A History of Glasgow

By Tim Lambert

Glasgow in the Middle Ages

Glasgow was probably founded in the 6th century when St Mungo built a church at a place called Glas Gu. (It means green place). A fishing settlement at the green place eventually grew into a small town. Glasgow was given a bishop in 1115, indicating it was a fairly important settlement by that time.

The church in Glasgow was replaced by a cathedral in 1136. The cathedral burned in 1172 but it was rebuilt. Then in the years 1175-78 (the exact date is not known), the king gave Glasgow a charter. (A charter was a document granting the townspeople certain rights). n In the Middle Ages Glasgow had a weekly market. From 1190 it also had a fair, which was held each July. In the Middle Ages, a fair was like a market but it was held only once a year and people would come from a wide area to buy and sell at one.

In Glasgow, there were many craftsmen including butchers and bakers. There were also skinners, tanners, and glovers (leather glove makers) in Glasgow as well as fullers (men who cleaned and thickened wool by pounding it in a mixture of water and clay) and dyers. There were also many fishermen in Glasgow.

Medieval Glasgow probably had a population of about 1,500. That seems very small to us but in the Middle Ages towns were much smaller than they are today. Even so, in the Middle Ages Glasgow was not one of Scotland’s larger or more important towns. One reason for this is that Glasgow was on the wrong side of Scotland to trade with European countries such as Germany, Belgium, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries. Furthermore, Glasgow competed with other towns on the Clyde (Dumbarton, Rutherglen, and Renfrew). The little town of Glasgow only consisted of 4 main streets laid out in a cross.

Yet Dominican friars (known as black friars because of the color of their costumes) came to Glasgow in 1260. The friars were like monks and took vows of chastity and poverty but instead of withdrawing from society, they went out to preach. There were also hospitals in Glasgow run by the Church. In them, monks would care for the sick as best they could. A hospital for lepers was founded south of the Clyde in 1350.

In the late Middle Ages Glasgow slowly grew more important. In 1410 the wooden bridge across the Clyde was replaced with a stone one. Glasgow did not have stone walls but it did have stone gates (the spaces between them were filled by houses). Then in 1491, the Bishop of Glasgow was granted the right to operate a public scale for weighing the produce. It was called the Tron and it gave its name to the Trongate.

As a sign of its growing importance, Glasgow in 1451 Glasgow was allowed to have a university. The Papal document that founded the university described Glasgow as a ‘place of renown, where the air is mild and victuals are plentiful’. A grammar school was founded in Glasgow in 1460.

Meanwhile, in 1454, Glasgow was made a royal burgh. Then in 1492, Glasgow was given an archbishop.

In the early Middle Ages there was one general market in Glasgow but as the town grew separate markets were held. By the late 15th century there was a salt market (which lives on as a place name). There was also a wool and linen market about the market cross. A fruit and vegetable market was held in Gallowgate. There was also a meat market just north of Trongate, a fish market at Westport, a horse market, and a grain market by the High Street.

Glasgow in the 16th Century and 17th Century

In 1526 Archbishop Blackadder founded another hospital in Glasgow. However, Glasgow was besieged several times during the 16th century in 1516, 1517, 1544, 1560, 1568, and 1570. During these sieges, cannons damaged the castle.

Yet Glasgow grew rapidly during this era. By the 17th century, Glasgow probably had a population of 7,000. By 1700 it was about 12,000. In 1626 a new tollbooth was built. It was demolished in 1812 except for the steeple. In 1649 a writer called Glasgow ‘one of the most considerable burghs of Scotland as well for buildings as for the trade’. Hutchesons ‘Hospital’ for old men and orphans opened in 1650.

However, the plague struck Glasgow in 1646. There was also a disastrous fire in Glasgow in 1652 and another fire in 1677. However, each time the plague struck Glasgow recovered and it continued to grow and prosper.

The Merchant’s House where merchants met to talk shop was built in 1659. The building was demolished in 1817 except for the steeple which lives on as the merchant’s steeple.

By the late 17th century there were several industries in Glasgow including, soap boiling, sugar processing, rope making, glass making, cloth making, and porcelain making. There were also factories where candles were made. Meanwhile, the first quay was built at Broomielaw in 1601. It was rebuilt several times during the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1668 the town council purchased land further along the Clyde. They built quays and warehouses there and Port Glasgow came into being.

In 1674 the first cargo of tobacco arrived in Glasgow. It soon became one of Glasgow’s most important imports. Once colonies were founded in North America and the West Indies Glasgow benefited from its position on the west of Scotland.

However Glasgow, like all towns at that time, was dirty and unsanitary. Some attempt was made to improve things in 1685 when the authorities forbade people to leave piles of dung outside their houses. (There was, of course, a great deal of horse dung as well as dung from animals on their way to the market or the slaughterhouse).

Glasgow in the 18th Century

By the beginning of the 18th century, Glasgow probably had a population of about 12,000 and it grew rapidly. By the end of the century, the population of Glasgow had reached 84,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large town.

In the 1720’s Daniel Defoe described Glasgow: ‘Glasgow is, indeed, a very fine city, the four principal streets are the fairest for breadth, and the finest built that I have ever seen in one city together. The houses are all of stone and generally equal and uniform in height’. He also said ‘It is the cleanest and most beautiful, and best city in Britain, London excepted’.

As Glasgow grew new streets were laid out. In the 1720s Candleriggs and King Street were built. In 1751 the West Port or gate was demolished and the main obstacle to westward growth was removed. Virginia Street was built in 1753 and Jamaica Street was built in 1763. Queen Street followed in 1777 and St Enochs Square in 1783. Buchanan Street was built in 1786 and St Georges Square in 1787. In the 1790s Hutcheson Street and Glassford Street were built.

During the 18th century, a new suburb grew up at the Gorbals. Meanwhile, Pollock House was built in 1752. The Royal Exchange was built in 1775. A second bridge over the Clyde was built in 1772.

In the 18th century, Glasgow was famous for its fine linen. In the late 18th century cotton spinning became a major industry in Glasgow. Meanwhile, Glasgow gained its first newspaper in 1715. Pollok House was built about 1752. It was given to the city in 1966. A second bridge over the Clyde was built in 1772 and the castle was finally demolished in 1792. Glasgow gained its first (not very effective) police force in 1788 and the Royal Infirmary was built in 1794. Meanwhile, the Monkland Canal opened in 1793.

Glasgow in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, Glasgow continued to grow very rapidly. By 1871 it had reached a population of half a million. This was despite a very high infant mortality rate. (Up to half of all children born died before their 5th birthday). Poor people in Glasgow lived in dreadfully overcrowded conditions. Most of them lived in one or two rooms in tenements.

Meanwhile, the Nelson Monument was built in 1806. The first museum in Glasgow, the Hunterian, opened in 1807. It is named after Dr William Hunter who left his collection to the university in 1783.

The Botanic Gardens were laid out in 1817. Also that year St Andrews the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Glasgow was built. Argyle Arcade was built in 1827. Necropolis Cemetery was laid out in 1833. Many rich merchants were buried there in elaborate tombs.

Glasgow Green was laid out as a park between 1815 and 1826. Kelvingrove Park was laid out in 1852. In 1862 Queens Park opened. Alexandra Park followed in 1870. Meanwhile, the Custom House was built in 1840. St George’s Cross was built in 1837.

A Corn Exchange where grain was bought and sold was built in Hope Street in 1843 and Glasgow School of Art was founded in 1845. The Athenaeum was built in 1847. Glasgow Academy was formed in 1846.

Caledonia Road Church was built in 1857 but burned in 1965. St Vincent Street Church was built in 1859 by Alexander Thomson (1817-1875). Great Western Terrace was built in 1870.

Many more buildings were erected in Glasgow in the 19th century. The Stock Exchange was built on Buchanan Street in 1875. Also in 1875, the Fish Market was built. Mitchell Library was built in 1877. The City Chambers were built in 1888. Queens Cross Church was built in 1897 by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). The same man also built the Glasgow School of Art Building in 1909.

Transport also improved in Glasgow in the 19th century. In 1845 the first horse-drawn buses began running in Glasgow. From 1872 they were replaced by horse-drawn trams. After 1898 the trams changed to electricity. (The first electricity-generating station in Glasgow was built in 1893). Queen Street station was built in 1842. Buchanan Street station was built in 1849. The central station followed in 1879. Glasgow gained an underground railway in 1896.

In the mid-19th century, Glasgow was described as ‘possibly the filthiest and unhealthiest of all the British towns’. There were outbreaks of cholera in Glasgow in 1849 and 1854. The first time 3,777 people died. The second time 3,885 died.

However, conditions in Glasgow improved in the later 19th century. In 1859 Glasgow gained a piped water supply. In 1893 the first electric streetlights were switched on in Glasgow but they only slowly replaced gas. Also in the late 19th century, a network of sewers was built in Glasgow. n Furthermore the Albert Bridge was built in 1871. A pedestrian tunnel under the Clyde was built in 1895. In 1898 the Peoples Palace opened on Glasgow Green.

Major industries in Glasgow in the 19th century included shipbuilding, Cotton, engineering, carpet making, pottery, and glass. In the late 19th century the port’s facilities were greatly improved by building docks and new quays. The tonnage of ships built in the city rose from 20,000 in the year 1850 to 5000,000 in 1900. In 1888 an International Exhibition of Science and Art was held in Glasgow.

Glasgow in the 20th Century

In the 20th century amenities in Glasgow continued to improve. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery opened in 1901. The Kings Theatre in Bath Street was built in 1904.

However, in the 1930s, Glasgow suffered severe unemployment. Shipbuilding was one of the industries hardest hit by the depression, although it revived with the coming of the Second World War. On the other hand, the first serious slum clearance in Glasgow began in the 1930s, and in 1938 the Empire Exhibition was held on the site of Bellahouston Park.

During the Second World War Glasgow suffered from German bombing along with other towns in Clydeside. However, Glasgow escaped severe damage.

From the 1950s employment in Glasgow changed. In the 1930s most jobs were in manufacturing but in the 1960s and 1970s, the situation changed so that most jobs were in service industries.

In the 1960s and 1970s, like many cities, Glasgow embarked on a program of slum clearance. Large areas of the central city like Gorbals were demolished. Some people were re-housed in flats. Others were re-housed in ‘overspill’ towns such as Glenrothes, Irvine, East Kilbride, Cumbernauld and Livingstone.

Other houses were demolished to make way for the M8 motorway. The last trams in Glasgow ran in 1962. In 1965 a road tunnel under the Clyde was built. In 1970 Kingston Bridge was built.

Also in 1970 Glasgow’s Central Mosque was built. Meanwhile, Strathclyde University was formed in 1964.

In the last part of the 20th century, Glasgow turned to art and its heritage to attract visitors and provide jobs. The Hunterian Art Gallery opened in 1980. In 1983 the Burrell Collection went on display in a museum on the grounds of Pollock House. The Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre was built in 1985. The Clyde Auditorium was added in 1997.

The McLellan galleries were severely damaged by fire in 1985. They were refurbished and reopened in 1990. Then the Gallery of Modern Art was built in 1996.

Meanwhile, in 1988, a Garden Festival was held in Glasgow. In 1990 it was made a European city of culture. Also in 1990, the Royal Concert Hall was opened. In 1999 Glasgow was designated the UK city of architecture and design.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the traditional manufacturing industries of Glasgow went into a steep decline but the service industries grew. Industries such as retail, finance, and tourism flourished. The St Enoch Centre opened in 1989. The St Mungos Museum of Religious Life and Art opened in 1993. Buchanan Galleries Shopping Centre was built in 1999.

A view of Glasgow Cathedral
Glasgow Cathedral

Glasgow in the 21st Century

In the early 21st century Glasgow flourished. The IMAX cinema opened in 2000 and the Clyde Arc Bridge opened in 2006. In 2023 the population of Glasgow was 617,000.

Last revised 2024