Daniel Defoe visits Glasgow – 1707

Daniel Defoe visited Glasgow in 1707 as an agent of the English government, but his description of the city shows that he was quite taken with what he found there.

Daniel Defoe (1659-1731) is best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe and one of the greats of early English novel writing. However, he was also a political intriguer and agent of the English government, whose activities in Scotland in 1706 to 1707 helped secure support for the union with England.

An ungrateful government failed to reward Defoe for his services, but the writer used his experiences in writing A tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain. Published in three volumes between 1724-27, it is a detailed account of visits to various cities and small towns in the years before the Industrial Revolution.

In this account, Daniel Defoe describes the Glasgow he knew at the turn of the 18th century.

Daniel Defoe visits Glasgow, 1707

I am now cross’d the Clyde to Glasgow, and I went over dry-footed without the bridge; on which occasion I cannot but observe how differing a face the river presented itself in, at those two several times when only I was there; at the first, being in the month of June, the river was so low, that not the horses and carts only pass’d it just above the bridge, but the children and boys playing about, went every where, as if there was no river, only some little spreading brook, or wash, like such as we have at Enfield-Wash, or Chelston-Wash in Middlesex; and, as I told you, we cross’d it dry-foot, that is, the water was scarce over the horses’ hoofs.

As for the bridge, which is a lofty, stately fabrick; it stood out of the water as naked as a skeleton, and look’d somewhat like the bridge over the Mansanares, near Madrid, which I mention’d once before; of which a French ambassador told the people the king should either buy them a river, or sell their bridge, or like the stone-bridge at Chester in the Street, in Northumberland, where the road goes in the river, and the people ride under the bridge in dry weather instead of riding over it. So when I saw such a magnificent bridge at Glasgow, and especially when I saw three of the middle arches so exceeding large and high, beyond all the rest, I could not but wonder, hardly thinking it possible, that where the passage or channel is so exceeding broad, for the bridge consists of eight arches; the river, which in its ordinary channel is so narrow as it is higher up, and at a distance from it, could ever fill up such a height, where it has so grand a space to spread itself as at the bridge.

But my next journey satisfy’d me, when coming into Glasgow from the east side, I found the river not only had fill’d up all the arches of the bridge, but, running about the end of it, had fill’d the streets of all that part of the city next the bridge, to the infinite damage of the inhabitants, besides putting them into the greatest consternation imaginable, for fear of their houses being driven away by the violence of the water, and the whole city was not without apprehensions that their bridge would have given way too, which would have been a terrible loss to them, for ’tis as fine a bridge as most in Scotland.

Glasgow is, indeed, a very fine city; the four principal streets are the fairest for breadth, and the finest built that I have ever seen in one city together. The houses are all of stone, and generally equal and uniform in height, as well as in front; the lower story generally stands on vast square dorick columns, not round pillars, and arches between give passage into the shops, adding to the strength as well as beauty of the building; in a word, ’tis the cleanest and beautifullest, and best built city in Britain, London excepted.

It stands on the side of a hill, sloping to the river, with this exception, that the part next the river is flat, as is said above, for near one third part of the city, and that expos’d it to the water, upon the extraordinary flood mention’d just now.

Where the streets meet, the crossing makes a spacious marketplace by the nature of the thing, because the streets are so large of themselves. As you come down the hill, from the north gate to the said cross, the Tolbooth, with the Stadhouse, or Guild-Hall, make the north east angle, or, in English, the right-hand corner of the street, the building very noble and very strong, ascending by large stone steps, with an iron balustrade. Here the town-council sit, and the magistrates try causes, such as come within their cognizance, and do all their publick business.

On the left-hand of the same street is the university, the building is the best of any in Scotland of the kind; it was founded by Bishop Turnbull, Ann. 1454. but has been much enlarg’d since, and the fabrick almost all new built. It is a very spacious building, contains two large squares, or courts, and the lodgings for the scholars, and for the professors, are very handsome; the whole building is of freestone, very high and very august. Here is a principal, with regents and professors in every science, as there is at Edinburgh , and the scholars wear gowns, which they do not at Edinburgh . Their gowns here are red, but the Masters of Arts, and professors, wear black gowns, with a large cape of velvet to distinguish them.

The cathedral is an antient building, and has a square tower in the middle of the cross, with a very handsome spire upon it, the highest that I saw in Scotland, and, indeed, the only one that is to be call’d high. This, like St. Giles’s at Edinburgh, is divided now, and makes three churches, and, I suppose, there is four or five more in the city, besides a meeting or two: But there are very few of the episcopal dissenters here; and the mob fell upon one of their meetings so often, that they were oblig’d to lay it down, or, if they do meet, ’tis very privately.

The Duke of Montrose has so great an interest here, and in the country round, that he is, in a civil sense, Governor of this city, as he is legally of their university. His fine house at the north end of the city is not finished, so I need not enter upon a description of it. As his Grace’s family is antient, and respected very much in these parts, so is his interest preserv’d in his own person, who is generally as much respected by the people as most, if not as any of the nobility of Scotland .

Glasgow is a city of business; here is the face of trade, as well foreign as home trade; and, I may say, ’tis the only city in Scotland , at this time, that apparently encreases and improves in both. The Union has answer’d its end to them more than to any other part of Scotland, for their trade is new form’d by it; and, as the Union open’d the door to the Scots in our American colonies, the Glasgow merchants presently fell in with the opportunity; and tho’, when the Union was making, the rabble of Glasgow made the most formidable attempt to prevent it, yet, now they know better, for they have the greatest addition to their trade by it imaginable; and I am asssur’d that they send near fifty sail of ships every year to Virginia, New England, and other English colonies in America, and are every year increasing.

Could this city but have a communication with the Firth of Forth, so as to send their tobacco and sugar by water to Alloway, below Sterling, as they might from thence again to London, Holland, Hambrough, and the Baltick, they would, (for ought I know that should hinder it) in a few years double their trade, and send 100 sail, or more.

The share they have in the herring-fishery is very considerable, and they cure their herrings so well, and so much better than is done in any other part of Great Britain; that a Glasgow herring is esteem’d as good as a Dutch herring, which in England they cannot come up to.

As Scotland never enjoy’d a trade to the English plantations till since the Union, so no town in Scotland has yet done any thing considerable in it but Glasgow: the merchants of Edinburgh have attempted it; but they lye so out of the way, and the voyage is not only so much the longer, but so much more hazardous, that the Glasgow men are always sure to outdo them, and must consequently carry away that part of trade from them, as likewise the trade to the south, and to the Mediterranean, whither the ships from Glasgow go and come again with great advantage in the risque, so that even in the insuring there is one per cent, difference, which is a great article in the Business of a merchant.

The towns of Irwin and Dumfries are, as I hinted before, newly stepp’d into this trade too, and will, no question, taste the sweets of it.

The Glasgow merchants have of late suffer’d some scandal in this branch of trade, as if they were addicted to the sin of smuggling; as to that, of others, for want of opportunity, are not in capacity to do the same, let those who are not guilty, or would not, if they had room for it, throw the first stone at them; for my part I accuse none of them.

The Clyde is not navigable for large ships quite up to the town, but they come to a wharf and key at New-Port Glasgow, which is within a very little of it, and there they deliver their cargoes, and either put them on shore there, or bring them up to the city in lighters: the custom-house also is at Port Glasgow, and their ships are repair’d, laid up, fitted out, and the like, either there or at Greenock, where work is done well, and labour cheap.

I have not time here to enlarge upon the home trade of this city, which is very considerable in many things, I shall only touch at some parts of them (viz.)

Here is one or two very handsome sugar-baking houses, carried on by skilful persons, with large stocks, and to a very great degree: I had the curiosity to view one of the houses, and I think it equal to, if not exceeding most in London . Also there is a large distillery for distilling spirits from the molasses drawn from the sugars, and which they call’dGlasgow brandy, and in which they enjoy’d a vast advantage for a time, by a reserv’d article in the Union , freeing them from the English duties, I say for a time.

Here is a manufacture of plaiding, a stuff cross-strip’d with yellow and red, and other mixtures for the plaids or vails, which the ladies in Scotland wear, and which is a habit peculiar to the country.
Here is a manufacture of muslins, and, perhaps the only manufacture of its kind in Britain, if not in Europe; and they make them so good and so fine, that great quantities of them are sent into England, and sold there at a good price; they are generally strip’d, and are very much used for aprons by the ladies, and sometimes in head-clothes by the English women of a meaner sort, and many of them are sent to the British plantations.

Here is also a linnen manufacture; but as that is in common with all parts of Scotland , I do not insist so much upon it here, though they make a very great quantity of it, and send it to the plantations also as a principal merchandise.

Nor are the Scots without a supply of goods for sorting their cargoes to the English colonies, even without sending to England for them, or at least not for many of them; and ’tis needful to mention it here, because it has been objected by some that understood trade too, that the Scots could not send a sortable cargo to America without buying from England; which goods, so bought from, must come through many hands, and by long carriage, and consequently be dear bought, and so the English merchants might undersell them.

But to answer this in the language of merchants, as it is a merchant-like objection: It may be true, that some things cannot be had here so well as from England, so as to make out a sortable cargo, such as the Virginia merchants in London ship off, whose entries at the Custom-house consist sometimes of 200 particulars; and they are at last fain to sum them up thus: certain tin, turnery, millinary, upholdstery, cutlery, and Crooked-Lane wares; that is to say, that they buy something of every thing, either for wearing, or kitchen, or house-furniture, building houses or ships (with every thing else in short) that can be thought of, except eating.

But though the Scots cannot do this, we may reckon up what they can furnish, and what is sufficient, and some of which they can go beyond England in.

They have several woollen manufactures which they send’ of their own making; such as the Sterling serges, Musclebrow stuffs,Aberdeen stockings, Edinburgh shalloons, blankets, &. So that they are not quite destitute in the woollen manufacture, tho’ that is the principal thing in which England can outdo them.

The trade with England, being open, they have now, all the Manchester wares, Sheffield wares, and Newcastle hard wares; as also the cloths, kerseys, half-thicks, duffels, stockings, and coarse manufactures of the north of England, as cheap brought to them by horse-packs as they can be carried to London; nor is the carriage farther, and, in some articles, not so far by much.

They have linnens of most kinds, especially diapers and table-linnen, damasks, and many other sorts not known in England , cheaper than England , because made at their own doors.

What linnens they want from Holland , or Hamburgh, they import from thence as cheap as can be done in England ; and for muslins, their own are very acceptable, and cheaper than in England .

Gloves they make better and cheaper than in England , for they send great quantities thither.

Another article, which is very considerable here, is servants, and these they have in greater plenty, and upon better terms than the English; without the scandalous art of kidnapping, making drunk, wheedling, betraying, and the like; the poor people offering themselves fast enough, and thinking it their advantage to go; as indeed it is, to those who go with sober resolutions, namely, to serve out their times, and then become diligent planters for themselves; and this would be a much wiser course in England than to turn thieves, and worse, and then be sent over by force, and as a pretence of mercy to save them from the gallows.

This may be given as a reason, and, I believe, is the only reason why so many more of the Scots servants, which go over to Virginia, settle and thrive there, than of the English, which is so certainly true, that if it goes on for many years more. Virginia may be call’d a Scots than an English plantation.

I might go on to many other particulars, but this is sufficient to shew that the Scots merchants are at no loss how to make up sortable cargoes to send with their ships to the plantations, and that if we can outdo them in some things, they are able to outdo us in others; if they are under any disadvantages in the trade I am speaking of, it is that they may perhaps, not have so easy a vent and consumption for the goods they bring back, as the English have, at London, or Bristol, or Liverpool; and that is the reason why they are now, as they say, setting up a wharf and conveniences at Alloway in the Forth, in order to send their tobaccos and sugars thither by land-carriage, and ship them off there for Holland, or Hamburgh, or London, as the market presents.

Now, though this may be some advantage (viz.) carrying the tobacco from fourteen to fifteen miles over land; yet, if on the other hand it be calculated how much sooner the voyage is made from Glasgow to the capes of Virginia, than from London, take it one time with another, the difference will be found in the freight, and in the expence of the ships, and especially in time of war, when the channel is throng’d with privateers, and when the ships wait to go in fleets for fear of enemies; whereas the Glasgow men are no sooner out of the Firth of Clyde, but they stretch away to the north west, are out of the wake of the privateers immediately, and are oftentimes at the capes of Virginia before the London ships get clear of the channel. Nay, even in times of peace, and take the weather to happen in its usual manner, there must always be allow’d, one time with another, at least fourteen to twenty days difference in the voyage, either out or home; which, take it together, is a month to six weeks in the whole voyage, and for wear and tear; victuals and wages, is very considerable in the whole trade.

Source: Daniel Defoe, A Tour through England and Wales divided into circuits or journeys (London, 1927)