Once upon a time (as all good stories begin) a small island of the wet and windswept northwest coast of Europe ruled the world; well, maybe not the whole world, but a fair chunk of it: and on that island a grimy city pumped the lifeblood of that empire: when Britannia ‘ruled the waves’ it was the City of Glasgow that provided her with the ships, raw materials and the muscle. A fluke of geography and history had placed this unique town in the right place at the right time, and yet it all started with such humble beginnings.
History of Glasgow
In the late 6th century, St Mungo the evangelical Celtic saint established a monastery on a hill above the River Clyde in what was then the Kingdom of Strathclyde. To him the place was his ‘green hollow’, which came into the Gaelic language as Glaschu, and ultimately into English as Glasgow. The religious settlement was a beacon of light, and in time it grew down the hill to the river and west towards the flat meadowland and rolling hills beyond.
In the 1190s work was begun on the building that would eventually become Glasgow Cathedral, which still stands today on the site of St Mungo’s monastery, and indeed his remains continue to lie in the vaults of the Lower Church. The 12th century also saw the elevation of the town of Glasgow to the rank of Royal Burgh. This promotion brought with it trading rights and special privileges which saw Glasgow blossom as the medieval powerhouse in the west. By the 15th century Glasgow was firmly established as one of the key cities of the kingdom along with Edinburgh, Perth and Aberdeen, and in ecclesiastical terms it was ranked second only to St Andrews, when in 1492 the See was raised to an Archbishopric. Glasgow’s star was on the rise, and then it all seemed to go stagnant –Edinburgh began to eclipse her western twin, and by the 1600s very little had changed or developed on the Clyde.
The Reformation gave the town a much needed economic boost, for where there is Calvinism Capitalism will not be far behind. The Protestant work ethic was adopted by the city, and soon it found itself trading with the Americas. There was however a major problem: the English Government blocked Scottish trading in her colonies (all part of the plan to subdue her troublesome northern neighbour). The Scots were far more inventive than the English understood however, and Glasgow was a hive of smuggling and black-marketeering. Tobacco, cotton and sugar were the main imports, and the money slowly trickled in. The floodgates opened in 1707 when Scotland and England signed the Treaty of Union. There were numerous clauses in the treaty geared to placating the Scots during the negotiations, among them the right for Scottish burghs and ports to trade with England’s American colonies. It took a while for things to kick in, and the benefits didn’t seem immediately obvious; but by the 1740s things were starting to show a marked improvement.
In 1700 the city’s population was only 15,000, by the 1780s it had risen to over 42,000 and the merchants were hauling in over 60 million tons of tobacco alone – and it would be tobacco that would change not only Glasgow’s fortunes, but the very look of the place. The merchant elite, better known as the Tobacco Lords, were literally awash with money and were looking to spend, spend, spend. They invested in everything from shipbuilding and land purchasing to the building of the most ostentatious houses in the kingdom. Few of these great houses unfortunately now remain, but a large part of the town west of the High Street was torn down to make room, and the area became known as the Merchant City. Its new streets led down to Glasgow Bridge; over to the rich farmland of the Gorbles; and up the river to the Port of the Broomielaw. A whole new city was evolving on the banks of the Clyde; one that would rival the most elegant in the country.
Forty five miles away in Edinburgh the money was also pouring in on the back of the capital’s financial revolution, and James Craig’s incredible New Town was emerging below the castle ramparts. Glasgow, always jealous of her more famous and successful nemesis embarked on her own new town building programme. The greatest innovation was the building of the stunning George Square in the 1780s, which would be the centrepiece of a radical grid-iron street pattern stretching west from the Merchant City to the mansion houses of Blythswood and Anderston. The meadowlands lying to the west of the town covered a set of steep rolling hills which presented the architects and engineers with all sorts of challenges; and one that was overcome by revolutionary and yet dynamic design. Sauchiehall Street, George Street and St Vincent Street are all bejewelled by some stunning sandstone edifaces as they climb up the slopes.
What emerged by the early 1800s was one of the most elegant and beautiful cities in Europe. Coupled with the growing ship building on the Clyde and the iron forging in the east, Glasgow’s trading arm drove the city forward at a pace that would see it become the engine room of the Industrial Revolution and the second largest city of theBritish Empire. Yet, Glasgow’s New Town, which remains one of the most innovative examples of city design in the world, is almost forgotten; overshadowed by the fame of the capital’s crescents, circuses and boulevards. It is a situation long overdue for rectitude.