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Black History Month: A Walking Tour of Glasgow’s Past

By 12/10/2015December 11th, 2018No Comments


That the swift expansion of Glasgow in the 18th and 19th centuries was due primarily to its industries has long been known, and is well acknowledged today. What is less well known, however (and even less frequently acknowledged) is that Glasgow was built also on ‘the blood and sweat of slaves’, to quote historian Stephen Mullen – on the slave trade that was thriving across Britain at exactly the same time.

Inspired by Black History Month, the S.W.C. team took to the streets of Glasgow to uncover this darker history, and investigate the remnants of it still visible today. Read on for our walking tour of the key sites we discovered if you’d like to do the same.

Buchanan Street

buchanan street

Buchanan Street

One of Glasgow’s busiest streets, and the point of departure for a great many walks around the city, Buchanan Street is famed for its stunning architecture and has well earned the moniker the ‘Style Mile’. Like so many other streets in Glasgow, however, its name is a remnant of the city’s darker past. The street was founded by, and named after, Andrew Buchanan (1725 – 83), the nephew of Buchanan of Drumpellier, who founded the first Scottish slave plantations in Virginia, and who was the owner of two slave plantations himself.

Though bustling now, Buchanan Street had its origins when the centre of the city lay eastward, in what is now the Merchant City – another nomenclatural nod to the traders of tobacco and sugar who wielded enormous capital and power in the 18th century as a result of their interests in overseas slavery, and who as a result built and named a great many of its streets. Turning left into Royal Exchange Square, it’s towards this area of the city we head, but not before examining another key site that reveals more about the history of slavery in Glasgow.

Gallery of Modern Art


The section of the Gallery of Modern Art that was originally the Cunninghame Mansion

Now one of the top attractions in the city that hosts thousand of visitors each year, the building that houses Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art began its life as a private mansion for a single man, built at a cost of £10,000 in 1780 – equivalent to a million pounds in today’s money. But, in times of widespread poverty and suffering, where did this kind of wealth come from? The answer in this instance, and in many others from the period, is slavery.

A shipping route known as the ‘Triangular Trade’ ensured that merchants could profit at every point of the slaving process. As Stephen Mullen again comments:

‘Ships left Great Britain laden with goods exchanged for human cargo which in turn purchased goods for the homeward leg. At no stage were their holds empty, to maximise efficiency and profitability.’

Products were taken from Britain to Africa, where they were traded for human lives. These humans were then taken to America and the Caribbean and put to work on plantations, producing goods like tobacco and sugar that were then transported back to Britain. The merchants who owned these plantations and the goods produced on them, which were consumed not only in the United Kingdom, all the way across Europe – men like William Cunninghame, the original owner of the building that is now the Gallery of Modern Art – became enormously wealthy, and left an indelible physical trace on Glasgow. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Merchant City, which was our next stop.

The Merchant City


Virginia Place and the view along Ingram Street

An area of the city still associated with wealth and opulence, The Merchant City was a place of residence and business for the men engaged in the slave trade and its streets bear their names accordingly. Miller Street – home to the preserved Tobacco Merchant’s House – and Glassford Street, are both named after individual merchants, while Virginia Place and Virginia Street are named after their overseas area of interest. Slaves were transported in horrifying conditions and subsequently put to work on plantations harvesting crops and working as manual labourers. If they survived the initial voyage – and 10% of them did not – the average life expectancy on a plantation was somewhere between three and five years due to the brutal nature of the work and the frequent cruelty they experienced at the hands of their masters.

Perhaps the most bizarre and harrowing tale of such cruelty we came across in our research was that of the tobacco merchant James Oswald, the namesake of Oswald street, which lies to the west of the Merchant City, running down to the River Clyde, an enormously important resource at the time. Oswald, as well as owning four plantations in the Caribbean and over 30,000 acres in Florida, was one of the owners of Bance Island, just off the coast of Sierra Leone. Bance Island occupied what was left of an abandoned fort, and was used by Oswald not just as a base for conducting slave raids on the nearby African coast, but also as a trading hub for the international slave trade. A quarter of the employees of Bance Island were Scottish, primarily from Glasgow.  What is even more shocking, however, was the fact that Oswald built a golf course on the Island to entertain visiting slave lords and prospective buyers, and made captured slaves act as their caddies, forcing them to wear tartan outfits designed and manufactured in Glasgow while they did.


Oswald Street

Despite such behaviour, Oswald and his fellow ‘lords’ were figures that commanded great respect and power back in Glasgow. This was due in no small part to their money – at the time of his death Oswald left a fortune of £500,000, equivalent to £50,000,000 today – but was also perhaps a symptom of the fact that though Glasgow in many ways depended on the products and profits of the slave trade, it did not seem to be directly related to it, because it only saw these products, and not the direct conditions itself.

The kind of preferential treatment afforded to the slave traders is visible in the next stops on our route, Ramshorn Kirk on Ingram Street in the Merchant City, and then passing along the Trongate to St. Andrew’s Square in the city’s east end.

Ramshorn Kirk


Ramshorn Kirk

Ramshorn Kirk was built in 1826, a towering example of the Gothic Revival movement popular in architecture at the time. Ramshorn Graveyard is accessible via a small path at its side, which leads us to another area in which the merchants’ social status becomes immediately apparent. In privileged silence, vast gravestones and delicate plaques are dedicated to men who profited directly from cruelty and slavery, and while the shade and the soft green silence provide an idyllic rest from the noise of the city, the respect accorded to the merchants only grows in volume while here.


Ramshorn Graveyard

St. Andrew’s Square

st andrew

St. Andrew’s Square

Heading from Ingram Street down to Argyle Street, and then along to the Trongate – the area of the city in which the goods from the slave ships were weighed and regulated – we approach High Street, the centre of Glasgow at the height of its merchant power. A display of wealth similar to the Cunninghame Mansion is visible in St. Andrew’s Square, which, even today, stands out as conspicuously opulent in its surroundings. The square was originally founded in 1787 to provide a fashionable place for the mercantile elite to reside, though the area quickly lost popularity due to its proximity to the industrial hubs of the East End.

Notable here also is St. Andrew’s Church at the head of the square, built between 1739 and 1756 to provide a place of worship for the growing population of merchants in the area, at a cost equivalent to £3,000,000 today. The interior is furnished with rich Spanish mahogany imported by slave ships from the West Indies.

st andrew church

St. Andrew’s Church
Glasgow Cathedral

cathedral glass
Stained glass window dedicated to Alexander Speirs, Tobacco Lord

Heading back along to the Trongate, we turned up High Street, towards the city’s Cathedral, in which we made a brief stop, before ending our tour in the Necropolis.

Glasgow Cathedral is one of the city’s oldest buildings, and while it has its origins in a time far before the period we’re investigating, it nevertheless shows signs of the slave trade we’re interested in. The building provides, in a corner of its Gothic grandeur another interesting record of the respect accorded to the merchant lords during their lives, for, in the cathedral’s sacristy, there is a large stained glass window dedicated to ‘Alexander Speirs of Elderslie’, one of the original tobacco lords who amassed a vast fortune through slave trade. He is one of the only merchants in the city’s history to have been provided with a memorial in the cathedral, and that it remains unaltered to this day shows the extent to which this aspect of the city’s past remains, similarly unaltered, in the present.

The Necropolis


View of the Cathedral from the top of the Necropolis
Leaving the cool dimness of the cathedral, we made our way across the grand bridge to the Necropolis, another of Glasgow’s most famous sites, which was likewise built by mercantile money. A large plaque announces the presence of the merchant’s guild as soon as you enter the place, and many of their number found their final resting place here, under fantastic tombs, in vast sarcophagi, with grand memorials.

The Necropolis is also a point of great scenic beauty, however, and seems a fitting place to end our tour of Glasgow, offering, as it does, unrivalled views of the city centre, the east end, and the southern hills that border it. It offers also, in the context of our walk today, views through time to a number of very different vistas, far less splendid and beautiful than the physical one that lies before us today.

In comparison with the other major cities in the United Kingdom, Glasgow’s direct contribution to the slave trade was marginal; and yet the figures that prove this seem of curious little import when the contribution of the slave trade to the growth of Glasgow was itself so direct and extensive. That the city profited from the trade of slaves is indisputable; and while Glasgow was to later play a vitally important role in the abolitionist movement that began in the late 18th century, and led ultimately to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, a number of key sites in the city retain links to the trade, and it remains our duty to acknowledge these and their difficult origins – not just in Black History Month, but in every other month too.

Further Reading

James Robertson’s meticulously researched novel Joseph Knight is an illuminating engagement by a Scottish writer that considers what may have become of the real-life Joseph Knight following the famous trial in which he gained his freedom.  Jackie Kay’s radio and stage play The Lamplighter has been described as a ‘multi-layered epic poem’ and draws on horrifying original accounts to tell the story of the human cost of mercantile success through four different voices.  We are also indebted to Dr Stephen Mullen’s book It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery which guided us on our tour of Glasgow’s less-than-savoury past.  The Scottish Archive Network also hosts an online exhibition of items held by Glasgow City Archives and Special Collections that relate to Glasgow’s links with slavery and black history more generally.

The Scottish Writer’s Centre hosts ‘The Power Of Words: Celebrating Black History Month’ tomorrow evening (13/10/15) at 7pm in the CCA Club Room.  Please come along for a night of live readings guided by our hosts Tendai and Chief Amu.   This is a free event for all.

By Scott Crawford Morrison, Maxine Blane and Rachel Walker

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