Glasgow, one of Britain’s great cities and Scotland’s largest, is famous for many things; but probably not for its cathedral. It looks a little drab compared with some of its squeaky-cleaned up, possibly more wealthy, siblings elsewhere; there is not much trace of a busy, comfort-blanketing close, or precinct, as you would find in many cathedral cities; and it is dwarfed by the imposing (but faded) Edwardian grandeur of the neighbouring Glasgow Royal Infirmary – which was built on the ruins of Glasgow’s (Bishop’s) Castle. Even the cathedrals in England’s and Wales’ smallest cities, Wells and St Davids, seem superficially more impressive than Glasgow’s. Situated on a busy road that discourages casual pedestrians, a stranger in town might find it easy to pass it by and head onto the Buchanan Shopping Centre to worship the god Retail.
Yet Glasgow Cathedral was the hub for the foundation of the city, and one of the few medieval churches in Scotland to have survived the Reformation in good condition. The University of Glasgow can trace its roots back to classes held in the Cathedral during the 15th century. Beneath the building’s industrial grime – which somehow symbolises the city’s socio-economic story - is a fine Gothic building, with a splendid spire and striking copper-covered roof. Built on sloping ground, underneath the main church is a lower church, a unique, fascinating and comparatively large vaulted space. There is some wonderful stained glass – not least the millennium window in the north wall of the nave – and military and civil memorials litter the place, reminders of the part the cathedral has played at the heart of a community, which in turn has been at the heart of a nation.
It is believed that St Ninian, the man who brought Christianity to Scotland, established a burial ground in 397AD at Cathures in the Celtic Kingdom of Strathclyde. Sometime in the mid-6th century, St Kentigern (aka “St Mungo”, which means “dear friend”) called in at Cathures, bringing with him (as you do) the corpse of Fergus, a holy man, who he buried there. Mungo – or Kentigern – renamed the spot “Glasgui” – “dear green place” – and established a church on the site. No trace of this building, which was undoubtedly made of wood, has been found; but it is reputed to lie somewhere under the Cathedral. Mungo’s tomb, by tradition, is in the lower church, immediately beneath the altar, and the Cathedral is dedicated to him.
The first stone building on the site is believed to have opened in 1136, though this was destroyed by fire and a new building was consecrated by Bishop Jocelin in 1197. Jocelin, by all accounts, was an interesting character – at the centre of occasionally uncertain relations between Scotland and England and successful in ensuring that the Bishopric of Glasgow would never be subordinate to York. He was also instrumental in establishing Glasgow Fair, which is still marked as a holiday today.
Glasgow Cathedral was extended in the early 13th century and largely completed by the 14th. The Reformation cut the ties with the Roman Catholic Church in 1560, the trappings of ‘popery’ were removed and, in 1689, bishops were abolished. In fact, technically, I gather that the Cathedral is not a Cathedral…but when a group of protestant zealots tried to completely wreck it during the Reformation, they were fortunately outnumbered by rational trades people and other citizens. Even so, after the Reformation the Cathedral was divided up for three different congregations and earth was actually brought into the lower church to be used for burials. Sanity was restored in the 19th century and, since about 1835, the Cathedral has been used more or less for its intended purpose.
I was particularly keen to visit the Cathedral for its associations with Bishop Robert Wishart, patriotic figure in the wars of independence with the English, and friend to both William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. His much dilapidated effigy is in the lower church, on what might be his tomb. The 15th century carved stone ‘pulpitum’, or ‘quire screen’, which separates the choir from the nave, is unusual and strangely fascinating; there are figures at the top which are thought to represent the Seven Deadly Sins (lust, gluttony, avarice, wrath, envy and pride) – just in case you need to catch up. I particularly loved the upper chapter house, which is not stunning, architecturally, but somehow a relaxing room with its fireplace, simple furniture and beautiful tiled floor. The highlight, though, I guess has to be the Blacader Aisle, built by Archbishop Blacader (or Blackadder) in the 15th century on what is believed to be the site of Mungo’s first church. The Aisle – it’s really a chapel – is painted white and has bewitching, highly coloured, carved stone bosses – faces, fruit, all sorts – set into the ceiling.
Fans of Messrs Curtis, Atkinson, Elton, Robinson & Co will therefore fully understand that I sallied forth from my visit singing (very quietly), “Black Adder, Black Adder, his taste is rather odd…”, whilst thinking of the next cunning plan.
Glasgow Cathedral is on Castle Street, about a mile from the city centre at George Square.
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