Sanitary Condition of City – Habits of the People, pp.266-276.

[Old Glasgow Contents]

With the extension of trade and the increase of wealth the habits of the people became gradually more refined, but until after the middle of the last century their social condition and sanitary arrangements – although in advance of the other towns in Scotland – present a striking contrast to the present state of matters.

For a long time it was the custom of the inhabitants in the High Street and Trongate to throw out their ashes and other refuse – to have, in short, what the council records call their “middings” – in front of their houses. In the buildings there was no uniformity. All along the Trongate, and also in Argyll Street, there was in early times an irregular succession of thatched houses, with kilns and other erections, some nearer the centre of the street and some farther back, and the space between the houses and the roadway was used not for ashpits only, but for the deposit of every kind of refuse. In 1589 there is an order by the magistrates “that na midding be laid vpoun the hiegat;” but no attention seems to have been paid to it, as we find the practice continuing till near the end of the next century. It was a time-honoured institution with which the magistrates appear to have been for a time powerless to grapple. So great had become the nuisance caused by throwing all sorts of refuse on the side of the street, and so great the accumulation of water in consequence, that, as we learn from a minute of council (5th May, 1655), many of the inhabitants on the north side of the Trongate were obliged “to mak brige stones” – stepping stones – through the water lying between them and the street “for entrie to thair houssis.” This obliged the magistrates to interfere again – not this time, however, to prohibit the ashpits, but to secure a free passage for the sewage water along the street. To effect this there is a minute of the town council, under date 20th September, 1666, which bears “that the syre in Trongait, on the north syde therof from Hutchesounes Hospitall to St. Tenowes burn, was levelled and maid once straight for covoyeing away the water that way, but now of lait divers persones, yea almost all who hes houses and killes narrest the said syre, casts in stra ilk ane foiragainst their awin land to mak fuilzie of, quhilk stops the passage of the water should goe that way, and jorgs wp so that filth and myre is made to be sein in the gutters quhilk is verie lothsome to the beholders; and the said Magistrats taking this to their wyse consideratioune, and being desyrous that that abuse should be remeided, they therfoir do heirby statut and ordaine that no maner of persones presume to do the lyk hereafter, but that everie heritor or tennant of the said lands narrest the syre keep the same frie ilk ane foir against themselfes for thair parts therof to the effect the passage of the watter be not gorged or impeided thereby.”

But the “hiegate” was used for other purposes than dungsteads. Swine were allowed to go at large through the street;1 “stanes and “tymmer” were deposited on its sides; “skynnis” in heaps were laid upon it; it was used as a place for “drying lint,” and women washed and “stramped” clothes and yarn and other articles there.2 So much was it a matter of course to lay bulky articles on the street, that in 1589 the magistrates thought it only necessary to order that such articles as stones and timber should not lie on the street “langer nor zeir and day.” But they drew the line at peat stacks. It had actually been the custom to erect not only these, but hay stacks on the sides of the Trongate; and in the year last mentioned we find it enacted “that na truff stakis be maid vpon the foirgait under the pane of xvjs. ilk falt.” It takes a long time, however, to eradicate old habits. In the following century the skins, the timber, and the peat stacks are found still encumbering the highway, and under date 6th October, 1610, there is a statute directed against each of these nuisances; while so late as the middle of the eighteenth century the inveterate middings are still the subject of prohibitory minutes of the council. Probably some of them lingered to a still later period. So late as 1795 a petition was presented to the magistrates praying for the removal of all hay stacks in the Trongate, but it was unsuccessful.3 It had been said, however, and it is in all likelihood true, that to the space which these dunghills and stacks and rubbish occupied in front of the houses we owe in part the exceptional breadth of the Trongate. The booths or “crames” for merchandise which projected from the houses, contributed also to secure the present breadth of this fine street.

But the nuisances mentioned were nothing to another of which we find the magistrates taking cognisance. What would be thought nowadays of the butchers using the sides of the most public streets in the city as the places for slaughtering cattle! The minute of the town council on this subject, 20th September 1666, speaks for itself:- “The same day forsuameikle as the Provest baillies and Counsell taking to their consideratioune that it had been the vse and custome of the fleshers of this burgh heirtofoir to slay and bluid the wholl bestiall they kill on the Hie street in Trongait on both sydes of the gait, quhilk is very lothsome to the beholders, and also raises ane filthie and noysome stink and flew to all mener of persones that passeth that way throw the king’s hie street, and is most unseinlie to be sein that the lyk should be done thereon; And the said Magistrats and Counsell vderstanding that the lyk is not done in no place within this kingdome or outwith the same in any weill governed citie,” therefore the fleshers are commanded “ilk ane of them to provyd houses in baksyds for the doeing thereof, as is done in Edinburgh and uthir weill governed cities, and that betwixt and the term of Witsunday next to come.”

This statute, however, like those against other nuisances, appears to have been only partially obeyed, as three years after4 there is an order by the magistrates forbidding “the fleschers in the Land Mercat to kill any muttone or heidron [heifers] on the hie street and that they keip their filth and pynches [offal] aff the foir gate.” The butchers appear to have been in the habit also of leaving live cattle on the public street all night, and there is an order of the council in 1664 prohibiting this.5 About the year 1755 the magistrates erected a new market in King Street, and it was not till then that a public slaughter-house was provided. It was situated at the foot of Saltmarket, on what was then called the Skinners’ Green.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, however, the work of sanitary reform was progressing, and not only were the “syvers” ordered to be kept clear, but the streets and closes were appointed to be swept clean, and all accumulations of refuse to be removed off the streets. By a minute of council6 the magistrates order that each inhabitant shall clean the street in front of his house, and that no one within the ports shall lay any filth “upon the hie streets without the drop of the houss excepting that quhilk they sall caus tak or carie awaye within eight and fourtie hours after the laying out therof.” By a later minute7 it is ordered, under stringent penalties, “that the streets be clated and made clean once every week.”

These enactments were followed up, some ten years later (1696), by a long statute, entitled “against nestines,” which contains a prohibition against casting out at windows, by day or night, any dirt or filth of any kind – the practice of the “gardyloo,” in short, which thus appears to have prevailed in Glasgow as well as in Edinburgh. Great care appears also to have been taken to prevent any one going to or coming from places where “the pest” happened to be prevailing. For example, on 23d October, 1588, there is an order of the council “that in consideratioune of the apparent danger of the pest now in Paisley na persone indwellar within this toun, because of the mercates of Paisley and Kilmalcolm approcheing, pas or repair furth of this toun thairto vnder the pane of fyve pundis to be tane of ilk persone repairing thairto, and banisched furth of the said toun for ʒeir and day, without lief asked and geven be the baillies.” At a later period (1625) the magistrates, “being certainlie informit of the contageon of the plage of pestilence within the Kingdom of Ingland, at God’s will and pleasour, quhilk daylie increises and that ane great number of merchands burgess are daylie passand therto with merchand wairis, and cuming back with wairis to this countrie, and speciallie to this burghe, quhilk is very dangerous not only to this burghe bot to the haill countrie about,” it is ordered that no one shall go to England until his name is first entered in a roll stating where he is going, and that he bring back testimonials with him. In reference to another pestilence in 1644 the inhabitants are commanded to “fence and build up their close foots and yards that no passage be had throw ther closes, and lykwayes that no inhabitants within this burgh suffer any strangers to enter the samen, or recept them into their houses, without testimonialls to be shawne to the magistrats, and that nane of the inhabitants that ar now furthe of this burghe in these bounds be receavit within the samen to ther oune houssis till thay shaw the magistrats ther testimonialls.” There occur at different times various other minutes of council to the same effect. With all these precautions, however, the town was more than once visited by the plague, and on one of these occasions, in 1647, the Faculty of the university retired to Irvine “tempore pestis,” and held their meetings and conferred degrees there.8

Yet notwithstanding these visitations, and the necessity of the enactments against nuisances, Glasgow was in early times a bright and cheerful city; and before the end of the seventeenth century, by which time much of the “nestines” had disappeared, it was, as regards general cleanliness, in advance of every other town in Scotland – Edinburgh not excepted. This is the testimony borne by all early travellers who visited the city, and, what is curious, they nearly all concur in describing the town itself as more beautiful than the capital. One writer, who was with the army of Cromwell when it occupied Glasgow, says: “The toun of Glascow, though not so big nor so rich, yet to all seems a much sweeter and more deyghtful place than Edinburgh.”9 Another Englishman, already referred to, Richard Franck, who visited Scotland during the Protectorate, speaks of “the splendour and dignity of this city of Glasgow, which supasseth most if not all the corporations in Scotland. The people were decently dressed, and such an exact decorum in every society represents it to my apprehension an emblem of England.”10 Sir Walter Scott, referring to this account by Franck, says, “The panegeric which the author pronounces on Glasgow gives us a higher idea of the prosperity of Scotland’s western capital during the middle of the seventeenth century than the reader may have perhaps anticipated. A satirist with regard to every other place Franck describes Glasgow as ‘the nonsuch of Scotland,’ where ‘an English florist may pick up a posie.’ Commerce had already brought wealth to Glasgow, and with wealth seems to have arisen an attention to the decencies and conveniences of life unknown as yet to any other part of Scotland.” Morer also, who wrote in 1689, says that “Glasgow has the reputation of the finest toun in Scotland, not excepting Edinburgh, though the Royal city.” Defoe, writing at a later date, says of Glasgow, “It is one of the cleanliest, most beautiful, and best built cities in Great Britain.”11 And Mr. Campbell of London, the architect of the celebrated Shawfield mansion, writing in 1712, describes Glasgow as “the best situated and most regular city in Scotland.”12 Of Edinburgh Sir William Brereton gives a less flattering account. Writing in 1634, he speaks of the High Street as being certainly a stately and graceful street; but of the houses and habits of the people, he says, “I could never pass through the hall but I was constrained to hold my nose – their chambers, vessels, linen, and meat but very slovenly.”13

As regards house accommodation and mode of living the habits of the Glasgow people were of a very simple kind. It was a long time before the houses even of the wealthier merchants extended beyond what in our day would be considered modest dimensions for tradesmen. Till some time after the beginning of the present century the better classes lived in flats, and every room in the house, except the dining-room, contained a bed, and sometimes the dining-room also, either openly or behind a screen, and the mistress of the house received her visitors at tea in her own bed-room. Tea was till a comparatively recent period a luxury confined to the upper classes, and even with them the consumption was very limited with what it is now. I have before me an advertisement cut out of a newspaper of 1787, in which a lady advertises for a nurse to take charge of a child recently weaned. She is to be “not under twenty-eight years of age; a widow, and one above the rank of a common servant, would be preferred; the wages £6 per annum, but not permitted to drink tea.”

In the beginning of the century the rents of the houses in Glasgow were moderate enough. Dwelling-houses of a respectable class, in flats, were let from £8 to £12 a year; and shops or market booths for about £10, few being so high as £20.14

It was owing in part to the restricted house accommodation that taverns were so much frequented by the better classes. Most of the physicians and lawyers in large practice were consulted each at his tavern, and gentlemen met there in the evenings at their clubs. On these occasions, as a rule, the score was moderate – seldom exceeding fourpence or at most sixpence for each person. In some few cases lawyers saw their clients in their own houses. One of these was Mr. Huchison, who carried on his business in his own house on the north side of the Trongate, next the old Tolbooth – probably on the site of what was afterwards the Tontine Exchange and Coffee-room. The house is described in one of the family deeds as “that large heich tenement bak and foir at the corse.” Into the interior of this old house, before the middle of the seventeenth century, we have an interesting peep supplied by Mr. Hill. “There is a tradition,” he says, “which I had from an old friend and connection of the family, that in Mr. Huchison’s business room, situated most likely on the ground floor, on the opposite side of the close from the dining-room or entrance-hall, there stood a long fixed oak table with his papers at one end and at the other a large silver drinking tankard always replenished with wine or ale for the refreshment of clients, without ceremony or show of particular invitation.”15 His valuable papers were kept in a bed-room above, in a Dutch-built spring-locked “kist.” This old chest is still extant.16

At that time the usual dinner hour was not later than twelve o’clock. Afterwards the better classes dined at one. The next meal was at four, and was called “the four-hours,” a term which continued for a long time, and which I have myself heard an old lady use so late as 1820 when calling the children to tea. When there was a dinner party the hour came to be three, and this continued till about 1780. With these early dinner hours supper parties were frequent. After tea, when the family was alone, the lady of the house usually washed the china cups with her own hands at table. Almost every lady made her own markets – not in shops, but in the public markets, for there alone could the chief domestic supplies be obtained. The market for butter, eggs, and poultry was at the cross. Butcher-meat was to be had only in the markets in King Street and Bell Street, and vegetables in Candleriggs. The meal and cheese market was opposite the college, and fish was only sold in King Street.17 At a later period there was a market for butcher-meat in Anderston. Butter-milk was an article much in demand. It was sold at the cross till after the middle of the seventeenth century, when an order of the magistrates “ordaines the sour milk mercatt quhilk is now keiped at the croce to be transported thence and keiped at the Gallowgait brige heireftir.”18

In the autobiography of Dr. Carlyle we have some notices – interesting because written by a contemporary – of the state of Glasgow when he went there to study in 1743. He was then a young man of twenty-one, well connected, and had introductions to the best families in the place. He had previously studied in Edinburgh, and he contrasts Glasgow unfavourably with the capital – “not in point of knowledge,” he says, “or acquirements in the language or sciences – for in Glasgow learning seemed to be an object of more importance and the habit of application much more general – but in their manner of living, and in those accomplishments, and that taste that belong to people of opulence and persons of education. There were only a few families of ancient citizens who pretended to be gentlemen, and a few others who were recent settlers who had obtained wealth and consideration in trade. The manner of living, too, at that time was but coarse and vulgar. Very few of the wealthiest gave dinners to any body but English riders, or their own relations at Christmas holidays. There were not half a dozen families in town who had men servants: some of these were kept by the professors who had boarders. The principal merchants took an early dinner with their families at home, and then resorted to the coffee-house or tavern to read the newspapers, which they generally did in companies of four or five, in separate rooms, over a bottle of claret or a bowl of punch.”19

Tavern bills were moderate at that time even in the capital. Dr. Carlyle, still speaking of the year 1743, says: “There were ordinaries for young gentlemen in Edinburgh at fourpence a head, for a very good dinner of broth and beef and a roast and potatoes, every day, with fish three or four times a week, and all the small beer that was called for till the cloth was removed.”20 And prices would be at least as cheap in Glasgow. More than thirty years after Dr. Carlyle’s time one William Chalmers advertises “that he keeps an ordinary at his Poultry and Beef Steak Office opposite the Post Office Princes Street, where gentlemen will be served with a good substantial dinner of fine Broth or Marrow-bone soupe, and Meat both roast and boiled, at the cheap rate of 6d. each.” In the country the charges at most inns were still more moderate. Dr. Carlyle, travelling in 1744, came to Whitburn, where he was detained by stress of weather for several days, and when he came to pay his reckoning he was surprised to find that the charge for lodging and board for four days was only 3s. 6d.

Here is another picture of Glasgow life, drawn by one of the citizens well known in the beginning of the present century – Mr. Dugald Bannatyne – who was for many years secretary of the Chamber of Commerce: “At the beginning of the eighteenth century, and during the greater part of the first half of it, the habits and style of living of the citizens were of a moderate and frugal cast. The dwelling-houses of the higher classes contained in general only one public room. About the year 1735 several individuals built houses to be occupied solely by themselves, in place of dwelling on a floor entering from a common stair, as they hitherto had done. This change, however, proceeded very slowly, and up to the year 1755 or 1760 very few of these single houses had been built. The living was simple – a few plain dishes and these all put on the table at once. The first instance of a dinner of two courses was about the year 1786, when Mrs. Andrew Stirling of Drumpellier made this change, and she justified herself against the charge of introducing a more extravagant style of living by saying that she had only divided her dinner and had put no more dishes on her table than before. After dinner the husband went to his place of business, and in the evening to a club in a public house, where, with little expense, he enjoyed himself till nine o’clock. The dinner hour was early. Down to 1770 it was two o’clock; after that it came to three, and not till about 1818 did it reach six o’clock. The lady gave tea in her own bed-room receiving there the visits of her female friends, and a great deal of intercourse of this kind was kept up, the gentlemen seldom making their appearance at these parties. After the year 1740 the intercourse of society was chiefly by evening parties, never exceeding twelve or fourteen persons who were invited to tea and supper. They met at four, and after tea played cards till nine, when they supped. The gentlemen did not go away with the ladies after supper, but continued to sit with the landlord, drinking punch to a very late hour. The people were in general religious, and particularly strict in their observance of the Sabbath – some of them indeed to an extent that was considered by others to be extravagant. There were families who did not sweep or dust the house, nor make the beds, nor allow any food to be cooked or dressed on Sunday; and there were some to opened only as much of the shutters of their windows as would serve to enable the inmates to move up and down or an individual to sit at the opening to read.”21

At this period of profane swearing among the higher classes of citizens was considered a gentlemanly qualification. Dissipation at entertainments was dignified with the appellation of hospitality, and he who did not send his guests from his house in a state of intoxication was considered unfit to entertain genteel company.22 But it must be recollected that if the drinking at these entertainments was hard the “bouts” were comparatively rare, and there was probably much less drunk during a year at that time than there is now, when every day, both at lunch and dinner as well as at evening parties, wine is so freely used. Certainly in those days the abstinence of young people from stimulants was in marked contrast to the habits of our own day, when mere boys and girls, at late dinners and later dances, are found consuming an amount of stimulants which would not have been tolerated in the time of their grandfathers.

1  Advertisement by Magistrates, 1758.
2  Minute of Council, 11th Oct. 1623.
3  Burgh Records, 4th Nov. 1795.
4  14th August, 1669.
5  15th October, 1664.
6  29th October, 1670.
7  17th January, 1685.
8  Munimenta, vol. ii. p. 312.
9  22d October, 1650. Several Proceedings in Parliament.
10  Franck’s Northern Memoirs.
11  Tour through the Island of Great Britain, 8th edit. vol. iv. p. 117.
12  Vitruvius Britannicus, London, 1717.
13  Brereton’s Travels, p. 103.
14  Glasgow and its Clubs, p. 109.
15  Huchesoniana, p. 29.
16  Huchesoniana, p. 26.
17 Glasgow and its Clubs, p. 159.
18  24th June, 1661.
19  Autobiography, pp. 75, 76.
20  Ibid., p. 63.
21  Notes by Dugald Bannatyne, Esq., quoted in Statistical Account, vol. vi. p. 231.
22  Principal Macfarlan, Statistical Account, vol. vi. p. 232.