The History of Glasgow
Glasgow is a city born and raised by its river. Since the First Century AD, the River Clyde has witnessed a modest salmon fishing community grow into Scotland’s largest city, a city once the fourth most populous in Europe and considered the engine room and second city of the British Empire.
Once the transitory populations of Celtic Druids and marauding Romans under Antoninus Pius left the G1 postcode, Glasgow’s future was transformed by the spread of Christianity. In AD380, Christian missionary Saint Ninian passed through a settlement on the banks of the River Clyde called Cathores and consecrated burial grounds which would later host the city’s cathedral. On land irrigated by the Clyde, Christianity flourished. An exiled missionary by the name of Saint Kentigern settled in Glasgow in AD543. Cathores became Glas Cu, roughly translated as ‘The Dear Green Place’. Glas Cu became Glasgow. And Saint Kentigern became known more popularly as Saint Mungo, living and preaching in Glasgow for thirteen years and leaving an indelible mark on the city, imbuing it with a sense of identity at the heart of a bishopric whose fortunes would soar in the latter years of the 12th Century when William I of Scotland granted the city borough status.
Under William I, Glasgow’s status and culture changed in ways that endure until today. Between 1189 and 1195, the last two weeks of July held the Glasgow Fair, a traditional holiday that has never been out of fashion – particularly from the 19th Century to the 1980s, when taking a trip down the Clyde, or ‘doon the watter’ in local parlance, on a paddle steamer was a summer ritual that few families failed to observe. Seaside towns on the Firth Of Clyde, like Dunoon and Bute , would register record sales of ice-cream even though anecdotal evidence testifies to the fact that it would never fail to rain during the Fair. But Glasgow in the 12th Century was still a monastic settlement. Glasgow Cathedral was built in 1136, under the rule of William’s father, David 1st of Scotland. Saint Mungo’s remains are interred in the lower church while its tower is unique in that it is the only original medieval church tower still standing in Scotland. Wars, religious squabbles and the ravishes of time would claim the rest.
Glasgow’s status steadily rose through the centuries with Glasgow University augmenting the city’s cathedral in 1451. At the behest of a papal bull from Nicholas V, Bishop William Turnbull opened the institution in the cathedral’s chapterhouse. By 1871, the university was relocated to the more auspicious locale of the West End. In its first three centuries its city had been mauled by the Reformation, lifted by the Act Of Union, and was in the throes of an Industrial Revolution that transformed a modest, unspoiled settlement of around 12,000 people to an urban city shrouded by fog and blighted by slum housing and poverty. The Reformation may have changed Glasgow’s ideology, but the Acts Of Union and the Scottish Enlightenment both acted as powerful catalyst for economic changes from which Glasgow would be irreversibly changed.
With the Acts Of Union 1707 came great opportunity for the city. With its river and its western location trumping mainland Europe, Glasgow was well positioned to become a hub of trade in an era of imperialism, with the nascent Great British Empire primed for world expansion. No longer would it be the poorer relation to those to the east of Scotland, the Americas beckoned and so too their riches. The trade of textiles, tea, sugar, rum and tobacco boomed. The River Clyde had to be deepened to accommodate the traffic: Glasgow’s merchant fleet was larger than that of their European competition. A new brand of oligarch was making his stamp on Glasgow: the Tobacco Lord. Many of Glasgow’s city centre streets bear the name of the men who grew obscenely rich on the tobacco trade, and many of their mansions still stand today.
With the money from international trade came the development of the Merchant City, sitting just west of where the city was born. The affluence spread west, with large, opulent townhouses occupying Blythswood hill and the West End. Within a few decades of the ink drying on the Union, Glasgow was transformed. But it was the Victorian era , with the aggressive industrialisation of the city, that Glasgow became the city it is today.
Once again it was by the banks of the Clyde that Glasgow would grow. Every inch of its banks was appropriated by the shipyards. From Finnieston near the city centre to the ports of Clydebank on the city’s periphery, docks hugged the contours of the river, employing thousands and attracting more from all over Scotland to work there. The demographic of Glasgow was to change. Since the Reformation, the city was a predominantly Protestant town. Yet, in this era of economic growth, the city became an economic refuge point for those displaced by the Highland Clearances and the Irish Potato Famine . Glasgow’s population soared: between 1750 and 1850, it had risen more than tenfold. Glasgow couldn’t cope. The Irish and Scottish Highlanders found little respite in Glasgow. Tenement housing was creaking at the seams, overcrowded and lacking sanitation. Glasgow was an industrial powerhouse, but the wealth didn’t necessarily reach the working classes.
Row upon row of tenement housing sprung up in the Victorian years, Glasgow’s epoch of soot and toil. In keeping with the notion of Glasgow, the dear green place, an extraordinary number of parks were commissioned. Glasgow’s denizens may not have a back garden, but greenery was only a short walk away. The city’s economic fortunes began to fade at the start of the 20th Century. The First World War changed the whole dynamics of international trade. At home, the unions in Glasgow grew ever more militant. On the 31st January 1919, soldiers were deployed in George Square as strike action over working hours descended into violence. It was moments like this that galvanised the city’s socialist ethos, long held amongst its working classes. As the 20th Century advanced, production from Glasgow’s factories and docks fell. Competition from abroad sentenced Glasgow’s heavy industry to long and painful death, eventually succumbing during the ‘80s and Thatcher ’s Britain.
The industry that gave Glasgow so much may have gone, but the city wasn’t finished. European City Of Culture, 1990, and lauded as a tourist destination, recent history has been kind to Glasgow. The River Clyde’s banks may have fallen silent since tools were downed but the Finnieston Crane, towering in the skyline is a reminder of its past. Reinvented, reinvigorated, and in keeping with the city’s motto, ‘Let Glasgow Flourish’, Glasgow is on the rise again.