Glasgow (Scotland): between history and modernity

Glasgow (Scotland): between history and modernity

The city of Glasgow, located 50 km from the west coast ofScotland, is heir to a past with a thousand faces. The flagship of the British Empire during the great trade with the colonies in the 18th century, Glasgow was also one of the engines of the industrial revolution. It is indeed in his university that a momentous event takes place: the improvement of the steam engine by James Watt. From the 1890s until the 1960s, the shipyards lined up along the Clyde, the river that runs through the city, produced the largest liners in the world. But the economic boom echoes a growing plight of the working class, victim of first overpopulation, then of deindustrialization. Unemployment, poverty and delinquency punctuated the 1970s and 1980s. Glasgow managed to emerge from the crisis from above. From the 1990s, an artistic and cultural frenzy took hold of the Scottish city, soon relayed by a new source of innovation: the digital economy.

Medieval Glasgow: a provincial town without history

Glasgow's history begins at the present site of Glasgow Cathedral, north-east of the city center, when Saint Mungo founded a monastery there in the 6th century. The Christian missionary is the author of four miracles, not less, including a bird, a tree, a fish and a bell. These four elements have become the symbols of the Scottish city and Saint Mungo the patron saint of Glasgow.

In the Middle Ages, the city therefore developed in the north around its religious home but also in the south on the banks of its river, the Clyde. A street still used today (High Street) connects the two population centers. Clyde provides plenty of fish and the mild climate favors the production of fruits and vegetables. Glasgow prospered peacefully by trading with neighboring population centers as well as with the small town of Edinburgh.

Two iconic monuments remain today of the medieval city: Glasgow Cathedral and Glasgow University.

A heritage to discover: the cathedral and the university

Glasgow Cathedral is the most famous of the city's cathedrals. It is one of Scotland’s major medieval buildings, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Its dark and intimidating exterior echoes an interior dominated by one of Britain's finest collections of stained glass. Backing onto the cathedral is an astonishing necropolis built on the hillside. The visitor is struck by its architectural originality. Along winding paths lined with trees, we come across Celtic crosses, pompous colonnaded mausoleums and obelisks.

Glasgow University opened in 1451, west of the city. It is one of the oldest in Scotland and, more generally, in the Anglo-Saxon world. It has counted many famous people in its ranks, including economist Adam Smith, father of liberalism; inventor John Logie Baird, who created the first television in 1926; engineer James Watt or, closer to us, writer William Boyd. You walk along perfectly maintained square lawns. We walk along rows of dark stone buildings, topped with turrets and with large Gothic-style windows. We walk around the cloister and stop for a few moments at the foot of the main building, the Gilbert Scott Building, and its 85-meter bell tower. Sir George Gilbert Scott, the architect of the building, is a figure in the late medieval Gothic revival.

The Act of Union with England or the Glasgow take-off

The great trade with the British colonies

We are now entering the second phase of the history of Glasgow, which sees the Scottish city pass in a few decades from the status of a provincial town to that of the second city of the British Empire. On May 1, 1707, the Scots became British citizens after 700 years of independence. By the Act of Union signed with England, all powers are transferred to London. This is the birth of the United Kingdom. Globally, it is also that of Glasgow. The city enjoys a strategic geographical location on the Atlantic coast and in front of it, the British Empire is opening its doors wide.

The Glasgow traders seized the opportunity and quickly got rich from the tobacco trade with the colonies. After the American War of Independence in 1775, the sugar trade and especially the cotton trade took over. Large fortunes like Sir Thomas Lipton and the governing bodies of Glasgow turn a blind eye to slavery. As elsewhere, all moral and ethical concerns are brushed aside. Result: Glasgow supplies the entire region with cotton. The spinning mill grew and very quickly spurred the Scottish economy. The industrial revolution is brewing ...

Merchant city, the "city of merchants"

The rich merchants take up residence in the heart of the city and leave the name of "merchant city" to this district that visitors today enjoy walking. Opulent mansions, warehouses and freshly rehabilitated period offices line the streets, a stone's throw from the hyper-center. Don't miss the Tobacco Exchange (Virginia Street), where the "Tobbaco Lords" (the "Tobacco Lords") traded in sugar and tobacco, as well as the Trades Hall (Glassford Street), which housed the merchants' guild.

The industrial and working town

To the economic and artistic boom ...

From the end of the 18th century, Glasgow positioned itself as a major center of the nascent industrial revolution. The latter is largely the result of the mechanization of spinning mills. As such, the further development of the steam engine by James Watt, who works at the University of Glasgow, marks a turning point. The energy produced by the steam engine increases productivity tenfold. The spinning mills saw their production jump and, soon, all industrial sectors followed. The context here is favorable. Glasgow indeed has a renowned university, where scientists and engineers acquire an excellent level. In addition, they work hand in hand with investors. Very often, entrepreneurs have a very good technical and scientific background. Result: innovations multiply and stimulate production. Steel and heavy industry soon occupied a major place in the Glasgow economy, until the 1960s. In 1914, the city thus produced a third of the British locomotives and a fifth of the steel, while the shipyards of the Clyde are the first in the world.

Since the beginning of the 18th century, the city has continued to grow richer, and it shows! West and central Glasgow are adorned with elegant neoclassical or Victorian-style 'mansions', while the heart of the city shines with monumental public buildings funded by new industrial tycoons. In George Square, Glasgow's main square, visitors can admire imposing Georgian monuments, such as the City Chambers (Town Hall). In the West End, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum deploys its exotic architecture, influenced by the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela according to some.

Art Nouveau has also left an indelible mark in the history of the Scottish city, both in the exterior architecture and in the interior. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the artists of the "Glasgow Style" revolutionized architecture and design. Mackintosh is one of the best representatives of Art Nouveau on a European scale. The artist dusted off traditional styles. Make way for functional interiors, simplicity and stylized decorations inspired by nature, as evidenced by the House for an Art Lover, in the south of the city, or even the exquisite tea rooms that are now popular with tourists. and the "good society" of Glasgow.

... responds to social misery

The contrast is stark. The flashy facades of the west and the center, the delicate Art Nouveau buildings meet the miles of slums that cover the banks of the Clyde and the east of the city. At the start of the 20th century, Glasgow was overcrowded:
• in 1724, the city had between 15,000 and 20,000 inhabitants;
• in 1800: 77,000;
• in 1850: 250,000;
• in 1880: 587,000 (6th largest city in the world);
• in 1912: 1 million.

To fuel its economy, Glasgow very early on captured a massive and growing flow of people from outside the city, in particular the Scots driven from the highlands during the Highlands Clearances and the Irish fleeing famine. Quickly, the city can no longer absorb these waves of labor. The workers crowd into unsanitary tenements, these 2 to 4-storey buildings in red or ocher sandstone that have left their mark on the urban landscape. Families are accommodated in 2 rooms, "room and kitchen" or in "single-ends", ie a kitchen with a recess housing one or more beds. Up to eight people can occupy a single end. Epidemics are raging. In 1832, 3,000 people died of cholera. Long gone are the days when London writer Daniel Defoe could say, "Glasgow is one of the cleanest, most beautiful and best-built cities in Britain"! It was in 1724.

Decade after decade, no measure seems to address the serious problem of workers' housing, until a radical decision is taken. In the 1960s, the infamous "slums clearances" began, which can be translated as "slum cleaning". The authorities are razing entire streets and relocating workers in the brand new high-rises, its buildings sometimes 30 stories high that the municipality is having built in outlying districts.

Deindustrialization and renewal

The end of the shipyards

It is a date to remember in the history of the Clyde shipyards, marking both their peak and the start of an inevitable decline ... It is September 20, 1967, which will remain a day engraved in the heart of the people of Glasgow, in particular the 4,000 workers who took part in the construction of the "Queen Elizabeth II". The queen is there, she greets the 30,000 people who came to attend its launch. It is she who baptizes the transatlantic, a small jewel of technology 300 m long and with a capacity of almost 2,000 passengers. There is pride in the ranks ... Does the ad say: "The only thing the QE2 has in common with other boats is that it floats". At that time, the "Queen Elizabeth II" was the only merchant ship carrying a computer to facilitate navigation.

The 4,000 workers are certainly unaware that the launch of the liner marks the end of their reign. The “Queen-Elizabeth-II” is the last transatlantic ship built on the banks of the Clyde. Undermined by competition from Germany and Japan and excessively high production costs, Glasgow shipyards are in decline. Today, almost nothing remains: only the Finnieston Crane rears its black mass. This was used to hoist the locomotives on the boats. More than just the shipyards, it is in reality the entire industry in the region that is entering a phase of slow agony. In the 1970s and 1980s unemployment, poverty, alcoholism and crime skyrocketed. Glasgow is bleak: gloomy.

Renewal through culture and innovation

In 1990, Glasgow was designated European City of Culture; in 1999, UK City of Architecture and Design. In 2008, it became Unesco City of Music. These 2 decades mark a new historical stage. The creative effervescence revives the city and wins the economy. Business is diversifying and Scotland’s largest city is once again a hotbed of innovation. While the shipyards have disappeared, the banks of the Clyde are now home to internationally renowned architects. These include the Armadillo-shaped Auditorium built by Norman Foster in 1997; the SSE Hydro next door (a 13,000-seat concert hall) or the Riverside Museum with its zigzag facade designed by Zaha Hadid.

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Glasgow is one of the UK's most attractive cities today. It forms with Edinburgh the "Silicon Glen", a term derived from "Silicon Valley" (Glen means "valley" in the Celtic language). This belt connecting the two cities is indeed seeing investments in the tech industry jump. Today Glasgow is quite simply the UK's No.1 destination in this sector.

What remains of these 1,500 years of history? There remains a city of over 600,000 inhabitants steeped in contrasts. A joyful and dynamic city which nevertheless harbors real pockets of poverty; a modern, innovative city whose landscapes still sometimes bear witness to a tattered industrial past. Glasgow amazes, fascinates, questions. Knowing its history is the key to understanding its peculiarities, but also to falling in love with it.

Selected bibliography

- Michael Fry, Glasgow, A History of the City, Head of Zeus Ltd, 2017
- Robin Ward, Exploring Glasgow, Birlinn Ltd, 2017
- Scotland, Travel Encyclopedias, Gallimard, 2016


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