Last Facts of a Tour Guide

Kia Ora!

A couple of weeks ago I took my last tour for the University of Glasgow. To celebrate the conclusion of the latest chapter of my tour guiding career, I’ve decided to share some of my favourite facts from the tour (and to write them down before I forget). These are a big improvement on the dull stats that you’ll find on an official uni website, and all coming to you free of charge, saving you the very reasonable £10 that the tour costs. (Seriously, if you’re in Glasgow I recommend it, the guides are brilliant).

The Basics

The University of Glasgow was founded in 1451 and originally sat in Glasgow Cathedral (which is still an active church). After that it moved to land nearby in the centre of town given by Mary Queen of Scots, and then in the mid-19th century moved to Gilmorehill where it sits today. It is the 4th oldest university in the English speaking world, has around 25,000 students dispersed among its 4 Colleges and hangs out in the top 1% of universities in the world. For more facts and figures check out this page. But now the obligatory tour intro stuff is done, on with the highlights and oddities!

The Rector…

…is Edward Snowden. His name is up there in gold in the John McIntyre building alongside Winnie Mandela and Charles Kennedy. This happened in 2014 via Skype which was also how Snowden addressed his students. Just to prove you can be trapped in Russia and still Rector as long as you’re an IT guy (and a hot one at that, there I’ve admitted it). If you haven’t seen it already this is a great video on Snowden.

Snowden makes his rectorial address via Skype in Glasgow
Snowden makes his rectorial address via Skype in Glasgow

A building that can’t handle the truth

The main building, aka the Gilbert Scott Building, is the focal point of the tour. And it’s full of lies, lies I tell you, and it’s the tour guide’s job to set you straight.

Lie No. 1: The empty niche phenomenon

South face of the Main Building
South face of the Main Building

In the photo above your should be able to make out the empty niches around the higher windows. During the Reformation, angry Protestants ran around the buildings of Europe, tearing out Catholic idolatry such as statues in niches. So that must be what happened to this mediaeval building right? No! Lies! The University itself might be coming up for 600 years old, but this building was only completed in 1870 when the whole uni moved to the West End. Gilbert Scott designed it to remind people of the former buildings, right down to the empty niches which never saw a single statue, having been built a century or two after the Reformation.

Lie No. 2: The Cloisters


The Cloisters are one of Glasgow’s most iconic sights, they even make it onto some advertising for our wonderfully guided tours. But once again, this is a disgraceful deception. The Cloisters are not cloisters. To be architecturally accurate, they are an undercroft, supporting the Bute Hall above. But, like the empty niches, they are called that and designed like they are in order to remind us of the uni’s origins. For the first 20 years or so of its life, the university met in the cloisters (actual cloisters) of Glasgow Cathedral. Like most mediaeval universities, Glasgow began as basically just a theological college, like an extra dose of church for the super keen and nerdy.

The actual cloisters of Glasgow Cathedral
The actual cloisters of Glasgow Cathedral

Lie No. 3: Yeah we totally meant for that to happen


A spire – every university seems to need one of these – something for students to ‘aspire’ to haha… Sorry. Anyway, the University of Glasgow’s spire is a distinctive part of the city, and because it’s on top of a hill it gets to lord it over  lot of the others in the city – nice one. It was designed by John Oldrid Scott, the original architect’s son, and is a great pointy salute to the Victorian Gothic. It keeps time for the university BUT here’s what the guidebooks and bus tour drivers won’t tell you – it’s  another lie. They never meant for it to be a bell tower at all. It was supposed to be a clock tower, but they reckoned without the grand dimensions of the Scotts’ building, and once it was nearly complete, everybody involved began to realise that no one was ever going to be able to tell the time off that thing without causing serious neck injury. So they turned it into a bell tower instead.

BUT around the time Glasgow were building their new home, another university on the other side of the planet was being founded by a bunch of Scottish emigrants – my alma mater, the beautiful University of Otago. Their much more modestly proportioned building had taken a lot of inspiration (and/or copied) from the Scott buildings, and was the perfect height for a lovely clock, as the architects had intended. So one of New Zealand’s most iconic buildings was able to capitalise on Glasgow’s muck up. That’s colonies 1, imperial Glasgow nil. Boom.

Clocktower Building University of Otago Dunedin New Zealand
Clocktower Building University of Otago Dunedin New Zealand

Men are Sweaty

Ok, enough of the lies, time to get down to the glamour. I present to you the John MacIntyre building


Can you make out that weird alien-looking thing on the roof just to the left of the far right chimney? That is a unique piece of roof adornment designed with a specific purpose in mind. This building was originally built in 1888 as the Students’ Union, back when all the students were men. That back section of the building was the big debating chamber, and when young men get together and debate things, perhaps with a pint in hand, they sweat. A lot. So that beautifully weird chimney thing was designed to air the place out and extract some of that sweaty energy.

In 1893 the University finally let women in and this building became the ladies’ union – the Queen Margaret Union. Today the building is the Students’ Representative council, the 3rd of 4 Unions (the 4th being the Sports Association). Never fear, they all let men, women and any other gender in these days, but the sweat-extractor supreme stands as a reminder of gender inequality in both education and perspiration.

The Doctor

Famous alumni are like Pokemon trading cards for university marketing boards. “I see your Adam Smith and I raise you David Hume!” and so on. But I am personally stoked to go with the world’s only Time Lord graduate – the Doctor himself, whose title, it appears, was bestowed upon him as a PhD graduate of the University of Glasgow. It’s been mentioned on a few episodes, the most recent only last year, which in itself is great, but the University published this lovely article with some evidence, which just made my day. “I see your scientist and I trump you with time-travelling super alien!” *slams cards down with ultimate triumph*

The Doctor's matriculation slip
The Doctor’s matriculation slip


Lions and Unicorns and Rocks, oh my!

A good staircase is hard to find, right? Dismantling one and carrying it stone by stone for several miles by horse and cart seems a bit nuts to me though. But who am I to criticise the Victorians? It IS a nice staircase…



Religious Monkeys

The University Chapel sits just behind the Lion and Unicorn, and adds a few monkeys to the menagerie. Below is an image of the inside of the chapel, note the decorated wooden pews:


You might just be able to make our that there are wee figures carved on the front of the pews. According to the story, the Glaswegian workmen tasked with decorating the chapel were given complete freedom over what to carve. “Whatever you like” was the instruction, whatever image from the Bible being the implication, but someone should have been more specific because we’ve ended up with  bunch of pipe-smoking monkeys every few seats. Nicely played wood-carvers, we salute you.



So there are some of my favourite weird facts about the University of Glasgow, but there’s plenty more where that came from, so if you’re visiting Glasgow, make sure you get yourself to the uni at 2pm Thursday-Sunday for a tour given by a student who’s always grateful for a tenner.

Here's to those who paved the way
Here’s to those who paved the way



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