Graeme Smith – Glasgow’s Blythswood

Graeme is a passionate ambassador for his City and was happy to explain a rich part of the City’s 19th Century development.  Much was driven by the entrepreneurism of a few men aided (and abetted?) by Glasgow Town Council.   He focused on the Lands of Blythswood and its development as a New Town located to the West of Enoch’s Burn (now culverted under present day West Nile St) up to Charing Cross.  The lands concerned were in Church ownership until the Reformation at which time it was sold off to the aristocracy and rich merchants.  Subsequent ownership changed over the decades and centuries reflecting how fortunes rose and fell whether through misadventure or, indeed, through financial calamities brought about by international events.

The first Post-Reformation owner was Lord Elphinstone of a merchant family background.  However, ownership passed to the Douglas Family on his death to pay off debts.  In time the Douglas’s succumbed to bankruptcy and ownership passed to the City Council.  However, during Lord Provost Colin Campbell’s time in office in the late 18th Century, his Campbell family son John managed to acquire the immense 700 acre Lands from the Council at a knock down price.  Quelle surprise!  Moreover, the Campbells astutely succeeded in getting an Act of Parliament in 1792 which allowed development on these lands to take place.  Not that the Campbells were the developers, they were content with selling the land to developers and live very richly off the capital sales and feu duty revenue.  Graeme’s narrative reflected a deep understanding of property and development acquired during his career which was closely associated with the building of New Towns and in urban renewal.

The first major developer was William Harley, a linen and cotton textile manufacturer of ‘Turkey Red’ fame.  It was he who opened up the Lands from St Vincent St to the future Sauchiehall St Bath St including Blythswood Sq.  He was clearly a visionary and had a fertile mind.  Beyond his urban development rising up Blythswood Hill from West Nile Street, he also successfully piped and sold spring water, built indoor public baths and byres for milking 300 cows while a paying public watched, a major bakery and also introduced strawberry fields and 10 acres of pleasure gardens to match Vauxhall Gardens in London.  Harley was a prolific entrepreneur and through his wife (Jane Laird of Greenock) shared interests in rope making, shipping and the creation of shipbuilding in Birkenhead family connections became involved in rope making in Greenock, contributed to the setting up of iron and steel works in Merseyside and became involved in shipbuilding and shipping.

What was striking was the quality and design of buildings shown in Graeme’s talk including some designed by Robert Adams (the Royal lnfirmary).  A reflection of the wealth which existed in the late 19th Century, was the creation of the Forth & Clyde Canal and then the development of steamboats, crossing all oceans. enabled the opening up of the Central Belt Coalfields and the Industrial Revolution was well underway as textile mills, using United States cotton, benefitted from Arkwright’s water powered spinning machines spreading across Britain.  Remarkably, Harley used his own capital in his achievements for almost twenty years.  However, the impact of the French Revolutionary and then the Napoleonic Wars exhausted Britain financially and by 1815 property values had dropped 40% nation-wide forcing Harley to borrow money to remain solvent.  However, with no rebound in the market by 1821, the banks foreclosed on him.  John Smith, architect, mason and grandfather to the infamous Madeleine Smith, took over and kept things going until the 1840s.  After this time the next main developer came along, James Scott, a Calico Printer, who concentrated on the extension of the New Town. He was known for promoting new railways and docks, bringing fresh water from Loch Katrine and directed the construction of Bothwell Street and other developments further afield such as St Vincent Crescent.

During Graeme’s narrative, familiar names kept emerging such as Trerons, Copland and Lye, Pettigrew and Stephens, the Arts Club, the RSAC in Blythswood Square building, McLellan’s Galleries not to mention the massive offices of Coats and Patons, Central Agency Building, Bothwell Street.  It had been the largest company in Britain in its time.  All these stores and buildings were richly illustrated by high quality photographs from Graeme’s book.

In the question and answer session, Dermot Kennedy asked about Archibald Campbell, or Lord Blythswood, as he became. He had noticed Graeme’s reference to him not only as an Aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria but was a respected scientist and his interest in X-rays.  Dermot, as a former physician, was very much aware that Dr John Macintyre had been responsible for establishing the first X-ray unit in the world at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in 1896.  Graeme was able to explain that Macintyre and Lord Blythswood had collaborated in the development of X-rays for medical use and Blythswood contributed most of the science to Macintyre’s X-ray machines.  This is not to forget that Macintyre, at his parties, would invite his guests to be X-rayed as an entertainment!

This is only one example of Graeme’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the City of Glasgow.  The blog cannot do justice here to his detailed narrative of the achievements of the men (and women) of enterprise such as William Harley, James Scott and many others.  We continue to live in their legacy, some still ongoing, such as Harley’s pioneering hygienic dairying (the first in Europe) which became East, Today, the largest UK dairy – Wiseman’s of East Kilbride and now Mueller’s – and others continue the rich tradition of dairying in the counties around Glasgow.  And, of course, the urban legacy of the New Town of Blythswood, much of which is still handsome and impresses many a visitor.  It was good to have the history behind the facades revealed to us and marvel at things of which we were unaware.  Thanks, Graeme.

NB If anyone wishes to learn more about Glasgow’s Blythswood, Graeme’s book can be purchased at the Hyndland Bookshop, and at Mackintosh at the Willow, Sauchiehall Street or online

Graeme Smith – Glasgow’s Blythswood