THE first Jacobite Rising of 1689-90 having ended in failure, Glasgow enjoyed a short period of peace, while ships belonging to the city’s merchants were commandeered by King William to transport troops to Ireland for the decisive battles at the Boyne and Aughrim that would end King James VII and II’s attempts to regain his throne.

A no doubt grateful William and Mary were please to confer on Glasgow an upgrade in its status as a royal burgh. It became a ‘free’ burgh with the right to elect its own council and office bearers from among the burgesses – an early form of democracy of a kind.

The new council promptly set about settling old scores with previous office bearers, the main crime alleged against them being embezzlement to boost the pockets of themselves and their friends.

The records of the council in 1690 show that the former Provost John Barnes, who had already been imprisoned in Edinburgh Tolbooth for financial misdealings, was asked to provide all the information on his embezzlement and the payments that other council men had been given from the fund that was supposedly for the Common Good. 

The unelected Barnes – he was appointed by the archbishop – appears to have been let out of prison at that time, suggesting he clyped.  He did not, however, play any further part in civic life and died in 1716.

Given all the debts run up by Barnes and council chiefs like him, it was nevertheless a surprise when, as the records show, the Dean of Guild reported that the city was an astonishing £200,000 in debt.  The council began a process of increasing taxes and excise duties and for the first time the collection of these monies was not ‘farmed out’ to middlemen but was carried out by council officials themselves. 

The council also began to dispose of lands around the city that had fallen to the council, usually because of bad debts.

Almost 150 years later, a report was prepared for the Government in Westminster into the state of local government in Scotland, and why so many authorities seemed to be broke and charging heavy ‘burgh’ taxes on their citizens, especially Glasgow.. 

The report, as quoted in Renwick and Lindsay’s History of Glasgow stated: “Permission was, in 1691, given to the Corporation of Glasgow, by the Convention of Royal Burghs, to sell lands of great value, because heavy burdens had been occasioned by the vast sums that have been borrowed by the late magistrates, and the misapplying and dilapidation of the town’s patrimony, in suffering their debts to swell, and employing their common store for their own sinistrous ends and uses. 

“These lands were accordingly sold, avowedly in consequence of the malversation of the magistrates. Had this not happened, the burgh would now, in addition to its present estate, have been in the possession of lands worth from £100,000 to £150,000—a sum sufficient to have relieved the inhabitants of almost all the burghal taxes that now press on them.”   

Feelings often ran high in the council, which led to an infamous tragedy in October 1694.

Advocate Robert Park had been appointed Town Clerk in February that year, and the lawyer, who was also clerk to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, was a stickler for correct procedure. It was a quality that would lead to his death.

A Major James Menzies was then in command of Lord Lindsay’s regiment which was based in the city. Menzies was told that several burgesses were actually deserters from the army, and without hesitation he arrested them and put them in prison to await trial and execution. On hearing of the arrest, the city magistrates – no doubt sympathetic to the plight of their fellow Glaswegians – ordered Menzies to bring the accused before them for trial.  

Glasgow Times: The modern day General Assembly of the Church of ScotlandThe modern day General Assembly of the Church of Scotland

Menzies point blank refused as he considered it a military matter. Yet the arrest of burgesses by soldiers was a breach of procedure that Park could not allow and gathering the Provost and two baillies he set up a meeting in his office with Menzies and three of his captains.

The discussions became heated, and thanks to a deposition made to the courts and preserved in the National Library of Scotland, we know what happened next: “The Major called the town clerk a fool, and the clerk answered him, he was but an ass. Upon this the Major struck the clerk over the head with his cane, and the clerk returned a very severe blow with his fist. 

“The company separated them, and the Major drew his sword, made a thrust at the clerk, who immediately cried out he was wounded, and clapped his hand on the wound; and, as he was going to another room, the deponent 
saw the clerk fall, and lie on the floor.”

Menzies’ sword went clean through the Town Clerk’s body and the wound was immediately fatal. Realising what he had done, and knowing that he could not plead self-defence because one of his captains actually had a hold of Park when he was killed, Menzies turned out the guard and had them assemble with loaded muskets while he tried to flee.

Baillie John Anderson of Dowhill, and burgesses Robert Stevenson and John Gillespie and what appears to have been a posse of enraged citizens set off in pursuit of Menzies and found him in a garden in the city near to where Renfield Street now stands. 

They urged the Major to surrender, and there’s some dispute as to whether he tried to do so, but witnesses later testified that Menzies took out his sword and charged at the trio, with Gillespie promptly shooting him dead. 

Glasgow Times: Modern day Renfield Street Modern day Renfield Street

All three were charged with the ‘art and part’ killing on Menzies but were cleared after a trial at the High Court in Edinburgh.

The tragedy was the sensation of the day, and as a small postscript, Park’s widow donated his collection of 45 books to the Faculty of Advocates which in turn passed them on to the National Library of Scotland where they can be seen to this day.

Glasgow was soon to be caught up in the great events that engulfed Scotland in the late 1690s and early 1700s, including a certain Union which was far from popular.