On the 17th of June, 1652, the Great Fire of Glasgow destroyed nearly one third of the city.
Everyone has heard of the Great Fire of London, but there have been loads of ‘Great Fires’ in many capital cities around the world, which is not really surprising, considering the nature of cities in the early centuries. All such communities, with their wooden walls and thatched roofs, were continually at risk from fire. Glasgow suffered from several conflagrations, including a fire in 1600, which burned a great part of the City. However, Glasgow’s own ‘Great Fire’ happened in 1652, fourteen years before the one in London.
Glasgow, like London, had an outbreak of plague prior to its ‘Fire’. That occurred in 1647 and led to the deaths of many throughout the city and beyond. At the time, staff and students at the University were evacuated to Irvine. Glasgow’s Great Fire also occurred in the same year as the Town Hall of Amsterdam burnt down.
The Great Fire of Glasgow started in the house of James Hamilton, in the High Street, on the 17th of June, 1652. The flames, fanned by a north-west wind, which was an uncommon direction for the City, spread south to the Saltmarket and east and west along Trongate and Gallowgate. Completely out of control, it reached as far south as the Bridgegate and it took eighteen hours before the flames began to die down. By which time, one third of the City had been destroyed. At that time, the houses were nearly all thatched and built of wood. Over one thousand families were rendered homeless and the Churches were opened to shelter them. Many families were also housed in temporary huts, hastily erected in the adjacent fields.
The Town Council reported that “thair will be neir four scoir closses all burnt, estimat about ane thousand families.” The damage was assessed at £100,000 Sterling. Oliver Cromwell was in charge at the time and his comments weren’t exactly encouraging, in terms of the expectation of any support from Parliament, when he said, “we recommend them as high objects of charity to such pious and well-disposed people as shall be willing to contribute.” Parliament, however, eventually allocated the token sum £1,000 Sterling to the distressed City. Aye, things were a wee bit different in those days; there was no emergency visit by a Prime Minister or President seeking a photo opportunity.
Despite the fire, it wasn’t until five years later that Glasgow got its own fire engine; just the one, mind. It seems like Councils weren’t as keen to spend tax payers’ money as they are these days. The City sent its engineers across to its neighbour, Edinburgh, to examine its “ingyne for slockening of fyre”. Records indicate that “Bailie Walkingschawe and Dekin Conveiner were to meit with James Colquhoune and to grie with him anent the making of the ingyne for the castying of watter for land that is in fyre, as they have in Edinburghe.”
In May, 1657, the Council ordained that “James Bornis to have ane warrand for the soume of twentie fyve pund stairling, debursit be him to James Colquhoune for the pryce of the ingyne laitlie maid be the said James Colquhoune.” Later, on the 13th of June, the Council also resolved that “[the engine] be saitlit neir himself [James Colquhoune] and the Mr. of Wark mack ane hous of daillis thairto.” The ‘hous of daillis’ was a wooden shed and Glasgow’s first fire station. Albeit, Glasgow now had its own fire engine and station, its main defence against outbreaks of fire was still chains of water buckets and long, hooked poles for pulling down thatch or the walls of buildings to prevent fires from spreading.
Another precaution was taken the following year of 1658, when several dangerous trades were banished from the City. A regulation was passed, which expelled four candle factories to an area just beyond the City’s western boundaries. That location was given the name ‘Candleriggs’, which, of course, still exits today.
Some twenty years later, there was another major outbreak of fire in Glasgow, on the 3rd of November, 1677. However, on that occasion, the fire was the result of arson as it was started by a blacksmith’s apprentice, who set fire to the Smiddy at the corner of Saltmarket and Trongate, in revenge for a beating. Over one hundred and thirty houses were destroyed in the fire, and the heat was so intense that it melted the Cross Steeple clock. The Tolbooth was full of Covenanters at the time, but the doors were burst open to allow the prisoners to escape, otherwise they’d have gotten an early experience of Hell.
These lyrics are from ‘The Great Fire of Glasgow’ by Jackson Taylor of ‘Deadman Bed’…
“They’re burning them down
The orange scarred night
Smoke is billowing from the doors
Over half the city is alight
With violent desire
To destroy itself
And crash down at your feet
I crash down at your feet
Imagine half a city razed to the ground
The rest are empty shells, their groans the only sound
And all that’s left for me to do is stand and watch
It could be smoke hurting my eyes
But I’m sure I start to cry
As those beautiful buildings are destroyed.”
Glasgow began as an early settlement, founded by St Mungo (also known as Saint Kentigern) on the River Clyde, in the seventh century. It became a Burgh in 1175, a Burgh of Regality in 1450, and a Royal Burgh in 1636. Work on its Cathedral began in 1238 and its University, the second oldest in Scotland, was founded in 1451.