Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland, echo the past yet live in the present — each to divergent degrees. Located an hour by rail from each other, the pair makes a fantastic dual destination where you can literally swing between classics like kilts, Scotch tastings and ancient stone alleyways and cutting-edge contemporary art galleries, hip shops and a spoilt-for-choice live-music scene. And gay nightlife thrives in compact LGBT districts in both.
Pick up biweekly The List Magazine (www.list.co.uk) for events, restaurants and all things Edinburgh/Glasgow. Also check Scotland Tourism’s Web site, visitscotland.com, for resources and information; free publications ScotsGay (scotsgay.co.uk) and QS (qsmag.com) are local LGBT nightlife bibles. Gays tend to hit the bars early, around 9 or 10 p.m., as they close by 1 a.m., with clubs open until 3 a.m. (two hours later on Christmas, New Year’s Eve and during August).
EDINBURGH: KILTIN’ IT OLD SCHOOL
Edinburgh is the Scotland you’ve probably pictured. Ancient amber and brown buildings overlook hilly streets, clan tartans adorn shops along Old Town’s Royal Mile and the Scottish brogue is thicker than anything Mike Myers ever forced upon us. Upon asking a local where I could find a decent haggis — a traditional Scottish sausage made of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt boiled in the animal’s stomach — a de-facto comedy routine transpired.
“The royal mail,” she replied.
Five minutes and a pen and paper later, I grasped that she was saying the Royal Mile.
Begin your Edinburgh exploration with Old Town: Trek up the Royal Mile, buy an adorable “Heilin’ Coo” T-shirt (that “coo” is Scotland’s endearing, furry highland cow) and explore the Edinburgh Castle (www.edinburghcastle.biz). Next stop, the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre (www.whisky-heritage.co.uk) for a three-step, hands-on educational tasting: You take home a lovely Glencairn whiskey glass and can sample additional whiskeys in their dizzying 319-whiskey bar. The centre’s gift shop stocks an impressive selection of hard-to-find bottles as well.
The National Museum (www.nms.ac.uk) is worth a peek, while goths and lovers of grim should check out People’s Story (www.cac.org.uk) for glimpses at Edinburgh’s not-always-pretty history. Then celebrate life with the city’s tastiest confectionary at Fudge House (www.fudgehouse.co.uk). The Elephant House (www.elephant-house.co.uk) café proudly touts itself as “Birthplace of Harry Potter” — where former resident J.K. Rowling first put her fanciful, lucrative ideas to paper.
Edinburgh’s gay nightlife is mostly concentrated in New Town’s east end, aka the “Pink Triangle.” C.C. Blooms (www.bebo.com/CCBloomsNightclub), named after Bette Midler’s “Beaches” character, is among the most famous clubs, while next door’s Café Habana (www.cafehabana.com) is primarily for young queers (and wannabe young queers — sightings of 50-year-olds with frosted, gelled hair occur frequently). Straddling the Triangle, The Street (www.myspace.com/thestreetbar) is a fun, lively pub for both men and women. Drag queens rule at Priscilla’s Cabaret Bar (bebo.com/priscillasedinburgh). New Town Bar (www.newtownbar.co.uk) hosts a bear party every second Saturday and The Regent (2 Montrose Terrace), favored by older rugby types, is a beer-lover’s pub, with fresh real ale pumped up from its cellar.
Lesbians-only club Velvet burned down in mid-2008, but every second Friday, Furburger at club GHQ (www.socialanimal.co.uk/ghq) absorbs some of the slack, while lesbians make up the majority of Planet Out’s (www.bebo.com/planet-out) crowd.
Some hotels pepper this area, but well worth the 10-minute walk west is Tigerlily (www.tigerlilyedinburgh.co.uk), a gorgeous, modern boutique with nouveau-lounge ambiance. Its ground-level bar and restaurant rank among the town’s hippest, and Sundays from 10 p.m. on are gay.
New Year’s Eve, aka Hognany, is Edinburgh’s highest season — the chilly streets jam with live music and liquored-up locals (be sure to kiss a few at midnight). August’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe (www.edfringe.com) sees a huge influx of gays: Be sure to check if local queer theater group The Luvvies (www.theluvvies.org) have anything on.
Betraying a modern consciousness conspicuously absent from Edinburgh, Glasgow and its populace pulses with excitement and color. After checking into fab boutique hotel ABode (www.abodehotels.co.uk, also bookable through epoquehotels.com), I headed to the Centre for Contemporary Arts (cca-glasgow.com) to meet Alan Miller of the annual Glasgay (www.glasgay.com) queer arts festival.
“Gays are very integrated here,” he shared as we embarked on a foot tour that included stops at coffeeshop Tinderbox (118 Ingram St.), CD shop Monorail Music (www.monorailmusic.com) and Che Camille (www.checamille.com), a showroom representing Glasgow’s top independent designers and brands including Rabii Denim’s jeans/jackets, William Chamber’s nouveau flapper-style hats and Judy Clark’s insane Bjork-à-Porter Scottishwear.
Declared a UNESCO City of Music, Glasgow swells with nightly live concerts and local acts — quirky popsters Findo Gask, electro/dance act Dolby Anol and out folk artist James William Hindle rank among the latter. DJs rule at fantastic mixed parties like Glasgow School of Art’s R-P-Z (www.myspace.com/recordplayerzclub), which attracts a largely gay, arty hipster student crowd; electroclash hot spot Death Disco at Arches (www.deathdisco.info); and famed house/techno venue Sub Club (www.subclub.co.uk).
Most LGBT bars/clubs are crammed together. Delmonicas, Polo Lounge, Moda and new lesbian venue FHQ (www.socialanimal.co.uk/Glasgow CityCentre/FHQ) are all quite glam — and straight-owned. Gay-owned Revolver (www.revolverglasgow.com) provides an alternative in all senses of the word, brimming with a mixed, unpretentious crowd of all ages and genders, bears to primped emos to dressed-down barflies — and a delicious digital jukebox.
Take the subway — it’s like a miniaturized version of London’s Tube — or a bus northwest to Kelvingrove, one of Glasgow’s trendiest enclaves and home to the must-see Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (www.glasgowmuseums.com/venue/index.cfm?venueid=4). Its eclectic collection includes work by Scotland’s iconic architect/designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, including his striking blue Chinese Room.
After shopping along Kelvingrove’s Byers Road (check out CD/DVD shop FOPP and organic artisan liquor/vinegar shop Demijohn), Mackintosh fetishists can indulge further at the Mackintosh House (www.hunterian.gla.ac.uk), Glasgow School of Art (www.gsa.ac.uk) and The Willow Tearooms (www.willowtearooms.co.uk). Six-floor design and architecture center The Lighthouse (www.thelighthouse.co.uk) is another must, smack dab in the city center, while Q! Gallery (www.qgallery.org) is devoted to queer art and artists.
Of course, no trip to Scotland would be complete without sampling haggis. The hearty comfort food is best served during wintertime, though many higher-end restaurants and chefs have created upscale and even vegetarian versions. Aussie chef Dan Blencowe, of Glasgow’s Stravaigin (www.stravaigin.com), is known for Scotland’s best haggis (an official title received numerous times, including from celeb chef Nick Nairn). Presented alongside scoops of mashed neeps and champit tatties — turnips and potatoes — it’s rich and succulent, yet not oily. In the vegetarian version I sampled, lentils and barley replaced the meat, producing an addictive texture and savory heat. Winner!