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An Alternative History of Glasgow : The Royal Burgh and the Late Middle Ages.

Photo by Viper12 @

Photo by Viper12 @

The Bishops on the hill.

By the late 12th century the small fishing community of Glasgow was granted the status of a city and the population had reached around 1,500 people.

This was because the locals were a randy lot as they ate a lot of fish and the weather was usually too miserable for outdoor sports.

They had to be discreet especially since the place was established as an Episcopal ‘See’ in 1145 with the cathedral being the seat of the Bishops and Archbishops of Glasgow.

It was called a ‘See’ because as the cathedral was on top of a hill they could see in people’s windows which accordingly led to the beginnings of a local textile trade specialising in curtain-making.

There had been wooden buildings on the site, but one went on fire after being set on fire, which unsurprisingly surprised no one, except for those easily surprised or surprisingly uneasy with combustible materials.

The first stone cathedral was consecrated in about 1136 but didn’t last very long as it was too small and therefore the inquisitive Bishops couldn’t see very far.

It was replaced by a much larger one which was consecrated in 1197 affording a wonderful view over the townsfolk. As a result the Bishops were instrumental in the development of the modern telescope.

brianholsclaw @ Flickr

brianholsclaw @ Flickr

In 1175, Bishop Jocelyn secured a charter from King William making Glasgow a burgh of barony, opening up its doors to trade.

Some of it legal, most of it immoral but all of it profitable.

Gates were used as toll collection points rather than for defensive purposes except when Lanarkshire drunks were on a day out.

Genuine farmers and merchants who were regular customers could buy season tickets, loyalty cards and ‘two for one’ offers. Therefore a roaring trade developed in highly sought after goods such as dirt, rocks, mud, tree bark and grandmothers to help build the city.

Glasgow was also to have a weekly market in curtains, bedsprings, prophylactics and fish among other things. Its economy was further enhanced during the 1190’s when the bishops received the grant of an annual fair. Here they could go and throw fish at heathens and dump proven fornicators in a bathtub of urine with a well-aimed shot.

DMahendra @ Flickr

DMahendra @ Flickr

The great ecclesiastical fish controversy.

In the late 12th century more buildings of the burgh were erected south of the cathedral in the area now known as Glasgow Cross.

Like their rural neighbours, the burgh's inhabitants farmed crops and tended livestock.

It could prove to be a disaster of recycling as the effluence from the local pigs and cows was used to fertilise the crops.

Sometimes this caused the crops to die which meant the livestock couldn’t eat, causing them to die.

Alternatively they could be killed by the locals who had nothing else to eat and didn’t want to die either since the Bishops ate all the fish.

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Consequently no clerics were harmed during the making of these episodes.

“We want fish!! We want more fish!!” demanded a delegation of peasants at the cathedral,

“We need the fish” replied Bishop Jocelyn,

“No you don’t” cried Hamish McSmudgeon

“Yes we do” asserted Jocelyn,

“It helps our eyesight”

“So what?”

“So what? So what if there’s dirty minglings going on out of wedlock among ye all?” explained Jocelyn, “D’ye not think we should be better able to see the ungodly fornicators?”

“That’s carrots”

“It’s true!!”

“It’s carrots, I tell you!”

“It’s true, I tell you!!!!”

“Naw!! It’s carrots that give you better eyesight”, Hamish persisted, “Not fish!!”

“Well if you hadn’t flung dodgy cow-dung over yer field McSmudgeon, we’d have plenty more bloody carrots”

Extra surveillance from high.

In the early 13th century on the east side of the area the Dominican Black Friars monks were granted property in 1246.

That meant the locals had to be even more quiet with their bedtime activities since the monks were awarded a regular supply of carrots

These were imported from Kirkcudbright as well as large ale glasses for eavesdropping through the thickest walls.

Telescopes were ineffective at such close proximity and weren’t issued. But in reality the Bishops were most afeared that the Monks might spy on them from below to check on their fish quota.


Spreading south-west from the market cross along the line of the later Bridgegate or ‘Briggait’, the burgh reached the river by the late 13th century. By this time around 1285, there was a wooden bridge made of wood crossing the River Clyde

The spread of the city continued to the south of the river. The Bishops then ordered more powerful telescopes until such a time as they could afford to build a church over the water.

When Percy met Willie.

“This company, three hundred men in all,

Most eagerly obeyed their leaders call,

And pass’d o’er Glasgow bridge, that was of tree,

Before the Southrons could their coming see;”

In the year 1297 a battle took place at the top of the High Street in Glasgow near the cathedral. It was called the ‘Bell o’ the Brae’ as it took place at the brow of the hill.

It was here that Scottish patriot William Wallace captured the Bishop’s Castle and defeated English forces who were led by Lord Percy

A ponsy name which gave the hairy ‘Mad Macs’ of the Scots soldiers much encouragement. We know all this for sure as it was written over 170 years later in a poem by a man called Blind Harry, so it must be true.

Aside from the unfortunate marketing and credibility problems that his moniker might incur, Blind Harry was also a bloody awful poet. Nevertheless his writing is the only historical account of the battle;

Wallace press’d forward in the fearful throng,

With his good sword, so heavy, sharp and long,

At the Lord Percy such a stroke he drew,

That helm and head at once were shorn in two"

BinaryApe @ Flickr

BinaryApe @ Flickr

Full reading of this epic can induce Post-Traumatic Verse Disorder offering an authentic experience of the horrors of medieval conflict. In fact the battle of the ‘Bell o’ the Brae’ is sometimes re-enacted in Glasgow

Local sword-wielding nutjobs from the Calton and Roystonhill meet up and try to do a ‘Percy’ on each other. Bottles of strong tonic wine from Buckfast Abbey are often thrown in to bring the eccesiastical flavour of the late 13th century to life.

William Wallace is popularly regarded as having come from around 12 miles from Glasgow in the town of Elderslie in the county of Renfrewshire. However in the nearby county of Ayrshire there is a town called Ellerslie which lays claim to be the birthplace of Wallace.

It may have been a typing error by Wallace’s secretary who dealt with his fan mail, but much of this confusion could have arose from his dodgy accent which the Glasgow folk couldn’t place. It was thought to come from somewhere much further south.

On the outer fringes of modern Glasgow lies the area called Robroyston which is where Wallace was eventually captured in 1305 after being grassed up by some Scottish nobles who were jealous of his good looks and celebrity status.


Black Death and Glasgow Green

Meanwhile back in Glasgow itself they were building bridges again with the old wooden one “that was of tree”, being replaced by a stone bridge in 1345 and paid for by Bishop William Rae. This bridge helped to spread the Black Death in Glasgow in 1350 as loads of rats on holiday brought their flea circuses with them along with the bubonic plague.

Allegedly this led to the popular children’s rhyme ‘Ring-a-ring a-roses’ and blatant discrimination against the city's down-trodden rat population ever since.

In 1450 Glasgow Green became the city’s first public park and is the oldest in Britain. It’s so large it can be seen from the Gorbals and is a favoured venue for concerts, fairs, and political demonstrations.

Also lunch-time prostitutes, Afghan powder merchants and worst of all urban professional ‘yuppies’ who live in nearby architectural monstrosities.

Pure dead bad language

The following year, 1451, the University of Glasgow was founded by Bishop Turnbull at the High Street for the sons of toffs to learn dead languages and ridiculous stories about Minotaurs and such-like.

By the end of the 15th century Glasgow had become a formidable academic and religious centre almost on a par with St Andrew’s in the east.

In 1471 Provand’s Lordship was built nearby although the occupiers suffered terribly as students would batter balls off their gable end and swear at them in Latin. Or sometimes Greek whichever sounded worse;

“Away and play across the road!” shouted the proprietor,

“Malaka wanker gamisou” retorted one of the students,

“Don’t you be cheeky, Ah’ll tell the rector”

“Es mundus excrementi”

“Is that right?, well you’ll be up to your neck in it sonny boy”

The building still stands there today and is the oldest house in Glasgow although it looks in better nick than some of the modern dumps around the city.

The name of ‘John Knox’ first appears in 1522 in the enrollment records of Glasgow University. He was a fundamentalist headbanger who considered smiling as an act of public indecency and would sentence people to be hanged for having a sing-song on a Sunday.

He was the driving force behind the Reformation in Scotland which led in 1560 to the country changing from a Catholic to a Protestant nation. It was the greatest mass conversion in Scotland until the advent of North Sea gas and just as potentially explosive.

Son of Groucho @ Flickr

Son of Groucho @ Flickr


Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on June 03, 2010:

Maybe we're related Tracy :-)

Thanks for stopping by

Tracy from San Francisco on June 03, 2010:

Really enjoyed this hub ~ you have a nice, lyrical style of writing! Also, I come from a long line of Scots on both sides of my family, and it's uncanny - you look a lot like my brother!

Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on May 27, 2010:

You're too kind cosette

Glad you enjoyed the fun

cosette on May 27, 2010:

"There had been wooden buildings on the site, but one went on fire after being set on fire, which unsurprisingly surprised no one, except for those easily surprised or surprisingly unfamiliar with combustible materials."

that was brilliant, i have to say :)


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