Today marks the 110th anniversary of a true Scottish institution opening its doors to the public: on May 2nd, 1901 the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum first admitted the people of Glasgow and Scotland to enter within this temple of delights. Generations of Scots have grown up with the Kelvingrove, walking through the pleasures of nearby Kelvingrove park, or coming down from the Gothic spires of nearby Glasgow University and the Bohemian pleasures of studenty Byres Road, to the banks of the Kelvin and this palace of wonders and knowledge and art. Those generations include me: like many children growing up in Glasgow the Kelvingrove was a regular pleasure, my parents taking me in there. It was my childhood idea of what a great museum should be – knights in shining armour, Egyptian mummies, mighty dinosaur skeletons! My, what treasures to delight a wee boy, to spark his imagination and generate a lifelong love of history and learning.
And the adult me adores it still – when my friend (who also grew up visiting the Kelvingrove) and I went through after the museum re-opened after an extensive refurbishment we both still loved it. A real Supermarine Spitfire hanging from the cieling in one gallery right above a giraffe! An Egyptian sarcophogus. Exquisitely made medieval armour – among the many collections the museum enjoys an international reputation for is its arms and armour, it boasts one of the finest collections anywhere. And then those light filled upper galleries full of artworks, from the Scottish Colourists and the Glasgow Boys to an international panoply of artists of the ages. It is the first place I saw Salvador Dali’s powerful Christ on the Cross, an amazing work even to those of us who have no truck with religion. And it is still free – free to all the citizens of Glasgow and Scotland and our visitors, a people’s palace, open to and run for the people of its city and country, long may it continue.
So after saying that compilation lists of best-loved books are a bit of a waste of time (and going on to talk about it at length) I now feel like listing some of my own. We were discussing at work what the list would look like if people voted genuinely for only books they really loved and not for the ones they thought they should (although some obviously did – Jeffrey Archer is in there for smeg’s sake!). So over the next little while I’m going to pick some of the books I’ve loved over the years and won’t be restricting myself to fiction.
Robert the Bruce by Charlotte Bingham. There are a hell of a lot about Scotland’s greatest warrior-king but Bingham manages to combine an informative historical biography of the Bruce and his turbulent times with genuine readability. It could almost be a historical epic novel, beginning with scheming, almost Machiavellian nobles prepared to sell their own grandmothers to advance themselves. Slowly in the shadow of Wallace Robert the Bruce goes from a selfish man obsessed with winning the crown to being a murderer, then a king who is an outlaw, hunted across the land, struggling against the odds and finally the heroic knight and symbol of Scottish freedom, engaged in knightly single combat and in epic-scale battle that defines the future of nations – a classical heroic journey.
Absorbing, thrilling and ultimately inspiring as it closes on this legendary life with the Declaration of Arbroath -a document which began as propaganda to plead the Scottish case to the Pope. Since that time in 1320 this document (still on display today) has become as legendary as the Bruce himself with a simple cry for freedom and liberty that still inspires today. Centuries later it would influence another remarkable document that was ahead of its time – the American Declaration of Independence. It speaks of the importance of the ‘community and the realm’ and makes clear that the nation is more important than any one person, even the king – a revolutionary piece of thinking for the medieval period and one I think is born of our Celtic roots. The Declaration of Arbroath is also available on it’s own in a lovingly translated edition which has English, Gaelic and BroadScots along with the original Latin.
“We fight not for honour, riches or glory, but only for that freedom which no man surrenders save with his life… For as long as a hundred of us are left alive we will in no way yield to tyranny.”
More as they come to mind…