Guest Post – An Overview of Glasgow in the Eighteenth Century

by Dr Craig Lamont, University of Glasgow

In April, the Books and Borrowing project examined a swathe of material relating to eighteenth-century Glasgow, with papers on registers, marginalia, the missing lectures of Adam Smith, and the cultural context of William Hunter’s library.

To set the scene, I provided an overview of Glasgow in the period, most of which was based on my PhD research (2012-15), feeding into my debut monograph The Cultural Memory of Georgian Glasgow (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021). The book examines the impaired cultural memory of Glasgow, by setting the over-reliance of twentieth century civic imagery against the very rich, but often neglected, cultural history of the Georgian period. There are case studies of the Scottish Enlightenment, the British Empire, emigration, transatlantic slavery, and commemorations.

Cover of The Cultural Memory of Georgian Glasgow

For this blog, I’ll draw out some of the key details which might provide ideas for further reading in the general sphere of books, borrowing, and print culture in a burgeoning eighteenth-century city.

First, it is important to note that Glasgow had a small population of around 12,000 in 1700. Fifty years later the figure was at around 21,000. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, through a flourishing trading and commercial network of wealthy merchants, the town gained new, often illicit wealth, and bloomed into a city worthy of the name. By 1831 the population had reached around 200,000. In this period many new landmarks were built, including the equestrian statue of William of Orange (1734), George Square (1782), the Trades Hall [pictured] (1794), the Hunterian Museum (1808), St Andrews Roman Catholic Chapel (now Cathedral, 1816), and the statue of Sir John Moore (1819).

Trades Hall, in Glassford Street. Trades House of Glasgow CC, 2012

Looking back at the surviving architecture today, jostling for space among the very fine Victorian buildings, the tumultuousness of the Georgian period might not seem very obvious. We must also remember that Glasgow played host to many riots (against the Union in 1706, against the Malt Tax in 1725) and rebellions. In 1745 the Jacobites held up in the city, but left the then-Hanoverian town without much satisfaction. In 1820 there were strikes and marches in the city by the working class, which led in part to an insurrection, and eventually, the Reform Act of 1832.[1]

Charles Edward Stuart leading his men along Saltmarket, Glasgow. The Glasgow Story, GC 941.435 OLD (Glasgow City Council)

But we can also chart the physical and cultural growth of a place in its landmark books. The first book with ‘Glasgow’ in the colophon was The Protestation of The Generall Assemblie of the Church of Scotland (1638), being an account of religious upheaval between Covenanters and Episcopalian bishops. Well into the eighteenth century, the larger proportion of Glasgow books were religious in nature.[2] We should also include the following moments.

  • 1715 Glasgow’s first newspaper, the Glasgow Courant, is printed on 14 November, one day after the Battle of Sheriffmuir. During this first Jacobite rising Glasgow prepared to defend itself but the city was never attacked.
  • 1736 The first history of the city, John M’Ure’s A View of the City of Glasgow, is published. [Pictured].
  • 1753 Robert and Andrew Foulis, printers to the University of Glasgow, open an Academy of Fine Arts to students in December.
  • 1759 Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments is published
  • 1777 The next extensive History of Glasgow, by John Gibson, is published.
  • 1778 John McArthur’s Plan of the City of Glasgow is produced.
  • 1791 A Glasgow anti-slavery society publish a pamphlet, An Address to the Inhabitants of Glasgow, Paisley, and the Neighbourhood, Concerning the African Slave Trade.

Title-page of M’Ure’s history. Google Books.

These are but some of the key moments in print. There are other, significant texts which deserve a bit more attention.

In 1721, William Duncan printed Glotta: A Poem by James Arbuckle. This anti-Jacobite poem also served as a civic booster address to Glasgow, with ‘lofty towers’ and ‘antique structures’. The next year, Duncan also printed A New Edition of the Life and Heroick Actions of the Renoun’d Sir William Wallace, General and Governer of Scotland, by William Hamilton of Gilbertfield. Both Arbuckle and Hamilton of Gilbertfield are known correspondents of Allan Ramsay. As the subtitle of this Wallace suggests, there was a new audience in mind, ‘wherein the old obsolete words are rendered more intelligible.’ This was the first significant update of Blind Harry’s Wallace (c. 1488), not only where language was concerned, but the religious frame of reference: with the Blessed Virgin Mary becoming Dame Fortune, and St Andrew becoming King Fergus. Such was life in eighteenth-century Glasgow!

In the 1740s, the Foulis brothers were beginning to gain prominence as printers for the University. Working with Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, they produced The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus [pictured] (1742). Just as Hamilton of Gilbertfield had the religious persuasion of his audience in mind in 1722, so too did Hutcheson want to draw something new out of this classical study. It is said he wanted to place more emphasis on the natural benevolence of human nature, turning away from the Presbyterian doctrine of original sin.[3]

Title-page of Meditations (1742). Historical Texts:

But this liberal and classical way of thinking – important as it was for the Enlightenment and production of exceptional books – did not represent the majority of the people. In the same year this text was published, the Cambuslang Wark [Scots: ‘work’] was taking place nearby: a religious festival of sorts, wherein preachers revived the more zealous features of Christianity to the rapturous and often heavily affected laypeople.[4]

Finally, we should note one of the more popular civic booster poems, itself a great survey of the great and good of Glasgow. First published in 1783, John Mayne’s Glasgow. A Poem was composed in the Standard Habbie style (later popularised by Burns). It contained 17 stanzas about Glasgow’s physical makeup and its place in the world. As noted above, Glasgow exploded into life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and taking stock of this, a new version of Mayne’s poem was printed in 1803. This time, the survey extended to 60(!) stanzas, namedropping the likes of Francis Hutcheson, William Hunter, and Adam Smith. Glasgow’s newly gained fame for weaving was also woven (intended) into this poem, as a celebration of the city’s status.[5]

In all of these examples, and in the context where we find them, we can see the rich cultural worth of Glasgow in this period. What the current project shows is that there is so much more to learn. Who exactly was reading these books, and to what extent? How can our assumptions about the popularity of x over y be challenged by new, thorough datasets? Stay in touch with the project pages for answers to these and many more questions.

In the meantime, I hope you have a look at my book and think more about how Glasgow is a mural of many different time periods, some brighter and better preserved than others…

[1] See 1820: Scottish Rebellion eds. Carruthers et al:

[2] Ned C. Landsman, ‘Presbyterians and Provincial Society: The Evangelical Enlightenment in the West of Scotland, 1740-1775’, in Dwyer and Sher (eds.) Sociability and Society in Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1993), 194-209.

[3] The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, eds. Moore, James & Silverthorne, Michael (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008 [1742]), xxiii.

[4] Arthur Fawcett, The Cambuslang Revival: the Scottish Evangelical Revival of the Eighteenth Century (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1971)

[5] Richard B. Sher, ‘Images of Glasgow in Late Eighteenth-Century Popular Poetry’, The Glasgow Enlightenment eds. Andrew Hook & Richard B. Sher (East Lothian: Tuckwell Press, 1995), 190-213 [190].