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An Alternative History of Glasgow Part 4 : Reformation, Trade and Technology.

Updated on November 7, 2015
Image by Patrick McConahay @ Flickr Creative Commons
Image by Patrick McConahay @ Flickr Creative Commons
'Man & his Cam' @ Flickr
'Man & his Cam' @ Flickr

The Reformation Jamboree

And so came the Reformation to Scotland in 1560 inspired by clergyman John Knox.

He was a bit like a 16h century Ian Paisley, but without the sense of humour.

The green light was given to zealots to start trashing the old chapels around the nation.

All symbols of idolatry were to be smashed to pieces as graven images and chapels were to be burnt down.

This greatly alarmed the National Union of Sculptors who saw their life's work being destroyed in a wanton spree of vandalism.

After an Extraordinary General Meeting of local Shop Stewards they decided to defend the chapels to prevent even more damage.

This was a short-lived protest as the authorities had decided this constituted secondary picketing since technically it wasn't their place of work and therefore illegal.

Glasgow Cathedral was spared as in 1579, under the leadership of Provost Thomas Crawford, the local masons, sculptors, carpenters etc, from the Trades House staged a wildcat strike and blocked the way to the building.

The baying mob assailing the cathedral to "Ding doon the Kirk" were led by Andrew Melville, Principal of the University who was told that "If you remove one stone from this building, Ye'll be under it!"

And so Glasgow is the only mainland cathedral to survive the Reformation, the only other one in Scotland being in Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands.

Copyright 'art traveller' @
Copyright 'art traveller' @

Mary loses her head

These were turbulent times in Scotland, especially for Mary Queen of Scots who was a Catholic Queen in what was now a Protestant country.

This led to the ‘Battle of the Butts’ in the East End of Glasgow in 1544 where 300 got snuffed out.

Her fate was eventually sealed at the Battle of Langside just outside old Glasgow in 1568.

She fled to England to seek security with her cousin Queen Elizabeth but eventually got her head chopped off.

I suppose you just can’t pick your family. At Fotheringhay Castle in 1587 the axeman took two blows to complete the job as he hadn't yet passed his apprenticeship and didn’t hold a decapitation certificate.

The National Union of Axemen passed a motion of no confidence in the Chief Executioner in charge. When Mary's head was lifted out of the basket her hair came away as she was almost bald and wearing a wig. The axeman fainted. It seemed he wasn't cut out for that type of work (no pun intended)

In 1600 a large part of the city was razed to the ground by a fire. It was allegedly started by a Monk with a grievance who, using one of the Bishop's telescopes, tried to burn the backside of the recumbent Friar (no pun intended)

The recumbent Friar awoke with a start and knocked over a candle in the Monastery and the flames shot across the city, as did the Friar after the Monk.

Another cleric who should have followed his example was Jesuit Priest John Ogilvie who had been preaching Catholicism and got hung for it at Glasgow Cross in 1615. In 1976 he was canonised, becoming Saint John Ogilvie and posthumously got one over on John Knox who hadn't even got a knighthood.

In 1626 the Tollbooth Steeple was built for collecting tolls and as a prison house. Its tower still stands today as a glorified traffic island. In 1646 the bubonic plague came again to Glasgow and was so bad that the city gates were closed and the University staff pissed off to Ayr for the duration.

maganga @ Flickr
maganga @ Flickr
SLR Jester @ Flickr
SLR Jester @ Flickr

Ollie comes to town

But worse than that was to come when in September 1650 Puritan ruler Oliver Cromwell came and stayed for a while in a house in the Saltmarket.

It belonged to local merchant and politician Colin Campbell. However Mrs Campbell was not amused:

“Why d’you let that po-faced bugger stay here” she whispered,

“He’s a very important man” replied Campbell, “He’s Lord Protector of the land”

“Well I hope he’s not staying too long” she said,

“Only a couple of days my dear”

“Aye? Well that’s what you said about that eejit cousin of yours” she moaned,

“I know, I know” Campbell sighed

“He stayed for six months

“Yes, I know, you don’t have to tell me”

“Well, he’d better be gone by Friday”

“God, what a nag!”

“No wonder, I bet he’ll still be here by Christmas”

“He won’t”

“What makes you so sure”

“He’s cancelled it”

Dominic @ Flickr
Dominic @ Flickr

Flaming Glasgow!

Yet again in 1652 one third of the city was destroyed by fire, this time at a lunch-time barbecue at the house in the High Street of a man called James Hamilton.

It was attended by some local fishermen and tradesmen but an over-heated argument broke out over the over-heated pork sausages as the local butcher had nicked the last one.

A scuffle ensued and the flaming barbecue fell on the flaming ground setting the garden alight. The conflagration spread but thankfully there was a real ale festival taking place in the city and a motley collection of bloated beer drinkers managed to douse many of the fires in their own inimitable way.

Several were dangerously exposed to the flames but no serious injuries were incurred nor married life endangered. The bishop excused their impropriety on the grounds of emergency measures under extreme circumstances.

In 1677 there was yet another bloody fire in Glasgow but this was a case of arson when a disgruntled blacksmith’s apprentice set fire to his master’s premises at the corner of Saltmarket and the Trongate.

He was seeking revenge for a beating he got after nailing horseshoes to his boss’s boots which woke up some of the neighbourhood. He managed to set fire to 130 houses which soon woke up the whole neighbourhood.

The Act of Disunion in 1707

After all these fires raging through the 17th century it was ironic that in 1712 a great flood submerged the lower parts of the city. Many Glaswegians enjoyed a good bath for the first time in years. For others another great disaster occurred in 1707 with the Act of Union when the English government paid off some nobs in Edinburgh so they could fight the French without worrying about the rebellious Scots up North.

Dominic @ Flickr
Dominic @ Flickr

It was good news for some as it opened up trade with the American colonies for many merchants in Glasgow and it began to develop from the 1720’s onwards.

None more so than the celebrated ‘Tobacco Lords’ who brought lung cancer and emphysema to the city from far flung Virginia and Maryland.

But in fairness they gave thousands of Negro slaves lots to do out in the plantations. Plentiful exercise, sunshine and fresh air with the occasional beating to stop them daydreaming of their friends, family and ancestral lands back in Africa.

In 1723 Daniel Defoe, writer of Robinson Crusoe, visited the city allegedly on a spying mission for England. He described Glasgow as “one of the cleanest, most beautiful and best-built cities in Great Britain”. That didn’t last long as the Industrial Revolution brought overcrowding, disease, dungheaps and lots of boozing and fighting.

In 1707 there had been riots among the citizenry of Edinburgh against the Act of Union but Glasgow remained relatively peaceful in comparison although there was some bother. That was until 1725 when the authorities levied a tax on whisky.

It was obvious that when it came to a choice between political emancipation and their cherished ‘electric soup’ the Glasgow folk would fight tooth and nail for a cheap dram. Subsequently the ‘Malt Tax’ riots erupted around the Trongate leading to troops of General Wade’s army occupying the city.

Better news came when in 1745 Tennents open a brewery in the city much to the delight of the locals. However nowadays this is often regarded as no better than a glorified cattery and bottling plant. But even today many Glaswegians are still partial to a pint of this frothy chemical waste in the name of blind patriotism or blind drunkedness.

The year 1745 was the same year that the Jacobite army were stationed on Glasgow Green on their way back from Derby. They weren’t very popular in the city and in fact some enterprising murderer tried to shoot Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Saltmarket. There was joy in the streets of Glasgow the following year when the Jacobites got a doing at the Battle of Culloden. The brewery made a fortune.

The discovery of latent heat

In 1765 Joseph Black, a Professor at Glasgow University, discovered latent heat marking the beginning of thermal science. Latent heat refers to energy radiated or absorbed during a chemical change of state due to molecular separation or arrangement without changing its temperature.

I haven’t a clue what that means either but apparently it’s to do with kettles, freezing ponds, thunderstorms and life as we know it. Black also brought advancement in the knowledge of carbon dioxide or ‘fixed air’ as he called it at the time. He found that it couldn’t sustain flame or animal life. He began the science of modern chemistry although he wasn’t appreciated at first;

“Latent heat, you say?” asked Professor Pumperton,

“Yes! That’s right, I’ve found latent heat” explained Professor Black,

“You mean ‘latent’ in the sense of undiscovered, something hidden?”


“But surely if you’ve discovered it then it can’t be hidden anymore”


“It’s not really ‘latent’ in the exact terms of the word”

“Oh no! I don’t believe this”

“Well, I’m just saying”

“Yeah! you’re just saying, trust an English Professor to start splitting hairs”

“Words are important you know”

“I can think of a few for you right now mate”

“What’s the problem?” asked Mr Pettyfart, the Faculty Administrator as he approached the two men,

“Him!” said Black

“He’s discovered ‘Latent Heat’” said Pumperton,

“Really?” said Pettyfart, "But surely if it’s ‘latent’ then it can’t be...”

“Don’t you start!” raged Black

“OK! OK! None of my business”

“I should have stayed at Edinburgh Uni so I should” moaned Black

“Look, I just do the paper work”

“That’s right, so keep your nose out”

“Don’t worry, I will” said Pettyfart,”But first can you explain this requisition?”

“What about it?”

“It’s for another crate of rats”

“So what?”

“Well that’s the third this month, we’re running out of students impoverished enough to trawl through the dungheaps and sewers you know”

“I need more rats” said Black, “They’re important for my experiments on fixed air”

“Fixed what” asked Pumperton,

“Fixed air!!!” shouted Black, “Why have you got a problem with that too?”

“How can you fix air then?” asked Pumperton, “Must be hard to pin down”

“They don’t call you Pedantic Pumperton for nothing do they?”

“No need for that old chap!”

“Awwww! Piss off the pair of you” screamed Black as he stormed away,

“Catch your own bloody rats then” shouted Pettyfart.

thomasbrightbulb @ Flickr
thomasbrightbulb @ Flickr

The steam revolution

Such was the academic discourse in the rarefied corridors of Glasgow University.

In that same year of 1765 James Watt went for an afternoon stroll and made a startling discovery.

He managed to walk all the way from the University in the High Street through the Calton to Glasgow Green without being mugged.

But at the end of his walk he had formulated his idea for the ‘separate condenser’

This revolutionised steam technology and consigned thousands to the misery of factories, satanic mills, and mechanised industrialisation.

The place where he had his moment of clarity is marked by a huge lump of black rock on the Green. Highly appropriate given the modern drugs problems that are rife in the city.

However in 1889 in a much more fitting tribute the Royal Society named the unit of power after him and which you will see on your household light-bulbs. Fortunate that he wasn’t called ‘MacCorquodale’ or ‘MacGillivray’ or else light bulbs would be the size of volleyballs.

In 1770 the city was established as a deep water port after 30 years of massive dredging on the Clyde by underwater Navvies under the leadership of civil engineer John Goldborne. This allowed huge ships to berth in Glasgow city centre, providing trade, wealth and more rats for the University.

In 1773, the rebellious American colonists declared defiantly “We don’t want your tea and we’re keeping the tobacco!” before chucking three shiploads of Chinese Bohea leaf into Boston harbour.

From 1776 the US War of Independence signalled the end of the Tobacco Lords reign but men like Sir John Glassford, William Cunningham and Alexander Speirs had already made a mint.

Some diversified into trade with the West Indies and Glasgow became the biggest importer of sugar in Britain and thus the biggest importer of obesity, gingivitus and sweet-toothed rats.


'Randy Son of Robert' @ Flickr
'Randy Son of Robert' @ Flickr


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    • Shinkicker profile image

      Shinkicker 7 years ago from Scotland

      I can't help taking the pith :-)

    • carolina muscle profile image

      carolina muscle 7 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      I love this post.. laced with pithy humor !!!