Absence of evidence determines the futility of speculation on the economic history of Glasgow before the 12th century. The special nature of the medieval city and of its economy can be glimpsed if one imagines oneself, just before the Reformation, standing on Glasgow Bridge and looking north. Near at hand and straggling up a slope there would have been a considerable market town. Its population is a matter for guesswork. A recent historian (Dr James McGrath) estimates no more than 1,500 "during the medieval period" and "approaching 4,500 adult inhabitants by the 1550s". As one lifted one's gaze beyond this "burgess town" something different would have come to view: a cité épiscopale built on a hill. Beside a magnificent cathedral stood the bishop's castle. Scattered round about and extending into the "burgess town" would have been two friaries, a hospital, a college of secular priests, providing accommodation for a large (and rich) chapter and the premises of a university.
So, a major (and probably the most important) factor in the economic history of early Glasgow is its role as an ecclesiastical capital, approximately comparable to, say, Canterbury, Sens or Münster. The grandeur of the cathedral is solid evidence for the wealth of the see. It is such as to suggest that the chief economic activity of the 13th-century town was cathedral-building. The church of St Kentigern had widespread properties and rights, chiefly in the northern part of the erstwhile kingdom of Strathclyde. The resulting revenues must largely have been spent in Glasgow. The church was a centre of pilgrimage and jurisdiction, bringing people to the town and serving as an economic stimulus.
At some date between 1175 and 1178 King William ("the Lion") granted the bishop of Glasgow the right to hold a market there every Thursday with all the liberties and customs best enjoyed by any Scottish burgh. The burgesses were to have the king's firm peace throughout the kingdom in coming and going. In judging the significance of this charter one must contrast it with those for some other towns. First, the grant was to the bishop, not to the burgesses. Second, it did not specify as did some other burgh charters of the period an area (sometimes a wide area) within which the burgh was to enjoy monopolistic economic privileges. It is likely that the charter was associated with the foundation of a new town with burgesses recruited from outside and something of a planned layout. The value of the bishop's town would have been enhanced by the grant, between 1189 and 1195, of the right to hold an eight-day fair.
Certainly by 1189 and in all likelihood by the time of David I (1124-53) the most extensive economic rights hereabouts belonged not to Glasgow but to the royal centre at Rutherglen, some three miles off. Rutherglen fitted into a system of economic organisation in which centres of royal authority enjoyed extensive economic rights over surrounding areas. We should probably think of William the Lion's Glasgow charters as acts of patronage creating an exception to the system for a great church.
The limited sources for the economy of 13th-century Glasgow (setting aside the role of the church) indicate a town performing important, but fairly basic, functions for its hinterland: in particular the production of textiles and leather and food processing. For a considerable period "burgess Glasgow" was, so far as the fiscal records take us, less significant than some of its burghal neighbours. Thus in the burgh tax assessment of 1367 Glasgow paid only 0.94 per cent of the total, and so was outdone by Irvine, Ayr and Dumbarton and was almost equalled by Rutherglen. However, in the tax assessment of 1557 Glasgow paid 2% of the total and the only western burgh to pay more was Ayr. Why should economic Glasgow have become relatively more important by c 1560 than it had been 200 years before? What enabled it to outdo, say Dumbarton, which had a long history as a focus of power and access to deep water?
Economic factors in Glasgow's favour were these. First, its position at the lowest crossing-point on the Clyde, where a shallow ford was supplemented in the 13th century by a wooden bridge, from the 14th by a stone one. The river crossing probably made Glasgow a nodal point for the fertile lands of the lower Clyde. The town also had better communications with the east than did most other western burghs. The economic rights of the bishop (from 1492 archbishop) and burgesses were somewhat increased or consolidated by 15th-century charters. The considerable amount of new endowment and building in the cité épiscopale in the late 15th and early 16th centuries suggests the area was prosperous. An ill-documented, but possibly important, factor is that from at least the 1480s Glasgow seems to have had a central role in connection with an important herring fishery. The relation of the monarchy to Glasgow could have been intermittently significant. By the end of the 15th century Edinburgh was the capital of Scotland but kings sometimes stayed at Glasgow. Thus when James II (sometime between 1455 and 1457) had seven pipes of wine of three different kinds sent to Glasgow it can be assumed that he was coming to stay there.
In considering the early economic history of Glasgow we have to supplement by inference evidence which is only sporadically helpful. It is fair to infer that the major determinants were the productive relationship between the wealth associated with an ecclesiastical capital and the performance of urban functions for a fairly prosperous hinterland.
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