IT IS easy to miss the Merchants House, a lovely Victorian building on the corner of George Square, just opposite the entrance to Queen Street Station.

In fact, unless you are connected to one of the many good causes its membership supports – or a student of Glasgow’s civic heritage – you may not even know it exists at all.

Today and tomorrow, the Evening Times goes behind the scenes of one of the city's most prestigious charitable and civic institutions.

Set up in 1605 by the Letter of Guildry, the Merchants House originally supported members and their families who had become “decayed and distressed”.

Today, it is a major charitable institution awarding more than £700,000 each year to groups and individuals in Glasgow and beyond.

The boss of the operation is called the Lord Dean, a grand title which comes “with chains”, honorary membership of the city council and the slightly unnerving responsibility of being Glasgow’s Second Citizen. (The city’s Lord Provost, currently Eva Bolander, is First Citizen.)

“A friend joked with me recently that the Lord Provost and I should never go on holiday at the same time, or Glasgow would be undefended,” smiles Ian Dickson, current Lord Dean, retired solicitor and jazz fan.

“I keep my chain in my pocket, when I can. I’m always slightly terrified I might lose it.”

Ian was born in Anniesland, the only child of George, a Post Office supervisor, and Grace, a housewife.

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“I was the first person in my family to go to university – my dad took two jobs so he could afford to send me to Hillhead High School, where the fees were three and six,” he recalls.

“I studied at Strathclyde University and became a corporate lawyer, until my retirement in 2010.

“It was a client who suggested I join the Merchants House, and I have been a director for 25 years. It takes time and commitment, but I was very honoured to become the 226th Lord Dean.”

There are around 900 members of the Merchants House today, mainly, but not exclusively, businessmen and women from across the city and the west of Scotland. There are 36 directors, of which 15 are women.

“The first women members joined in 1983 and numbers have grown ever since,” says Ian. “There has never been a female Lord Dean, but of course there absolutely could be. Things are rightly changing.”

On a tour of the building, Ian points out some of the original features which still have pride of place – the stone, dated 1601, brought from the first Merchants House building in the Briggait; the stained glass on the stairway; the relief ship carving, a symbol of the future of 17th century Glasgow and a reminder that the merchants were overseas traders.

In recent years, research has been done into the darker aspects of Glasgow’s success – some merchants’ connections to slavery, for example, as Ian points out.

“Only a small number of merchants - seven percent - between 1760 and 1830 had links to the Caribbean,, but of course, bad things were done, and we have been reflecting a great deal recently on that part of our history,” he says.

“The Merchants House is uniquely placed to tell that story, and we are keen to do so with education in mind. It is important to educate people about the horrors of the past, to make sure they do not happen again.”

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In the main hall, where the merchants met, ‘mortification boards’ tell individual stories of generous giving through the centuries while large, somewhat austere portraits of previous Lord Deans adorn the walls throughout the building – James Aird, for example, the 59th Lord Dean who was Lord Provost of Glasgow ten times between 1705 and 1722; and William McEwen, who was largely responsible for the medical school set up at the Royal Infirmary.

In addition to its general funds the Merchants House administers funds in trust – among the largest is the Inverclyde Bequest Fund for Seamen, which was received in 1926, created by Lord Inverclyde, chairman of the shipping company Cunard.

“The benevolence of the Merchants House has always been at the heart of the organisation,” says Ian. “It has also always had close ties with the city council, which lies just across George Square, of course.

“There is a huge amount that goes on in the City Chambers, in a civic sense, that people really don’t see.”

He adds: “A lot of people are going the extra mile to build up Glasgow as a truly international, interesting and stimulating city.

“It’s great to be part of that, helping to make people feel better about Glasgow when they leave, than when they arrived. Generally, people do.”