The cityscape of Glasgow has been shaped both by the river and the Cathedral. At its foundation the medieval burgh was positioned to embrace the ancient church dedicated to St Kentigern and to utilise the convenient crossing of the Clyde. There can be no doubt that the reach of the Clyde now occupied by Glasgow was inhabited in prehistoric times. However, only scant evidence of these early inhabitants has survived in the form of stray finds, particularly log boats dredged from the river, so the story really begins in the early middle ages. The earliest evidence consists of Christian burials discovered at the ancient churches of Govan and under Glasgow Cathedral. While Govan may have been established earlier and was probably more important prior to the 12th century, it was around the Cathedral that the medieval burgh grew up.
The foundation of the Cathedral in the early 12th century elevated Glasgow at a stroke to the position of the leading religious and political centre in western Scotland. The Cathedral was located on the site of a church where the remains of St Kentigern were buried, on a hill overlooking the Molendinar Burn. This modest stream was to play an important role as the source of power for a series of mills which were erected as the burgh grew. The outflow of the burn is probably also responsible for the silts which accumulated in the Clyde and allowed it to be forded at the foot of the Salt Market. Prior to the dredging of the Clyde there were other fords across the river, for instance at Govan, but during the course of the middle ages this one at Glasgow developed into the main crossing place following the construction of a bridge.
Topographically medieval Glasgow had two focal points: an ecclesiastical precinct and a secular settlement. The area around the Cathedral was home to a large community of priests and associated clerics and was the destination of numerous pilgrims. The other focus developed around the market at Glasgow Cross and eventually the bulk of the population lived there. Through most of the middle ages Glasgow was relatively insignificant with respect to international commerce. Nevertheless it was the most important market on the Clyde and dominated its hinterland. Commercial development was strongly encouraged by the bishops, who obtained lordship over the burgh from the crown (in 1175-1178), including the right to hold a market on Thursdays and soon afterwards permission to hold an annual fair. These gave the bishops rights to collect tolls and fines and created a market for property within the burgh. The bishops encouraged the settlement of merchants and laid out long thin plots facing on to the High Street; many of these property boundaries still survive to this day. The configuration of early Glasgow was very simple with a single main street leading from the Cathedral to the Clyde. Only gradually did side streets branch off from the main artery. Gallowgate and Trongate came together at the centre of the market at Glasgow Cross while south of the Cathedral Rotten Row and Drygate formed a similar east-west cross-roads.
Not only did the bishops promote the development of trade by encouraging merchants to set up business in the burgh, they were also responsible for the infrastructure. In addition to laying out the plots and erecting "ports" (gates) to control access, the bishops sought to make it easy for merchants and pilgrims to reach their city by bridging the Clyde. Some time in the 13th century a timber bridge was built, which was replaced by a stone bridge c 1410 at what was to become Stockwell Street. This eight-arched bridge became the principal bridge across the Clyde until the modern era. It is featured in numerous views of old Glasgow. The erection of the bridge led to the first major modification of the linear street plan because it was located downstream from the ford and required a new road, the Briggait or Bridgegate (meaning the Bridge street).
This basic plan of a burgh split into two parts - a market area by the river and an ecclesiastical precinct on the hill above - lasted for most of the middle ages. Indeed the area between the two was only gradually settled, originally by religious organisations. First came the Dominicans (or Black Friars) about 1246, whose convent and chapel stood on the east side of the High Street opposite Blackfriar Street. In 1460 the University, still closely linked to the Cathedral, moved from its original location in Rotten Row to a purpose built college on the north side of Blackfriars. Finally around 1476 the Franciscans (or Grey Friars) established their house on the opposite of the High Street from the University. These large institutions created a continuous built-up area between the upper and lower town and account for several of the spires which are conspicuous features in the background of Slezer's view of the Cathedral.
Without question the most impressive domestic building within the burgh was the Bishop's Castle first mentioned in 1258. This began life as a circular earthwork immediately to the west of the Cathedral enclosing various timber buildings which are poorly known from archaeological excavations. The remains of similar types of simple earthwork and timber castles survive in two of the city parks: one is located near the summit of Queen's Park and the other in is within Pollok Country Park. The early episcopal Bishop's Castle was replaced by a tower house (1426-1466) which was enclosed in a curtain wall (1508-1522) and protected by an impressive gatehouse and towers (1524-1557). This was a fine example of baronial architecture but it and its imposing fortifications were demolished in 1789-1792 to make way for Glasgow Royal Infirmary. The site is now occupied by the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art.
Several other castles survive within the boundaries of modern Glasgow and in the middle ages they were the dominant features of a rural landscape. The most impressive of these, Crookston Castle, occupies a prominent hill in the south-west of the city and is a relic of the feudal carve-up which took place in the 12th century as the kings of Scots sought to secure their power and influence in the west. A massive bank and ditch which crown the hill are the remains of an earthwork and timber castle erected around 1180 by one of Walter Stewart's followers, Robert Croc. In the centre of the oval enclosure there now stand the ruins of an ambitious and unusual tower house built in the early 1400s, only to be slighted after a siege in the 1480s and abandoned by the end of the 16th century.
Perhaps more typical of the pattern of rural power is the presence of a castle near to the ancient parochial church at Cathcart, to the south of the city. Today only the lower courses of the 15th-century Cathcart castle survive, but it originally stood five stories high within a simple rectangular barmakin [enclosing wall]. In the 18th century it was quarried for building stone before being completely demolished by the council in the 1980s. Other nearby castles include the tower house that formed the core of the now demolished Castlemilk House and Partick Castle built by George Hutcheson, one of the founders of Hutcheson's Hospital. Castles continued to be built in Scotland until late in the 17th century as can be seen in the small tower house known as Hagg's Castle (1585-1588), which is the only one to survive complete in the city.
Moving down the architectural scale, late medieval Glasgow was blessed with numerous well-made stone buildings, particularly around the Cathedral where each of the members of the Cathedral chapter had their own manse. Originally there were as many as thirty-two, but Provand's Lordship (1471) is the only surviving example of these comfortable and well-built dwellings and is the oldest domestic building in the city. It stands three stories tall with three equal sized rooms on each floor and comparison with some of the other buildings around the Cathedral reveals that it was a superior structure even in the 18th century.
Moving away from the Cathedral we know very little about the earliest domestic architecture. We can presume that as elsewhere in Scotland most dwellings consisted of simple single storey buildings framed in timber with walls of wattle and daub. Over time these buildings were replaced by more substantial ones at least on the prime plots near the market cross. Several of these multiple storied structures lasted long enough to be photographed in Argyle Street. Typically the ground floor served as commercial premises and was arcaded to allow easy access into the shop area. The upper floors were flatted and were occupied by the owner and by tenants. Behind the stone-built frontages were less substantial structures, which included out-buildings and additional sublet accommodation which over time became rather squalid. These were predominantly timber-built, as were some of the industrial premises. Manufacturing was concentrated along the Molendinar Burn, which provided water and water power.
The earliest detailed view of Glasgow, that made by Slezer c 1590, shows Glasgow as a densely built-up town which included a preponderance of stone buildings including a number of churches and public buildings as indicated by spires. Although the character of Glasgow at this time is unmistakably urban, it is important to remember that this dense concentration was still confined to the area around the High Street.
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