Eliot Wilson: A tale of two cities that have helped to define me

There is a song Billy Connolly sang in the early 80s called I Wish I Was In Glasgow.

Glasgow's magnificent Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Picture: John Devlin
Glasgow's magnificent Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Picture: John Devlin

I’m the child of two west coast Scots, and I find it very moving, a lament, no, a yearning, for a city which Connolly clearly loves.

Yet I’ve never lived there. If you added up all the time I’ve spent in the city of my forebears, it would probably total a fortnight, at best. I don’t know if there is an English word for this (there is almost certainly a German one), but it’s nostalgia for something which one has never experienced.

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By contrast, I lived in Edinburgh for a year before I started work, and adored it. My mother is an Edinburgh graduate and I spent a wonderful 12 months there, first in Dean Village – in a building built by the owner of The Scotsman – and then at the top of Leith Walk.

I really got the sense that the tag “The Athens of the North”, appended to Auld Reekie during the Enlightenment, actually had some meaning.

I don’t know if you remember the ScotRail advert which featured two well-to-do ladies saying “Kelvinside”, “Morningside” at increasing volume and with increasing fury. It was very apt, because it represents a true dichotomy. Two cities, barely an hour’s travel apart, but with very different characters.

A friend recently remarked that if a country’s two principal cities were Edinburgh and Glasgow, you were doing pretty well as a nation. I agree. But they are different.

There are stereotypes, of course. When my parents were growing up, Glasgow was still the city of tenements and slums, of razor gangs and the shipyards. Some of that still sticks, though now it is the Glasgow of the BBC, of art and modern industry. Edinburgh was, as it still is, the slightly snooty dowager, which has marvellous Canalettos but judges you on how you hold your teacup.

It is also, of course, the city of government and parliament, of the law courts and the Establishment. If ever there was an “Establishment” city, it surely is Edinburgh.

Like all stereotypes, they represent a fundamental truth but conceal other things. Glasgow has the wonders of Kelvingrove, and Edinburgh has its heroin epidemic. As any resident of either city knows, they are rounded entities, like anywhere in Scotland, or the UK.

I love them both. I know Edinburgh much better, but I know my roots are in Glasgow. Whenever I’m asked where I come from, I always say I was born in the north-east of England but my parents are from Glasgow. That encapsulates my identity. I will often, if quizzed on my accent, add that I spent eight years in St Andrews and lived in Edinburgh. So I am a child of two cities. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, like the man said.

Eliot Wilson is former House of Commons Clerk. He lives in Sunderland and tweets as @SybariteLooks