Glasgow’s Early History

by Chris Jones on March 6, 2010

It is most likely that Glasgow began as a small settlement or series of settlements along the banks of the Clyde near places where the river was easily forded. Canoes have been found that date these settlements back to the Stone Age. The Clyde valley was probably densely wooded in those times. The Roman Empire subsequently encompassed these settlements and the Antonine Wall stretched from Bridgeness on the Forth to Old Kilpatrick on the Clyde. Eventually tiring of controlling the northern tribes, the Romans pulled back to Hadrian’s Wall. In the 6th Century AD, Mungo, also known as Kentigern and later sanctified, came to Strathclyde and established a monastery close to the Molendinar Burn, a stream which ran from Hogganfield Loch south-west into the Clyde. Glasgow thus began to establish its first reputation, as an ecclesiastical settlement. Being set well back from the coast, it was not easily accessible to Norse raiders.

The settlement grew progressively through the intervening centuries and was ultimately recognized by the appointment of its first bishop, John Achaius, in 1114. Shortly thereafter, in 1124, the construction of the first Glasgow Cathedral began on high ground west of the Molendinar Burn and the building was consecrated in the presence of King David I on 7 July, 1136. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by fire in 1172 and Bishop Jocelin (1175-99) supervised the construction of its replacement and the creation of a tomb for the remains of St. Mungo. In the period from 1175 to 1178, a charter was granted to Bishop Jocelin allowing a burgh at Glasgow with a market every Thursday, thus fostering the trading spirit of the people. Construction of the current Glasgow Cathedral began under the authority of Bishop William de Bondington (1233-58) and was continued during the time of Bishop Cameron (1426-46) and Archbishop Blacader (1483-1508), after whom the aisle on the south side of the building is named. While this fine cathedral was being built, Glasgow continued to grow and in order to facilitate the transport of people and goods across the river, the first bridge, a wooden structure, was built across the Stockwell shallows in 1345. Around 1410, this was replaced by a substantial stone structure with eight arches.

Gradually the city began to take shape. The High Street ran south from the Cathedral towards the Clyde and was intersected where Drygate came in from the east and continued as Rottenrow to the west. This crossing formed the first city centre. As the High Street was continued south towards the river, a more important centre developed at the place where it became the Saltmarket and was intersected by Gallowgate from the east and the Trongate from the west. This became Glasgow Cross and remains so to this day. The first Mercat Cross and Tolbooth were built at this location during the first half of the 15th Century.

The early bishops of Glasgow exercised considerable authority and oversaw the legal system. They also owned the customs and appointed the provost and bailies. The fifteenth century was a time of significant growth and development as more people visited Glasgow and decided to settle. The merchants and craftsmen provided the foundation for the city’s wealth and growth. In 1450, Bishop William Turnbull (1447-54) persuaded King James II to request from Pope Nicholas V a Bull authorizing the establishment of a university. The Bull was granted and in 1451, the University of Glasgow became the second university in Scotland, after St. Andrews. This was a seminal event for Glasgow, for Scotland and ultimately for the civilized world. In the course of time, this university would provide the fertile ground for significant developments in economics, medicine, science and industry. Its establishment and funding would become a clear illustration of how investment in education and scholarship can produce dividends that extend worldwide. The Church was clearly the moving force in the establishment of the university and formulated its original constitution which provided that the Bishop be Chancellor in an ex officio role. The original buildings were located in the High Street close to the Cathedral, which was still incomplete.

Another major development in the 15th Century was the designation of Glasgow as an archbishopric in 1492 by Pope Innocent VIII. Just as was the case with the university, Glasgow felt it deserved parity with St. Andrews, which had been created an archbishopric in 1472. Bishop Blacader, who had been instrumental in persuading King James IV to support this designation for Glasgow, became the city’s first archbishop.

Also in the 15th Century, the record shows that John Stewart of Minto became the first provost of Glasgow, in 1472, and the Stewarts of Minto, who were lairds, would continue to be represented as provosts over the next 100 years. After that, the provosts would increasingly be drawn from the ranks of the burgesses.

As we move into the 16th Century, the city continued to grow and prosper and more details of this were recorded. The effects of the Reformation were becoming more evident and the control of the Church over city and burgh affairs progressively weakened. The craftsmen and merchants became officially organized into specific groupings. For example, the Skinners were incorporated in 1516, the Tailors in 1527, the Weavers in 1528 and the Hammermen in 1536. This trend continued throughout the century.

Also in the 16th Century, the outskirts of Glasgow were the scene of a famous battle between the forces loyal to Mary Queen of Scots and those of the Regent Moray. This was one of the decisive battles of the Reformation wars. The Regent Moray’s forces held the high ground on Camphill. Mary’s forces tried to storm the hill but were driven back to low ground and subsequently routed. Much of the engagement was fought in what is now known as Langside and Battlefield at the foot of the hill. The loss was a complete disaster for Mary. It ended her effort to secure the throne and she rode south to the Solway and subsequent captivity.

© Christopher J. Jones

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Elaine March 8, 2012 at 7:37 am

What a great website. It’s lovely looking at all these old photographs of Glasgow.

Chris Jones March 10, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Thank you Elaine. I’m glad you are enjoying the website. I’m constantly adding new material.

Karen April 22, 2012 at 11:09 pm

Hey Chris,

I was reading your website and it is great. I love looking at all the old pictures and but I’m too young to remember them. I grew up with my Grandma’s stories of old Glasgow and loved them. I was wondering if you have heard of “Glasgow’s Forgotten Village, the Grahamston Story” where they had to make way for the railway in 1876. It’s a very interesting story if you want to have a look at it. I have the book and love it.


Chris Jones April 28, 2012 at 9:56 pm

Hi Karen,

Thank you for your message and I’m glad you like the photos. Yes, I have heard of Grahamston and how most of it was cleared to make way for the Caledonian Railway’s Glasgow Central Station. It’s a fascinating story. There is so much to explore in Glasgow’s history and I hope you will continue your journey.

Best wishes,


John Wright September 20, 2012 at 12:16 pm

I now live in Florida but was born in Glasgow in 1927 and raised mostly in Anderston. I went to school there and remember it fondly as being like a little village within the town. Much of Glasgow was like that and each neighborhood had it own ways and God help you if you got caught by a gang at night in other than your own neighborhood….But all in all, I had a happy wonderful life before I left in 1952…for the U.S.A., having served in the Royal Navy from 1945 to 1947.

Chris Jones October 8, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Thanks John for sharing your early experiences in Glasgow.

tommy jardine June 15, 2014 at 7:16 am

Dear Chris,

After a little research, I found that the little St. Mungo Well in the Gallowgate was located behind the single story building prior to the present “Saracen’s Head Inn”. The single story decrepit building and the land behind it was formerly the “little St. Mungo Chapel and Well” before becoming the famous Saracen’s Head Inn of 18th Century fame.

In the forthcoming regeneration of the Gallowgate area, the site of this ancient well and the medieval street names may become lost which would be a pity. Glasgow does not seem to be interested in preserving its past and unsympathetic buildings are now being built on the historic street area ( see the High Street ).


Chris Jones July 6, 2014 at 10:58 pm

Hi Tommy,

Thank you very much for supplying this information. I’m presently overseas but have you tried making representations to Glasgow City Council?

Best wishes,


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