Trade and Commerce, pp.239-248.

[Old Glasgow Contents]

The trade of Glasgow is a large subject, and I can only glance at its early history. Before the seventeenth century there was little trade of any kind in Scotland, and few or no manufactures. Even the commonest articles of daily use, such as horse-shoes, harness, bridles, and saddles, were imported ready-made from Flanders. Yet there was, in the middle ages, trade to some extent, and probably a good deal of it was in the hands of the religious bodies. There is a charter by William the Lion granting to the monks of Scone exemption from customs duties for one ship and its merchandise, showing that these monks were at that early period carrying on a foreign trade. But by the middle of the seventeenth century there was a great change, and the trade of Glasgow in particular had by that time, for so small a place as it then was, become considerable. In the reigns of James VI. and Charles I. a considerable traffic was carried on by traders carrying goods of home manufacture from Glasgow into England, and bringing home “merchand waires.”1 Under the liberal administration of Cromwell, too, Scotland generally – hating him though she did – could not but acknowledge the advantages she possessed in perfect freedom of commerce. A Scotch vessel was then at liberty to carry a Scotch cargo to Barbadoes and to bring the sugar of Barbadoes into the port of London.2 Speaking of the merchants of Glasgow, Franck says that in 1650 their commerce was extensive. “Moreover,” he adds, “they dwell in the face of France with a free trade. The staple of the country consists of linens, friezes, furs, tartans, pelts, hides, tallow, skins, and various other small manufactures and commodities.”3 In the report “on the Settlement of the Revenues of Excise and Customs in Scotland” made to Cromwell by Thomas Tucker in 16564 he speaks of Glasgow as “one of the most considerable burghs, as well for the structure as the trade of it. The inhabitants, all but the students of the College which is here, are traders and dealers – some for Ireland with small smiddy coals in open boats from four to ten tons, from whence they bring hoops, rungs, barrel staves, meal, oats, and butter; some for France with pladding, coals, and herring, of which there is a great fishing yearly in the western sea, for which they return salt, pepper, rosin, and prunes; some to Norway for timber; and every one with their neighbours the highlanders, who come hither from the Isles and Western parts.”

The Restoration came, and with it the Scotch regained their independence, but they soon found, to use the words of Lord Macaulay, that “independence had its discomforts as well as its dignity.”5 The English Parliament treated them as aliens. A new Navigation Act put them on almost the same footing with the Dutch, and high, and in some cases prohibitory duties were imposed on the products of Scottish industry. But there was no redress – nothing for it, in short, but a union of the kingdoms, for which matters were now fast ripening.

Yet previous to that event the trade of Glasgow had, as I have said, become considerable. We may form some idea of it from an account preserved in one of the acts of the Scottish Parliament of the year 1698, relating to the affairs of a once opulent but then reduced Glasgow merchant, a Mr. James Gilhagie. He had applied to Parliament for relief, and a state of his mercantile transactions and his losses is embodied in the act. It bears that besides the lands of Easter Craigs and Kennyhill, of which he was proprietor, Mr. Gilhagie had possessed houses in Saltmarket and in the neighbouring streets, besides his plenishing in them, and “his two well furnist buiths and merchant ware.” All these had been destroyed by the great fire in 1677, causing a loss if 20,000 merks – more than £1000 sterling. He possessed a ship, which was lost with all her cargo, consisting of French wines, causing a farther loss of £500 sterling. He had been largely engaged in coal works near Glasgow, by which he had lost 20,000 merks more; and he had been engaged in adventures from Glasgow to Archangel, Madeira, and the Canary Islands. This was in the time of William III.;6 and there were many other merchants in the city at that time whose transactions were very considerable.

But when the Union came the trade of Glasgow received a great impetus. There was a general outcry against it at the time, and at first it certainly was productive of some changes which were unpopular. Among other things the days of cheap claret came to an end, as Scotland, after the Union, had to cease importing French products. But notwithstanding the opposition, it soon became apparent that this important political measure was to be the cause of increased prosperity to all Scotland. In conformity with England she had to cease exporting her wool, but on the other hand she found in England a market for wool and linen, and a greatly enlarged demand for grain and Highland cattle. In the first year after the Union the total revenue from the excise in Scotland was, in round number, £35,000. In 1808, after the lapse of a hundred years, it had increased to £180,000 – more than five time the produce of the first year.*

Until the beginning of the eighteenth century the trade of Glasgow, besides herrings, consisted chiefly of coarse woollen goods and sugar. The rise of the last-mentioned industry, in 1667, I have already noticed. The first “manufactory” which the city possessed was established in 1638. It was a weaving factory, and the magistrates hastened to encourage the novel proposal, and to offer liberal terms to the projectors. Marking as it does the commencement, though in a very small way, of a new order of things which was destined to contribute so largely to the prosperity of the city, it may be interesting to quote the minute of the town council on the subject. It is entitled in the burgh records, “Anent the Manufactorie,” and is as follows:- “31 January 1638. The said day foirasmeikle as Robert Fleyming merchand, and his pairtineris, ar of mynd and intentioun to erect and tak up ane hous of manufactorie within this burgh, quhairby ane number of the poorer sort of people within the samin may be imployt and putt to wark; And the said provost bailies and Counsall considering the grait good, utilitie, and proffeitt will redound to this brught and haill incorporation thairof thairby, they have concludit, all in ane voyce, for the said Robert his better encuragement to the said good wark to sett to him ane lare and tak of thair grait ludging and yairds att the back thairof lyand within this burght in the drygaitt, except the twa laich foir voultis and back galreis at the back of the samin lyand be eist the entrie of the said grait tenement, and of the buithe under the tolbuithe presentlie occupayt be James Wood, all maill frie of ony othir kynd of deutie, during the space of fifteen yeirs eftir his entry.” But the days of free trade had no yet come. The incorporation of Weavers got alarmed, and it was reported to the town council, on the 5th of May following, “that the weivors friemen feirit that the erecting of the manufactorie suld prove hurtfull and prejudiciall to thame,” and they insisted that provision should be made that anything required to be woven by the citizens should be done by the incorporation of Weavers only. The projectors yielded, and thairfoir,” as the minute of council bears, Patrick Bell, ane of the undertakeris, for himself and in name of his partineris, was content that it suld be enactit that there sould be no woovis wovin of tounis folkis thairin be thair servandis in hurt and prejudice of the said friemen, bot be thais onlie quha ar frie with this calling.” Such was the first manufactory in Glasgow, and such the ideas then prevailing as to freedom of trade.

But the real commencement of commercial enterprise was subsequent to the Union, and it began in Glasgow, as already mentioned, with her trade with the American colonies. The tobacco trade commenced in 1707. The Glasgow traders had at first no ships of their own, and their first ventures to Mary and Virginia were in vessels chartered from Whitehaven. It was no doubt to trade carried on in such vessels, at an early period, that Tucker in his report to Cromwell refers when he says, writing in 1656, “Here hath been some [merchants] who have adventured as far as Barbadoes, but the losses they have sustained by reason of their going out, and coming home late every year, made them discontinue going thither any more.” It was not till eleven years after the Union that a vessel belonging to Glasgow crossed the Atlantic.**

How very limited the trade of the city was, however, till far on in the eighteenth century we may judge from the state of banking in the city at that time. Banks, indeed, were unknown in Glasgow till a comparatively recent period. The Bank of Scotland, soon after its institution in Edinburgh, made an attempt to establish a branch in Glasgow, but it proved unsuccessful. The trial was renewed in 1731, but again it failed. At that time the small amount of bank accommodation that was required was provided by private traders. An example of this is found in an advertisement which appeared in the Edinburgh Evening Courant in July, 1730. It was inserted by “James Blair merchant at the head of the Saltmarket in Glasgow” – merchant being the designation then adopted by the shopkeepers – and he intimates that at his shop there “all persons who have occasion to buy or sell bills of exchange, or want money to borrow, or have money to lend on interest, &c., may deliver their commands.” The Royal Bank was established in Edinburgh in 1727, and the effect of its rivalry was to cause the temporary stoppage of the Bank of Scotland in the following year!

At first the foreign trade of Glasgow was confined to few hands, but it rapidly developed, and, along with it, other branches of industry. Sir John Dalrymple, writing shortly before 1788, says: “I once asked the late provost Cochran of Glasgow, who was eminently wise, and who has been a merchant there for seventy years, to what cause he attributed the sudden rise of Glasgow. He said it was all owing to four young men of talent and spirit who started at one time in business, and whose success gave example to the rest. The four had not ten thousand pounds amongst them when they began.” These four gentlemen were Mr. Cuningham of Lainshaw, Mr. Spiers of Elderslie, Mr. Glassford of Dugaldston, and Mr. Ritchie of Busby – the estates here named being all purchased out of their acquired wealth.7

It would be interesting to trace the history of the trade in coal, which in later times became so important, and to which Glasgow owes so much of its prosperity, and to know the prices at which that article was sold, but the notices on the subject are scant. The earliest mention of a coal-work in Scotland occurs in one of the Dunfermline charters in 1291.8 The workings in all coal-mines must have been for a long time on a very small scale, and the pits or shafts of very limited depth. A certain quantity was used for firing, but peat formed the common fuel of the country. Furze was also used and wood where there were forests. In the high grounds of Ayrshire there appears to have existed an extensive forest, and even at Preston, now so surrounded by coal-mines, wood was used as fuel for the salt pans. But generally wood had become a scarce and valuable commodity.9 Coal must have been imported as fuel previous to 1283, as in that year the municipal statutes of Berwick contain regulations for selling it alongside the vessels importing it. By the beginning of the fifteenth century it had become a common article of merchandise.10 In the following century, when it was more wrought in Scotland, it was occasionally exported, but the general supply was so small that in 1563 an act was passed prohibiting the exportation – the statute bearing that coal was often used as ballast for ships, and that the export caused “a most exorbitant dearth and scantiness of fuel.” Writing in the reign of James I. Eneo Silvio describes Scotland as a cold country, generally void of trees, but, he adds, “there is a sulphurous stone dug up which is used for firing,” and these, he says, were distributed to the poor at the church doors where the country was denuded of wood.11

There is an entry in our burgh records under date 19th August 1578, from which we learn that the Archbishop of Glasgow had let “the coilheuchtis and colis withtin the baronie of glasgw for the space of three yeris, for the yeirlie payment to the said reverend father of forty pundis money, togeddir witht threttene scoir and ten laidis of colis.” At this time the pound Scots had come to be worth only about two shillings and sixpence sterling, so that the rent of all the coal within the barony, with the use of the existing shafts or openings, was only £5 per annum and 270 “laids” of coal. The term laid or load, as applied to coals, is not now used in Lanarkshire, but in some other districts it is. In Haddingtonshire, where the term is still employed, there are seven laids in a ton of coal. That gives 320 pounds to a laid, or very nearly what is practically the burden of a pack-horse. This, it is highly probable, was the quantity represented by the “laid” in the archbishop’s lease. From another entry in the council minutes four years before this time12 we find that the price of “a laid of colis to the tolbuytht” was twenty-two pence Scots, or less than 2½d., and as that was for only a single laid we may safely assume that the value of what the tacksman had to deliver would be at most not more than twopence the laid. At this rate the entire rent drawn by the archbishop for all the coal within the barony was only £7, 5s. per annum.

In 1621 the lords of the privy council fixed the price of coal at seven shillings and eightpence (7d.) the load.13 but from the accounts of the household expenses of Archbishop Sharp in 1665 we find him paying 10d. a load for coal.14 From another notice in the privy council records it appears that in the year 1621 the average weekly gains of a collier’s family was about five merks (5s. 6d.).

In 1655 the magistrates let the coal in what is termed in their minute “the muir heughe,” to two of the burgesses, Patrick Bryce and James Anderson. The terms of the agreement were that the town should “deburse for advancement of the said work twa thousand merkis Scotis” (£111, 2s. 2d.). The tenants were to have the first year free, and thereafter to pay to the town yearly 600 merks (£33, 4s.), and at no time to charge more than four shillings (fourpence sterling) for the hutch of coals – the hutch to contain nine gallons. They were to be bound “to keep the work on futt threttein yeirs,” and to employ eight hewers and no more. This arrangement does not appear to have been successful, or else the coal accessible by the shallow workings then in use had become exhausted. There is a minute accordingly by the town council some ten years afterwards, which bears that coals have “become verie scant and dear, so that the hutch bought of befoir on the hill for four shilling is now bought for no less than six shilling (sixpence), and that in regard of the decay of the coall hewes about the towne quhilk maks ane great outcry among the inhabitants and mainlie the poor, and the magistrats and councell knowing the same to be most trew, and being informed that coalles may be win and gottin in their awin land in Gorballes, they have therefoir concludit to give to Patrick Bryce Weaver ane thousand marks moneye (£55, 11s.) to sett down there twa shanks presentlie.” The pits could not have been very deep which were put down for that sum.

The late Mr. James Baird of Cambusdoon repeated to me in 1875 a statement made to him some fifty years before by an old man, William Wotherspoon – then seventy-eight years of age – to the effect that when he was a boy of fourteen he was in the habit of carting coals from the Greenend pit of the Calder Ironworks to Glasgow (a distance of nearly twelve miles), where he sold them in the Gallowgate for fifteenpence the cart – this sum being all he got to meet the price which had been paid for the coals at the pit mouth and for the carting. This would be about the year 1760. Wotherspoon occasionally got employment for his cart in returning, and he saved money. He became, Mr. Baird told me, a very strong man, and was able to lift two and a half hundredweight in each hand. I do not know what quantity of coals was in the cart, but it would probably be about nine or at most ten hundredweight.

That fifteenpence was the usual market price of a cart of coals delivered in Glasgow in the middle of the eighteenth century is confirmed by the early accounts of the Town’s Hospital. McUre says15 that the directors had it in design “to publish Regulations together with an abstract of the first year’s management,” and these particulars did appear in a little volume, now very scarce, printed in Glasgow in 1742.16 Among the items of expenditure for the year 1737 given in this report I find: “Coals, 560 carts, £29, 13s. 2d.” – that is, less than 1s. 3d. the cart.*** When Gibson wrote his History of Glasgow in 1778 “a cart of coals,” he tells us, contained nine cwt., and we may assume that it was the same in the earlier part of the century.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century Glasgow had become known for its manufacture of plaids – that indispensable article of apparel in early times; and when the magistrates resolved to make a present to the Princess of Wales the minute of council bears that “it was judged not improper to send to her Highness a swatch of plaids as the manufacture peculiar to this place, for keeping the place in her highness’ remembrance.”17 A number of plaids were forwarded accordingly, and were graciously accepted. The letter by the magistrates to the princess describes the plaids as “what are generally used in Scotland by our women for covers when they goe abroad and by some men for the morning guns [gowns?] or for hangings in bed chambers.” This was at the time of the outbreak of the rebellion of 1715, and the city transmitted at the same time to the king what he, no doubt, valued more than the “swatch of plaids” – namely, an offer to raise and officer a regiment of five hundred men. The offer was received with thanks, but the magistrates were informed that the government had already taken such precautions as would render it unnecessary to put the city to that expense.

At a subsequent date we find the magistrates making regulations as to “linnen and cotton handkerchiefs,” the manufacture of which had also been introduced in Glasgow, and there is a statute directed against the use of false or loose colours, and against handkerchiefs “being made shorter in length than they are in breadth.”18 The foreign trade of the city increased rapidly. In the year 1775, in the single article of tobacco, Glasgow imported from America no less than 57, 143 hogsheads, being more than a half of all the tobacco imported into Great Britain in that year.19

The subsequent history of the trade and commerce of Glasgow does not fall within the scope of these notices. The increase in the commercial prosperity of the city after the middle of the eighteenth century was very rapid. Many causes combined to produce this result, and not the least among them was the deepening of the river.

1  See Minutes of Council, 1625.
2  Ordinance in Council, 12th April, 1654.
3  Northern Memoirs.
4  Printed by the Bannatyne Club.
5  History, vol. iii. p. 253.
6  History of the Merchants’ House, printed for Private Circulation, 1866, p. 526.
7  Dr. Strang, Glasgow and its Clubs.
8  Scotland in the Middle Ages.
9  Professor Innes, Preface to Chartulary of Melrose, p. 16.
10  Early Records of Mining, by R. W. Cochrane Patrick, Esq., p. xliv.
11  Descriptio Asie et Europe, Paris, 1534.
12  5th May, 1574.
13  Privy Council Records.
14  Maitland Miscellany, vol. ii. p. 524.
15  P. 315.
16  A Short Account of the Town’s Hospital in Glasgow, 1742.
17  Burgh Records, 26th August, 1715.
18  11th March, 1726.
19  Denholm’s History, p. 213.
*  I’m not sure if MacGeorge is purposely comparing the revenue from a year post-Union to that of a century after instead of that from pre-Union to that of the century after. England was consistently detrimental and sought to thwart Scottish trade outside the island, for example, the Darien Scheme of which more information can be found in my footnote to Chambers’ ‘Domestic Annals’ chapter on the Reign of William III. The ceasing of trade with France must have been very detrimental all round as well.
**  They had, however, left from Leith and travelled to the other side of the Atlantic pre-Union, to Panama – see Darien Scheme footnote above.
***  MacGeorge’s insistence on providing the exchange rate with England every time a cost is mentioned has zero relevance unless your specific interest is the exchange rate between the two countries. £1 Scots was as hard-earned and treated the same in Scotland as £1 Sterling was in England. He might as well have constantly compared it with the Russian Ruble of the same period.