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A Tale of Two Cities: Edinburgh and Glasgow

You could travel between Glasgow and Edinburgh in under an hour on one of the dozens of trains that run between these two cities each day. But, argues poet and cultural critic Robert Crawford, “Perhaps the most intellectually honest way … would be to fly westward from Glasgow Airport over the Atlantic, crossing North America, the northern Pacific, Asia, and continental Europe, before … landing at Edinburgh Airport. That way, at least, one would arrive from Glasgow psychologically prepared” (Robert Crawford, On Glasgow and Edinburgh).

This course is about the celebrated rivalry between two neighboring Scottish cities that think of themselves as embodying two different visions of urban modernity. Edinburgh has long seen itself as a city of education, culture, and elegance—a former and, perhaps, future capital of an independent Scotland. Glasgow, by contrast, sees itself as a rougher, more energetic city that wears its industrial heritage with pride. How much truth do these sweeping stereotypes about each city hold?  Why have certain myths about each city persisted across centuries? And why, despite actually having so much in common, do the residents of these two cities so treasure their rivalry – why are they so invested in being different?

Inside the Classroom 

This course will explore the myths and realities of each city’s self-image, particularly through the study of their histories. In addition to historical scholarship, we will read gritty novels, deeply personal memoirs, and utopian urban planning reports. We will use these and other sources to attempt to understand Glasgow and Edinburgh from both a top-down and bottom-up perspective. That is to say, we will seek to examine the larger structures of the city as well as how people have inhabited these cities—how they have experienced living in them. In so doing, we will grapple with questions of identity and power: how cities shape the lives of their residents and how residents shape their cities. 

Outside the Classroom

COVID permitting, the plan is to visit Glasgow and Edinburgh for a week.  During our time there, we will go to a variety of museums, including some small, specialized museums dedicated to capturing the specific character of each city. We will also meet with people involved in government and non-governmental projects to address some of the problems that each city continues to face. Many of these problems have existed, in various forms, for decades or even centuries. 

Should circumstances not allow for travel to Scotland, we will try to arrange some virtual meetings and/or visit some museums in Richmond.

Research and Capstone Project

During the Spring semester, students will explore the historical roots of one dimension of Glasgow and Edinburgh’s rivalry, a social problem facing one or both cities, or another issue.  They will present their findings to the class and the wider university community. 

About HIST 299

HIST 299 has no prerequisites and can count towards the major or minor in History.

Course Fast Facts

Dr. Chris Bischof

Fall Course:
HIST 299: A Tale of Two Cities: Edinburgh and Glasgow (1 unit)

Spring Course:
IDST 290:A Tale of Two Cities seminar (.5 unit)

Group Travel:
Edinburgh & Glasgow (Winter Break)

Year(s) Offered:

Sample Course Readings

Ralph Glasser, Growing Up in the Gorbals

Robert Crawford, On Glasgow and Edinburgh

A. McArthur and H. Kingsley Long, No Mean City

Lisa Rosner, The Anatomy Murders

James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Danny Boyle, Trainspotting