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Beginnings: Early times to 1560

Culture and Leisure

By Eila Williamson

Glasgow Cathedral Evidence of culture and leisure in Glasgow is patchy for the period prior to 1560. Probable destruction of works of art by zealots during the Reformation along with the loss of many of the medieval records of the archbishopric hinder any investigation. Although the right to hold an annual fair was granted during the episcopate of Jocelin (1174-1199) there is no evidence of the kinds of leisure activities which were to take place during the time of the fair in later centuries. Burgh council records, which tend to be a useful source for cultural historians, do not begin until the 1570s in the case of Glasgow.


Jocelin's Crypt In terms of medieval religious art one of the most exciting discoveries in recent years has been that of the eighteen painted fragments which were found in the crypt during archaeological excavations in Glasgow Cathedral in 1992-1993. These fragments - along with a painted voussoir (a wedge-shaped stone from an arch) found in 1916 - are believed to be late-12th century in date and to belong to Bishop Jocelin's Cathedral, consecrated in 1197. The figures depicted on some of the fragments include part of a wing with a starry background behind it and a male face with a cross behind his head. There is a possibility that these may have formed a decoration venerating the life of St Kentigern.

Cathedral Crypt The stone carvings of Glasgow Cathedral reveal the decorative work of successive building campaigns. For example, in the crypt there can be seen 13th century vaulting bosses which contain carved figures or beasts amidst foliage, while the 15th century pulpitum (screen separating the choir from the nave) has seven groups of carvings which may represent the seven ages of man.

Glasgow University Mace Something of the splendour of the Cathedral's interior and of its officiating clergy can be imagined further from a scan through the contents of an inventory of the ornaments, jewels and vestments of the Cathedral which was prepared in 1432. These contents included a silver cross which was gilt at the top and decorated with precious stones. The base was silver and was said to contain a piece of Christ's cross. Among the vestments there was a cope of Persian silk which was embroidered with beasts, foliage and flowers along with images of stags, and another ruby cope which was embroidered with porcupines and flowers of gold. An arras cloth (a wall hanging) which depicted the life of St Kentigern is especially noteworthy.

Vicars' Choir Stone It appears that some artwork may have survived the Reformation in Glasgow. A dispute over goods in 1574 revealed the existence of a board on which there was an "image of our lady". We must not jump to conclusions, however; in the 1590s representatives of Glasgow presbytery discovered painted crucifixes in many houses but learned that they were the recent work of two painters. One fortunate survival to this day is that of the University of Glasgow's 15th century silver-gilt mace which was in use during processions by 1469 and is likely to have been made in Germany. From the late 16th century, however, it has undergone a series of alterations.


Music was an integral part of worship within the Cathedral. The vicars choral, who numbered about thirty-two at the time of the foundation of their "college" by bishop Andrew de Durisdeer (1455-1473), supplied the singing at the various services of the Church. The Cathedral had a song school - a training ground for choristers - in which the pupils were taught plain song as well as elementary Latin. By 1507 there were only six choristers including John Paniter who, according to John Durkan, "had been seconded to a musician for expert tuition, consequently becoming organist, master of the song school and composer of anthems". Music also formed part of the four-part quadrivium course (the other three subjects being arithmetic, astronomy and geometry) studied by Arts students at the University.

Poetry amd Drama

In a cultural context the vernacular poet Robert Henryson (c 1420-c 1490) should be mentioned. Henryson was a member of the Law faculty at the University from 1462 before leaving for Dunfermline in around 1468 to become master of the grammar school there. While at Glasgow Henryson probably wrote his poem "Orpheus and Eurydice" which retells the classical story of Orpheus' journey to the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice.

There is little information about medieval drama in Glasgow. In May 1462, however, there is mention of an interludium (a short play or something similar) involving university students and masters which was to take place at a celebration for the feast of the translation of St Nicholas. Following a procession through the town, during which flowers and branches were to be carried, there was to be a banquet in the college of the Arts faculty. Thereafter the masters and students were to assemble at "a place of solace" to enjoy the entertainment.

Games and Sport

An intriguing place-name palestram de Glesgw lusoriam (playground of Glasgow) appears in a record from 1559. This refers to the Old Green, part of which was situated between the Briggait (Bridgegate) and the River Clyde. Latin words such as ludus (play) and lusorius (relating to play) are problematic. They may refer to dramatic performance or simply to sports and games and in this case it is not entirely clear what is meant. Another place-name which occurs in Glasgow's 16th-century records is more specific. In 1557 an area of land in the Isle Toothie near to the Rottenrow was referred to as "ly caichepule". Caich was a type of handball played against a wall by two players or teams.

University students also enjoyed playing ball games. In 1476 the student and would-be cleric Robert Ross sought papal dispensation for an injury to his left eye. The injury had been caused by a cabbage stalk while he was playing a game with his fellow students - presumably a ball-game using a cabbage as a substitute for a ball. Skittles and bowls were other popular games in medieval Glasgow.

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