The Glasgow Garden Festival 30 years ago transformed the grey of the city's riverside into a colourful, exciting playground. Russell Leadbetter meets some of those who were there and hears their happy memories - and their big regret

YOU can spend a diverting few minutes reading the adverts in the souvenir brochure for the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival. It’s a product of its time, of course: there are ads for the Scottish Development Agency, Central Regional Council, Farah slacks, Glasgow Zoo Park, and the ‘NEC 9A mobile cellular phone’, the size of which would doubtless astonish today’s millennials.

Thirty years have elapsed since the festival but countless people who attended have vivid memories of it. Bright blue skies and fluffy clouds above a Glasgow version of Hollywood, in one person’s fond words. (Many others remember the sunny weather but, this being Scotland, it wasn't always a given: the Glasgow Herald, looking back on the festival, referred to ‘the miserable weather of so-called high summer’ and the ‘endless rain of July and August’). Others remember seeing Eamonn Holmes and Viv Lumsden (separately) getting lifts on a golf buggy, or asking Mark (Taggart) McManus for his autograph. They remember the 240ft high Clydesdale Bank Anniversary Tower, the Coca Cola rollercoaster, the bonsai garden, the science and technology displays, the picturesque landscaped areas, the entertainments, the festival railway, the sheer bustle and friendliness of the place. And many of them regret that, apart from Festival Park, there’s little to commemorate the festival now.

Glasgow got the go-ahead from the Government in early November 1984 to stage Britain’s third National Garden Festival four years hence, on a 128-acre site at Princes Dock. After considerable work by the SDA, local authorities and public and private groups, Scotland's biggest event in half-a-century opened at the end of April 1988, when Prince Charles and Diana journeyed north for the royal opening. And between then and late September, 4.3 million people, a million of them from overseas, saw the festival for themselves.

“It was utterly brilliant,” says Dr Alistair Ramsay, who runs the Glasgow Vintage Vehicle Trust, has worked as a city tour guide, and attended the festival. It’s his copy of the brochure we’re looking at.

He remembers turning up one day at the festival site. “My father was trying to get the car parked down in Govan and you couldn’t get anywhere near the place. We had a huge walk once we parked the car. It was so big that you couldn’t take it all in.

"I remember approaching the turnstiles and hearing all these screams. I wondered, what on earth? It sounded like someone getting murdered. And, of course, it was the squeals of the people on the roller.”

He remembers the Glasgow trams (including one from 1922 and another from 1947) that ran on the site, and the Clydesdale tower, too. “It had a rotating ‘doughnut’, a glass, ring-shaped cabin, which rose and revolved at the same time, and it was hugely popular.”

Dr Ramsay says the festival was important because it kicked the city off as a tourist destination. “People wanted to come here. It also showed how good Glasgow is at organising these big events. Two years after that, we were the European City of Culture. In 1999 we were the UK City of Architecture and Design. By the time it came to the Commonwealth Games, the city was so good at staging these landmark events. The Glasgow people also embraced the garden festival, and they showed this in 2014 when 96 per cent of seats for the Commonwealth Games were sold.”

But like many others who attended, Dr Ramsay believes it’s unfortunate that so little of the festival remains. “Maybe if we had had a Glasgow Marketing Board back in 1988-89, we could have been left with a permanent structure to commemorate the festival. If the pavilions built for the festival had been more substantial, they could have been kept on. They would have been a tremendous longer-term bonus for the city.”

Elaine Campbell, of Shawlands, also has vivid memories of the event. Her father had not long died at the time. “I was 13, 14 at the time, and my mum and I both got season passes. I used to go every day. If I went at weekends I’d meet up with friends or would go with my mum," she says.

“The festival was incredible. I couldn’t get enough of it,” says Campbell, 44, who now tweets as SparkleMonkey. “One of my most vivid memories is from when they filmed an episode of [TV comedy] City Lights at the festival and I met Andy Gray and Jonathan Watson and got their autographs. I went up the Clydesdale Bank tower about ten times a day and remember thinking that Princess Diana was a bit of a jessie - she had gone up it, and she looked green. My mum said, maybe she’s pregnant again.

“I remember the big bandstand in the middle of the festival site. You’d go inside and it would be packed, because there would be a band playing. There was one band called Sam and Ella. I saw them a dozen times before their name sank in. I remember the High Street, where all the shops were, and there were replicas of lots of Glasgow buildings.

“Looking back, I think the festival was a form of therapy for me, getting me back into the world after my dad had died. I could go to this really colourful place on my own, if I wanted to. There were quiet bits you could go to, like the Japanese watergardens, or the forest area at the back, where the Science Centre is now.

“One of my biggest regrets is that they weren’t able to keep any of it on. I know it was expensive, but it had been amazing to see a large, derelict area being transformed into something that people travelled to from all over the world. That’s the sad part for me - it’s a pity that there’s nothing tangible left. No-one seems to have had the foresight to have saved parts of it. We’ve also lost a number of beautiful buildings over the years the same way.”

The festival was where Katy Loudon, then at primary school, had her first celebrity sighting: Viv Lumsden “getting a wee hurl on the back of a golf buggy.” (Broadcaster Eamonn Holmes, responding to her on Twitter, commented, “I was on that buggy too … but I wasn’t a celebrity so you wouldn’t have spotted me. It was a wonderfully exciting time and one which gave me a great bond with Glasgow. Happy days.")

Loudon, now a South Lanarkshire councillor, emails: “My memories of the site are fuzzy, and centred on interesting-to-kids things like the giant teapot. I also remember the buzz around the city when it was the City of Culture … In common with the City of Culture status, I think the festival gave Glasgow a chance to shine on a national and international stage in the same way as the Commonwealth Games did, more recently. And it has left us with many fond memories of Glasgow at play.”

Dorothy Aidulis was in her third year at university in 1988. “The festival was so colourful - something going on everywhere you looked, and it always seemed to be sunny,” she emails. “Bright blue skies and giant fluffy clouds. It was like our own wee Glasgow version of Hollywood!

“One of my favourite bits was the Alice in Wonderland section; I can't remember exactly what was there, I think some giant tea cups and Alice. I loved Alice in Wonderland as a child, we had all the books, and used to play the record at night going to bed. it was magical to see all that brought to life.

“Most people I knew had a Season Ticket for the festival,” she adds. “It was like a Transcard but with a much better destination.

"My mum was a primary teacher and they were looking for volunteers to help with a school trip to the festival so I went with my boyfriend and my uni pal. We each got assigned five weans to look after. I had the bright idea of the three of us joining up groups so we could talk to each other. Well. 15 kids between us; I hadn't quite thought that through. We spent the rest of the day counting heads constantly, terrified we would lose someone (we didn't); but we barely saw a thing.

“My lasting memories of the festival are of long bright colourful days, wandering around this amazingly transformed riverside, carefree, and proud of my city. We had high hopes they would ‘keep’ the landscapes; I didn't understand how they could put together something so elaborate just to let it all fizzle out again when it finished. But finish it did. Even though nothing material remains of our Garden Festival today, it lives on in our memories of that summer; it most definitely helped to put Glasgow on the map, and even more firmly in our hearts.”

“It was a magical summer. When can we do it again?” says Shelagh McHugh, who with husband Bryan went with their young children, James, seven, Alistair, four and two-year-old Elaine. “We made great use of the family ticket and James had his own pass. However, his wee brother wanted one so I made a ‘forgery’ that the staff allowed him to show to gain entrance.

“The days started with a rush to the Clydesdale Bank Tower before it got too busy. It was a magical time and we all regretted that some of it wasn’t kept. My husband’s aunt visited from New Zealand, it was her first visit since 1960 when she emigrated, and we all wore the T shirts with pride. We bought each of them a Gnomosapien. We remember Big Rory and Wee Malkie, the sensory garden, the play areas, the parades, all the huge sculptures like the tap and the fork. It was a magical summer (even when it rained).”

“It was the best £15 my colleague and I ever spent,” says Elspeth Campbell of the advance season pass she bought. “We were there for the opening, the closing and almost every day in between. We neglected our families for the 152 days. Always something new to see every time we were there - lovely people to blether to. Glaswegians doing what they do best, enjoying themselves and making sure everyone else was too. I watched my daughter singing with the Scouts - or was it the Guides? It was a proud moment. Got the bug and went to Newcastle, Wales and another one, but none of them were anywhere as good as our dear old Glasgow town one. Wonderful memories.”

Mark Falconer sent in a photograph of him with his mother, Agnes, at the festival: “I can recall the excitement on travelling in from East Kilbride to see this much anticipated festival (before festivals were a thing). Obviously the gardens were great, and I can recall us both overcoming our fear of heights to take a trip up in the Clydesdale Bank Tower - I'm sure I held my breath for most of the time. I remember the relaxed atmosphere - it was a warm day and everyone just seemed to be out to enjoy the experience and have a great time.”

When David Waddell asked his own mother if she remembered the festival, “her first words,” he says, “were ‘yes - Coca Cola ride!’” He was 15 when the family drove through from Fife. “It was probably my last big family outing, all of us out, before it became uncool,” David recalls. “It was a really good day. Obviously, at that age, you think – ‘garden festival, this is going to be a lot of rubbish’. I knew it had a big rollercoaster ride and that essentially was all I was going for. And when we got there the queues were massive. But there were a lot of interesting things that day.

“At first I was overawed by the size of the festival. I’d never been at a festival, or a big event, before. And Glasgow was to me like another country, because it was over on the west coast. It was a big day-trip: Mini Metros getting to Glasgow at 60 miles an hour on the motorway was an all-day session back then.

“I remember sitting on Oor Wullie’s Bucket: I was wearing my denim dungarees, because they were in fashion then. And I saw Mark McManus, who was filming an episode of Taggart at the festival. He was in a sort of Portacabin, so I just walked in and asked for his autograph. He gave me a picture of himself and scrawled on it. I remember he was ever so slightly inebriated.” Like others, David has noticed that there’s “no permanent reminder of the festival, even a mini-festival or a wee garden.”

Fiona Mackenzie, who runs the Glasgow Garden Festival 1988 group on Facebook, took her sons Blair and Colin, then aged three and five, to the festival nearly every day that summer.

“We had season tickets and we probably went at least four or five times a week.” She didn’t, she says, have any favourite parts. “I just thought it was wonderful, a great place to visit and spend the day with the kids. There was just so much to do. They had the playparks and there was a lot of entertainment on as well. I think the boys were fascinated with the McVities clock with its animated figures."

Although at the end of the festival, the fireworks farewell on Monday, September 26, went badly wrong and one man lost part of a leg when a firework exploded prematurely, it was widely hailed as a success. The Glasgow Herald, and others, had previously called for the event to be extended, but contractual obligations had made this impractical.

Still, the paper said in an editorial on September 13, the city “had enjoyed something wonderful these past few months, rotten weather and all.” In an editorial on the 27th, looking back on the five months, it said the festival had shown the visitors from Britain and the rest of the world that Glasgow “no longer matches its image as a tough, violent, slum-stricken industrial sprawl. The festival flew a flag for Glasgow’s renewal programme, which has attracted international attention.” The festival, it added, was memorable, because it had been a community experience “in which the ordinary Glaswegian felt important and wanted.”


GLASGOW’S Mitchell Library is to hold three drop-in lunchtime events later this month, showcasing a selection of original material from those five months of the Garden Festival in 1988: maps, plans, guides, menus, educational packs, news reports, photographs, car stickers and merchandise posters. The Mitchell Curious: Glasgow’s Garden Festival events will take place at 12:30pm on Monday 23rd, Wednesday 25th and Thursday 26th April. The sessions in the Let's Talk area are free to attend, but for more information please call The Mitchell Library on 0141 287 2999. Visitors to the library are also welcome to view the collection at any time by requesting access from Special Collections on Level 5 of the Mitchell.