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Michael Meighan

Michael has authored a number of books on Glasgow history, culture, society and humour. He is the author of Glasgow: A History. We spoke to Michael about his perspectives on The DNA of Glasgow

Photo credit: Artur Kraft via Unsplash.

On The DNA of Glasgow… 

Glasgow can trace its origins to the coming of St Mungo, 'the Dear One' who, around 540, established Glasgow as centre of religious pilgrimage and which was to go on to become a cathedral city.

The influx of pilgrims and clerics changed it from an insignificant fishing village at the highest crossing point of the river that was to become the Clyde. 

The Glaswegian is truly of mixed race. It is a mix that has generally got on well together although the scourge of religious bigotry has been there, disappearing now although seemingly stuck where it doesn't belong, in the competition between rival factions of Glasgow football's Old Firm of Rangers and Celtic.

Back in the mists of time you may well find some Scandinavian blood from when the Vikings raided our coasts over a period of centuries and who left as evidece, Hogback Stones in the Govan Parish churchyard that is now a visitor attraction.

More recently Glasgow grew in population as rural natives moved away or were decanted from ravaged and deprived country areas; From Ayrshire and from the West Highlands. Many young women, if they were not in service to the growing wealthy, were to be the backbone of our charitable hospitals and then the NHS. 

And fleeing famine and poverty were thousands of Irish, like my grandparents, settling in areas like Anderston, Bridgeton and the Calton and in some of these areas religious division was sowed. My heritage allows an Irish Passport which I may well take up soon. It is not so long ago that Ireland's Own newspaper could be bought in many newsagents. Maybe still can.

We also had Jewish populations settling in Garnethill and in the Southside. In many shops you would see the names of Jewish families. They would specialise in Tailoring, possibly jewellery, and one of the most memorable was Charles Frank, a famous optical company in the Saltmarket. His Daughter Hannah was to go on to become a very special and well-loved artist.

We also have a great relationship with the Indian subcontinent and it is this relationship which has produced some of Britain's best 'Indian' restaurants. It is said that the Tikka Massalla was invented in the famous Shish Mahal

From Asia too we have welcomed many, particularly those Asians ejected by Idi Amins Regime in Uganda. These and others were to run our buses and trams and others to provide the little corner shops, as well as humour totally compatible with Glasgow's own.

We also had many Italians leaving the poverty of Northern Italy in the 20s and 30s and it was they that set up our much-loved Ice-cream parlours and of, course fish and chip shops.

We had Polish military and refugees after the war and much more recently many Poles have settled here as have lithuanians and others. The Catholic churches have never been so busy now.

Add to this the refugees and asylum seekers who have generally been welcomed and who are bringing up new Glaswegians, all speaking in a Glasgow accent!

On what makes Glasgow, Glasgow...

The recent motto of the city is People Make Glasgow. And it's quite true. You will find that Glasgow people may sometimes be rough around the edges, but they are the most kind-hearted and generous, particularly in difficult times. 

Glasgow would still call itself a working class city but you would be hard put to find a more open society. You will find a certain snobbishness but football and golf, for example are great levellers. The golf club doesn't have the same cachet as in Edinburgh for example. Glaswegians take their sport seriously and maybe too seriously.

We laugh at Kelvinsiders or those from Newton Mearns. But The West End, and areas like Dennistoun and Victoria Road, call it gentrification, but they are buzzing with a Cosmopolitan air.

There is deprivation and social divide and always has been. Glasgow is not the violent city it has been painted but drug addiction and alcohol abuse has been there and added to unemployment it is a scourge.

On social tension… 

Much of the sectarian behaviour comes from and belongs to a past industrial Glasgow where Catholics or Protestants were routinely barred from workplaces and sectarianism brought violence to the football terraces. 

Industrial Glasgow has gone and many of the barriers to equality of employment have gone too. Much of this is down to the professionalism in personnel practices brought in through employment laws and European legislation where hiring and firing is taken out of the hands of the foreman. In fact, the European Union has done more for Glasgow than anything in making it a welcome place to live. Open borders have allowed Europeans from many countries to live and work safely in Glasgow. I believe that through the laws above and simply through the integration of the new Glaswegians, it will be a more equal place to live. 

I am glad to say that in modern Glasgow, those of a religious mind are free to pursue their own beliefs and customs. As in any society, past, present and anywhere, there will always sadly be a tribal minority which will pursue and harass ‘different’ people simply because they are different. That has always been the case and except for the shameful internment of all Glasgow Italians during the Second World War, they have always been welcome and make a significant contribution to Glasgow. Even here I am patronising, as they are part of Glasgow’s heritage and are Glaswegians. We are ‘All Jock Tamson’s Bairns’, as we say in Scotland. 

On the role of geological and geographical features in the city's evolution… 

One of the main geological barriers to trade in Glasgow was the state of the River Clyde. It was too shallow and not navigable for large ships as far up as the city. Larger ships berthed at the village of Newark and their cargos were transferred to smaller craft to be taken up-river. The increasing trade demanded expansion so in 1667 Glasgow Town Council purchased land at Newark for the construction of a harbour. This was to become Port Glasgow and an essential part  in Glasgow’s development of world trade. 

This was to continue as such for the next 100 years, when the decision was taken to deepen and straighten the river. Attempts had been made to straighten it in 1556 by removing a sandbank at Dumbreck but the sand had simply come back. 

A new attempt could not bring any immediate results as it turned out to be a huge undertaking, not least because a huge volcanic plug, Elderslie Rock, stood in the way. The removal of the rock was finally achieved in 1886 and huge ships were then able to move up to the Broomielaw, marking a transformation of the riverbank, from fields and farms into docks, warehouses, shipyards and wharves. It didn’t leave Port Glasgow. Bereft as it was to continue as a major trading port in competition with Glasgow as well as develop shipbuilding, eventually becoming the second largest town in Inverclyde.

All this was important in trade with the Americas and Caribbean but trade routes to Europe were sadly lacking. The Forth and Clyde Canal was the and linked west with the east and opened up Europe and the Baltic countries to trade from Glasgow and the Western Hemisphere, making Glasgow a great warehouse city.

On Glasgow's most influential leaders… 

I was hard put to think of outstanding leaders in Glasgow's past. That doesn't mean that Glaswegians don't respect their leaders. In Council affairs, councillors have often been trusted to do the right thing, often with poor outcomes. The Glaswegian has often been too forgiving but ready to come out fighting when the time was right. Such was the case when Margarets Thatcher's Conservative Government threatened to privatise water Supplies. An illegal postal referendum was carried out in Strathclyde, with up to 91% of people objecting. The plans were dropped. 

When Thatcher's government tried to implement the Poll Tax, objections and riots were pronounced in Glasgow. The tax was eventually dropped while it hastened the end of Thatcher's regime.

One of Glasgow's heroes, in the Rent Strikes of 1915, was Mary Barbour whose statue stands at Govan Cross. A housewife whose character faced down the Government and private landlords who were trying to raise rents when their husbands were away at war. Rent strikes were called and soon 25,000 householders were refusing to pay rents.

These are the kind of ordinary peo[le who were to become respected leaders. Mary went on to found the Peace Crusade and become a respected Glasgow Councillor.

Isabella Elder, wife of Shipbuilding magnate John Elder. She was instrumental in Promoting the wellbeing of the women of Govan and of Glasgow. . She set up a college of domestic science and gifted Elder park and Elder park Library. She was instrumental in setting up a women's college, Queen Margaret which eventually merged with Glasgow University.

On the key artefact, film, story or song about Glasgow… 

Probably the key myth that Glasgow suffers from is that it is violent city, a myth starting with the novel No Mean City. Glasgow is a friendly city with a rough edge but it is after all a city with all the problems that a city might have. Being unwelcoming isn't one of them. 

Glasgow has escaped the invasions, revolutions and wars that afflicted many other European cities. In fact it wasn't big enough to be bothered with in early days and by the time we got to the 18th Century, the City Fathers were wise enough to bribe Bonnie Prince Charlie not to bother the city. He grudgingly accepted a lesser offer of clothes than his demands and went off from Glasgow Green towards his fate at Culloden. 

In 1787, not long after this, there were riots by Calton weavers, then outside Glasgow. They were demanding higher wages in the face of growing mechanisation. They was rioting in the streets and when the militia were called out, three weavers. These were the first working class martyrs and started the story of Glasgow's 'Red Clydeside'

This was to be reinforced when tanks were called out in the Battle of George Square just after the First World War ended. After skirmishes between strikers and police in the square and surrounding streets, the army was called out and tanks and machine guns were deployed in the city streets. While there were no fatalities, the incident added to the revolutionary myth about about Glasgow and Red Clydeside.

There is no doubt that Glasgow has had a violent past and The 1920s and 30s was probably the time when Glasgow as at its most violent, when Religious bigotry in Glasgow's East End led to protracted gang fights between Protestant Billy Boys and Catholic gangs like the Calton Tongs.  

Glasgow's new Police chief Percy Sillitoe was instrumental in bringing an end to the gang warfare by his policy of bringing in modern policing methods such as radio cars and deploying burly highlanders to confront the razor gangs. 

This was successful but the violent bigotry moved onto the football terraces and Orange Order marches. The sectarian divide does still survive in hard core areas but gladly it is slowly dying.

More recently Glasgow's Ice Cream Wars painted Glasgow as a city uncontrolled by the police when gangsters were distributing drugs and stolen property through ice cream vans. The associated violence led to the deaths of a driver and his family in an arson attack. You can imagine some of the lurid headlines including calling Glasgow's police the Serious Chimes Squad.

On a lesser level is the myth that Glasgow Art Galleries was built the wrong way round and that the architect committed suicide. Not so as it was built with the front facing the park where it became the Palace of Fine Arts for the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1901.

And there's Michael Marras' Mother Glasgow sung by Glasgow's Hue and Cry and Eddi Reader…

In the second city of the Empire

Mother Glasgow watches all her weans

Trying hard to feed her little starlings

Unconsciously she clips their little wings

On wide-scale redevelopment and regeneration in the late 20th Century…

Glasgow in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s was not an attractive place to live but plans were afoot to do something about it. While the Glasgow Garden Festival was credited as a real starting point in the mind of the Glaswegian, the plans were already underway. Maybe the Glaswegian didn’t really have a full understanding of what was planned but when they woke up, the sparks began to fly. 

Had Robert Bruce’s ‘First Planning Report to the Highways and Planning Committee of the Corporation of Glasgow’ in 1945 been fully implemented then you would hardly have been able to recognise the city. At the centre of the recommendations in the report were radical and alarming proposals to demolish large section of the city centre. Thirty-nine Comprehensive Development Areas (CDAs) were identified. People in areas like Govan, Anderston and Townhead would be moved from their houses and in their place, multi-storey and lower-levels buildings would be built, with areas being identified for commercial and industrial use. Among the things going were to be the Glasgow School of Art and the City Chambers. Also going were the Central Station and the Glasgow Art Galleries. 

On the future of Glasgow… 

Glasgow has a healthy future. It is buzzing. Ask any new Glaswegian. They will tell you that it is a vibrant place to work. It is welcoming and generous and people are easy to talk to. There is the International Financial Services District, the Exhibition and Conference Centre, the Science Centre and the Transport Museum.

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