Sunday, 31 May 2009

The Scottish Tourist Board Will Hate Me

A comment from Dorte in the comments section of a previous post made me dig out an old post I'd written for Sarah Weinman's Confessions of An Idiosyncratic Mind a few years ago about Scottish crime - factual and fictional - and amend and update it.

A wide variety of crime fiction writers ply their trade here, and there are quite a few new names. Glasgow and Edinburgh, in particular, seem to have more than their fair share. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the River Clyde is chock full of dead bodies, or that there aren’t enough watering holes for the protagonists not to bump into each other at every turn. Well, I can’t vouch for the number of dead bodies in the Clyde, but Glasgow, at least, certainly has enough pubs.

But first, just the facts ma’am. Scotland is home to around 5.1 million people. Edinburgh, the nation’s capital in the east, has around 472,000 residents in its 100 square miles. Glasgow, in the west, is only 67 square miles but is Scotland’s most highly populated city with around 580,000 residents. A 50 minute train journey separates the two cities, but they’re separated by a heck of a lot more than that. Glaswegians say that the best thing to come out of Edinburgh is the train to Glasgow. Not surprisingly, the phrase is repeated slightly differently if you’re from Edinburgh.

Edinburgh is really dramatic and scenic. It’s built on seven hills and there are some really spectacular views. And it has a castle, lots of tourists, and more than a few blokes in skirts wailing on bagpipes. It’s also the home of Scotland's parliament (personally I think that’s because politicians are too scared to come to Glasgow). The parliament building caused a big stramash in Scotland because the cost of £431m was 10 times over budget. To add insult to injury, it was 3 years behind schedule, but, hey, what's £390m-odd between friends? House prices in Edinburgh are high, and the major employers (well, until recently perhaps) were banks, building societies and, obviously, really slow builders.

Glasgow is, and always has been, an industrial city and centre of trade (originally built up by tobacco merchants who built themselves swanky houses and tried to outdo each other). It was also a major shipbuilding city, before shipbuilding went into decline. It used to be very grimy, with all the buildings covered in centuries of dirt and soot but in the 1980s there was a major city wide clean up and all the buildings were steam cleaned and rejuvenated.

Both Glasgow and Edinburgh have wonderful old buildings in the city centre. A lot of these used to be fancy townhouses, but are now mostly offices. I prefer Glasgow's buildings - most of the city centre of Edinburgh is made of gray stone, and looks spectacular but cold. Glasgow is known for its blond and red sandstone buildings and it feels altogether warmer.

And it’s not only the buildings. There’s a lot of rivalry between Glasgow and Edinburgh and a lot of this is due to the perceived differences between its residents. Edinburgh and its people are seen as snooty, middle class, reserved, cold, serious, elegant, more refined. Glasgow and its people are seen as down to earth, working class, humorous, livelier, warm, friendlier.

There’s an old saying amongst people in Glasgow that there’s more fun to be had at a Glasgow stabbing than at an Edinburgh wedding. That tells you a lot about both places. I would like to add that I have been to an Edinburgh wedding and I had a whale of a time. I’m unable to vouch for the fun factor at a Glasgow stabbing. Perhaps my invitation got lost in the post. And I’m not even going to mention the football rivalry.

Glasgow drunks are funnier than Edinburgh drunks. If you get stuck next to one on a Glasgow bus, he’ll be more likely to sing you a Frank Sinatra favourite (My Way is the chosen anthem amongst Glasgow drunks – “Hand na-ow, the hend is ne-ah”) than anything else. I'm not kidding. I have been treated to a rendition of this on a bus by a Glasgow drunk whose false teeth didn't fit. He had a perfect, but very ill fitting, set of top dentures and two yellow bottom teeth - and I don't mean two yellow teeth in an otherwise perfect set. That's all he had - two yellow bottom teeth. And his top set moved independently - almost shooting out on occasion, only to be sucked back in again. It was like watching a badly dubbed Hungarian film. An Edinburgh drunk might treat you to an aria from Wagner's Ring Cycle.

Edinburgh likes to see itself as the cultured city, which is why they have a month long festival of theatre, comedy, dance, books, film etc in August, just to prove it. In Glasgow the equivalent is a drunk bloke peeing in the alleyway behind where I work (I jest, of course, Glasgow has great festivals and culture. In fact, last night I went to see Ibsen's GHOSTS at the theatre. That there was a drunk bloke peeing in the car park when we came out did not spoil my enjoyment one jot.)

There’s a lot to see in Edinburgh. Apart from the castle, there are some really great historic buildings, a Museum of Childhood, the cemetery where bodysnatchers Burke and Hare plied their trade and some underground streets which were supposedly blocked off during the plague and the residents left to die a slow painful death (did I mention that Edinburgh was less friendly than Glasgow?). There’s also the Heart of Midlothian. As well as being a football team, this is a paving slab which is in the centre of Edinburgh, it’s heart shaped, and it’s supposed to be at the heart of Midlothian (the district Edinburgh is in). So, unable to come up with something witty or apt, they called it the Heart of Midlothian. It’s supposed to be good luck if you spit on it and means you will come back (Rome gets a lovely fountain full of coins, Scotland gets a bit of stone covered in spit - lovely - no wonder we had the plague).

I once took a friend through to Edinburgh and told her this story, so she decided to spit on it for good luck. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good luck for her, as the wind was blowing quite strongly and, well, to be frank, she didn’t check the wind direction very carefully and she ended up with a faceful of spit – only some of which was her own. In Glasgow, we don’t have a special place to spit, people just do it wherever they like. I suppose that’s another cultural divide between the two cities.

Glasgow is not as rich in historical culture, and consequently doesn’t have as many tourist attractions, although it does have a beautiful square (if you watch that webcam long enough you will see a drunk bloke peeing on the statue of Queen Victoria), some great museums and galleries. It also has better shopping. Much better shopping. Glasgow also has better clubs (although if you go to some of them, you might be able to test out the Glasgow stabbing/ Edinburgh wedding theory. Clatty Pats, sadly, has since closed down, although a much more upmarket club has taken the name for a special once a month - I wonder if they are resurrecting the sticky carpets along with the cheesy 80s disco music). Many of these clubs are not places to go to when you’re sober. And if you do, you’ll hurriedly remedy that in a bid to forget the whole horrendous experience.

So let’s turn to murder – as, indeed, it seems more and more people in Scotland are doing. A report called Homicide in Scotland revealed that for 2007-2008 there were 114 homicides in Scotland, down slightly from the previous year. But still the highest in Europe per head of population, a title shared with two other countries - Portugal and Finland. The Monty Python team were right, it would seem. Finland does have it all. By the way, you might want to avoid Colombia, Sierra Leone and Honduras...

Back to Scotland. The wild west is the most dangerous place to live with the murder rate in Strathclyde being almost 50% of the total. We’re a bloodthirsty lot over here in the west. Almost half of the attackers were drunk or on drugs (no surprise there, then – presumably they do it when taking time off from peeing in alleyways). Bizarrely, of the remaining 50% only about a quarter were definitely not on drink or drugs. For the remainder, it was, apparently, impossible to tell. I have that problem every day. Most murders occurred at the weekend and involved young males (with 4 times more men than women being killed), around half of the murders involved stabbings (with shootings accounting for only 4% of the total). 80% of the victims knew their killers and12% of Scottish murder cases were committed by women

As a 46 year old woman it’s reassuring to note that I’m relatively unlikely to be a murder victim in Glasgow. A thorough analysis of the statistics shows that I can lower my chances still further if I hide the steak-knives, only go out on Tuesdays, and try not to make anyone angry. I’m not convinced, however. Having been mugged three and a half times, I feel as though I may be walking around surrounded by neon lights, only visible to the criminal eye, which spell out ‘Lookee here, a crime waiting for somewhere to happen’.

The traditional view of murder on the east and west coasts is that in Edinburgh the murders are carried out in secret behind the locked doors of elegant Georgian houses, whereas in Glasgow it’s all drugs, razor gangs and Taggart drawling “There’s a boady in thuh riv-uh”. Needless to say, there are plenty of net-curtained suburbs in Glasgow, and the regal Georgian terraces in Edinburgh are just as likely to house brothels and drug dealers as the housing estates are.

So those are the facts - apologies for the length of this post! The fiction will follow.


  1. Oh, my, now we have your blog, who needs the fiction? :D

    And I can see what you are trying to do - but we are STILL going to Edinburgh. Thursday night sounds very fine with us but let´s arrange things in detail some days before we go.
    My mail:

  2. Wow!

    This wasn't fiction?

    Does a Stirling wedding count?

    It sounds rather like Gothenburg and Stockholm as far as rivalry is concerned. And my house is full of Edinburgh debris right now, seeing as Son's belongings just turned up. Again.

    Dorte - ask more questions!

  3. I'm surprised you two didn't lose the will to live half way through that post! Still, I can hire myself out as a cure for insomnia :o)

    Dorte - definitely. I will send you an e-mail with my phone number in and stuff.

    Bookwitch - I may have stretched the truth at the edges on only ONE occasion - everything else is gospel :o) I think a Stirling wedding is sort of half way between an Edinburgh wedding and a Glasgow stabbing...

  4. Of course, you can also hear plummy accents in Bearsden (Glasgow), and coarse city talk in Pilton (Edinburgh).

    I've heard tell that people spit on the Heart of Midlothian because it was the site of the Tolbooth, and represented English oppression.

  5. Tim - thank you! And yes, there are plenty of plummy accents in Bearsden and Kelvinside (where sex is what coal comes in :o) ) I'd never heard that about the HofM. I had heard that because it was the tolbooth - and the place of execution by hanging, drawing and quartering, false imprisonment, vicious witch hunts etc - that Edinburgh's criminal fraternity used to spit on it. Thanks for your comment.

  6. You might want to avoid Philadelphia as well.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  7. LOL - I would feel at home there :o)

  8. It may not surprise you to know I used to frequent Clatty Pat's as a student. It surprised me when I went to a party in Inverkip one night where 2 lads had nicked the massive papier mache Egyptian death mask from just inside the door, and carried it home on the train.

  9. Absolutely NO surprise, dollface. But are you sure one of those "2 lads" wasn't called 27? :o)