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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter XIII - Social Life and Manners


IT is to be feared that the increase of prosperity which followed the Union tended to lessen the ecclesiastical fervour of the people of Glasgow, whose interest had previously been concentrated largely on affairs of the Church and religion. New fields of activity were opened up, and the world was becoming a wider place. There was less time and less inclination, there- fore, for consideration of points of church government and religious doctrine. The Rev. Robert Wodrow, of the neighbouring Renfrewshire parish of Eastwood, and historian of the Covenanters, found occasion to regret the change. The increase of wealth, he perceived, had a tendency to abate the godly habits of the people. There was already a party in the city who were no longer inclined to pay absolute deference to ministers, and who were disposed to mock at serious things. Where there had been seventy-two prayer meetings in the year there were now only four or five, and in their stead there were meetings of secular clubs at which subjects of mere mundane interest were discussed. In view of this change Wodrow seems to have rather approved than otherwise the blow struck at the tobacco trade and the prosperity of the city by the jealous competitors in England. "This, they say, will be twenty thousand pounds loss to that place. I wish it may be sanctified to them! " [Wodrow's Analecta, iii. 129.]

There was quite evidently a new process of development going on. Wodrow complains that young men who went abroad to hold mercantile positions, came home again with ideas modified by the customs of other countries. Church discipline was less reverently regarded and less devoutly submitted to than formerly, and after a noted " heresy hunt " of the time, carried through presbytery and synod against the too enlightened views of Professor Simson, some of the college lads had even gone the length of writing a play poking fun at the city clergy. Such a state of things, in the view of Mr. Wodrow, might be expected to bring upon the city some devastating stroke of Providence. [John Simson, professor of divinity—not to be confounded with Robert Simson, the celebrated professor of mathematics, was the subject of a "case" which occupied the church courts and the University authorities for many years. Its progress is fully detailed by Coutts in his History of the University, pp. 210-232.]

Nevertheless, according to John Macky, the author of A Journey through Scotland in 1723, the city was soundly Presbyterian in religion, and "the best affected to the Government in Scotland." Regarding its commerce Macky said that there arrived from the plantations as many as "twenty or thirty ships every year, laden with tobacco and sugar, an advantage this kingdom never enjoyed till the Union." Glasgow itself he declared to be "the beautifullest little city I have seen in Britain," and he specially admired its regular and spacious streets and its houses "of equal height and supported with pillars," an allusion to the piazzas which were a feature of the buildings round the cross.

Edward Burt, the English engineer officer, who saw the city in 1726, declared it to be "the most uniform and prettiest he had seen. "The houses," he said "are faced with ashlar stone. They are well sashed, all of one model, and piazzas rise round them on either side, which gives a good air to the buildings." [Burt, Letters, i. 22.]

McUre's description of the city in 1736 is well known, with its picture of the town "surrounded with cornfields, kitchen and flower gardens, and beautiful orchards, abounding with fruits of all sorts, which by reason of the open and large streets, send forth a pleasant and odoriferous smell."  [History of Glasgow, p. 122.]

Defoe in his Tour of 1727 describes the development of the 'previous twenty years. "Glasgow," he says, "is a city of business, and has the pace of foreign as well as of domestic trade. Nay, I may say, 'tis the only city in Scotland at this time that apparently increased in both. The Union has, indeed, answered its end to them more than to any other part of the kingdom, their trade being new formed by it; for as the Union opened the door to the Scots into our American colonies, the Glasgow merchants presently embraced the opportunity.... They now send their 50 sail ships every year to Virginia, New England, and other colonies in America."

The expense of living in the city at that time was very small, a fact which accounted to a considerable extent for the success of the tobacco traders in competing with their rivals in England. In 1708, the year after the Union, when the population numbered 12,766, nearly five hundred houses were untenanted, and the rents of the others were said to have fallen by nearly one-third. The highest rent then paid for a house was £100 Scots, or £8 6s. 8d. sterling. At the first valuation, four years later, the highest rent paid for a shop was £5 sterling and the lowest 12s., while for the 202 shops in the town the aggregate rent was no more than £623 15s. 4d. There were very few self-contained houses. Most, even of the well-known and wealthy citizens, lived only in a flat in a tenement. In 1712 three ladies of title, including the Countess of Glencairn, with seven others, occupied houses in "Spreull's Land" in Trongate, between Hutchesons Hospital and the Shawfield Mansion, and therefore in the fashionable West End, and the highest rent paid by any of them was £10 3s. 4d. [Curiosities of Glasgow Citzenship, pp. 12-15.]

The habits of living in the city were correspondingly simple and frugal. For the small business community the day began early. At six o'clock in the morning the post arrived from Edinburgh. After 1717 it came on horseback. When it was ready for delivery the postmaster, whose salary was £12 a year, fired a gun to let the citizens know. When they had called for and looked at their correspondence, they returned to their houses, usually above their places of business, and enjoyed their breakfast of porridge, herring or an egg, and bannocks, with "swats" or small ale as the beverage. Then came the hours of business, when they bargained with customers in their little shops—it was always the business of the purchaser to "cheapen" an article—or sorted out, at the Broomielaw, goods suitable for the plantations for shipment to Port-Glasgow, or interviewed a bailie regarding the admission of a relative as a burgess "at the near hand," or negotiated the feu of a bit of the town's land for the building of a malt kiln. As noon drew near, some of the merchants might be seen at the half-door of their shops, exchanging a word with a neighbour or a passing customer; and when the bells in the steeple of the Tolbooth rang out their merry tune, there was an adjournment to the nearest tavern for a "meridian," and the exchange of news, much as an adjournment is made to some coffee-room in the twentieth century for a "coffee" and a word on some point of business with a friend.

Meanwhile the mistress of the house upstairs had been not less busy. First the barefoot servant lass went to the public well with her pair of wooden "stoups" on a hoop, and waited her turn to draw the supply of water for the day. Then, when the house had been "tidied up," and the breakfast dishes washed and put away, she might have to accompany her mistress with a basket to the markets near the cross for supplies of butter and eggs, a fowl to boil (costing threepence), a gigot of mutton, or a silver grilse (at a penny a pound) from the Clyde. [The public market, or area in which stalls were set up in the streets, extended from Bell's Wynd in High Street to Princes Street in Saltmarket, and from King Street in Trongate to the Molendinar bridge in Gallowgate. This was the only area in which unfreemen were allowed to expose their wares.] There was also, probably, in the house the " mart," or part of a bullock, salted down at Martinmas, which, boiled in broth or with curly greens from the kailyard, formed a never-failing standby. Fresh meat was rare in winter. Its arrival in the market was announced by sending the bellman through the streets. [Strang's Glasgow Clubs, p. 75.]

At the dinner hour, twelve or one o'clock, the merchants locked their shops and warehouses, and, with their apprentices, adjourned for the chief meal of the day. Dinner was a homely affair—broth made with barley and green vegetables (there were few root crops in those days), a bit of boiled beef, or, when the materials were available, a haggis, with, for beverage, again the inevitable "sma' yill."

The room in which the meal was served was often also a bedroom, with "enclosed beds," like cupboards in the wall. It was here also that the lady of the house entertained her guests at "four hours" in the afternoon, when they dropped in for a gossip over a "masking" of tea sipped out of fragile china cups without handles, the treasured possession of the hostess, which she carefully washed and put away with her own hands so soon as the visitors left. The single public room of the house was only used on very special occasions—marriages, funerals, and the like—and for the rest of the time remained gloomy and un-aired. [New Stat. Account, vi. 230; Strang's Glasgow Clubs, pp. 16 and 18 (notes).]

According to Jupiter Carlyle, who, as a divinity student, spent the winters of 1743 and 1744 in Glasgow, "The manner of living," of the townspeople, "at this time, was but coarse and vulgar. Very few of the wealthiest gave dinners to anybody but English riders, or their own relations at Christmas holidays. There were not half a dozen families in town who had men-servants; some of those were kept by the professors who had boarders. There were neither post-chaises nor hackney-coaches, and only three or four sedan-chairs for carrying midwives about in the night, and old ladies to church, or to the dancing assemblies once a fortnight." [Autobiography, p. 75.]

Almost nothing is recorded of the life of an older nobility in the city, though the " Duke's Lodging " at the corner of Drygate and High Street, on the spot where the great prison now stands, was for long the greatest mansion in the town, and from 1714 onwards, for some 16o years, the successive Dukes of Montrose were Chancellors of the University, [Murray, The Old College of Glasgow, p. 41, and p. 8 (McArthur's map of 1778).] while Mugdock Castle, near Milngavie, some five miles north of the city, was the chief messuage of the family till in 1682 the Duke, who was first Rob Roy's partner and afterwards his enemy, bought Buchanan House and estate on Loch Lomondside from the creditors of the Chief of Buchanan.

At eight o'clock in the city shop and warehouse closed, and presently the merchants betook themselves to the cosy tavern parlours of the town, where they discussed the latest news over a modest bowl of punch. At nine o'clock they returned home for supper, family worship, and bed.

Such was the daily mode of life even of the most prosperous inhabitants of the city until the wealth that came in a golden stream from the great Virginia trade induced individuals to build stately mansions of a new order, and set up the civic aristocracy which was to become famous under the name of the "Tobacco Lords."

It is interesting to note that at least one of the businesses carried on in these conditions in the city of that time still flourishes in Glasgow. The business of Messrs. Austin & McAslan, nurserymen and seedsmen, was started in the year 1717, and its first nursery was the acre or so of land forming the garden of Hutchesons' Hospital, and stretching from the original building in Trongate to the Back Cow Loan, now Ingram Street. The nursery was also used as a pleasure ground by the citizens. When it was at last, in 1795, laid out as Hutcheson Street, and the Hospital building was removed to its head, the nursery was transferred to the neighbourhood of the modern Parliamentary Road, where its existence is commemorated in the name of McAslan Street. Nothing could better testify to the purity of the atmosphere of Glasgow, in those early years of the eighteenth century, than the existence of this plant nursery in the Trongate.

The tavern held a much more important place in the life of the community than it has ever occupied since. Few bargains of importance were concluded without the sanction of a friendly dram. Professional men also found the tavern a convenient howff. There patients consulted their physicians; there lawyers advised their clients and drew up their wills; [Henry Grey Graham, Social Life in Scotland, p. 134.] even the town's business was largely transacted in these snug and hospitable resorts. So serious did the expenditure become in this last instance that more than once the Town Council found it necessary to make a rule that the public funds should not be liable for expenses incurred in taverns, unless with the express permission of the provost, senior bailie, or dean of guild. It was further stipulated that, at the treating of strangers, the provost or senior bailie must be present, and that the sum spent at any one time must not, upon any account, exceed £3 Scots (5s. 3d. sterling). [Burgh Records, 27th Sept. 1717.]

The most lively element of the population was probably the student life, which had its headquarters in the handsome College buildings in High Street. In 1702 the students numbered 402, and their scarlet gowns, as they moved about, made the brightest spot of colour in the streets. John Wesley, who visited the city at a later date, had a word to say about these garments. "The College students," he says, "wear scarlet gowns reaching only to their knees. Most I saw were very dirty, some very ragged, and all of very coarse cloth." [Travellers' Tales of Scotland, p. 124.] In those days the gowns were still an article of practical apparel, and competed in the streets, a few years later, with the imposing scarlet cloaks of the Tobacco Lords. [The students' gowns were not yet treated in the ignominious fashion of the nineteenth century, when, at the stern demand of a Professor of Humanity, "Where is your gown, sir?" a student was sometimes known to produce from his pocket what looked like nothing more than a torn and dirty red rag, and proceed to drape it about his shoulders.]

While a certain number of these students, bursars and others, lived within the College precincts, and were substantially if plainly fed at the common table, many lodged outside, and there are traditions of some subsisting with the utmost frugality on such provisions as a little oatmeal and a kebbuck of cheese, brought with them from far-off homes in Ayrshire or Argyll.

The apprentices of the merchants and craftsmen, with whom an occasional bickering of town and gown took place, were probably at least as well lodged and fed. They were looked upon as the natural successors of their masters, not only in trade but in the honours of burgess-ship in craft and guild. They stood to their masters much in the relationship of sons of the family, and every encouragement was given them to become so actually by marriage. An early regulation of the Merchants and Trades Houses was directly framed "to move them to take their master's daughter in marriage before any other," an arrangement which, it was stated, would be "a great comfort and support to freemen." If the apprentice required any inducement to take this course, beyond the charms of the young lady and the prospect of succeeding to the business, it was provided by the assurance that he would be admitted a burgess at a reduced fee. [Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, p. xviii. The fullest account of the social life, manners, and dress of the citizens of Glasgow in the eighteenth century is to be found in Strang's Glasgow and its Clubs, in its chapter on "The Accidental Club." For details of the professors, their qualifications and their quarrels, see Coutt's History of the University of Glasgow.]


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