Mid-16th century Glasgow was a small, bustling, provincial market town. Its merchants and craftsmen served the immediate needs of the burgh and its hinterland, and traded with Argyll, the inner western isles and Ireland. Direct commercial links abroad comprised occasional sailings to England and France with herring, hides and plaids producing imports of salt, spices, wine and quality manufactures.
Glasgow's ability to trade abroad was limited. Scotland's continental links were primarily with the Baltic, the Netherlands and France, which favoured the burghs on the east coast. Glasgow had to use Linlithgow and its port, Bo'ness on the Forth, to access these markets, sharing profits with their merchants and incurring the additional costs and inconvenience of a thirty mile overland journey. Nor was the burgh's position, fifteen miles up the Clyde, ideal for western trade. Since the river was barely navigable for twelve of those miles, shallow draught boats had to carry cargoes to and from the larger sea-going vessels anchored in the estuary. These difficulties were compounded by occasional interference from Glasgow's neighbours, particularly the royal burgh of Dumbarton. So Glasgow variously used Irvine, Wemyss Bay and Greenock as outlets, but this involved paying harbour dues and, particularly in the case of the first two, undertaking difficult overland journeys between ports and burgh.
Yet it was in its dealings abroad that Glasgow would excel and thereby transform itself into an international port. What would set Glasgow apart was a cyclical link that began to develop during the 17th century between trade and industry, as the capital from one was fed into the other and the results exported to new markets.
The union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603 provided Glasgow with its first big break, a highly lucrative overland export trade with England in linen and linen yarn in exchange for finished cloths and a great miscellany of hardware items. Evidence from customs books shows that this trade was extensive and produced considerably more customs than the burgh's other "foreign" markets in the 17th century. As to other foreign trade, voyages to and from continental Europe were infrequent. Glasgow's primary overseas market, in terms of sailings, was still Ireland, a connection reinforced by the Ulster plantations which had begun in the early 17th century.
Glasgow's manufacturing sector was not especially sophisticated in the first half of the 17th century. Only two glovers were admitted to the skinners craft in this period. Similarly, the bonnet-makers might be considered specialist manufacturers but they remained one of the smallest of the incorporated crafts. As for the hammer-men (metalworkers), notable admissions comprised only one pewterer, three goldsmiths, one clockmaker and one coppersmith in the six decades to 1660.
However, an important step had occurred during this period in the development of Glasgow's manufactures, namely the establishment by the town council of a "manufactorie" for woollens in 1638. It was soon privately managed. This was the precursor of various joint stock enterprises which appeared in Glasgow after 1660, resourced and directed by the merchants who, simultaneously, were expanding their foreign markets, particularly in their routes to France, Spain, the Netherlands and the Baltic states. By 1700, though manufacturing remained a predominantly cottage industry there were several factories producing a wide range of products, from linen to soap and from earthenware and glassware to refined sugar.
Access to the Clyde estuary was a major problem, time and money being lost through the need to load and unload down river. Several attempts to deepen the navigable channel proved fruitless. Harbour dues at other ports ate into profits. The solution, when it came, was a masterstroke. In 1668, the town council purchased land on the south bank of the Clyde estuary and there built Port Glasgow through which much of the later tobacco trade would be conducted.
Glasgow's transatlantic trade had already begun by the 1660s, facilitated during the Cromwellian period by a relaxation of the legislation which reserved trade with the English colonies to English shippers. After 1660 the English navigation laws were reintroduced. Glasgow's trade with the Americas had built up such a momentum that her merchants, sometimes openly, sometimes covertly, continued to trade with the colonies. But this trade could only grow so far. Thus was born the idea of a Scottish-owned colony, the ill-starred Darien scheme of the late 1690s for a colony in Panama. Glasgow was to have been the access port and many invested heavily, only to be ruined when the scheme collapsed. English obstruction was blamed for the failure, and this belief fuelled riots in Glasgow on the eve of the Union with England in 1707.
It was ironic that Glasgow was initially so hostile to the Union because, after 1707, all restrictions on the transatlantic trade were lifted. Glasgow was soon a thriving entrepot, importing raw tobacco from the American colonies and re-exporting it to Europe for processing, with manufactured goods going in the opposite direction. The development of the store system - wherby the merchants' agents bought tobacco directly from the planters, often providing them with credit and goods against the delivery of future tobacco crops to the company store - facilitated the trade. Not all exports traded through the company stores originated in Glasgow. However, the trade encouraged local manufactures, especially linen goods in which Glasgow excelled.
By 1770, Glasgow was booming. The population had soared to around 60,000. It had become a major European port, annually importing over 40 million pounds of tobacco (far more than London). Even attempts to deepen the Clyde had met with some success. Fortunes had been made, supported by institutions like the Ship Bank which had opened in 1749. Fine public and private buildings had appeared. A new bridge had been built over the Clyde at Jamaica Street. The turnpike (toll) roads were improving overland communications and making the likes of the Glasgow to Edinburgh coach service (introduced in 1678) a less bumpy experience. The Monklands and the Forth & Clyde canals were about to bring much needed coal and better access to continental European markets. But the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 would shortly threaten the very foundations of Glasgow's prosperity.
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