THE final quarter of the 17th century was a time of considerable tumult in Scotland and, as we shall see next week, the reign of James VI before he became James I of England was never entirely peaceful. Indeed, as we shall learn, he suffered and survived a coup d’etat and struggled to impose his rule on a country that was still coming to terms with the Reformation. We shall leave the machinations of Esme Stewart, the Duke of Lennox, the Ruthven Raid, and the death of the King’s mother Mary and his uniting of the kingdoms till next week as Glasgow did not have a central role in all those events.

Glasgow had been leading Scotland’s development in one respect – education, especially with Andrew Melville at the university. In 1580, he left Glasgow University to go to St Andrews University, where his humanism and Presbyterian outlook wrought a similar transformation to that which he achieved in Glasgow. He would do the same in Aberdeen, and it can be judged that Melvillianism, to coin a phrase, laid down the foundations of the Scottish university system for centuries. That he did this for universities while also sorting out the governance and theology of the Church of Scotland shows just what an influence he was on this country as a whole.

As the university came back to life under Melville, what was life like in Glasgow for its citizens who are said to have numbered no more than 4000 in the 1570s?

It is a drawback for any historian of Glasgow that so much of the city’s records are incomplete. There are whole years of the burgh council’s records which are missing, and many facts about Glasgow at that time have to be drawn from other sources such as royal accounts and land registers which were nothing if not meticulous due to the royal exchequer’s obsession with money, fees and taxes.

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Glasgow Times:

So we know, for instance, that over the years from the 1560s onwards, all of the lands that had previously been held by the Catholic Church in and around Glasgow were gradually transferred to Protestant lairds who in turn had to pay an annual fee – feu duty – to the Crown. New Protestant archbishops arrived, but they had been stripped of much of their powers and the General Assembly of the Kirk, very much under the control of Melville, ruled the roost and decided who would run things in the country as a whole. It was not, however, until King James established his adult rule – he was 13 at the time – in 1579 that his upbringing as a Presbyterian decided that Scottish Protestantism would be the fully dominant religion it became.

Thankfully, one writer has left us a genuinely insightful account of Glasgow life in the 1570s. He was John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, a Catholic cleric who was one of the greatest supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots. Indeed, he was thrown in the Tower of London for his efforts on her behalf.

He is best remembered for his History Of Scotland, published in 1578 in 10 volumes that he dedicated to Queen Mary – hence its pro-Catholic sentiments.

As translated later, he includes this description of Glasgow and indicates that even in the 1570s, Glasgow and drink were intermingled: “Beyond the water of Clyd is a noble toune, to wit, of Glasgwe, quhair is ane archibischopes sait. Surelie Glasgw is the most renouned market in all the west, honorable and celebrat. Afor the heresie began thair was ane academie, nocht obscure, nather infrequent or of ane small number, in respect baith of philosophie and grammar and politick studie.

“It is sa frequent [The market is so popular] and of sic renoune that it sendes to the easte countreyes verie fatt kye, herring lykewyse and salmonte, oxne-hydes, wole and skinis, buttir lykewyse that nane better, and cheise. Bot, contrare, to the west ... uther merchandise, all kynd of corne to them sendes. Bot till Argyle, in the Hilande Iles, and lykewise to the outmost Iles in Irland it sendes baith wine and ale and sik kynde of drink as thir natiouns have plesure off, to wit, maid of ale, of honie, anat seide (aniseed) and sum uthires spice . This drink the commone peple commonlie callis Brogat (or Broghan). In this cuntrie thay lykewyse sell aqua vitce (whisky), quhilke heir in place of wine thay commonlie use.”

The aforementioned market was strictly controlled by the council, especially the powerful baillies. They decreed maximum prices for bread and ale, and tasted all drink to ensure its quality – they don’t do that nowadays, do they?

One fascinating aspect of the council’s control was the steps it took to prevent and control outbreaks of the disease known as the pest or plague. We do not know precisely what the “pest” was, but most likely it was bubonic plague, and given our current coronavirus pandemic, it is interesting to see how Glasgow dealt with the scourge of the age.

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An outbreak of the plague in 1574 on the east coast led Glasgow’s authorities to introduce a blanket ban on the admission to the city of anyone from Kirkcaldy, Leith and Edinburgh. Anyone importing goods from these places received a simple punishment – death.

During the plague time, beggars, vagabonds and, for some reason, fiddlers and pipers, were all expelled unless they had a pass from the Provost – shades of Dominic Cummings – and there was a constant guard on all gates and bridges to ensure that the quarantining of the city was maintained. Seems we have not advanced too far in disease prevention...

No one is reported to have died in the city during that outbreak, and 10 years later similar and sometimes tougher measures kept Glasgow safe even though the plague lasted in Scotland for four years and advanced as far as Paisley.

Leprosy was rife in Scotland at the time and Glasgow as a city – though even by 1580 it was still a small town in population terms – was determined to prevent its spread. We know there was a leper’s hospital on the south side of the Clyde, and lepers were either confined there or sent away from Glasgow.

Life in that era was a precarious thing, but Glasgow not only survived – it began to thrive.