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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter XLI - In the Time of the French Revolution


IN those difficult years, when the cries of revolution and the cannon of continental war were filling the hearts of all with foreboding, it is interesting to note that the city on the Clyde never ceased to develop its amenities. Neither was its attention absorbed entirely by merely material things. It is significant that the city raised the stipends of its ministers to £165 in 1788, and gave further additions of 5 in 1796, £50 in 1801, £80 in 1808, and £100 in 1814. [Burgh Records, 28th Feb., 1788; 12th May, 1796; 4th Sept., 1801 24th May, 1808; 3rd Mar., 1814.] When it is remembered that the Act of Parliament of i8io enforced a minimum of no more than £150, it will be seen that the townsmen set a high value upon the stimulus they derived from the services of the clergy. Their grateful regard was extended even to the bells in the various church steeples, which summoned them to attend the discourses of these spiritual and intellectual leaders. The great bell of the High Kirk, which had sounded over the Bell o' the Brae, and called the burgesses and their wives to worship for some two hundred years, was cracked "by the hands of inconsiderate and unskilful men." Thereupon the Council sent it to London, and had it re-cast by Thomas Mears at a cost of £30 6s. 11¼d. [Ibid. 18th Aug., 1790. This is the bell now preserved in the chapter-house. Its material is believed to have been originally one of the bells hung in the western tower of the cathedral by Archbishop Dunbar about 1544. It was replaced in 1896 by a new bell, the gift of Mr. John Garroway.] They also had the bells of the other kirks inspected, to make sure that no unskilful ringing had damaged their integrity.

Just then also Glasgow had followed the example of London by the founding of a Humane Society, for recovering to life persons apparently drowned. The Council encouraged this benevolent enterprise by subscribing £10, and granting it permission to build a boat-house and a house for its officer on the Green. [Burgh Records, 18th Aug., 1790. The institution of a Humane Society was introduced from Holland to London by Dr. Cogan, and its work in the restoration of persons apparently drowned was the subject of a paper read to the Royal Society by the celebrated anatomist, Dr. John Hunter, in 1776.] From that day till this a constant succession of rescues has been made from the Clyde by the officers of this Society.

Another benevolent act of the Town Council in the same year throws light upon the risks to which British voyagers on the high seas were exposed even so late as the end of the eighteenth century. This was a subscription of £25 towards the ransom from slavery of John Robertson, a native and burgess of Glasgow, who had been captured and carried into Algiers. The petition on Robertson's behalf, which had been presented to the magistrates, was supported by authentic documents, and declared that the unfortunate man had been in slavery for several years. As considerable sums had already been subscribed for his release by respectable inhabitants of the city, it would appear that his ransom was by no means a nominal amount. [Ibid. 1st Oct., 1790.] Since very little of the shipping of Glasgow then made its way into the Mediterranean, its burgesses suffered comparatively little from the piracies of the corsair state. But as late as 1816, when Algiers was bombarded by Lord Exmouth, and the Dey compelled to release his Christian prisoners, no fewer than 1211 of all nations regained their liberty.

Nevertheless, as a trading city, with its fortunes on the sea, Glasgow had a very vital interest in the protection of British shipping, and the Town Council continued to offer bounties to seamen who might be induced to join the navy. The threat of an outbreak of war with Spain in 1790 was the occasion of one such offer, and others followed to meet later emergencies. [Ibid. 11th May, 29th Nov., 1790.]

At the same time the city fathers had in their gift the granting of a bounty providing stimulus in another direction, and there is reason to believe that the exercise of its power on one occasion during that troubled time contributed not a little to the refreshment and strengthening of the national spirit at a later date. In 1791 it presented Thomas Campbell, "son of Alexander Campbell, merchant in Glasgow," to a bursary founded in Glasgow University by Archbishop Leighton. [Ibid. 31st Dec., 1790; 19th Jan., 1791. Campbell's father was one of the Virginia merchants ruined by the revolt of the American colonies in 1775.] The bursary was for three years in philosophy and two in divinity, and without it, almost certainly, we should have had no "Pleasures of Hope," and none of the great and stirring paeans of battle, such as "Hohenlinden," "Ye Mariners of England," and "The Battle of the Baltic," which did so much to support the spirit of the nation in some of its darkest hours. Campbell was fourteen years of age when he was awarded the bursary. Seven years later, on the publication of his "Pleasures of Hope," he was recognized as the greatest living poet in Britain.

Again, within a month of presenting the benevolent old archbishop's bursary to Thomas Campbell, the Town Council gave its support to the founding of an institution which, during the next hundred years, was destined to furnish incalculable service to the intellectual development of the city. At that date there were few public libraries in Scotland. The earliest were those of the universities, which had taken the place of those of the ancient monasteries. Next came that of the Advocates in Edinburgh, founded by Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, the " Bluidy Mackenzie " of Covenanting tradition. There were Archbishop Leighton's library, mostly of old divinity, at Dunblane, the library at Innerpeffray, near Crieff, bequeathed by David, third Lord Madderty, in 1691, and the library at Leadhills established in 1741. Edinburgh had seen the first circulating library in Scotland set up by Allan Ramsay in 1725, and his example had been followed in the western city by John Smith, the Trongate bookseller, in '253, and afterwards by John Coubrough in High Street. [Strang, Glasgow and its Clubs, p. 158.] But Glasgow had no library for public use till 1791. In that year Walter Stirling, a member of the family which made the Monkland Canal and developed the great Turkey Red dyeing industry, bequeathed for the use of the citizens his house on the east side of Miller Street, and his library, along with £1000 sterling and his share in the Tontine society. The bequest was entrusted to the management of a body of trustees, with the Lord Provost at their head, and from that day till this has been a highly valued institution of the city. [Burgh Records, 10th Feb., 1791. Originally readers were required to pay an annual subscription of three guineas, raised to five in 1792; but this was afterwards diminished, and was finally dropped on amalgamation with the Mitchell Library in 1912.]

The Town Council was not without problems to settle in those years. One of these arose out of a legal case in the court of the Water Bailie. The defenders in that case questioned the right of the Water Bailie to decide or try a civil action, and appealed to the High Court of Admiralty on the subject. The question was carried to the Court of Session, where the Lord Justice Clerk sustained the jurisdiction of the Water Bailie. This was only one of fourteen actions which the city had pending at that time before the Supreme Court. [Ibid. 10th Feb., 1791; 1st June, 1792.]

Another matter in which the Town Council acted firmly was the attempt of riverside owners to obstruct the right of way from the Broomielaw to Govan ferry and Partick. The fences and gates erected by these owners were ordered to be removed, and a road 24 feet wide constructed. [Ibid. 19th May, 1785 ; 19th May, 1791.]

Again, the piazzas in the four streets leading from the cross, which, for a century and a half, had been one of the features on which the townsfolk chiefly prided themselves, had begun to appear an obstruction. They darkened the shops, which were five feet behind the heavy pillars. In wet weather and on market days they were crowded with country people. The soldiers quartered in the town paraded there, and at night they were the resort of thieves and disorderly persons. At the same time they were so narrow that two people could hardly walk abreast within them. The shopkeepers therefore applied to be allowed to enclose the piazzas in their places of business. On consulting counsel, however, the magistrates found that it was no longer in their power to grant the application. The space within the piazzas had been too long in public use, and anyone who could prove an interest might insist on the space being kept open. The proposal, therefore, was dropped for the time. [Ibid. 19th Sept., 1791; 18th Jan., 1792; 14th Aug., 1793; 11th Oct., 1800; 3rd June, 31st July, 4th Sept., 1801. The same reply was returned when the Tontine Society, in 1833, petitioned the Town Council to close the piazzas which had been constructed under the Council Hall and Assembly Room. These piazzas, it was pointed out, had originally been designed as a merchants' Exchange, but had become merely the crowded haunt of disreputable persons. It required an Act of Parliament to have them abolished. Ibid. 23rd Aug., 12th Sept., 9th Oct., 1833.]

A movement which demanded more immediate action was a refusal of the Society of Porters to accept a new set of regulations made by the Town Council. The Society had been granted a seal of cause, conferring corporate powers and privileges, in 1748, and its functions, charges, and rules had been readjusted in 1775. In view of changed conditions, the growth of the city and the cost of living, the city fathers again revised the rules and terms of work in 1792. But by this time a new spirit had arisen. Echoes of the French Revolution were in the air. The porters refused to accept the ruling of the authorities, and defied the Council. But they had counted without their host. The Council gave them ten days to reconsider their position, and as they still remained obdurate at the end of that time, their seal of cause was cancelled, their badges were withdrawn, and the magistrates advertised their willingness to confer the forfeited privileges upon another body of sober and industrious men who should be willing to give security for their good behaviour and their observance of the magistrates' regulations. [urgh Records, 27th Dec., 1792; 25th Mar., 17th April., 1793.]

When the Town Council took the city porters thus firmly in hand the number of inhabitants of Glasgow and its suburbs had just been ascertained. This was no longer merely an estimate, but was a careful enumeration. The collector of statute labour money reported that by the Council's instructions he had in 1791 made an accurate list of houses and inhabitants. Within the city, royalty, and new town there were 10,291 inhabited houses and 41,777 inhabitants, while in the suburbs of Gorbals, Calton, Grahamston, Anderston, and other districts, according to lists made up by the ministers and other helpers, the number of inhabitants was 20,076, and in the country parts of the Barony parish adjoining the city it was 21,330. The total number, therefore, of the inhabitants of what might fairly be called the Glasgow of that time was 66,183. [Ibid. 9th Aug., 1792.]

But though its population had grown thus considerably, the city found it possible just then to absorb a large body of strangers who were thrown upon the streets, like the flotsam and jetsam of the sea. As a result of the forfeitures and other misfortunes in the Highlands, which followed the Jacobite rising of 1745, many of the inhabitants of the straths and glens

were forced to emigrate. In the early months of 1792 one of the vessels carrying these emigrants was wrecked. Her passengers were landed, almost destitute, at Greenock, and made their way to Glasgow. This event was to have singular consequences. Most of the strangers were Catholics, and few of them could speak English. Their case roused the interest and energies of a stalwart priest, Father Macdonell. He set about finding employment for them in the factories of Glasgow, undertook to settle in the city himself, and act as their interpreter and chaplain, and he actually succeeded in finding work for six hundred Highlanders. [See supra, p. 315.]

Two years later, however, war with France having broken out, British exports to the Continent almost stopped, factories were forced to close down, and again the Highlanders found themselves in severe straits. But Father Macdonell rose to the occasion. Along with young Glengarry, he went to London, and presented a loyal address to the King, offering to raise a regiment of Glengarry Fencibles. He carried with him letters from the Glasgow manufacturers, attesting the good character of the Highlanders who had been employed by them, and recommending that these Highlanders should be enrolled in the service of the country. With these recommendations the offer was accepted and the regiment enrolled. After service in Guernsey and Ireland, the Glengarry Fencibles returned to Scotland in 1802, and like other Fencible regiments were disbanded.

Again the Highlanders were destitute, and again Father Macdonell, who had acted as their chaplain, came to their help. Against much discouragement he secured from the Government an order to the Lieutenant-Governor of Canada to grant two hundred acres of land to every Highlander who should arrive and claim it. With the greater number of the Glengarry Fencibles he emigrated to Canada, and formed the famous settlement which is still known as Glengarry. Each of the emigrants gave his new possession the name of the croft he had once held in the Great Glen, and at the present hour the Glengarry in Canada is even more Highland in speech and spirit than the Glengarry in Scotland itself. [Adam's Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands, p. 325. The project of emigration was strongly opposed by the chiefs and gentlemen of the Highland Society, who subscribed a large sum to frustrate it (Edinburgh Advertiser, 30th May, 1786), and Burns, in his "Address of Beelzebub," heartily abused them for doing so. To-day they are abused for exactly the opposite reason.]

It was while these shipwrecked Highlanders were being first settled in Glasgow that the dispositions were made which gave the New Green its final and present shape. An opportunity arose to acquire the lands of Provosthaugh, otherwise known as the Fleshers Haugh, about twenty-four acres in extent, on the riverside, adjoining the ground already owned by the city. Apparently the opportunity was urgent, for payment was required within little more than a fortnight, and the price was four thousand pounds sterling. But the provost, James Macdowall, and two of his bailies, John Alston and David Dale, were men of means, and, determining not to let the opportunity slip, they agreed to make the purchase on their own account. They then offered to hand over their bargain to the Town Council, stating, at the same time, that if the city did not wish to have the land, they were quite willing to retain it themselves. The offer was accepted, however, and the Provosthaugh duly became part of Glasgow Green. [Burgh Records, 1st May, 22nd May, 1792.]

While this transaction was being completed another concerning the Green was begun. It had occurred to a number of citizens that the higher ground, looking over the Green towards the Clyde, offered an exceptionally fine site for dwelling houses. By the sale of the site a large sum of money would be brought into the coffers of the town; if built according to an elegant plan the houses would form a real ornament to the Green and the city; and with the addition of the Provosthaugh, and a field previously leased separately to one John King, there would still remain a greater area than before for pasturing the cows of the citizens. On these considerations, brought forward by Lord Provost Itlacdowall, an architect was employed to make a plan for laying off the Calton Green, and to draw plans and elevations for buildings to be erected on it. In this way was begun the movement which resulted in the laying out of that highly fashionable quarter of its time, Monteith Row. [Ibid. 1st June, 1792.]

Already, however, while these transactions were being carried out, events were happening which were to shake the foundations of Glasgow's prosperity, and bring ruin and disaster to many a Glasgow home. In February 1793 the Republic of France declared war against this country. The outbreak of the Revolution on the other side of the Channel four years previously had given rise to unrest and anxiety in Britain which were anything but good for trade. Many businesses were already in difficulties through the closing of their markets abroad and the interruption of that confidence and credit which are among the first essentials of commerce. For them the declaration of war was a knock-out blow. In that year as many as 1956 bankruptcies were recorded in the Gazette. These included no fewer than twenty-six banks, and of the banks three were located in Glasgow—Thomson's Bank, the Merchants, and the Glasgow Arms. Of the three the Glasgow Arms in the end paid all its creditors, and continued business till incorporated with the Union Bank in 1830, but the ruin of the others was final. [Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, p. 148. Strang's Clubs, p. 212.]

Two years later matters were still worse. The price of wheat had risen from 50s. to 8rs. 6d. per quarter (in 1796 it was 96s., and in 1812 it reached its highest, 126s. 6d.) [Mackinnon, Social and Industrial History of Scotland, p. 59.] In the general strain, disturbance, and upheaval the great West India house of Alexander Houston & Company came down. It was the greatest failure Glasgow had ever known, and nothing so great was to occur again till the failure of the City of Glasgow Bank three-quarters of a century later. The partners in the business were Andrew Houston of Jordanhill, and his brother, Robert Houston-Rae of Little Govan, with two grandsons of the noted Colonel Macdowall, William Macdowall of Castle Semple, M.P., and Lord-Lieutenant of Renfrewshire, and James Macdowall, Lord Provost of Glasgow. The disaster was brought about by an immense speculation in the purchase of slaves, in anticipation of the passing of a bill for emancipation introduced in Parliament. The bill did not pass, and the slaves were left on the hands of the firm. They had to be fed and clothed, their price fell heavily, and disease carried them off by hundreds. Many years passed before the whole tangled skein of the firm's affairs was unravelled. There were claims and inhibitions, arrestments and multiple-poindings innumerable, and a special Act of Parliament was required to enable the trustee to deal with all the difficulties. But in the end every debt was paid with interest. The assets, including the great estates of the partners, realized over £1,000,000 sterling. The Houstons were completely ruined and the Macdowalls were left with only a fragment of the Castle Semple estate, which they named Garthland after the patrimony of their ancestors in Galloway. [Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, p. 223. Mitchell, Old Glasgow Essays, 378 note. Senex, Old Glasgow, p. 407.]


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