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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter X - Town Council Activities


AMONG the questions which came up for decision by the Town Council immediately after the Union was the dispute between the barbers and surgeons. In 1656 these practitioners had, on their joint application, been erected into a craft, with a deacon of their own, by the city fathers. Since then, however, serious differences had grown up between them. The surgeons had come to regard themselves as of higher qualifications than the barbers, and to resist the claim of the barbers to admit to the craft, and to the practice of surgery, individuals who had not proved their possession of these qualifications. Apparently the surgeons had been inclined to carry matters with a high hand, and to exclude from membership of the craft men of the more humble calling.

It was a delicate question for the Town Council to settle, for the barbers still performed certain of the simpler operations of surgery, such as blood-letting. But the Council, after hearing the report of a committee, decided very wisely. All the qualified barbers who had been excluded were to be admitted to the craft, and their apprentices were to be "booked" from the date of their indentures. At the same time the barbers were to take no part in judging the qualifications of surgeons for admission to the craft, and barbers and surgeons were to have equal rights to vote and to hold office. [Burgh Records, 16th Sept. 1707; 4th Jan. 1714.] Thus was patched up for a time the rent which in the end was to separate the learned profession of surgery from the humbler business of the barber of later times.

Further calls for the exercise of wise judgment arose out of the custom of the time by which the Town Council fixed the prices of the various necessaries of life, such as candles and ale and bread. The advocates of a similar practice at the present day—the control of prices by public authority—may find much to interest them in the working of the system in the eighteenth century.

In October 1707 the magistrates and council ordered that the twelve-penny loaf should weigh 14 ounces, and that the price of candles should be 46s. 8d. per stone. In each case they appear to have fixed an impossible price. The candle-makers were the first to show their disapproval. Michael Smith, in the presence of the council, "in a rude and unbecoming way," declared that he would not obey the statute, while Archibald Allason as boldly stated that he would evade the order by going to live in the Gorbals, buying his tallow elsewhere than from the fleshers of the burgh, and making his candles and selling them as he chose. To secure obedience the magistrates imprisoned the rebellious candle-makers in the Tolbooth, and it was only after a month's seclusion that they agreed to obey the edict of the council.

The bakers were less violent and more successful in their protest. They took pains to show that, as the price of wheat had risen to £10 Scots per boll, it was not possible to make the 12d. loaf of the weight ordered. The magistrates then reconsidered the facts, and found it advisable to reduce the weight of the loaf to "eleven ounces and three drops." [Ibid. 11th Oct. 1707; 22nd Jan. 1708.]

In similar fashion modern ideas as to a common responsibility for the upkeep of roads and bridges were forestalled two hundred years before the era of tar macadam. In 1712 the Town Council agreed to contribute to the repair of Inchbelly bridge and of the road between it and Kilsyth, which had become impassable under the traffic between Glasgow and Edinburgh. They also, on the representation of the Earl of Wigtown, agreed to join in a petition to Parliament for the rebuilding of the bridge at Kirkintilloch, which had been destroyed by a great flood. For the repair of Calder bridge, one end of which was in Stirlingshire and the other in Lanarkshire, they agreed to contribute £5 sterling. They paid John Campbell of Blythswood £5 sterling towards laying a causeway at Inchinnan. For the rebuilding of bridges in Upper Clydesdale, which carried the traffic to England, they paid William Baillie of Littlegill £10 sterling, on condition that the inhabitants of Glasgow should be allowed to pass free of toll. And they even sent £10 to Elgin to help in the building of a harbour at Lossiemouth. [Burgh Records, 24th Jan. 1712; 27th Feb. 1713 ; 4th Jan. and 2nd July, 1714; 3rd Jan. 1717; 16th Oct. 1708.]

In the absence also of any such device as insurance against fire, the Town Council again and again, as in the case of the widow of John Anderson of Dowhill, granted a sum of money to help the rebuilding of a tenement, and even to help the owner of the damaged property if in straits. [Ibid. 24th Jan. and 27th May, 1712.]

From first to last the magistrates maintained a lively interest in education. The Grammar School was, of course, their particular care, and they did not hesitate to cashier the "doctors," or masters there, if their services proved unsatisfactory. In 1717 they summarily discharged the second and third doctors, and directed Mr. George Skirvin, the rector, to write to a schoolmaster in Bathgate, whom they proposed to appoint as second "doctor," in place of one of the dismissed. But they also took a wider purview. The fortunes of the city were largely on the sea, and by way of securing the necessary supply of skilled ship-masters the city fathers agreed to pay one James Muir a yearly "pension," or allowance, of £100 Scots for his encouragement in teaching mathematics and navigation in the burgh. [Ibid. 18th Sept. 1707.] Three years later they commissioned the provost, while in London, to secure a teacher of writing, arithmetic, and book-keeping, and they agreed to pay the man thus secured, a certain Thomas Mew, a salary of twenty pounds for the first year and fifteen pounds for each year afterwards. [Ibid. 19th Aug. 1710.] And again, on the suggestion of the principal of the University, and "for the good of the place," one John Grandpre was induced to come from Edinburgh and open a school for the teaching of French, at a salary of £12 10s. sterling yearly. [Ibid. 1st April, 1714.]

At the same time the Town Council was not less active and efficient in maintaining its vested rights. A notable occurrence of those years was the attempt of the inhabitants of Gorbals to act as an independent community. As feuars on the burgh's property they were thirled to the town's mills. That is, they were obliged to have their malt and other grain ground at these mills, and in this way to contribute to the "Common Good" of the city. In 1715, however, they proceeded to set up a mill of their own, and to use it for the grinding of their malt.

It was the first beginning of a recalcitrance which might have led to the setting up of an independent community on the opposite bank of the Clyde. But the Town Council was equal to the occasion. It promptly withdrew from the inhabitants of Gorbals the valuable privilege of crossing Glasgow bridge free of toll, and it directed the bailie of Gorbals to withdraw the permission to keep a school in the town's chapel or prison in Gorbals, which was to return to its use as a prison only. These measures helped to bring the feuars of Gorbals to reason, and their case became still further urgent when they saw the road through their village sink deeper and deeper in mire for lack of means to repair it properly.

It was not, however, till two years later, on the intervention of two lords of justiciary and a lord of session, Sir John Maxwell of Pollok, that the quarrel was finally settled. On the Gorbals feuars promising before these lords, who were "all justices of the peace," to return to the use of the town's mills, and also to cart the necessary stones and sand, the magistrates and council agreed to repair and causeway the main road through the village. [Burgh Records, 12th Apr. 1715; 21st May, 1717.]

Shortly before this the lords of justiciary were required to intervene in another curious Glasgow affair. In a circuit court at Jedburgh, eight gipsies, six of them women, some of them aged, and one of them with a child, had been sentenced to be transported to the plantations, as "habit and repute gipsies, sorners, etc." They had been brought to Glasgow and lodged in the Tolbooth to await shipment, but no shipowner or shipmaster would take them on the mere prospect of receiving payment for them from the colonists. Glasgow promptly complained of the burden of supporting criminals with whose delinquencies the city had no concern, and the lords of justiciary, considering that it would cost more to keep the gipsies in prison than to pay for their transport, agreed to expend £13 for their passage to Virginia. The merchants who agreed to accept the freight were James Lees, Charles Crawford, and Robert Buntine of Ardoch, and the Border nomads were duly embarked on the good ship Greenock, James Watson, commander, and sent to form part of the population of the New World. [Ibid. 1st Jan. 1715.]

No more than two months after this incident the Tolbooth was apparently the scene of another occurrence, which may have furnished Sir Walter Scott with the suggestion for the scene in his romance of Rob Roy, which has made the old prison and court-house of Glasgow famous for all time. The Highland cateran might quite well, indeed, have been the actual moving cause of the incident. In the year 1715 he was, as a matter of fact, at the height of his activities, and the novelist was not exercising much stretch of fancy in making him appear mysteriously in the Tolbooth of Glasgow.

The incident which Scott describes seems to have been pretty much the incident which actually occurred. All the world remembers how Rob Roy's henchman, "the Dougal Cratur," as turnkey of the prison, first secured his chief's escape from the dungeon, and then returned to throw his keys with derision and defiance at Bailie Nicol Jarvie's feet. The actual sequel to the story would seem to be furnished by the Town Council records. These narrate that the town's jailor, James Montgomery, had made a habit of absenting himself from his post, and had entrusted the keeping of the prison to a servant who had given no guarantee for his good faith. The behaviour of that servant had proved unsatisfactory, and the magistrates had found it necessary to place the keys in the hands of one of the town's officers. The Town Council thereupon required Montgomery to find caution within a week, both for himself and for any new servant he might appoint, on pain of immediate dismissal from his post. With this demand the jailor immediately complied, among his sureties being such well-known personages as Sir James Hamilton of Rosehall, Colin Campbell of Blythswood, John Walkinshaw of Barrowfield, and John Wallace of Elderslie. [Ibid. 28th March and 12th April, 1715.] Sir Walter Scott, in one of his many visits to Glasgow, may have been told details of the occurrence which have now been forgotten. The incident seems to be only another proof of the closeness with which the Waverley Novels, even in matters of minor detail, were founded on historic fact.


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