A harmonic convergence of atmosphere and crime fiction makes Bloody Scotland in Stirling, called the gateway to the Highlands, the perfect destination for mystery fiction lovers.
By Nancie Clare 11/08/2012
Travelers seem to fall into two philosophical camps, more or less: those who go places “just because,” and those who like to build their global perambulations around a goal. This piece is about the latter.
Fans of cultural festivals of all stripes — sports, science, comedy, theater, literature, music, art and combinations thereof — have long found Scotland, with its 370 or so annual gatherings, a logical destination. But in spite of the abundance of choices, it turns out that until 2012, the year of Creative Scotland —- the campaign to spotlight Scottish arts offerings — the country was short one particular festival: crime writing. And so Bloody Scotland was born, organized by some of Scotland’s best-known crime fiction writers — Alex Grey and Lin Anderson — and aided and abetted by Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Craig Robertson, Denise Mina and many others. “Bloody brilliant,” said fans from as far away as Australia.
Chances are that your Scottish life of crime is going to commence in either Glasgow or Edinburgh; I had been to Edinburgh a number of times, but never to Glasgow. My friend, Scottish crime writer Denise Mina, sealed the deal by offering to take me on a tour of her hometown if I chose Glasgow as my gateway to Scotland.
Getting to Glasgow by air from Southern California involves a minimum of two flights. There are non-stops to Glasgow from New Jersey and Philadelphia, but the easiest way from SoCal is via London’s Heathrow, transfering to a Glasgow flight. Among the airlines that fly to London, Virgin Atlantic happens to be my favorite. I like the cheeky attitude and the mind-boggling array of in-flight entertainment choices. I also like that they have a late afternoon return flight to Los Angeles, which translates into less of a nail-biting race against the clock to make your plane. Changing airlines for the short flight to Glasgow will mean a bus ride between terminals, but Heathrow has that nailed with frequent dedicated transport. Or you could opt to spend some time in London and take a train between cities. Trains to Glasgow leave from London’s Euston Station often and, depending on the train, take from four-and-a-half to just over five hours.
Glasgow is a vibrant city, a mash-up of the old (including reminders of its Georgian and Victorian past as one of the primary commercial ports of the British Empire) and the new, such as Sir Norman Foster’s Clyde Auditorium, affectionately called the “Armadillo,” and, nearby, the visual treat of the “Squinty” bridge (official name: the Clyde Arc) over the River Clyde. It’s a walking city with pedestrian malls such as Buchanan and Sauchiehall streets, with outposts of brands from across the globe (Hermes, Chanel, Gap) and around Great Britain (John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Monsoon). There’s the dazzling (literally) Argyll Arcade (102 Argyle St.; argyll-arcade.com), a collection of jewelry shops in one of Britain’s oldest covered streets.
Museums run the gamut from starchitect Zaha Hadid’s Riverside Museum: Scotland’s Museum of Transport and Travel (100 Pointhouse Pl.; 0141 287 2660; glasgowlife.org.uk) to St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, adjacent to the splendid, medieval Glasgow Cathedral (Cathedral Square, Castle Street; 0141 552 6891; glasgowcathedral.org.uk), which has had a continuous active congregation for more than 800 years. (According to Denise, the cathedral did not suffer the fate of so many sacked Catholic churches during the Reformation because the residents of Glasgow surrounded it and prevented its destruction.) There’s GoMA, Gallery of Modern Art (Royal Exchange Square; 0141 287 3050; glasgowlife.org.uk), which was featuring “Tales of the City,” demonstrating how urban spaces impact various artists; The Burrell Collection (2060 Pollokshaws Rd.; 0141 287 2550; glasgowlife.org.uk), which had a fascinating exploration of the works of French artist Jean-Francois Millet; and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (Argyle Street; 0141 276 9599; museumsgalleriesscotland.org.uk), presenting an examination of furniture designed in the wake of natural resources rationing during World War II, “Utility: Rationalizing Furniture Design.”
Denise Mina took me to some spots off the beaten track. Fans of her mysteries would recognize our first stop: the neighborhood of Garnethill, so named, Mina informed me, because garnets had been mined there. Now it’s a hilly section of town with lovely terrace houses, the mother synagogue of Glasgow — Garnethill Synagogue (129 Hill St.; 0141 332 4911; garnethillsynagogue.com) — and The Glasgow School of Art (167 Renfrew St.; 0141 353 4526; gsa.ac.uk), whose Mackintosh Museum was showing “Studio 58: Women Artists in Glasgow since World War II.”
Accommodations in Glasgow are plentiful and reasonably priced. In fact, I found everything in Great Britain’s second largest city refreshingly reasonable compared to London. The most centrally located neighborhood, City Centre, offers quite a few options. A wonderful full-service, luxurious choice is the Radisson Blu Hotel (0141 204 3333; radissonblu.com) on Argyle Street, an excellent location. I opted for the citizenM Hotel (0141 404 9485; citizenm.com) on Renfrew Street, which can only be described as a modern, minimalist luxury space: teeny, tiny rooms with a remote control that manages everything from the TV and mood lighting to window shades. CitizenM’s rooms are narrow slices the width of the extra-long king-size bed that occupies the space under the window, with a bathroom module that is enclosed in an oval sheath of Plexiglass. However, there is luxury where it’s important, at least for me: The floors are bamboo (no icky carpets), the bed sheets, pillows and lovely duvet are Frette and the shower is terrific. Rates depend on demand and run from £55 ($88.77) to £93 ($150.10) a night. There is a bar area with full breakfast, served buffet style. Purchased ahead it’s about £8 ($12.91). It’s a perfect nest for a single traveler and it’s also 100 percent non-smoking.
To get in the mood for my Bloody Scotland weekend, I walked over to the Glasgow Necropolis, just east of Glasgow Cathedral. It’s a marvelously atmospheric cemetery modeled after Paris’ Pére Lachaise, with lots of Victorian funereal iconography. It reminded me of the macabre illustrations of Edward Gorey. The walk up to the monument to John Knox, the leader of Scotland’s religious Reformation, is steep, but there are lots of interesting tombs to contemplate along the way. It’s worth the hike, as the view west over Glasgow from the top is breathtaking.
Fortified with my trip to the graveyard, it was time to get to Bloody Scotland. Travel to Stirling is easy. Trains leave frequently from the Queen Street Station, and the one-way ticket costs £7.70 ($12.46). The journey takes about 40 minutes through really beautiful countryside. Once in Stirling, I took a cab (my first in Scotland — getting into town from the airport had been a very reasonable £5 [$8.09] bus ride that deposited me two short blocks from my Glasgow hotel) — for £2.50 ($4.04) to the festival’s headquarters in the Stirling Highland Hotel. The hotel has an interesting provenance; it was formerly the town’s high school. And the public rooms retain some of that secondary education vibe. Fortunately, I wasn’t in Stirling for the hotel facilities. They were clean and comfortable but lacked the really comfy mattresses and high-thread-count sheets offered even by hotel chains catering to businesspeople. Nevertheless, any mystery fan who had traveled this far wanted to be at the center of the action, and that was the Stirling Highland Hotel (Spittal Street; 01786 272727; pumahotels.co.uk). The next two-and-a-half days were a whirl of author dinners (banquets where there is an author at each table — mine were Peter James on Friday night and Karen Campbell on Saturday) and panels chock-a-block with some of my favorite writers from Scotland, England and Scandinavia, including my friend Denise, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Lin Anderson, William McIlvanney (the founding father of the modern Scottish mystery novel), Alex Grey, Icelandic writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Norwegian Karin Fossum, Ann Cleeves, Peter May, Craig Robertson, Anne Perry and many, many more. I attended panel discussions on “Touching Evil,” “Fascinating Forensics: Blood and Guts,” “Would you kill to win the Man Bloody Booker?,” “Deadlier Than the Male,” “Island Crime,” “Victorian Crime” and “Wild Girls.” The writers discussed motivation, character development, sense of scene, the regard in which crime fiction is held (low, but getting better), verisimilitude and suspension of disbelief. They answered questions, engaged in open dialogue and signed books. The weekend’s capper was a dramatic reading by festival writers of “The Red Headed League,” by Arthur Conan Doyle. (The festival celebrated many milestones, one of which was the 125th anniversary of Sherlock Holmes’ print debut. Conan Doyle was born in Scotland and Holmes is said to be based on a professor at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Medicine.) Then two awards were given out, one for a short story and one for the Scottish Crime Book of the Year, which was won by
London-based — but Scottish-born — Charles Cumming for his thriller A Foreign Country.
The conference straddled the hotel and the Albert Halls just down the hill. There was a shuttle between the two locations, but I preferred walking. No chance of getting lost because pointing the way were stylized chalk outlines of bodies, like those immortalized by TV police procedurals. (The next chapter of Bloody Scotland will be held Sept. 11 through 13, 2013, in Stirling. Visit bloodyscottland.com for details.)
The town of Stirling got behind the festival with a series of companion events, most at the city’s Old Town Jail. There were auctions (proceeds benefiting the University of Dundee’s “Million for A Morgue” campaign to build a new forensic center), a screening of a Sherlock Holmes movie and special “Bloody Cocktails” at Katie’s Bar. Then there is Stirling itself, often termed the gateway to the Highlands. It’s a hilly town with steep cobbled streets. At some of its impossibly sharp corners are statues to the rebel warriors William Wallace (Braveheart) and Rob Roy. It’s certainly worth a visit to the brilliantly restored and presented Stirling Castle (Castle Court; 0178 645 0000; stirlingcastle.gov.uk) at the top of the town, once the home of the Stuart monarchy (Mary, Queen of Scots was born there). There are guided tours or you can opt for a recorded tour as part of the £13 ($20.74) admission. It’s worth every shilling to walk the battlements that overlook the site of some of the country’s most significant conflicts. The recording gives you a feel for how the royal household was run and how politics and jockeying for position permeated every aspect of life. Especially fascinating: the re-creation of the kitchens and the Unicorn Tapestries project, where a group of master weavers are recreating the famous tapestries, based on the set at the Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters in New York. King James V of Scotland was known to own a set when he occupied the castle.
I haven’t mentioned food. I know that Glasgow, like many cities in the U.K., is enjoying an expanding foodie scene with fine restaurants bearing the names of well-known chef-epreneurs (Jamie Oliver’s Italian on Buchanan Street is one), along with chains such as Pret a Manger (34 Sauchiehall St.; 020 7932 5299; pret.com) and Costa (several locations; costa.co.uk). Glasgow has some marvelous bakeries with tempting cakes and tarts. One in particular, Vanilla Black Coffee House (0141 332 9453) on Sauchiehall Street, is quite phenomenal — exactly what a footsore tourist with a sweet tooth is looking for; a bit funky with comfy couches and food and beverages served in mismatched vintage cups and plates. I’m told Vanilla Black has wonderful sandwiches and soups; my eyes fell immediately on the tarts, buns and cakes. Denise had told me that Glasgow was the British Empire’s port of entry for sugar grown in the colonies, so maybe that accounts for the city’s baking proficiency.
When I like a place — and I really liked Glasgow and environs — I do my best to save something for my next trip. And so I postponed tours of the distilleries that produce my favorite single malts. But that doesn’t mean I eschewed Scotch while I was there. Fortunately, you don’t have to travel to the source to sample the product. Bars throughout Glasgow have staggering selections of single malts, offering numerous variations for each label.
The best one-stop single-malt watering hole has to be The Pot Still Pub (0141 333 0980; thepotstill.co.uk), conveniently located on Hope Street, just around the corner from my hotel in Glasgow (no, not a coincidence), where I made more than one pilgrimage to worship at the altar of Scotch. There are more than 300 different Scotches there; I sampled perhaps eight (they were small) over two visits. The remaining 292 are more than enough reason for many return trips.
Nancie Clare, formerly the editor of LA: Los Angeles Times Magazine, plans to launch Noir — a new tablet magazine devoted to the mystery, thriller and true crime genres — on Dec. 1.