July 2014 – Guest Blogger Catriona MacLeod

This month’s blogger is Catriona MacLeod, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow. She writes here about Glasgow, the host of the Commonwealth Games, and reflects on what women’s histories can tell us about the city.

As Glasgow came into the global spotlight this week with the opening of the much-anticipated 2014 Commonwealth Games, Billy Connolly offered TV audiences a warm welcome to the city and asked  ‘what will the world make of Glasgow?’.  As a researcher of the same city in a different era (that of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) portrayals in modern media always bring to mind the commentators that came before. Connolly’s history of Glasgow was one of changing fortunes from mercantile metropolis to the age of steam, steel and ships, to the modern day buzz of art, science, music, and now sport. All this underpinned by the hard work, sass and grit of the people of Glasgow.

He, of course, is a native Glaswegian.  Descriptions of the Georgian city are often provided by visitors and focus on the built environment. James Boswell (lawyer, and biographer of Samuel Johnson) found Glasgow very elegant during a visit in 1773, while a French visitor a decade later described the town in similar terms with the streets ‘wide [and] clean and the houses elegantly built’.[1] As the manufacturing centred round the city increased, a 1790s travel book described the first impression as of ‘spires, buildings and smoke’.  But those first impressions gave way to a conviction that ‘the modes of life have become more luxurious: and Glasgow has increased to be one of the largest towns in Britain, and one of the most elegant in Europe.’[2] Dorothy Wordsworth wasn’t as impressed.  She passed through in 1803, noting in her journal that the suburbs were ‘all ugly, and the inhabitants dirty’. She did praise the size of the shops, the fine, stone buildings springing up in the West of the city, and the bustle and busyness of the streets. [3]

But as Connolly and the Commonwealth Games organising committee insist, it is the people that make Glasgow.  Wordsworth was struck on her visit to the city wash-house by the sight of ‘so many women, arms, head, and face all in motion, all busy’.[4] There remains a lot to be learned about the women in Glasgow’s history, and how looking at the city from their perspective might change our view of it. Much of my research involves gleaning small bits of information about individuals from an array of historical sources.  There are tiny glimpses into everyday life: on the night of a robbery in the clockmaker’s shop below her garret flat, Jean Laird had stayed up past midnight finishing sewing work.  There was the woman who ran a cooper business while her husband gave music lessons, the mother and daughter team who ran a cheese shop, the women who sold carts of dung and fields of peas, or eggs on the street, or imported tea and lemons in expensive rented shops. The successful female cotton merchant and property owner embroiled in multiple court cases for goods not delivered to her, and rents unpaid. The woman who ran a seed and nursery business in the Trongate, selling apple, pear, plum and cherry trees, as well as beech, elms, oak, ash, laburnum, spruce, silver firs and sweet briar. These are fragments of lives preserved in the archives, but together their experiences made the Glasgow of that time.

[1] Simon Berry and Hamish Whyte, Glasgow Observed  (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1987), pp.8-12.

[2] Ibid, pp.19-20.

[3] Dorothy Wordsworth, Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland A.D. 1803 (Edinburgh, 1894) p.53.

[4] Ibid, p.54.

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