knife. To a desperate tourist, though, it’s a beacon of modernity in a sea of sporrans.

So will this embittered, soggy day tripper find the spirit of Glasgow in Princes Square, a covered shopping centre featuring a branch of Whistles and a Crabtree & Evelyn concession? At first it looks doubtful, but then I overhear something which perfectly captures the particularly Glas wegian determination to make the most of things. As I browse the shelves, two Middle Eastern customers are jokingly asking the sales assistants if there’s a branch in Baghdad.

“Och, no,” says one. Then she stops to have a wee think, as the rain drums down on the glass roof. “Mind you, at least it’s nice and sunny there.”

See also What does Scotland mean to you? – a selection of interviews with Scottish personalities.

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