Glasgow Garden Festival

Gardens are seldom out of the news these days.  Regardless of whether the focus in on our own space, or a community space, we know that what we plant has the potential to be great for pollinators. However, this isn’t the first time the ‘garden’ word has commanded headlines. Cast your mind back to April 1988 and you may recall a certain garden buzz in Glasgow.

Few who visited it have really forgotten the Glasgow Garden Festival. It made quite an impact.  On April 24 the people of Glasgow turned up in droves (over 50,000) to enjoy a sneak preview of a Festival that ran from April to late September. A vital staging post on the drive to reinvent post-industrial Glasgow, the Festival was a huge hit.

True, for some the plunging Coca Cola ride was the big draw, but for very many it was the mix of themed gardens that was the inspiration. Science and Technology, Plants and Food, Health and Wellbeing, Landscape and Scenery, Water and Maritime, along with Recreation and Sport were the major subjects covered. These stunning exhibitions, allied to an array of live concerts, made the Festival a ‘must visit’ venue throughout the summer of 1988.

There was a strong Glasgow flavour to what was an international event. Refurbished Glasgow trams ran up and down the site, 100,000 season tickets were sold locally, and every house in neighbouring Govan was gifted free tickets.  

The numbers visiting the site on the banks of the River Clyde probably shocked the organisers, indeed they were almost overrun on the opening day, and the attendance figures quickly dwarfed those from previous festivals held in Stoke-on-Trent and Liverpool. After 152 days the Festival closed having drawn over 4.3 million visitors, making it easily the most successful of the eventual 5 Garden Festivals.  

The opening of the Bell’s Bridge was perhaps an early example of the need for active travel routes, and gave easy north-south pedestrian access across the Clyde to the Festival site. Once through the turnstiles visitors enjoyed not only a range of gardens but a giant yellow teapot and even bigger giant Irises. The visual arts were an integral part of the festival site and sculptures in particular had a major presence. The breaking news that Glasgow was going to be European City of Culture in 1990 was further proof, if any were needed, that Glasgow was going places. 

Here at NatureScot we had a role to play. Although let me qualify that, because back in 1988 Scottish Natural Heritage, let alone NatureScot, was some distance in the future. 

It was one of our predecessor bodies, the Countryside Commission for Scotland (CCS), that had the role of representing the natural landscape of Scotland. There was a youthful feel to their approach as they organised a primary school exhibition as their main feature. In the run up to the Festival, photographer Lorne Gill, and Ranger Lynette Borrodale, visited schools in Comrie, Glen Lyon, Forfar and Dundee; took the children out on location to teach them about the countryside on their doorstep, and ultimately coaxed artwork from the children to feature in our pavilion.  Time has dimmed the memories a little, but Lorne reckons the artwork consisted of large pieces made up of individual drawings by each pupil. The schools chosen were intended to make it possible to reflect our landscapes from the mountains to the sea.

Our garden, designed by Ian White Associates, was themed around ‘Discover Scotland’s Countryside’ and CCS also commissioned a sculpture by Stan Bonnar, who many will have enjoyed seeing in a recent ‘New Towns and Public Art’ BBC documentary alongside his son, Mark Bonnar, of Shetland and Guilt fame. Stan’s CCS sculpture was a bit ‘out there’ for its time, as it was a full-scale naked man with a fish on his head. 

Recalling which specific plants we had in the garden, and what the pollinators made of them, is a big ask over a quarter of a century later, but you can be confident they were a good cross-section of what occurred in Scotland. The CCS garden housed an attractive wooden and glass pavilion which at the close of the festival was sold to Aberdeen District Council for use in their Duthie Park Winter Gardens. 

The weighty event brochure was a worthy souvenir of the Festival and in the entry describing the CCS presence there was mention that “As you move on from the Countryside Commission you’ll pass two graceful meadows with pleasant array of wild flowers and, in contrast, boggy marshy conditions near to the water’s edge – home of the Marsh Marigold and the Kingcup.”

Printed souvenirs were aplenty … a special edition of the CCS ‘Scotland’s Countryside’ quarterly newspaper was issued, as was an accompanying specially designed children’s comic which, with a print run of 120,000, proved hugely popular.

Imagination and hard work were the hallmark of the Glasgow Garden Festival. As an example of how important our environment is it was a runaway success, and arguably provided a seamless link between urban opportunities and nature.

Further reading and viewing:

See briefly the CCS plot on this YouTube video at 6:20