A walk around... Glasgow

Featuring: Audio Audio

A roaring trade with the Americans and Europeans helped transform Glasgow from a nondescript, small town into a thriving metropolis with huge and expensive buildings. Find out how the Tobacco Lords changed the face of the city with Neil Oliver and guests.

By: Neil Oliver (BBC) , The History of Scotland web team (Programme and web teams)

  • Duration 30 mins
  • Updated Monday 9th November 2009
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Heritage
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Welcome to a walk around the Merchant City of Glasgow. From its humble beginnings, the little town was transformed into one of the most important cities in the British Empire by the Tobacco Lords, whose vast power was only matched by their wealth. However, it was a power gained from slave trading and hard-nosed business practices.


Copyright The Open University


Neil Oliver: Welcome to Glasgow and a walk around the 18th Century explosion in power that the city experienced, transforming it from a burgh town to a city of international standing. Make sure you’ve got your map with you, downloaded from the website. Joining us on our walk are Charles McKean of Dundee University, Irene Maver of Glasgow University and Ranald MacInnes of Historic Scotland.

So why are the Tobacco Lords so special? Charles.

Charles McKean: The Tobacco Lords probably symbolised the extraordinary success of early to mid-18th Century Glasgow, in their own persons, in their houses, it was an extraordinary story, because Glasgow in the 1650s was an okay place, but there was nothing particularly special about it. A hundred years later, in 1750 it is entirely special, and they, and what they built, the streets they built, and the way they created a new area for themselves outside the medieval town, that showed off themselves and their estate to greatest glory, that’s very special and it’s not matched anywhere else.

Neil: As you go round the walk listen out for this sound [beep]. When you hear this hit ‘pause’ and move on to the next location where you can press ‘play’ again.

Point 1: the Tolbooth

Our walk starts in the old heart of Glasgow with the tower of the Tolbooth in the middle of it. It’s probably best to stand across from the Tolbooth as that’s opposite the High Street where Glasgow University sat until it moved west and where Glasgow Cathedral still sits. In the mid-17th Century, Glasgow was a burgh town set back from a shallow river, shaking off the dominance of the church. Irene Maver specialises in the history of Glasgow.

Irene Maver: One of the important things to bear in mind is the Reformation of 1560 because before that time Glasgow was known as the Bishop’s Burgh. It was one of the most important Roman Catholic ecclesiastical centres in Scotland. All that changes with the Reformation and you get a shift in the power base from the religious, from the spiritual to the secular, and that secular shift is in the persons of the merchant and trading elite of Glasgow, and they’re consolidating their position from the Reformation and right throughout the 17th Century as well. That’s when Glasgow becomes known as the Merchant Town.

Neil: The merchants funded the building of this Tolbooth, a place for councils to meet, in 1626. It was probably the largest new civic building in the whole of Britain, with a courthouse and a town council chamber. Charles McKean is a professor of Scottish architectural history.

Charles McKean: If you were one of those invited by the Council up to look from the roof and the belvedere of the Tolbooth, you would be looking down at every other building, maybe almost two storeys higher, because it was gigantic. The only things you would have seen if you were looking west would be the spire of the new Hutchesons’ Hospital, where the Hutchesons’ merchants had erected a charitable hospital, or you would look east, you’d see the new university and north to the cathedral, and that’s it, you’re looking down on the rest of Glasgow which is for the most part three storeys high.

Neil: Glasgow was comparable to Oxford in the 1650s with its university and sense of antiquity, but it was going places - and so are we! Make your way to Point 2 on the map, Charlotte Street, slightly further east from this centre.

Point 2: Charlotte Street

Charles: We’re in the remains of what was one of the most curious streets in Europe, and it was developed for Tobacco Lords. Not the richest, but the sort of second ranked Tobacco Lords, and if one has in my mind’s eye how British towns developed in the 18th Century one tends to think of terraces of houses - this is absolutely normal - but not here. Here they were developed as individual houses, freestanding villas, with little single-storey pavilions on either side, so it’s fundamentally a suburban development in an urban form.

In Charlotte Street, there were ten of these villas with their little pavilions on each side of the road, and it was gated. There were gates at the bottom end and the upper end because, you know, they wanted the right sort of quality of people here, and it probably never took off. Apart from the fact we know one of Glasgow’s most successful entrepreneurs, David Dale, lived in a house at the bottom end, which is now occupied by a school, we don’t know too much about the other occupiers, because in general in Britain you don’t build on the east side of a town because the prevailing wind is coming from the west and blows the smells of the town and the smoke east.

So, generally in Britain you’d develop on the west side of towns, and I wonder if that’s why Charlotte Street never really took off. However, we’ve still got Number 52 Charlotte Street here. Very, very typical Tobacco Lord house, the centre, that it’s a five bay, i.e. five-window house, the centre three bays have got a pediment above it. It’s still got its urns decorating it, presents two storeys to the street but three storeys behind, and the door is beautifully scalloped out in stone.

Now, if you look around Britain or classical Europe you will not find other houses like this, but if you looked to America, particularly to Annapolis, which is found in Maryland, you will find these, and we call it Mid-Atlantic style if you like. They’re very unusual in America, they’re very unusual here, but that’s where you find them.

Neil: By the 18th Century, the Scots dominated the market in tobacco and Glasgow would have had many fine streets like this one. But in the 1600s, before the Act of Union, it wasn’t an open market upon which these Scottish merchants could gain a foothold.

Irene: Legally the Scots could not trade with the English colonies, so they began to take kind of dodgy means of perpetuating that trade. A lot of it was to do with smuggling, but they became very adept at this and there were numerous advantages, not least Glasgow’s strategic location. That was very important for the development of the trans-Atlantic tobacco trade because Glasgow was relatively nearer to North America, which made for swifter trans-Atlantic crossings.

So basically, from Glasgow you could have two sailings to and from North America, whereas other ports, particularly south of the border, could maybe only manage one.

Neil: The Glasgow traders built up strong personal relationships with the international merchant community, and you’d find merchant families in Glasgow becoming linked by marriage. It was a ruthless, expensive business and many merchants fell by the wayside leaving just a few to build massive empires. Around 1775 the businesses headed by William Cunninghame, Alexander Speirs and John Glassford controlled over half the Clyde tobacco trade.

Irene: They are very, very shrewd businessmen. They understand that, for instance, trans-Atlantic crossings, you can’t just send out empty ships, you’ve got to have some kind of exports, and notably textiles, linen and suchlike, hardware, all the kinds of things that settlers will need in the colonies are taken out there, and they have a credit system on the plantations, which is called the store system, and that works extremely well.

So these ships that are plying the Atlantic are able to make lucrative income, not just by bringing the raw tobacco back but also by sending out goods to North America, so they understand how to make the most of their opportunities, and that makes them extremely wealthy.

Neil: So wealthy that in London, they realised they had some serious competition.

Narrator 1: “They sail their ships so much cheaper than you can from London, and they have some other advantages in the trade that it is my opinion that in a few years, the London market will be chiefly supplied through that channel.”

Neil: But the ruthless nature of the Scots in America wasn’t appreciated by all on that continent.

Narrator 2: “In North Britain there’s something like the stinking and troublesome weed we call in Virginia, Wild Onion. Whether one is permitted to fix the numbers soon increases so fast that it is extremely difficult to eradicate them, and they can poison the ground so that no wholesome plant can thrive.”

Neil: We’re going to head back towards the centre now to get a taste of how the merchants started changing Glasgow. Head along the edge of Glasgow Green to join Ranald MacInnes, Principal Inspector of Buildings for Historic Scotland, at St. Andrews in the Square, Point 3 on the map.

Point 3: St. Andrews in the Square

Ranald MacInnes: I think the Tobacco Lords were for Glasgow, for Glaswegians, a real aristocracy, but not of the old landed type. This was new money, and they liked to throw it about a bit. They were well-dressed, beautifully dressed; well-heeled, scarlet cloaks, puffed-up wigs. You know, you really saw these guys with their silver-topped canes. They were unmistakable and really unapproachable, but as much as they had money they also had taste. They wanted to buy taste, and they did buy it.

The church here, St. Andrews Parish Church is one of the most remarkable 18th Century churches in Scotland. It’s certainly probably the most important one. They spent a fortune on it, and they were quite happy to do that. This really announced their arrival and their importance not just in the city but in Scotland and throughout the UK.

Neil: St. Andrews is opulent both inside and out. Take a walk around the church and up the steps to see if you can peer in the doorway and see the magnificent ceiling and woodwork.

Charles: This is really what represents them and the power. Not a lot to do with God in here; a great deal to do with ostentatious wealth, but when they built this church, originally it was built in the fields, and an architect called William Hamilton surrounded the church in about 1782 with new terrace houses in the, if you like, the Edinburgh manner, so they’d be fairly vertical townhouses going all the way around. Now these, for the most part, survived until the 1970s, and they’ve been replaced now by a 20th Century equivalent, so you still get this sense of not quite a cathedral close but something quite similar.

The church faces west down towards the Saltmarket, that’s the way you used to come, and it’s got a huge gigantic portico. The building was designed by Allan Dreghorn but it was built, maybe co-designed, by the mason Mungo Naismith, and when they first opened it the Glaswegian natives were said to be very scared that it didn’t look as though the portico would stand up, so the first night of its opening he slept beneath the columns to show that if he had confidence in it so would everybody else. The real problem was, in classical architecture, you tend to have large pieces of stone spanning from column to column and resting on the columns for structural safety.

Well, if you look at the portico here, you’ll find there are stones spanning out from the columns, but then they stop. They don’t go from column to column because the columns are too far apart, and then you find the stone in the middle, and it is definitely ‘look no hands’. There is no way of telling with the visual eye how that piece of stone is standing up. Is it tied into the stones on either side, is it cantilevered out in the main wall or should we let Mungo Naismith sleep beneath it and find out?

Neil: You can spend the night here if you wish, but we’re moving on. Head back towards Glasgow Cross and along to the Tron Theatre, Point 4 on the map.

Point 4: Trongate

We’re back in the area of the Tolbooth, but we’ve moved on a century. Now the Tobacco Lords dominate the wealth of this place.

Charles: The Tolbooth has started to get a bit out of fashion. Glasgow wanted something that represented the new wealth, the new success, so they built what they called The Townhouse, the town hall, and it was behind that they built the Tontine Hotel. So you’ve got this wonderful new frontage. The nearest parallel, because it’s gone now, is look at Somerset House frontage in London. This is about 15 years earlier, but it’s effectively the same type of antique Roman architecture, similar in a way to the architecture we saw in St. Andrews Church, obviously, because it’s from the same people.

Once they demolished the west port though in 1752 the street beyond, Argyle Street, sort of merged, and that is where a number of the Tobacco Lords built big villas instead of in Charlotte Street; Provost Murdoch, Provost Cochrane, and all the way along you found these big houses facing Argyle Street as you went west, and gradually they opened up two or three streets to the north, where again they built Tobacco Lord villas as they had done back in Charlotte Street on the east.

Irene: It’s a place, allegedly, where the Tobacco Lords would parade about in their red cloaks and their fuzzy wigs and their tricorn hats, and it became known as the ‘plainstaines’, and that’s to do with the fact that you begin to have proper thoroughfares. It’s not just an inadequately cobbled street; it’s something that’s got presence about it, and of course the Tobacco Lords, as legend had it, liked to be seen round about this area because this was where they had their transactions, that there would be reading rooms here.

This is the period when there’s a huge growth of literacy. Newspapers are beginning to be produced. You’ve got a transport revolution which means that you’re beginning to have newspapers from France, from England, all over the place, and that means that the merchants are able to consult these reading rooms, have their coffees, even something stronger because, presumably, there’d be taverns around about here as well. It’s a meeting place for them, so it’s very important because this is where they conduct their transactions and so on.

Ranald: They’ll catch up on the progress of their ships here. They’ll read the papers, they’ll talk to their friends, and maybe if you’re lucky, if you’re an ordinary Glaswegian who would like to do some business with them, you might get to speak to them. But don’t think about going up and just saying, “Excuse me, Mr Cunninghame.” You’re actually going to have to walk on the other side of the street up and down the hill until he decides that you can have an audience with him. That’s how important these people were. When they spoke to each other, they were I guess rather haughty and well off, and they weren’t going to pass the time of day just with anyone who fancied having a word with them.

Neil: This is still the site of medieval Glasgow, although it’s a lot grander than a century before. We’re moving on now to the next part in the map, Point 5, and in doing so we’re following the pattern of Glasgow’s growth in the 18th Century.

Point 5: Wilson Street

Feel free to wander a little at this stop. Wilson Street is right in the middle of the first new town, built in the late 1700s, and the streets around here all represent this area.

Ranald: The first new town is, in Glasgow, is directly behind the High Street which connects the Tolbooth with Glasgow Cathedral. So you had a situation whereby you had a typical medieval layout of skinny medieval plots stretching back from the High Street. The first new town in Glasgow is completely different from that. Now you’ve got a gridded system. Glasgow is famous for having a grid, which is one of these systems, a bit like New York. If you think the future looks good and there’s going to be a lot of developments a grid is the way to go because you can go on and on and on as long as you like, and to some extent that’s what they did in Glasgow, and they experimented with it first here, in the first new town.

Charles: What’s unusual about it about Wilson Street is, first of all, Wilson Street is quite wide. It’s unusually wide for a street, and it’s blocked in every end. It doesn’t, these aren’t streets that go on into the distance; they’re actually blocked by very often important buildings. You can see Wilson Street probably as a sort of marketplace for this new merchant city. Originally, almost certainly, all the houses lining it would have been arcaded because that was the fashion of this period of building. They weren’t terraced houses, they certainly weren’t these American-style blocks of offices. What they were blocks of apartments sitting on arcaded commercial premises so arcaded shops at ground level.

Ranald: Unlike Edinburgh’s new town, this was what we would call nowadays a mixed development. So you will have houses, warehouses, counting houses, banks, all mixed in together, whereas in Edinburgh it had been the ambition early on to devote the whole new town to the aristocracy, and later on, middle class people as a place to live rather than a place to work.

Charles: From Wilson Street various streets open off and they’re all blocked, so it wasn’t an open new town, a gridiron new town, the sort of thing we expect. Towards the edge you get other names. Wilson Street isn’t particularly significant, but we are in an area of Glassford Street, after the Tobacco Lord John Glassford of Douglaston. We are in the name of Garth Street, which is named after William McDowell of Garthland, who was a great sugar man from St Kitts, and that is the period that this area is developed.

The west end of Wilson Street where the marketplace is, as it were, and I’m calling it that narrows, you’ll see it go through to another street, now that’s Virginia Street, obviously named after the tobacco connections. That’s where the Tobacco Exchange used to be. Even if you go there now, the buildings are all late 18th, early 19th Century. At the head of it was one of the great Virginia Tobacco Lord mansions, and this is sort of fairly typical. You get the very big houses which stand on their own, then you get the streets of lesser Tobacco Lord houses, and then you get the ones that are sporadically in the street, so even Tobacco Lords had a rank amongst them, so no matter how grand they were there was a pecking order.

Neil: Walk through these new streets to Point 6 on the map, Miller Street. As you walk up Virginia Street you’ll be facing and walking around what was Virginia Mansions, the most stately mansion in the whole of the City, owned by Alexander Speirs of Elderslie. It was converted into a bank in 1841.

Point 6: The Tobacco Lord’s House

I hope you’re standing opposite the 18th Century house. It’s similar to the house on Charlotte Street; tall, steep-pitched roof, decorated with urns and a very fine entrance up several steps. This street and some others around it would have originally contained several Tobacco Lord villas. These houses were a sign of owners who were very self-confident, but who didn’t need very ornate exteriors.

Irene: Of course, there is a dark side to all this development in Glasgow, and this was understandably because of the trans-Atlantic connection. These merchants weren’t just involved in the American colonies; also, increasingly, they were involved in the Caribbean because there were lucrative sugar plantations there, and of course for harvesting tobacco, for harvesting sugar cane you need slaves, and this was one of the great conundrums about 18th Century Glasgow, that it’s a town of the Enlightenment, yet many of these Tobacco Lords really didn’t think twice about the nature of where their wealth came from and the fact it was so tied in with the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Quite often you would have black slaves coming back to Glasgow, and you do read about their presence in 18th Century Glasgow. Famously, John Glassford in the portrait of his family which positively exudes opulence, and a sign of that opulence was the two black slaves that featured in that portrait - they were later dimmed out. Maybe in the 19th Century it wasn’t quite regarded as appropriate, but recent restoration has shown the presence of these two black slaves, and they would be a status symbol for a family because they were exotic, and they showed those signs of overseas wealth and overseas influence also.

Neil: Retrace your steps slightly now up to Ingram Street. As you turn left there, to go to our next point, you’ll see how William Cunninghame’s mansion would have been seen by everyone on this street. It’s now the Gallery of Modern Art and Point 7 on our map.

Point 7: The Cunninghame Mansion

Feel free to wander around this building. It’s been adapted several times, extended into a bank and changed into an art gallery, so it looks different from how it would have been when William Cunninghame moved in, but it would have been no less impressive to Glaswegians then.

Irene: William Cunninghame had made his fortune in the Virginia tobacco trade at a very young age and came back to Glasgow, consolidated that fortune, and around about 1780 decided he was going to stamp his presence on the city by erecting one of the grandest houses in the city. Now of course, this is a city moving westward so it’s a fashionable area, it’s not part of the area round about Glasgow Cross so it’s very distinctive in its own setting, and at the time it cost £10,000 to build, which was a small fortune, and it was the talk of the town because people just didn’t believe something as grand as this was taking shape before their very eyes.

So it was iconic, and of course it was very much part of the developing new town. It was set strategically so that it framed the new thoroughfare of Ingram Street. However, Cunninghame didn’t stay very long in Glasgow. He preferred his home base of Ayrshire and eventually the house, the mansion was taken over by a family who were textile manufacturers, and the mansion lost something of its edge because they began to store bales of material in the basement and such like.

But then, the building got taken over by the Royal Bank of Scotland, and that restored it to some of its former glory, and in the 1820s it was given a total, massive makeover - it became the Royal Exchange, and again that’s very important because you can see that the merchants are moving away from their old base at Glasgow Cross. They’re moving into the new Royal Exchange where they can meet each other, meet and greet, read the newspapers, do their business deals, generally behave in a kind of fraternal way that businessmen do, so it’s a new symbol of the new Glasgow, the Glasgow that’s moving westward and, again, is moving out of the old burgh boundaries.

Charles: When it was first built it was completely on its own. It was a Tobacco Lord villa and of course, back in Ayrshire he had a clone of this about double the size, but when it was turned into the Royal Exchange – the architect was David Hamilton, who was probably the best architect in Glasgow if not Scotland at that date – they created an entire square around it called Royal Exchange Square.

So here we have another square with a building in the middle and there’s an arcade at the back as though you’re in Paris, and you go through the arcade at the back and you’re into Buchanan Street. And of course, the link there is Buchanan Street is named after one of the four great Tobacco Lords, the other three being, the man here, Cunninghame of Lainshaw, Speirs of Elderslie and the man we’ve already mentioned, John Glassford of Douglaston, these people who earned, by our standards, possibly in the hundreds of millions of pounds, probably the wealthiest non-aristocratic non-land owning people in Europe.

Ranald: I think a lot of people think that the Tobacco Lords disappeared. They suffered when the American Revolution started or the War of Independence started. That was the end of their trade and that was the end of them. It didn’t happen like that at all. There’s been, a lot of really good research has been done on that question in recent years. It appears that, in fact, they seem to have done pretty well out of that particular emergency.

William Cunninghame was a very, very smart businessman, and I don’t think he was about to lose everything on the basis of something as inconvenient as a War of Independence or the American Revolution. From the evidence that we now have available, he seems actually to have been weathered that particular storm and, in fact, may even have profited from it by stockpiling the product, stockpiling tobacco, holding it and holding it, waiting until the price was as high as it was going to get and then selling it on.

Neil: Now wander down Ingram Street to our final spot at Point 8 on the map, at the Ramshorn Kirkyard. Just wait when you get outside the original church.

Point 8: the Ramshorn Kirkyard

Before we go round the back into the kirkyard, have a look in the space to the left of the old kirk. On the wall by the road is the gravestone of John Glassford, one of the great Glasgow Tobacco Lords. Once you’ve looked at that, go around the other side of the kirk and enter the graveyard. Feel free to wander around this evocative place.

Irene: This is something of a time warp. It’s not a Victorian cemetery. It doesn’t have the opulent kind of memorials, whether they’re in Greek style or Roman style or Egyptian style that you’ll find in, say, the Necropolis of Glasgow, which is just up to the road. It is very restrained and there were very strict requirements that graves couldn’t be ostentatious; they had to really kind of fade into the background, so it really has that 18th Century feel about it, and it is an amazing kind of memoir of the men who built Glasgow in the 18th Century for good or for ill.

Neil: The American War of Independence didn’t immediately spell the end of the Tobacco Lords but their power did start to dwindle in the United States. But the world of merchants was rapidly moving on.

Irene: They did reinvest their money. They reinvested it in textiles. They reinvested it in iron, because to the east of Glasgow you’ve got the developing coal and iron fields of west central Scotland. They looked ahead. Some of them quite consciously went into sugar. The Cunninghame family went into Caribbean sugar, and you have this move from the Virginia and Maryland elite who really controlled Glasgow in the mid-18th Century towards the sugar elite who controlled Glasgow in the 1790s through to the 1830s, when for various reasons, including the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, the sugar market changed quite dramatically.

So, you have these different elites, but there is often a strand of continuity because the money is reinvested and so much of a fortune is made that they’re able to do that, so it’s not a clear-cut thing between the old merchant aristocracy of the tobacco age and these new liberal-orientated entrepreneurs like David Dale. There’s often an interconnection there, and that interconnection can be money.

Neil: One of the textile giants also lies here; David Dale who built New Lanark. The plain gravestones may just say ‘Merchant of Glasgow’, but the people lying here transformed Glasgow.

Irene: One of the things that they achieved was to make Glasgow an imperial city. They, basically, they used the Clyde, whether it was the ports downriver like Greenock and Port Glasgow - ultimately, it was Glasgow itself as the port developed – but the Clyde was the gateway to the wider world. So again, if you’re talking about diversification maybe the tobacco trade wasn’t as strong after the American War of Independence, but then they start looking elsewhere. They start looking to the Caribbean, they start looking to Canada and the timber markets and to other parts of the British Empire. The East India trade from the 1800s becomes important, so Glasgow becomes a city on a global scale as a result of these merchants’ activities.

Now, imperialism is a very ambiguous word, and to some it’s a dirty word, but there can be no doubt that that sense of imperialism really built Glasgow as a city throughout the 19th Century, and it’s only by the mid-20th Century when all these links begin to dissolve that you can see de-industrialisation in Glasgow and collapse of various industries like shipbuilding and so on. So it’s an ambiguous legacy for Glasgow from these guys, but I think that global experience is really important.

Neil: This audio walk was made in collaboration with the Open University. Further information and more walks can be found at open2.net/scotland.

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