The Great Fire of Glasgow in 1677
On the night of November 2 to 3, 1677, a ruinous great fire broke out in Glasgow that burnt out much of the heart of the burgh. What had caused such destruction?
The Reverend Law of Easter Kilpatrick parish records that a malicious blacksmith’s apprentice was guilty of the wilful fire raising that sparked the firestorm, but he also thought, as he so often did, that some other mysterious hand or providence was behind it:
‘November 3d, 1677, the fire brake up in Glasgow in the heid of the Salt-mercat, on the right near the cross, which was kyndled by a malicious boy, a smith’s apprentice, who being threttened, or beatt and smittin by his master, in revenge whereof setts his workhouse on fyre in the night tyme, being in the backsides of that fore street, and flyes for it. It was kyndled about one in the morning, and having brunt many in the backsyd, it breaks forth in the fore streets about three of the morning; and then it fyres the street over against it, and in a very short tyme burned down to more than the mids of the Salt-mercat, on both sydes, fore and back houses were all consumed. It did burn also on that syd to the Tron church, and two or three tenaments down on the heid of the Gallowgate. The heat was so great that it fyred the horologe of the tolbooth, (there being some prisoners in it at that tyme, amongst whom the Laird of Carsland [the father of Daniel Ker of Kersland, one of the Society people,] was one, the people brake open the tolbooth doors, and sett them free); the people made it all their work to gett out their goods out of the houses; and there was little done to save houses till ten of the cloke, for it burnt till two hours afternoon. It was a great conflagration, and nothing inferior to that which was in the yeir 1652. The wind changed several tymes. Great was the cry of the poor people, and lamentable to see their confusion.
It was remarkable that a little before that tyme, there was seen a great fyre pass throw these streets in the night tyme, and strange voices heard in some parts of the city.’ (Law, Memorialls, 135.)
What was the ‘great fyre’ passing through the streets beforehand? To whom did the ‘strange voices’ belong? Law did not reveal either what, or whom, he thought lay behind the strange reports he had probably heard from Glasgow, but his tone certainly suggests some kind of malign cause. What malignant force others believed had caused the firestorm probably fuelled the rumour mill on Glasgow’s streets. Those rumours often reflected the fears of the population is uncertain political times and could be politically explosive. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Catholics were said to have deliberately burned down the city. Blaming secret Catholic plots for disasters or mysterious events was the classic scapegoat of late seventeenth-century Britain. Witches, too, were often said to lie behind allegedly malign events, but usually the malice of witches was connected to more personal afflictions like damage to food stuffs, misfortune, illnesses or unexplained deaths.
On 10 November, the town council met, probably amid speculation as to the cause of the fire, to pass resolutions on how to deal with its aftermath. Most of their resolutions were pragmatic. Care was taken that ‘what persones wrought at the fyre’, i.e, fought the fire, were to be given ‘some allowance for their paines’ and ‘to lay doune some fitt way for getting the red of the brunt houssis takin aff the streit’. The council also concluded that ‘a contributioune’ should be ‘collected throw the toune for helping of these who susteined los throw the lait fyre’, sent the provost to Edinburgh to seek assistance and offered to feu ‘the landis of Provand to any persone who hes a mynd to buy the same, …[for] helping the poor people who hes susteined los by the fyre.’
Cynical observers of the dealings of Glasgow’s council may note that the latter, apparently generous, gift of the feu money was also to be used to pay the town’s debts, and that the paying the debts, which doubtless were owed to prominent members of the council, was listed before paying the ‘poor people’. It is not clear if the feu money was forthcoming. Nearly a year later, on 5 October, 1678, John Hamilton, the tenant of the lands of Provan, was ejected:
‘The said magistratis and councell, considering the irregular carriadge of John Hammiltoune, their tennent in Provand, throw his keeping of conventickles, and how the secret counsell is insensed against the toune for sufferring him to doe the samyne, for preventing therfor the danger the toune may sustine, they heirby ordaine John Barnes, their baillie of Provand, to eject and cast the said John Hammiltoune out of the said landis, and to secure his guidis and plenishing, ay and quhill the toune be satisfeit of the rent, and that he bring in the keyes of the tounes hous till the samyne be disposed wpon, and for this effect appoyntis the said John Barnes to tak with him such persones as he thinkis fitt.’
However, back in the immediate aftermath of the fire, the baillies of the town were appointed to ‘tak als[o] [a] pairticular a list as they can of the los susteined by the lait fyre’ for the distribution of money.
The Lord’s Wrath
Like the Reverend Law, the town council also saw another hand in the fire than just that of a blacksmith’s apprentice. For them, it was the visitation of God’s wrath on Glasgow:
‘The magistratis and counsell taking to their serious consideratioune the great impovrishment this burgh is reduced to throw the sad and lamentable wo occasioned by fyre on the secund of November last, that God in his justice heath suffered this burgh to fall under, and lykwayes the most pairt of the said burgh being eyewitnessis twyse to His just punishment, for our iniquities, by this rod which we pray Him to mak ws sensible off, that we may turne from the evill of our wayes to Himselfe, that so His wraith may be averted and we preserved from the lyk in tyme to come;’
God’s wrath was viewed as a justified chastisement for iniquities. It was not the malign force that Law’s account hints at. It was also less socially explosive. Rather than people seeking out imaginary scapegoats and turning on others, the council aimed to atone for the iniquities of Glaswegians.
One iniquity which had to go was building in timber, when it pleased God to put those who had suffered fire damage ‘in ane capacitie and resolutioune to build de novo [i.e., anew], or repair their ruinous houssis’:
‘and becaus such things ar mor incident to burghs and incorporatiounes, by reasone of their joyning housses to housses, and on being inflamed is reddie to inflame ane uther, especiallie being contiguously joyned and reared wp of timber and daill boardis, without so much as their windskew of stone, therfor they out of their dewtie to sie to the preservatioune of their burgh and citie, doe statut and ordaine that quhen it sall pleas God to put any of their nighbouris in ane capacitie and resolutioune to build de novo, or repair their ruinous houssis, not only for their probable securitie but als for decoring the said burgh, that each persone building de novo on the hie streit, or repairing, sall be obleidged and is heirby obleist to doe it by stone work, from heid to foot, bak and foir, without ony timber or daill except in the insett therof, quhilk is understood to be partitions, doors, windowes, presses and such lyk, and this to be done or engadged to befor they be suffered to enter to building;’
Besides building regulations, rules were also introduced to maintain order by preventing disputes arising between the owners of the damaged or destroyed buildings and those whose livelihoods depended on the shops or booths below them.
‘and seing that severall heritouris at present ar not in a capacitie to build, and manye utheris having under boothes and no intrest in the houssis covering them, they being at present ather not fitting to build or unwilling, or may be belonging to minoris, by which they have their chops uncovered, repairing to the magistratis for libertie of covering themselfes the best way they can for present till it sall please God to capacitat the owners to doe the samyne; which desyre the said magistratis and counsell thought bot just; therfor they thought fitt to licence the same to be done be the grund heritouris, they alwayes enacting themselfes to uncover the same againe quhen it sall pleas the super heritour to build, and not to come no further out with the upper structur nor the foir face of the under chops, and to build the samyne with stone, except the toune counsell licence them, quhich they will tak into their consideratioune how far they may without spoyling the broadnes of the streit, they alwayes repairing it with stone in the foir wark by arched pillaris, and how many as the toune counsell, by the advice of architectouris, sall think most convenient, and the magistratis with the deane of gild for the tyme ar to sie the persones presently covering themselfes enacted to uncover their houssis at the rebuilding, and to keep themselfes within the above wryttin limitis excepting as aforsaid, under the penaltie of fourtie pundis starling each under heritour, and if they be full heritouris to rebuild the samyne according to the act of counsell within the time appoynted by act of parliament.’
With the emphasis firmly on economic concerns, rebuilding and addressing fears over owners exploiting the situation, the potential for seeking out scapegoats on the streets was averted. (Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Glasgow, III, for the years 1677-1678.)
For more on Glasgow in the 1680s, see here.
For more on Strange Wonders and Portents, see here.
Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please link to this post on Facebook or retweet it, but do not reblog in FULL without the express permission of the author @drmarkjardine