On a soft Tuesday afternoon with Edwin Morgan’s grey clouds piling up I begin my walk amongst Sauchiehall Street’s tombstones. It’s on this stretch of Glasgow’s storied old boulevard where the roots of its decay are most starkly evident.

You walk past the remains of the giant brick portable cabin where Jumpin Jaks nightclub once lived and inspect the chipboard faces of all the places that once made this place shimmy: the Sauchie Beer Hall, an All You Can Eat Buffet, the old Campus drinking emporium still advertising a Venom Party from the last decade. And look, there’s the ABC concert venue, its gorgeous blue and white frontage still making its last stand.

To think that some had once reviled this edgy wee stretch of fast culture for being too unruly. What wouldn’t we all give to see Jak Jumpin’ once more?

And then it’s up vertiginous Scott Street beside the wreck of Glasgow School of Art’s ruined Mackintosh building. You try to remember the name of the night-club that once stood here – The Cotton Club, perhaps and before that Night Moves or Maestro’s? Soon you’re transfixed by the graffiti that adorns every building before it meets Hill Street. And how tall will those weeds become before the Mackintosh re-emerges?

And here’s the Mackintosh, now enfolded in its white sarcophagus, and the little groups of students which remind you that this is still a functioning art school. Your heart goes out to them, for they’d all once dreamt of studying in the Mackintosh building, one of the world’s greatest breathing works of art. Now they are part of the lost generation of alumni denied the privilege of working in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s living masterpiece. 

Across from the Mack is the Reid building, a kitschy, kitchen-foil excrescence which was somehow deemed appropriate for this elegant neighbourhood. How ironic that only since the white tarpaulin went up around the Mackintosh has the Reid building looked decent. 

The Herald: Artist Alison Watt in her Edinburgh studio. Photo Gordon Terris.Artist Alison Watt in her Edinburgh studio. Photo Gordon Terris. (Image: Newsquest)

Ten years after the first Mackintosh fire, Alison Watt, one of the most gifted painters to have emerged from Glasgow School of Art, is still affected by it. “I still can’t bring myself to walk past it,” she told me this week. “In fact, I try to avoid going anywhere near it. It’s so painful, as its character helped form me. Its beauty still haunts me: I still have dreams about it and I can still smell it. When I became a student there in 1983 I felt as though my life had just begun and I would study drawing and painting there for the next five years.

“I hate using the phrase National Treasure, but that’s what the Mackintosh is. It’s the greatest work of art that’s ever been produced in Scotland and it’s venerated across the world. It helped provide the springboard for people who don’t really fit in and, as such, it helped inspire people who would produce some of the world’s most iconic modern designs. I sometimes wonder if the people who run Scotland have ever truly grasped this.

“Yet, the Mackintosh still feels present and alive even after the fires and it’s this which gives me hope that it can be rebuilt in its entirety. To this day, I have never painted in a studio that bettered the one I worked in at the Mackintosh.”

Read more:

GSA raised over £100m from insurance and fundraising after Mack fires

Tour of Glasgow School of Art Mack building surprised us

Will the Mackintosh-designed Lighthouse shine brightly once more?

In the wake of the first fire, she’d written about how the Mack casts its spell. Ten years later, the memories and images have never faded. “There is an irresistible urge to look up to the light above,” she’d written then. “What fills your vision is a glorious network of oak beams that draws you up the main staircase to some of the most celebrated painting studios in the world. 

“Those of us who studied within its hallowed walls knew it was special, but we took the genius of Charles Rennie Mackintosh completely for granted because the building lived and breathed its purpose. We adored and abused it in equal measure. It was a building in which we were encouraged to think about the world and our place in it.”

It was around this time that I too encountered something of what had enchanted her. The Mackintosh had formed the backdrop to my first adult romance and I couldn’t quite grasp how freely I was able to wander through the entire building and its studios. Like many others, perhaps, I’d never quite appreciated how privileged I was and wished I’d paid much more attention to its wonders. 

The Herald: Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh building - the aftermathGlasgow School of Art Mackintosh building - the aftermath (Image: Newsquest)

Like many of the artists and designers who worked in the Mackintosh, Alison Watt harbours a simmering resentment that, ten years after the first fire, its fate remains uncertain. It’s a resentment shared by Paul Sweeney, the Glasgow Labour MSP.

“It’s part of a bigger malaise," he said. “A quarter of a century on from devolution and 20 years since Holyrood was built - ironically with a lot of Mackintosh-inspired references - the institution itself couldn’t give a f***  about the Mackintosh, the biggest achievement of any architect in Scottish history.”

He’s at pains to exclude the present leadership of Glasgow School of Art from much of his criticism and insists that they’ve displayed an openness and a sense of accountability lacking in the regime on whose watch the two fires occurred.

“Earlier this year I was taken through the building and it was heart-breaking. Now, you feel like you’re walking through somewhere like Melrose Abbey. It was tragic seeing it like that from what I remember as a child and young adult. It’s just a cavernous void, a ruined castle. But I was heartened too to see how much also had survived. They reckon there’s enough to fill skips from the art school down to Central Station.

“Many of the fit-outs that were intended for the rebuilt building after the first fire are still in the workshop, but we’re told that the water ingress which has necessitated it being encased in that white tent will take another two years to dry. At this stage, I don’t see a full restoration being anywhere near completion by 2030.”

Mr Sweeney also points to an institutional malaise across Glasgow and Scotland which has eroded our ability and ambition to take on big projects. “We’ve lost our gumption to take on big projects with ambition. Maybe it’s a sense of embarrassment; maybe it’s just risk aversion but the Mackintosh building is intrinsic to Glasgow’s sense of its international status.”

The Herald: Mackintosh building in 2003Mackintosh building in 2003 (Image: Newsquest)

I suggest to him that the SNP leadership has never been exactly enthusiastic about addressing Glasgow-based issues and projects. “Isn’t it about time we had a cabinet secretary for Glasgow get these issues taken seriously?”

“There absolutely should be a cabinet minister for Glasgow, Scotland’s largest and most important city. Angus Robertson has been the arts and culture minister since the second fire. But he represents an Edinburgh constituency, so maybe he’s simply not interested. I’ve been asking questions about this for a while now but it’s like talking to a brick wall.”

“It’s symbolic of something bigger: an acceptance of decline and a lack of bold leadership. Glasgow City Council recently awarding £12m to move the Glasgow Metro project forward. It sounds great until you notice that £6m of this will be given to private international consultancy firms. There’s a parasitical relationship between these firms and Scottish public money. If you asked Angus Robertson to do something about the Mackintosh he’d probably say that his government had appointed independent assessors to conduct an Options Appraisal and given them £3m to tell us what we already know.”

Six years ago, following a column I’d written after the second fire, I was rebuked by a senior member of the Glasgow School of Art management for being unduly critical of the trustees.

“If you could let me know which one of our incredibly hard-working, unpaid, heartbroken, currently grafting overtime on a daily basis, board of governors you think ‘swans around the west end looking for an OBE I’d be most illuminated,” I was told.

They may indeed have been hard-working, heartbroken and unpaid. But ten years after the first Mackintosh fire the rest of Glasgow is still wondering exactly what it was they were doing between the first and second fires and why.