IT is a little known fact of Scottish history that the Act of Union could have taken place 100 years earlier had King James VI and I had his way.

No sooner was he on the throne of England in 1603 than James was concocting a plan to unite the Parliaments as well as the thrones and make a new country called Great Britain.

Right in the midst of the plan was a Glaswegian, John Spottiswood or Spottiswoode, who at that time bore the title of Archbishop of Glasgow. In 1603, James VI had made him Archbishop upon the death in France of the Roman Catholic Archbishop James Beaton – the King was always careful to observe the niceties and waited until Beaton passed – and it helped Spottiswood that he was one of the clergy chosen to accompany James on his triumphal procession south to claim the English throne. Though he was not formally consecrated until 1610, Spottiswood had all the powers of an archbishop, and he had no hesitation in using them.

Spottiswood was the son of a minister, also John, who was a leader of the Reformation, and the future Archbishop studied under Andrew Melville at Glasgow University. He was no strict Presbyterian, however, and began to ally himself with the King’s view that bishops and archbishops should take back control of the Church of Scotland.

As Archbishop of Glasgow, Spottiswood played a large part in the Jamesian project of full legal union between England and Scotland. It began in 1604 and Spottiswood was appointed one of the commissioners entrusted with the task of bringing about the union. Yet James had fundamentally misunderstood the mood of his new subjects, and most of his Scottish ones, and though the Commission cleverly came up with a form of words – proposing something more like a federal state – the English Parliament roundly rejected it.

Some of the anti-Scottish diatribes would not be out of place on a modern British Nationalist website, and the leader of the English opponents to the union plan, Sir Edward Sandys, opposed the plan for joint citizenship by saying that Scots were ‘better than aliens but not equal with natural subjects’. Not a clever jibe, given the King’s original nationality, and Buckinghamshire MP Christopher Piggott also tried James’s patience with ‘invective against the Scots and the Scottish Nation, using many words of scandal and obloquy’ – the King had him clapped in the Tower of London for his cheek.

The whole project collapsed in April 1607, largely because the scrapping of the separate Scottish legal and political systems was proposed. The Wisest Fool in Christendom would later say: “The error was my mistaking. I knew mine own ends, but not others’ fears.”

Spottiswood returned to Glasgow and set about carrying out the King’s will for the restoration of episcopacy. The city hosted the dramatic General Assembly of 1610 which confirmed diocesan episcopacy and curbed the power of ministers.

The following year came Spottiswood’s greatest achievement when the city was granted the status of a free royal burgh by King James at the instigation of the Archbishop. The rights and privileges of a royal burgh would become important drivers of Glasgow’s economy in the years thereafter.

The execution of St John Ogilvie in 1615 that featured in last week’s column was very much down to Spottiswood and it pleased the King so much that later that year he quickly confirmed Spottiswood in his new role as Archbishop of St Andrews and Primate of Scotland.

That promotion angered Presbyterians, and they would eventually get their revenge, but not before James VI and I came north on his only post-1603 visit to his homeland. He lauded Spottiswood while staying in Edinburgh and in July, 1617, the King and numerous nobles and all their retinues came to visit Glasgow and stayed in the city awhile, almost every large house being commandeered for the duration of the King’s stay.

It was a singular honour for Glasgow and the council responded by giving King James a magnificent gift in the form of a golden salmon.

Spottiswood’s successor, Archbishop James Law, was also a great supporter of the King’s policy on bishops, and like his predecessor he was a literary man who wrote several tracts on theological matters.

That Glasgow was flourishing

at this time can be easily proven. All you have to do is take a walk down by the River Clyde and

view the Broomielaw where the original “Glasgow Quay” was built in 1625.

So well was the city doing that the Archbishop, town council and local nobility got together and built the Tolbooth.

Designed by John Boyd, the building was constructed in 1626-27 and housed the council hall, the town clerk’s office and the main jail, which usually served as a debtors’ prison but also housed all sorts of nefarious types.

Though only the steeple remains at Glasgow Cross, we know how impressive the original Tolbooth was. Sir William Brereton, one of the first travel writers and afterwards a general in the Parliament Army during the War of the Three Kingdoms, visited the city in 1636.

He described it in accurate and glowing terms: “The Tolbooth, which is placed in the middle of the town, and near unto the cross and market place, is a very fair and high-built house, from the top whereof, being leaded, you may take a full view and prospect of the whole city.

“In one of these rooms or chambers sits the council of the city; in other of the rooms or chambers preparation is made for the lords of the council to meet in these stately rooms.

“Herein is a closet lined with iron, walls, top, bottom, floor, and door, iron, wherein are kept the evidences and records of the city; this made to prevent the danger of fire. This Tolbooth is said to be the fairest in the kingdom.”

Glasgow now had its first secular civic centre and its towering presence confirmed that the city was a major player in the Scotland of the day.

It would soon play host to events, mainly of a religious nature, which would place the city at the heart of historically important developments.