europe,  scotland,  travel

Travel: Glasgow & the Ayrshire Coast

Full set of photos

It’s crazy for me to think that this trip is the third time that I’ve been to Scotland (and that I’ve visited as recently as 13 months ago). I do appreciate that the phonetics conference that takes me here is in an area of Scotland I’ve not yet spent much time in. While I normally try to post on my daily travel adventures, many of my days here were taken up by phonetic-y activities, so I’ll spare you all the nitty gritty details.

the "Armadillo" (Scottish Exhibition Centre) and site of ICPhS 2015
the “Armadillo” (Scottish Exhibition Centre) and site of ICPhS 2015

My lovely collaborator and roommate Susanne Brouwer had suggested going on one of the conference-suggested day tours, and I was happy for the chance to get out of the city for a day. Organized by Rabbie’s, it was a small, 16-person tour (including several friends from the conference) that took us to Culzean Castle and along the Ayrshire Coast. Our tour guide was a pleasant Scotsman who regaled us of the historical significance of many of the sites and the people associated with them, most notably Robert Burns, along with other random anecdotes. We stopped first at one of Europe’s largest wind farms not far outside Glasgow, which had a little interactive visitor centre to educate us about wind energy. From there, we drove for about an hour to peek at a ruined abbey before heading over to the main tour event, Culzean Castle.


We spent nearly 3 hours exploring the extensive castle grounds, walking along sun-dappled dirt paths through quiet forests. The Walled Gardens on the grounds were lovely, a riot of floral colour and picturesque landscaping. The interiors of the castle were actually a little underwhelming, but it was more than made up for by the stunning views of its exteriors we got from the beach below it. Mercifully, the weather cooperated, and it was pleasantly warm and, crucially, non-rainy. We wandered the beach along the eerily calm waters of the Firth of Clyde (it was so still and quiet!) before rejoining our tour.

a view of Culzean Castle
a view of Culzean Castle

From there, we took a scenic, coastal drive to the nearby ruins of the Dunare Castle. The sun was fully shining, which made for a lovely half hour as we scampered about the ruins and took in the view. Susanne even laid out on the grass for a little sunbathing before we continued on our way. Our last stop was the town of Alloway, the birthplace of famed Scottish poet Robert Burns. He holds special significance for me as my alma meter (and Vancouver generally) always celebrated his birthday (celebrations were called “Gung Haggis Fat Choy”, in light of the fact that it was at the same time as Chinese New Year). We opted to not visit the Robbie Burns museum and simply explore the town a bit, visiting the old church and bridge (Brig o’Doon) featured in his famous poem Tam o’Shanter. We had a relaxing end to our day trip, munching on snacks on a bench overlooking the bridge and musing on our past and future travels.

kilt-clad folk on Brig o'Doon  in Alloway
kilt-clad folk on Brig o’Doon in Alloway
I honestly didn’t spend enough time roaming the streets of Glasgow itself to really get a good sense of the city. It was definitely not as picturesque, in the traditional sense, as Edinburgh. It had a much grittier feel to it–much more modern and fast-paced, with all that goes along with that. I suppose our ‘wee’ slice of Scottish culture was had, ironically enough, at the conference party, housed at Merchant Square in the city centre. The conference had organized a Cèilidh, a traditional Gaelic gathering, with folk music and social dancing (sort of like American square/line dancing, where an announcer can call out moves and teach a given dance relatively easily). I’m always game for dancing, but it was particularly entertaining to witness hundreds of other phoneticians dancing about happily. Dancing, especially social dancing like this, is a great way of equalizing everyone–doesn’t really matter your status in the field when you’re twirling around merrily. Whether you’re a big shot or newbie, it’s really hard to not have a smile on your face when your clapping, dancing and bouncing around with other people.
On our last day in Scotland, it was perhaps a fitting send off  that a multitude of pipe bands had descended upon the city (the world championships I think were that weekend) and were rehearsing on the streets. In front of our hotel, there were 3 separate bands alone, piping and drumming away. Pipe bands have a special place in my heart, in large part because SFU has their own world-renowned pipe band that plays at convocation ceremonies. I loved listening to them play on the quad, so it’s always a treat to hear bands play.

Glaswegian gastronomical highlights

Most of our time in Glasgow was spent south of the river at what has been aptly dubbed the Armadillo. Thankfully, just a 10 min walk from the conference center is a bustling thoroughfare with some renowned eateries. Susanne had gotten recommendations from a local on the plane ride over, and I’d done my usual pre-trip scouting, and we’d actually found places that overlapped. These are just a few of the favourites.

Finnieston was our first stop, renowned for its seafood. It was a bit of a Northwestern reunion, with former grad students and post docs of my advisor (as well as me) went out for a meal. I thoroughly enjoyed my cod prepared with a rosemary-roasted garlic butter. The rest of the party all ordered caley, a type of white fish none of us had ever heard of. It was a generously portioned meal, as it came with a choice of 2 sides (I couldn’t resist the herb mashed potatoes along with some bread/dips which I shared). Overall, the food and drink were excellent, as was the company, and it was a great way to start the conference.
Crabshakk was a spur of the moment find, also on Argyle Street. Though we didn’t have any of the crab options (I did think of my dear husband who would have definitely partaken in dissecting a whole crab), we did sample their seafood. I couldn’t resist a ‘wee supper’ of fish and chips (which involved half as much fish, though still a hearty portion). It was an excellent choice, full of crispy, buttery, delicious flavour. I also tried their crab bisque, but I definitely had a harder time with it. I was expecting something creamy, with a lovely, subtle crab flavour. This did not have cream and seemed essentially like crab broth, distiller crab essence, as it were. It was extremely potent, and I had a difficult time consuming it. For the more rugged, seasoned crab-consuming palate perhaps, but not my cup of soup. Otherwise, a cute, lively spot!
Crab Shakk in Glasgow
Crab Shakk in Glasgow
I am not a tea drinker. I don’t think before visiting the Willow Tea Rooms for high tea that I’d ever actually drank an entire cup of tea. But I was actually excited at the prospect of giving high tea a try, mostly for the tradition of it. This particular spot was famed for being designed by renowned architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1903. Our 3-tiered stand of goodies soon arrived, filled with a variety of tea sandwiches, scones, shortbread and a dessert of our choosing (we had both chosen lemon meringue pie). I eagerly dug in, and it was also delightful. The scone was especially scrumptious, lathered in butter and strawberry jam. I could see why the Brits enjoyed it so much. I poured myself some apple tea, and after much finneagling with sugar and cream, found a combination that I actually liked. Even had a second cup!
fresh, creamery butter!
fresh, creamery butter!

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