The architecture of 19th century Glasgow prompted English poet and historian John Betjeman to describe it as; ‘The greatest Victorian city in the world’. However, if this conjures an image of florid stone ‘wedding cakes’, nothing could be further from the truth. The work of Glasgow’s favourite son, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), has been described as a mixture of Art Nouveau, Modernism, and Scots Baronial.

Mackintosh’s most well known building is the Glasgow School of Arts in Renfrew Street, where his interplay of space and light created an interior that is both beautiful and functional. The building is full of surprises, such as unusually shaped porter’s box projecting into a stairwell to suggest a Japanese lantern. The library is a complete  joy.

Glasgow School of Arts Library
What a delight.

Mackintosh was as much designer as architect, and a collection of his distinctive furniture is displayed at the school. Informative tours are conducted by students but as this is still a working institution, numbers are strictly limited And if you happen to see well dressed people searching through a dumpster outside, it may be worth your while to join them. They are looking for unfinished, interesting works discarded by students. And yes, I found one.

The wealthy merchants who funded Glasgow’s Victorian building boom also patronised the city’s famous tearooms; a by-product of the temperance movement. The imposing Miss Kate Cranston owned several high-class establishments and in 1903 she commissioned Mackintosh to design the Willow Tea Room in Sauchiehall Street. At a time when many dismissed the innovative architect out of hand, Miss Cranston allowed him full reign. He designed everything, the leaded mirror friezes, the distinctive ladder backed chairs; even the teaspoons. The tearoom closed in 1927, but reopened in 1983 after a faithful reconstruction. Patrons can chose from an interesting variety of teas, such as Summer Pudding or Russian Caravan. A full afternoon tea, including sandwiches and a selection of cakes from the trolley costs about £10.00(A$25).

Glasgow's Afternoon Tea at the Willow Tearooms
The traditional afternoon tea (Trip Advisor)
Willow Tearooms in Glasgow
Upper level of the Tearooms. (photo Rob Conolly)
Pauline Conolly at the Willow Tearooms.
Scottish pancakes?

In stark contrast to Mackintosh’s creative buildings were Glasgow’s tenement blocks; the mainstay of the city’s 19th century urban housing. At their worst they were one room ‘single end’ flats shared by entire families. In 1911 young shorthand typist Agnes Toward moved with her widowed mother to a red sandstone tenement block built in 1892. She lived here for over fifty years and her one bedroom flat is now a unique National Trust museum.

Glasgow Tenement
1892 Glasgow Tenement Building where Agnes Toward lived. Her flat is now a National Trust museum. (photo Rob Conolly)

Each day its cosy parlour is set for afternoon tea, complete with scones fruitcake and pots of conserve. The lace cloth and doilies are spotless, but sadly Miss Toward is no longer around to fill the white china cups. She was hospitalized in 1965 and although her rent was paid until she died in 1975, she was never well enough to return home.

Miss Toward's tenement flat in Glasgow
Set for tea.

Agnes’s policy of saving everything and changing nothing has resulted in a perfectly preserved interior, best described as ‘late Victorian Bolt-hole’. A highly polished coal range still burns in the kitchen, where cupboards hold jars of homemade jam. They are wax sealed and carefully labelled; ‘Rhubarb 1963’, ‘Plum 1947’ (clearly Agnes and her mother were not fond of plum!). The coal bunker, the pull-up clothes line, and the recessed ‘box beds’ are all original. Only the spluttering gas lights were re-installed after Miss Toward left. Also on display are many of her personal documents, including wartime ration books, rent receipts, and family photographs.

At the opposite end of the city’s housing scale is a graceful mansion built for tobacco lord William Cunningham in 1780. Located in Royal Exchange Square, it now houses the Gallery of Modern Art. When energy flags, stop for tea in the Gallery’s top floor café. Competing for attention with a stunning mural by Adrian Wiszniewski is a view across the building’s pyramid shaped sky-lights to an architectural forest of chimneypots, cupolas, domes, steeples and 20th century lift towers.

Afternoon tea in Glasgow’s trendy Merchant City is more likely to consist of café latte and a slice of focaccia. As part of the city’s revitalization, the great 18th century warehouses of the tobacco and sugar traders have been cleaned of their industrial grime and converted into cafés, brasseries and bars. The district lies within a grid of streets east of the City Chambers in George Square. Call at Hutcheson Hall, the National Trust headquarters at 158 Ingram St for a Merchant City Trail brochure. Buildings listed include the Robert Adams designed Trades House in Glassford Street, where traditional crafts such as bonnet making and weaving are represented on a wonderful silk frieze in the banqueting room.

If your interest in architecture has been stirred, complete your tour with a visit to The Lighthouse; Scotland’s Centre for Architecture, Design and The City, in Mitchell Lane. This 1895 building (also a Mackintosh design) was once Glasgow’s Herald newspaper office. There are stunning city views from the building’s roof top café.

More information on Glasgow’s city sights and upcoming events is available at

A VERY SAD UPDATE… In 2014 there was  a serious fire at the School of Arts.  On June 15 2018 , just as restoration was nearing completion, there was another, even worse fire.

There are plans to rebuild by 2030, but only the shell of the original, magical building was left.

Glasgow School of Arts fire 2018
The shell of the Glasgow School of Arts.
What a loss.
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