THE latter years of the 18th century are often portrayed as Glasgow’s boom time, and indeed there is no argument that the city enjoyed a period of great prosperity before and after the year 1800.

The boom years were largely due to the vast increase of shipping on the River Clyde, especially after the river was deepened so that bigger vessels could make it to the Broomielaw.

Before that boom, however, there was the small matter of a war, a war with America, to be precise, and that war was disastrous for Glasgow.

The reason why Glasgow suffered was the trade in tobacco and cotton on which the city’s fortunes had grown throughout the 18th century. You can see the influence of the so-called “tobacco lords” in the very names of Glasgow’s streets and areas – Buchanan Street, Glassford Street, Ingram Street, Cochrane Street, to name but a few. They were great men in their time, and acted like a society of their own – the tobacco merchants were distinguished by the scarlet cloaks they all wore.

There’s one area of Glasgow whose name is often queried – Mount Vernon. It is indeed named after the plantation which was the home of George Washington, and which is now a national landmark for the USA. It acquired the name many years before Washington rose to fame, because George Buchanan of the famous trading family had bought the Windyedge estate and renamed it after his great friend Washington’s estate in Virginia – the Buchanan lands were adjacent to Mount Vernon.

That the tobacco lords and the cotton importers made their wealth from the use of slaves is unarguable, and some Glaswegian shipowners were directly involved in the slave trade, i.e. their vessels carried slaves from Africa to the West Indies and the USA. It is an issue which is rightly discussed nowadays and my own feeling is that there needs to be much greater debate on this aspect of Glasgow’s history.

Smashing statues and re-naming streets is one response to that history, but I would prefer that Glaswegians and indeed all Scots have the history explained to them so that we can all know just what happened during those decades of that vile trade.

A national convocation is required to get all the facts made known.

Glasgow’s dependence on tobacco and cotton imports meant that when the first embers of American Revolution began to burn in the mid-1760s, the city’s magnates looked on with increasing concern, and after the Boston Tea Party in December, 1773, it was clear that the colonies in America were heading in a direction that could only mean trouble for Glasgow.

The city’s choice was clear – always a Hanoverian stronghold, Glasgow supported the regime of “mad” King George III and his Prime Minister Lord North, pictured, even after their intransigence proved the colonists into outright military uprising in 1775.

The following year, the American Declaration of Independence was published, and interestingly, among the first actions of the colonists was to pull down the equestrian statue of George III in New York – there’s nothing new under the sun, then.

The Revolutionary War took a disastrous turn for Britain when the army of General John Burgoyne was forced to surrender at Saratoga in October, 1777, and after France declared for the new USA – threatening even more damage to trade – it was now that Glasgow acted as a city.

Merchants led by James Finlay successfully persuaded the Town Council to vote for the idea of a Glasgow regiment and Finlay then led the attempt to raise the regiment for service in the war across the Atlantic.

Within a few days the citizens had subscribed the colossal sum of £10,000 which enabled the immediate recruitment of men and officers.

The recruitment process seems to have consisted of men signing up on the spot and parading behind the city’s halbardiers (guards), the Provost, the council and “two young gentlemen playing on pipes, two young gentlemen beating drums, and a gentleman playing on the bagpipes,” as a contemporary account described it. The bagpiper was none other than James Finlay himself.

At first recruitment was slow, but soon a large number of Irish and Highland immigrants to the city joined up, no doubt attracted by the ‘signing on’ fee of £30 which was more than two years’ salary for most men at the time.

In total some 900 men were recruited and the 83rd regiment of Foot, the Royal Glasgow Volunteers, came into being.

They saw action in the Channel Islands fighting off the French invasion in early 1781, and were then transferred to New York to be part of the British garrison.

This little-known part of Glasgow’s military history ended with the disbandment of the regiment after the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783.

The most serious threats to Glasgow’s trading links were the French and American navies. The Royal Navy’s resources were stretched and could not afford vessels to ward off possible attacks on Scotland’s west coast by the enemy.

Glasgow was in such fear of action against the Clyde fleets that the city bought 12 cannons from the Carron Iron Works for the defence of Port Glasgow.

The city’s shipowners went further. In just three months a fleet of 14 privateers was gathered and they promptly went to war with the approval of HM Government.

They were very successful, capturing several ships, French and Spanish, and returning them as prizes to the Clyde.

They even chased after John Paul Jones, the Scot who was then leading the American Navy and who came across the Atlantic to attack British shipping in their own waters, as well as invading the town of Whitehaven.

It is recorded that the Glaswegian privateer Lady Maxwell, captained by William Gilmour, came very close to capturing Jones, but he managed to escape.

In Glasgow, several great families such as the Buchanans lost everything as trade with the fledgling USA ceased and plantations were confiscated by the States.

The Peace of Paris in 1783 ended the Revolutionary War but the damage to Glasgow was already done. The era of the tobacco lords was well and truly over.

Yet Glasgow bounced back.

We shall see how it did so next week.