Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 1 - Glasgow – a free spirit

History & Heritage

This article is available in full as part of History & Heritage, visit now for more free articles and information.


Scotland Magazine Issue 1
March 2002


This article is 16 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Glasgow – a free spirit

Tom Bruce-Gardyne takes a swift trip back in time on contemporary Glasgow's streets

For a brief historical tour round Glasgow one place to start and possibly finish would be the St Enoch Centre on Argyle St. Despite her somewhat curious name, St Enoch was the ‘Mother of All Glasgow’ who set up a religious community here with her son Mungo in the 6th century AD. While Mungo went on to establish the cathedral and become the city’s patron saint, his mother’s name lives on in this massive 1980s shopping mall – apparently the largest glassed-in area in Europe. If retail is the new religion as they say, St Enoch’s certainly attracts more pilgrims than St Mungo’s on a Sunday, and helps make Glasgow the UK’s top shopping destination after London.

This post-industrial claim to fame touted by the tourist board may well be true, but as catchphrases go, it doesn’t come close to ‘second city of the Empire’. The word ‘Empire’ is particularly poignant, for no city rode the wave of Britain’s Imperial expansion with such aplomb or crashed with such pain when it finally broke. So to get a glimpse of how this roller-coaster ride began we need to move a few blocks east to the Merchant City which once belonged to the great trader barons of the 18th century.

Today, with its cool bars and warehouse conversions, this is as close as Glasgow gets to Greenwich Village. But in spite of such developments, there is much of the past that remains unburied even if the mingled fragrance of tobacco, sugar and spice no longer wafts down the streets as it once did. There are some real architectural gems here, great palaces of trade in pale sandstone that lay derelict for decades. The fact that they were not flattened in the 50s as would have happened in almost any other city was simply due to lack of money – even the developers were broke. Now of course, the buildings are heavily listed.

Though tentative trading links with the planters of Virginia and Maryland were already in place before the Act of Union in 1707, the great tobacco boom took off afterwards. Within 60 years the city was handling 40% of all the tobacco shipped into Britain. No other British port could compete on price or speed with reaching the eastern seaboard of North America. The tobacco fleet was actually moored a fair way down the Clyde estuary at Port Glasgow. In the city itself at Broomielaw where the great terminals were later built to handle the ocean-going ships, the river was just 15” deep at low tide. Attempts to dredge the river did not begin until the 1770s.

However, the focus was already firmly fixed on transatlantic trade down the Clyde, and if the great weed was in demand back home, some profitable use for the cargo space had to be found for the outbound voyage. The answer was to take advantage of the local hand-weaving industry and start shipping linen – a trade which had grown to nearly two million yards by 1771. When the American War of Independence erupted five years later, this colonial trade came to an abrupt end, but the Tobacco Lords had been careful to reinvest their wealth in new ventures. Soon, be it in textiles, paper, leather or chemicals, Glasgow was becoming ‘a perfect beehive in point of industry’, to quote novelist Tobias Smollett. It also became increasingly crowded and polluted. Charles Tennant’s St Rollox chemical works was probably the largest business of its kind in the world, and employed over 1,000 people by the 1830s. Its mighty 450- foot stack, known as Tennant’s stalk, was a prominent city landmark for 80 years, belching out a pall of sickly yellow smoke. Glasgow’s population overtook Edinburgh’s in the early 19th century and continued spiralling up with displaced Highlanders, cleared to make room for sheep, and later Irish, fleeing famine and the potato blight. The only check on growth was disease, especially cholera and typhoid, and infant mortality. Among the chilling statistics, only half of those born in 1850 would live beyond their fifth birthday.

Meanwhile down on the Clyde, the great slanting docks cut into the riverbanks had begun to creep upstream to Govan and the Broomielaw. With abundant iron-ore and coal nearby, the great shipyards were poised to pounce as the world’s shipping lines embraced iron. From baking biscuits and blowing glass to building tramcars and trains, the vast majority of Glaswegians never built a ship in their life. Yet most of what was produced sailed off to the far-flung corners of the British Empire in a Clyde-built steamer, such that the river and shipbuilding came to symbolise the city. It was the industry in which Glasgow led the world, and in a peak year like 1864, over 60% of all the iron ships built were launched here.

For much of the 20th century the annual tonnage of new shipping was a barometer of Glasgow’s health. This swung violently from half a million tons in 1930 to just 56,000 three years later. It picked up with the advent of war, but the game was already over. Whether it was bad management, restrictive unions, growth in air travel, unfair foreign competition – who knows? – shipbuilding was soon dead, and by the late 70s pretty much all heavy industry had followed suit. The time for shedding tears is gone. Having wandered down to the Clyde to pay your respects, and admired the models of the great liners in the Museum of Transport, you can then let this thoroughly modern, spontaneous, free spirit of a city sweep you away.