A brief history of Glasgow in 8 columns
When I was still in high school, I used to cycle to school every day. I thought it was awful on stormy Autumn mornings but delightful on late-spring lazy afternoons, when barefoot cycling made me almost taste the summer to come. Cycling was something everyone I knew did, although with various degrees of enjoyment and dedication, so I didn’t think much of it, really. Yet when I moved to Glasgow I immediately bought a bike, to bring a piece of Amsterdam with me to the grey streets of my new hometown.
My bike was also the perfect vehicle to explore some of the city. I stayed in student accommodation at the Firth & Clyde canal in Maryhill, and soon I discovered that I could follow the water one way to end up near the city centre, where I would quickly park my bike for fear of being killed by busses or hills that my legs were not yet used to. If I followed the water the other way, it would take me to the big Tesco and much further, past a series of locks and the Kelvin aqueduct , which carries the Firth & Clyde canal over the river Kelvin.
While I got used to university life, the Firth & Clyde canal was the first place in Glasgow where I really felt at home – knowing my way and saying hi to fellow cyclists or dog walkers. It’s a strange feeling that what is now a patch of nature surrounded by urban landscape used to be a bustling area with many small cargo ships going to or from Glasgow and a lot of industry. Cycling on the canal, I could imagine workmen having a drink at the pub next to the Great Canal Brewery at the top of Baird’s Brae, where there are now some outdoor fitness machines, or see the apartments at Spiers Wharf that used to be parts of the mills and a sugar refinery. Going past the Murano Street halls, I wondered if anyone knew Murano is actually a series of islands linked by bridges in the Venetian Lagoon, and that Maryhill has been dubbed the Venice of Scotland in the past, as the Caledonian Glass Bottle Works was located on this street and there was, of course, a canal as well (albeit no gondolas).
I also made my way to other parts of Glasgow – from the Botanics and Kelvingrove Park I ventured out of the West End to explore along the Clyde, to Victoria Park in Scotstoun and through Govan on my way to Pollock Country Park. Here, some of Glasgow’s famous shipbuilding yards were located. Before the 1820s, when the first steam power dredgers went through to river, all cargo for trade had to be taken from Glasgow in horse drawn carriages to Port Glasgow, where it could be loaded on larger ships. Yet at the start of the 20th century, over 100,000 people were employed in the Clyde yards, engine works or shipbuilding related industries. The Finnieston Crane, used to load cargo onto ships to be exported around the world, is one of the only obvious remains on the banks of the river.
In addition to this industrial history, the Clyde was also the backdrop for important social historical events. Rent might be pretty extortionate in the West End at the moment, it’s nothing compared to the situation in Govan at the turn of the twentieth century. With rapid industrial and population growth in the Clydeside area, landlords benefited from renting out overcrowded flats to steadily increasing rents, evicting those that couldn’t pay them even if many men were fighting in the First World War. A rent strike that lasted from May until November 1915, spreading from industrialised Govan to basically the whole city, followed, led by Mary Barbour of the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association. Left-wing activism continued after the war, with strikes and a rally for a 40-hour work week and improved condition for workers that was treated as a near-revolution by the government. Called the Red Clydeside, this era of political radicalism was a significant part of the labour movement in Britain.
By the time I arrived in Glasgow, the SNP had just all but wiped out Labour in Scotland in the 2015 elections. Yet it still feels more left-wing than most places in Europe right now. I’m proud to live in a city with such a rich history, where people take matters into their own hands to oppose power and make their voice heard. From the Red Clydeside period to the early 1970s when the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders did a work-in followed by a huge demonstration to oppose their liquidation to the pro-independence or anti-Brexit demos in the recent past. The only thing that I wouldn’t mind, just to improve Glasgow a tad bit more, is some extra, safe cycle paths.