Imagined Glasgows: in pictures and words

Credit: Jo Whitby

Emily Hay
Culture Editor

Emily Hay explores the ways in which industrial Glasgow has been creatively reimagined.

Glasgow is an industrial city – anyone who knows anything of Scotland’s history can testify to that. With this knowledge in mind, when people once thought of “literary” Scotland they would only imagine the cobbled streets of Edinburgh, the sweeping landscapes surrounding the border towns, or the romantic rolling hills of the Highlands. At the time this wasn’t so much a blatant oversight on the parts of these readers: Glasgow simply wasn’t used in popular literature – or at least not in an overtly visible way. This is perhaps summed up best in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (a book often considered the quintessential Glasgow novel):

“‘Glasgow is a magnificent city,’ said McAlpin. ‘Why do we hardly ever notice that?’ ‘Because nobody imagines living here… think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or golf course, some pubs and connecting streets… Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.’”

Famously, Glasgow hasn’t been used as its cultural counterparts have – or at the very least not in the same way. Ironically, Gray was a central member of a generation of artists going some way to changing that view of the city – towards creatively re-imagining Glasgow in literary and artistic forms. Crucially though, this creative re-imagination of Glasgow distinguished itself from the classical literary descriptions of these other historically beautiful cityscapes: the industrial and the impoverished were embraced instead of covered over. For example, Lanark championed the working-class Riddrie of Gray’s youth, as well as painting the crumbling industrial city as a vision of hell named Unthank. Gray’s work has ever championed the grotesque.

This is a feature present not only in his writing, but also in his visual art. Just as Lanark’s Duncan Thaw attended the prestigious Glasgow School of Art in the Garnethill area of the city, so too did Gray. But his depictions are far from romantic and light; his work displays, in often overwhelming detail and perspective, the grotesque realities of the human body and the darkest and dingiest streets of the city. It may not be your traditional idea of fine art or a “pretty” painting, but there’s no denying there’s a mesmerising quality to his work.

Whilst Gray chose, and still chooses, to explore the grittiness of the city with fantastical elements mixed in, other writers have chosen harsh reality as their formal vehicle for imagining the city. Poets, like Edwin Morgan, displayed the crumbling, yet resilient, working-class heart of the city in sequences such as the Glasgow Sonnets; whilst Kelman’s commitment to nomadic, impoverished short-term labourers and job-seekers both in his short-fiction collections like Not Not While the Giro, and his longer novels like the Man-Booker prize winning How Late It Was, How Late, feels central to his literary identity. In their own way, each of these artists re-imagines so-called “high” literary artforms to depict the lives of the lower working-classes. In other words, each champion the fact that capital C “Culture” should not eschew the real culture of ordinary people; those who keep a city alive and breathing.

It wasn’t just the industrial, so-called underclass Glasgow which received this gritty treatment. The more affluent areas of the city have also been pulled apart, their dark secrets exposed in much the same way as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting flipped the traditional, upper middle-class literary idea of Edinburgh on its head. Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room took the affluent West-End, the area surrounding the high gates of Kelvingrove Park and the gothic spires of our University, and used it as the setting for a seedy expose on unexplained death, sexual repression, fraud and sex trafficking. Again, Glasgow’s darkness is exposed in an unflinching light for all to see, but Welsh’s words make for haunting, thought-provoking reading:

“People have died for love, they have lied and cheated and parted from those who loved them in turn. Love has slammed doors on fortunes, made bad man from heroes and heroes from libertines. Love has corrupted, cured, depraved and perverted. It is the remedy, the melody, the poison and the pain. The appetite, the antidote, the fever and the flavour. Love Kills. Love Cures. Love is a bloody menace. Oh, but it’s fun while it lasts.” 

Today, contemporary Glaswegian writer, Chris McQueer, is continuing the tradition of depicting real, industrial working-class Glasgow narratives, but is employing something which, although it has been used in these older iterations of Glasgow writing, has indeed been less explicitly present: a significant dose of surrealist humour. Each of his published short story collections, Hings and HWFG, features a mixture of realistically realised Glaswegian characters in bizarre and oftentimes downright absurd situations, which restores humour to the darkened scenes of the industrial city. Moving on from Welsh’s gritty criminality, McQueer’s work seems to come full circle back to the weird and wonderful fantasies of Gray – although, admittedly in perhaps a more accessible way for most.

It is this democracy of artistry which defines Glaswegian creativity, and even Scottish creativity in general – the idea that literary traditions can be accessible to all; that cultural artforms can be representative of the experiences of real people, rather than an elite few. As with Gray, although words can paint an intricate picture, illustration can also go a long way towards the creative re-awakening of a city, particularly in the heads of those sceptics who still don’t believe they could ever appreciate the artistry in an industrial landscape. Which is why in Spirits of Glasgow, Chris McQueer’s recent picture book collaboration with illustrator Jo Whitby, the words, although touching, are present mainly to compliment Whitby’s stunning depictions of the city with ghostly spectres floating above. Throughout the slight book, Whitby presents iconic sites from throughout Glasgow, including the graffitied wall outside the Tennents brewery, the dingy platforms of Central Station, a view from behind the goalposts of Firhill Stadium, and the iconic Finnieston Crane which towers above the River Clyde. The pictures, and the sweetly complementary story which accompanies them, form a lovingly crafted guidebook with which to explore the city. Not least in the fact that they in-keep with this overarching tradition of Glaswegian art: they do not attempt to cover up the industrial or the “dirty”, they highlight these in order to continue rewriting the rulebook of what art can be. And in this mission, this seemingly unassuming picture book can be considered a product of all of the literary and artistic re-imaginings of Glasgow’s cityscape which have come before it: featuring the fantasy of Gray, the crumbling realism of Kelman and Morgan, the gothic spectres of Welsh and, indeed, the words of McQueer. Working proof that art is a communal commodity – one we all have access to form and learn from.

By all means, while you’re here in Scotland, read the romantic poetry of Burns and sprawling rural novels the likes of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song; these works aren’t any less engaging or inspiring than they’ve always been thought to be. Just make sure never to forget about the city which you now call home. To come back to Gray’s quote: don’t be a stranger – both literally and figuratively – come outside and meet Glasgow in all of its real and imagined glory.

Spirits of Glasgow is released on September 9. Pre-order with 10% off using the code FRESHERS10 at


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