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Location: Glasgow Guide / Glasgow Information / Historical Beginnings  

Part One: Sixth to Fifteenth Century

"Here is the bird that never flew. Here is the tree that never grew.
Here is the bell that never rang.  Here is the fish that never swam."

St Kentigern, the recognised founder of Glasgow, was the illegitimate son of a princess, Thenaw, who had been expelled by her father the King of Northumbria and the Lothians. St Kentigern was born near the River Forth at Culross around A.D. 518, where, under the guidance of St Serf (also known as St Servanus), he received education and instruction in the Roman Catholic faith. St Kentigern's other name, St Mungo, is derived from the Gaelic word Munghu "dear one", which is believed to have been bestowed upon him by St Serf as a special sign of the regard which the elderly saint had for his pupil.

In 543, St Kentigern built a church on the banks of the Molendinar burn - a tributary of the River Clyde - where Glasgow Cathedral now stands. St Kentigern had, at one time, been driven out of Glasgow by a pagan prince and the young saint took refuge in Wales, where he founded a bishopric. Later, however, St Kentigern returned to Glasgow where he was received by a huge, cheering crowd. Delighted with the good-natured reception, St Kentigern began to preach to the gathering. Unfortunately the multitude was so large that the St Kentigern could not be seen or heard by the crowd, in response - as legend has it - the ground beneath his feet rose up into a small mound or hillock from which everyone could then see and hear the saint. This miracle is thought to have been the origin of the city's well known motto of "Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the Word".

Legend relates that St Kentigern performed four miracles which are commemorated in the arms of the City of Glasgow. The coat of arms depicts a tree with a bird perched on its branches flanked on either side by a salmon and a bell. Each item of the insignia signifies a special deed performed by St Kentigern.


The Glasgow Coat of Arms, as it appears on the now dilapidated Springburn Public Halls, designed by William B Whitie in 1899 and built in 1902.

The tree recalls when St Kentigern used a branch of hazel to ignite a tree in order to bring light to a darkened monastery in Culross.

The bird is actually a pet robin which was looked after by St Kentigern's master, St Serf. St Kentigern restored the unfortunate creature to life after it had been accidentally killed by some disciples.

The salmon, with a ring in its mouth bears evidence of St Kentigern's helpfulness in retrieving the lost ring of  bride-to-be, the Queen of Cadzow, from a fish which was caught in the River Clyde.

The bell, somewhat more prosaically, signifies a bell which St Kentigern brought with him from his travels to Rome. The custom was to toll the bell to announce a death and to encourage the people to pray for the soul of the departed.

It must be said that Glasgow around the time of St Kentigern barely existed and much of what of known of the period has been derived from a liberal mix of fact and fantasy. Most of the west of Scotland at that time was covered by huge, rich areas of forest, inhabited by bands of domesticated hunter/gatherers who sheltered from the harsh weather - and harsher invaders - in very basic tents and huts. Virtually no reliable records exist of the chronicles of Glasgow for some 600 years after the birth of St Kentigern, and many accounts of history of the city - including this one - are forced to pass over this long gap and move on to the next notable event: the building of the Cathedral.

In 1115, the future King David I re-established the Episcopal see of Glasgow - an event which effectively signifies the true starting point of the history of Glasgow. At that time, however, Glasgow was still a hamlet without a burgh charter - the formal recognition of town status. On the 7th of July 1136, a newly-constructed stone Cathedral was consecrated by John Achaius in the presence of King David on the site of St Kentigern's original wooden, and now very dilapidated, building. The Cathedral was surrounded by the dwellings of the bishop, the clergy, their servants and dependants. At this time Glasgow was the only bishopric south of the River Forth - with the exception of Galloway - in Scotland, and thus the holder of this respected position was seen as a very influential figure in the south of the country.

Unfortunately most of the newly-built Cathedral was to be ravaged by fire some fifty years after its construction and what remained was removed to make way for a more elaborate replacement. The  building of the another Cathedral, again at the same location as the original St Kentigern building, commenced during the reign of William the Lion. Bishop Joceline, who was to oversee the arrangements for the new construction, laid the foundation stone of the new Cathedral in 1181. It had been Bishop Joceline who, in 1176, had successfully obtained a charter from King William allowing him to establish a burgh in Glasgow, thus bestowing on the city all the privileges which the King's burghs were granted.

William Wallace, who led the Scots to rebellion against a conquering English army, came from Elderslie, near Glasgow. He is reputed to have fought a battle against the incumbent English garrison in Glasgow; however, it was in Glasgow in 1305 that he was betrayed and captured before being taken to London to face torture and execution. In 19th Century the community of Wallace's Well (now Robroyston) funded the construction of a monument to the famous warrior.

The importance of Glasgow's premier clergy was elevated when the see of Glasgow was promoted to an archbishopric. Robert Blacader became the first Archbishop of Glasgow in 1492, establishing Glasgow as the second ecclesiastical city in Scotland after St Andrews.

There was a strong rivalry between St Andrews and Glasgow - not just in religious matters - as shown when Glasgow responded to the creation of a university in St Andrews in 1412, with its own institution founded in 1451. The university held classes initially within the Cathedral, before moving to a house in Rottenrow and then to a site in the High Street where it remained until the middle of the nineteenth century.


Info+: Tracing Your Ancestors in Scotland<<Info+: William Wallace Timeline

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