Comment: Glasgow’s retail legacy

IN DAYS gone by, shopping was perceived to be something of a chore. The sight of my mother holding forth the weekly list of messages to be purchased rang the opening bell for a spot of bare-knuckle boxing as my brother and I decided whose turn it was to fetch the groceries.

Addicts of the legal high of retail therapy owe a great deal to the 18th-century businessmen who transformed Glasgow into the second city of the empire. Picture: TSPL
Addicts of the legal high of retail therapy owe a great deal to the 18th-century businessmen who transformed Glasgow into the second city of the empire. Picture: TSPL

Sadly, due to my sibling’s enhanced pugilistic skills, I often found myself standing in the queue at Henry Healy’s wiping away tears and blood in equal measure.

While I counted cycling, football, swimming and catching bees in a jar as some of my preferred pastimes, many of today’s generation declare “shopping” to be their favourite hobby. Specimens of the vacuous-headed youth that threatens to shatter the anthropological orthodoxy which states human evolution is irreversible can be seen strolling Glasgow’s city centre. As they delicately hurdle prone mendicants and hurriedly cross the street to avoid being bushwhacked by gangs of Save The Children chuggers, it’s hard for them to digest they are strolling Glasgow’s so-called Style Mile.

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Unknowingly, those addicted to the legal high of retail therapy in Glasgow owe a great deal to the 18th-century businessmen who transformed the Dear Green Place into the second city of the empire. A few centuries after a bumbling Christopher Columbus had stumbled across America en route to Japan, Glasgow, as a consequence of its geographical location, became the entrepot for the importation of tobacco and sugar. An elite group of gallus Weegies quickly cornered the market, earning the name the Tobacco Lords, most of whom, it must be said, also became Sugar Daddies to the young wench demographic.

Just a few decades ago, the notion that Glasgow would morph into a tourist mini-break destination was unthinkable. Today, the metropolis heaves with Americans, Europeans and Chinese who marvel at the wonderful architecture. Most foreigners – or, indeed, indigenous natives of Glesca – are unaware that the Gallery of Modern Art in Queen Street was the rather ostentatious home of tobacco importer William Cunninghame. Chez-Cunninghame is a mere stone’s throw away from Buchanan Street, a somewhat pretentious thoroughfare that celebrates the life of Andrew Buchanan, purveyor of tobacco leaves. In the Merchant City, carriageway-nomenclature ensures that the names of other Tobacco Lords will live forevermore: Wilson Street, Dunlop Street, Cochrane Street, Glassford Street, Oswald Street, Benson and Hedges Avenue (okay, I made the last one up). Thankfully, we are blessed to live in an enlightened age that deigns being a time-serving Labour councillor merits a street-naming on a private housing estate.

If you thought that the Tobacco Lords had links to the aristocracy, well, close but no cigar. In fact, most came from the prosperous mercantile class and were fervent Calvinists. As such, they avoided flashy sedan chairs as they were carted to the Saracen Head pub at Glasgow Cross and back to their opulent homes via their privately owned pavements, burly bodyguards wielding cudgels against any hoi polloi that dared set foot on the hallowed ground.

Awash with cash from the Americas, the nouveaux-riches did the right thing by investing in industry and land deals (western-leaning Arab monarchs who squander oil wealth on high-class hookers and London casinos could learn a trick or two from Scottish tobacco barons). In the days when thatcher referred to a bloke who weaved a roof on to abodes, wealth did, indeed, cascade down to Glaswegian citizenry.

The success of the Tobacco Lords in putting Glasgow on the map is indisputable. However, for many years, the fundamental reason for the financial bonanza – that Glasgow flourished on the back of black slavery – has hitherto been buried deep from prying eyes. In what could be interpreted as a severe case of tardiness, the city council is to officially mark Glasgow’s historic links with the slave trade.

It will finally ’fess up that the lashings of capital that flooded the city were a direct consequence of the triangular trade that saw Scotland participate in the buying and selling of human beings as part of commodity commerce. In seaports across the New World, African husbands, along with their wives and children, were auctioned off; Households Under The Hammer, if you will. On arrival at Virginia or Maryland plantations, the boat-people quickly realised that an offer of a zero-hours contract was a tad unlikely. Instead, a minimum 14-hour day with compulsory weekend working was de rigueur.

That tobacco and sugar were cultivated under the callous conditions was known to all and sundry in Glasgow but, hey, why make North Atlantic abolitionist waves when a spring tide of money is flowing up the Clyde? To be fair, perhaps to salve their nagging consciences, the pious merchants funded the construction of St Andrew’s Parish Church in St Andrew’s Square, a holy demonstration of their wealth and power. The edifice still survives and is considered one of the finest classical churches in Britain. In its current guise, it is Glasgow’s Centre for Scottish Culture, promoting Scottish music, song and dance.

Today, it’s easy to criticise the Tobacco Lords for their insensitivity to the suffering of their fellow man but, unfortunately, it is often the case that people closest to the action are blind to gross injustice when pursuing a perceived greater good. For example, while the rest of the civilised world reels at the civilian deaths Israel has inflicted in Gaza, 90 per cent of Israelis support Netanyahu’s war effort.

In my view, we are in danger of employing 21st-century values to judge 18th-century impresarios. Doing so, we lay ourselves open to the charge of hypocrisy.

In Dallas’s, an upmarket emporium in Glasgow, I remember beseeching my mum to give me a penny to put in the palm of a steel-structured African boy who smilingly swallowed my coin.

I pestered my mum to buy Robertson’s jam so that I could sport more golliwog badges on my school jumper than my mates. Worse, in the early 1960s, the Catholic Church ran a scheme whereby anyone who donated a half crown or more could christen an African child.

I now cringe that my mates and I gleefully gave money to the Black Babies charity in order that we could name kids Cedric, Nigel or Winston.

Perhaps those who wish to roundly criticise the Tobacco Lords who enriched Glasgow should put it in their pipe and smoke it.