The history of Glasgow, like that of any major city, is peppered with the names of individuals who really did make a difference to the city in their time.

As we shall see later in this series of columns, not every such individual is remembered for good reasons. Indeed Glasgow has had more than its fair share of rather nasty people coming to prominence over the centuries.

It can also be said with some degree of certainty that many Glasgow people who were famous in their time were a mixture of good and bad, and most have long since been forgotten, which is a perfect description of Sir George Elphinstone of Blythswood.

He was one of the most influential citizens of Glasgow in the final years of the 16th century and the start of the 17th century. His career saw him become a Royal courtier and Provost of Glasgow but he died in disgraceful penury. Yet apart from a couple of place names in the city, it is likely that most of Glasgow’s current population have never heard of him. The members of the 14 Incorporated Crafts at Trades House in the city are probably the most knowledgeable about Elphinstone, because in a very real sense he put the Crafts on a legal and sustainable basis during this time as Provost of Glasgow.

Sir George Elphinstone came from a distinguished Glaswegian family.  His ancestor William is credited with being one of the first international traders based in the city the early part of the 15th century, and other ancestors became senior figures in Glasgow, most notably for their major role in developing the city to the south of the Clyde at the village which became the Gorbals, and which was also known as Brigend. His grandfather George acquired the land known as Blythswood and his father, also George – they may not have been the most imaginative of families - was a magistrate, merchant and shipowner  who built a baronial hall on the main street of the Gorbals.  He was not always popular – there are two records of attacks on his person, but he survived them both, dying in 1585.

The George we are concerned with was the son of that magistrate and his wife Marion Scott. We do not know his exact birthdate, but it is generally held to be around 1565, making him a close contemporary of King James VI.

It was the King’s favourite, Esmé Stewart, 1st Duke of Lennox and holder of land in and around Glasgow.  who first had dealings with the Elphinstone family and his son Ludovic, the 2nd Duke, appears to have promoted George Elphinstone at court. In any case James VI conferred a knighthood on George at the baptism of Prince Henry in 1594, and the following year his lands in Glasgow became the Barony of Blythswood.   Very much part of the Lennox clan, Elphinstone was nominated by the Duke and recommended as Provost of Glasgow by King James which Sir George duly became in 1600 after serving as gentleman of the King’s bedchamber – a role in which he encouraged James to meet with English diplomats such as George Nicholson as they were all keen to have the Protestant James as heir to the ageing Elizabeth.         

Elphinstone also played the role of eminence grise in the plan to make James the English King. His sister Egidia had married Sir James Sempill and thus it was his brother-in-law who became the main conduit of information and advice to help James in his quest. In 1603, James gained the prize had waited for - Elizabeth Gloriana died and as had been arranged with the acquiescence of most of her nobles, James succeeded her on the throne of England.

In the 1590s, King James had become obsessed with tackling witchcraft and next week we will see how that impacted on Glasgow, but under Elphinstone, the city had to deal with a phenomenon that was nowhere near supernatural – it was the very human struggle to be top dogs in the city. 

There had been an offer to move the Court of Session to Glasgow which might have ended with the city becoming capital, but Glasgow’s burgesses refused to pay for the transfer, and under Provost Elphinstone the council set about dealing with the city’s real problem – the ongoing and occasionally violent disputes between Glasgow’s merchants and their rivals in the Crafts.

By 1605, Elphinstone had presided over the process which solved the internecine problem. In a brilliant solution, the so-called Letter of Guildry laid out in 54 articles how the admission and supervision of the city’s burgesses should be handled, and it ensured that a Dean of Guild should preside with a Deacon-Convener alongside him, the former a merchant and the latter a representative of the crafts.  

It worked for decades afterwards, and in a real sense the current Crafts owe Elphinstone a great deal. One of the Letter’s most revolutionary aspects was the requirement for an apprentice becoming a burgess to pay two pennies a week in a form of insurance that was soon copied elsewhere.

Having been their placeman, Elphinstone then fell foul of the Lennox faction that he wanted to bypass so that the city could elect its own leaders without the approval of the Duke. There was a riot and Elphinstone and Sir Mathew Stewart of the Lennox side both ended up in jail. It was to be the beginning of the end for Sir George’s career.  

Elphinstone’s fall into penury was as spectacular as his rise to becoming a major figure. He invested far too much in trying to build a great Blythswood estate, and with other bad investments he got into real trouble, so much so that he had to sell all his lands and houses by 1634, the year in which he died from unknown causes.

The first celebrated author of a history of Glasgow, John M`Ure, recorded more than a century later that "his corpse was arrested by his creditors, and his friends buried him privately in the chapel adjoining his house." A sad end to the life and career of a man who left his mark on Glasgow.

One of the duties that Elphinstone carried out during his years of public service was to be chairman of the jury which tried John Ogilvie, the Jesuit priest who was executed at Glasgow Cross in 1615.

Ogilvie will be the subject of this column in a fortnight. It will not make for comfortable reading.