Glasgow's Merchant City

Following the city’s regeneration during the 1980s, the area is now one of Glasgow’s cultural hotspots with a number of excellent pubs, clubs, restaurants and shops. Yet in the medieval times the Merchant City was home to orange groves and rose gardens before prospering, both economically and architecturally, when the River Clyde found itself ideally positioned to trade tobacco between Europe and the Americas.

The journey between Glasgow and Virginia took almost three weeks less than the trip from London to Virginia and consequently almost half of the tobacco entering Europe arrived in Glasgow. This trading saw Glasgow’s population explode to over 200,000 by 1830 with the prosperity of the Merchant Quarter reflected in the construction of some exceptional buildings.

This includes the City Chambers which dominates George Square and is regarded by many as Glasgow’s finest building. Opening in 1888, having taken seven years to build, the original budget grew from £150,000 to nearly £600,000. It was designed by William Young who incorporated many classical Italian features, as well as a magnificent staircase, marble floors, ornate plasterwork, mosaic ceilings, and the breathtaking Banqueting Hall. For over a century it has been the headquarters of Glasgow City Council.

Also standing at the corner of George Square is Merchant’s House. The original building was constructed in 1600 – the present John Burnett designed building was opened in 1877 – as a meeting place for merchants and an almshouse for merchants and their families who had fallen on hard times.

Another of the Merchant City’s finest buildings is the outstanding Robert Adam designed Trades Hall, home to The Trades House of Glasgow. The Trades House was established in 1605 to oversee the fourteen separate crafts that existed within the city – such as barbers, wrights, and weavers – ensuring they were run properly and the workers treated fairly. Before this there was no official body and subsequently many disputes arose between the Craftsmen, the City Merchants, the Church and City Council over how best to run Glasgow.

However the formation of The Trades House and Merchant’s House allowed for a more harmonious working relationship. This was an important step in the development of Glasgow as each craft was recognised by The City and received a deed of cause certifying their existence, which gave them authorisation to work within the city confines. The Trades House opened in 1794 and is one of only two buildings in Glasgow still used for its original purpose, the other being Glasgow Cathedral.

The Merchant City’s eastern boundary is at Trongate, one of Glasgow’s most significant junctions as it is where High Street, Saltmarket, Trongate and Gallowgate all meet. The crossroads is dominated by the magnificent Tolbooth Steeple. Many Glaswegian merchants used to live on Saltmarket during the early 18th century when it was known as Waulcergait due to the waulking – or scouring – of woollen cloth that took place here.

Nearby is the Tron Theatre, which stands on the site of a church dating from 1529. The oldest remaining part of the present day building, which is now the home of the Tron Theatre, is the 16th century clock tower.

Another cultural hotspot stands on Royal Exchange Square. The stylish 18th century neo-classical Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) was originally built in 1778 as the townhouse of tobacco lord William Cunninghame and was later home to the Royal Bank of Scotland. It is now a library as well as GOMA, which opened in 1996. Outside is the Duke of Wellington on horseback statue and the traffic cone that decorates the Duke’s head has become a Glasgow institution. TC
Published: December 2017