The Ubiquitous Chip turned 40 in 2011, and I was asked to provide a mural to celebrate. One of the few specific requests made was that it ought to reference the many customers who have helped shape the unique character of the establishment over its illustrious history, as a counterpoint to Alasdair Gray’s depiction of staff past and present in one of his numerous Chip murals.
Only days earlier I had left Glasgow after living in the West End for 7 years (several happy years of which I spent working as a waiter for the Clydesdale drinking-and-dining empire). As I began to research the project, ruminating on my time in the city, I found that the Chip was a sort of microcosm of everything I had enjoyed about the area. It is just as easy to get lost in the Chip’s many bars and staircases as it is amongst the West End’s winding hills and looming spires (especially after a few drinks). Both are crammed with friendly drinkers, a proliferation of plant life and whimsical architecture, a dominant socialist / atheist sensibility, and both are possessed of immense pride in their history and their role in contemporary Scottish life.
Once work began on the project in earnest back up in Glasgow, the constant stream of passers-by were an invaluable resource in collecting anecdotal local history and research materials, as well as encouragement and good company. Consequently, I consider the finished mural to be a totally collaborative project. What follows is a scavenger hunt of sorts – a guide to some of the buildings, people and stories which can now be found on the Chip’s walls.
In 1976, Ronnie Clydesdale moved the Chip from the original premises in Ruthven Lane across Byres Road into Ashton Lane, which was at the time a collection of residential properties and empty shop units. The main part of the current Chip building had been originally used as stables for an undertakers. The unusual layout of the Chip, with various bars and lounges nested around the main restaurant in a manner which can confound new visitors, is due to the expansion into two adjacent buidings over time.
The Cul-de-Sac building was once the factory of Barr and Stroud, pioneers in the manufacture lenses and range-finders for military and other uses. What is now Brel had been a coach-house, a landscape gardener’s yard and the garage / chauffeur’s lodgings for Dr Marion Gilchrist (1864-1952), the first female medicine graduate in Scotland. The Grosvenor Picture Theatre (opened in the 1920s on the site of Henderson’s funeral office) originally faced onto Byres Rd with its distinctive frontage, but remodelling in the 1970s moved the entrance onto Ashton Lane. As such, the Chip can largely be credited with the rejuvenation of the lane, which was at the heart of Glasgow’s bohemian cafe culture for many years, and remains a busy and integral part of Glasgow’s nightlife.
The Grosvenor Café on Ashton Lane (which is now Vodka Wodka) was spoken of with great fondness by many people I met while working on the mural as a lynchpin of Glasgow’s bohemian café culture, immortalised by Alasdair Gray in the seminal “Lanark”, and an integral factor in Glasgow’s ability to produce critically lauded, influential music and art. As the West End increasingly becomes a sea of anaemic, identikit coffee shops selling ridiculous fairy cakes covered in glitter and four inches of icing (costing about a tenner each) it is comforting that some of that social spirit remains in the Chip.
The Scottish Exhibition of History, Art and Industry was held in Glasgow in 1911 to raise money for Glasgow University. It was not as expansive as the International Exhibition of 1901, but of note was the Aerial Railway, which enabled visitors to tour the University grounds at a height of approximately 40 metres above the River Kelvin. The system, invented by and named after WL Hamilton, consisted of cars for standing passengers suspended from cables. A decade later, just outside Glasgow in Milngavie, George Bennie began planning a test line for his ill-fated Railplane system. This consisted of a carriage, again suspended from an overhead track, powered along by propellers.
Sliding doors provided access to a richly-decorated interior, but Bennie was unable to secure further funding after construction was completed on the carriage and a portion of track as a proof of concept. Having invested much of his own money in the project, Bennie went bankrupt. The track was scrapped during the War and the carriage itself remained stationary and increasingly derelict in a field until the 1960s, during which time it became an object of local fascination. Luckily, photographs and footage remain of this grand folly, undeniably beautiful, if not in practice as practical or revolutionary as Bennie intended.
The Glasgow Corporation Tramways was during its heyday one of the largest urban systems of its type in Europe. The city was served by over a thousand trams (clad in distinctive orange, green and cream livery) and it was the last tram system apart from Blackpool remaining in the UK when it closed in 1962. A number of “Green Goddess” trams were purchased from Liverpool in 1954 to supplement the fleet, one of many links between the two cities I know as home. The mural features a cascading mountain of disused trams littering the landscape in tribute.
Since 1757, Glasgow University has been associated with an Observatory. The Observatory in the mural stood on the University’s grounds in High St (at the peak of Downhill Hill), and was built to house a collection of astronomical instruments bequeathed to the University by Alexander Macfarlane, a merchant from Jamaica. Macfarlane Street in Gallowgate is named after him. As the area developed, surrounding the Observatory with tall buildings and industrial smoke, the location became less useful. While the land later was taken over by a railway company and in modern times residential apartments, the building of the initial observatory enabled the appointment of a Professor of Practical Astronomy in 1760, and the University still uses two observatories on sites near the Garscube Estate and in the Kilpatrick Hills.
Visible in the Botanic Gardens, through the remaining airvents, are the underground platforms of a disused railway station which used to sit on Great Western Road. The distinctive building was designed by James Miller, whose station at Kelvinbridge and temporary structures in Kelvingrove Park for 1901’s International Exhibition also feature in the mural. Like much of his work, the building combined traditional (though ornate) red brick architecture with features sporting an Eastern European influence, in this instance, twin domes. The station closed in 1939 and earned a place in the cultural history of the West End as the cafe the Silver Slipper and later, nightclub Sgt Peppers.
A discarded lit cigarette caused a fire on the evening of a Battle of the Bands contest in March 1970, and the building was demolished. No humans, but sadly one German Shepherd, perished in the fire. The site remains derelict and deserted, except for the occasional amateur photographer.
Several mills used to line the stretch of the river Kelvin which runs through the Botanic Gardens. North Woodside Mill and Garrioch Mill would use the flow of the river to grind flint, while the water was also used in numerous other processes. The flint produced would be mixed with potter’s clay, to improve its strength, and also in the making of glazes. The remains of the grindstones can still be seen in the Botanic Gardens, though the distinctive chimney (seen in the mural) is long gone.
It is a popular misconception that the Hilton Hotel – previously the Grosvenor – at the top of Byres Rd was entirely destroyed by fire and rebuilt from scratch. The fire broke out on the upper floors and was extinguished before seriously damaging the ground level stonework, of which casts were made to re-create the building’s exterior from concrete. This enabled the contractor behind the reconstruction – Glasgow born-and-bred Hugh McGuinness, featured along with his family in the mural – to rebuild the hotel as it had looked prior to the fire. This would otherwise have been impossible as many of the techniques used to create the intricate stonework had long gone out of fashion.
Also present in the mural are the following; a geometrically painted end-terrace which I used to enjoy looking at while playing on the swings in a small park near the art school as a student, Ross’s Dairy (now demolished) on Great Western Road painted in camoflage to evade wartime bombs, numerous protests and marches, fishing boats on the Clyde, the cranes and shipyards which still dominate the Glasgow skyline, a carrier bag from “Listen” – the legendary self-proclaimed “Aggressive Record Store” and other numerous shops and businesses which have come and gone on Byres Rd over the years.
I hope that while paying tribute to the people who have shaped the Chip’s identity over the last forty years, the mural also reflects that it could only have happened in a city like Glasgow.Email | Share
Eat, Drink, Culture