The People, and How They Lived, pp.181-189.

[Old Glasgow Contents]

Of the personal habits of the people of Glasgow, and their mode of living in mediæval times, we have little information, but down to the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries these must have been of the roughest. And it was the same all over Scotland. Eneo Silvio describes the people as small in stature, but bold, the commonalty as poor and uneducated, eating flesh and fish, but bread dainty. In Froissart we get a picture of the Border Scots in one of their forays, in the year 1327, which is worth transcribing; and from the description which he gives of an army equipped for an invasion, we may form some estimate of the state of the people at large at that time. Their luxuries appear to have been few, but they were probably not without substantial means of living. “The Scots,” writes Froissart, “are bold, hardy, and much inured to war. When they make their incursions into England they march from twenty to four and twenty leagues [miles] without halting, as well by night as day; for they are all on horseback except camp followers, who are on foot. The knights and esquires are well mounted on large bay horses: the common people on little galloways. They bring no carriages with them, on account of the mountains they have to pass in Northumberland; neither do they carry with them any provisions of bread and wine, for their habits of sobriety are such in time of war that they will live for a long time on flesh half sodden, without bread, and drink of the river water without wine. They have therefore no occasion for pots or pans, for they dress the flesh of their cattle in the skins after they have taken them off, and being sure to find plenty of them in the country which they invade, they carry none with them. Under the flaps of his saddle each man carries a broad plate of metal, and behind the saddle a little bag of oatmeal. When they have eaten too much of the sodden flesh, they place this plate over the fire, mix with water their oatmeal, and when the plate is heated they put a little of the paste upon it and make a thin cake like a cracknel of buscuit, which they eat to warm their stomachs. It is therefore no wonder that they perform a longer day’s march than other soldiers.” When the English army on one occasion entered a camp which the Scots had just quitted, they found, among other things, says Froissart, “more than three hundred cauldrons made of leather, with the hair outside, which were hung on the fires full of water, and meat ready for boiling, and more than ten thousand pairs of old worn out shoes made of undressed leather, which the Scots had left there.”1

In a curious document written in the early part of the sixteenth century we have an account of how these shoes were made. It is a paper presented to Henry VIII., after the death of James V., by one John Elder, a clergyman, a native of Caithness, containing a project of union of the two kingdoms, and it contains some interesting notices as to the habits of the Highlanders. As a rule, he says, they go barelegged and barefooted, but in winter, when the frost is very severe, “we go a-hunting, and after we have slain red deer we flay off the skin, and setting our bare foot on the inside thereof, for want of cunning shoemakers, by your grace’s pardon, we play the cobblers; compassing and measuring so much thereof as shall reach up to our ankles; pricking the upper part thereof with holes, that the water may repass when it enters, and stretching it up with a strong thong of the same above our said ankles. So we make our shoes – the rough side outward.”2 The custom of boiling the beef in the hide continued in some parts of Scotland till a very recent period. Burt says that in his time (1730), in some of the islands, the people still retained that custom.3

Men who fed on half-sodden flesh prepared in raw hides, and who made their shoes of undressed skins, would not be very particular as to how they were housed. Nor were they; for, as we have seen, they considered the occasional burning of their houses by the English a calamity more endurable than the expense of supporting their French allies.

In the Lowlands, including Glasgow and the other burghs, the dress of the men among the common people in the fifteenth century consisted chiefly of a doublet and cloak and a kind of short trews – the head being covered with a hat sometimes of basket-work and sometimes of felt, or with a woollen bonnet, while the legs and feet remained bare. Shirts were almost unknown, even among the better classes. Among women the kirtle or close gown was rarely accompanied either with the wylicot or under-petticoat, or with the mantle, and the feet were bare. From the poem “Peblis to the Play,” by James I., we learn that in his time the women wore kerchiefs or hoods, and tippets about the neck. Some of the men wore hats of birch twigs interwoven, others flat bonnets. Their music was the bagpipe. A description is given of a tavern, with a fair linen cloth on the table, and a regular score on the wall, and the reckoning, which is twopence halfpenny each – about a penny farthing of our money – is collected from the company in a wooden trencher. Such would be a tavern in Glasgow about the year 1450.

In food there was hardly any luxury till James I., who had resided nineteen years in England, set the example of a better style of living.

Under Robert II. the French knights could obtain no wine but at a great price. The ale was no better than small beer, and the bread, when there was any, was of barley or oats.4 Among the common people milk and its various preparations formed a chief article of diet till a much later period. Meat boiled with oatmeal, or fish, supplied the more substantial meals. Bread and vegetables were luxuries, and were very little used – a circumstance to which, perhaps, may be imputed the prevalence of leprosy.5 The people generally, too, were much more gross in their tastes than they are now. Even the higher classes indulged an appetite for coarse and strong-flavoured food which would astonish a gourmand of the present day. At the royal table, in the thirteenth century, porpoise and grampus, fresh and cured, were regular items of provision. In the following century the household books of James V. show repeated entries of payments for “pellok,” the “phoca” or “selch,” with the “cattus marinus,” called sometimes “se cat,” and the “polypus,” as viands provided for the king and his court. The flesh of porpoise and seal, indeed, continued to be used till at least the end of the sixteenth century. And this was not peculiar to Scotland. In the accounts of the corporation of Rye, in 1448, we find twenty pence paid for a “porpais.” They were dearer at Lydd, for in the accounts of that corporation in 1449 there is a payment of six shillings for a porpoise, to be presented to no less a person than Jack Cade – called in the account “the Captain” – to propitiate his friendship in case of his ultimate success.6 Pike was in common use in Scotland, and there are notices of its having been sent to James IV. from Luss. Cranes, swans, herons, bitterns, solan geese, and other birds of coarse flavour, were also esteemed as articles of food.7 Sturgeon was reckoned a great delicacy, and in the royal accounts in 1496 there is a payment of five shillings “to the man that brocht the sture [sturgeon] fra Glasgo.”8

After the Reformation the mode of living improved. vegetables and oatmeal were more used, and less flesh was eaten; but the habits of the people were still coarse, and cookery was little cultivated. Fynes Moryson, a gentleman who travelled in Scotland towards the end of the sixteenth century, writing in 1599, says: “The Scotch eat much colwort and cabbage, and little fresh meat. Myself was at a knight’s house who had many servants to attend him, that brought in his meat with their heads covered with blue caps, the table being more than half furnished with great platters of porridge, each having a little piece of sodden meat. And when the table was served the servants did sit down with us, but the upper mess [above the salt] instead of porridge had a pullet with some prunes in the broth. And I observed no art of cookery, or furniture of household stuff, but rather rude neglect of both, though myself and companion, sent from the Governor of Berwick about Border affairs, were entertained after their best manner. They vulgarly [commonly] eat hearth cakes of oats, but in cities have also wheaten bread. They drink pure wines, not with sugar as the English, yet at feasts they put comfits in the wine after the French manner.” As to dress, he says, the common people wear coarse homemade cloth “and flat blue caps very broad. The gentlemen did wear English cloth, or silk or light stuffs. Gentlewomen did wear close upper bodies after the German manner, with large whalebone sleeves after the French manner, short cloaks like the Germans, French hoods, and large falling bands round their necks. The unmarried of all sorts go bareheaded, and wear short cloaks with close linen sleeves. The inferior sort of citizens wives, and the women of the country, wear cloaks made of coarse stuff, of two or three colours in chequer work, vulgarly called plodan.”* We may accept this description as in a great measure applicable to Glasgow at that time.

Sir William Brereton, the traveller already quoted, writes thus of the people in Edinburgh in 1634, and in all probability this description also applied to Glasgow:- “The women wear and use upon festival days six or seven several habits and fashions: some for distinction of humour and phantasy. Many, especially of the meaner sort, wear plaids, which is a garment of the same woollen stuff whereof saddle cloths in England are made, which is cast over their heads and covers their faces on both sides, and would reach almost to the ground but that they pluck them up and wear them cast under their arms. Some ancient women and citizens wear satin straight bodied gowns, short little cloaks with great capes, and a broad boun-grace coming over their brows and going out with a corner behind their heads, and this boun-grace is, as it were, lined with a white stracht [starched] cambric suitable unto it. Young maids, not married, all are bareheaded – some with broad thin shag ruffs which lie flat to their shoulders, and others with half bands with wide necks, either much stiffened or set in wire which comes only behind; and these shag ruffs are more broad and thick than others.”9

Ray the naturalist, who visited Scotland in 1661, describes the men of the poorer class as wearing bonnets, and the women having a covering of white linen on their heads, which hung down their backs. “When they go abroad none of them wear hats, but a particoloured blanket, which they call a plaid, over their head and shoulders.” The magistrates of Edinburgh had, some thirty years previously (1631), endeavoured, but apparently without success, to put down this wearing of the plaid over the head. “It has now,” the order prohibiting it bears, “become the ordinar habit of all women within the city, to the general imputation of their sex – matrons not being able to be distinguished from loose living women, to their own dishonour and scandal of the city.”** When we come to notice the proceedings of the Kirk Session of Glasgow we shall find that they also, perhaps for the same reason, strictly prohibited the wearing of plaids over the head by women in church. There is a similar enactment about the same time by the magistrates of Aberdeen, in which they condemn “the uncivill forme of behaviour of a great many women of the burght of gude qualite quha resortes both to kirk and mercat with thair playddis about thair headis.”10 In Aberdeen, curiously enough, men were, in the sixteenth century, prohibited from wearing, not plaids only, but blue bonnets. The magistrates enacted that no burgess should wear a plaid, under a penalty of forty shillings, and is he wore “a bleu bonatt” he was subjected in a penalty of five pounds.11 But the practice of wearing plaids, in the case both of men and women, had become inveterate, and it continued notwithstanding these enactments.

Another English traveller, Morer, writing in 1689, says he found the Lowlanders in Scotland dressed much like his own countrymen, excepting that the men generally wore bonnets instead of hats, and plaids instead of cloaks – the women wearing plaids when abroad or at church. “The children of people of the better sort,” he says, “lay and clergy, go generally without shoes or stockings. Oaten cakes, baked on a plate of iron, are the principal bread, and they are fond of tobacco.” In Glasgow, till a recent period, it was quite common for the children of the well-to-do classes to go without shoes and stockings in summer,*** and it was the same in other towns. Captain Burt, speaking of the habits of the people in Inverness towards the middle of the eighteenth century, sayts, “Though the children of the upper classes wear shoes and stockings in winter, nothing is more common than to see them barefoot in the summer.”12

Writing of his own recollection of the same period (1763), Mr. Maxwell of Munches says of the rural population of Galloway: “The tenants in general lived very meanly on kail, groats, milk, gradden – ground in querns turned with the hand, and the grain dried in a pot, with an old eye now and then about Martinmas. They were clothed very plainly, and their habitations were most uncomfortable. Their general wear was of cloth made of waulked plaiding, black and white wool mixed, very coarse, and the cloth rarely dyed. Their hose were made of white plaiding cloth sewed together, with single soled shoes, and a black or blue bonnet – none having hats but the lairds, who thought themselves very well dressed for going to church on Sunday with a black Kelt coat of their wives’ making.”13

Linen was everywhere made at home, the spinning being done by the ladies, and also by the servants, during the long winter evenings. “Holland,” which cost about six shillings the ell, was worn only by the wealthier classes.

In the burghs no doubt the people lived better than in the rural districts, and in Glasgow, whatever their food may have been, they appear to have consumed a considerable amount of wine. In early times it was only within burgh that the sale of wine was permitted at all, and when a cargo arrived it was first proved by the “tasters,” and the price at which it was to be retailed in the taverns was then fixed. In the same way each brewing of ale was proved by the official taster before it was permitted to be sold, and the price was regulated according to the price of malt, and “efter the imposicioune of the worthi men of the toune.”14 Of wines, claret was most in favour in Glasgow, and indeed throughout Scotland. It was imported from Bordeaux by French and Scottish traders. The other wines used were chiefly those of Guienne and Gascony. They were probably of a harsh and acid character compared with what are now imported, and the small quantity of sugar then consumed – most of which was imported from Italy, Sicily, and Cyprus – was chiefly used to mix with the wine.15 The beer used in Scotland during the greater part of the fifteenth century was mostly imported from Germany. When ale began to be manufactured in Glasgow, which it came to be to a large extent, it was made both from oats and barley or bere, and in the absence of hops it was flavoured with ginger and other spices and aromatic herbs, to fit it for keeping. Women, called “browster wives,” were then the only brewers, and for a long time the taverns were almost exclusively kept by them.16 In the old burgh accounts of Glasgow there are repeated entries of payments for “aqua vitæ” at the corporation dinners. This is not always to be confounded with brandy, to which, in earlier times as well as at a later period, the term was applied. It was often applied to whisky made from malt. In 1494 the exchequer rolls contain an entry of the delivery of eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor to make aqua vitæ. The quantity manufactured, however, was very limited. Till the sixteenth century the sale of distilled spirits was chiefly confined to the shop of the apothecary. It was used only as a luxury or medicinally. On two occasions there appear entries in the royal accounts of payments by James IV. “to the barbour that brocht aqua vitæ to the king in Dunde.” At a later period French brandy was imported and used in considerable quantities, but the excessive use of whisky is quite a modern innovation. From the burgh accounts it would appear that the amount of spirits consumed at our early city banquets was very small.

Down to the time of the Union claret was the wine principally drunk in Glasgow. An English traveller who was there about 1660 says that the people “generally excel in good French wines as they superabound with flesh and fowl.”17 Another Englishman, who made an excursion in Scotland in 1704, writes that at the most common taverns they had good French brandy and French wine – “so common are the French liquors in this country.” From a tavern bill in 1697 which has been preserved, we learn that claret was then charged 20d. (sterling) the quart. Morer, writing in 1702, says the Scots “have a thin bodied claret at ten pence the mutchkin.” After the Union the price was higher. In 1729 Burt states that claret was charged 1s. 4d. the bottle, and that it was soon raised to two shillings.18 He says he found French claret – “a wholesome and agreeable drink – in every public house of any note except in the heart of the Highlands, and sometimes even there.” The laird of Culloden kept a hogshead of claret on tap in his hall for all comers;19 and at Arniston House, the country residence of President Dundas,**** there were sixteen hogsheads of claret used every year.20

1  Chronicles – Johnes, vol. i. pp. 18-24.
2  Holograph MS. quoted by Pinkerton, Hist. of Scotland, vol. ii. p. 397.
3  Burt’s Letters, vol. ii. p. 271.
4  Froissart.
5  Pinkerton’s History, vol. i. p. 154.
6  Fifth Report on Historical MSS., pp. 492-520.
7  Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer, preface, p. ccvii.
8  Ibid., p. 277.
9  Brereton’s Travels, p. 101.
10  Burgh Records of Aberdeen, 6th June, 1621.
11  Ibid., 5th October, 1576.
12  Letters, vol. i. p. 96.
13  Murray’s Literary History of Galloway, App. p. 337.
14  Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, i. p. 683.
15  Accounts of Lord High Treasurer, Preface ccviii.
16  Ibid., p. ccxiii.
17  Franck’s Northern Memoirs calculated for the Meridian of Scotland.
18  Letters from the North of Scotland, vol. ii. p. 134.
19  Burt.
20  Domestic Annals of Scotland, vol. iii. p. 184.
*  These quotes have appeared twice already in other books already uploaded to Random Scottish History; Chapter 22 of Grant’s ‘Old and New Edinburgh’ (1880), and James VI.’s Chapter in Chambers’ ‘Domestic Annals’ (1885).
**  The banning of the plaid covering in Edinburgh is described in Chapter 21 of Grant’s ‘Old and New Edinburgh’ (1880).
***  A contributor to ‘Scots Lore’ (1895) seems amused by unnecessary English sympathy towards the barefoot children in April’s Journal.
****  President Dundas and his “sixteen hogsheads” are mentioned in Chapter 18 of Grant’s ‘Old and New Edinburgh (1880).