The first descriptions of Glasgow begin in the mid-17th century when travellers agreed that Glasgow had "the reputation of the finest town in Scotland." Such praise is borne out by the earliest pictorial views which were produced in the third quarter of the 17th century by Captain John Slezer.
From the height of the Fir Hill (now the Necropolis) Glasgow is seen, as it has always claimed, to be a dear green place with a skyline pricked by a galaxy of spires including those of the Old College and further downhill the Tron Church (the late medieval church of St Mary and St Ann) and the Tolbooth. The foreground of Slezer's panorama is dominated by the massive bulk of Glasgow Cathedral, the only large medieval ecclesiastical building to remain intact on the Scottish mainland after the upheavals engendered by the Reformation. The Cathedral's two western towers (which were removed in the 1840s in a fit of "improvement") abut the Bishop's Castle, already being described in 1689 as "now in ruines" with the departure of the last of the archbishops. In Slezer's view the tower with its caphouse and parapet walk is still complete alongside the fortified gateway and precinct wall.
To the north of the cathedral there is open ground; to the west and south curve the long gardens and orchards of the former manses of the thirty-two prebends who made up the Cathedral Chapter. Typical of the post-Reformation secularisation was the acquisition by the family of Graham of Montrose of the former manses of the rectors of Eaglesham and Peebles. Standing in the Drygate the Duke's Lodging was for long the grandest of the town houses of the local gentry.
With the decline of ecclesiastical privilege, power and patronage the city's secular institutions burgeoned at the lower end of the town, where the citizens lived in a huddle of long narrow closes built back from the street. At the crossing of the four main streets the town council in 1626 began to erect a new Tolbooth. Five storeys high, it was overtopped by the steeple (a solitary remnant today) containing the town clock and with the only crown steeple in the west of Scotland with arches upholding a miniature gallery and steeple. Given its scale, its heraldic insignia and little pediments over the windows it was no wonder that the Tolbooth was hailed as "the paragon of beauty in the west." And indeed not only in the west but across Scotland.
Although the Tolbooth hinted at a new architectural style it was three other buildings which finally displaced Gothic as the natural style for architecture even although each had a steeple, a feature unknown in the classical canon. The first was Hutchesons' Hospital in the Trongate. Begun in 1649 it had nine pedimented windows ranged above and on either side of a pend where classical columns supported a fully detailed entablature, all of which was reproduced above in miniature to house a coat of arms.
The growing status of Glasgow as the trading capital of the western seaboard was reflected in the Merchants' Hall of 1659 where pedimented windows on the upper floor made a strange contrast with the crow-stepped gables. At the rear, a tower allowed the merchants a view of the river and the homeward bound vessels. The tower, retained after the demolition of the hall in the 19th century, has diminishing stages each girdled by an open parapet. With its cusped lights and Gothic tracery it makes more than a nod to the central tower of the cathedral. Fittingly it is topped with a golden vessel in full sail.
The largest building enterprise undertaken in 17th century Scotland was for the University founded in 1451 by a papal bull of Pope Nicholas V at the instigation of Bishop Turnbull. Almost two centuries later a major building programme was begun with the list of subscribers headed by King Charles I in 1633 although the records bear the note: "This soume was paid by the Lord Protector [ie; Oliver Cromwell] anno 1654." However, by the time an armorial panel was placed over the entrance it was politic to incorporate the arms of King Charles II. The college buildings with their two courtyards replicating the earlier layout stretched eastwards from the High Street as far as the Molendinar Burn flowing through a ravine to the River Clyde at the Bridgegate.
The Old College frontage on the High Street was extensive and undoubtedly the most magnificent in the city. Behind it was the Lion and Unicorn Staircase (now at Gilmorehill) the contract for which was signed in 1690. It led to the forehall set above a loggia with pilasters carrying an entablature. As an essay in classicism it was assured even if the effect jarred because of the strapwork over the upper pediments. The inner court was more domestic with cylindrical staircase towers placed at intervals along the inner faces. When the College was demolished in the later nineteenth century one tower and the centre of the High Street frontage were cobbled together to make up the Pearce Lodge at Gilmorehill.
The enterprise shown in erecting so many civic buildings was part of a general spirit of improvement. Glasgow had been a compact place with "four large fair streets" in which, as another visitor recorded, "the houses are only of wood, ornamented with carving." After several fires and by the time of Daniel Defoe's visit in the early 18th century the houses were "all of Stone, and generally equal and uniform in Height, as well as in Front; the lower Story generally stands on vast Square Dorick Columns ... in a Word, 'tis the cleanest and beautifullest, and best built City in Britain."
A sea change in British architecture occurred from 1715 with the publication of Vitruvius Britannicus in which architectural design and composition were set out in accordance with Roman classicism as interpreted by the 16th century Italian architect Andrew Palladio. The name on the frontispiece was that of Colen Campbell (1676-1729) a practising lawyer turned architect who designed the Shawfield Mansion in Glasgow in 1711 for his kinsman Daniel Campbell. This compact villa (demolished in 1792) with its large grounds on the north-western edge of the city was to set a pattern for the well-to-do. The plainer mansion at 42 Miller Street built by the wright John Craig in 1775 is the sole survivor of a row of villas while, in Charlotte Street, there was a double row of which one house remains. The new mansions on the city's outskirts were occupied by the Tobacco Lords, men like John Glassford the second owner of the Shawfield mansion, who had made a fortune trading with the Americas.
Glasgow could now afford to build the most sumptuous church of its time in Scotland. A local man, Allan Dreghorn (1706-1765), designed St Andrew's Church, 1740-1751. With its mahogany galleries beneath stuccoed ceilings, its portico and slim steeple it is a variant on designs by James Gibbs (1682-1754) and especially his St Martin's-in-the-Fields. That it set a new benchmark can be seen in the Episcopalian chapel of St. Andrew's-by-the-Green (1750) which, having an organ, was known as "the whistlin' kirk". Dreghorn also designed the Town Hall. Lying to the west of the Tolbooth it introduced a giant order set above an arcade.
With their London antecedents these edifices were the forerunners of a metropolitan taste which would culminate with the appearance of the Adam brothers in Glasgow in the 1790s. By then the pattern of Glasgow was changing as new thoroughfares were being driven west and north from Argyle Street to begin the grid pattern which remains a characteristic of the city's urban pattern.
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