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The Early Houses, pp.68-80.

[Old Glasgow Contents]

Of the houses of the ancient inhabitants of Clydesdale and other parts of Scotland I have referred only to those of very early times – the weems and earth-houses and the fortified crannogs used by the natives at and preceding the time of the roman occupation. Buildings of a better kind were, of course, used by the Romans themselves, and by the limited number of colonists who accompanied them from Belgium and Gaul, and by the few of the chief inhabitants who had obtained the honour of citizenship. These houses would no doubt exhibit, in a greater or less degree, the peculiar features of the Roman style of building, but after the Romans withdrew they fell into ruin, and the houses, or rather huts, occupied by the native population generally – not only by the peasantry and labourers, but by the chiefs and leaders – must have been for a long time of the rudest description. The first cluster of houses in Glasgow were no doubt mere hovels built of wattles and mud, and thatched with reeds or coarse grass or turf. As a rule they had no second room, and the single apartment served as a chamber in which all the family slept promiscuously.1 A description of such a house is given by Longland in “Piers the Ploughman’s Crede.” When such was the case in England we may be sure matters would be no better in Glasgow – probably worse. But no doubt in the first Glasgow houses stone might be also partially employed; for in the middle ages the materials used for building were always those which were cheapest and which came most readily to hand – none being brought from a distance when it could possibly be avoided, and as stone as well as wood was to be had at Glasgow, both of these materials would probably be employed – the stones being, in the oldest constructions, left unwrought, and the interstices filled with mud.

An incidental mention of an old wattled house not far from Glasgow occurs in an interesting document of the year 1233, relating to certain lands which the abbot and monks of Paisley averred to have been unjustly alienated from their abbey. The document is entitled Litera examinationis de terra Monochkenneran injuste alienata,2 and consists of a recorded declaration, intentio, of the abbot’s claim in a suit depending before certain judges delegated by the pope to decide between the abbot and convent and one Gilbert, son of Samuel of Renfrew, the party in possession of the disputed lands. The writ records the evidence adduced by the abbot, and one of the witnesses testifies that sixty years before – which would take back the date to about the year 1170 – he recollected a person named Bede Ferdan in possession of the land, and “habitantem in quandam domo magna fabricata de virgis juxta ecclesiam de Kylpatrik.” The decision of the delegates follows, in a separate writ, adjudging the land to the monks, and finding Gilbert liable in expenses, which are taxed at thirty pounds, “videlicet in triginta libris a parte monachorum juratis et a nobis taxatis et moderatis.” Other writs follow, recording the restoration of the lands with the large house made of wands upon it. They form altogether a most interesting record of a mediæval lawsuit conducted with as much attention to the forms of strict justice as would be done in our own day.

It is highly probable that most of the earliest houses in Glasgow were constructed in a similar way to that at Kilpatrick, and that it was not till after the bishop got a grant of a burgh that buildings of a more substantial kind began to be erected, if indeed the proper building of the city was commenced at all before that time. In the Chartulary of Melrose there is a grant (circa 1195) by Bishop Jocelin, who had formerly been abbot of Melrose, in favour of his old abbey, of a house in Glasgow, which he describes as that toft which Ranulphus de Hadintune built “in the first building of the burgh” – expressions which seem to imply that it was only after the date of the charter by King William, in 1175, in favour of this same bishop, that any houses within the burgh other than mere huts began to be built. There is another early notice of buildings and a garden in Glasgow in a charter of the year 1260 granted by the bishop to William de Cadihow, which conveys “aream illam de gardino nostro apud Glasgu,” with trees and buildings.

It is extremely improbable indeed that in the then unsettled state of the country any substantial erections would be made, except under the walls of the feudal lords or in territories protected by burgal rights; and even these were very different from what would be called substantial in our days. It is necessary to keep this in mind when reading of the damage caused by the destruction of towns and villages by fire in these early times. A fire in Edinburgh or Glasgow is a very serious thing nowadays, but in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, when the houses were chiefly constructed of wood, although such a calamity must have no doubt caused much temporary distress, it was comparatively easy to repair it. When Richard II., in revenge of an inroad made by the Scots into the northern parts of England in 1385, advanced towards Edinburgh he resided there for a few days, and then consigned the town to destruction. Froissart tells us that “the kyng of Englande came and lodged in Edenborrowe the chefe towne in all Scotlande and there taryed fyve dayes; and at his departyng it was set a fyre and brent up clene.” Only the castle escaped, “for it was strong ynough and well kept.”3 Another passage from Froissart is also interesting as showing how unsubstantial were the dwellings of the people generally in those times. After describing the wildness of the country and the poverty and rudeness of the people whom the French had come to assist, he mentions the uncourteous reception his countrymen had met with – the Scots complaining that “they (the French) wyll ryffle and eat up alle that evir we have in this countrey. They shall doo us more dispytes and damages than thoughe the Englysshemen shulde fyght with us: for though the Englysshe men brinne our houses we care lytell therefore; we shall make them agayne chepe ynough: we axe but thre dayes to make them agayne, if we may gete four or fyve stakes and bowes to cover them.”4

It no doubt took more trouble than this to rebuild Edinburgh after King Richard burned it, but probably a great part of what had been flimsy wooden erections covered with straw was then replaced by more substantial stone buildings, so that the actual loss to the inhabitants would be comparatively small. In 1544 Edinburgh was burned again by the English under the Earl of Hertford. The author of a contemporary account says – “Settynge fyer in thre or iiii partes of the toune we repayred for that night unto our campe. And the next mornynge very erly we began where we lefte and continued burnynge all that daye and the two dayes nexte ensuinge contynually, so that neither within the wawles nor in the suburbes was lefte any one house unbrent. Also we brent thabbey called Holy Rosehouse and the pallice adjonynge to the same.” The stone walls of the houses remained, however, and the city would appear to have been again speedily repaired. The burning of the Abbey and Palace could only have been partial, as Queen Mary was residing in the Palace in 1561, and she was married to Darnley in the Abbey Church five years afterwards.

The description by Froissart of the dwellings of the people is confirmed by that of Eneo Silvio, afterwards Pope Pius II., who, writing of Scotland in the time of James I., describes the towns as unwalled, the houses commonly built without lime, and in villages, roofed with turf, while a cow’s hide supplied the place of a door.5

Even in England, during the Saxon dominion, the best of the habitations of the common people were wooden huts of small dimensions, with rarely more than one room, in the centre of which the fire was kindled, and this was the case even in the towns.6 The walls were constructed of wattles plastered with mud, and sometimes of wood with twigs and mud over it. The roofs were mostly of thatch, but occasionally slates were used in districts where they could be easily had. London itself continued to be a town mainly of wood and plaster almost to a period so late as the great fire in the seventeenth century. Among the papers of Queen’s College, Oxford, there is a curious and highly interesting account, dated 1306, containing the whole disbursements for the erection in the town of what must have been one of the better class of these ancient houses. The materials employed are all given in detail, even to the quantities of nails used, with the cost, and also the wages of the workmen. The house was entirely of wood, and it is curious to note that among the materials for constructing the front were the staves of ten “tun-casks.” Twigs were placed on the walls over the wood, and these were covered with plaster. The roof was covered with “sclattes,” and the windows appear to have been of wooden “trellis.”7 In none of these houses were there chimneys. In another of the accounts of the same college, relating also to the erection of a house about the same period, there is a charge indicating that chimneys were only then coming into use. the charge is for “a wooden construction in the roof for the smoke to escape by,”8 and items of the same description occur in other accounts of the period. The floors were of clay, and instead of carpets they were strewed with rushes, and many entries for “claying” floors and of the purchase of rushes to cover them occur in the old accounts both in England and Scotland. The fuel used was chiefly peat and furze, and payments for the cutting of these are also frequent. Occasionally coke was used.

In Glasgow, houses of this description, combined with more or less of stone work, remained to a comparatively recent period. Glass was seldom used in the old houses. It is found in our ecclesiastical buildings as early as the twelfth century, and there is evidence of its being used in the houses of some of the ecclesiastics in Glasgow in the beginning of the sixteenth century;9 but for a long time it was a luxury seldom known in private houses, the windows of which, when closed at all, were either, like the Oxford house, of trellis, or protected by wooden shutters only. In some instances we know that canvas was used to fill in windows, and in England there is evidence of this being resorted to, even in the case of churches, so late as the thirteenth century. In houses in Scotland where glass was used the casements appear to have been frequently made so as not only to fit different windows in the same house, but even those in different houses to which they might be removed.10

It is probable that in Glasgow, and in other towns in Scotland, the partial use of stone in the construction of houses was introduced sooner than in England, and it was certainly used in our towns at an earlier period than in the rural districts. An English traveller who visited Scotland in the beginning of the eighteenth century, and who passed through Glasgow and a considerable part of Lanarkshire, gives an interesting account of the poor state in which he found the rural districts, although it was probably much the same in England at that time. Of Crawfordjohn he says: “The houses here are of much such building as those of Dulwich Wells, near London. The walls are either of earth or loose stones, or are raddled. The roofes are of turfe and the floors of the bare ground. They are but one storey high, and the chimney is a hole in the roof and the fire place is in the middle of the floor. Their seats and beds are of earth turfed over and raddled up, near the fire place, and serve for both uses.” Coming to a village not far from Moffat, early in the morning, he could obtain no admittance at any of the houses. To make himself heard, he says, he would have broken their windows, “but could not find a pane of glass in the town. I shall never,” he adds, “go into such a country again. I had heard much talk of it, and had a mind to see it for variety, and indeed it was so to me, for I thank my God I never saw such another, and must conclude with the poet Cleveland that

“Had Cain been Scot God sure had changed his doom,
 Not made him wander, but confined him home.”11

Probably the first houses of any importance which were erected in Glasgow were the manses which Bishop Cameron caused the thirty-two rectors of the Cathedral to build near the church, some of which remained till a recent period. This would be about the year 1440. In Edinburgh the introduction of stone-built houses was earlier – probably after the burning of the ancient city by king Richard, and by the end of the fifteenth century they were very common. The Spanish ambassador at the court of Scotland, in his report to Ferdinand and Isabella, written in 1497, says: “The houses are good, all built of hewn stone, and provided with excellent doors, glass windows, and a great number of chimneys.”12 But this account must, as regards the glass windows, be taken with reserve. The walls inside, even in the case of the king’s palaces, were only very roughly plastered, and when the apartments were occupied they were hung with cloth or arras. Even in the best houses there were no carpets, the floors being, as I have said, strewn with bent-grass or rushes mingled with sweet herbs.

But in Glasgow, although the manses of the rectors and a few others were built of stone, the great majority of the houses were, till the middle of the seventeenth century, constructed chiefly of timber and covered with thatch. Even where the houses were in part constructed of stone, the fronts to the streets were mostly composed of timber, and it was the same in the other towns. Sir William Brereton, a gentleman of Cheshire, who visited Scotland in 1634, and who wrote an account of his travels, says of the High Street in Edinburgh: “If the houses, which are very high and substantially built of stone, were not lined to the outside and faced with boards, it were the most stately and graceful street that I ever saw in my life, but this face of boards, which is towards the street, doth much blemish it and derogate from glory and beauty; as also the want of fair glass windows, whereof few or none are to be discovered towards the street. This lining with boards, wherein are round holes shaped to the proportion of men’s heads, and this encroachment into the street, about two yards, is a mighty disgrace unto it.”13

To the same effect Ray, who wrote in 1661, says that in the towns in Scotland “they make up the fronts of their houses with fir boards nailed one over another,* in which are often made round holes or windows to put out their heads. Instead of ceiling, even in the best houses in great towns, they cover the chambers with fir boards nailed on the roof within side.” Such were most of the houses in Glasgow, and as might be expected in such circumstances, the town more than once suffered severely by the ravages of fire. By a great conflagration which occurred in 1652 nearly a third of the town was destroyed, and many families were obliged to betake themselves to huts hastily erected in the adjoining fields. A minute of the town council of 22d June in that year, after enumerating the closes and tenements destroyed, thus sums up the loss: “Whereby after compt it is fund that there will be neir fourscoir closses all burnt, estimat to about ane thousand families so that unless spidie remedie be vseit and help soght out fra such as hes power and who is harte God sall move it is lyklte the toune sall come to outer ruein.” On this occasion the magistrates ordered the church doors to be opened, not for shelter, but for the benefit of people who “now want chalmeris and other places to reteir to for making of their devotioune.” A collection was made throughout the kingdom to assist those who had suffered by the fire – the funds being distributed by a committee of the town council. In making grants to assist in rebuilding a limited sum only was allowed if the windows were to be “built with dealls,” and a larger amount if they were built of stone.

But the old mode of construction appears to have been very much adhered to, and fifteen years afterwards another great fire occurred, by which 136 houses and shops were destroyed. On this occasion the heat was so great at the Cross that it set fire to the clock of the tolbooth, and the people broke open the doors and liberated the prisoners, who were in danger of perishing – among them being the laird of Kersland, who had been confined on account of the part he had taken at the Pentland rising.14 By this fire between six and seven hundred families were rendered houseless. The distress was very great, and it engaged the anxious consideration of the magistrates.

Their minute on the occasion, under date 4th December, 1677, is curious. It commences by noticing “the great impoverishment this burgh is reduced to throw the sad and lamentable wo occasioned by fyre on the secund of Novr. last that God in his justice hath suffered this burgh to fall under, and lykwayes the most pairt of the said burgh being eye-witnesses twyse to this just punishment for our iniquities by this rod which we pray him to make us sensible of that we may turn from the evill of our wayes to himselfe that so his wraith may be averted and we preserved from the lyk in tyme to come.” And then, feeling satisfied, no doubt, that providence helps those who help themselves, they proceed to practical measures – first stating the obvious cause of the calamity and then providing against it recurrence. This part of the minute is valuable, as containing a contemporary description of how the houses in Glasgow were at that time constructed. Such calamities, it bears, “are mor incident to burghs and incorporatiounes be reasone of their joyning houss to houssis, and on being inflamed is reddie to inflame ane uthir, especiallie being contiguouslie joyned and reared wp of timber and deall boards without so much as the windskew of stone.” To remedy this it is provided “that each persone building de novo on the Hie Street, or repairing, sall be obleiged to doe it by stone work from head to foot back and foir without any timber or daill except in the insett thereof, quhilk is understood to be partitions, doors, windows, presses, and such lyk.” This is ordered to be done “not only for their probable security, but also for decoring of the said burgh.”

But till far on in the eighteenth century there was little improvement in the construction of the houses of the middle classes in Scotland. Captain Burt, writing in 1725, speaking of towns so considerable as Inverness, says, “The houses were neither sashed nor slated before the Union, and to this day the ceilings are rarely plastered. Nothing but the single boards serve for floor and ceiling, and the partitions being often composed of upright boards only, and they are sometimes shrunk, anybody may not only hear but see what passes in the room adjoining. The houses that are not sashed have two shutters that turn upon hinges for the low part of the window, and only the upper part is glazed, so that there is no seeing anything in the street in bad weather without great inconvenience.”15 Such were, no doubt, a large number of the houses in Glasgow at that time.

With the exceptions mentioned, there were in these early times few instances where the magistrates interfered with the mode of erection of houses, and those possessing tofts put down their buildings very much according to their own fancy. It is interesting to notice, however, that, in the division of land and the fixing of boundaries, certain officials, then as afterwards called Liners, exercised at a very early date the functions now performed by the Dean of Guild Court. There is preserved an instrument in 1512 relating to the transfer of certain lands adjoining the church and cemetery of Saint Roche, in which it is stated that seisin was given of the lands as equally divided per lineatores civitatis Glasguensis.16

After the first great fire the city procured a fire engine. The magistrates had heard that Edinburgh possessed one – probably the first that was in Scotland – and they sent a person to ascertain what sort of a thing it was – in the words of their minute, “to visite the engyne thair for slockening of fyre;”17 and being satisfied with the report they had one made for themselves. But it must have been a very primitive machine, and practically useless in such a conflagration as that which so soon again overtook them. The first proper engine which they got was in 1725, and it was made in London.18 After the two great fires the houses erected within the burgh were more carefully constructed, and the magistrates appear to have again given premiums to encourage a better kind of building. A fund had been raised to assist those whose houses were burned, called at the time “the brunt moneye,” and we find a grant made to one John Dainziell, the amount being limited to 400 pounds Scots, “if he build his windowes with daills in Saltmercat,” but he is to have 600 pounds “if he build them with stone.”19 And again, a grant of 500 merks is paid to Mr. John Bell, “more than what he gote formerly, for building his land in a “decent way and decoring Bell’s Wynd.”20 But some of the only tenements “reared up of timber and deall boards,” which had escaped the fire, remained to our own day. The subjoined woodcut represents a characteristic example of one of these, which stood in the close No. 77 Saltmarket. It is from a drawing made by Mr. Thomas Fairbairn in 1849.21

In 1684 a great fire occurred in Gallowgate, and in the absence of any efficient fire-engine the device was resorted to of taking wet hides and spreading them over the sides and thatched roofs of the adjacent houses to prevent the spread of the conflagration. Under the date 26th September, 1684, there is a minute of council ordering reparation to be made “to John Woddrop for the loss of his hydes that was taken out of his holes” for this purpose.

But imperfect in their construction as the houses in Glasgow and in the other towns in Scotland unquestionably were, till a comparatively recent period, they were undoubtedly, as I have already said, greatly superior to those in the rural districts. And this was what in the nature of things was to be expected. Many of the “bishop’s men,” as they acquired means by trading, would be able to buy a toft, and so become a burgess and to build a good house; but others of a higher grade than the bishop’s vassals came also to hold property in the burgh, and these no doubt set the example of building superior tenements. Among others we find ecclesiatics in other localities acquiring property in the town, and thereby becoming bugesses. For example, the monks of Kilwinning and of Paisley held land in the burgh at a very early period, and in some of the old deeds the distinction between ecclesiastics and other burgesses is noted by the latter being termed “laic burgesses.”22

It is interesting also to notice that the great military fraternity of the Knights Templars were among the very first holders of property in the infant city. There is a charter, executed circa 1180, by which “brother Raan Corbeht, Master of the Temple in the territory of the King of Scotland, with advice and consent of our bretheren of Plentidoc,” grants and confirms to William Gley of Glasgow, homini nostro, a plenary toft which Jocelin, bishop of Glasgow, had given to the Templars, and “which the said William held before the bishop gave it to us.” It will be observed – and it illustrates the independence and power of this great fraternity – that William Gley, the disponee, is designed neither a burgess of Glasgow nor one of the homines episcopi, but “our man,” and the property is to be held not of the bishop, but of the military order of the Temple – domo militie Templi – the reddendo being the payment of twelve pence annually at the feast of St. Michael. This is one of the very earliest transferences of property after the grant to the bishop of a burgh.

The Templars at this time held vast possessions in almost every part of Europe, and in Scotland they had several preceptories dependent on the Temple in London. The annual income of the order has been roughly estimated at the enormous sum of six millions sterling. Besides the larger grants which they obtained in land and money, they enjoyed, under various Papal bulls, immunities and advantages which ultimately gave great umbrage to the clergy. Their fall was as rapid as their rise. The Master of the Temple in London, and his viceregent the Preceptor of Scotland, both fell in the battle of Falkirk in 1298. The order was thereafter subjected to persecution, and, after suffering repeated acts of spoliation, it was abolished by the pope in 1313. The real cause of their downfall was their wealth, which fell a prey chiefly to King Philip and the pope and the European sovereigns.23

1  Domestic Architecture of England, part i. p. 17.
2  Reg. de. Passelet, pp. 116-168.
3  Froissart’s Chronicles, by Lord Berners, vol. ii. fol. iii.
4  Bannatyne Miscellany, vol. i. p. 180; Froissart, vol. ii. p. 170, edit. 1518.
5  Pii II., Comment. rerum mem. sui temporis, Francfurt, 1614.
6  Hudson Turner. Introduction, p. xi.
7  Sixth Report on Historical MSS., p. 561.
8  Ibid, p. 557.
9  Liber Protocollorum, Grampian Club, No. 307.
10  Accounts of Lord High Treasurer, p. ccii.
11  North of England and Scotland in MDCCIV. Printed in Edinburgh from an original MS. 1818.
12  Calendar of Spanish Papers, quoted by Mr. Dickson. Preface to Accounts of Lord High Treasurer, p. cc.
13  Brereton’s Travels.
14  Memorials by Law.
15  Burt’s Letters, vol. ii. pp. 59-61.
16  Protocolla Diocesis Glasguensis, No. 606.
17  23d August, 1656.
18  Minute of Council, 25th September, 1725.
19  4th November, 1671.
20  28th September, 1682.
21  Relics of Ancient Architecture, from Water-colour Drawings by T. Fairbairn. Lithographed by Miller & Buchanan, 1849. I have this exact Lithograph, along with 4 others by Fairbairn, already scanned and published into Scanned Images.
22  Lib. Coll. N.D., p. 246.
23  Addison’s History of the Knights Templars.
*  See an example of wood-fronted tenements on Stockwell street in Glasgow from the Thomas Fairbairn Lithograph already uploaded.
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