In the heart of Glasgow city centre sits a prominent square with imposing buildings, a twinkling canopy of fairy lights, a beloved art gallery, and a bustling social nightlife.

Royal Exchange Square is known for all of these things, but some centuries ago it had a very different role in the city.

The building which now houses the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) was originally built in 1778 as a mansion and gardens for William Cunninghame, a wealthy tobacco lord.

Glasgow Times: The New Exchange. Pic: Glasgow Museums

The mansion was bought in 1817 by the Royal Bank of Scotland and then it became an Exchange when the city bought it a decade later.

With this came multiple refurbishments and embellishments to the opulent building, including adding the Greek and Roman-inspired pillars and wider stairs.

Glasgow’s merchants would meet at the Royal Exchange to exchange contracts dealing with cotton, coal, linen, steel, iron and stocks and shares.

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The Exchange founder James Ewing and many of those involved owned or profited from the labour of slaves in the sugar and tobacco plantations in America and the West Indies.

For over 100 years, the Exchange was the centre of trade and business in Glasgow, until the need for a central building declined. Telephone exchanges were becoming more commonplace in the mid-20th century, and the building became the Stirling Library.

Glasgow Times: The gallery as it once was. Pic: Glasgow Museums

The GOMA was opened at the venue in March 1996 by the late Queen Elizabeth, and it has since staged hundreds of exhibitions by numerous artists.

In the summer of 2023, the elusive Banksy unveiled his Cut and Run exhibition at the gallery which saw hundreds of thousands of art enthusiasts flock to the city to catch a glimpse of his thought-provoking masterpieces.

Glasgow Times: The official Royal opening in July 1996 Pic: Glasgow Museums

Fronting the Royal Exchange Square and facing along Ingram Street is the equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington, designed by Italian artist Carlo Marochetti in 1844 and erected to mark the end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

It has become synonymous with Glasgow and one of the city’s most famous and photographed statues down to one very small – and bright – feature.

A mystery prankster first placed a traffic cone on the Duke’s head in the 1980s, and after the authorities removed it, it reappeared. It then became a tradition that each time the cone was taken down, it wasn’t long before a new one arrived.

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It is now the statue’s defining feature, and over the years people have added to it or put their spin on it, from a Santa hat to celebrate Christmas to a crocheted cone cover representing the Ukraine flag.

In more recent times, the cosmopolitan square has been known and frequented for its many cafes, bars, restaurants, and shops, making it one of the city centre’s busiest spots for nightlife and dining.

Glasgow Times: Elizabeth Taylor at the Rogano, 1979Elizabeth Taylor at the Rogano, 1979 (Image: Newsquest)

There are still many great choices, but one of the most famous of these in times past was Rogano Oyster Bar, which opened at the square in 1935 and developed cult status in Glasgow as one of the best restaurants until its sad closure in the pandemic.

The stunning Art Deco interior was inspired by the Queen Mary ship and just some of the famous faces to dine in Rogano include Elizabeth Taylor, Jude Law, Mick Jagger and David Bowie.