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Beginnings: Early times to 1560

Everyday Life

By Ted Cowan

Glasgow Cathedral Crypt Glasgow began as a cemetery and was famed as an important pilgrimage site during the millennium before 1560. Everyday life must have significantly changed in many ways during these long centuries but a person living in 1560 arguably had more in common with another alive in the 12th, or perhaps even the 6th, century than she or he did with one on Clydeside in, say, 1760. The central fact of Glaswegian existence in the medieval period was the "dear church" after which Glaschu was named.

St Mungo

Seal of Bishop Jocelin The building of the Cathedral began in the 1180s and continued until the Reformation in the mid-16th century. That glorious structure, situated on, or close to, the shrine of St Mungo or Kentigern, replaced a timber church destroyed by fire in 1136. The saint's Life, commissioned in the late 12th century but based upon earlier materials, may shed some light on everyday life between c 550 and c 1200, the great time span separating the subject from his biographer, Jocelin.

Dig near Provand's Lordship The author "wandered through the streets and lanes of the city" in search of information about Mungo whom "the common people" invoked in time of strife. Since Glasgow's burgh charter was only granted in the 1170s the place must have been tiny, though commerce would have been stimulated by the establishment of a weekly market held every Thursday, which was regarded as a day of good fortune.

Life and Death

Bishop Wishart's counter seal To judge from the Life people were concerned about diseases such as fevers, leprosy, epilepsy, gout, insanity, and sterility. In the 12th century the mad and the possessed were still tied overnight, as they had been in the saint's day, to a great cross which he erected; morning found them cured or dead. Anaesthetics were occasionally used in operations. Death was ever-present. It was probably plague which killed Mungo and his monastic followers. Jocelin had a tale of Mungo's miraculous resurrection of a cook who told of his post-death visions before returning to his kitchen. Folk expected that their dust "would be consigned in the womb of the mother of all" where they hoped they might find a place of rest and be resurrected at Judgement day.

Coins from Glasgow Mint A source of fascination was the sexual activities of Strathclyde's royal family, such as the strange circumstances of Mungo's conception. Folk were probably as bemused as they were bewildered by clerical celibacy; it was said of Mungo that he was completely impervious to "the sight or touch of a most beautiful girl".

Clydehaugh logboats According to Jocelin the monk, people were rather spiteful and envious of one another. They took their lead, perhaps, from their rather small-minded rulers who belonged in the same milieu as Merlin and King Arthur, the subjects of "poetic songs and histories non canonical". People were easily diverted from Christian thoughts. Some considered Mungo's mother, Thaney (also known as Thenew or Enoch), to be a witch practising magical arts; they feared phantoms and were attentive to prophecy. They worried about food, that is, acquiring enough of it. Mungo was a vegetarian - except on visits to the great and the good, after which he would diet. He favoured dairy products. On the whole most people subsisted on cereals and vegetables. People rejoiced when, on one occasion, the flooded Clyde miraculously failed to engulf the royal granaries containing stored wheat. Absence of meat and monotony of diet probably made them lethargic. It has been suggested that to modern eyes medieval folk would have seemed to be functioning almost in slow motion.

Glasgow Fair

Auld Pedagogy Glasgow Fair was inaugurated in 1197, though for centuries people came "up the watter" for the event which was designed to attract visitors rather than to encourage them to depart elsewhere on holiday. How many came is not known but the Fair was regarded as a good time to pay rents and settle disputes. Glasgow seems to have had two centres, one at the Cathedral and the other at the Cross, but the Fair was the time when the two came together in celebration. It should be remembered that the Clyde represented the true frontier between Highland and Lowland in Scotland. The river brought people from the west coast and the islands but also from Ireland, Galloway and the Solway, the Isle of Man and even further afield. Languages and lifestyles would mix on the High Street. It was not for nothing that William the Lion dubbed the Cathedral, "the mother of many nations". Glasgow regarded itself as the capital of an ancient kingdom that had extended through Cumbria to Stainmore in England, a "special daughter" of the papacy with a cathedral which was, and is, one of the gems of medieval architecture.

Trades and Traders

Economically, pilgrimage had always been important in attracting visitors. Glasgow treasured the bones of Mungo and Thaney, as well as part of the former's hair shirt. It also kept a fragment of the true cross and relics of the Virgin Mary. Trade, however, would become increasingly important. The existence of a bridge across the Clyde is recorded by 1286 but since tolls were probably levied it is unlikely that the original ford across the river became completely redundant. From the 13th century various trades and crafts appear in the burgh though it can be assumed that some of them, such as miller and blacksmith, had been there earlier. They were soon joined by baker, cobbler, skinner, tanner, dyer and, among others, a female weaver. The street known as the Fishergate commemorates another important commodity which would include salmon (still celebrated on the city's coat of arms) but probably also the harvest of the sea. Although Glasgow has been described as an "inland burgh", it is noteworthy that Jocelin's Life contains much maritime imagery and one striking evocation of the stench of rotting fish. Also, as Norman Shead has suggested, the surname Hangpudyng suggests a specialist in the manufacture of black puddings, or maybe haggis.

Religion and Education

Jocelin also wrote of the corporal punishment of children - "the blows of rods which are wont to be the greatest torment of boys". There was a school from at least the 14th century as well as a 'sang school' associated with the Cathedral. In the Jubilee year of 1450 the Pope decreed that, for folk so-minded, a visit to Glasgow would be as valid as a pilgrimage to Rome. A spin-off was the founding of the University the following year, a notable acquisition for the city, "a place of renown where the air is mild and victuals are plentiful" in which, it was hoped, the college "may flourish in all time to come forever". The declaiming of the founding papal bull was a matter of public celebration. Situated in Rottenrow the new institution had a shaky start attracting only about twenty students a year. Further public ceremony accompanied the University's removal to a new site in the High Street in 1460. A church service was followed by an elaborate procession, a ceremony and a banquet, the day concluding with "some interlude, or other spectacle" to rejoice the people.


It has been observed that in pre-industrial Europe people spent most of their time talking about the last festival and anticipating the next one. Glasgow is unlikely to have been an exception. For example, on the eve of Reformation the city was gripped by the dreaded plague and the fearful sick sought comfort at the Chapel of St Rollox on the Boroughmuir. Yet it was still considered necessary for the council to legislate "that no pipers, fiddlers, minstrels or other vagabonds shall remain in this town from this time forth during the time of the pest". Then, as now, it required a council edict to tell the Glasgow folk when to stop enjoying themselves.

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