Skip Navigation / Jump to Content



The Rising Burgh: 1560 to 1770s

Everyday Life

By James McGrath

Blackfriars Church Initially one parish, the burgh of Glasgow worshipped at the High Kirk (Glasgow Cathedral). In 1597 the outlying districts of Glasgow became the Barony parish, but it still used the Cathedral. Although the execution of John Ogilvie in 1615 testified to residual Roman Catholic activity the new Protestant religion had quickly taken root. As the population grew, so too did the need for a more extensive parish system and, eventually, new churches. The renovated Tron Kirk and the old Blackfriars Kirk in High Street were pressed into service and by 1650 the burgh had been split into four parishes. Further divisions followed. New churches began to appear, most notably St David's Ramshorn in Ingram Street (1718), and St Andrew's, off Saltmarket (1741).

Social Control

Town's Hospital Moral and social aspects of everyday life were controlled by the Kirk Session, usually acting with the town council. Both took zealous action against adulterers, fornicators, profaners and scandal mongers. They frequently exhorted the community on pain of hefty fines to avoid the temptations of the ale-houses and other distractions such as illegal trading, so as to attend Sunday services. They strove to control begging, to punish the able-bodied idle poor and to provide alms to the resident "deserving poor" (generally the very young, the old and the infirm). Many poor relief mechanisms were tried until, in 1774, the authorities finally accepted the need for a local tax to support the deserving poor in the Town's Hospital on Glasgow Green, and those who could not be housed there. The non-deserving able-bodied poor were left to labour in the Correction House in the Drygate.


Glasgow from South East In the mid-16th century, the burgh's inhabitants lived in their tenements, grew fruit, vegetables and cereals on their backlands and used the common lands for pasturage. As Glasgow grew, it became increasingly reliant on its hinterland and the market, ever a focal point of everyday life, assumed increasing importance.

Auld Meal Mercat The town council regulated all aspects of the market, including weights and measures and the prices of certain basic commodities such as bread, ale, candles and tallow. Originally the burgh's market was held each Thursday, supplemented by an annual eight-day fair during July (the original Glasgow fair - a super-market which, with lower than normal market dues, enticed traders from further afield). By the 1630s, the market was being held thrice weekly and there were three additional annual fairs. Hours of trading were also strictly controlled - when harvests failure could still bring famine, speculative pricing and practices had to be curbed and the population had to know when and where produce would be available.

Old College Entrance There were actually several markets, each specialising in different produce. Most were around Glasgow Cross and comprised no more than street stalls. Testifying to the burgh's growth, some were dispersed during the 17th century to areas like the Wyndhead (upper High Street) and the Rottenrow district. In the 1750s new, covered, and substantial market facilities were developed in the King Street and Bridgegate areas.


Old Grammar School, c 1650s The post-Reformation period placed a great emphasis on education. The University of Glasgow nearly collapsed before the Crown provided it, in 1577, with a fiscal and constitutional structure that secured its future. Town and gown relations were occasionally strained but the University was undoubtedly regarded by the town as one of its chief assets, an institution which set Glasgow apart from most other burghs.

St Mungo's Chapel The burgh grammar school, on the west side of High Street, specialised in Latin instruction while other schools included (in 1639), four "English" schools and a writing school. It seems likely that the standard of schooling played some part in Glasgow's commercial successes: certainly, a decision in 1660 to license a school for teaching mathematics, a subject associated with accounting and navigation, emphasises the enlightened approach which the town's authorities so often adopted in educational affairs.

Health and Disease

Trongate, 1770 Housing was overcrowded, the streets were filthy and the water supply was often polluted. Public health bye-laws were issued annually but, not surprisingly, diseases flourished. Leprosy was still endemic but far more serious was the plague ("the pest"), which periodically arrived from the continent via the ports of the east coast.

In the 16th and early 17th centuries, plague was rife and the authorities in Glasgow frequently issued emergency statutes that strove to control passage in and out of the burgh. If the disease reached the burgh, the sick were quarantined on the Gallowmuir. The mortality statistics are not known but, given the undeveloped state of medicine, the result of these apparently primitive measures is impressive, since the "pest" had ceased to be a major threat by the late 17th century. Of course, other challenges, like smallpox and cholera, had yet to be tackled.

Crime and Punishment

Disputes (and worse) often arose between citizens and the burgh court had to intervene. Murder cases were usually tried before the crown justices, but could be dealt with by the burgh's bailies if the deceased's family accepted compensation, a useful device for preventing blood feuds. Assaults usually merited a fine. Thieves were treated more severely, being scourged and banished on pain of drowning without trial if they attempted return. Slanderers were also rigorously punished, since their accusations could prove acutely embarrassing, if not actually dangerous. Executions and other punishments were public.


Although public punishments could attract large crowds there were healthier diversions for Glasgow's inhabitants. Football was popular and a leather-worker was admitted burgess in 1590 for having provided "sex guid and sufficient fut ballis" each year. The town's minstrels and pipers played at civic banquets, and probably also at events like the "playe and pastime" mentioned in June 1599. Strolling players, forever frowned upon by the authorities as little better than vagabonds, would visit from time to time. By the 18th century, coffee houses were appearing in the centre of town, along with local newspapers (beginning in 1715 with the Glasgow Courant). Public playhouses opened though these sometimes were attacked by mobs on account of their supposed immoral influence. There can have been few fears about another form of entertainment, mentioned in 1760: "the exercise of the golf" on Glasgow Green.

Quick Search

Photo Album

You have 0 images in your photo album.

View Photo Album

Log-In (Optional)

Not a user? Register now for FREE!

Other Options