Series 2 Episode 8: Women Make History, with Gabrielle Macbeth & Anabel Marsh from Glasgow Women’s Library

Niall Murphy:
Hello, everyone. I’m Niall Murphy, and welcome to If Glasgow’s Walls Could Talk, a podcast by Glasgow City Heritage Trust about the stories and relationships between historic buildings and people in Glasgow. Now, if you follow me on Twitter, you will know how much I enjoy walking around Glasgow. When you know where to look, there’s probably no better way to connect with the history of the city and the hidden stories of the great unsung heroes and heroine’s who have made it. But there’s a catch, unless you know how and where to look, those hidden characters are likely to remain well hidden and not least the heroines. So in this episode, I’m delighted to be following the evidence uncovered by the wonderful Women Make History detectives of Glasgow Women’s Library. So Women Make History, those three words might challenge a more mainstream view of the world and the way that we see the built environment.

For instance, and this is very much a perception issue, that cities like Glasgow appear to have a distinctly muscular and masculine look, and grand historic buildings and others that are less grand and every day were invariably designed, constructed, and almost always owned by a man, or at least that’s the perception. The issue is, well, is that actually the case? So it’s that whole idea that we live in this masculine environment that gave rise to Glasgow Women’s Library more than 30 years ago. As their website explains, Glasgow Women’s Library came into being partly as a response to the overarching masculine narratives in Glasgow’s approach to being the European city of culture in 1990. A pioneering project then known as Women in Profile, set out to show that women were very much part of Glasgow’s social and cultural history, and it has been a remarkable success story. So Glasgow Women’s Library has grown from a small community venture in Garnethill, run by volunteers with no funding to become a nationally-respected institute. So it is the UK’s only accredited museum devoted to women’s lives, histories, and achievements.

The library is now housed in their splendid East End premises in Bridgeton, which is a former library which Glasgow City Heritage Trust help grant fund repairs to. It is a treasure trove of artefacts and archives with a team of expert paid staff, but there are also volunteers who work there. So volunteers are fundamental to the work of the library with its aim of empowering women in every walk of life. It’s the volunteers, Glasgow Women’s Library’s very own Woman Make History detectives who research and lead the walks revealing and celebrating the lives and achievements of the many women who have made history in Glasgow. So to tell us how it’s done, let’s meet today’s special guests, Gabrielle Macbeth, who is the volunteer coordinator working with the library’s dedicated volunteers, and Anabel Marsh, a former librarian who after 10 years is now one of the libraries longest serving volunteers. So very warm welcome to the podcast for you both.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Thank you. Thanks for that great introduction.

Niall Murphy:
It’s good to have you both on board. So first off, let’s dive in with our first question for you. There’s a lot of ground to cover here, and there’s many years of history to look at too, but perhaps we should begin in Glasgow’s West End. So in 2007, Glasgow Women’s Library made history by creating the first Women’s Heritage Walk, a groundbreaking walking tour, which set out to focus on women who had helped shape Glasgow’s history.

So can you tell us how that came about?

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Yeah, sure. So there’s always lots of interest in women’s history in the Women’s Library. At the time, I think we were becoming really aware of people saying, “Oh, we need to do something. We need to do something that’s reaching out to people outside of the Glasgow Women’s Library that engages people with women’s history.” So 2006, 2007 was the team at that time decided, “Right, well, we’re going to do something. We’re not too sure what that could be,” but we convened a group of women who were interested together and started to think, “What kind of activity could we offer that would highlight women’s diverse and multiple contributions to the city?”

I think there were some pamphlets from the council’s Heritage Walks lying around and they were picked up and it was a case of going, “Oh, well, women are really absent in these.” So it was a quite logical jump to then think, “Oh, well, how about we create our own alternative version of this that forefronts women’s contributions?” That’s where it began, and we got together a group of women who were interested in doing some research who hadn’t necessarily done much of that before but were keen to uncover it.

Niall Murphy:
Right.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
So after some research and that process, the West End Women’s Heritage Walk was born and it was launched in 2007 and we ran it as part of the West End Festival for quite a few years.

Niall Murphy:
Brilliant.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Then over the years, other walks were researched and developed.

Niall Murphy:
Okay. Can you tell me something about any of the characters that emerged from all of this research that you were doing?

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Anabel, do you want to jump in?

Anabel Marsh:
Yes. Yes, I can. Well, we’ve definitely got six walks that are all available in the library as leaflets, or you can download them from our website, womenslibrary.org.uk, and you can have them as audio files as well. Then in the summer, we guide the walks maybe six or so every season.

Niall Murphy:
Right.

Anabel Marsh:
We’ve got some longer trails that we don’t offer as guided walks, but can also be downloaded. So we’ve got two for suffragettes and one for LGBTQ history.

Niall Murphy:
Okay.

Anabel Marsh:
So there’s all sorts of characters. Gabby was talking about the West End Walk, which was our first one. So you get people like Big Rachel who was part of the Partick riots, well, part of controlling the Partick riots. We start at Kelvingrove on the West End one, and we talk about how there is art by women in there, but most of the art is through a male gaze. If you look up at the top of Kelvingrove on the roof line, there are lots of images of women, sculptures of women, but they’re muses, they’re not real women. There are only four actual women in Glasgow named women to have statues, so we try and bring out who they are.

Niall Murphy:
Absolutely, because all of them is fascinating history.

Anabel Marsh:
Yeah, one of those is Isabella Elder, for example, who is the … Well, if she hadn’t given the money for Queen Margaret College, that would’ve been really difficult. She was one of the people who made higher education for women a priority. So we talk about her on the West End Walk. We talk about some of the first women graduates like Marion Gilchrist. She was the first doctor to graduate in 1894. The university had been there since 1451, but it wasn’t till 1894 that they actually gave women some degrees. A very touching thing to me is that Marion Gilchrist was then the doctor who signed Isabella’s death certificate when she died in 1905.

Niall Murphy:
Tell me something, I’m interested to know. Isabella Elder, ’cause it’s something that really annoys me that her monument in Elder Park has Mrs. John Elder on it, which-

Anabel Marsh:
Yes.

Niall Murphy:
… to me, it really grates.

Anabel Marsh:
I think that’s what Isabella wanted, really.

Niall Murphy:
Oh, really?

Anabel Marsh:
Yes.

Niall Murphy:
She did want that, okay. That’s fantastic.

Anabel Marsh:
As people did in those days, she saw herself as Mrs. John Elder, and there’s the Elder Park Library, there’s Elder Park itself. There’s Elder House.

Niall Murphy:
Yes.

Anabel Marsh:
All these things she was really doing in memory of her husband, who was, of course, John Elder who owned the Fairfield Shipyard. So when he died quite young, she was left with a lot of money and that’s how she chose to use it as a philanthropist in her own city.

Niall Murphy:
Yes, absolutely. She does enormous good works in the city, which is very interesting. There is another, it’s not a statue, though, there is a rundle on a building on Govan Road, which is to Jane White Brown, which I try and point out. I’ve pointed it out on Twitter before, and that was Jane White Brown was really interesting because, again, she’s a major Govan figure that she ran the Govan Newspaper notionally with her husband, but he again, died quite young. She had to manage that newspaper for 36 years after his death, which is why she’s commemorated on that building. But you’re it’s absolutely right. To me, I’ve done a lot of work on George Square, and it comes up every time I do a walking tour of George Square, it’s complete imbalance between men. There’s a whole 50% of the population that’s completely missing from Glasgow’s story in that square, which I just think is outrageous.

Anabel Marsh:
Unless you’re Queen Victoria.

Niall Murphy:
Well, absolutely, but Queen Victoria is only there because she is the monarch. That’s it. Otherwise, she would not be there either. That, to me, is disgraceful. I think we have to tell that story better, and it’s a whole missing aspect to our story, but the city, I think needs to address.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
It’s worth checking out, Sarah Sheridan’s book, which gives this fictionalised account of what Scotland would look like if streets and places were named after Women. She introduces so many incredible women who we should know more about.

Niall Murphy:
Absolutely. Yeah. Teasing out those stories is absolutely critical to me.

Anabel Marsh:
Of course, statues aren’t the only thing, and we are getting a bit better at other kinds of memorials. One of the things that we pass in the East End, for instance, as the memorial to the girls that were killed and they were girls. They were as young as 14, some of them, in the Templeton Disaster. When the factory was built, the wall blew down onto the weaving sheds, and outside Carlton Community Centre, every single girl or young woman has her name and age recorded on there. So people might walk past that and not even know it’s there.

Niall Murphy:
Yes.

Anabel Marsh:
It is a memorial. It’s not a statue, but that is the sort of thing that we want to bring out and draw to people’s attention.

Niall Murphy:
Yes, very much. Do you think that the walks have had a good impact in that regard, that you’ve been able to use the walks to uncover stories and get that message out to people?

Anabel Marsh:
Well, I think so. As we’ve done them over the years, people tend to be less surprised by some of the stories, so you get the feeling that they have heard them before. For instance, we always used to get gasps when we revealed that St. Enoch as a woman, because a lot of people didn’t know that. But-

Niall Murphy:
Yes.

Anabel Marsh:
… Now I think that is less the case. For those that don’t know, St. Enoch is another name for St. Thenew who-

Niall Murphy:
Yes.

Anabel Marsh:
… is possibly the earliest woman we talk about. She was a fifth or sixth century princess who was the mother of St. Mungo, so effectively the mother of Glasgow. There is a wall plaque at the back of the St. Enoch Centre that lists all the different variations of her name from Thenew to Enoch. But still, it is a surprise to some people that they’ve been walking through this memorial to a woman-

Niall Murphy:
And have no idea.

Anabel Marsh:
They’re doing their shopping for years-

Niall Murphy:
Yes. Yeah.

Anabel Marsh:
… and they have no idea.

Niall Murphy:
Yes, I didn’t know about that, that back art. I’ll have to go and have a look at that.

Anabel Marsh:
Yes, it’s back of the food court.

Niall Murphy:
Right, okay. Oh, very interesting. Right, okay. I’ll need to look at that. Yeah, it’s fascinating because to me it’s this whole hidden history that needs to be teased out. I find it really objectionable that this has been concealed. Things like, I don’t don’t know whether you knew her at all, but Cordelia Oliver, her archive is now up in the Glasgow School of Art Archive in the Whisky Bond. She was the arts correspondent for The Herald. This was in the 1950s, she could not use her own name. She had to be referred to as the arts correspondent because they couldn’t have a woman writing for the paper, and yet she’s talking about all this great art in Glasgow, and she’s not allowed to use her own name.

It’s just bizarre. So I find those kind of things really frustrating, and I’d really like to see those stories emerging and being told that somebody who had … She was instrumental in helping set up things like The Fringe in Edinburgh, which she always joked about because she was a Glasgow girl and the Fringe really should have been at Glasgow, but well, nevermind, it’s over in Edinburgh. She was also instrumental in Citizens Theatre, and stories like that need to be teased out somehow and made clearer to people.

Anabel Marsh:
No, I didn’t know about that one. But yes, there are still lots of stories that we don’t know about that. The walks are always developing and growing and we add things in as people tell them about us or we change the route slightly as we find out about other people.

Niall Murphy:
Okay. Well, can you take us on a walk then or round say one of your tours and say for instance, your groundbreaking tour at the West End, where does it lead?

Anabel Marsh:
The West End? One is possibly the one that most relates to the built environment because we basically go around the perimeter of the university. When you get to the Gorbal’s walk for instance, it’s been flattened twice since the things that we’re talking about. So you have to use a lot of imagination, whereas the West End, everything is there. As I said, we start at Kelvingrove, we go down to what was Anderston College where we talk about the higher education of women. Then we can also talk about the education of women when they were children, because there’s still Church Street Primary School there. So we can compare and contrast what a working class girl would’ve learned there with what the middle class girls in the private school up the road would’ve been learning. They would’ve been getting achievements and refinements and piano playing and French and the other girls would be learning how to be wives and mothers, that sort of thing.

Niall Murphy:
Sure. Absolutely.

Anabel Marsh:
We talk about the suffragettes because, well, we talk about the suffragettes in two places on this walk because, oh, over 20 years ago now on International Women’s Day some of the students got up early and they renamed all the buildings at Glasgow University after women, because they’re all currently after men. So-

Niall Murphy:
Yes,

Anabel Marsh:
… they chose a lot of suffragettes, and we talk about that. And then we also then go past the Isabella Elder Building at Glasgow University, which was the first one to be called after a woman. It’s not a very pretty building, but it is called after Isabella.

Niall Murphy:
Good.

Anabel Marsh:
We talk a lot about her. We go past the Macintosh house, so we can point out that Charles Rennie McIntosh was very famous, but Margaret McDonald, his wife was a very well-renowned artist in her own right.

Niall Murphy:
Absolutely, they’re a complete artistic pairing and that should really be respected. It’s not just him, and he totally acknowledges that in all of his letters to her that this was a full relationship and a full partnership.

Anabel Marsh:
“I have talent, Margaret has genius,” was basically what he said. Then we finish off at the Suffragette Walk at the top of University Avenue, well, Kelvin Way, University Avenue, that junction-

Niall Murphy:
Yes.

Anabel Marsh:
… which was planted in 1918 by suffragettes after the first women got the vote. Despite the best work of Storm Ophelia a few years ago, it’s still standing because it did lose a lot of its branches and had to have a lot of attention. It wasn’t entirely clear that it was going to survive, but it has.

Niall Murphy:
Great.

Anabel Marsh:
In 2015, the library nominated it as Tree of the Year, which duly won.

Niall Murphy:
Fantastic.

Anabel Marsh:
We’re very proud of our Oak.

Niall Murphy:
Very good. Okay, so your walks are full of fascinating stories and there are 12 stops on each guided walk. So obviously that’s a lot of background research that you have to do. So what does it take to become a Women Make History detective? How do you plot the routes and seek out the woman on each trail?

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Well, so our history detectives come from all walks of life, I think. As I said earlier, we’re not necessarily looking for people who have tonnes of research experience. Each time we’ve developed a walk, we’ve put a call-out, so anyone interested, anyone from this area maybe who lives there want to come and join our team. We’ve always had someone who’s facilitated the research and been able to guide people, so where you go and find this information. So yes, it’s drawn lots of people, local women who are just like, “Oh, I’ve lived here all my life. I want to learn more,” or, “I know lots already,” people who are maybe new to those areas or new to the city who are using this as a way of finding out about Glasgow.

But the process usually yields a lot more information than we can actually include in a two-hour walk, which goes to show it’s not difficult to find this information if you go looking for it. So the process always then involves a lot of pairing it down and deciding what works as a trail, as a walkable route within two hours and what are the stories that we think are going to engage audiences the most. I think there’s probably some wrangling that goes on as well ’cause some people are like, “But I really want this woman’s story in.” It’s like, “Well, we can’t include everyone,” so a bit of diplomatic work goes on, but that research doesn’t get lost. We hold on to it.So it can be used in other ways.

Niall Murphy:
Yeah, I’ve had similar experiences doing walking trails on the south side and there’s some really interesting stories, but they are just off what would be a potential route, they’re just too far away to make it feasible within a certain timeframe, and that it can be hugely frustrating that when you’ve got a really juicy nugget sitting there, but there’s nothing you can do about it.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Yeah, it’s a shame. It’s an iterative process because each time the walks are delivered, the guides say, “If anyone’s got any additional information, please contribute that.” So we’re always updating the scripts and adding new information as it comes to life, and I think audiences really value that that we’re recognising their local knowledge as well and are able to incorporate that.

Niall Murphy:
So it sounds like a real labour of love. Do the volunteers make strong connections with women on the trail? Is it difficult therefore to choose whose story to tell?

Anabel Marsh:
We certainly do. As you’ve probably gathered from what I’ve talked about so far, one of my favourite women is Isabella Elder. She was the first one that I fell in love with if you like, mainly because of what she did for higher education for women, and also because she built a library, and I’m a librarian. She gave money to the engineering department at Glasgow and what became Strathclyde, and my husband’s an academic engineer, so she just seemed to really speak to me. So I’m very happy that we’ve got her in the West End walk. We also talk about her in the Necropolis walk because she’s buried up there in the Elder family tomb.

Niall Murphy:
Right.

Anabel Marsh:
But she’s been superseded in my heart. My favourite woman is now one called Jessie Stephen. Well, she’s probably the only working class Scottish suffragette that really know anything much about. She was born in 1893, so she was quite a young suffragette.

Niall Murphy:
Okay.

Anabel Marsh:
What she did was she worked as a domestic servant, and she took part in the pillar box outrage as the Glasgow Herald put it, where the suffragettes would put ink or acid into the pillar boxes. She was able to use her working class identity as a shield for that because as she said, she was in her uniform, black dress, lace, captain cuffs. Nobody was going to look at her, much less think that she was a subversive about to attack a pillar box. I don’t know, she was just an amazingly feisty woman. When she was 16, she was vice chair of the Independent Labour Party in Maryhill.

Niall Murphy:
Wow.

Anabel Marsh:
She was very concerned about the conditions that she and other servants worked with, so she set up the Scottish Domestic Workers Federation in 1913. So remember she was born in 1893, so this was when by the time she was 20, she’d done all this.

Niall Murphy:
Wow.

Anabel Marsh:
Then she was headhunted by Sylvia Pankhurst during the First World War, went off to work for her in London and never really lived in Glasgow again, but she grew up here. She’s one of ours. She’s just amazing. I think she gives an interesting contrast to Isabella in terms of the built environment because with a rich woman like Isabella, she’s pretty much in control of her legacy. She’s left buildings, her house is still there.

Niall Murphy:
Yes.

Anabel Marsh:
She’s on the gates, the commemorative gates at Glasgow University. She has a statue. There’s a portrait over her in Kelvingrove. She’s obvious.

Niall Murphy:
Yes.

Anabel Marsh:
But Jessie, you have to more tease out her relationship with the city, but she’s still there because you can identify, I know two of the houses that she worked in as a servant. From that, I’ve become a bit obsessed with post boxes, so I’ve been looking around what post box could it be that she used?

Niall Murphy:
Yes.

Anabel Marsh:
It’s an amazing amount of Victorian and Edwardian post boxes still about the place, and there’s one-

Niall Murphy:
Indeed.

Anabel Marsh:
… just opposite one of the houses that she worked. So I post my letters in there and think, This is where Jesse stood.”

Niall Murphy:
That’s amazing. Which houses did she work in?

Anabel Marsh:
Well, she worked in the West End. I don’t want to give addresses particularly, but this one is one of the terraces off Great Western Road, and there’s a post box just on the other side of Great Western Road.

Niall Murphy:
Right. Okay. So what happened to Jessie? Obviously she went off down to London. What happened to her? How did you manage to find her history?

Anabel Marsh:
Well, as I say, she’s one of the few, if not only Scottish suffragette that we know anything about, but she has actually been quite easy to find out about because she left record. She wrote her own autobiography. It was never published, but it is now available online through the Working Class Movement Library in Manchester. She was interviewed in the 1970s by Spare Rib and also by a man called Brian Harrison, who interviewed as many surviving suffragettes as he could find. There are several hundred of them actually, which is quite surprising, but she’s one of them. So there’s about two hours of Jessie talking right online through the Women’s Library in London.

Niall Murphy:
Oh, that’s fantastic. You can hear her.

Anabel Marsh:
Yeah.

Niall Murphy:
That’s amazing.

Anabel Marsh:
So she wasn’t difficult to find out about and also because she never married, so she didn’t have the responsibility of her husband and children. So she wasn’t as reticent about getting caught or being very opinionated.

Niall Murphy:
Yes. Yes. She had less to lose.

Anabel Marsh:
She was a counsellor in several different places. She toured North America lecturing about socialism and the labour movement and-

Niall Murphy:
Oh, that’s fantastic.

Anabel Marsh:
She never became an MP, but she mixed with people like Barbara Castle and Tony Benn who were at funeral.

Niall Murphy:
Hugely respected then.

Anabel Marsh:
An amazing person, but not that much known about.

Niall Murphy:
Yeah, no, that’s fascinating to hear. Handily enough, it brings me on to my next question, and it’s something of a theme for this podcast that we look at housing issues in Glasgow. So one of the things we’re really interested in is the rent strikes in 1915 and how Glaswegian Women helped to change the history because that was a national event that started in Govan and then spread right across the UK and resulted in as government at the time stepping in. So is that something that you explore in the Heritage Walks?

Anabel Marsh:
We do. We don’t go to Govan. We don’t have a walk there, but we do have a section on this in our East End walk, and we go to Glasgow Green ’cause of course, Glasgow Green has been the site of hundreds, thousands of protests over the years. So we talk there about the suffragettes rallied there, the Glasgow Women’s Housing people that you’re talking about, people like Mary Barbour, Helen Crawford.

Anabel Marsh:
But they also were part of the Women’s Peace Crusade as well in 1917, so we link all that together. So we talk a lot about activist women and not just the very historic ones. There are other women in the later part of the 20th century that we talk about. We’ve got people like Betty McAllister in the Carlton who was an activist there and who famously told Margaret Thatcher when she came to visit that she could stick the poll tax where the sun don’t shine. Betty Brown, who was the leader of the community council in Garnethill in the ’80s and ’90s, and so took the place by the scruff of the neck, and both of those women working class women, Betty McAllister worked in a fish shop. Betty Brown was a cleaner at STV, but they created such a lot for their own communities, and both of them were actually named Scot’s Women of the Year in different years. So they were acknowledged and we tried to acknowledge them in our walks as well.

Niall Murphy:
That’s fantastic. Okay, next question then. Glasgow and the city, it’s obviously always changing all the time. So after more than a decade of doing Women’s Heritage Walks, are you seeing any signs that Glasgow is becoming a less masculine city?

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Like Anabel said, I think some of the things that our tour guides reveal get slightly less of a gasp than I think the women’s libraries played a role in highlighting women’s roles. But I don’t think we can take all the credit. I think there’s generally a better understanding of how much women’s history has been overlooked and sidelined. But there are clearly so many more stories to be uncovered. It’s been said that only I think, now 0.5% of recorded history is about women, right?

Niall Murphy:
Yeah.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
There’s still plenty to uncover and record. I sometimes think our tour guides and our history detectives sometimes rescue information from literally dropping off into the abyss and then it’s lost forever. There are things that are fragile. So-

Niall Murphy:
Yes.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
… there’s definitely a need to be continuing to do this work and to do it with a sense of urgency. So it’s great to see other groups doing really great work as well. The protests and suffragettes group have done a huge amount of work, obviously focusing on the suffrage movement. We’ve also worked with a group called Thistles & Dandelions, which is a Heritage project.

Niall Murphy:
Yes. Yes, I know them. Yes.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
They look specifically at unearthing and making visible the stories relating to ethnic minority women in the city. So there’s still definitely a lot to be done, but I like to think that well, less masculine sides of Glasgow are becoming more visible and we’re getting a more rounded view of-

Niall Murphy:
Yes.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
… who’s made the city and contributed to it.

Niall Murphy:
Yes, absolutely. I did three walking trail leaflets of Pollokshields, and one of my big regrets as part of that, ’cause it covered both the east and the west sides of Pollokshields on the south side of Glasgow and also who had developed the whole area. But my big regret was I always intended there to be a fourth walking trail leaflet, which was about Asian experience of Pollokshields, because obviously it’s one of the most multicultural areas in Scotland and neighbouring Gover Hill and a voice hoped that somebody at some point would begin to tell those stories because they’re a core part of Glasgow’s story as well. So that diversity is so important-

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Absolutely.

Niall Murphy:
… in capturing that too.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Yeah, absolutely.

Niall Murphy:
Yeah. Everyone has a right history.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Yes. That’s it, and there’s so much missing from the mainstream.

Niall Murphy:
Yes.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
… narrative.

Niall Murphy:
But it’s about empowering people to be able to tell that story. You can’t go out and tell it for them because somebody asked me, “Why didn’t you do it if you felt so strongly about it?” It was like, “Because it shouldn’t be coming from me.” That wouldn’t be appropriate.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
I think that’s true. I think that’s what we loved working with the Thistles & Dandelions group. They actually came on three or four of our walks to get a sense of how we do it and had chats with various tour guides. But it’s just so great to see them thinking, “Well, we have our story to tell as well,” and having pride in that and sharing it with more people.

Niall Murphy:
Very much.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
I think it’s very heartening when we see men come on the Women’s Heritage Walks, because I feel really strongly that this isn’t just women’s history that’s aimed at women. I’ve had to learn about men’s history my entire life, so-

Niall Murphy:
Yes.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
… and that’s never been questioned. I think the same as our responsibility as a white person to learn about the history of Black and minority ethnic people in our city.

Niall Murphy:
Absolutely. This is a wee bit funny, though. It was back in 2017, I helped out with as a leaflet woman war in the West End, and it was sponsored by various funders. A part of it was there had to be a walking tour for it and they couldn’t find anyone to do the walking tours and eventually, asked me. I was like, “Okay, well this is slightly awkward, but if you’re really struggling I’ll do it for you.” It was really fascinating learning the history about that. Again, I just think it’s obviously my mother brought me up the right way, but I think it’s really important to know that because it gives you a proper rounded view of the history of the place, not just the one-sided one or whoever was on top at a particular time. Okay then. What is next view on the horizon for the Women’s History Detectives, and is there anything you would like to develop and what gives you the most pride so far?

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Wow, multi-part question. Well, on the horizon, so we’re continuously reviewing our trails, so that’s ongoing work. We recruited seven new volunteer guides last summer-

Niall Murphy:
Wow.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
… which, yeah, it was great to see that so many people were keen to get involved and lots of young women as well.

Niall Murphy:
Good.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
So yeah, they’re learning the scripts and learning the ropes, and we’ll be delivering those walks from April onwards. We’ve got a few walks planned for the next few months. We’re working in Denniston and we’re not necessarily going to develop a Women’s Heritage Walk in that area because it depends what the group wants to do. But we’ve just started a series of workshops there to uncover the hidden histories of women in that area and that’s a year-long project. So looking forward to seeing who we uncover and what becomes of that information. I heard murmurs of a Women’s Heritage Walk, it’s very early days, so I don’t want to commit any of my colleagues to doing that. Anabel, I don’t know, do you want to answer the question about that?

Anabel Marsh:
Well, I was going to say, I think the pandemic made us look at everything in a different way. Again, we had to find a different way of still engaging with this material and people that wanted to know about it. So we did a series of Twitter walks. We did all our walks on Twitter.

Niall Murphy:
Right. Okay.

Anabel Marsh:
Not literally. This is one I prepared earlier because it’s quite tricky to get meaningful information into a tweet, but two of us, myself and another volunteer, Louise, we divided them between us and they were really popular.

Niall Murphy:
Good.

Anabel Marsh:
They went down very well. Another volunteer, Melody, made some trailers for the walks. So we used the time that we couldn’t take people out actually into the environment by doing it virtually.

Niall Murphy:
Sure. Yes. I did one or two of those myself. Yeah, it’s quite good fun.

Anabel Marsh:
As Gabby says, we’re always revising and changing the routes. Again, it’s pandemic related, but the Friends of Glasgow and Necropolis have renovated three historic stones to nurses and as a tribute to the NHS, we did that after the pandemic. So now we are looking at our route to how we can redesign that to take maybe one or two of those in. So that’s another project to just make sure we don’t get bored.

Niall Murphy:
Who comes on your walks in terms of, is it people from outside of Glasgow with people within Glasgow? How does that work?

Anabel Marsh:
Both. It’s a mix. Yeah. I think the furthest I can remember having somebody is from Australia. Quite often we get people who are just here on holiday or visiting family or something and they come on the walks, but we’d say it’s mostly fairly local people. But we do get quite a lot of people from other countries, which is nice that they’re going to go home with this view of Glasgow.

Niall Murphy:
You get good feedback at the end?

Anabel Marsh:
Always. Yes. Yes. The negative ones are things like, “Well, we could have had a cup of tea,” but we just don’t have time to get a cup of tea. No. Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that most people enjoy it and they’re very complimentary about the guides, which is nice. That makes you feel quite good about it.

Niall Murphy:
When I did the Women, War & The West End once, we always ended in the pub, so it was in Webster’s Theatre. There’s a pub at the back of Webster’s Theatre on Great Western Road. So that was really nice ’cause it was round about the time and so they’ve got fantastic roaring fire in there and you could end up with having a really good chin wag with folks you wouldn’t otherwise ordinarily meet, so really, really enjoyable experience. So I find doing walking tours really rewarding ’cause it’s not just you telling people the stories, you’re getting their opinions and their stories too out of it. So really, to me, it’s a brilliant educational tool in both directions.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
We’ve done tours for closed groups as well, and we sometimes get asked to offer a tour as part of someone’s conference. So they might have a gathering of feminist academics visiting, coming to a conference and we are offering them a tour. I love the idea that those people are leaving the city having had a real women’s focus on the city, and that’s what they’re coming away with.

Niall Murphy:
Yes.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
People really engage with it. Our guides are brilliant at presenting the information in ways that are accessible to people who might have quite a lot of background in Glasgow and Scottish history and then adapting that for people who don’t ’cause sometimes, I suppose we do assume that people know who St. Mungo is if we’re talking about St. Enoch. We’ve also started offering shorter walks because our walks are typically two hours long, but we recognise that that can feel like a long time for some, so we trialled a one-hour walk the East End last summer and we’re planning on doing that again and offering it in two shorter sessions.

Niall Murphy:
Yes, I did that one year for Doors Open Day rather than doing long walking tours, which I had been used to doing. I did half-hour lunchtime tours instead throughout the week, so in just around little parts of the city centre. The idea was to give somebody who was stuck in the office a chance to get out and go for a break and see a bit of the city while we’re at it and explain the city while we’re at it. So those were quite popular, which was quite interesting. Okay, so this is the final question then, and this is a completely loaded question because we ask, everybody who comes on our podcast this, which is, what is your favourite building in Glasgow on or off Women’s Heritage Walk, and what would it tell you if its walls could talk?

Anabel Marsh:
Who goes first? I’ll go first. I’m going to go off the Women’s Library walks because I also have a Women’s Heritage Walk in Maryhill-

Anabel Marsh:
… that I do out at Maryhill Burgh Hall, so I’m going to choose it as my favourite building.

Niall Murphy:
Nice choice.

Anabel Marsh:
I think what it tells is also the developing role of women because its unique selling point is the set of 20 stained glass windows that were made for the opening in the 1870s, Stephen Adam.

Niall Murphy:
Yes.

Anabel Marsh:
Unlike when you normally get stained glass windows, it’s religious scenes or classical scenes or whatever, it’s of ordinary working people going about their lives, doing their jobs, and of those 22 show women.

Niall Murphy:
Right

Anabel Marsh:
Now, okay, Stephen Adam just showed what he saw. That’s fair enough. Then you look, they have display a picture of the original opening of the halls and it’s just this sea of men everywhere-

Niall Murphy:
Right.

Anabel Marsh:
… rows and rows of men. Then next to it they’ve got the picture of the opening after the halls had been renovated in 2012, and it’s just such a lovely mix. There’s lots of women involved there. So I think that you can see that that is showing the progression of women and our increasing role in society. I have to say, I thought when I was asked to do a Women’s Heritage Walk there, I thought it might be quite difficult to turn up stories, but it wasn’t. They’re there if you look, and you’ve just got to think a little bit laterally and tease them out.

Niall Murphy:
What about you then, Gabrielle?

Gabrielle Macbeth:
I’ve chosen to talk about the building the houses Glasgow Women’s Library. I spend a lot of time there and I do love it, and I love turning up to work. Some mornings it’s even more beautiful than others. For those who you haven’t visited, it’s in Bridgeton and it’s a Carnegie Library, so-

Niall Murphy:
Yes, it’s beautiful.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
It is beautiful. We’ve been there almost 10 years and have done a lot of work to make it fit for our purposes and to look after it as well and done quite a lot of repairs to the roof and the stonework. We’re now working towards making it-

Niall Murphy:
We helped out with the stonework and the roof, so.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Yes. Yes.

Niall Murphy:
Being up the a scaffold is fantastic except the carvings are really beautiful, aren’t they?

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Yeah.

Niall Murphy:
But you also appreciate how much the pollution in Glasgow must have damaged the building because obviously it’s all been stone cleaned now and it looks lovely, blonde sandstone now, but some of it is really badly weathered because of all that pollution.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
There was damage, but to me, I think it’s if the walls could speak, they would talk of the importance and the power of public libraries and of free, accessible public spaces. It’s been at the heart of Bridgeton for 120 years almost, and it’s now home to the Women’s Library. It’s a really wonderful dynamic and loved and cared for space that offers opportunities for women and others to come and learn. We have a beautiful new sign by an artist called Rabiya Choudhry.

Niall Murphy:
Oh, I’ll have to go and see that.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Yes, please do. It’s brand new and it’s part of a wider project by the Common Guild, and the sign it’s borrowed the flame motif, which was Carnegie’s emblem and it has the words of an African American civil rights activist called Ella Baker, and it says, “Give light and people will find the way.” I think that’s-

Niall Murphy:
That’s beautiful.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
… a really beautiful phrase, but the project is, it’s got, there’s four other artists who have been commissioned as well to reflect on public libraries and the importance of public libraries past and present and future.

Niall Murphy:
Right. I loved your previous sign as well, by the way. I was a real fan of that too, but that is very nice, and I must go make the visit to see it. Completely agree with you, Anabel, about that, Maryhill Burgh Halls and Stephen Adam’s stained glass, which is really superb. He was a really good artist and how he manages to capture the woman’s role there as well is incredibly important. That reminded me of a story Dr. Nina Baker tells about the City Chambers. She does a really good talk about the City Chambers, one of which was how badly designed it was from a woman’s point of view, which was when they held the opening, a banquet and dance. All of these men obviously brought their wives along too.

The toilet provision for women was next to non-existent. There was one toilet in the basement and everything else was for men and they’re like, “Uh.” It sums up Victorian because nobody planned for that kind of thing at the time. You’re thinking, “How did you not know to anticipate this that you wouldn’t design for 50% of the population?” Really shocking. But it’s all of these spaces end up getting adapted over time for everybody. That’s the key thing, and it’s teasing out that history so everybody’s history is recorded. What’s so important about this. But thank you very much. That was a really enjoyable talk.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Thank you.

Anabel Marsh:
Thank you.

Niall Murphy:
Yes. I’m so glad to meet people who really enjoy doing walks as well, as much as I do, so it’s fantastic. It’s a really rewarding thing to do. It’s a thing I enjoy the most.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
Well, so do we.

Niall Murphy:
Well, thank you very much for your time. It’s much appreciated.

Gabrielle Macbeth:
No problem. Thank you very much.

Niall Murphy:
Our pleasure.

Katharine Neil:
Glasgow City Heritage Trust is an independent charity and grant funder that promotes the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of Glasgow’s Historic Built Environment. Do you want to know more? Have a look at our website at glasgowheritage.org.uk and follow us on social media at Glasgow Heritage. This podcast was produced by Inner Ear for Glasgow City Heritage Trust. The podcast is kindly sponsored by the National Trust for Scotland and supported by Tunnock’s.

Series 2 Episode 7: Hospitals, Health & Heritage with Dr Hilary Wilson and Dr Kate Stevens, Friends of Glasgow Royal Infirmary

Niall Murphy:

Well, good evening everyone, and thank you very much for joining us. My name is Niall Murphy, and I am delighted to welcome all of you to this very special live edition of If Glasgow Walls Could Talk. It’s the first time we’ve done a live podcast recording like this, so please bear with us, because normally, we do this in the comfort of our own homes via a Zoom-like interface, so actually, doing it live is obviously very different. But we will give it a go and see how it works.

So, right. To talk about where we are at the moment, this is a new museum which was opened in May by the Friends of Glasgow Royal Infirmary. And what we are doing here, obviously now, is to launch this new series of podcasts with Glasgow City Heritage Trust. And as part of this is obviously a new experience for us, and it’s also good to be in what appears to be this new space and is looking very swish, this new space. But obviously as we were discussing when I arrived here, this was the original main entrance into the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

So it’s fascinating to see this kind of reopened up again, because this had been subdivided up to store spaces for the building. So it’s great that this space by this great Glasgow architect, James Miller, has been liberated once more and been put to this fantastic new use. So it really is a great setting for our first podcast, which aims to explore the stories and relationships between historic buildings and people in Glasgow.

And so what we want to talk about in this particular one is if these walls in this new museum and this magnificent and important hospital within the city, and in Scotland, what would they say if these walls could talk? So this welcome museum space celebrates this extraordinary history of Glasgow’s oldest hospital in this great East End location within the city centre. It’s much loved across the city, and it has a reputation that is genuinely global for the innovations in medicine that have come from it.

It’s also, when you consider its context within the city as well, and when you approach it up Castle Street, which is what I normally do, and you see the sheer scale of it and how impressive it is as a set piece within the city, it really is quite something, particularly when you can compare it in its setting in the Cathedral Precinct, next to Glasgow Cathedral. And there’s obviously all these great connections with both the Cathedral and with Glasgow Necropolis as well. And there are these connections between all three great institutions within the city.

So the original hospital building on this site, and this site was originally the bishop’s palace, this fortified castle. So everyone kind of wonders where Glasgow’s equivalent of Edinburgh Castle was. Well, we’re roughly sitting in it just now. So this was the original site of what was here. But the original hospital building, which was first started to be planned in about 1791 and opened in 1794, was built on this site by the great Scottish architect, Robert Adam, and executed, because he had died in 1792, by his brother, James Adam, who came out of retirement to finish this building.

So it was here to meet the needs of what was a really rapidly growing city at that point. And the growth of Glasgow has obviously been a major issue in the city, particularly over the course of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. And the hospital has obviously had to keep expanding to keep up with those needs and to adapt to the industrialization and the swelling growth of the city and the constant pressures, particularly in this area, of poor and unsanitary working and living conditions in both the houses and the surrounding factories, because Glasgow was such a dense city.

So for more than 200 years, the Glasgow Royal Infirmary has risen to these challenges of industry, epidemics, poverty, war, and pandemic. And in that time, there had been many medical discoveries with a global impact which have been made here. And the walls of this museum, if you look around you, bear witness to both the remarkable women and men whose innovations, dedications, and discoveries help change the course of medical history, both in Glasgow, Scotland, and further afield in the world.

So you have men like Joseph Lister, who is incredibly important. So you can see his portrait over there, which interestingly enough, and I appreciated that when I walked up to it earlier, is by the great American illustrator and artist Norman Rockwell. And that was a tribute to him on the centenary of his discovery, so right at the top of Rockwell’s career. So it’s fascinating to see something like that. And he, of course, Joseph Lister, was this great pioneer of antiseptic surgery, and revolutionised his craft while working here at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

And what he was doing was taking… He was inspired by Louis Pasteur, and so he was taking those ideas… And this is one of these great Glasgow things. You see it through various people in Glasgow. They take ideas from elsewhere, they adapt them, and then they revolutionise them. And Lister had the same mould. What he does is by washing and dressing surgical wounds with carbolic acid, he thereby introduces this new concept of cleanliness in surgery, and thereby saves thousands, countless lives across the world. And it’s the basis for modern infection control.

So then you’ve got other people like Rebecca Strong, who was the Glasgow Royal Infirmary’s first Matron, and who trained under Florence Nightingale, so incredibly important and is important for establishing the whole idea of how you train nurses. And all of that was done here. And there’s a great interview with her on her centenary in the Glasgow Herald and she describes herself as a troublesome woman. Because when she got her teeth into a problem, she kept going with it and looking for the next solution beyond here.

So she’s extremely interesting too. And she was important for both the training nursing, and also because of the fact that she insisted on the building of a separate nursing wing as part of the hospital. Because prior to that, the nurses would just have to have sleep in amongst the patients. So again, that’s absolutely key in the development of nursing. And other things, the more that we understand about how much these walls could tell us, it’s all of these other uplifting stories from our disturbing times, reminding us of human enterprise and ingenuity and what that can achieve.

And so, to help peel back some of these layers of history and tell the story of this great hospital, it is a privilege and a pleasure to introduce our two speakers this evening, Dr. Hilary Wilson, who is a consultant rheumatologist, so you’re dealing with joints, nerve conditions, and Dr. Kate Stevens, who is a consultant nephrologist, I pronounced that correctly, good, which is specialising in kidney diseases, both of whom work at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary and are trustees of the Friends of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, a charity which was established in May, 2020, so during the first lockdown.

So just two years later, they opened the Friends of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary Museum, who officially launched on the 31st of May, 2022. So you can almost smell the paint, obviously. So the space that we are in celebrates the contribution that the Glasgow Royal Infirmary has made to medicine, surgery, and nursing throughout the world. So there’s going to be a great deal to talk about as we work our way through the podcast.

And we also want to give you, the audience, a chance to ask questions too, which we will do at the end of the programme. And hopefully we’ll learn a little more about the inspiration for the museum itself. So first off, question number one, the charity was established early in the pandemic, and work on the museum began in earnest during lockdown. So how did that come about, and would you like to tell us how and why you both became involved in this?

Dr. Hilary Wilson:

Well, I’ll take this question first, Kate. So the Royal Infirmary is an institution that’s been around for 228 years, so of course it’s got an enormous history behind it. And when Kate and I walk around the hospital, there are numerous dedications to the people that have walked these corridors before us. There’s the brass plaques in the central block entrance for Lister, Macewen, Strong, and MacIntire. We have buildings named after pioneers in the hospital.

And if you look a little more closely in the hospital, there’s some more unusual items to reflect a bygone era. So in our sub-basement, we still have the original hooks for the horses. There’s the old oxygen tanks in the basement. And if you venture up, and some of my juniors have been up to the seventh floor, there’s the old consultant dining room, where consultants were served wine and beer with their lunch and dinner, with tablecloths and silverware. That doesn’t happen anymore. So basically, there’s an amazing history associated with this building.

So about seven or eight years ago, John Stewart, who’s a former chief nurse at the Royal, and one of our trustees, he came up with the concept of Friends of Glasgow Royal Infirmary, because he felt it was important that we should share this history with the rest of the world. And Morven, myself, and Kate joined in with the campaign to try and bring Friends of Glasgow Infirmary to the fore.

And initially when we talked about the museum, people thought we were a bit mad trying to open a museum in a working hospital. And people gave us great support and encouragement, but it was really hard to get it off the ground for the first few years. And then in 2020, we thought, “Well, let’s register Friends of GRI as a charity with the regulators,” because as a charity you can get funding from other resources that weren’t available without being a charitable status. So that was what we did first of all. And then we embraced social media. Kate is our chief Twitter and Instagram feeder. I think she’s tweeted as many tweets as we have followers, about 2,800. So that really catapulted us into people wanting to know what we were about.

And because of COVID restrictions in 2020, we couldn’t really have in-house, face to face celebrations of our former staff, so we ran some virtual events in the form of webinars, and a virtual tour, and a webinar celebrating Lister and the various women that worked at the Royal. And we were overwhelmed with the support and interest that we had at that stage.

We then got some funding from the Scottish Society History of Medicine, Friends of Glasgow Museums, and the endowment fund in the hospital very kindly gave us the funds to refurbish this space. So what we’re in just now, what you’ve said is this original medical block entrance, but it then moved over to the centre block entrance, and this room really became a storage area for medical records. And it was really in a very poor state of repair when we found it. And it’s just lovely to be in it now with people who are interested in the history of the hospital. And as you say, we opened on the 31st of May, 2022.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, fantastic. I mean, it’s great because you have such a wonderful view of the Cathedral Precinct from here, so it’s so funny to think that this would just have been a storage room. Yeah. Particularly when there’s a statue of Queen Victoria right bang over your entrance. It does seem kind of a bit of a wasted opportunity. Okay. So tell us about the hospital itself, and how did it grow, and what does a historic hospital say about life in the city? Glasgow Royal Infirmary is a landmark with physical and symbolic significance within Glasgow. And maybe we can explore some of those key developments in 1794 and how they relate to what was happening in the rest of the city. Do you want to talk about that?

Dr. Kate Stevens:

Yes, sure. With the caveat that I’m not a historian, I’ll do my best. So yeah, I mean, you’ve touched on some things already. So in the 18th century, Glasgow as a city grew rapidly, and there was an urgent need to build an infirmary or a hospital to accommodate the expanding population. There was also a desire to have a hospital beside the university. And at that stage, the university was beside the cathedral. So a group got together, so men, as was traditional in those days, no women, so they were the founders, and they planned this new infirmary.

So it was funded by subscribers. So subscribers could be wealthy city merchants, or businesses, or the Royal College of Physicians, and surgeons in Glasgow. And the first meeting was in 1787. So at that point, they didn’t actually ask Robert Adam to design the building initially. They asked a man called William Blackburn. So William Blackburn was a famous architect who designed prisons. And he fortunately or unfortunately died and so was unable to design our hospital. I’m not sure what it would’ve looked like if a prison architect had designed it.

So Robert Adam was brought in, and he designed this, or his designs were very grand, they were very ambitious for the Royal Infirmary. And it’s said that there was a degree of one-upmanship, because the other Scottish infirmaries in Aberdeen, Dumfries, and Edinburgh were nothing as grand Robert Adam’s designs were here. So the old Glasgow-Edinburgh rivalry was true even back then. So the first designs were deemed to be a little bit too impressive, and modifications were necessary. They were too expensive. But despite that, the finished article was really magnificent.

So exactly as you’ve heard already, this is where the Adams building was, and it had this wonderful entrance bay looking out onto Cathedral Precinct. And the piece de resistance was the dome on the top of it. So it had this huge dome, and it was 40 foot from the floor to the ceiling in the dome. And housed under the dome was the operating theatre. So you had lots and lots of light coming in through this dome onto the operating table, which was great for the surgeon who was doing the operation, but maybe less so for the patient who, as you’ll hear as we move on, was usually awake. There was no anaesthetic. So they were lying there, full daylight. I’m not sure it was great that they could see everything that was going on.

And the other thing about the dome is that, so it was at the top of the hospital, the operating theatre, and Monday to Saturday, it was a functioning theatre. Patients were carried on these gurneys up the stairs, screaming often, no pain relief. Presumably part of the reason it was on the top floor was because maybe the rest of the hospital couldn’t hear if they were at the top. And then on Sundays, it became a chapel. So it went from being a horror house to a serene chapel on Sundays. So the other big point of excellence that’s often commented on is the fact that there was iron bedsteads in the new Glasgow Royal Infirmary, but there was only wooden ones in Edinburgh, so that was a marker of pride.
So the hospital, as you say, opened in 1794. There were eight wards with 12 beds. There’s never enough beds. The same is true today. Half the wards were unfurnished when it opened up initially, so there’s a lack of funds, a lack of beds, a theme that I’m afraid is fairly consistent even now. So gradually, over the years, lots of different wings were added to the hospital. So in 1829, they added a detached block, which was the fever hospital. So dealing with outbreaks of infectious diseases in a very overcrowded city was a massive problem for the managers. It’s hugely challenging.

And they had these great plans to design this separate fever hospital. But there was lots of hiccups. There wasn’t money. And so, a little bit like what happens in today’s world, there was temporary accommodation put up to deal with epidemics. At one point, there was a shed in the grounds of the hospital. But eventually, although they had to scale back their original plans, they planned 220 beds, but eventually got 120, they managed to get this fever hospital up. So it sat detached from the rest of the hospital, but in the hospital grounds. And actually it wasn’t big enough, and during subsequent epidemics, they had to put more temporary accommodation up in the grounds.

So in 1842, they managed to attach it to the main hospital. And then in 1861, they opened this new surgical hospital. So it was all singing and dancing. It had these coal fires, it had a day ward for patients to convalesce in, and it had this huge operating theatre, again on the top floor. And in the operating theatre, they had a tiered sitting area, where more than 200 people could watch operations. That was for education, for sport in those days. So that’s where Joseph Lister made his groundbreaking discoveries in 1865. And whilst Lister was working exhaustively on his theories of antisepsis in London, Florence Nightingale had embarked upon her great mission to open up or establish a training school for nurses.

So it’s kind of important to understand that nursing was not a profession in the early 1800s. It was basically… It was a means of employment for people who were also-rans, prostitutes, fallen women. It was not viewed in any favourable light whatsoever, alcoholics, basically people who couldn’t get a job anywhere else. And society was incredibly judgmental. And it wasn’t cool to look after sick people as a woman, particularly. A few sick people were men. The night nurses were the worst. So they basically used to come in, steal from the patients, drink themselves into a stupor, and have to be carried out the back door in the morning.

So in 1860, Florence Nightingale opened up the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. And she was a middle class, respectable woman, so she gave nursing a bit more respectability. And then in 1867, so just after Lister had made his discoveries, Mrs. Rebecca Strong enrolled in the Florence Nightingale Training School. So Florence Nightingale had a very high opinion of Rebecca Strong, and ultimately, via the military hospital at Netley and Dundee Royal Infirmary, Rebecca, or Mrs. Strong, I think as she would prefer to be known, found herself here at Glasgow Royal Infirmary as the very first matron in 1879.

So you’ve alluded to this already, Niall. She was relentless in her goal to improve standards. She perpetually sought to improve patient care. She was a single mother, and what she achieved was remarkable. She was highly principled, and when they refused to build the nurse’s home, she resigned. Didn’t think for a second of staying. “No. I’m going if you won’t build a nurse’s home.” So she left. She felt that if her nurses were to give the best of themselves at work, they had to have somewhere comfortable to stay. So I guess probably with their tails between their legs, the managers in 1887 built the nurse’s home. So you can still see it. It’s across diagonally from here. It’s now the procurement building.
So it had 85 rooms. It had a tennis court, a recreation room, and it linked to the main hospital via what was commonly called the chicken run. So chicken run was essentially a large conservatory. It was 180 foot long, made of glass, and it connected, as I said, the nurse’s home to the main hospital. And it’s said that matron would sit in her flat above the glass conservatory, looking down, watching the nurses when they came home to make sure that, A, they were on time, and B, they hadn’t brought any men with them. And she would also make sure that when they came into the hospital for work, that they had their hats on, apparently.

So William Macewen, who we’ve not yet mentioned, was a huge ally of Rebecca Strong’s. And together, they developed this block training scheme for nurses that basically meant that nurses had dedicated time off the ward, where they got lectures and tutorials and were educated, and then they had other blocks of time on the ward. So the Proprietary School for Nurse Training opened in 1893, and this block training method has now been adopted throughout the world. So I think probably up until this opened, Rebecca Strong was more celebrated elsewhere than she was in Glasgow, where she did all this.

Niall Murphy:

Classic Glasgow.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

I know. Classic Glasgow. But we’re big fans, so we’re hoping to spread the word.

Niall Murphy:

Good. Good.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

So I mentioned William Macewen. So William Macewen worked under Lord Lister, and he was heavily influenced by Lister’s theories of antisepsis. He was one of the most innovative surgeons of his time. He performed the first successful brain surgery operation. So if you think now, I mean, you get CT scans, you get MRI scans. If there’s a problem in somebody’s brain, you see it in those images.

But what he did was he had a girl who had epilepsy, and he looked to see where the twitching was, which part of the body of the twitching was coming from, and then used anatomy and physiology to identify from that where the tumour was located, went in, removed the tumour, and she survived for, I think, eight or nine years after that. That’s pretty remarkable.

He also invented bone grafts. He founded Erskine Hospital and invented the Erskine artificial limb. And he was also a police surgeon. So before A&E, he was a police surgeon. And then one of the other really important things that he contributed was photography. So he would take photos of cases before and after, so surgical cases, or even just cases that he saw in the wards. And in those days, unlike now, and beautifully scribed histories, if you like, so taking people through pages and pages of the actual history of a patient, they must have had lots more time than we do. And Macewen would keep these photographs with the cases, which beautifully illustrated and helped to educate others.
He also loved animals. And there’s a couple of stories that Hilary and I are both very fond of, both being dog lovers. So he had a dog called Leo, and he used to bring Leo into the hospital with him. So first example of a therapet. So one day, poor Leo got stolen, so there were dog stealers, and he stole poor old Leo. And Macewen was upset, but somebody gave him a tip off and said that they thought that Leo was in the shop with two women. So Macewen went down to the shop. Sure enough, there was Leo and the two women were there. And they bought the dog from one of the dog stealers.

So a policeman was called. And the policeman basically said, “Okay, so if the dog comes to you, Macewen, you can have him. If he doesn’t, he stays here.” So of course the dog went over to Macewen, Macewen took his dog, came back to the hospital. And a few days later, one of the women came to see him and explained that her sister was unwell, they bought the dog, and she was really missing him. So William Macewen gave them the dog back. So that was nice. He had a big a heart.

However, he didn’t get on with all of his colleagues, so I think he caused big disruptions in the hospital. So Sir George Beatson, he was a pioneering oncologist, so The Beatson, you’ve all heard of The Beatson. And so, it comes from Sir George Beatson. So pioneering oncologist, and he also was involved in St. Andrew’s ambulance and the Red Cross. And Macewen, in an extremely derogatory fashion, used to refer to him as that ambulance man. So they both worked for Lister. I don’t know whether or not it was a bit of rivalry because of that.

So I mean, there’s lots and lots of other key developments that we can talk about. We don’t have time. So I guess that, towards the end of the 19th century, the older buildings were falling into a state of disrepair. And then coinciding with the Queen Victoria, James Miller, as you said, designed this building, built on the site of the Adams building. There’s a lot of controversy in 1927 when they pulled down the Lister wards. So still, to this day, we’re both a bit bitter that they pulled down the Lister wards.

Niall Murphy:

So is that when… The plaque dates from then?

Dr. Kate Stevens:

Yeah.

Niall Murphy:

It’s just the most difficult plaque to see.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

Yeah. I know. It’s such a shame.

Niall Murphy:

It’s tucked behind the bus stop, behind the railings. It’s such a shame, because it’s beautiful.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

I know. I know. So they built a lecture theatre, which is no longer use on this site. But there was international outcry when they said they were going to pull down the Lister ward, but they pulled it down.

Dr. Hilary Wilson:

A lecture theatre is our next big plan.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

Yeah, that is our big plan. We’re going to have a Lister avatar in the lecture theatre.

Niall Murphy:

Classic.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

So then in 1948, the hospital became part of NHS Scotland. The second reconstruction started in the 1970s. And over the course of the years, various bits have been added and removed. So I guess there’s a couple of other people that it’s important to mention. So James McCune Smith, so he’s the first African American to get a medical degree. So in America, they refused to admit him to medical school, so he came to the University of Glasgow, and he got his degree in 1835. No, 1935. 1835?

Niall Murphy:

1835.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

I told you I wasn’t a historian. 1835. So he spent time as a medical student here. And then MacIntyre established the very first x-ray department in the world. This opened in the late 1890s. So right here in the Royal Infirmary, this was the very first x-ray department in the world. Ian Donald pioneered the use of ultrasound.

Niall Murphy:

Yes. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Very interesting story behind that.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

Yeah. Exactly. So he helped use ultrasound to diagnose foetal abnormality the 1950s. And then, we are proud, I guess, because we know, Jackie Taylor, so she, in 2018, became the very first woman president of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. So a long time coming. So we were delighted to when that happened.

Niall Murphy:

Great, fantastic. I mean, obviously the Adams building was sacrificed to build this. But how did this building survive? Because obviously you’ve got… I mean this is where the Glasgow Royal Infirmary is interesting, because it’s had three great Scottish architects involved in it. You’ve got Robert Adam, then you’ve got James Miller, and you’ve got Basil Spence, who does the blocks to the east. But how did this survive? Because when given the surrounding area with the exception of the cathedral, it’s pretty much levelled for the motorway ring road coming through, and then the wholef of town head just disappears. How did this get spared?

Dr. Kate Stevens:

So do you know… I don’t know how it got spared, but I’m pleased it did. And I think you’ll find us chained to the railings if you say they’re going to take it down. Yeah. So I think probably partly because they just kept adding bits on. So at no point did anybody decide to reconstruct this part.
I think initially they had much grander plans for Sir Basil Spence’s building, but that didn’t materialise, so they did bits of it. Hilary will tell you a bit more about that in a second. But they did bits of it. And then, the plans didn’t come to fruition, probably because they ran out of money. And so, they attached this part of the hostel with a link corridor. It was kind of like a floating corridor, which attaches this building to the newer buildings, and we’re still here.

Niall Murphy:

I suppose it’s a testament to James Miller’s skill as an architect. He never built a hospital before he built this. And he’d obviously mastered his brief so well that it’s still in use more than a century later and still functions perfectly fine as a hospital, which is quite a tribute to the man, of his skill.
Okay. Going back to other issues. Obviously it’s called the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. So can you tell us more about the links to royalty? I mean, obviously Queen Victoria, this is the Jubilee building as part of it. So she’s sitting above the doorway in this great rather stern sculpture by as Albert Hemstock Hodge, who tended to collaborate with James Miller quite often. And there are also links to Edward VII as well, who opened the hospital. But can you tell us more about the connections to the royals and the impact they have on medicine as we come to the 21st century?

Dr. Hilary Wilson:

So you’ve already mentioned that the site of the royals, the previous site of the bishop’s castle from the 12th century. And William Wallace spent some time at the bishop’s castle. And Mary Queen of Scotts and her supporters tried to take the castle in 1570. But the Royal itself was given its royal charter in 1791, and this bit of land was granted to the hospital by the crown. So that’s probably the earliest link with the royals.
So basically, 1914, King George and Queen Mary officially opened the Miller building, and they opened the former Children’s Hospital York Hill at the same time. And the story goes that when Queen Mary came in to open the hospital, she was meant to turn left to go ward one, but she turned right and she opened ward two instead. So this is why the Royal doesn’t have a ward one, because you didn’t want to correct Queen Mary for turning the wrong way. And Queen Mary also gifted this beautiful bookcase to the hospital containing some books. I don’t know what happened to the books that were in the bookcase. And this is why we use this bookcase to illustrate some of the connections with the royal family over the years.

So in 1986, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, they came and opened the Queen Elizabeth building off Alexandra Parade. And in the bookcase, we have the visitor’s book with Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth’s signatures. We’re quite proud of that. And the Princess Royal Maternity opened in 2001, having moved from Rottenrow. And the Jubilee Building, which houses A&E and plastic surgery following the closure of Canniesburn Hospital, was named for the Golden Jubilee, and that opened in 2002.
Now, more recently this year we were awarded a Queen’s green canopy tree to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee. So the hospital’s going to receive a native tree to Scotland. I’m not sure what it’s going to be. I hope it’s not something too huge, like a Douglas Fir or something, because we plan to plant it out in the garden just to the right of the steps, so that you can actually see it from Castle Street, and we’ll have a plaque telling the public what it’s all about. And then, as you said, Queen Victoria, she watches over all of us that come into the museum. And last year, we restored the lighting outside, so that we can light her up in different colours at all times of the year.

Niall Murphy:

Very good. Okay. So next up to touch on royalty brings us to obviously one of the key figures in the history of the development of the hospital, Joseph Lister himself. So in later on in his life, he will become the senior surgeon to Queen Victoria, and also Edward VII. But his pioneering work in Glasgow transformed the survival chances of any patient undergoing surgery. So can you tell us how Lister made medical history in 1865 with his treatment of James Greenlees, this young boy who most unfortunately had this compound fracture because of a car going over his leg. So can you tell us all about this great breakthrough which ends up being so reported in the lancet?

Dr. Kate Stevens:

Yep. So I think that you have to go back to Victorian times to understand the significance of this. Because I think that we all brand about Lister developed a theory of antisepsis. It’s so important. I mean this would be such a different world if Lister hadn’t made those discoveries. So if you think about, particularly after COVID, if you think about a world where there’s no hand washing, there’s no gloves, there’s no cleanliness, so in Victorian times that was the reality. And people thought that infection came from miasma or bad ear. And the dirtier and bloodier a surgeon’s gown was, the more lauded he was and the prouder he felt.

Niall Murphy:

That’s just a horrible thing.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

So they used to wander about the place with these absolutely filthy… They were filthy, these people. But that was a real mark of, “He’s a great surgeon.” And this is in a year where there wasn’t anaesthetic, and so a surgeon’s skill really came down to how quickly he could work. Because remember, they didn’t have lots of these modern treatments that we have, so often, they would be amputating things. So Lister, when he was a student, watched another surgeon, Robert Liston, so a similar name.

So Liston was a bit of a performer, and he considered himself to be the fastest knife in the West. So Lister was in an operating theatre watching him with other people, and he would, Liston, theatrically got out his knife, this poor man who’s conscious, about to have a limb amputated, and you said, “Time me, gentlemen,” before he chopped the leg off. And I mean, it took seconds, which I guess is what you wanted at the time. That’s not what happens now, I can assure you.

So Lister, he married a lady called Agnes Syme. So Agnes Syme was the daughter of James Syme, a famous surgeon from Edinburgh, and they worked together. So Agnes doesn’t often get as much credit as we think she should, but she was really crucial to Lister’s experiments and his research. So they did lots of experiments and research together. So one of the things they did together, as a slight aside, was they took chloroform and administered it to each other to see how much was the correct dose of chloroform. It’s pretty sporting of Agnes. So Agnes was a botanist to trade, and she would do these beautiful illustrations of the experiments that they did and these lovely notebooks, so I think she was fairly instrumental to his discoveries.

So Lister was always fascinated by science and medicine, in particular microscopy, which he’d learned from his father. And he looked at inflammation. So it was fairly well known that inflammation preceded many of these postoperative complications that they saw, including sepsis. So as you’d said, he was introduced to the work of Louis Pasteur, and that highlighted that living organisms caused putrefaction. So Lister used that information along with the word that he had undertaken, and he realised that contamination was the vector of infection.

So he realised that there was contamination from people’s hands, from instruments, from their gowns. And although he didn’t appreciate the full extent of germs, he didn’t have any concept that there was lots of bacteria and viruses and things, he did realise that these things were contaminated, and in order to try and reduce post-operative gangrene and sepsis, you had to get rid of this contamination. So he basically started using phenol or carbolic acid, and he invented this thing called the carbolic acid spray. So the original apparatus for that, the Hunterian Museum have in Glasgow. And he essentially started spraying everything that came in within-

Niall Murphy:

Is that what’s in the background of-

Dr. Kate Stevens:

Yes. Exactly. Of the picture. So everything that came within a few centimetres of Lister got sprayed by this carbolic acid spray. So his first documented success was James Greenlees. So James Greenlees was a poor wee 11 year old boy who was on High Street and got knocked down by a cart, and had a compound fracture on his leg. That basically means that the bone was sticking out through the skin. So Lister got his carbolic acid spray and meticulously applied it to the wounds, and the dressings, and the dressings were cleaned.

So bearing in mind that previously dressings would often be reused between different patients, this was very out there. So basically, after six weeks, wee James Greenlees was cured and walked out the hospital. So Lister then started instructing everybody who worked with him to wash their hands pre and postoperatively, to use the carbolic acid spray, to wear gloves. All the instruments were washed. And he also cleverly realised that the porous handles of the instrument were probably also harbouring bugs, so he got rid of them.

So that all sounds like, “Wow, imagine anybody thinking otherwise.” But he was completely mocked. So people thought this man is nuts and he was heavily criticised. But he did have some supporters, fortunately for I think all of us. And so, very gradually, as his work was replicated, it became clear that, as it says up there, that he was the greatest surgical benefactor to mankind. So he completely revolutionised mortality rates, surgery, and the practise of medicine throughout the world.

Niall Murphy:

Incredible. So what about… You’ve got all of these other pictures, and people on the walls, and we’ve touched on some of them. What about the other pioneers who passed through the buildings on this site? So you’ve mentioned John McIntyre and the world’s first x-ray department, and you’ve mentioned William Macewen, who carried out the first successful brain surgery, Rebecca Strong with the training of nurses.

So can you explain why Glasgow managed to produce so many great pioneers? And I think all of this is related to industry in the city as well. With all the great pioneers in the industry, Glasgow just seems to have been able to do some of that. Can you explain why they’re able to do that? Because they’re great disruptors of their age, Lister very much being this disruptor. Can you explain that?

Dr. Hilary Wilson:

Yeah. I can’t, actually. I mean, I think their achievements speak for themselves, and they were so sure about what they believed in that they just carried that through and it all came to fruition. I think there’s a couple of other people that you can add to the list that you’ve mentioned. One of them is a doctor called O.H. Mavor. And his illustrations are on this wall over on the side of the museum. So O.H. Mavor, he worked as a resident at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, but he also is called James Bridie. He’s works under the pseudonym James Bridie. And he’s a playwright and a caricaturist.

And what’s interesting about, O.H. Mavor, or James Bridie, is that he was the co-founder of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, and he also invented Daft Friday, the big ball in Christmastime at Glasgow University. So he did lots of these illustrations of characters who worked at the Royal Infirmary. As I say, we’ve got four up there, but we actually were given a selection of 14 of them. And they highlight the quirks and sometimes the disagreements with the managers at the Royal of that time. And I had a very nice meeting with the Friends of Glasgow Museums who’d given us a grant, and they came in and told me that their founder, Tom Honeyman, was also a co-founder of the Citizens with O.H. Mavor. So that was a nice link.

The other person worth mentioning is David Cuthbertson. So we have a brass plaque of David Cuthbertson in centre block entrance. And he was a clinical biochemist, and he led the Department of Clinical Biochemistry at the Royal Infirmary, but also worked at the Rowett Institute, which looked at the investigation of human metabolism and nutrition. He wrote lots of books, published lots of scientific articles regarding the metabolic response to trauma and infection.

And he was quite good at performing experiments. And one of the ones that was very interesting was he wanted to assess whether the metabolic response to trauma was due to the trauma itself or due to the fact that you were confined to bed for all the time that you were recovering. So he recruited medical students to stay in bed for two weeks with their legs splinted, and he paid them two pounds a week to do that. So I don’t know whether that would pass the ethics committee now, or I don’t think medical students would do that experiment. But he loved his job so much that even when he retired, the Royal Infirmary created an honorary position for him up until the day he died at 89.

Niall Murphy:

Fascinating. I wonder whether it’s because, not just the world, but Glasgow in general, that it’s a node for attracting people who are interested and are enthusiastic and passionate about their subject and are willing to engage in the broader world. Because with Lister, part of that whole connection with Louis Pasteur is he’s talking to the chemist, Thomas Anderson down at the university because they’re walking into work together every day, and that’s where it comes from.

And it might be something to do with soft networks like that. Because it’s a similar story with the ultrasound. And it was Donald McIntyre going to a factory. And it was because one of his patients saying, “Why don’t you come along and see what my factory can do and things like that.” And that’s the connection. I wonder whether it’s eureka moments like that and those soft networks that you actually need.

Dr. Hilary Wilson:

And I think this soft networking is so important, even in today’s modern medicine. When you walk down corridors, you meet your colleagues, you share ideas in a informal setting. And I think we’ve lost a little bit of that with the fact that everyone’s on their emails and Teams meetings. So I think that would be useful, to get that back.

Niall Murphy:

Yes, very much. Absolutely. Okay. Can we talk about the exhibits? Because you’ve got some fantastic exhibits here. I’m particularly admiring these… Are they cathode ray tubes? I seem to recall stuff like that from my chemistry days in school. Which are rather impressive. So you have this kind of fantastic collection, and every good museum is founded on good collections. But where did you go about finding all of these artefacts? How did you bring them all together, and what were your sources for doing that?

Dr. Kate Stevens:

So a few sources. So people have donated things, which is very kind. So lots of people who have worked here or who have had relatives who’ve worked here have come forward and offered us things. So we’ve got old badges, we’ve got old TENS machines, we’ve got one of the first machines used to deliver electroconvulsive therapy in psychiatry. So lots of people have come forward with things which has been great.

We are well known in the hospital, myself, Hilary, Morven, and John, for wandering about and taking things that we think that people maybe aren’t aware of how important they are. And we may have, one December, put on high vis jackets, hard hats, and torches and going creeping about in the attics of the hospital and identified several quite interesting things that some of which are now on display in here.

I think there wasn’t really somewhere for all these nice things to be kept. So there’s lots of things lying about the hospital, paintings, et cetera, that we’ve managed to amass, archive, and let people see. And we’ve also been known to have a wee look at eBay, and we get some things in here that people perhaps didn’t realise the significance of them. So we have one of the original programmes from the university with all the different lectures, including Lister and various other people. So we got that on eBay for 10 pounds. So it’s now here. It’s a better home than someone who didn’t appreciate its value.

Niall Murphy:

Very good. The other thing that interests me as well, when we’re looking at exhibits and everything, is the links between the Glasgow Royal Infirmary and other hospitals or medical institutions within the vicinity. So you’ve obviously got the blind asylum, which still survives up the way with Europe’s only five-sided clock, which is now incorporated into the car park, but used to be part of the hospital campus. So you’ve got that. And then you also had the great Rottenrow Hospital, which was the Glasgow Royal Maternity Hospital, and it’s the exhibit sitting at the back, which is that fantastic fireplace. Can you tell us a bit more about that? And also, I’m wondering whether you can answer a question which we were discussing in the office, which was how on earth did the Rottenrow Hospital end up on that site? Why would anyone build a maternity hospital at the top of such a steep hill? It seems incredibly selfish.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

Men. Men built it at the top of a steep hill.

Dr. Hilary Wilson:

Yeah. Well I don’t know if I can answer the second question, but I can tell you a bit about the fireplace.

Niall Murphy:

Please do.

Dr. Hilary Wilson:

What happened was we’re quite pally with all the porters and the security guys now in the hospital, and it was one of them, a guy called Ziggy, who said, “Dr. Wilson, I’ve got something you might like up in the seventh floor.” And he brought down this old dusty fireplace. And I said, “What on earth is it?” And it was the fireplace that was at Rottenrow Hospital before it was demolished in 2001.

So what it has is it has the signatures of all the people that worked at Rottenrow, dating way back to 1918. And we’ve also got some door frames with similar etchings. And what we’d really love to do is to get a research student to look at all these names, because I think some of them have gone on to be very famous obstetricians of their time.

We also have an original letter awarding Rottenrow a royal charter. And we’ve also got several pieces of medical equipment. The very nice lady called Belinda who gave us the O.H. Mavor caricatures, she is the granddaughter of Professor Munro Kerr, and he was a very prestigious obstetrician in Glasgow who was the first muirhead chair of obstetrics and gynaecology. And as well as these lovely caricatures, she also found somebody that owned his original top hat and a lovely brown leather case with his initials on it. So we’ve got that as well.

Niall Murphy:

Very good. Okay. So that brings us back to the whole kind of topic and the role of historic hospitals and medical museums. And the role is obviously still in use, but there are many historic hospitals around the country and in Glasgow particular which are no longer in use. And obviously a key issue in this kind of day and age with climate change is how do we go about retrofitting buildings like this to give them a further use in the future?
And what can we do to encourage people to adapt buildings like this that have these fantastic histories, that you don’t necessarily want to lose? I mean it would be criminal if this building was demolished, but we have, in the city, things like the Victoria Infirmary. I was quite heavily involved in the campaign to try and save as much of that as we could. But unfortunately, we were totally at the mercy of the developers, because it had no statutory protection for the entire campus.

With the exception of the one administration building which was B listed, everything else was up for grabs. And so it was very much at the whim of the developer as to whether or not it was going to be saved, which was kind of a shame when you look at things like the Royal Samaritan Hospital for Women in Govanhill, which is such a beautiful campus, which has been entirely saved, thankfully, and put to a new use. So what can we do to encourage people to look after and maintain these buildings in longer term? Any thoughts about that?

Dr. Kate Stevens:

Yeah. I mean, I think it’s difficult. And as you’ve said, we’ve lost the Victoria, we’ve lost the Western, we’ve lost bits of Stobhill. Although obviously Stobhill, when it was gifted to the city, the deal was that it had to be a hospital on the campus. So some of the old buildings are still there and there obviously is a new hospital on site, but it’s very much a modern building. The Western, when it was pulled down the deal was that the university got the land back, and so they’ve done what they have with it.

So I guess in an ideal world, we would keep all of these buildings, we would have lots of money, and we would have them all in a condition where people could go and use them as whatever they were repurposed as. So you might have some as nice restaurants or meeting areas or whatever. But I guess that’s not practical. But in Glasgow we do have the Royal, and the Royal is a functioning hospital, and it’s got to serve its population effectively, and so things need to progress. If things didn’t progress, we’d still be sitting in a room with an surgeon wearing a dirty gown, and using a dirty knife, and asking someone to time while they chopped off your leg. So progress is not a bad thing.

But I think you’re absolutely right. We do have to try and make sure that, particularly for us, this space, so it’s parts of the hospital are B listed, although are ways of getting around the B listing, if places are not safe. I mean, there are some parts of some of these hospitals that we’ve mentioned that were in such bad states of disrepair that it was going to be virtually impossible to restore them without more money than we have. And sometimes, I think it’s a balance. So healthcare is important, NHS is great, it’s free at the point of delivery. And probably if you ask most people, whilst maybe your heart would say, “Oh, I want to keep the Victoria Infirmary,” if the choice was that or it was having better facilities within a hospital to treat patients, it’s quite hard to justify then.

Niall Murphy:

It is. It is a difficult one. I think what I’m interested in is where the NHS goes with things like this. Because I know that the NHS is interested in things like local place plans, and this is where I’m very interested in the work of Harry Burns. And he thinks that a lot of what happened to Glasgow in the 1960s and ’70s, with the demolition of whole parts of the city, had a real bad impact on the psyche of the city and Glaswegians in general, because you’re seeing your city being destroyed and it’s dislocating. And suddenly having that whole loss of memory and associations with places that you grew up and were attached to actually really does damage the psyche of the people. And so it’s how you deal with issues like that. So there is perhaps something to look at there. I don’t know.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

No, I mean, I think that’s definitely true. And I think if the Royal was to become a victim and this building was to be demolished, I think it would affect a lot of people.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, absolutely. It does… Something about the building or buildings in general, people have an affection for, and it seeps into the feel of a building as well. You can tell how loved something is. So yeah, something like what you’ve done here is an example of how much you love the building.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

And we’ve got grand plans.

Niall Murphy:

An even bigger museum. That’s what it could be adapted to. Okay, so bearing that in mind, what next? And I’m really impressed by your logo, which is really beautiful logo, and I’d love to know who designed it, because they’ve done a really fantastic job on it. But obviously it circles around the bee in the centre, and by the entrance you’ve got a jar of honey, which is a big clue. So can you tell us more about your plans for a bee garden and the idea of the walkthrough health, heritage, and honey. Sounds really fascinating. Can you tell us something about

Dr. Hilary Wilson:

Yeah. Well certainly in terms of the future of this museum, as you said, we’re only open two days a week for two hours on a Tuesday and a Thursday. And although we’ve been open for seven weeks, we are number 73 on Trip Advisor out of 466 things to do in Glasgow, so that’s not bad. And we’re hoping maybe to go for a museum accreditation at some point with the assistance of Ross McGregor and Morven at the Royal College Heritage Committee.

And we’d like to extend our opening hours to match the other tourist offerings in Cathedral Precinct. But because we’ve got volunteers that run the museum, that’s going to take a bit of time. So we’re hopeful we’ve got this far, and I think we’re confident we’re going to get there. We’re going to have quite a lot of events. So this is the first of the evening events that we’ve done, and we’re quite pleased with the way that the acoustics are and the seating and everything.

So we’re going to have some other events, including Ian Bone, who’s a retired neurosurgeon. He’s going to talk about Macewen. And we’re also going to have a nice lady coming and talking about the medicinal benefits of honey in November, on the day before our honey sale in November. So she’s Nicky Bitas from Napier’s, and she’s going to come and give us a talk. So we’re going to extend by having events, not just having people coming into the museum.

And then obviously, the bees, they’re really exciting. In terms of the design of our logo, it was Graven Images. And Graven Images very kindly did the logo for free for us, a girl called Jillian. And our bee is at the centre with the medicinal plants surrounding the bee, because we felt we wanted the logo to look a bit more modern for the more junior members of the hospital, it would be more engaging with them rather than just sticking with the original GRI logo, which is quite old-fashioned now. So initially, we had two beehives, and they were owned by two professional beekeepers, and then a third beekeeper came on board, who is Dean Parker, who is the chef at Celentanos, the restaurant on Cathedral House.

Niall Murphy:

Yes. Yeah, yeah. Which has a fantastic reputation.

Dr. Hilary Wilson:

Yes. So he was delighted to have his hive here. So if you go and have a meal there, you might get GRI honey on the menu. And then the fourth hive is Kate and I. We’ve just become beekeepers by doing our course at the Ayrshire Beekeeper Society this summer. So yeah, so we’ll have a nice event with lots and lots of honey for sale in November. And I’m going to let Kate talk about the walk, because this is our big grand plan for extending the museum offering.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

Yeah. So we want to create what we’re calling the Royal Walk: A Stroll Through Health, Heritage, and Honey. So essentially, you would come out of the museum… So it’s a small space and we plan, as Hilary’s said, to have rotating exhibitions and things. But we’d like to have a more permanent, larger exhibit. So we come out the front, onto Cathedral Precinct, and at the side we’ve got two reasonably sized areas that we’re going to transform into medicinal herbs and plants, and have herb gardens.

We’ve had a bit of input as mentioned from Lisa at Botanics. So she’s head of the horticulture course there, and she’s been really helpful. Our queen’s green canopy tree is going to go at the front there for everybody to see. And we’re going to have some benches and things where people can sit. So you’ll come out, and you’ll turn left, and you’ll go down, start with the cathedral on your right-hand side, and you’ll go around, come up beside our bees, which are, I guess, this way, so diagonal from here, our four hives. You can see them, but you can’t get in. Don’t want anybody to get stung. So you’ll get to see our bees at work.

And then you’ll come up this side of the old chicken run, so you remember the conservatory. So we’re going to call that Rebecca Strong Alley. And you’ll then be able to go around the back of the hospital, where you have other areas that we’ll do with probably a wildflower meadow, other trees, medicinal plants, et cetera, come out onto Wishart Street, go along past the Necropolis. There’s lots of incumbents in the necropolis who have links to the Royal Infirmary.

So what we’ll do with this walk, which will finish back in Cathedral Precinct, is we’ll have plaques. So talking about the history of nursing, probably, initially. Because there’s a lot to say about the history of nursing. We’ve only touched on a little bit of it. So starting off with that, then attribute to the North Parish Washing Green Society. So that was essentially a charity that’s still in existence today. You can become a lifelong member for 50 pounds. And they essentially give money to people in need.

And they had a washing green where people who could come and do their washing. So that was just adjacent to where we are just now. So they’ve been in to see us, and they would like to commission a big plaque, so we’re going to have that as part of our walk. We’ll have information about the herbs and information about the flowers and things on the way around. We’re hoping to have an orchard. We’re hoping that we’ll be able to have some plum trees, some apple trees, and maybe we’ll expand from honey to chutney and other things, cider.

Niall Murphy:

Would Rebecca Strong approve of that?

Dr. Kate Stevens:

I’m sure she would. I’m sure she would. And then we’re also going to mark out with step counts, so people know roughly how many steps they’ve done to try and promote… I guess one of the things, not only for the staff, but for the city, it’s nice to have somewhere where you can go, you can learn a little bit about the hospital, also you can get the physical activity, and it’s not strenuous, and have a wander around. And outside the Necropolis, we’ll have information about the people who are linked with hospital. That’s our plan.

Dr. Hilary Wilson:

And then it comes straight back into Cathedral Precinct. And then the final link is with Peter Lowe, who’s the founder of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. His tombstone is just over at the side of the cathedral. So it’s a nice link that brings everyone back in.

Niall Murphy:

Great. Right. Sounds wonderful. Okay. Right. Bringing you to our final question at least, which won’t be the final question, but this is a totally loaded question, and we ask this of all our guests. So what is your favourite building in Glasgow, and what would it tell you if it’s walls could talk?

Dr. Hilary Wilson:

I’ll go first, since you’ve just done a lot of talking there. So yeah, I think my favourite building is probably the Kibble Palace. And so, I live close to the Botanic Gardens, and I’ve always loved the Kibble Palace because it’s somewhere that you go in and you’re in a different world, with the temperature, the smells of the beautiful ancient ferns.

And I think what amazed me was that the Kibble Palace was a privately owned glasshouse for Sir John Kibble. And when he wanted to give it to Glasgow, I think it was due to go to Queen’s Park, but he had some argument with the town council and-

Niall Murphy:

They knocked him back.

Dr. Hilary Wilson:

So we got it over in the West End and the Botanic Gardens. And so it remained there obviously until it went down south to get repaired in 2004. So it’s been on a couple of journeys. It came up to the Botanic Gardens from Loch Long, from John Kibble’s Garden on a barge. And then it went down south as a construction to get redone over the two years, with multimillion pound cost.

And I think it’s like everything. You don’t really realise you miss something until it’s not there. And I remember the couple of years the Kibble Palace was away, I kind of thought, “Oh, I can’t wait for it to come back.” I had nice memories of the Orchid Fair. I would go with my parents. My dad was into orchids. And that was a really nice memory, going in with friends and walking our dog in the park. And it’s just always a building that I associate with really happy memories.

Niall Murphy:

Right. Kate?

Dr. Kate Stevens:

Okay, so I’m going to tell you my favourite building is a building that’s not there anymore, but just bear with me. So I think my favourite building, it’s quite a difficult question, but I think it’s a Western Infirmary. So obviously the Western Infirmary is now razed to the ground. So a bit like the Glasgow-Edinburgh thing, you were either a Western doctor or a Royal doctor. So I spent most of my former years in the Western. I was very much Western through and through. I’m not now. Now I’m Royal through and through.

So I spent many years there, and I’ve got lots of fun memories of going between the old buildings and the new buildings, along this filthy corridor with all manner of creatures in it that shouldn’t be there, ghosts. Terrified as a responsible doctor, running through the corridor, because I was scared that something was going to get me.

And then there are bits of it that are still there. So there’s the Alexander Elder Chapel, so built in 1925 is listed. And I’m not particularly religious, but often you’d have these terribly busy night shifts. A&E would be over in the new building. And we quite often sit for 10 or 15 minutes in the chapel. So the chapel’s beautiful. It has beautiful stained-glass windows, and it was built as a tribute to nursing and medical staff that lost their life during the war. So I’ve got lots of fond memories of there.

And I think if it’s walls could talk to you, I think there’s lots of things that the Western Infirmary would have to tell you. But one thing I like, which links in with here, so why Macewen moved to the Western after he worked here, we already alluded to him maybe being a slightly difficult character with that ambulance man. So in the Western, he wanted to operate, and there was no space in the operating theatre. So nowadays, surgeons might stamp their feet and go off, and sulk, and have a coffee. But not William Macewen. William Macewen got out his drapes, got his table, set up an operating theatre in the corridor, and just carried on. So I’m sure that there are lots of tales like that, that the Western could tell you.

Niall Murphy:

Thank you very much. Okay. Right. We’re going to open it up to the floor, and if there are any questions from the floor. So this is a special edition, now’s your chance.

Audience Member:

I worked here a few years back as a junior doctor and there was always rumours that there are tunnels from the sub-basement leading to all sorts of bits of the city, including George Square and even further afield. Is that remotely true or is that junior doctor rumour?

Dr. Hilary Wilson:

I don’t know. I’ve heard these rumours as well, including the one where there’s a tunnel and a pipe going down to the dry gate that pumps beer into the doctor’s dining room in the seventh floor. I’m sure that’s not true. I don’t know. I don’t know if anybody else in the audience would know anything about that.

Niall Murphy:

There is a tunnel between the city chambers and it goes somewhere into George Square. But the shelf that takes you out of it is blocked, so nobody knows where it goes to in George Square. So we had a theory when we were looking at this, I did a conservation management plan for George Square, that it might take you into the Cenotaph, and the Cenotaph was in fact a mini rocket ship that was the escape route out if the city chambers were ever besieged or anything, but possibly not. Any other questions?

Audience Member:

During the pandemic, having the big open Nightingale wards wasn’t very conducive to preventing COVID spreading. There was a lot of chat at the time about this building was not fit for purpose and they’re going to rebuild the hospital on the same site. Are there any active plans to do that? Or is that not the case anymore?

Dr. Kate Stevens:

So I think there are plans to modernise the Royal Infirmary. I don’t know that there’s plans to rebuild on this site. Like we said earlier, they’ll have to take Hilary, and Morven, and John, and I out to do that. So I think there are modernization plans. But as far as we know, I don’t think there are plans to rebuild exactly here.

Audience Member Q:

Thank you very much. That was an absolutely fascinating series of talks. I have two quick questions. You painted a very compelling picture of the infirmary as a place where people were free to be radical and experiment, and brought about really significant innovations in medicine. How easy was it for women doctors to come through the infirmary? Was the infirmary place that was early in opening its doors to young women who wanted to be doctors? And then quickly, my second question was, you spoke about how the original infirmary was funded, its opening. How was it funded through the 19th century? I mean, I gather it wouldn’t have got state funding. Was it a charitable? Was it in receipt of city charity?

Dr. Hilary Wilson:

I think in relation to your first question, there is a nice piece of work that one of our committee members, Rosa McMillan, did about the pathology department at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. And they were very forward-thinking about employing women pathologists. And she’s done a nice thesis on that work. So yes, certainly in pathology, they were very supportive of women in that department, far more than any other hospital at that time. So Morven has a-

Morven:

Hi, I’m Morven. I’m one of the trustees. So the first woman resident in the Royal was in 1899. And actually, the permanent resident was Ann Louise McElroy, who’s quite a famous obstetrician. So the first female resident, that was before quite a lot of other places. We’re doing a bit of work at other early women pioneers as well, so watch this space. There might have been other expressions in other people.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

She was the first woman professor in the UK as well.

Morven:

Yeah. Yeah.

Niall Murphy:

Fascinating.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

She worked with Munro Kerr, that I mentioned. And then, so your second question, subscriptions. So until it became the NHS, it was subscriptions. So individuals and companies would subscribe. And so, we have a subscription receipt actually on the wall over there from one of the mineries, I think. And so basically, your company would subscribe, and if your company was a subscriber, then you could make use of what was on offer in the Royal Infirmary.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah. That was one of the things that I felt quite emotional about with the Victorian Infirmary, because it had been built by subscriptions from people right across the south side of the city, and therefore it belonged to the people from the south side of the city. And I felt we should have some say in what happened to it, and it just didn’t really work out like that unfortunately.

Dr. Kate Stevens:

Yeah. I kind of wish that we’d got into all of this before so we could have gone and had a look at the Western and the Victorian, tried to least salvage some things.

Niall Murphy:

Yes. I think it depends on the NHS board and how they handle it. So Edinburgh seems to be a lot more progressive than Glasgow does. But I’m hoping that Glasgow and Clyde will learn from those things and will be more thoughtful about how it handles some of these fantastic estates. We’ll see.

Morven:

There’s some nice plaques round about the Royals, as well, from some benefactors, if you ever get into the Royal to have a look. But David Dale, he was a famous person from New Lanark, sort of a philanthropist. He was involved in the Royal initially, for several years, until his death. So he actually helped set up the funding. He was chair of the funding committee for the Royal Infirmary initially, in the 1780s and onwards. But you should have a look. There’s some quite interesting plaques about how things were funded, and they funded beds, and they funded wards, and different things as well.

Niall Murphy:

Any other questions? Now’s your chance. Okay, well, shall we wrap this up then? Well, Hilary, Kate, thank you very much for your time. Absolute pleasure talking to you both. And I wish you every success with the museum, and I hope it goes from strength to strength, particularly with your walk, which sounds fascinating. And I hope everybody joins me in thanking both Hilary and Kate for their time this evening.

Katharine Neil:

Glasgow City Heritage Trust is an independent charity and grant funder that promotes the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of Glasgow’s historic built environment. Do you want to know more? Have a look at our website at glasgowheritage.org.uk, and follow us on social media at Glasgow Heritage. This podcast was produced by Inner Ear for Glasgow City Heritage Trust. The podcast is kindly sponsored by the National Trust for Scotland and supported by Tonics.

Series 2 Episode 6: Housing Is A Human Right: Glasgow’s Housing Struggle with Joey Simons from the Glasgow Housing Struggle Archive

Niall Murphy:

Hello everyone. I’m Niall Murphy, and welcome to If Glasgow’s Walls Could Talk, a podcast by Glasgow City Heritage Trust about the stories and relationships between historic buildings and people in Glasgow. Some stories are harder to find than others. History can be revealed or concealed in buildings and street names. What happens to the collective memory of the city when buildings are removed and street names changed? A sense of loss has become a recurring theme in conversations on this podcast. Demolition and displacement have been part of Glasgow’s story for considerably more than a hundred years. So in this episode, we explore the invisible history of a shifting landscape. In the rapidly changing city of the 21st Century, there are few clues to Glasgow’s radical past, no maps to show where battles were fought and sometimes won in the working class struggle for decent housing at a fair rent. That struggle has never ended, as recent headlines have reminded us.

History seems to be repeating more than 100 years after Mary Barbour’s Rent Strike victory. Tragically, we seem to have learned little from Cathy McCormack’s tireless fight against dampness and mould in 1980s Easterhouse. So are we destined to keep making the same mistakes? With housing emergencies growing in every city, a new project aims to share and learn from Glasgow’s proud campaigning history. So we are delighted to welcome today’s guest, Joey Simons, co-founder of the Glasgow Housing Struggle Archive, which aims to record, share, and discuss the past and present of working class organising in the city.
Joey is a member of the National Committee of Living Rent, Scotland’s Tenants’ Union, which has more than a thousand active members. He’s also an artist and writer working on projects with the Centre for Contemporary Art, the CCA, Platform, Glasgow Sculpture Studios, the Edwin Morgan Trust and The Travelling Gallery.

He uses words to good and often creatively provocative effect. In January this year, Glasgow City Heritage Trust hosted Joey’s talk, Gizza Hoose, which looked at how housing struggles have shaped and been shaped by Glasgow’s ever-changing housing stock. It was a stimulating hour and it began with thoughts on how city design, the layout of streets and buildings might enable or deter riots. And ended with a poem by Edwin Morgan, casting a critical eye on Scotland’s favourite bard. And this was on Burns Night. So we’re now looking forward to another stimulating discussion with you, Joey. And perhaps we might start by funding out what led you to co-found the archive, and this is kind of coming from your Burns Night talk, which revealed quite a depth of housing history. So can you tell us a bit more about yourself and how you became involved in the Glasgow housing struggle?

Joey Simons:

Sure. I’ve mainly had a background in political organising and campaigning in Glasgow since a pretty young age. And that was actually 20th anniversary of the big marches against the Iraq War. And that was maybe the start of my involvement in political organising, campaigning in Glasgow. But especially over the last five years or so, I’ve been heavily involved in tenant and housing organisations through Living Rent, which is our tenant’s union organising against evictions and for rent controls, public housing across Scotland. And I was involved in helping to set up the first branch of the union in Glasgow, and Living Rent is involved in a day-to-day activism and campaigning. But I’ve always had an interest in Glasgow’s history, and working class history in particular. And through Living Rent, is trying to connect those past struggles and dig into a bit of the history and the tradition of different housing movements to provide more context to the day-to-day organising we were doing in the union.

So through a couple of personal projects myself as well, and it was seeing how history was easily lost and getting buried in amidst Glasgow’s constant redevelopment. So one thing I was involved in was up in Easterhouse through the Art Centre platform, looking at the life and work of Freddy Anderson, who was an Irish poet and playwright and writer and tenant activist in Garthamlock. He moved to Glasgow after the war. And I first came across his name basically an event around radical theatre in Scotland. So looking at the work of Glasgow Unity Theatre and 7:84, someone mentioned, “Yeah, this guy Freddy Anderson, he’d written a play about John Maclean,” the great revolutionary organiser in Clydeside around the time of the First World War. I was just quite amazed that I hadn’t heard of this guy, Freddy Anderson, at all, despite all my interests, despite thinking I’d read everything around this kind of thing.
So I started digging into him in the archives in The Mitchell Library, then just meeting people in libraries and at funerals and at buses and mentioning Freddy’s name and people giving me their own archives and their own stories, and eventually republishing some of Freddy’s work in a collection called Let Us Act for Ourselves. And it was really interesting in the context, Easterhouse, this whole period of radical culture and political organising in the scheme from the 1960s right up until the 1990s was basically not part of any public narrative. Now there’s major regeneration, redevelopment happening in Easterhouse, but the story of people’s own fight for what they fought for across the decades is not part of this narrative of what the future of the scheme is going to be.

So now through different personal projects around aspects of working class history, and through my involvement in Living Rent as well, I just started to see how important it was to try to collate some of the elements of Glasgow’s housing struggle history because I’m not an academic, it’s really just things I’ve learned through other people, other discussions, and that history is out there, but it’s quite hard to find. So I was in the Mitchell Library, I’ve been going up to Glasgow Uni Library and you get a special pass. So you’re just trying to find these out-of-date or out-of-print books and just thinking how can we share this history? What is the form in which that information can be more easily accessible?

And during the first lockdown, I was working as a tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association, and I had a chance to design and deliver an online course on Glasgow’s housing history. So over the course of eight weeks, different Living Rent members kind of ran this course looking at eight different post-war housing struggles in Glasgow. They’re finding and sharing resources and linking it into the kind of day-to-day campaigning we’re also involved in. So through that course, through discussions with different housing scholars in Glasgow, like Neil Grey and Valerie Wright, and also with other archives. So for example, the Mayday Rooms Archive in London and the Spirit of Revolt Archive here in Glasgow. Just really had the idea to try to create a space online initially at least where all these different housing histories could be shared, could be critiqued and put into wider historical context. And in a way, kind of challenge some of the narratives of that history that are current at the moment.

So one thing we used in the course was a Glasgow City Council have an official illustrated timeline of Glasgow housing change. And that whole history is just told basically through a series of legislative acts. There’s a brief nod to Mary Barbour in 1915, but the story kind of ends in housing stock transfer, the elimination of Glasgow’s Council housing stock, the rise of private ownership. And yes, we really wanted to challenge that narrative. And even there’s a Shelter Scotland as well have a really useful resource on Scotland’s housing crisis over the past 150 years. But even in that approach, tenants and political movements that fought for good housing over the years are quite marginal to that story or appear mainly as victims rather than as agents of change.

So all of those parts of this story are true and part of it in terms of the legislation, in terms of that constant crisis. But there’s also this entire hidden history of tenant movements and housing struggles that have shaped Glasgow as a city and continue to do so. And I’ve also shaped it in their defeat at various times or their marginalisation. So yeah, I think the idea was just to provide a counterpoint to that, to connect what we’re doing today in Living Rent to past struggles, and at least to recover and share that history and then people can decide in a way what to do with that and add to it. So I guess it’s come from lots of different angles, but yeah, I think it’s just fundamentally though, it’s just always an interest in Glasgow and walking around the city and trying to figure out what the hell is actually happening here.

Niall Murphy:
How it all came about. Yeah, that’s what fascinates me about Glasgow too. Yeah, digging into all those hidden aspects of Glasgow’s history. And it’s teasing out those stories because they’ve been edited out of the official narrative, but they actually are part of our total history, and we need to somehow figure a way to feather them all back in again so history can be properly told from all perspectives. So, fascinating stuff. Okay. Your archive doesn’t occupy a physical space as yet, but the website does open the way to parts of the city that have disappeared or changed beyond recognition. So can you tell us about the aims of the archive? Who is it for, how it’ll be used and developed over time?

Joey Simons:

Yeah, so I guess starting out we had a few different aims for the archive, and definitely is a project to develop over the years. So one was just this space where tenants and community groups and housing organisers can more easily access the information, the text, the histories that do exist about Glasgow’s tradition of radical tenant struggles. So not necessarily even finding new primary documents or creating this physical archive, but to centralise the information that does currently exist, but which has spread across a number of physical archives, and it’s quite difficult to access. So there’s not one book, for example, that you could go get out at the Mitchell Library on the history of Glasgow’s tenant movement.
So one aim is just to centralise and to try and collate the information that exists.

Another aim is to place the housing struggles of today in that wider historical context to draw lessons from a hundred years of campaigning, demonstrations and occupations and rent strikes, to look at the tactical and strategic solutions that tenants have come up with in different situations over the past century and look to apply them or learn from them where possible in today’s struggles. And another one was just to also provide a space for activists and union organisers, historians, scholars to contribute documents and photographs and critical reflections on housing history to provide a space for people to write up contributions, to share things they’ve written before. And almost a space as a little training ground where we can get better at doing these kinds of things.

And the last one was to also start to document and archive the history of Living Rent itself is a tenants union. So over the past five years it’s gone through a huge number of changes and it’s very quickly that that story can get lost, especially there’s not a lot of time in the day-to-day organising to sit down and record and to collate documents and reflections. So those were some of the main aims from setting out. But started as a project with myself and Frances Lingard who designed the website with support from the WEA and the Lipman-Miliband Trust. But we’ve done a lot of different events, we’ve spoken with a lot of different groups, and we’re looking this year to establish a kind of collective that can take hold of the archive and decide how we want to resource it, and what we want to do with it going forward.

Niall Murphy:

Sure. It’s really interesting because it’s quite topical for me, I’m, with one of my other hats on, I’m the chair of Govanhill Baths Building Preservation Trust. But I was, for a very brief period, the chair of the Govanhill Baths Community Trust, and they have their archive, which is all to do with working class struggles as well and is headed up by archivist, Paula Larkin, I think is absolutely core to that project. And the fact that this all does need to be properly documented; what happened in Glasgow. It’s this fascinating history and it’s got to be put down somewhere. So that to me is absolutely central to what we’ve been doing at Govanhill Baths.

Joey Simons:

Aye, aye. And I think with Paula, yeah, look, I’ve known Paula for a long time and she’s been kind of invaluable as a resource support for the Glasgow Housing Struggle Archive. So she led a great workshop for us at the Deep End space. We’re not trained archivists or professionals, we’re coming at this from a different angle. So Paula gave a great workshop on digitisation, on scanning, on record keeping that we did. And recently I had two other people involved in the Housing Struggle Archive went a long to an oral history training session that Paula and the Community Archives Heritage Group put on. So I think also that idea of gaining these skills and sharing these skills so people are able to engage in oral history.

Niall Murphy:

Document the history.

Joey Simons:

Document things properly, and just to make that a public resource rather than just kind of something in the hands of specialist only. So Paula’s been invaluable.

Niall Murphy:

She’s a great mentor. I have tonnes of time for Paula. I really like her.

Joey Simons:

Aye, because another thing that they had their 20th anniversary, the Govanhill Baths occupation.

Niall Murphy:

Yes.

Joey Simons:

So they had that Occupy Occupy Occupy event. So we spoke at that on post-war squatting movement in Glasgow. So in 1946 to 1948, the mass occupation of former Army camps, and then the occupation of abandoned mansions and buildings, press offices in Glasgow after the war, which again, is just a bit, understand your own history. I knew a bit about the Scottish movement in London, for example.

Niall Murphy:

But not up here.

Joey Simons:

Famous example of yeah, Kensington Mansions being squatted. But the Glasgow side of it, just the main thing I’ve read about it was in this unpublished PhD by Charles Johnson. So we were able to examine some of that history to share it at the Occupy Conference, and then it was turned into a part of this graphic novel that came out from the conference. So it was really amazing, it was a comic book artist took each of the presentations at the Occupy Conference and transformed it into this 50-page comic book.

Niall Murphy:

I didn’t know about this, this is fascinating.

Joey Simons:

Really amazing. So you can get it, I think, through the Govanhill Baths Community Trust website.

Niall Murphy:

Okay.

Joey Simons:

So it was the Lee Jeans Occupation, like a Castlemilks Claimants Union, like this whole history of occupation. So yeah, we’ve been able to do things like that in terms of using the idea of the archive to speak about different aspects of housing history. But this question of a physical archive, documents, storage, record keeping, that’s a huge issue. We’re definitely not in a position to do that yet, but it’s more about building connections with existing archives and collections that relate to this history and finding a way to maybe share resources across existing archives to look at this one particular aspect around housing. So we’re trying to figure it out.

Niall Murphy:

All right. Well, turning back to housing then. And the next question is, much of Glasgow and how we live in Glasgow has been shaped by housing struggles, and yet for many of us, that’s a hidden history. And ironically, we seem to know more about all these radical campaigns during the past, such as Mary Barbour’s 1915 Rent Strike. And so can you bring us up to date in terms of all that housing struggle in the subsequent period? And how does the timeline run in the housing struggle archive?

Joey Simons:

Aye. It’s kind of a complex question.

Niall Murphy:

I know, sorry.

Joey Simons:

Trying to figure it out. So yeah, I guess one thing that we’ve looked at is, in particular, these post-war housing struggles from 1945 onwards and within that framework, urban industrial change in Glasgow. So we’ve kind of got our timeline that we’re building that we’ve looked at a different number of, so for example, 1946 to 1948, the squatting movement that took place in Glasgow after the war in that period, you had a hundred thousand people homeless, a hundred thousand people on corporation waiting lists. And this mass squatting movement led by different tenants associations, elements of the Communist Party, but also just homeless families themselves in Govan and Gorbals in the East End was desperate for anywhere to live.

And again, that framing, sometimes it’s scene in a bit like this Ken Loach The Spirit of ’45 narrative where the Labour government gets elected and suddenly this utopia emerges from on high this mass programme of council house building. But when you look at it, there was constant struggle from below to put pressure on the Labour government on the state and the local state in Glasgow to push forward where housing demolition, some demolition, and were new house building. There was different conflicts. The Labour government was criminalising the squatting movement. So it was kind of different dynamics at play that maybe even within left wing history it’s important to look at again.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, it’s a really complex period then. Trying to understand and tease it apart is quite complex too, because you’ve also got the progressives in the council who were actually the conservative party and more right wing elements and who came together and they were really pro things like the high rises in the city. So it’s quite fascinating to see that as well. Everybody seemed to be focused on housing numbers and really generating the housing numbers, but not actually giving much consideration to the shape and form of the city that they’re actually developing.

Joey Simons:

Yeah, and I think in a way that even the progressives and conservative forces were forced to have that concern with housing construction because of the pressure, just the basic material public health pressure, because the situation was so appalling, but also because the working class movement had a clear set of demands on housing that couldn’t be ignored by no matter who was in power in the local state. But yeah, so that’s kind of the next section, after that squatting movement’s high point, maybe 1946, 1948, the progressives getting power in Glasgow Corporation in 1950, 1951. And that huge campaign around the proposed selloff of council houses at the Merrylee scheme in the southside of Glasgow. So that’s one of the kind historical struggles we’ve looked most at is this kind of huge coalition of mainly, well really led initially, by building workers, by the workers who were building these council houses themselves.

Also had tenant associations with women organising and also with the wider industrial labour movement in Glasgow that came together to demand that there was no selloff of this new high amenity scheme that had been built in Merrylee. So that’s quite an amazing period in a sense. I think one aspect that’s most interesting is you had the building workers themselves really feeling that they had built these houses, that the houses belonged to the people of Glasgow. And this context of mass squalor and homelessness and overcrowding that was still the situation six years after the end of war. That the idea that these council houses were going to be sold off for private rent provoked this fury in the movement in Glasgow.
And there’s amazing scenes described at the first demonstration in George Square where… There’s accounts in Charles Johnson’s PhD of people talking about it being like storming the Bastille, that women, they broke into the city chambers, that they were like flinging dead rats at the Councillors as they were talking about selling off the houses, and this huge movement that developed across the year, that was eventually victorious, the Labour council got voted back in.

And they were forced basically to be voted back in, in this single issue, refusing to sell off the houses. So two of the leading figures in that movement were Ned Donaldson and Les Forster, who were construction workers and communists, who had a long history of organising in Glasgow, and were central to that campaign. So yeah, we were involved recently in helping to republish the pamphlet that Ned Donaldson had put together, partly at the time, and also in the 1990s through our project Transmission and Ned Donaldson’s daughter, Annie Donaldson, is a professor at Strathclyde Uni.

Niall Murphy:

Right.

Joey Simons:

We worked very hard to basically, and the Scottish Labour History Society to republish Ned Donaldson’s account of the Merrylee Housing scandal in 1951 with new contextual essays by Valerie Wright and also James Kelman.

Niall Murphy:

Okay.

Joey Simons:

Who knew Ned and Les and looked at the other tradition, communist tradition in Glasgow.

Niall Murphy:

Yes.

Joey Simons:

So that’s been really, that’s the thing that’s really exciting to be involved in, that we’re republishing these pamphlets, the proceeds of the sales of that publication all go to Living Rent. So yeah, that’s been a really good project. You can get copies of it, if you get in touch. It’s still there.

Niall Murphy:

I’d be very interested to read that. I mean, because that brings us onto to my next question, which you’re talking about this incredibly radical time. What you’re describing basically another riot in front of the city chambers, completely fascinating.

But does that happen now? Has Glasgow become less radical as a city and what happens to cities when communities are displaced, street names change? It’s that poverty which used to be really obvious and clear has become more hidden as it’s been moved to the other areas of the city that it’s been dispersed into parts of the city that are more remote.

So how do you handle stuff like that? And looking at your 2022 exhibition in Edinburgh’s Collective Gallery, which you called The Fearful Part of it was the Absence, which is a really fascinating title. What does it tell us about Glasgow’s housing struggle and perhaps its relationship to the built environment?

Joey Simons:

Yeah, so I mean, I think just to go back briefly to that timeline, housing struggles. So I think if you look at that campaign around the house in Merrylee in 1950 1951, ’52, in a way that’s the last moment of that particular coalition that had existed in Glasgow since the early 20th Century. In terms that around this housing struggle, you had mass involvement in building workers, you had the threats of industrial action, you had engineering yards. So for example, the workers at Weir’s Yard and Cathcart threatened to withdraw their labour if that the sale went ahead. This huge list of working class organisations and industrial trade unions and workers committee. So in a way that never happened again in Glasgow. Potentially a little bit around the Poll Tax, but subsequent housing struggles from the late 1950s onwards are in a way much more localised, much smaller scale in a way, and really took place without this wider support of a labour movement or the threat of industrial action.

So the rent strikes of tenants in the Hutchesontown E flats in the Gorbals in the 1970s and 1980s, the campaign of the residents in Easterhouse around damp mould in the ’80s and ’90s, like Jeanette McGinn and the campaign for Rehouse and the Family and Castle Milk the nineties. So kind of incredible stuff going on, but in a completely different context than say 1915 or even 1950, where you have this huge working class labour movement that provides this possible background threat of industrial action to force action, house and different dynamics there. Yeah, I think it’s not like, it’s difficult to say as a question Glasgow becoming less radical. I mean, you’ve got huge processes change across the 20th Century, 21st Century that are affecting every city in every country in Britain and in Europe in terms the decline of Labour and Socialist movements, and I guess in Glasgow as well, through the extremes of de-industrialization urban redevelopment, that the basis of the communities that had fought these struggles is constantly been broken up, is resources attacked and it’s history taken away.

So I think it’s, yeah, it’s difficult whether a place has become less radical. I mean, yeah, I don’t know. It’s a difficult way of framing it maybe. But I think that the thing I was looking at for collective in that quote around the fearful part of it was the absence came from Lord Coburn, Henry Coburn observed in the huge demonstrations around the Reform Act in the 1830s and being on this demonstration in Glasgow and being frightened in a way of the silence. The fear full thing was the absence of riot and this feeling that any moment the shocky electricity could run through and explode. But the scary thing was that it didn’t, and I took that idea to look at aspects of the history of rioting in Glasgow. And in particular the riots that didn’t happen. So for example, in the 1980s, these explosions in Brixton and Handsworth and tox in different cities down south didn’t happen up here.

It didn’t happen up here. And there’s an amazing documentary called Whose Town Is It Anyway? Easterhouse: People and Power from 1984 and includes interviews with a journalist from the Voice from the local community paper up in Easterhouse. And the guy talks about these police from London and from Belfast all coming to Easterhouse after these explosions in the mid 1980s to go, why didn’t that happen in Easterhouse? What can the state learn? Why was it successfully avoided here? These riots and this resistance? And the journalist says that the cops were obsessed with race, with this racist explanation saying that there was no black people in Easterhouse at that’s how there was no riots. And he says they toured the scheme and they kept coming back. They’d kept trying to get a local community to take this standpoint. But the journalist said that the reason there was no riots in Easterhouse was because there was not a single bit of private property and the whole scheme that people could riot from one end of Easterhouse to other, and it wouldn’t be called a riot because there was nothing of value in terms of private value to destroy.

And that the only thing people could attack in a way was themselves. So it’s interesting because these are even further, back in the 19th century as well, there was attempts to portray the docile Scottish worker as different from rebellious Irish workers that had come into the city. And skipping forward to 2011 again when there was riots in London and Manchester across England, that same thing didn’t happen in Glasgow. And again, you had these journalists, credible article on the Daily Record where they brought on these different academics and journalists and officials to opine about why the riots didn’t reach Glasgow. And again, as had one academic, Sterling was saying, yeah, because there was fewer ethnic minorities in Glasgow and Scotland. That’s why the riots didn’t, I mean, this is in 2011 saying that.

Niall Murphy:

Sorry, I’m bobbing my head in astonishment.

Joey Simons:

It’s incredible in this way saying that they’re in England, they patronise and condescend ethnic minorities, they’re not strict enough with, just this incredible, openly racist explanation.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, yeah, quite.

Joey Simons:

But there was other interesting ones though. One explanation was that the miner strike was not as serious in Scotland as in England. So this rupture between police and communities taking place during the miner strike was somehow less bad.

Niall Murphy:

I don’t see how that’s related.

Joey Simons:

So the other thing was saying that, yeah, people in Scotland somehow had a more meaningful connection to their own history compared to England. That also the urban structured was different as well because, and Glasgow and Edinburgh, the rich and poor didn’t live cheek by jowl. So somehow this meant that riots were less likely to occur. And what’s the stuff about the rain that, because it was raining up here, that that was the main explanation why there was no riots. And again, looking back in the 1820, you had this, the Scottish insurrection, this uprising in weavers and other workers across the west of Scotland that took place in 1820. And there’s an amazing account of one of the Dragoons that was involved in suppressing the uprising. And he talks about how in a way, all the military preparations and repression was far less important than the fact that it just rained the heavens. It down poured that day in 1820.

Niall Murphy:

And stopped people gathering.

Joey Simons:

So it’s just these incredible cycles of repression, but also how that history is seen and also in a way that those absences have also shaped the city. Because obviously, in the wake of it, Brixton, you had the Scarman report, you had these major investigations about what was happening in England’s inner cities that had led to these riots and explosions. And a way, because that didn’t happen in Glasgow schemes in Edinburgh. In a way it’s like everything’s fine in Scotland, we’re better than England, that there’s no reason to.

Niall Murphy:

But it doesn’t explain things like, I mean, going back to Mary Barbour’s strike, which is obviously the most well known one that starts in Glasgow. The rent strike starts in Glasgow and it spreads nationwide from Glasgow, was the method of how they organised that strike in Glasgow is completely fascinating. But how would you do the same thing in some of the English towns and cities where you had a completely different architectural form, you’ve not got the tenement, which down in England is associated with poverty, whereas in Scotland it covers all classes. So you don’t have the same structure of say eight different families living together collectively in a close and having the same collective responses to the pressures that they were under.

Joey Simons:

Yeah. Although I guess it’s like, yeah, people find a way no matter what and that, yeah, like you say, it is the specific forms of house and struggle are to a greater or a lesser extent going to be shaped by that physical environment. So in that account of the 1915 Rent Strikes Joseph Mellon talks about that how this enforced collectivity of the tenement was crucial to how the former, the 1915 rent strike took place in terms of tenement committees, kitchen meetings, back court meetings, and you had that physical setup in a way. And that this idea yet in an industrial strike, you’re locked out, but in a rent strike, you’re in the fortification. The women held the houses against the factors, and there’s the famous accounts of the factors being attacked with peas and soup meal and everything when they come and trying to evict people. But I think also, oh sorry.

Niall Murphy:

No, no. I was just wondering could it be the after, I mean the point where you’ve got your rights in the 1950s and then beyond that from the 1960s onwards, you get the comprehensive development area policies and the tenement as a structure that helps structure working class communities is smashed and you get a whole load of working class neighbourhoods that are cleared, completely cleared, obliterated as a consequence of that. And the soft networks you need in all of those communities to tie the society together is obliterated as part of that. And people are scattered to the four winds across the city and end up randomly in neighbourhoods on the external edges of the city. So those ties are all massively weakened by that. Could it be something to do with that?

Joey Simons:

Yeah, no, absolutely. I think that, and it’s this debate to what extent with these developments and post for some clearance and urban regeneration and comprehensive redevelopment.

Niall Murphy:

It’s much more extreme in Glasgow than it is in any of English cities.

Joey Simons:

And in a way that also though the housing situation in Glasgow is more extreme, so forth, and that Charles Johnson’s PhD does this amazing little table about the percentage and different Scottish and English cities of people living in one room houses without internal bathroom. And the numbers are crazy. I mean, in Glasgow, the 50% of population living in one or two rooms in 1951.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, yeah, shocking.

Joey Simons:

The next equivalent city Leeds or Manchester is about 3%, 4%. So the levels of overcrowding are just incomparable to anywhere else in Britain. But I think it’s why it’s interesting to go back that it’s like we look back now and I think it’s a bit this Romanticisation about could we have saved the tenements and this nostalgia that is a bit taken out of context. And if you look at Harry McShane and other leading figures in the Clydeside workers movement, they were constantly saying that slum clearance wasn’t proceeding fast enough. The new scheme building wasn’t proceeding fast enough. So yeah, I think that emergency.

Niall Murphy:

The pressures from both sides. I’m really fascinated by this because it was one of the things we touched on one of the previous podcast, and I was speaking to Reverend Dr. John Harvey of the Gorbal’s Group, who’s in his late ’80s, but still as sharp as a tack and still completely open-minded and what to know about stuff. And it was about his experience in the globals at the time and how they sent delegations to the council and to say, please don’t destroy the area. Don’t do it. It was the first of the comprehensive development areas. Don’t destroy the area. What it needs is reform. What it needs is investment in the buildings. It needs infrastructure, but you don’t necessarily have to bulldoze the entire thing and scatter the community while you’re at it. And they just weren’t listened to. And for me it was really fascinating to discover that the city had sent delegations when they were looking at the Motorway network and recreating it.

So the white heat technology stuff, great leap forward for Glasgow is that you completely re-geared this Victorian Edwardian city to something that’s fit for the future. And this great leap forward is going to solve all of our problems because we’re going to shift the emphasis onto to the car rather than a walkable city. And they send these delegations to the States to look at it. And for me, that’s completely fascinating because you get people like you ever come across Dr Mindy Thompson Fullilove, in the States who’s she’s really interesting. So she writes on this as a neighbourhood in Pittsburgh, and funny enough, Glasgow sent a delegation to Pittsburgh to find out what they’re doing with their expressway there. And one of the expressway carved its way right through an African American neighbourhood, which was incredibly culturally interesting, really rich and vibrant African American neighbourhood, and completely destroys it, replaces it with this expressway and a huge conference centre.

And the community are scattered to the four winds. And she wrote this book in it called Root Shock. And it’s all to do with the impact on that community and how it destroys the integrity of the community. It completely undermines their spirit and it creates a sense of eunoia in the community that they’ve lost a sense of purpose because their surroundings have been completely destroyed. And you look at that and you look at what happened when they were creating the inner ring road or wanting to create the inner ring road in Glasgow. And I just look at it and I see all the parallels there. It was this community that people were embarrassed about because they thought reflected badly on Glasgow so it was the worst slum in Northern Europe. And it was like, right, okay, let’s not try and fix the problem. Let’s just obliterate it and or forget about it.

And it’s that that really, really disturbs me those parallels that what we’ve done, if you look at it now, you think, why would you have done something so incredibly racist? And it may be not racist here, but we’ve done the same thing in terms of class as of move. Yeah. We’ve wiped out a working class community that everyone was slightly ashamed of, and yet with some with a really interesting, fascinating culture.

Joey Simons:

Yeah. Because it’s interesting because there’s a Oscar Marzaroli film, Glasgow 1981 that was made in 1971, that’s this propaganda version for what you were talking about. No, its amazing, it’s a great film and the jazzy music and the car going over the Kingston Bridge and this brave future women are playing squash. And I don’t know, it’s like we’re all working in these high-tech industries, but there’s William McIlvanney, the so author of Laidlaw wrote their introduction to Marzaroli’s collection Shades of Grey, and yes, one of my favourite piece of writing about Glasgow. And he mentions, he talks about this slum clearance and the post-war redevelopment and the fact that changes had to be made, but they were made by people with all the imagination of soldier ants. Yeah. So these labour officials that should’ve known better, the idea was that working class aspirations stopped at an inside toilet and that nothing would be lost basically by unstitching and demoliting these communities that had built a way of life over centuries.

And that this malignant implication was no such thing as working class culture. So nothing would be lost by destroying things in this way. Yeah. I mean I think that is even more so the case now in the sense, at least for all the mistakes was made, that is the first time when you had this mass programme, a council house building overwhelming concern whether despite all the contradictions that everything that happened was a concern with how do you provide decent housing for the majority of people in the city for the first time that it’s going to be publicly owned and basically all right for people.

And I think what is happening now in the city is worse in a sense, is that the demolitions and social cleansing we’re seeing, and this highly unequal urban development is only aim is to privatise the remains of social housing to sell off land for private speculation and development to break apart what was achieved in the sense that the housing is not what it was in 1945, but we’re starting to see more and more those inequalities in our housing condition. And it’s an unaffordable rent.

Niall Murphy:

It’s depressing.

Joey Simons:

And overall development that is not like for what end, at least to that period in the ’50s and ’60s, they’re dealing with extreme crisis. And also that was the demands from the slum dwellers themself in a way was for clearance. Obviously there was battles fought over how that happened. But I think, yeah, that point though about you were saying about this delegation, I think is really interesting and that appears at certain points.

Niall Murphy:

It does. It does.

Joey Simons:

Glasgow corporations. Yeah. So when the talk that in the mid 19th century before the city improvement acts in the 1870s, this delegation from the corporation, go and visit Paris and Baron Von Haussmann.

Niall Murphy:

Yes. Yeah. Lord Provost Blackie and Dr. William Gardner and.

Joey Simons:

Exactly. Yeah.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah. John Carrick.

Joey Simons:

Yeah. Exactly. And there’s lots of debate about Haussmann and what that meant for Paris, and it’s militarization of the boulevards.

Niall Murphy:

Totally, there’s a great Èmile Zola novel on this La Curée, which is the Kill, and it’s all about the speculators making all the money on the back of what Haussmann’s doing because they’re able to get access to his plans and they’re buying up the land. I mean, unofficially get access to his plans and they’re buying up the land along these great avenues and just speculating and making an absolute killing on it. And it’s the cynicism of it. And I do wonder, I’d love to see a Glasgow equivalent of that if there were people doing the same thing in Glasgow, because I expect there probably were in various parts, that they knew that these things were coming not just in the 1860s and ’70s, but also in the 1950s onwards, that people knew and they were speculating.

Joey Simons:

And well, much more recently in that you were seeing, you’ve had Chris Leslie and Mitch Miller on, and obviously they were involved in different projects in the Commonwealth Games in 2014. They were held in Glasgow, and there was Neil Grey and Libby Porter and others ran the Glasgow Games monitor to try to take a bit of a critical eye on this mega event in the East end. And yeah, Chris documented the eviction of Margaret Jaconelli by hundreds of police from her flat. And the games monitor documented these, I don’t know, seemingly extremely corrupt land deals that were happening around the East End in terms of the council selling land very cheap around the East End to certain developers and speculators, who then sold it back to the council for tens of millions of pounds more. So I think you can see… But in a way, though, that is our standard model of regeneration. That’s nothing to be ashamed about.

Yeah, and this compulsory purchase order was used to evict Margaret Jaconelli, but not to take any of the land that was needed around the East End from developers. But I think to go back to your point about what was that kind of way of life and networks that were built up over hundred of years and then people being scattered to the four corners.

But then you look in Easterhouse of Castlemilk, Drumchapel, like people did, it took a long time, but in those environments, people did again, start to recreate the basis for collective organisation in the schemes and yeah, it’s interesting like WEA pamphlet, Castlemilk People’s History Group, the big flip, where yeah, just talk… People obviously didn’t, the only spaces where the churches initially, and also community gardens, for example, Castlemilk, that was the only place people could physically come and meet. But over the decades they built up the tenants associations, the residents associations, and then around The Poll Tax and the claimants unions and Easterhouse, you had the Easterhouse Summer Festival, you had rent strikes and big campaigning around the Rent Act in the 1970s. You had a whole radical culture, that people forged and forced the authorities to take stock in the extreme conditions that the houses were falling into.

Then, yeah, we had an event last night, the CCA with Living Rent and the Worker Stories project. We showed six different housing films in memory of Cathy McCormack, the Easterhouse activist. And Gary, her son, spoke really beautifully, just about her legacy and his experience as well of growing up in those conditions and the process of self-education that Cathy went through in order to gain the knowledge and the power she needed to fight for a radical change in the housing conditions and in Easthall, and the campaigning they did for these new sustainable houses there, a struggle that she was fighting until the very end of her life.

So, I think people did find a way to come together. And it’s interesting compared to 1915, there was a big, you were fighting in a city where 90% of housing stock is owned by private landlords. Seventies and eighties, “Your new landlord is Glasgow Housing Department.” But in a way, it doesn’t matter who the tenants, everyone is going to keep fighting for a basic dignified life.

So, I think we were coming back… So, on Saturday just there, we had an action. With Living Rent in Dennistoun, and one of our members, Pierette is living in a private let. She’s been there for 11 years with her four children. And I don’t know if you’ve seen any pictures, but the level of mould, the entire house covered in black mould, no heating upstairs until a few months ago, walls crumbing and collapsing, and Letting Agency blaming Pierette for breathing too much. “You’re taking the hot showers, you’re not opening the windows.” But this is exactly what Cathy McCormack and also the Dampness Campaign fought against this. The first thing is to take away this shame, this individualised shame where people are blamed for their own conditions. And those are-

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, totally. It’s straight back to kind of Victorian era Dickensian stuff. A warm home, it should be a human right.

Joey Simons:

Yeah, but I think in a way, what I was saying about this thing about things repeating, or lessons being learned, without the pressure of a housing movement, then the regression to the mean is for private interest, and even the state to exploit housing to the maximum degree to extract the most from it while investing the least.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah.

Joey Simons:

Yeah, so it was just interesting because we’ve done this stuff with House and Struggle archive. I sat down with one of the Living Rent organisers before the action. We were reading Cathy’s book, the Wheel of Butterfly. We were looking at the account of the rent strikes in the Hutchie E in the 1980s and the Dampness Monster.

Niall Murphy:

Yes.

Joey Simons:

The slogans they were using, the demands, and applying them quite directly to this situation we were in today. So yeah.

Niall Murphy:

It brings me onto my next question, which is all about what you’re doing, it’s about, in order to avoid falling back into those traps again, you need to know your history. And so it’s all about unearthing and then recording these hidden histories and bringing them back out into the light. And obviously lockdown has helped with some of that, because it’s given people the time and space to explore some of that. And during lockdown, and this is certainly something I did, was able to explore the streets of the surrounding area that I thought I knew and then was discovering all the stuff while I was doing it. And guided walks can reveal even more. But what you’re doing with the Glasgow Housing Struggle Archive, is exploring this kind idea of a different kind of city walking tour. So can you tell us anything about that and how you’re going about doing that?

Joey Simons:

One thing I’ve been looking at is the work of Neil Grey, who’s a housing scholar and activist based in Glasgow. And yeah, it’s been evolved over, for example, in the Glasgow Stock Transfer campaign, and has done masses of work into the politics of regeneration and urban development in Glasgow, especially in the East End, around the Commonwealth Games and in the north side of the city as well.
So, one idea he’s taken, sorry, is this idea of the territorial inquiry. So, emerging from these workers inquiries that took place in Italy in the 1960s during the hot years of strikes and resistance and the kind of industrial towns in Italy in the 1960s in the huge car factories in Turin. And of really trying to have a close investigation of what is the real material, social, economic, cultural consciousness factors within a factory, within one industrial unit, and what are all the technical connections, the political connections, and using this real investigation and knowledge as the basis for your political organising, rather than just abstract generalities.

So, a lot of Neil’s work has been about how, especially in Britain, that the main sites of capital accumulation now are less in industry, but really in land and in property. This is how capital is accumulating at the moment. This is the main ways how it passes through the built environment, how land is regenerated, how rent gaps are closed. So, on that basis, shifting this idea, the workers inquiry and the factory into the territory, like the neighbourhood, and a kind of spatial composition of capital. So, he has been developing this idea of the territorial inquiry, just a way of walking through space in your city and really trying to think what is happening there.

So we did one in Partick, I think… I can’t remember if it was before or after the first lockdown. But really walking through Partick, like the new build-to-rent accommodation, the student developments down by the Clyde, Glasgow Hardbar, the older tenement parts, and each person… So I was looking at some of the radical history in Partick. Other people had investigated the international investment funds that were involved in building different aspects of the student housing. And other people looked at how the former land along the river, and they’re owned by the Port Authority, is now in the hands of these speculative companies. And it’s just really a useful way to actually physically just walk through a space, to go from one end to other and think, “Yeah, who owns the land? Who was here before? Who owns it now? What are the conditions of the houses? And what are the points in common between all the different tenures here? What are the differences?” And kind of recording that walk, writing it up, leading to further points of investigations.

So yeah, that’s something we’re hoping to definitely do more of, and to do in different local areas. And then the results of these investigations can be recorded through the House and Struggle Archive and maybe… Yeah, you meet people, you speak to people, new things emerge, new things, connections come up.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, I love doing walking tours. So, big fan of that. Because it is a great way to connect with people and it’s a great way to explain facets of the city that are not necessarily obvious, and explain how cities changed over time and what the implications of that are, and how cities are always changing. So it’s trying to get that across to people, I think, is a really, it’s worthwhile way of doing it. It’s a great way to connect. And it’s a challenge too. I mean, one of the things haven’t led many walking towards, there’s nothing worse than somebody’s eyes glazing over what you’re talking to them.

Joey Simons:

Just cross the road.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, it’s like, “Okay, okay, that’s boring. Next.” Yeah, it’s a bit of a challenge, but…

Joey Simons:

But the thing is, like another project I’m involved in just now with the Edwin Morgan Trust, is looking at the life and work of James McFarland, this kind of 19th century peddler poet who was born in the Calton. And he wrote a lot of, I mean, he’d lived in abject poverty his entire life. It’s the usual Glasgow poetic life. He walk from Glasgow to London on foot to get some of his poems published by Dickens and came back up the road here, was totally not… Anyway, but yeah, he wrote a lot about the attics and garrets where he lived, and this incredible apocalyptic poem called The Ruined City, where he just presents this hell-scape vision of Glasgow in the mid-19th century.

So, it’s looking at his work and also the work of Edwin Morgan, the 20th century Scottish poet and his Glasgow Sonnets, I think one of the best bits of writing, trying to think through Glasgow’s redevelopment in the 1970s, to use their writing to look at what’s happening in Glasgow now, where in a way there’s not a poet of a urban change in Glasgow. There’s far less discourse around it compared to, for example, the 19th century. Or we’re still talking a lot about slum clearance, comprehensive redevelopment. Whereas the transformational regeneration areas that are taking place across Glasgow just now, are receiving far less and a discussion, and actually the work of Mitch Miller and Chris Leslie are some of the few people that have really documented this latest round of regeneration of Glasgow, of demolition, of the high rises, transformation of places like Sighthill.

Yeah, I guess it’s just interesting that in a way, despite all our technology and the social media and the massive amount of information that’s exchanged constantly, that I think there’s far less being talked about Glasgow now, or far less understanding about the processes of change happening in the city now, compared to previous periods.

So I took a walk through the city centre looking at McFarland’s route. There’s this huge Barclays Bank development on the south side of the Clyde that has just arisen with all this associated luxury build-to-rent under the Kingston Bridge, there’s this new Kingston Quay, another huge development of massive build-to-rent private equity capital investments. The same time I was up in Sighthill the other day, and that’s constantly, this is the biggest project outside Glasgow’s 250 million pound regeneration of Sighthill.

Niall Murphy:

Yes.

Joey Simons:

It’s interesting up there’s been 140 GHA houses built. The tenants that managed to stick out the very end of their tenancies on Sighthill have got out, or have got flats now. The rest of the site, it’s quite incredible. It’s just fencing everywhere. There’s this fancy entrance way off Springburn Road. You walk up, it ends in a fence, you walk back down Pinkston Drive, another fence. You have to kick in a bit of a fence to get into the scheme. You walk around, the whole thing is kind of fenced off or empty all along Sighthill Cemetery, you can’t get out. You can’t cross the road to get into it.

I was speaking to someone, like one of the few people I met there, and she was saying that’s because they’re still remediating the land from all the chemical damage. But some people are living there. Others know that was, in Sighthill, that was two and a half thousand units, so council housing that was built, that’s been replaced by 140 GHA flats. And then 800 private-bought flats, some mid-market rent. So, that’s a huge change.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, absolutely.

Joey Simons:

There’s mass erasure of that community. Very few people are going to be able to come back. But again, there’s no… Where can you discuss this in a way? And I think it’s even interesting looking at these Glasgow Corporation Housing films throughout the, after the war, where you have these propaganda films in a way, explaining and talking about these huge changes that are taking place, like high-rise flats, the motorway, the new schemes. But there is some kind of critical discussion in those films about the problems Glasgow faces, about the problems, the inequalities, the contradictions in the urban plans. Whereas now, well if you go on the Glasgow City Council YouTube, there’s no films being made discussing-

Niall Murphy:

No, not in the same way.

Joey Simons:

… what’s happening in Sighthill or any kind of critical potential that maybe there’s some questionable things happening or things that you can talk about or challenge.

So, I think in a way, because of all the processes, the change that’s happened, that in a way we have much less knowledge at the moment, and we’re facing a much more difficult process to understand and also to combat. And there’s a kind of hegemonic discourse that urban regeneration, this is the only path, the correct path, that there’s no room for discussion, that private investment, private housing, the sale of public land, this is the answer to Glasgow’s problems. But you look at this huge development that’s happening in the city centre, in the financial district, seven new luxury hotels in Glasgow city centre. Yet we’ve just seen the budget release there, cuts to Mitchell Library, cuts to sport, cuts to communities, cuts to cleansing. And you’re thinking, “Well, how come Glasgow could afford these things in the seventies and eighties-

Niall Murphy:

And we can’t now-

Joey Simons:

… when we were much poorer.

Niall Murphy:

… when we’re supposedly a richer society. Yeah, that’s a very good question.

Joey Simons:

So what is all this huge speculative urban development? Where is the money going? Who is benefiting from this? How can this two stories be told that this is the Glasgow miracle, and at the same time, the basic infrastructure of the city is crumbling?
But I think it’s not necessarily a clear answer, but at least if we can critically discuss it, and through Living Rent, we’re seeing the consequences every day in terms of rent increases, housing quality, damp, mould-

Niall Murphy:

Sure.

Joey Simons:

… a basic breakdown.

Niall Murphy:
Okay.

Joey Simons:

And you’re right to housing. Sorry.

Niall Murphy:

That brings me onto the next point, which is the role of women in Glasgow’s housing struggles. And it just comes up again and again and again, the central role that women play in these struggles. And it’s something that I’m wanting to talk about in our podcast with the Glasgow Women’s Library, which is going to come further on in the series. So you have generations of women who have done these incredibly inspiring things in Glasgow and have achieved remarkable results in terms of the housing in the city. And so I just wanted to ask you how that had come about, and is that role now changing?

Joey Simons:

Yeah, in a way that… The first thing to say is that that history, women’s political organising and movements has been consistently marginalised, and not only by official narratives, but within Labour history itself and within the Labour movement. So there’s an amazing film called Red Skirts on Clydeside that was made by the Sheffield Film Co-op in the 1970s, that told really for the first time or in a long time, the story of the 1915 rent strikes. And they met and they interviewed women who, as children, remembered growing up at the time of the rent strikes, were involved in the rent strikes.

The film is interesting because it shows the women who were doing the historical research, and they go to the Marks Memorial Library, I think it is, and they’re looking in different archives, working class archives, and there’s nothing about the rent strikes. There’s no box marked Women or Housing. And they eventually find this box marked Miscellaneous that’s like packed at the back of the way, that has some of the documents about this. So now it seems obvious, but in a way even that story in 1915, which was probably the most successful action or campaign ever fought by the Scottish working class in terms of its immediate results, and that that was really marginalised.

So, like Willy Gallagher, in his famous revolt in the Clyde, barely mentions that. Harry McShane in his autobiography talks about how, that even within the working class movement, most of the women, well McShane or John McLean or Willy Gallagher, that they also were very traditional, that they were wage slaves and their women were slaves of the slaves, even within the most radical ailments of workers’ movement.

So, it’s been a long process. It was a long process to recover that history in 1915 against the prejudices of the Labour movement itself. And that’s just more generally as well, that housing is always this secondary issue to workplace and industrial struggles, but actually it’s been provided the kind of context for some of the most radical and successful struggles have been in housing rather than being in industry in Glasgow.

Niall Murphy:

Very much, yes.

Joey Simons:

So, the Women’s Library, I think has played a crucial role in sharing that history. And we had another, one of the films that we showed last night was about the Take Root Women’s Self-Build Co-op, that was organising in Glasgow in the 1990s, where, as a response to homelessness and precarious housing, a group of women formed a self-build co-op that trained up as construction workers to work with Molendinar Housing Association to build the houses and to build the kind of housing that would meet their needs for the first time. And raised funds, and over years and years and years, led this project, only for the last minute for all the funding to be pulled because it was supposedly sexist, that this would’ve been housing only for women. And you can imagine that kind of tabloid campaigns that were taking place at the time. And the Cathy McCormack’s archive as well, which is now at the Glasgow Women’s Library. Cathy meticulously documented all the years that you saw, resident associations.

Niall Murphy:

I’m particularly interested in what Cathy did as well. It’s my next question for you, is all about what Cathy did and how her fight against the mould was this kind of incredibly powerful collaboration with the Easterhouse residents and architects and scientists, which resulted in this kind of innovative method to cut dampness and high fuel costs. And yet we’re going through that again.

Joey Simons:

Yeah.

Niall Murphy:

And it’s high for your costs, and yet we’re going through that again. It’s dreadfully depressing. Why is it happening again?

Joey Simons:

I think just to go back a wee bit, women have been in the leadership of housing struggles because they have been the ones that have suffered the consequences the most because of everything we know about how society is structured. Women were the ones dealing with the rents, that were dealing with housing conditions, that were trying to maintain the conditions, a dignified life and conditions of extreme overcrowd and poverty, poor housing, and also having to fight the prejudices within their own families and within the working class movement itself.

You read her book, and Kathy’s story, people don’t want to become activists. People just want to have a dignified, decent, fulfilling life without having to constantly fight. But Kathy, the day that she came back from the hospital with healthy babies and she took them home and she had sick children. This kind of shame that attacks you because it’s like you are responsible for this. Why is this happening? You can’t share this with anyone else because it’s so shameful. But eventually her being forced to overcome that and then fight this incredible battle against Glasgow Housing Department officials against elements, scientific establishment. Gary talked yesterday that you quoted this academic at the time saying that he was certain that there was no connection between bad housing and poor health, signing off on stuff.

So Kathy was forced to fight this and through this recognising that her individual problems were the problems of her community and the problems of her community were those of communities across Glasgow and then eventually the world in South Africa and Nicaragua. And the film that we showed last night that she made was called The War Without Bullets, this poverty that was killing more people than bombs and guns. And this kind of innovative approach where she talks about, as well as organising Easthall Residence Association, making links with middle class professionals, with technical service agencies, with professors, architects at GSA to kind of build that coalition that could put the pressure needed on the housing department to get the changes they need. But in her book, she constantly talks about fighting these battles where people on your side are well-meaning professionals that are constantly in a way trying to take her voice away from her or speak for her and speak for her community, and this kind of process of radical education organising and fighting that she did that.

And that’s the thing, as soon as that pressure stops and it takes a massive toll on people trying to raise a family, trying to survive in poverty, trying to survive your housing trying to kill you, as well as organising activism, it’s a difficult process. It takes its toll on people. And as soon as those movements can be sidelined or repressed, then again you just revert to this meaning where the state and private capital is interested in working class housing, if at all, is to invest as little as possible from it and to extract the maximum from it. And that’s why we’re seeing these housing conditions reappearing today. Because without pressure from below, then the interest of the builders and speculators and officials and landlords is that housing is not a home. It’s a commodity to be speculated on.

Niall Murphy:

It seems to be a particularly British disease, unfortunately that, and it’s so frustrating. It really does depress me. I mean, I come from Hong Kong originally, and what really angers me is when you get Tory politicians, and I know I’m not meant to be political, but talking about Singapore and Hong Kong as being these kind of societies to aspire to, and yet they’re both the biggest public housing landlords in the world, and they really look after the people. And it’s so frustrating that we’ve gone in completely, we’re kind of went in that direction in the 1950s and we’ve completely abandoned it from the 1980s onwards.

Joey Simons:

And I think that is the overall lesson from the Glasgow Housing struggle archive is that without tenants organising, without housing movements from below, then you won’t win anything. And I think you’re saying you are not meant to be political. I think that’s the other question is that this form of market led state facilitated urban development that we’re seeing in Glasgow is presented as beyond politics. Tory, Labour, Green, SNP, it doesn’t matter who’s been in the council chambers, it’s almost unquestionable what’s happening. It’s beyond is presented as beyond politics. So we’ve just seen a 16% budget cut to social housing budget, but the sell off of public land in Glasgow, the destruction of social housing, the demolition of communities like Sighthill, this is presented as a natural inevitable process.

Nobody is challenging that planning framework from within any of those parties because it’s seen as kind of inevitable and within a wider system, it is. Glasgow, you have to compete, you have this kind of boosterist approach, you have to attract private investment, you have to stop anything that might put off potential investors. So I think that’s what we’re trying to do as well, is intervene within Living Rent is that there is a different vision for housing for our city that Kathy and others have fought for. And it’s completely necessary because this current one is not working for the vast majority of people.

Niall Murphy:

That brings me onto my next question, which is basically how you present that in terms of street names tell a story about the history of the city and how those street names came about, but development and redevelopment and demolition of the city bring a sense of loss, which is a theme of our podcast. But can you explain why words matter in the past and present stories of Glasgow’s housing struggle? How are you going to use that to improve things?

Joey Simons:

Yeah. Well, I think the basic thing about looking at this history is that you see people have organised in the past in the streets and in the same community where you are now, it breaks down this sense of a inevitability that you’re just kind of pushed by these forces from above to go along with whatever. And I think words are really important. So for example, this Glasgow Harbour development. So it’s obviously down by Partick, but Partick is being erased from the name of that development. And if you think about Partick, you can make these connections back to 1915, back to the rent strikes, Partick was one of the centres of that, histories of industrial organisation of migration. And it’s interesting that you’re not Partick Harbour, these investors you’re not come to live in a specific area of a specific city with its own history, its own tradition. It’s just this abstract bit of land in a luxury house, it could be anywhere.
I did some work with some young people living in the scheme in Townhead. That’s another place being erased, they’re literally being hemmed in on all sides by student accommodation, by the college, by the expansion of Strathclyde University, surrounded by libraries and swimming pool and bars and rooftop terraces they can’t access. And they’re saying that the name of Townhead is disappearing. There’s nothing there’s no signs to Townhead. You can’t even see into it now from George Square. It says Collegelands. This is the name of this new area. Nobody has a connection to it, it’s meaningless for anyone in the city. But again, kind of flattens the space of this city just makes it this abstract space where people can invest and let then leave.

Niall Murphy:

Absolutely. It reminds me of, I used sit in the Glasgow Urban Design panel. Glasgow Urban Design panel basically any kind of big scheme that’s going to affect the city tends to get run past the Glasgow Urban Design panel. It’s not a statutory body, so the planners don’t necessarily have to listen to it, but they get input from various kind of people in Glasgow who might be expert in the city or amenity groups in the city or architecture groups in the city to get their say on things.

And there was one that came to us about Glasgow Harbour, which was when they were looking to develop a kind of shopping centre around the Riverside Museum. And all the images that were getting projected were people in fancy clothes, drinking wine and Lambrusco and that kind of thing. And it was like somebody finally piped up and said, “The image you’re projecting doesn’t really have an awful lot to do with Partick, which is literally right next door to this. Would you care to comment?” And the guy actually to give him credit, at least he was honest enough to say, “That’s not really the image we’re looking for.” And you’re like, but it’s totally disconnected from the actuality of the city. And you’re not trying to connect into these neighbourhoods at all. You’re just not interested, it’s all about the money.

Joey Simons:

Yeah, definitely. And I think connections between the past and the present are also to think about different futures as well. And we just did this project with the Travelling Gallery: Resistance in Residence, looking at kind of histories of resistance and also different kind of urban theories in Edinburgh and Glasgow. So in Wester Hailes and Pilton and Muirhouse and also the work architects and theorists like Phyllis Birkby and Yona Friedman.

And that sort of thing is just this poverty, a vision that… And it’s like, again, in that post-war era, you had this grand vision, a modernist vision for better or worse, about how people should live and how cities should be designed. And it’s funny now that the same things are happening now in terms of, but without discussion. So again, in Sighthill I was looking on Collective Architecture’s website about their award-winning development. And it’s just interesting, you’ve got these kind of two storey townhouse, garden kind of street, just the lay out of the streets and they are talking about that they want to redesign the relationship between public and private space, some people like others don’t, but it’s just quite interesting that how the city is being redesigned is coming from an ideological point of view about how we should relate to each other in spaces, what’s desirable or not, whether consumption should be prioritised. This kind of Lambrusco drinking class.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah. It’s very 2008 just before the crash.

Joey Simons:

But again, it’s just presented as this is just natural. This is how we want to live rather than, this is another grand redesign through architecture and urban planning of how they think people should relate to each other. And histories of collective struggle are not part of that because they’re not designed for that and they’re present. And that’s what Living Rent we’re trying to do is like…

Niall Murphy:

Is it because they’re uncomfortable, they’re uncomfortable. It’s about resistance and therefore it’s not something that’s an easy sell.

Joey Simons:

And I in that Charles Johnson PhDs chapter on rent strike in Arden in southwest Glasgow in 1957, 1958, that took place in Scottish Special Housing Association housing. And yeah, again, it’d be interesting to work with the housing associations down there in other areas and think… Or even these murals that are appearing around Glasgow on the gable ends.

It’d be interesting to, can you connect that history to what’s happening now? Can people get a sense you’re living in these same houses in the same schemes where people have come together, where they have fought. People had an influence in their own future. When that is wiped out, then the answer to our present problems isn’t people’s own organisation, it’s again, saviour from above by the council through private investments. So I think that connection between the past and the future is crucial. It’s like who controls the past, controls the future or whatever.

Niall Murphy:

And it is about grassroots and something of the whole thing organically rather than being imposed.

Joey Simons:

Yeah.

Niall Murphy:

Okay. Well, basically it brings me onto my next question, which is what is next for you? And people are obviously looking for answers. Can a better understanding of Glasgow’s housing history help us improve the present and provide more hope for the future? And did the pandemic teach us anything about building back better?

Joey Simons:
Yeah, I think, again, well, there’s this quote from Brecht always and it’s there’s not much knowledge that leads to power, but there’s plenty of knowledge to which only power leads. Where in a sense, not just about knowing things, we need the power to implement the lessons we know from the past.

So I think Living Rent, we’re not a campaigning group, we’re a lobbying group, we’re a tenants union. We’re rooted in local communities and the idea is about we’re trying to build the power from below where you can take this knowledge and these lessons from the past and enforce them or learn from them. But without having that power, then it doesn’t matter in a way. This idea of mistakes being repeated, whose mistakes? It’s benefiting some people, it’s only a mistake for some. So I think we’ve seen that with the pandemic and the Workers Stories’ Project that and that led this archive of workers’ experiences during Covid-19.

So people should check it out online. People contributed stories, poetry, films, diaries, documenting workers’ experience. But again, without the kind of political organisations and movements… We’ve seen with Covid, I’m astounded how little has changed. I mean, if you think even about the Covid in the built environment, in your workplaces, if there was another pandemic just in terms of adaptations to windows, ventilations, nothing. I mean, it’s actually incredible how little it has changed in a way because without this kind of political power then the regression to the mean, it’s always towards inequality. But I think with Living Rent, we are starting to have that influence and build some of the power we need. And learning from that history, understanding our cities better, and seeing the potential for organising today from what has happened in the past, but also without romanticising it. That we’ve gone through whole periods of defeat as well as victories.

But we need to just have that history to understand it, to critique it, to learn from it, to use it, and also to add for it and people to contribute to it. Because I think what I’ve learned is, there’s always a feeling that somewhere there’s some academic or some researcher looking at all this stuff, but a lot of times there’s not, and we just need to do it for ourselves. And people have their own stories, their own documents, their own photographs, their own personal histories.

So I think we’re just trying to provide a framework and try to establish a collective, kind of take ownership over the archive and collectively decide what we want to do with it. Do we want it to be online or physical? Do we want to just use it to do talks? So I think it is open question, and again, we’re not professionals or academics we’ve just done this kind of out of our own interests. So the future’s open. We definitely feel hopeful that it’s possible to change things. And we’ve already, through the pandemic, won a ban on evictions, a rent freeze, the battles over these are being lifted now. So the struggle never stops, but you can take great inspiration from it as well.

Niall Murphy:

Good. Final question, and this is always a loaded question and people’s answers to it are always really fascinating. But what is your favourite building in Glasgow? And it could be visible or invisible, and what would it tell you if its walls could talk?

Joey Simons:

Well, it’s probably a boring answer, I’m sure everyone…

Niall Murphy:

No answer is boring. They’re all really fascinating.

Joey Simons:

I think the Mitchell Library is a hundred percent my favourite building in Glasgow. So I think I like it as you’ve got all humanity in the Mitchell as well. I mean, it’s basically the last kind of free public space, indoor space in Glasgow. And there’s just kind of always new and weird things I’m finding in there as well. And I actually did, I wrote this kind of piece of fiction, semi fiction about the Mitchell Library where I was imagining its future where the library was closed and a group of librarians and archivists had gone underground to try to fight for it. But I think its walls would tell an interesting story because…

Niall Murphy:

They certainly would.

Joey Simons:

I mean, it is just those contradictions from the past. You’ve obviously got through Stephen Mitchell a lot of connections back to Glasgow’s colonial and slavery past and where that collection emerged from. You’ve got Carnegie that laid the final stone that paid for the new building. Also a very complex history of repression on one hand or another.

Niall Murphy:

Absolutely.

Joey Simons:

But I think it’s just, again, to that period where at least the rich in the city left something in terms of civic infrastructure whereas now there’s nothing, it feels like things have just been…

Niall Murphy:

I know it’s like the days of municipal socialism and completely moved on from that.

Joey Simons:

Yeah. So I think the Mitchell and I always go back to kind of Tom Leonard and his collection Radical Renfrew. He talked about always being on the other side and this librarian fairy would go away into stacks to find this mysterious text that he wanted. And by going on the other side of it, he discovered so much. So I think it’s it as a huge untapped resource still. And we did some workshops where we worked with our librarian archivists, public workshops where people could come in and just see how do you use the filing system? How do you get a card? How can you… Just breaking down those barriers that exist where it’s quite intimidating. So I think I spend a lot of time in the Mitchell, I’m still into the carpets and I do…

Niall Murphy:

Who isn’t, they’re wonderful.

Joey Simons:

I’ve got a couple of books I need to bring back as well that are overdue I think they’ve cancelled the overdue fees now. So I’ll shall sneak back in.

Niall Murphy:

Classy carpets. Love them. Well, thank you very much, Joey. That was a complete pleasure talking to you. Really enjoyable.

Joey Simons:

Cheers.

Niall Murphy:

Thank you for your time. Much appreciated.

Joey Simons:

Thanks for having me.

Niall Murphy:

It’s a pleasure.

Katharine Neil:

Glasgow City Heritage Trust is an independent charity and grant funder that promotes the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of Glasgow’s historic built environment. Do you want to know more? Have a look at our website at glasgowheritage.org.uk and follow us on social media at Glasgow Heritage. This podcast was produced by Inner Ear for Glasgow City Heritage Trust. The podcast is kindly sponsored by the National Trust for Scotland and supported by Tunnocks.

Series 2 Episode 5: Ghosts of Glasgow with Jan Murdoch Richards

Niall Murphy:

Hello, everyone. I’m Niall Murphy. Welcome to If Glasgow’s Walls Could Talk, a podcast by Glasgow City Heritage Trust about the stories and relationships between historic buildings and people in Glasgow.
Today, we’re venturing into an intriguing new area. Buildings don’t just tell stories. Over the years, many of them often seem to develop their own characters and personalities, a mood or atmosphere, maybe. Something you can sense as soon as you walk over the doorstep. But is there more to it than that? Have you ever entered a room or a building and felt that someone or something unseen is following you? Those footsteps on the stairs, shadows in an empty room, whispering voices. That’s all part of a good night’s work for our next guest who can tell us fascinating stories about investigating paranormal experiences in Glasgow buildings.

In this episode, we meet Jan Murdoch-Richards, who founded Lanarkshire Paranormal with her husband Steff almost 14 years ago. In fact, Jan has been interested in the paranormal since childhood, when she used to watch her mother reading tea leaves for families, friends, and neighbours. I’m told she could predict the future with uncanny accuracy. However, Jan spent the first part of her working life in the down-to-earth setting of a Glasgow bar and restaurant where she managed events. Then 15 years ago, she met the man who would become her husband and business partner. It sounds as if the turning point was their first date, an outing to a haunted house.

Now their not-for-profit company runs paranormal investigations across the UK. In Scotland, their clients include the National Trust for Scotland, among other owners of haunted stately homes and castles. But there are also spooky happenings in much-loved places, deeply rooted in Glasgow life. Before the pandemic, the company was booked up for a year or two ahead. Now, as they ease back into a paranormal life, Jan and Steff are once again opening up a programme of real-life paranormal investigations. So what does this all mean? Let’s investigate with Jan.

Jan, first question. Perhaps we should start by checking out the meaning of paranormal. What is a paranormal investigation, and what are you looking for?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

A paranormal investigation is basically we go into a building, it usually starts 9:00 PM until 3:00 in the morning, and it’s pitch black, no lights on at all, and we are looking for evidence. If people say, “Oh, this is haunted,” we are looking for the evidence of that, and it’s very interesting.

Niall Murphy:

Right. Okay. How did you first become interested in paranormal experiences? What switched you onto this?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

As I said, my mother, I was fascinated watching these lovely ladies coming to my mother’s house and her reading these tea leaves, and I would meet them maybe a few weeks later, and they’d be like, “Oh, Jean. You know what you said?” And I was like, “Wow, how does that happen?” And then I used to watch TV programmes. Then, I met my husband, and he used to run a team in Manchester. And then when he moved up with me, we talked about it, and thought, “Yeah, we’ll start one up here.”

Niall Murphy:

Great. Good. Where was the inspiration for Lanarkshire Paranormal? Can you tell us a little more about the first date, which I understand, was an outing to a beautiful haunted house, Bowling House?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Bowling. Bowling Hall.

Niall Murphy:

Bowling Hall?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Bowling Hall. Bowling Hall.

Niall Murphy:

Bowling Hall in Yorkshire. And how did you react to it?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Well, when he first said to me about it, I just looked at him and I thought, “Are you mad?” Because I had never done anything like that before. And I was like, “Are you crazy? No way.” He was like, “No, no, no. Come on. It’ll be fun.” And I’m like, “Fun? Are you mad?” I went anyway, and I think it was all part of his plan because I clung to him the whole night, didn’t let him go at all. But after an hour or so, I calmed down and I loved it. It was just so interesting. I got a lot of names in my head, a lot of dates. And then we spoke to the historian. It was true, the names of the people, the lords and the ladies who stayed there, and the dates. And I was like, “Wow.” It was just fascinating.

Niall Murphy:

So you’re sensitive to all this stuff, and you can pick up that information-

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

I think so. Yeah. My mother was-

Niall Murphy:

… just from the environment?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

My mother and my grandmother, they were both like that. Yeah.

Niall Murphy:

Right. Fascinating. So there’s some kind of a… Right, okay. That’s really interesting. The next question is quite personal to me as well, but we’ll get onto that. Your first investigation as Lanarkshire Paranormal was in Govanhill Baths. Now, with one of my other hats, I’m the chair of Govanhill Baths Building Preservation Trust. What we’re doing at the Building Preservation Trust is we’re trying to restore the building at the moment, but that would’ve been Govanhill Baths Community Trust, which I was chair of for about five minutes before I moved over to the Building Preservation Trust. But obviously, I absolutely love Govanhill Baths, so I’m intrigued to know how you got involved in all of this.

Now, I’ve got a good story to tell you about this as well. But there’s been a very long community campaign to restore the baths, this great Edwardian baths complex. And I just wanted to know, how many times have you been in and out of the building, and what was it that you discovered? Because I’m fascinated by this because it’s really intriguing for me. Go on, tell us all about it.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Well, what I did was I stay in Pollokshields. I don’t stay too far away. And I used to take my kids to Govanhill Bath when they were small, so I knew that they were trying to raise funds. I contacted them and they said, “Yeah, absolutely.” So we did it. We did a paranormal investigation twice a year and we raised over 1,000 pounds a year for them.

Niall Murphy:

Brilliant.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

And that was going on there for about 11 years now. Oh, what a place. It’s amazing. Oh, yeah.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, really? Oh, go on. Do tell us.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Me and Laura, who’s also on our team, we were standing in where the steamie used to be.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

And it was like 2:00 in the morning, pitch black, we’re standing there ourselves, and we literally felt these ice-cold fingers on the back of our neck, and we were frog-marched out of there, out of that room. And we were like, “Oh my God, what’s going on?” Just frog-marched right out of there and into the main reception area. And then I left.

Niall Murphy:

Right.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

And we just looked at each other and we’re like, “Okay, let’s go back in,” and we went back in again. And it happened again.

Niall Murphy:

I couldn’t do that.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Obviously, it was very tragic as well that the main pool was drained and used as a morgue during-

Niall Murphy:

Oh, I didn’t know that.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Yeah, during the Clydebank Blitz.

Niall Murphy:

Okay. I had no idea.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

The main pool was drained.

Niall Murphy:

Right.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

And that area I decided to play 1940s music. We’ll Meet Again, things like that. And just the noises, the bangs, the bumps. And then I put the music off and I could hear a man singing. And there was no men, it was just me and my friend and some public. And I said, “Right. Okay, I’m going to stop the music now, but if you want me to do it again, can you say you want me to do it again?” They’re like, “Yes, please.” We all heard that, “Yes, please,” this man’s voice. So I put the music back on, and again, he was singing. Okay. There’s loads of spooky things have happened in there.

Niall Murphy:

It’s intriguing. It is. It’s intriguing. My funny story about the baths was we were taking… This was just before lockdown, and this was just as we were about to start on all the works, the construction works. We were interviewing for the contractors for it. And we had this day in which we took the contractors around the building. And I don’t know whether Stevie West, who now manages the Deep End around the-

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Mm-hmm.

Niall Murphy:

Stevie, he’s great fun and he plays practical jokes. So we’re taking these contractors around the building, taking them down into the basement, and the basement freaks me out because it’s straight out of a horror film, the basement.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Yeah.

Niall Murphy:

First thing he did, I’m leading this party down the stairs and I opened the door, which normally is an electrical cupboard, just to show them this is the electrical cupboard here. And out pops this mannequin with a noose around its neck with a rectus Stevie set up for us. And it was like, “Ah.”

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Oh, no.

Niall Murphy:

And you’re trying to be professional and taking a bunch of contractors around and you’re completely freaked out. And it’s like, “Stevie, I’ll get you for that.”

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

The basement is one of the creepiest. The stories I can tell you about what happened down there was, wow. We were doing some glasswork, finger on the glass and it was just the public, they were doing it. And the glass was going, it was going everywhere. It was doing the shape of a pentagram. It was going all over and then it just flew off the table and smashed against the wall.

Niall Murphy:

Right. Scary.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

I was like, “Oh, let’s do this again.” Oh, yeah.

Niall Murphy:

Okay. Before we delve deeper into this, a few technical and practical questions. First off, what is involved in managing a paranormal investigation? I understand that a typical event is held between 9:00 PM, 3:00 AM. Do you need any special equipment to pick stuff up? Any training, risk assessment, first aid, all that practical stuff?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Yeah. You need that first-aider. We also do a risk assessment. We do that because it’s pitch black. And sometimes we’re in big castles and there’s stone stairs. And so we need to do all sorts of things like that. We have a load of equipment that we use.

Niall Murphy:

Right. Okay. And does any of that equipment, can pick up stuff, stuff that is going on in the environment, cold spots, stuff like that? Because I know people talk about that.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Yeah. We’ve got laser thermometers, and we’ve also got an SLS camera, which that is one of my favourite things because if there’s a spirit there, it will capture it like a stick figure. So if you’re in an empty room and you’re panning the camera around, if there’s a stick figure in that room, that’s how we spell it. Can you say hello?

Niall Murphy:

Right. Okay.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

And we have trigger objects as well, which is good.

Niall Murphy:

Right.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

That we throw around.

Niall Murphy:

Intriguing. Okay. Tell us more about Glasgow’s Haunted Buildings then. You’ve investigated some wonderful places in Glasgow that are really high profile, full of everyday visible life. So places like Tron Theatre, Barrowland Ballrooms. What have you found there and can you tell us a bit more about all of that?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

The Barrowland Ballroom, I was so happy to get that. I couldn’t believe I got that. Yeah, I was so excited about that. That was amazing. Just the history of that place. And me and my team and a lot of the public were in the guest dressing room and we heard this big band music. This was like 1:00 in the morning. It was only us that were in the building. We heard this big band music and I thought, oh. And then we heard this lady singing. It only lasted a few seconds but we clearly heard this lady singing. And then it stopped and we thought, what? Hair was standing on end. And I said to her, “Do you know that was beautiful?” I said, “Could you do that again?” And it happened again.

Niall Murphy:

Right.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

She sung again. Oh, it was just… And the infamous, I’m Afraid Bible John came through.

Niall Murphy:

Right. Fascinating.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Picked up that as well. Yeah.

Niall Murphy:

Why is it that people’s spirits and things can get trapped in these places? What is that about? Is it memories? How does that rub off on a place?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

It’s said that obviously, things can happen in your house, bad things, good things. It’s like they get ingrained into the walls, the feelings that happened on that particular day. And spirits can come back to visit or they can stay there because it was a really happy event or a really sad event. And people think, when you say to people, “Oh, there’s a spirit in your house,” they get terrified. But not every spirit is bad. Some spirits, we’ve met some… Well not met, but we’ve spoken to, interacted with a lot of lovely, lovely spirits.

Niall Murphy:

I’m assuming here that obviously if you’re in an older building, it’s much more likely those qualities are going to be more imbued in an older building. But have you come across new places that attract paranormal?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

It depends, it may be a new building, but what is it built on?

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, absolutely.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

What was on that ground before it was built?

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, yeah.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Yeah. Which could be-

Niall Murphy:

That can abuse something too. I’m interested in this because I did see a ghost once. I was brought up in Hong Kong.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Oh, wow.

Niall Murphy:

And we were living in this building called Greenlake Hall. And when I look back… And I was born in the seventies, Greenlake Hall must have actually been built in the sixties because it was a modern block of flats. And I saw a ghost of a woman’s head come through a wall in my bedroom.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Wow.

Niall Murphy:

And I’ve never forgotten. And I must have been about three, four at the time.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Wow.

Niall Murphy:

Never forgotten. Screaming and running to my mom because I saw this happen.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

That would be scary.

Niall Murphy:

And I’m thinking, “Where did that come from? Did I imagine that?” And I’m like, no. It’s one of my earliest memories.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

See, if you do see something, you do think, “What was that? Was that my imagination?” And you start questioning yourself. Mainly, sometimes it’s out of the corner of your eye you’ll see something walking past. Or I’m like, wow. It happened in our house. Our house is crazy. It’s an old Victorian tenement. And we had one of our friends who was a really good medium, he came into my house and he just walked in. He is like, Oh, my God.” He said, “This house is crazy.” And it’s the old couple who used to stay here. And there’s also a little boy who wanders around, but that’s fine.

But there was one day my husband was in the kitchen and I was in the bedroom and I walked through the hallway and I saw my husband coming into the living room and sitting down. So I followed him in. Nobody there. And the hairs on the back of my neck really that… I said, “I’ve got chills. And they ain’t multiplying my spirit at all.” I was like, “Wow.” And in the kitchen and my husband was sitting in his man office thinking away. And I was like, you’ve got a doppelganger. He’s just walked into the living room.” There’s only one time in the… no, twice, sorry, in the 14 years I’ve been doing this I’ve had really bad nightmares. And that’s only twice since that’s happened. Oh, I didn’t like that.

Niall Murphy:

Right. So most of the encounters are good.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Yeah. Yeah. They’re a lot. Over the years, we’ve met… Well, not met, I keep saying met, but we’ve interacted with spirits from the Bannockburn right through World Wars. And we’ve even got relations back together with their ancestors. That was really interesting. That’s happened a few times. Yeah. That was really-

Niall Murphy:

Fascinating.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Yeah. Plane Castle, it was a lovely girl was here with her husband. And we kept getting this French man’s name. And I’m like, “French, my baby is here to help fight with the Bannockburn.” And then I said his name out loud and she went, “Oh.” She said, “That was my great, great, great, great-grandfather’s name.” And I was like, “Wow.” And then we did some glasswork and he kept coming through and it turned out it was her great, great, great, great-grandfather. And there was also other names that he said. And I said to her, and it connected all up. And I was like, wow, that’s happened a few times.

Niall Murphy:

Fascinating. How do you handle sceptics? And it’s not just awkward customers who might be alive. What about ghosts, are they always well-behaved? Your encounters mostly seem to be with nicer ghost, but you did mention you got some difficult ones. Can you tell us anything about that?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Sceptics are good because we need a good balance. I’m not one of these that think everything’s bad or everything’s good. No. But my husband is a sceptic, even though he is been doing it. It drives me mad. A spirit could come up and slap him in the face and he’ll say, “That was wind.” It drives me crazy. But you need that. You need the balance. So that’s good. But yeah, we’ve had a few. Inveraray Jail, I got grabbed by the lapels and shoved against the wall in one of the jail cells. And I was like, “Please don’t do that.” I said, “We are not here to hurt you, so don’t hurt any of us.” Everything that we do has got to be with the greatest respect. I will not go…

I see these paranormal shows. Some of them, not all of them, some of them, the people go in there very aggressive, shouting. No, we don’t know. No, absolutely not. Spirits were alive once as well. We are not there to judge anyway. We’re not there… We don’t do that. So if they’re attacking us, pushing us, and poking us, we’ll be like, “No, please don’t do that.”

Niall Murphy:

Right, right.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Yeah.

Niall Murphy:

So you are a true believer of this, but you seem to take this quite lightly and not too seriously with the whole thing. And looking at your Facebook page and your website, you seem to be having a lot of fun, but there’s obviously a serious side and a serious interest in the buildings you’re exploring and you’re raising money for charity as well. Tell us about the causes you’ve supported as part of this.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Over the years, we’ve supported the West of Scotland Autistic Society.

Niall Murphy:

Oh, interesting.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

We did that twice for them. Once in Govanhill Baths. And then we did another one in Provan Hall in Glasgow. And we raised money for them to take the kids on a sleepover at Christmas to the aquarium and-

Niall Murphy:

Right. Sea Life. You mean Sea Life, something like that. Right? Yes.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Yeah, Sea Life, they did a sleepover for the kids. And recently we did the Barrowland and we raised 1,050 pounds for the Glasgow Children’s Hospital.

Niall Murphy:

Brilliant.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Yeah, we’ve done lots of things over there. I mean, 14 years, I can’t remember all of them. But yeah, we’ve done quite a lot. And we raised a lot of money for the National Trust as well, to keep them going. They’re a charity, they’re a preservation thing, so we do that as well.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Big fan of their work. Okay. What happens next? Your first live event since lockdown sold out very quickly, and you’ve been asked back by a special request to Holmwood House by the National Trust of Scotland. Can you tell us what you’ve uncovered there on previous visits?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Do you know that the mirrors in there, we do a lot of scrying, which is-

Niall Murphy:

What’s scrying?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Scrying, the team doesn’t do it, but we will say to a member of the public, “Does anybody want to do scrying? Only if you feel comfortable.” What they’ll do is they’ll stand in front of the mirror and we’ll shine a candle or a torch into the mirror, and I’ll ask the spirits to change that person’s face in the mirror to come through to us. Now, we’ve seen men turning into nuns.

Niall Murphy:

Really?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

We’ve seen women start to develop beards, moustaches.

Niall Murphy:

Right.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

It’s really… Yeah.

Niall Murphy:

That’s fascinating. Because it sounds like that links back to the history of the house with it having been a convent at one point. And, of course, prior to that, it was that one of the local mill owners, I think it’s John Cooper, who had built the house or got Alexander Greek Thompson to build this fantastic house for him in the late 1850s. That’s intriguing that both your references are from key moments in the building’s history.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Yeah. On our Facebook page, we’ve got photographs of everywhere, every investigation we’ve done over the years, all our pictures are on there. We’ve got videos on there, you can have a look at. And I love having fun. I do. I will chat to anyone. That’s why I love working with the National Trust. And I try to keep our page light as well because people can come along an investigation and it’s scary. They can be really scary. And I find that humour helps to put them at ease a little bit.

Niall Murphy:

Absolutely. Yes. Yeah, very much. The first time I got asked to do a walking tour in Glasgow, this is way back, it’s like 2001, and I got asked to do it as a dare for Doors Open Day. And I thought, “Oh God, I’m going to make a complete fool of myself because people will realise straight away that I don’t come from Glasgow and I would be so rumbled.” And I was standing in front of what’s now… It used to be the We Travel Centre in St. Enoch Square, but I think it’s now… I can’t remember. It’s a coffee shop of some… I can’t remember the name of it. Anyway, the actual door to that, which used to be, that was the headquarters building for the Glasgow subway. And it was the main entrance into the subway itself that James Miller, who is the architect of that, around that door, he has Devil mask faces.

So it’s actually a gate to hell, Glasgow’s hell mouth. And you’re like, how did he get away with that, with the subway making that joke like that? And yet presumably the building owners were actually okay with that. So standing there, I suddenly spotted this, and I turned it into a joke and people started laughing. And I thought, oh, that’s really good because then you start connecting with people through humour. And that worked really well. It’s a really good way to connect with people. It’s interesting that you do that too. Okay. What else lies on the horizon for Lanarkshire Paranormal? I can see you’ve got a lot of things. Hill House. I’m intrigued to know what Hill House is going to be like.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Oh, yeah, we’ve done that. We did that a couple of years ago. Oh, so good.

Niall Murphy:

Right. Go on. Tell us a bit about that then.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Nothing bad, but there’s a spirit there. He is quite famous. Everybody has seen him, apparently, of a man, a tall man with a cape and he is walking around. We saw him, footsteps. If we were sitting down, above his, in the room above his, you could hear, it was a sound like dragging. Something was getting dragged across the floor.

Niall Murphy:

Oh, that’s a bit creepy.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Oh, it was good. It’s like, “Yay. Do it again.” What we do find, which everybody says that men scream louder than the women.

Niall Murphy:

Oh, really?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Yes.

Niall Murphy:

That’s too good.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Yes. The men can be, “Oh, you’re okay ladies. You’re safe with me. Don’t worry.” And then a door will slam and the men are like, “Ah!”

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, you’re like, right. Quick, run.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

And their wives are like, “I could have been killed and you run away and left me.”

Niall Murphy:

Yeah. You abandoned me. You ran off.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

That’s fun.

Niall Murphy:

I remember once I was living in Berlin, and this was my first job out of architecture school, and I had to survey this huge factory complex in Kreuzberg in Berlin. And it was five interlocking courtyards in this one factory that was across six floors with a huge basement. And it was going around the basement all by yourself in the dark with a torch. Completely creepy. And all I could think of was, “Oh God, what if something did happen to you? Nobody would ever find you again.” It was just me and the security guard at the front door. And it used to completely freak me out. And by the end of it, I was sprinting out of that place as fast as I could go.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

See, we’d be like, “Yay. Take us out.”

Niall Murphy:

You’d have been right in there.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Yeah.

Niall Murphy:

And I was like, “Get me out of here. I don’t like this. I can’t take it anymore.” Okay. Right. Coming to our last question, which is a completely loaded question, and we ask everybody who comes onto the show about this. What is your favourite building in Glasgow, haunted or not? And what would it tell you if its walls could talk?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Oh, there’s so many to choose from.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, you’re like me.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:
Oh, I love it. I love all these old buildings. And I think it’s tragic the way they’re getting knocked down.

Niall Murphy:

Yeah, I know.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

That drives me insane.

Niall Murphy:

Tears my hair out and I don’t even have any hair.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

I love Glasgow Cathedral. That is just stunning. And the history that could tell us. Yeah. But I understand it’s still used as a cathedral. I don’t really disrespect anybody. Or the Theatre Royal, wow. I love theatres.

Niall Murphy:

Theatre Royal is a great space.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

I love theatres. See, the spirits that come through in the theatre, obviously the actresses, the actors, they come through and oh, it’s great. You’re standing on the stage looking out, and you can see the chairs going down as if people are sitting down and there’s nobody there, but you can see the shadows of people sitting.

Niall Murphy:

Right.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

And you’re like, “Hello.” And they’re waving back at you. It was great.

Niall Murphy:

But Glasgow Cathedral, that’s so ancient.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Oh, it’s beautiful.

Niall Murphy:

Glasgow Cathedral intrigues me because it’s like when you go into it now, your experience of it is completely different to what it used to be. Because for a start, obviously, it lost all its stained glass and everything in the Reformation. And then the Victorians gave it full-on high Victorian stained glass. And all that’s gone because of all the pollution in Glasgow is so bad that the leg columns apparently they couldn’t cope anymore. That was all stripped out in the Second World War, and now it’s all completely modern inside. And probably most people who go there don’t realise that all that stained glass is actually not that old. It’s not even a century old, but it’s all… And it makes it so light, and it must have been quite gloomy in the past, but it’s such a great space. Fantastic.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

It’s beautiful. And can we just tell Glasgow, say, “Can you just stop knocking down all these old buildings?” Oh my god.

Niall Murphy:

I know. It’s what makes Glasgow. Glasgow has all those old buildings that have so much character. That’s what makes Glasgow such a great city.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

This is the thing. Edinburgh has embraced their old characters, whereas Glasgow City Council, “Oh, knock it down. Knock it down.”

Niall Murphy:

Yes.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Drives me crazy.

Niall Murphy:

Yes. Yeah.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Just thought I’d get that in there.

Niall Murphy:

Quite right to. Yeah, I know. It is very frustrating. I was meeting somebody in St. Enoch Square this morning and I was trying to explain about the church that was there in the square and that got knocked down because it was in the way of the buses.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

And that beautiful old hotel that was there, that all got knocked down.

Niall Murphy:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. Isi Metzstein used to teach at the art school, teach architecture at the art school. Really great Glasgow architect. Used to say that the joke was that the St. Enoch railway station, it was a grand hotel, huge hotel at the front of two big sheds, and they bulldozed it and then used it to infill Queen’s Dock. And then on top of Queen’s Dock, they built a big hotel with two sheds, which is the SECC. And it’s like, why didn’t they just keep St. Enoch Station and turn it into the SECC?

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Oh.

Niall Murphy:

No-brainer. And it would’ve been in the centre of town. Even better.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

I know. You’re, “Ah!”

Niall Murphy:

So frustrating. I know, just a bit of foresight. Anyway, that’s what we’re trying to do something about and hopefully inspire people to keep what heritage they’ve got and value it and learn to value it a lot more.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Exactly.

Niall Murphy:

Jan, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Oh, you too.

Niall Murphy:

I might actually really want to go on one of your tours, even though I’d be completely frightened about the whole thing.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Come along, don’t be feared.

Niall Murphy:

If you’re doing Govanhill Baths, give me a shout because obviously, we’re in the middle of a whole construction programme, but it would be great fun, particularly in the basement. And yeah, you’ll be intrigued by the basement now because we’ve had to lower the floor in there.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Ooh.

Niall Murphy:

Because the front half of it is going to be office space, lettable office space to community groups. But we’ve also had to renew all of the equipment for the pools. All that’s got to go around the pools. So all the floors have been lowered down, so it’s much more headroom. So it’s not as creepy as it was.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Well, that will annoy the spirits.

Niall Murphy:

Yes. I know. I wonder what they think about it.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Right? Come on, let’s-

Niall Murphy:

We should check in with them.

Jan Murdoch-Richards:

Let’s go. Let’s go.

Niall Murphy:

We should, when it’s finished, get you in there. It would be fun.

Katharine Neil:
Glasgow City Heritage Trust is an independent charity and grant funder that promotes the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of Glasgow’s historic built environment. Do you want to know more? Have a look at our website at glasgowheritage.org.uk and follow us on social media at Glasgow Heritage. This podcast was produced by Inner Ear for Glasgow City Heritage Trust. The podcast is kindly sponsored by the National Trust for Scotland and supported by Tunnock’s.

Series 2 Episode 4: Drawing Community with Dr Mitch Miller

Niall Murphy (00:12):

Hello everyone, I’m Niall Murphy. Welcome to If Glasgow’s Walls Could Talk. A podcast by Glasgow City Heritage Trust about the stories and relationships between historic buildings and people in Glasgow.

Now each human story is different, but some relationships with the city are more complicated than others. In this episode, we’re going to go off the beaten track into a parallel world. It’s a distinctive part of Glasgow, but rarely visited or recognised by the more mainstream world until planning problems arise. So the story is full of colourful characters, complexities and contradictions. Perhaps that’s not surprising when a travelling community becomes more settled and their traditional wintering grounds lie in the way of new development possibilities. According to established views, Glasgow’s home to the largest concentration of show people in Europe. Historically, they have made their mark. Show people opened the city’s first cinemas, they created the tradition of winter fairs at the Kelvin Hall and summer shows on Glasgow Green.

(01:13):
Even so, this tight-knit community has remained largely unnoticed. And according to today’s guest, that’s the way proudly independent show people have tended to like it and he should know. So today’s guest is Dr. Mitch Miller, social researcher, artist, cultural activist and creative community collaborator. And Mitch was born on four wheels and spent a happy childhood with a show people parents on the road travelling from fairground to fairground. Yet unlike his siblings or many of his peers, Mitch completed and furthered his education leading to a PhD in communications design from Glasgow School of Art. He is an acknowledged expert on the history of travelling show people, but always a cartoonist as at heart and a cartoonist as he has said, with delusions of grandeur. So when the Commonwealth Games threatened to sweep away show people’s homes, many of them inconveniently located in the path of the games, Mitch picked up his pen and the dialectrogram was born. And we’ll get on to more about what a dialectogram involves in a minute.

(02:23):
So Dr. Mitch Miller is an eloquent writer and speaker. Over the last couple of decades, he has become a pioneering presence in Glasgow. That includes co-founding the Drouth Magazine, hoping to establish exhibitions at Riverside Museum and Kelvin Hall about the history and heritage to show people, as well as documenting the lives of other vulnerable communities in and around the city. So a very warm welcome to the podcast, Mitch. It’s a great privilege to be taken inside this kind of fascinating but endangered parallel world and there’s so much to talk about. So it’s hard to know where to begin, but perhaps we might start with your own beginning. So first question, it’s probably fair to say that your beginning was unusual. Not many of us are born on four wheels. So can you tell us a bit more about your early years and why along with many other show people, you’ve chosen Glasgow as your kind of natural home?

Mitch Miller (03:18):

Thanks, Niall and hello. Thanks for having me on. I hope I can live up to that wonderful introduction. I feel very inadequate.

Niall Murphy (03:25):

Of course, you can.

Mitch Miller (03:29):

So yeah, I was born to two show families, both my mother and father’s families go way back in this tradition. Both from kind of mixed circus and fairground families as well. And yeah, I mean, to me it was normal. I had a big extended family. They travelled in the summer when I went to see relatives. We were often off to find them at different fairs around Scotland. I never paid to get on the waltzers or indeed any fairground ride. That was normal to me. And aye it was just life really, I suppose in those early years. But I think when you do kind of live with a foot on either peer, you’re kind of more aware again of what does make it distinctive. And I suppose I started to notice that whereas my friends had weekends, for example, as I got older, weekends were for work. You had a role within the family, you had a job to do as part of what your family did.

(04:32):
So I didn’t have Saturdays or Sundays for most of my life until I went and got my own job and then I could take them off. And yeah, I just sort of lived part of that life and lived in the flow of it really. And yeah, it was a good life. You were surrounded by relatives, cousins. I still discover new cousins to this day. My mother’s great phrase was, “That’s your cousin.” Because there were just so many of us.

(05:00):
And yeah, it felt like a very safe life, a very protected life, quite a hard one at times. So it’s a hard way of making a living, travelling from place to place and breathing the Scottish weather in the summer. But yeah, I always felt it gave me a very good grounding, a very good sort of base from which the work. I always had a very clear idea of who I was, I suppose, in relation to that. And then as I grew older, I suppose I started to explore the outside world a bit more and learn more about that and in some ways appreciate that background even more as a result, although it wasn’t always a smooth journey, I would say, in any respect.

Niall Murphy (05:40):

Okay. So can you tell us more about the long-standing relationship between show people and what is their favourite winter ground in this case Glasgow, and any of the issues that can potentially have emerged from that over time?

Mitch Miller (05:56):

Yeah, so sorry. Yeah, the relationship with Glasgow is a very old one. So just to start from my family, I suppose it’s a good way of explaining it. So my dad’s family were border travellers, so they travelled to border towns and the north of England mostly and ranged out from there. They often wintered in Carlisle actually, but sometimes in Glasgow. But my Mam’s family, they were what was called Tramline Travellers. And the term came from the fact that, you could travel around the greater Glasgow area without leaving it and entire season. There was all these different fairs that…

Niall Murphy (06:37):

Right. Okay. And it’s the tram.

Mitch Miller (06:40):

Exactly. Yeah. And Glasgow has a long history of travelling showgrounds, in part because theatre used to be banned here, you weren’t allowed to have theatre until quite recently, like late 19th century. So the fairs performed a very important function in terms of bringing entertainment. So Mam’s family, they ranged out a couple of places in the season but generally stayed within the Glasgow kind of environment. And that sort of reflects a longstanding relationship with Glasgow, as I said, because you didn’t have theatre here, they weren’t allowed to have theatres here. A guy called David Prince Miller, who was a travelling show person, I don’t know if he’s a relative actually, he had his Adelphi Theatre famously burnt down. Glasgow was very against that in the old days. So that created a sort of ecosystem of small fairs and often a lot of winter fairs as well that go way back 200 years or so.

(07:36):
But Glasgow’s also geographically perfectly placed to go south or north, you can access the north and the south from here. It’s a good sort of locus for that. But also it’s an industrial city. It has lots of brown belt, it has lots of yards and lots and bits of ground that just sit there. And unlike Edinburgh see, if I dare mention the name of that city in this podcast, it’s available. You can be out the way and tuck yourself into different parts of the city. So I think a combination of factors made this the capital for show people in a sense, of Scotland, it’s where most about 80% of us live we think, and where we tend to range out from.

Niall Murphy (08:21):

Right, okay. Oh, that kind of brings me onto my next question, which is it is quite extraordinary that there is this really significant community within the city that has been relatively unnoticed for so long. So how many show people actually live in Glasgow? For Scotland’s latest census, that was the first time that show people were included within it. And so does that kind of make a difference?

Mitch Miller (08:45):

Yes, well we hope it will. So we haven’t actually got our census figures back yet from this census, and we’re very keen to see it. Now, there’s figures that go between four to 6,000 living in Glasgow is what it’s thought. Now, I can tell you now, honestly, that’s a back of a beer mat calculation. It was the best efforts of those who had been doing a bit of research in it, but we didn’t have inclusion in the census, for example, which would mean that we’d have more robust figures. So myself and a bunch of other researchers actually campaigned to get us added to the census for the last time. And hopefully when those figures come back we will know. And I can tell you honestly how many of us there are.

Niall Murphy (09:27):

Yeah. Very much. Because things like that are absolutely critical for being able to direct services towards a community. So you need to be able to gather that information somehow, because it’s going to influence other things like planning as well. And not just in the sense of building stuff, but planning for communities.

Mitch Miller (09:47):

Absolutely. And when we’re having these discussions, I work with Fair Scotland an organisation that advocate for this and the Showman’s Guild, and when we’re having these discussions, we’re saying, “Well, there is a community here that we need to address certain things.” And then we get asked, “Well, how many?” We get asked for the hard data behind that and it’s very hard to provide it. So I think just in terms of that discussion, it will help that a great deal.

Niall Murphy (10:12):

Okay. So show people tend to occupy land where no one else has chosen to live until the grassroots of regeneration appear. So the Commonwealth Games threatened to sweep away many traditional wintering grounds and yards, and that led to the creative activism of your dialectogram. So can you tell us something about what a dialectogram is? And can you tell us more about how collaborative dialectography, if that is actually a word, supports community campaigns around the city?

Mitch Miller (10:49):

Yeah, I think the thing to emphasise is that all these words are made up obviously. So I made up dialectogram, it’s a bad pun, I think we can all agree with that. It’s what happens after several cans of beer and a bit of panic comes in. Because when I was going to work at Red Roads, I was asked to define what I did and I actually didn’t quite know at that stage the kind of work I was bringing out. So I don’t know, I just plucked out somewhere and dialectogram came out of that. But yeah, it’s a bad pun basically of dialect and diagram. They’re very complex illustrations of places and they’re sort of made from conversation, observation and a lot of ink, I suppose is the easy way of putting it. I’ll spend a lot of time in the community getting to know its places, working out how a building or a site or a location of some kind works, what it means to those people, trying to bring people into an ongoing and kind of rolling conversation about it.

(11:58):
And then in the middle of that, I’m starting to draw and map out a kind of representation of it. And everyone’s different, everyone is made differently. There’s the kind of shape of the community, the way the community works will really determine who wants to have their say, who doesn’t. I’ve done some that had only about three or four people involved and others about two hundred. It’s a real range in terms of that engagement. But at the heart of it is this idea that I’m trying not to make something about the community, I’m trying to make it with and through it as much as possible, trying to include them in that discussion, trying to be directed by them to some extent as well. And then to let this kind of visual trace or visual record of what their place is come from that.

Niall Murphy (12:49):

Right. How do you actually work on them? Is it a spontaneous thing or do you sit down with a sheet and know how you’re going to populate it? Or is it something you plan in advance or? How’d you go by doing it?

Mitch Miller (13:07):

Well, if there’s a dialectography, it’s not a science, I think there’s the first thing I would say. Basically, as I said before, I’m a cartoonist with delusions of grandeur, and that is sadly very true. I kind of treat it like a comic initially. So I work on this A0 mount board, and that’s like the basic unit of these. Some are double size from that, but the smallest that goes is A0. And I’ll start with the ground plan and I’ll start with just working out how the ground is laying out. And I use it almost as a comic panel to then think about how the narrative can be shaped within that and placed within that. And then from that it just sort of grows. And what happens is, I’ll sort of have a wee burst of work and I’ll start to flesh it out. Then I’ll do an artist do an prevaricate horribly and think about it and maybe go and do some more field work because that’s way more fun.

Niall Murphy (14:04):

Yes.

Mitch Miller (14:05):

Yeah, way more fun. And then I’ll come back to it and I’ll maybe do a bit more. I also will often involve people at that stage. So I’ll bring people in to let them see the drawing and process. So for example, at a place called The Claypits up in North Glasgow, for example, I spent many kind of days introducing it to the community again and showing them, “Look, it’s half done, it doesn’t look terrible. How can we fill this up? What can we add to this?” And we sort of have an ongoing conversation about what could be there, what should be there, how people feel about that. Somehow through all of this, and after many weeks, and I know you’ve talked to Chris Leslie on this podcast and he has to work with me, so pity this man because I spend ages, it takes me ages to finish a piece.

(14:56):
It’s a very messy process. Whereas, he of course is a proper photographer, nice and clean, press the button, get the image. He’s done in five minutes, I’m done in about eight months. And yeah, somehow it comes about. And then we have this piece of work that exists. After that, what I do is I’ll photograph it so there’s a digital version. We can make that into signs, we can make that into various outputs, never a tablecloth, which is my ambition. And then we also can do things we… I mean imagine the tablecloth you can add to it as well, a bit of mayonnaise here, a tomato sauce there. You’re adding to the dialectogram, but the original always stays with the community as well.

(15:40):
I always make sure it stays somewhere, it can be accessed. And so it kind of belongs to them too. So I try not to go in, make the artwork and then leave. I tried to leave a bit behind so that it’s there for them as well. And yeah, I’ve done that in all sorts of weird places. Tower blocks, showman’s yards, nature reserves, African art centres, Steeples. It’s been a very strange catalogue so far.

Niall Murphy (16:07):

You’ve, as part of your process, it kind of talk about a sense of social responsibility for us. And it does sound as well, like it can be quite energetic at times. Do you want to talk about that at all?

Mitch Miller (16:19):

Yeah, I mean, I have all sorts of clients. So I’ve had clients from libraries who want to rework what their library is and how it can serve the community, to grassroots organisations, to more community groups. I’ve even done work with some anarchists at the University of Glasgow. It’s been a very strange trip. And I think what that does is that every time I’m going into working with a group, I’m having to adjust myself to that and learn from that as well and learn how this is best done. But yeah, there’s a lot of energy. It’s quite an exhausting process. If you want to do this, it’s not an in and out, it’s not a quick job that you can turn out. For some reason-

Niall Murphy (17:06):

Yeah, it’s an emotional connection to a subject as well. And that can obviously be quite draining as well.

Mitch Miller (17:11):

Absolutely. And I have had projects where there’s been quite strong stuff in terms of the theme and the material we’re dealing with and it can get to you a bit. So you need to take a break from it and so forth. But yeah, I think the whole methodology is about that though, it’s about really getting to understand the place and really being willing to just let the place lead you a bit into making the work as good as it can be.

Niall Murphy (17:36):

Okay. Now, just for our listeners at this point also want to save that. We are going to at the end of the podcast, give you links so that you can appreciate just how amazing Mitch’s dialectrograms really are, and how much kind of information he manages to get down on the page for each of these and just what fascinating narratives come out of them. So, absolutely well worth looking at. Okay. So we haven’t talked about architecture so far, but elsewhere, you’ve beautifully described things like the plug-ugly, prefabs and lives without plumbing and things like inward facing circles of wagons. Can you take us inside some of these settlements and dwellings that you’re observing and tell us who lives there? And then what was it that eventually drew you back to living in a tenement flat?

Mitch Miller (18:27):

Yeah. So we call our sites yards or grounds, it’s just the term that we use. And I suppose I’ve just lived in and arounds all my life and they’re just very familiar. So it’s interesting to have to actually describe it. So as you walk in the gate, so most of them have some kind of wall or fence around them. And if you walk in the gate, what you’ll find is nowadays, certainly is a mixture of what you might call chalet homes, quite posh. They are on wheels, but you can’t really see the wheels. They’re tiny wee things and they’re designed to go in flatbeds and be moved. I think park home is another term for them. But I think we like chalets, I think we all like to imagine we’re in the Swiss Alps or something. So you’ll see a mixtur of those. You’ll also see road going wagons, which are coach built designed to be in the road all year round.

(19:16):
And our homes, they are family homes all year round. And that’s what my parents grew up in, I was born into and my grandparents would live from soup to nuts as it were. And then you’ll also see what we call wee trailers, which is caravans as other people would call them, the tourer caravans. And then a bunch, you see lorries. At one end of the ground you’d see a lot of lorries and kind of work areas and the lorries do everything. They pull the thing, they have all their stuff in them, they have a generator in them and they double as work sheds. And so you’ll see lorries opened up with the steps and usually guys in the winter painting around them or fixing something. And that was always the fun part as a kid, to go down there and see what your dad and your uncles were doing and annoy them quite a bit.

(20:02):
So you’d have that end of the ground there. The kind of more domestic end is where the chalets and wagons are. And there’s a lot of life there too. The steps were always very important. I remember travelling in the summer and you’d sit on the steps and when it was a nice day you’d play with your toys on the steps, there’d be lots of domestics, some people would wash around them. And that was just normal. So a kind of modern yard, a contemporary yard. Has plumbing now, we have from about late 90s we started to have these kind of hose systems where you could plumb them in and that was amazing. But a lot of them, even very modern chalets will still have a water can on the step as a weak kind of reminder of how it used to be, which is that was your water supply.

(20:45):
And I remember as a boy being sent down to the tap and you filled the water up. If your Mam was washing, you’d be going doing that three or four times a day, if not five or six. And that was just kind of normal then. So there are ways in which the lifestyle’s more modern. You go inside one of these things. And whether it’s an old wagon or a chalet, I mean firstly clean, I mean, this doesn’t look clean here, but this is my studio, this is my work shed I’m in right now. But you go into a chalet, I mean F spotless. Usually someone wiping up crumbs right behind you as you go in. A lot of the old wagons used to have winter and summer carpets actually to sort of deal with the kind of outside stuff. A lot of ornaments, very, very well appointed.

(21:29):
It’s like a palace inside, but tiny often. And it was tremendously, could you call it house proud, wagon proud, I don’t know. Was a big thing. So outside you had this very organic life of quite dirty life. A lot of fixing and smell of diesel is just such an evocative one for me. But inside pristine, shoes, off, newspaper down if you’re coming in from working on the lorries and stuff like that.

Niall Murphy (21:57):

Being respectful, yes.

Mitch Miller (21:59):

Yeah. And that was very much the life I kind of remember and still is. And you go into some of these big grounds. There’s some down in kind Rutherglen and Cambuslang that are just… Everyone’s sort of copying each other as well in terms of the style and stuff. And they’ve got the best ornaments and stuff. It’s really, really posh. So it’s quite surprising to a lot of people. They expect I think quite rough and ready and it does look that way outside to an outsider.

(22:26):
But then you go inside and it’s like, “Oh God, dare I sit down on this couch with these pristine lovely plump cushions and so forth.” And that was always the life I remember. In terms of why we moved back, so I lived in a tenement for quite a few years actually and liked it. Tenements are a great way of living in many ways. Very interesting way living. But I think a lot of reasons, one, we wanted to start a family. And for a child it’s a great environment because you have… Well, okay, childcare, you talk to my friends and talk to me about childcare. I am doing so well right? On that front. There’s like an auntie next door, there’s my cousin there, my nephew there, all these people I can just help for childcare in a second. And I just remember as a kid just playing outside with this circle of wagons around you because most showman’s yards are a rough circle or rectangle.

(23:21):
We all sort of face into each other and it’s just very safe and very kind of comforting. There’s an adult who knows you nearby at all times, but you can also just do your own thing and get into trouble and do all the stuff that you want to do, skin your knees and so forth. So when we were thinking about having our daughter who’s three now and really enjoying the travelling life too, it was a kind of no brainer, it was like, it makes sense. And then it’s also quite a cost effective way of living in many ways, we could live more cheaply.

(23:51):
Also, my parents were getting older and I just wanted to be around for them and able to help a bit more in that. But yeah, wife’s not a show person, she’s a normal, but she very bravely said, “Let’s give it a try.” I would never say to her, but she said, “Let’s give it a try, let’s see what it’s like.” And we had a five-year plan. If she was fed up after five years we would go and get a house again. And it’s been seven now. So I think she’s liking it. She has not requested to move at any stage and is actually talking about getting a bigger chalet home maybe in the future. So yeah, it’s a way of life that I think really suits us and has a lot to recommend it.

Niall Murphy (24:37):

It sounds incredibly close knit and real sense of community about the place, which yeah, tenements can be like that, but not to the degree that you are talking about.

Mitch Miller (24:51):

Yeah, I mean, obviously that’s got us up upside and downsides. I did have to, I explained to my wife about how you get some privacy and the methods of that and people don’t knock on doors, for example. My sister has never knocked on my door ever. She just walks in and you just hear her coming in. And everyone can see what you’re doing as well. And so there are obviously, I suppose a price to be paid in that sense if you’re more used to doing your own thing. And it’s just a sort of balance you have to have. During the lockdown. My mother-in-law came to live with us from Fife and she loved it actually. She really liked living there. But I think one thing she never got used to was the fact that people just came in the door. When she saw someone coming to see us, she would go to the door and they were like, “What are you doing? Why are you…?”

(25:32):
Because we just walk into each other’s doors all the time and just… No one ever comes to the door to greet you if you’re another showman, you’re just “Yeah come in to the tea is over there.” It’s very kind of informal that way. So yeah there are, as I say, that can be great, other times it’s like, “Okay, they’re going to see what we’re doing here. How do we stop that? How do we get some privacy?” So it’s not for everybody. And I would say, I think what was interesting was my wife dealt very well with it, but is a culture shock as well, when you go from being an individual unit within a city to you’re kind of living in a village really

Niall Murphy (26:11):

To be something that sounds more like an enlarged family.

Mitch Miller (26:14):

Yeah. I mean, we do live in big extended families, so our wee ground, most of us are there. My brother, my sister, cousins, my brother’s kids, my mother and father, in-laws as well. It’s all a big sprawling extended family. And that’s-

Niall Murphy (26:32):

Sure. It sounds much more like how a village would’ve been.

Mitch Miller (26:37):

Yeah. Everyone knows who you are, they know by your face, they probably knew your grandfather as well. They probably knew you as a child, shall we say, in short trousers. And that’s just how it is. And that again, there’s a lot I missed about that and a lot I kind of love about it, but it’s also-

Niall Murphy (26:55):

I can imagine why, yes.

Mitch Miller (26:58):

…it’s a tight embrace, put it that way.

Niall Murphy (26:59):

Yes. Okay. Bearing that in mind, that kind of brings me onto my next question, which is, you’ve talked about this really kind of close-knit community. So then when you’re looking at things like the regeneration of the city, particularly in places like Water Row, Govan, that must be a huge threat to what is a small, really close-knit community. So can you tell us more about the feelings about that?

Mitch Miller (27:25):

Yeah, so Water Row and Govan is one of the older sites that we have. It’s at least over a hundred years old. As I say that we can trace our sites in the city back at least 200 and odd years. But certainly there’s a handful of sites that are over a hundred and we have a very long history in the city and certainly Water Row is one of them. That’s if you include Govan as part of Glasgow, and I know that for Govan that’s a big issue.

Niall Murphy (27:53):

Yes.

Mitch Miller (27:54):

It’s the issue isn’t it. Yeah, Water Row, there’s two yards there, owned by two different families, but again, big extended families. And there’s about 12 families involved there. 12 plus, actually I think, not quite sure exactly how many now. So around roughly two tenement buildings worth of people live there and have lived there for a long time. And there’s a very old association with Govan as well. And Govan, Old Kirk and things like that. So they’re in the way of the new development at Water Row. Now I think a couple of things to emphasise whenever these discussions come up. One is we pay council tax and we pay lease on the ground that we do. No one’s squatting here. These are the Johnsons, for example, who have one of the yards. They’ve been playing their way on that yard for a long, long time. And it’s always something that comes up. “Now, do you pay council tax? Do you pay your way?” And “Yes, we do.” We’re like everybody else, unfortunately we have to pay the tax man.

Niall Murphy (28:48):

Yeah. You have just as much a right to the city as everybody else.

Mitch Miller (28:53):

And I think that’s the issue, Niall. It’s not like we want special treatment, actually, it’s just we pay our way. And we live an odd way. We know that it’s odd that not everyone’s cup of tea, but all we want to do is live that way and not bother other people. And what you’ll find is in most the parts of the city we’re in, people don’t even notice us half the time. So the Water Row has to move, and that has been known for a while. And actually a lot of the families there were fine with that. It was like, “Okay, we’re not going to get in, we don’t in the way of this, we can see what benefit that brings to Govan.” And they are Govanites, their kids go to school there, their doctors are there, their lives are there when they’re not travelling.

Niall Murphy (29:32):

Yes.

Mitch Miller (29:33):

So it wasn’t as if they didn’t want things to get better there or go ahead. But what happened was… Unpicking this is quite complex. So I’ll tell you my involvement and my perspective in it.

Niall Murphy (29:45):

Okay.

Mitch Miller (29:45):

In 2018, when that first was announced and it was announced that the family had to move, I think the attitude was they wanted to work with the council as much as possible and cooperate. But certainly, the consultation was very thin and engagement was very intermittent. They were not never actually to their knowledge deemed to this day, told in writing what was happening. They were just told verbally that this was going to happen. Myself and a group of other researchers who are from a showground background and Fair Scotland, we wrote a series of letters, open letters to different councillors just asking to deal with this issue and to firstly improve the level of conversation and then to address the provisions in Glasgow’s own housing strategy.

(30:35):
Page 94 to 97, if I remember rightly, which says they have to provide an alternative model site, like for like as best they can. And as I say, picking apart what some people think on different sides can be difficult. But from our perspective there has not been a positive engagement with that. There has not been a conversation or a paper trail round out of any quality. And we sent a letter in 2018, it has yet to be answered by anybody and this is 2023. So you can see the predicament the families are in and why they’ve went from cooperative to now really quite angry and scared as well.

Niall Murphy (31:18):

I can imagine. I mean, I recall going along to the consultation and it was just kind of a drop in thing in Govan at the time, just because I was interested in seeing what was happening. And I remember there being a woman from the Water Row site there, and that did seem to be a real disconnect, which did make me feel really uncomfortable, because there’s kind of a core thing of consultation is you got to be able to connect into communities and explain things to them. And yeah, it’s very difficult because it is a very private community and then this kind of massive thing is being done to them. And yet Glasgow with its kind of history of comprehensive development areas and regeneration from the kind of 1960s onwards, you would’ve thought would learn the lessons that you can’t do things to people, you’ve got to take people with you. It’s very frustrating.

Mitch Miller (32:09):

Yeah. And we’re not the only community who has this kind of issue. We know this, of course not. There’s lots of stories around Glasgow like that. I suppose what kind of worries me is that when we were included in the 2017 to 2022 housing strategy, which was great, that was a step forward. It was the first time they recognised they should be trying to push the envelope in how they work with our community. That was hopeful, that was progress. But then we’ve seen the first test case of that and-

Niall Murphy (32:39):

It’s not worked out.

Mitch Miller (32:40):

…it’s not been very encouraging. And as someone who lives in a yard myself, just to be selfish, I’m like, “What happens when mine’s in the way of something?”

Niall Murphy (32:47):

Yes. Yeah.

Mitch Miller (32:50):

Does the fact I live in four wheels just make me a different type of citizen? Should I build foundations legal or not, to make me a better citizen? I don’t know. You know what I mean? It’s clearly quite concerning. And I think Glasgow’s missing a trick actually here to lead by example. We have a big community here.

Niall Murphy (33:08):

Yes.

Mitch Miller (33:08):

It’s a big community. It’s a community that lives for the most part, very peacefully and unnoticed as part of this city. And they could really be showing how it can be done. And so far I’m not seeing it.

Niall Murphy (33:22):

Completely agree. I mean, it’s funny because it’s not as if it’s a new issue when the whole regeneration of the East end kicked off even in advance of the Commonwealth Games. I was involved in that kind of from 2006 onwards. And I remember going and having a look at that area relatively early on, because we got involved with looking at Bridgeton Cross and the area around Dalmarnock Station and a potential regeneration of Dalmarnock Station. And so this was my previous life as an architect. And we’re wondering around the area taking photographs and just trying to get a feel for it because you didn’t really know that part of the city terribly well. Of course, there’s a big community bang in the middle of that. And it was made really clear to us, “Would you please not take photographs of our spaces?” And we respected that as you should be respecting and any community that you come across. But it seems so, it strange to me from that basis there when you’re thinking, “Hold on a minute, there’s an issue here. We have to think about this.” Nobody’s really done it.

Mitch Miller (34:31):

And I could talk about Dalmarnock for quite some time as well, but I wouldn’t bore you to death. But Dalmarnock was why I picked up the pen with dialectogram back all those years ago. That was the clearance of Dalmarnock or the potential of the clearance of Dalmarnock.

Niall Murphy (34:46):

Yes.

Mitch Miller (34:47):

And we didn’t lose as many as we thought. It’s still the biggest concentration of us actually in Glasgow.

Niall Murphy (34:51):

Yes.

Mitch Miller (34:52):

But that was looking like, wow, all these relatives, I’ve got all these people I know, that life I remember visiting these yards going down there, that’s just going to be cleared away. And where did it go?

Niall Murphy (35:05):

Yeah.

Mitch Miller (35:05):

What’s the plan? And wasn’t one really of any kind. And that’s kind of why I did the first dialectogram actually, which was kind of made in anger slightly. And I just wanted to show that, you know what? You might not like this way of life or you may have issues whether you may be even prejudices about it, but what you can’t say is, it’s not a way of life.

Niall Murphy (35:23):

Yeah, definitely.

Mitch Miller (35:24):

There’s a system to how we live. There’s a culture here.

Niall Murphy (35:26):

There’s a whole culture there you should be respecting. And a key part of what kind of emerged from all that process was that there had to be, and this is very much due with the regeneration of these East Enders part of it, there should have been a health impact assessment. And so the impact on that community should have been properly assessed. Because we know from what happened in Glasgow back then that this is the consequence of suddenly scattering communities to the four winds, how tight-knit these communities were. And suddenly all those kind of soft social bonds are shattered that the impact that has on people’s health and psyche and it’s really damaging.

Mitch Miller (36:05):

Absolutely. Yeah. And again, what concerns me about Water Row is that I know there’s a lot of elderly, lot of very young families there and young people. I’ll call them vulnerable in the sense that they could be made vulnerable by this. They’re quite proud and I wouldn’t want to just play that on them. But the effects of this movement, if it’s not done right, if it’s just a scattering of them, if it’s have them towed some site that’s just really deeply unsuitable would just be terrible. And the effects, as I say, are almost hard to quantify.

Niall Murphy

Yes.

Mitch Miller (36:39):

But we do have an example of this before. There used to be sites in Whiteinch and Hull Street in the West End, other side of the of the river. They got moved to Dalmarnock of course, and they were right next to the sewage works again. So there’s all sorts of ways in which you do find this obviously in the least pleasurable parts of the city or the parts that people really don’t want to go until, of course someone realises something can be made of that, of course. And then again suddenly we’re a problem.

Niall Murphy (37:08):

Yes.

Mitch Miller (37:08):

So I do think people might listen to us thinking, “Well, why can’t they just be more reasonable or be more normal or live in houses?” And I think it’s not that we want special treatment.

Niall Murphy (37:19):

But it’s your land.

Mitch Miller (37:20):

Yeah, exactly. This land is bought, it’s leased, it’s legally bought. And they apply for planning. I have a cousin who has a site and it’s just beautiful. It’s like I wouldn’t even eat my dinner off it because that’d be besmirching it and he keeps us all there.

Niall Murphy (37:33):

Yeah, absolutely.

Mitch Miller (37:35):

And it’s just, all we really want to do is actually get on with our lives and not be a bother, in a sense.

Niall Murphy (37:44):

Yeah. I mean, this kind of brings me on to my next question because it’s about the stress that communities are placed under. And at the same time there’s this massive change going on in the Glasgow and you are living through this time of enormous disruption and your work, what you’re doing celebrates that really unique culture. But then how much is that culture already changing and evolving and are you seeing those changes in the way the younger generation think and speak and about how they want to live? So are you seeing that too?

Mitch Miller (38:19):

Yeah. I think that one thing to stress is that we’re not immune history, however that history comes to us, whether it’s through regeneration or just through the processes that are there. Our young people have phones, there’s interesting pictures of Valley speaking our own dialect and Glaswegian going on there. We’re like anybody else, we’re sort of changing with times. We have PlayStation 5s and broadband. So yeah, no, there is change, and I think it’s a change I’ve kind of been charting and noticing quite a lot of, so. For example, in my grandparents’ time, you were 80% nomadic, very rarely, and your season in the winter was very short, as in the off season. You were out again by February knocking ice off the wheels and you would just wear a perpetual nomad really. And that was life and that was fine. And you lived very cheaply and you did your thing and you did that one thing, which was fairs and circuses. That was what you did.

(39:21):
But that’s changed now. It’s very diverse now, I think. Even on our tiny wee yard, which is not a big one, we’ve got some people who work in offices, we’ve got a joker who teaches the art school and draws for a living, which is just a ridiculous thing. There are many different jobs that people do, but actually interestingly, people still want to live on the yards with their family. They still want to retain that. Even those who do travel, they often do it part time where they’re almost like portfolio work now, where they might have a job driving or doing something with a snack bar. If you meet a snack bar in Glasgow, by the way, you’ve probably met a relative of mine, just to be clear. But they have a kind of mixture of ways of incomes that they bring in as well.

(40:05):
So yeah, it’s changed. Our young people, for example, we have a very good education system here in Glasgow for them. That came about because, well, basically a bunch of women in our community really fought for it. And so it’s now quite normal for people to go into higher education. But they don’t necessarily leave. In my day, you did, it was a choice you made, were going to assimilate, you were going to go out there. And that was what we did. And you never mentioned where you came from either.

(40:31):
But the younger generation now, I think they’re a actually a bit more ballsy, a bit more like, “No, we’re not going, we’re not going to hide it. And also we’re going to go to uni, but we might just come back and still work on the fairs. We will blend our lives in interesting ways and not necessarily make that break that would’ve traditionally come with that decision.” So I’m it’s trying to embrace us a whole range of complexity. It’s quite hard to put into words actually. It’s changing a lot. I don’t think my grandparents would quite recognise. They’d recognise some parts and feel comforted by that, but also be quite surprised I think at how much we’ve changed as a community.

Niall Murphy (41:09):

The kind of traditions have evolved over time in generations.

Mitch Miller (41:14):

Yeah. Having said that, we have these big chalet homes and they’re palatial and they’re big, but they still own wheels. They still move if they have to. We still want them to be able to move. So there’s all these ways in which things persist as well. And it is kind of amazing we’re still here as well. The fairs are not going through a good time. It’s not even legal in some fairs to have your caravans there with you. And yet we’re still doing it. And it’s not because of the money, because it’s a terrible way of making money. I can’t stress that enough. It always has been actually, if you look at what my great-grandparents were going through.

(41:47):
But it’s a tradition, it’s a lifestyle, it’s our world in its own. And yeah, my nephew, who’s 22, he wants to do this and I’m like, “You’re mad, but it’s great. Well done. But you’re insane. It’s a terrible way of making a living.” So I don’t know, I always get asked, “Is this lifestyle going to survive? And I think, well, as long as there are people bloody minded enough to want to still live it, then yeah ii will.

Niall Murphy (42:13):

Okay. Can you tell me more about who the Glasgow giant is? This kind of big bull fat guy with elephant feet, this cartoon figure that kind of emerges from the rubble of Red Road. Can you tell us any more about that?

Mitch Miller (42:27):

Well, this is the cartoonist part of me, I suppose. And also maybe a part of my brain it’s based, not explored, but I worked at Red Road for many years as you know-

Niall Murphy (42:37):

Fascinating

Mitch Miller (42:37):

I produced five dialectograms.

Niall Murphy (42:37):

Yeah.

Mitch Miller (42:39):

Fascinating place and a place that really kind of made me as an artist, if you like. Oh, a lot. I kind of really came to love the place even though I had all these contradictions. And I think just looking at when that demolition happened, and actually that demolition was ongoing, there was successive demolitions before the big one as it were. I think I was after maybe the first or second of them that happened. I sort of started to really just think about this character and developed this character in my sketchbook one day of, I don’t know, what represents progress or what represents a city, a big organisation it’s very complex. It doesn’t always know what one hand is doing from the other. How to represent that. Apparently it’s a big fat bald guy with elephant feet. I don’t know. It just came.

Niall Murphy (43:28):

Just a large.

Mitch Miller (43:31):

And yeah, it’s not about saying… It’s not like being pejorative even, it’s about… I think Glasgow, listen, I love the place unconditionally much as it annoys me at times. And I think the way in which the city tries to improve itself can sometimes be inspired and sometimes just be really destructive and terrible. And so the giant kind of represents that. He represents a sort of lumbering attempt to move forward and occasionally crushing things flat and occasionally making a mess of things. And I don’t know, it’s a bit…I mean, my wife finds it very creepy because of the way the eyes are and stuff. But to me, I look at it affectionately, it’s like this is a city trying to change and not always getting it right.

Niall Murphy (44:13):

Yes.

Mitch Miller (44:14):

So there’s a series of these drawings I’ve made, did a bunch for The Guardian where it’s just different places like Red Roads or a travels yard or other types of site. And I’m just putting the giant in there as a sort of marker of what’s happening.

Niall Murphy (44:30):

Touching on that, do you feel a sense of responsibility for how you record people in your dialectrograms?

Mitch Miller (44:36):

Oh, huge. Yeah. I mean, it does actually worry me sometimes. “Am I doing this? Am I getting this…? Am I doing this well? Am I doing this responsibly?” Because I do think as an artist, get some licence and I see it myself. I go into a place as an artist, for example. And I can ask really stupid questions. I can get in on conversations I really shouldn’t be involved in. And it’s quite easy in a way. And you could really misuse that.

Niall Murphy (45:02):

Yes, yeah.

Mitch Miller (45:03):

You could really do terrible things with that if you wanted. And some have, let’s look at the history of art, there’s loads of that.

Niall Murphy (45:08):

Yes.

Mitch Miller (45:09):

But I am trying not to do that. I’m trying not to be wishy-washy per se, but to just be very careful and thoughtful about where that power goes, how I’m using that capital I get from my position. And yeah, trying to make it with that community. Again, not trying to pretty them up or make it too feel good or touchy feely even, just trying to be genuinely objective, admitting my own subjectivity and then trying to work through that to make images and representations that mean something. But also trying not to cause chaos in my own wake as well. That’s really important to me.

Niall Murphy (45:50):

So what lies ahead for you? What kind of new work are you’re planning at the moment?

Mitch Miller (45:54):

Right. Well, there’s one thing I can’t announce yet, so I wouldn’t even talk about that. So forget I even said that right now.

Niall Murphy (46:00):

Okay.

Mitch Miller (46:00):

But at the moment I’m working with the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation in Marseille.

Niall Murphy (46:09):

Oh wow.

Mitch Miller (46:09):

Isn’t that an impressive sentence? Yeah, which is a really, really interesting and nerve-wracking project looking at Romany culture in Europe. So Barvalo will be the first big exhibition in a European museum about Romany culture. Unbelievably, if you consider the thousand Europe history and all the opportunities that they’ve had. And this will be so, I don’t know if you know the museum, but it’s a big Borg cube on the kind of harbour at Marseille. It’s kind of amazing. And I’m working on two works for them at the moment. Looking at migration and language. And I’m working with an amazing team with the museum, University of Vermont and an organisation called ERIAC, which is the European Romany cultural organisation who very nicely asked me to be part of the whole thing, which was really quite something. So working on that right now, looking at it just now. And still kind of working on that, and that will be exhibited in April as well. So that’s the main thing I’m working on.

Niall Murphy (47:11):

Any sort of positive changes you’d like to see?

Mitch Miller (47:14):

In terms of Glasgow?

Niall Murphy (47:19):

Oh, just kind of general, your work and kind of your impact on Glasgow?

Mitch Miller (47:22):

I think I’d be very careful about overstating any changes I make. I think what I get to do is, I get to ride along with people who are often doing very good things and are good people in that sense. So for example, a dialectogram I did a Baltic Street Adventure Playground. Those guys are doing amazing work with the young people down there, bringing play to that area that really needed it. I’d just been working up at Possil with The Claypits, local nature reserve people who took a bit of wasteland, which was in effect to nature reserve already, but very hard to get into and made it into something beautiful that anyone can go and see and access. And I was there this other day with my daughter and it was amazing just how diverse the communities of people who use that now are.

(48:06):
So you have to go. And if you go, you might bump into a big dialectogram installed there, which was quite a job actually, it was quite a trick one to draw. But I think I also often feel I’m along for the ride in a lot of these things. And there, I get to see these people doing the thing and I get to maybe contribute something to it, even if it’s just a record of that in some way. And that’s always been… That’s what keeps me doing it, to be honest with you. Because honestly, sometimes you’re there at 12 o’clock at night still drawing this damn thing and you really just wish you’d done landscapes or cartoons down in Hyde Park or something. Just think, “There’s got to be easier ways of doing this.” And you do get a bit scunnered with it, but every time one of these projects comes about, I realise why this is a great way to work and a great kind of job to be able to do.

Niall Murphy (49:00):

Sure.

Mitch Miller (49:00):

So I carry on doing it.

Niall Murphy (49:02):

Sure.

Mitch Miller (49:03):

Until till the end probably.

Niall Murphy (49:06):

Okay. Final question, and it’s a total loaded question we ask everybody who comes on a podcast this question. What is your favourite building in Glasgow? And it can be a building that has disappeared or is still around. It can be static, it could be mobile. What would it tell you if its walls could talk?

Mitch Miller (49:27):

Oh, I thought about this quite a lot. This was the hardest one. When I got the question I was like, “Oh my God.” And I really wish I’d called Chris Leslie and copied his notes, but okay, I’ll talk very briefly about the ones that didn’t make it right. So I did the Barrowland always makes me happy just to see it. Always will. And it’s one of my favourite dialectograms of course, as well that I did. But I’m not going to choose that. I’m not going to choose the Kelvin Hall, which would be the natural one given the theme of today.

Niall Murphy (49:55):

Sure.

Mitch Miller (49:55):

…because I grew up with stories of the Kelvin Hall Carnival. My Mam was in there from a very wee girl to her final days there. And it was just the stories and the lore of that. I’m very tempted to pick that. But what I thought I’d do is I’d go hipster. So there’s a very strange building on Balmore Road that when I was working up at the stables, Lambhill stables, I was doing a dialectogram up there and I would pass this every day. And it’s a bookies, so it’s a bookmakers. And go and see it, it’s kind of boarded up now and it’s looking like, I mean, it looks like if you would touch it would fall down now.

Niall Murphy (50:30):

Okay.

Mitch Miller (50:30):

But it’s a very strange building. It’s got two gable wings, it’s really quite well built. It’s got a bookmaker sign on it and it seems to represent just a different era. There must have been buildings around here that were just… It just very different landscape to what we know and it’s still there. And I don’t know anything about it and I want to. And just every time I walk past it, I see it and I’m like, “I want to know more about what that is.” So I’d love to know more about the building. I’d love to hear it talk.

Niall Murphy (51:00):

I don’t know it. So that’s intriguing. I must go and have a look, see if I can figure it out.

Mitch Miller (51:06):

Go and check it out. It’s on Google Street View as well. You can see it on Balmore Road.

Niall Murphy (51:10):

Right.

Mitch Miller (51:11):

It’s not a distinguished building, but it is a very interesting one. And that’s my choice.

Niall Murphy (51:15):

Interesting choice. Okay. Right. I have to go and check that one out and see if I can figure out something of its backstory and where it came from.

Mitch Miller (51:24):

Let me know what you find out.

Niall Murphy (51:26):

I will do. That would be, yeah, wonderful. We could have a further conversation about that then.

Mitch Miller (51:31):

Sounds good.

Niall Murphy (51:32):

Mitch, that’s a complete pleasure. Thank you very much for answering all the questions and letting us know what your favourite building is. It’s very much appreciated.

Mitch Miller (51:40):

You’re welcome, And thanks for having me on. It’s been great.

Niall Murphy (51:42):

It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Mitch.

Mitch Miller (51:43):

Thank you.

Katharine Neil (51:45):

Glasgow City Heritage Trust is an independent charity and grant funder that promotes the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of Glasgow’s historic built environment. Do you want to know more? Have a look at our website at glasgowheritage.org.uk and follow us on social media @GlasgowHeritage. This podcast was produced by Inner Ear for Glasgow City Heritage Trust. The podcast is kindly sponsored by the National Trust for Scotland and supported by Tunnocks.

Series 2 Episode 3: Alasdair Gray’s Glasgow with Sorcha Dallas, The Alasdair Gray Archive

Niall Murphy (00:11):

Hello, everyone. I’m Niall Murphy, and welcome to If Glasgow’s Walls Could Talk. A podcast by Glasgow City Heritage Trust about the stories and relationships between historic buildings and people in Glasgow. I’d like to start today’s podcast with a quote, “What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, a park, a golf course, some pubs and connecting streets? That’s it. No, I’m wrong. There’s also a cinema and the library. And if our imagination needs exercise, we use these to visit London and Paris.” Those words come from the pen and creative genius of Alasdair Grey, the subject of today’s exciting conversation. The great Scottish writer and artist sadly died in December 2019, just a day after his 85th birthday. But he leaves an inspiring legacy for all to share. A lifetime’s work, which continues to invite a reimagining of Glasgow.

(01:09):
Alasdair Grey was born in Riddrie, in Glasgow’s Northeast, in December 1934. His childhood visits to Kelvingrove Museum had fueled fantasies about escaping to imaginary worlds. But he never wanted to leave Glasgow. And as an adult, actively avoided the law of making fame and fortune in London. His seminal work, the much acclaimed novel, Lanark: A Life in Four Books, moves through time and space, but never really leaves the recognisable reality, or perhaps surreality, of Glasgow, and some say, especially when it becomes the damp and dreary dystopia of Unthank. Yet the book also challenged and shaped a different way of seeing Glasgow. In one off quoted passage, the centre of Glasgow is seen through patches of sunlight from a windy hillside, which I think is Garnet Hill. And this is an exchange between Duncan Thaw, the protagonist of the book, and his friend MacAlpine.

(02:07):
“‘Glasgow is a magnificent city,’ said MacAlpine. ‘Why do we hardly ever notice that? Because nobody imagines living here. Think of Florence, Paris, London, New York, nobody visiting them for the first time as a stranger, because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history, books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.'” So like the opening quote, that’s from page 243 of Lanark, as today’s guest can tell us without a moment’s hesitation. Welcome to Sorcha Dallas, curator of the Alistair Grey Archive. The archive was almost miraculously moved to the Whisky Bond just three months after Alistair’s death, and secured just a day before lockdown in March 2020.

(02:58):
So Sorcha Dallas first met Alasdair Grey in 2007, at a time when she was establishing a personal reputation as an enterprising and innovative young gallery owner, bringing the work of contemporary artists to a wider world. She already knew a great deal about the older artists. Like so many other Glasgow School of Arts graduates, she’d been inspired by reading Lanark. It’s great to have you on the podcast, Sorcha, and we know you have an extraordinary story to tell about the founding of the archive, and how the work of Alasdair Grey continues to inspire new imaginings now and for the future. So first off, in our first question, perhaps you can start telling us more about your working relationship with Alasdair Grey, how it came about, and developed over the course of, how long was it, 13 years?

Sorcha Dallas (03:45):

Thank you, Niall. Lovely to be here today. Yes, so my working relationship with Alasdair goes back to 2007, and as you said, I was at that time running a commercial gallery. Although my interest with his work, as you also mentioned, began many years before. I remember many fellow art students reading Lanark, and was such a formative experience for me, but also living within the West End of Glasgow and encountering his murals in West End bars and lanes, and occasionally glimpsing his carefully designed books in John Smith’s bookshop too. So I guess I was really aware from the beginning of his very expansive practise, but what I really wanted to do, and because of my background was highlight the visual and put it on the same fitting, really, as the literary work, because Alasdair did go to Glasgow School of Art. He studied mural making and stained-glass, and he would always describe himself as an artist who fell into writing, that’s really where the opportunities happened for him.

(04:44):
But for many people, the only way that they were really able to encounter his visual work was through the publications, through these beautifully designed book jackets or plates that he would dot within the text themselves. So I guess when I came in and started working with him, he was thinking about getting his visual archive in order, because he was in the process of starting to work on A Life In Pictures, which was a kind of seminal book, a visual biography told in his own words and using the images that he created throughout his life to describe his story. So he was getting that together with Canongate. So I came in and helped organise and work on that with him. And really then from that I really wanted to try and reposition his work, his visual work, put it on the same fitting as a literary, but you can’t really separate them, they’re fully intertwined, so it’s very much about promoting his work, getting it bought into major collections.

(05:38):
And then really from that, I started to work with Glasgow museums to coincide with his 80th birthday on the Alasdair Grey season, which was a kind of citywide series of exhibitions with the jewel in the crown being the retrospective from the personal to the universal that was at Kelvingrove. So I guess from the start, I’d seen a large body of work he’d amassed over periods in terms of his visual work, and it was very much about bringing that front and centre. And also showing the connections between the visual and the literary. Because as you said, you quoted a section there from Lanark, and that was a book that took 30 years to create and to resolve. But of course, during that time he’s re-imagining the city in other ways, through murals, through paintings, through prints and drawings, and it’s that intertwining between the visual and the literary that I think makes him so distinct and so unique as a creative.

Niall Murphy (06:39):

Absolutely. I mean, for me it was a complete revelation. I went to Glasgow School of Art too, though I was in the Macintosh School of Architecture section, so I didn’t read it until later on, mainly because so many people had inadvertently put me off by telling me it was this incredibly difficult book to read. And then when I did get to it, which was in my mid-thirties, I didn’t really find it difficult at all. I absolutely lapped up, thought was a fabulous book, but to me, maybe it was better that I left it until later, because knowing Glasgow much better by then, I could totally connect with how he saw the city and the things that were happening in the city in the book, and how Unthank operated as well with this mirror Glasgow, that was fascinating to me, because you could see how that surreal take on Glasgow totally connected with what was happening in Glasgow during that 25 to 30 year period that was writing it. And things like the comprehensive development areas where tenements would just disappear overnight, and that the happens would disappear as well.

(07:42):
You could see how the city’s unwinding, and he captures that so well. And I think that’s the best example I can think of how anyone has captured what Glasgow went through in that period, and Lanark does it absolutely brilliantly. Really interesting as well. Sorry, sorry, I kind of jumped back in there, but you say he was trained in stained glass, and you can see…

Sorcha Dallas (08:04):

Yes. And mural making, yes.

Niall Murphy (08:05):

Yeah. You can see in his use of line and his confidence of line, where all that comes from is fascinating. Really interesting.

Sorcha Dallas (08:11):

I should probably put a disclaimer in that, I don’t know how much stained-glass he actually made. He didn’t make really stained glass, he was definitely more focused within the mural making. But yeah, I guess what’s characteristic of stained glass is this very sharp defined outline, which is also a unique style with, I guess, in terms of book-making and illustration. And if you think about Alasdair’s first encounter with storytelling in the visual and forum that was in childhood books where there is a text and a passage, and then there is a visual representation of that that was often very stylised, and very graphic, and very simple in its execution. And I think you can really see that early influence of graphic art and illustration on his work, which obviously, he, actually, later in his life through a good friend of his, he ended up working with her on a stained glass panel. But yeah, it’s interesting that you pick up on that, because it’s a similar usage of line, isn’t it?

Niall Murphy (09:09):

Exactly. They’re like the cartoons that you see, having seen cartoons as some of the great works of, because Glasgow is obviously a major centre for stained glass, having seen some of those cartoons of people’s work, you can see that same use of lines. He was obviously trained in it at some point, that’s very, very interesting.

Sorcha Dallas (09:27):

But I think the mural making for me really shapes everything about what he’s wanting to do and picks up on the point that you raised earlier in terms of, Alasdair, I mean, there’s many things that he’s doing in his work. One is creatively responding to things that exist already. So if you read Lanark, you can see the list of plagiarisms, it’s in conversation with work that nothing’s made in a vacuum and it’s very much having a very participatory exchange with things that have happened before. But it’s also, exactly as you said before, trying to fix and capture, disappearing things are happening, disappearing people, disappearing places. And that period, if you think about kind of Lanark and what he was working on around the same time, the city recorder series that he did for the People’s Palace through for Glasgow Museums, trying to fix a particular period and the social history of the city too, which he’s mapping and recording, which we’ve got material, because the archive is located in Applecross by the fourth canal.

(10:26):
And we look out the window at the old Applecross building and some of the old mill buildings around there that have been since sort of taken over by Scottish Canal. And we can see them reflected and drawn 40, 50 years earlier by Alasdair. So he’s walking in this area, but he’s also living at the time up near the art school at Garnet Bank. So that whole part of the city was part of the same neighbourhood he described as walking from Garnet Bank. But as you said, the planning, particularly the motorway, what that did to the city in terms of cutting off areas, sectioning off communities and dislocating areas, it’s hard now walking in those footsteps to imagine what that was once like.

Niall Murphy (11:05):

Yeah. You have to know what the city was like beforehand. And that whole conversation with MacAlpine, I think happens, I could be wrong, of course, I think it happens kind of where the Hill Street viewpoint roughly is now, because you see that kind of fabulous panorama of Trinity College and Park Circus, and especially when you see that in the sunset, it’s beautiful.

Sorcha Dallas (11:25):

You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking it was drawn from there, but it’s actually not. It’s drawn from the clay pits, from the viewpoint just did the clay pits…

Niall Murphy (11:33):

Right, which is equally beautiful.

Sorcha Dallas (11:36):

Equally beautiful. And obviously the work that Scottish canals have been doing around that area over the last few years has really brought it back as an area for people to really recreationally enjoy in different ways. So yeah, there’s actually a pathway up to the viewpoint. And we went back recently because we have got the passage that you quoted. We’ve got a drawing that Alasdair made, which is a visual representation of that passage. And we went back to look at it and to try to reposition it. And it is made from that viewpoint, but equally as much as it looks like a naturalistic drawing Alasdair’s taken stylistic licence, and he’s moved buildings around, and he reimagined it even in that sketched form.

(12:15):
But yeah, it’s great. Yeah, we’re hoping to do a bit more about that to really bed the material that we have into that landscape, and show the relationship and the connection to it, not just in the formation of Lanark, but if you know Alasdair’s largest painting, Cowcaddens, in the 1950s that he did in 1964, that is a depiction of Garnet Bank extending up to the area in which we are in. You can see Applecross house in the first and fourth canal within that drawing. So it’s all part of the same language that he’s writing about in Lanark, and he’s drawing in some of these artworks like Cowcaddens too. So it’s kind of fascinating from a social history point of view too, to go back and walk in his footsteps.

Niall Murphy (13:04):

Yeah, because it’s this whole part of the city that’s disappeared. It’s a jigsaw you have to piece together again.

Sorcha Dallas (13:05):

It is. And I guess there’s layers of that, isn’t there? Who and what has been disappeared and why? What has been the motivation politically, socially? And creatively for those things to happen. I think Alasdair is always really determined to do that, to try and fix people, and almost keep them alive, keep those stories often overlooked and marginalised too within the work. So there’s something political and social that he’s doing within that too.

Niall Murphy (13:33):
Fascinating. Moving on to our second question. So Alasdair Gray died in 29th of December 2019, so one day after his 85th birthday. And you’ve said that it felt like the end of things. And yet somehow within three months you’d helped secure a new big beginning for this astonishing archive of artefacts and books at the Whisky Bond. And this is in March 2020 just before the lockdown. How did you manage that?

Sorcha Dallas (14:04):
Yeah, I’m not going to lie, it was an intense period, but I think I really went into protection mode, because I knew Alasdair, he lived his life by his Socialist principles, so he was always struggling to pay the rent, to pay other people, because he really relied heavily in assistance to work alongside him. But he didn’t own his flat, it was owned by his second wife, Morag McAlpine, and sadly she died prior to Alasdair. So I think the way it was set up, he was given a lifetimes lease to live in the flat after she died, but it reverted then back to her family and to her will. So that was kind of the prompt to it, the fact that we didn’t have time. You hear about, every archive’s different, every estate’s different. I think the longer we had, if there was maybe an indefinite period, we might still be there sifting through things.

(14:52):
But it prompted me to really go into protection mode quite quickly and to think about what is achievable that I can list and catalogue, who can I bring in to support me with that, and how can we keep it safe moving forward. So there was a few conversations that happened early on. One was, for example, at the National Library Service to look at the literary materials, the Glasgow School of Art came in and helped in regards to the library. And then the Scottish National Galleries came in, they helped by assisting me with an archivist, Kirstie Meehan, who came in and helped me list the artwork. So we tried to capture as much as we could the areas that we couldn’t capture in full detail, like some of the library elements, because there was just books everywhere.

(15:35):
We photographed it. We also did a 360 degree recording of it. We captured all the information we needed so once it was relocated we could continue to go back through that and archive and accession it, really. But it was going to the government to sort of say, “This needs to be protected, can you help me? Time is of the essence.” And fortunately they did step in to do that. And as you mentioned, we managed to pack everything up, move it out, get it into the Whisky Bond, and then we went into lockdown. And that was such a strange period. I kept thinking, “I wonder what Alasdair would’ve thought about all of this at such a kind of strange time,” because as we were packing up, we could feel this wave of Covid coming towards Britain and about to hit. So we were bracing ourselves for something.

(16:22):
And now to reflect on that is hard, isn’t it? Because we’ve all been through it and we’ve experienced it. But fortunately, we managed to get in and get everything secure. But is worth saying that when I started to work with Alasdair he was in his early seventies. So I was very much aware of thinking about legacy. And during his lifetime we set up a foundation and we captured what he wanted to happen to the work posthumously in terms of creating education, learning opportunities from it, and that is what the archive is based on. So it’s not me or others interpreting what Alasdair would’ve liked, we’ve got his intentions at the heart of everything that we do. And equally, it’s got to be a generative resource. So it’s about making people aware of his work and also the web of influence around him, because he worked alongside others.

(17:14):
But as we’d said earlier, his whole interest creatively was responding to things that happened before. So it’s very important to create that opportunity for others in his name. So for them to come in to respond creatively to what Alasdair’s left, and that can be in a respectful, or in an interrogative way, that’s how it should be. And that keeps it being generative, it keeps it being fresh, it keeps these new perspectives and stories being able to be added into it as well.

(17:43):
But yeah, it was a very strange time, I guess in many ways I felt kind of fortunate that then there was a period of things slowed down once it was safe to be able to go into the Whisky Bond. I quite enjoyed having that slow pace to be able to really reflect on what was there. And also maybe to grieve in a way too, because it was so quick that I went into protecting it, and in many ways I feel that Alasdair’s still so alive for me, because every week I’m discovering new things, I’m always learning. But it helped me come to terms with the loss of him not being there, but what remained was the work, and really to think about how I could protect and fix that, not just for now, but for the future too.

Niall Murphy (18:27):

Fascinating. That brings me onto my next question, which I’m quite interested in, because as mentioned before the start, I lived right next door to Alasdair, so I’m intrigued as to how this works. But the archive invites visitors into Alasdair’s front room. So as part of this, can you take us inside and perhaps describe your own first visit to Alasdair’s flat in Marchmont Terrace?

Sorcha Dallas (18:55):

Yeah. So obviously it’s worth saying that the archive, it’s not set up in Alasdair’s last place of residence. It’s a part recreation of his living space at Marchmont Terrace. And many of the objects that were in his flat travelled with him through the various homes that he lived in within the West End of Glasgow. So that last home in Marchmont Terrace was probably his most comfortable, that’s because Morag was a woman of independent means. She was a librarian, a bookseller. She’d bought that flat, it was quite comfortable. There was a kitchen and bedroom to the back, a toilet area, and then a comfortable front living room, which he quickly commandeered as a working studio space.

Niall Murphy (19:36):

Huge front living rooms.

Sorcha Dallas (19:38):

Yeah, it was. But if you reflect on previous flats to that, it was often bed sits where all life and art were fully intertwined. But what what’s lovely and what we have at the archive is obviously key objects, which have travelled with him through these homes. So the rug, his green chair, which he used to sit on when he was working, editors did secretaries, a lot of models sat on it when he was drawing them, even appears in a mural as a throne within one of his murals too. We’ve got his desk that he found discarded on the street and he lovingly brought into his home, drilled it into his wall, and it travelled with him again from home to home. We’ve got all the shelves that he had up in his room, which were recycled from floorboards that he found out by a midden one afternoon too.

(20:27):
So a lot of these objects really, as much as, of course, were not in Alasdair’s home anymore, but because we’ve reinstated a version of it, they have these echoes, and these histories, and these stories too. So they’re very emotive as objects. And also it makes the archive different maybe from what people expect when they walk in. I guess, if you think of an archive, you maybe think of things behind plastic, or in boxes kind of stored away. We have got an element of that, but when you walk in, it is walking into Alasdair’s front room. And for me, I vividly remember the first time I walked over that threshold, and it was a life-changing moment for me.

(21:03):
And I never took for granted every other occasion that I was able to walk and enter into that space, because what you were walking into was the inner workings of Alasdair Gray’s minds. You could look at his bookshelf and see the way he’s curated or put books together. You could see his artworks in various states of completion. You could see cassettes that he was listening to. He didn’t have a CD player, he didn’t have a TV. He would listen to the radio or to cassette players tapes as well. You’d see little objects and material studio ephemera. And I think, Niall, you were saying that you used to walk up and look in, because it was ground floor. Lots of people did, and you would’ve seen at the Bay Window, the plan chest with all the paint brushes.

Niall Murphy (21:46):

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Sorcha Dallas (21:49):

Yeah, I think lots of people do. I’ve had lots of people saying that would kind of mark their root home from work if they could swing past and peer in and see what else Alasdair Gray was getting up to.

Niall Murphy (22:00):

Yeah, I was far too intimidated to ask, but…

Sorcha Dallas (22:05):

I know. And I think a lot of people did, they felt so intrigued. And I wish what it was like on the other side, and I guess we’ve given people an opportunity to see what that’s like. And I think it’s also just fascinating, it’s real insight into a creative imagination and way of working that you’re able to see. And I also think it makes his work accessible in a different way, because he was so hand to mouth in terms of his existence that he’s making these extraordinary worlds, he’s world building on this universal scale, in a way, but he’s using very ordinary stuff that we all have lying around, pens, pencil, a lot of Tipp-Ex, recycled bits of paper. He’s prompted by economics, using and recycling what he’s got around him. And that’s really inspiring, I think, for people to see. He’s not got a massive studio and a workforce of 10 helping him, and he’s spending X amount per month for materials. He’s really not.

Niall Murphy (23:00):

I couldn’t agree more. Yeah, absolutely. Fascinating. I mean, it just sounds like it’s a really enticing invitation to come and visit you at the archive.

Sorcha Dallas (23:11):

Well, it is open to everyone. Obviously, as I described, it’s not a huge space because it’s a part recreation of the front room. But anyone who’s interested can get in touch through social media, through the website, and arrange a visit. And obviously it’s been brilliant over the last year in particular because of restrictions easing, being able to welcome people, groups or one-on-one. And if you’re an Alasdair Grey super fan, you’re welcome. If you don’t know anything about Alasdair Gray, you’re welcome.

Niall Murphy (23:38):

Absolutely. Yeah, it would be a nice escape from the office. And talking about that, question number four, what can you tell us about Alasdair Gray’s own escapes, firstly from Riddrie, and can you tell us about his other passions such as libraries, or his favourite haunts in Glasgow, or things he didn’t like in Glasgow?

Sorcha Dallas (24:00):

Yeah, I mean, I think libraries, he would talk about libraries being his university, in a way. And he was always so passionate about, and so behind libraries, and the importance of them and of education too, really. But libraries gave him access, I guess now we’ve got, if I think about a young Alasdair Gray, eight or nine living in Riddrie and going to the library, and the kind of world that opened up to him, he could take a book down and he could be transported to a real or fantastical place through opening a book a week. I mean, we can do that now in the internet, can’t we? But it’s a transformative power of literature, and the universal right I think that we all have to be able to live imaginatively, and he passionately believed in that. And he also believed in the cornerstone of a civil society as education too, and that we have to value that much better in this country as well.

Niall Murphy (24:57):

Very, very much, yes. I wonder what you’d think about what happened subsequently over lockdown with the libraries and all of those issues that would’ve really touched a nerve with him.

Sorcha Dallas (25:08):

Someone had asked me a while ago, “What were the conditions to make an Alasdair Gray? Could you make another one?” And I guess there’s different catalysts. He was quite a particular product of his time. And I think coming out of the Second World War and this idea that I think there was a real hopefulness of building back a country better that was about collectivity, the NHS, free schools, free education. There was a real hopefulness that drove that, that he never was jaded by, he always believed that that was possible and achievable, but it was about us having to live differently, which he obviously did. He wasn’t driven by material gain, it was about making and a kind of economy around supporting others in an equal way.

(25:56):
And I think there was always, that’s what I found always really inspiring, he was never jaded. There was always that hopefulness that he had in people, and in people being able to reflect and do better and be better. And I think that’s a really inspiring way to be. Your had asked earlier about what did he use to escape, I guess it’s kind of quite well-known that he would escape from this very busy brain by going to the pub. That was a one way that he managed to get out of his very, very busy brain. But another way that he escaped the chatter that happened constantly, I think, in his mind, was through playing chess. And that was a really good way for him to dull his busy brain. And also often when he was having a problem, if he was stuck at a bit of writing, or a mural, he would play chess to help unlock and solve some of those creative issues that he’s having.

Niall Murphy (26:46):

Fascinating. My dad is a really serious chess player, so I can understand. That didn’t rub off on me, unfortunately.

Sorcha Dallas (26:54):

Well, there’s a chess board at the Archive, if you fancy it.

Niall Murphy (26:58):

I think I probably still know some moves. Talking about Alasdair’s mural then and his own physical mark on Glasgow with the murals he produced around the city, what do they say about both him as an artist and the city? Maybe we could start by looking at his work in Òran Mór, and that reimagining of Glasgow, and the mapping of the city, and how it describes the ordinary lives of people and disappearing places.

Sorcha Dallas (27:26):

Yeah, I think that’s what all his work does, really, and the murals in a very particular way, because they’re civically cited. So it’s that idea of them being physically placed within an environment where everyone can access him, and that is really important. You don’t need to walk over the threshold of a gallery, or they’re out there in the world for everyone to enjoy. And I think there’s something really powerful that he does in Òran Mór, and he does in the SPT Hillhead mural, and he does in the Ubiquitous Chip mural too, where he’s using ordinary people and what that does to someone seeing themself reflected back. He did it also in the city recorder series from 1977. He was commissioned at that time by Elsmith King, who was then curator at the People’s Palace to go out and record the people and places of Glasgow, which is now fascinating to go back and look at what’s there, what remains and what’s been disappeared.

(28:25):
But again, thinking of equity of experience, he went out and he drew Councillors, and Politicians, and heads of different Faiths alongside artists, and writers, and secretaries, unemployed people, factory workers, everyone was given equal status. And I think the murals that we’re talking about within the West End do a similar thing. Òran Mór I love in particular the mirrors you’ve got from the management staff to the builders, to the bar staff, to the cleaners. Everyone is given their place and everyone is seen as an important and equally contributing to that community.

(29:03):
And I guess that goes back again to sort of socialist principles that underpin everything, and how powerful that is. And I think that’s such a powerful thing, we’re doing a little bit of work within schools, and of course it’s secondary schools. A lot of the young people are able to read per things, or they’re able to read Lanark. Primary schools obviously not so much, but it’s that idea of what’s he doing. He’s taking stories that people don’t maybe see as valuable, and he’s shining a light on them and saying the ordinary in the everyday is valuable and important and extraordinary. And I think it’s something really powerful, and can really give people confidence to think about how they occupy their own lives and the landscape around them when that happens, or something really empowering that happens, when they see themselves, or a version of themselves, reflected back, because it’s saying you’re valuable, and your life is important.

Niall Murphy (29:58):

Yes. Because everyone’s part of that, the big facets that make up the network that makes up Glasgow. So that’s incredibly important. Okay. Well, we, obviously, as a trust, Glasgow City heritage just focuses on Glasgow, but the archive and what you want do with the archive, it’s also one of the aims, is to influence Scotland’s development, which is incredibly ambitious. And of course, there’s another great Alasdair Grey quote, which is carved into the Canongate wall of the Scottish Parliament through Edinburgh, which is, “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation,” which is actually adapted from the Canadian poet Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies. But it’s such a fantastic quote, really love that quote. And I have a photograph of that. It’s one of these fantastic quotes that carved in Morales is building. So can you tell us a bit more about that aim and the ambition of it?

Sorcha Dallas (30:57):

Yeah, I mean, I think Glasgow’s an interesting place at the moment, isn’t it? In terms of if you think about what has sort of defined Glasgow creatively, or aesthetically, over the last sort of couple of decades, it’s probably been Macintosh, and obviously what’s happened with the Art school, with the kind of two fires that happened there, kind of key sort of asset has been lost. I know we’re talking about rebuilding it. But still, I think there’s an opportunity to reimagine Glasgow. And I don’t see anyone better than reimagine it through than the lens of Alasdair Gray, because it’s also getting away from this idea of a lone genius, because he’s not, he’s part of a community. And that’s part of something that we’re really passionate about doing at the archive, is telling the stories of many other lives that we’re intertwined with as some are well-known in their own right too.

(31:48):
So of course you can talk about Alasdair creatively and from a literary perspective, and think about Liz Lochhead, and Bernard MacLaverty, and Tom Leonard, and James Kelman, and this peer group and Agnes Owen who are influencing each other. But the ordinary is in the everyday within that too, for example, Morag, creating that safety and that comfort for him to be able to create within is really important and needs to be acknowledged as well. So I think there’s an opportunity to reimagine what it is to be, and I think that makes it way more accessible to people too, because it’s not talking about someone working in isolation, they’re a product of their environment, and from a web of influence, and people are a network around them. But I also think that also goes back to education and how we think about ourselves creatively, and how we want to be as a nation moving forward too.

(32:39):
I think there definitely needs to be more done in terms of, if you look at, particularly sort of primary and secondary school, what’s taught and highlighted within our creative history, it’s Mackintosh and it’s Burns. And I don’t think that’s good enough. I think we need to do better.

Niall Murphy (32:54):

Completely agree. Completely agree.

Sorcha Dallas (32:55):

And I also think with Alasdair, in a way with Burns, Burns is a complex character. And the more research goes on, we realise that this chocolate book, or shortbread tin version of him is way more complex than layered. And I think what is so important because of who Alasdair was, he lived his life and he made work by his principles. And one of those was being honest and telling the truth. And we have to be honest about his life too, and the best and the worst within that. And I think that’s the only way that we can really then think about who we want to be collectively and nationally moving forward. So I think there’s huge opportunities within the city and beyond to embed not just Alasdair, but this kind of web of network around him. But also if I look at Ireland and Southern Ireland, how they’ve done it, particularly if you look at the Museum of Irish Literature in Dublin and how they’ve used James Joyce as a starting point, Joyce’s relationship with the city, but also the web of influence that’s happened since then.

Niall Murphy (34:00):

It’s this intriguing parallel.

Sorcha Dallas (34:02):

Yeah. But also how that’s a catalyst for others, but there’s new ways of looking at the city. So I’m not saying we’re fixated on Alasdair, he’s a starting point, but it continues, and he’s part of a continuum. His work was made in a continuum with things that had happened prior to him, and it’s only right to continue that from him onwards as well.

Niall Murphy (34:23):

Yes, I completely get where you come from. I get very frustrated with Mackintosh. I mean, I love Mackintosh’s work, he’s incredibly interesting. But you can’t just tease him out as this lone genius. And I used to get frustrated when I first arrived in Glasgow, Mackintosh would be described as this lone flower blooming in this industrial wasteland, which is like, no, you’ve completely misunderstood what Glasgow is about. And you can’t divorce somebody from the context. You just can’t do it. And it’s like, what about Margaret McDonald? And what about his circle of friends? And there are all of these networks you have to appreciate.

Sorcha Dallas (35:02):

Absolutely. And I think that’s something to be said about what gets disappeared and what doesn’t, right? That’s what we were talking about earlier. And I can see that living through a legacy in real time, how those things can easily get buffered and removed, and the narrative can go off. But because of who Alasdair was and what he made, and also because he built that into his work, that honesty and that exposing of himself that we can’t not acknowledge that that’s written into and drawn into everything he’s done. So yeah, I think it makes it way more accessible, because it’s not say we’re all flawed human beings trying our best, but that’s way more interesting to put that front and centre and to own that than to try and buffer it and create a narrative from it, that just becomes so far removed from the reality and many people’s experience of that too.

Niall Murphy (35:55):

Very much. Okay. Well, taking that as a starting point then, obviously Alasdair, he inspired so many Scottish writers and artists, you’ve kind of touched on that whole network. But in particular, I wanted to focus in on the remarkable talent of Agnes Owens, who I think is a really fascinating figure. And can you tell us more about that relationship and how all that came about?

Sorcha Dallas (36:20):

Yeah, so I’ve been really honoured to work with Agnes’s son John Crosby over the last year. And what we’re going to be doing this year is setting up an Agnes Owens archive with Alasdair’s. And I’m really keen, obviously, to extend that for other people moving forward. So Alasdair’s Archive would almost be an umbrella with these other collections and archives sitting within it. So that’s a good way of talking about the web of influence in a very physical way, being able to see that. But Agnes was a woman who had a real lived experience throughout her life. She’d had sort of two marriages, seven children, she’d had a lot of trauma. One of her sons was murdered when he was 19, she never really recovered from that. She was someone who, I guess, creativity in that pathway into writing hadn’t really been open to her.

(37:12):
She didn’t go to university. She worked secretarial, cleaning, sort of menial jobs. And in her fifties, she’d gone to an evening class that Liz Lochhead was running, and I think Liz had read a text she’d written, and just thought it was a really distinct and unique voice. And so she met Alasdair, and Liz, I guess, brought her into the fold of other writers who she was working alongside, like James Kelman and Tom Leonard, and Alasdair, and Alasdair in particular. Well, what I can see from the material that we have on both sides is this very particular and supportive friendship that they had. He really encouraged her. He drew the covers for all her books. He really helped her get an agent and get published. He also paid for her draughts to be type written up to be sent to publishers as well.

(38:01):
And he’s not got a lot of money, but he’s seeing how important and also how she is, from her economic position, marginalised, and how can he use his position for good and for support. But what is fascinating within all of this, it’s not a one-sided thing. He’s sending her versions of his book, she’s editing, commenting on them. It’s a reciprocal relationship where he has got the utmost respect for who she is as a writer, and is trying as much as he can to help support and encourage that. But hat’s been reciprocated on her side too. But she is overlooked, because as we’re talking about, who are those voices get that chosen to be fixed and who doesn’t. Also, these things are complicated by estates, by wills, by dependents. So I’m really glad that, obviously John and I are working together on that to try and redress that, because she passed away over 10 years ago, almost 10 years ago.

(39:03):
And I think there’s a real opportunity to make that connection between her and Alasdair, but also for her work to be more widely known. I know more recently Douglas Stewart, who wrote Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo, has sort of cited her as an influence. Other writers who know her work are recognising that. But like anything, if you don’t know it, if her work’s not in print and accessible, how do you find that and access it? So I’m really excited about that work. And also because within the deposit John has dropped in, there’s some unpublished material too. So I think there’s going to be really exciting potential to come from that as well. But an inspiring woman, I never met her, but again, I feel like I’m forming this relationship with someone through learning about them through others, and it’s a real privilege.

Niall Murphy (39:49):

It sounds like a fantastic education resource.

Sorcha Dallas (39:52):

Yes. Obviously, at the moment we’ve had people, we’ve been tentatively telling people on our social media that we’ve got this initial Agnes deposit and material. And even in that short period of time we’ve had quite a few researchers and creatives who’ve been really interested, because they’re like, “Oh, Agnes Owens, a friend of a friend told me about her. I’ve only read a couple of things,” or, “I’ve heard about her.” But again, like we’re saying earlier, it’s about access, isn’t it, for this material. And not just physically, but digitally being able to share that and build it up too. So hopefully over the course of this year that will become more public facing, and people will be able to see what we have, and how we’re starting to grow that collection of Agnes. And obviously, there’s plans that we’d like to do. It’s her centenary in 2026, so there’s plans around how to celebrate and bring her work to a wider audience that we’re working on at the moment, too.

Niall Murphy (40:45):

Fantastic. Okay. Well, moving on from that, and obviously Glasgow can be quite a dreich place, but you’ve got your Gray Day, which is this annual festival of Alasdair’s work. So in the first one took place in 25th of February to mark the 40th anniversary of the publication of Lanark in 1981. And unfortunately, our podcast isn’t going to air until after your third annual Grey Day, but can you tell us more about how you go about celebrating this and turning that into an event?

Sorcha Dallas (41:18):

Yeah, of course. So the first Gray Day, as you said, was the reason we chose the 25th of February, because it coincided with the publication of Lanark, and that 2021 marked the 40th anniversary. So this was a day, an annual day, where we can get together and celebrate Alasdair, but really focus on the work, because he was always, as much as he was a fascinating character, and many people have got lots of interesting stories about him, he always wanted the focus to be on the works. So it’s a way of coming together a bit like Bloom’s Day with James Joyce, and to celebrate Alasdair in a widest sense. So the first one was obviously online, it was a virtual celebration, because we were in the midst of lockdown, but this is a project that started with Canongate, his Scottish publishers. And also we had Neu Reekie, who are an events based organisation who helped us deliver a Gray Day broadcast, which is available online.

(42:11):
You can look at it through the archives YouTube channel if you’re interested. Last year we were able to physically come together and to celebrate it, and of course we had to celebrate it at Òran Mór, there’s nowhere better to do an Alasdair Gray themed event than at Òran Mór under his master work of the auditorium. And again, we focused last year’s on Dante, on his last body of work that he made, the Dante trilogy that was produced just before he died. So we had Liz Lochhead, and Hollie McNish, and Val McDermid, and we had sort of musical elements too. And we’re following a similar format for this year. We’re having a few more readers, music, some film, but we’re focusing it on Poor Things, because Poor Things is being turned and will be screened in May, it’s a major motion picture that the director Yorgos Lanthimos has been working on.

(43:07):
So it’s going to be premiered at Cannes in May. And you’d talked about, Niall, at the start that you read Lanark, I would never say to people, if they don’t know, to start on Lanark, because once you’ve got what he’s doing, it’s complex. So I would always say start on Poor Things, it’s manageable, you can see a lot of what he’s doing on a more expanded and more nuanced way in Lanark. But it’s a good manageable starting point. For those who don’t know, it’s a reworking of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, but set in Victorian Glasgow. So it’ll be fascinating to celebrate that on Grey Day. We’re also working on a digital project that really roots that book into the city, because I haven’t seen Lanthimos’s script. And it wasn’t filmed in Glasgow, it was filmed in Croatia, so I’m not sure how many of the Scottish or Glaswegian references come in. So it’s important to root it back into the city and to the people and places that help shape it, really.

Niall Murphy (44:06):

Sure, yeah, how you could divorce Alasdair Gray from that, that’s going to be very interesting to see.

Sorcha Dallas (44:12):

It will be. It will be.

Niall Murphy (44:14):

Okay. Well, what’s next for the Archive? And you’ve said that the Archive is kind of built for the future. So what new commissions and collaborations are being inspired by Alasdair’s work?

Sorcha Dallas (44:25):

Oh, great question. Well, there’s a few things. One of the big things in terms of the organisational development, in terms of building it for the futures, we’ve just appointed our board, and we’ve got charitable status, and that’s really now laying a strong foundation for the future. So we went through a process of doing a call-out for trustees. And we’ve got fabulous five new board members that we’ve been over the course of this week sharing on social media who they are. So I’m really hopeful for, they’ve all got great expertise in archives, collections, fundraising, governance, but also rooting that back into reflecting Alasdair’s values and his vision, really, which last year I did quite a lot of work creating the organisational strategy, which really sets up the organisation in the short and longer term as well.

(45:10):
But as you say, creatively responding to Alasdair’s work has been the heart of what we’ve done from the beginning. And we’ve been largely working on commissions with Strathclyde Creative Writing department. So in 2021, we worked with poet Juana Adcock, who responded to Lanark. Last year we worked with Michael Pedersen, who’s a fantastic writer and poet who wrote a love letter to Alasdair’s green chair. And then this year she’s just been almost on residency. She’s just about to share actually on Grey Day some of her outcomes. We had the fantastic writer and journalist, Chitra Ramaswamy, who came in and wrote a series of micro essays about the archive and various narratives who she picked up in an narrative of Morag, and of Agnes Owens, and of the location around the archive at the Canal too. Really inspiring to work alongside Chitra, her book Homelands, I don’t know if you’ve read it, but…

Niall Murphy (46:06):

Not yet, it’s on my list to read, so it’s kind of highly recommended.

Sorcha Dallas (46:09):

Yeah, I would highly recommend it. It’s, again, a lot about what we’re talking about, what narratives, who do we choose to remember, and who has disappeared, and it’s a fascinating book and really worth a read. So that’s been really inspiring to work with her. We’ve got other series of commissions in the pipeline, because next year is 2024, and Alasdair, would’ve been his 90th birthday. So we’re really trying to root the Archive fix into the city, and also make connections, because a lot of people, I think when they come to the Archive, they say, “Oh, of course I’ve been into Òran Mór,” or, “I’ve read Lanark, I didn’t connect, it was the same person.” So I think there’s a lot more that we can do, and the city can do in terms of fixing and making the connection between what exists in the city already. So that’s in the short term, some of the work that we’re looking at too.

Niall Murphy (47:03):

Fascinating. Okay. Well, that brings us onto our final question, which quite often is the most difficult question. And that is, what is your favourite building in Glasgow, or Unthank? And what would it tell you if its walls could talk?

Sorcha Dallas (47:19):

Such a hard question. And obviously, I thought about this in terms of my own personal perspective, but I feel I’m here representing Alasdair and the Archive. And I think what I wanted to think about was what is a building that in many ways I didn’t know much about, and has been revealed to me over the last few years, particularly through looking through Alasdair’s material and organising it, and rooting it into the landscape around it. And that would be the little house at Applecross by the Firth and Forth canal. I have looked for many, many years at Cowcaddens, the painting that Alasdair made. I never noticed the top right corner in that little building and that area. And now I see it every day. I look out there and I look in the ledger and the sketches and studies, and I see versions of that house drawn from different perspectives and angles, and distorted in that way that when the Alasdair Gray can kind of do, and it sits right outside my window.

(48:15):
And I feel like I’ve learned so much about that building. And I also would love to, I mean, of course, I’m sort of coveting it for a public facing version of the Alasdair Gray Archive, but I also am thinking, wow, if those walls could talk, it would’ve seen a much younger Alasdair Gray walking over the bridge, because that’s the bridge, the quote that you mentioned at the start of the programme, Niall, that’s the bridge that you walk over at Applecross, saw MacAlpine walk over. And the little bit that goes up by Applecross house is the route that they go up to the viewpoint, so I feel…

Niall Murphy (48:48):

Right. Okay, I’ve got my bearings now. Yep.

Sorcha Dallas (48:52):

So as you walk around that house, you’re walking in the footsteps of Alasdair Gray, but of Duncan Thaw, of all these versions of Glasgow too. And I would love if that building could talk and it could remember looking out and seeing him wondering around that area with his pen, and pencil, and easel and drawing. It’s one of these things, because we’ve got photographs from that, the time that Alasdair was drawing that building in the sixties and seventies too. And the bridge is the same, the houses, the Whisky Bond is still there obviously too. But if you look right and left, the landscape of the city is completely altered. And these are almost like these portals back to a period of time, but are still fixed now and for the future. So that would be the building that I felt seemed really appropriate to think about.

Niall Murphy (49:41):

It’s a really nice choice, they have some lovely houses. Scottish canals have some kind of good, I think they’re using it as a wedding venue. I think that’s the idea at the moment.

Sorcha Dallas (49:52):

But it’d be much better as the Alasdair Gray Archive.

Niall Murphy (49:55):

You’re bringing your pitch.

Sorcha Dallas (49:58):

Yes.

Niall Murphy (49:59):

I think I have a feeling Thomas Telford might have lived in that house. Because it was part of, I think when he was planning the canal, I think that was where he was based. It was the Harbour Master’s house as well, because there was a whole basement that sat in front of it, which is now been unfilled. So it actually does sum up Glasgow really well, because you’ve got this artefact that has stayed there for centuries, but the whole landscape around it is completely altered, and it’s virtually unrecognisable.

Sorcha Dallas (50:26):

I know. It’s like a portal back into time, isn’t it?

Niall Murphy (50:29):

Very much. Yes. Yes. No, it’s good choice on the buildings at risk register for years as well.

Sorcha Dallas (50:34):

Oh, has it? Okay.

Niall Murphy (50:36):

Yeah, yeah. But I’m now rescued, so it’s been given a new purpose.

Sorcha Dallas (50:40):

Yeah, there’s been definitely quite a lot of work done over the last few years around that area. So yeah, I think it’s fascinating. Again, it’s what I love about buildings, and I guess what Alasdair was doing, what we’re talking about, these often unremarkable places that I’ve walked up and down that area all the time, but it’s through now really looking, which I think people did over lockdown, right? We couldn’t travel, we had to really look, and we noticed things that were just on our doorstep all the time that we were zooming past and too busy to really reflect and see the value of. And I think that’s what I love about. I know there was the pub across the other side of the bridge that used to be there. You kind of almost reimagine a portal to the past and what life would’ve been like there.

Niall Murphy (51:27):

Very, very much. That whole area has really fundamentally changed. There was a cinema that sat in front of it, which was like a web-shaped cinema, and a really nice design as well. And then behind that, just next door to the whiskey barn, there was a great kind of, it was a slightly gothic school as well.

Sorcha Dallas (51:43):

That’s right. Rockvilla, yeah.

Niall Murphy (51:44):

Yeah, Rockvilla School, which again, has been completely obliterated. And you’re like, “Who would demolish something that was so grand like that?”

Sorcha Dallas (51:51):

I know.

Niall Murphy (51:51):

We did. Yeah. The whole area fundamentally changed. So it does make you think as, I suppose there’s a bit of an element of Unthank about it too, because this whole section of the city that just disappeared and everything, once you get beyond the house and up the rise, that whole area has just been completely flattened. And it’s bizarre to walk around and think there used to be all of these people here, and it’s completely gone.

Sorcha Dallas (52:13):

I know. And that’s what we are seeing in this photo. So I’ll start a series of black and white photos, which it’s a bit like a mural, the way he’s collaged into his ledger, because it’s almost like you’re in the centre and the image expands all the way around, so it’s like a 360 degree view of that area. So you can see the bridge in the house and the Whisky Bond with the old school in front of it. And then all the tenements that were around. You can see Pinkston in the distance, and where the Woodsides development is, an old sort of gothic building there too. It’s sort of mind-bending in a way, because, like you say, these axis that fix it and are familiar, and are still familiar, whereas everything else is completely altered. Yeah, it’s really important, isn’t it, to notice. And again, think about what has been deliberately erased from that and what has remained, really.

Niall Murphy (53:07):

Yeah. It’s one of the things I kind of, in a weird way, really like about Glasgow. Because unlike Edinburgh, which is very carefully conserved, and is almost kind of, Edinburgh people hate me for saying this, fossilised, Glasgow, because it’s been through all this kind of different layers of city that get built on top of each other, I just find it fascinating. And that comes across in Alasdair Gray’s work.

Sorcha Dallas (53:32):

It does. And I’d love to have more… I had Norry up from Lost Glasgow who gave me some great tips about, but I’d love to start to build up more of a kind of bank of images around that landscape and the change from where a Alasdair was recording it up till now. Or if you know, or if anyone out there knows and is interested, please get in touch.

Niall Murphy (53:53):

Virtual Mitchell.

Sorcha Dallas (53:55):

Yeah.

Niall Murphy (53:56):
Virtual Mitchell is just…

Sorcha Dallas (53:57):

Virtual Mitchell.

Niall Murphy (53:57):

You could get lost in it. So love the Virtual Mitchell.

Sorcha Dallas (54:00):

I’ll do that now. That’ll be this afternoon. Awesome, Virtual Mitchell.

Niall Murphy (54:06):

Well, Sorcha, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you. Thank you so much. And thank you for taking us through what the aims of Alasdair Gray Archive are. And yeah, best of luck.

Sorcha Dallas (54:17):

Thank you.

Niall Murphy (54:17):

Wish you every success. And if I could pop up and visit at some point, it’d be very welcome.

Sorcha Dallas (54:22):

Absolutely. I’d love that. And thanks for your support and interest. It’s a real privilege to be continuing to share Alasdair’s life and work with others. And of course, as I said, it’s a free space that’s open for everyone. So please, if you’re interested and you’d like to find out more from the serious Gray heads to people who know nothing about Alasdair, please get in touch. I’d love to welcome you.

Niall Murphy (54:45):

Oh, it would be an absolute pleasure.

Katharine Neil (54:47):

Glasgow City Heritage Trust is an independent charity and grant funder that promotes the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of Glasgow’s historic built environment. Do you want to know more? Have a look at our website at glasgowheritage.org.uk, and follow us on social media at Glasgow Heritage. This podcast was produced by Inner Ear for Glasgow City Heritage Trust. The podcast is kindly sponsored by the National Trust for Scotland and supported by Tunnocks.

Series 2 Episode 2: A Snapshot of Glasgow with Chris Leslie

Niall Murphy

Hello everyone, I’m Nialll Murphy. Welcome to If Glasgow’s Walls Could Talk, a podcast by Glasgow City Heritage Trust about the stories and relationships between historic buildings and people in Glasgow. Every building and every street has a story to tell, and the purpose of this podcast series is to explore stories in all kinds of places, to find out what they say about the lives of people in and around them.

If the walls could talk, what would they say? But what if there are no walls? What if the buildings have disappeared? In this episode we ask, who tells the stories when homes are demolished and communities are torn apart? When whole neighbourhoods become piles of rubble, where do people’s memories go? Today we are delighted to be meeting the BAFTA Scotland Young Talent award-winning photographer and filmmaker, Chris Leslie.

His remarkable work over the last 25 years provides thought-provoking answers to such questions. From war torn Sarajevo to the heart and soul of Glasgow, he has painstakingly documented what it is like to live on the frontline between demolition and regeneration. His images are powerful, often hauntingly bleak, but also often startlingly beautiful. Yet, as he explains, he’s not had to take pretty pictures. His work he says is perhaps 20% photography, 80% research, walking, talking, listening, and looking.

Indeed, he often starts without the camera at all, and this story is not about him. Always he is determined that the story should be told by the voices of the people whose real lives were lived in these demolished buildings. So, it’s Glasgow voices and he explains why he believes they must be heard. Okay, Chris, so how did it all begin? Can you tell us what you were doing in Sarajevo in 1996, and why you were there? And had you even held a camera before?

Chris Leslie 

So, going back to 1996, I was a psychology with politics graduate from Glasgow Caledonian University. So, I wasn’t doing photography or studying photography.

Niall Murphy

Right, okay.

Chris Leslie

And then I think that most people, they kind of watched the wars in former Yugoslavia from a kind of distance on TV, nightly news reports and stuff. And it was fairly brutal but I couldn’t understand any of it, and I kind of tuned in and scratched my head, and then tuned out because these wars happening in former Yugoslavia were a distant universe for a guy, from Airdre. So…

Niall Murphy

Sure.

Chris Leslie

But yeah, I ended up writing my… Well, I did do a thesis as part of my degree, and I kind of chose to look at former Yugoslavia from a psychological political perspective about the nationalism and ethnic cleansing. And yeah, basically, that just started this obsession with the Balkans, sometimes an unhealthy obsession.

Niall Murphy

Uh-huh.

Chris Leslie

Obviously, I was really keen to get there. So, really keen to get there, but didn’t want to go and kind of… Didn’t want to go during the war, couldn’t go during the war, and wanted to go after the war after I had graduated. At the same time, the wars were over and it was a lot of kind of peace building projects. So, I tried to, okay? I volunteer, I wanted to volunteer in the region.

So the idea was to, “How do I do that?” And yeah, I actually… This is the days just before the internet, but I had to fax a CV to some German NGO organisation, and they matched you up with these small voluntary projects throughout the world and you could specify what reason. But anyway, so the long story was that I had to do a CV, and it’s your first CV. And anyone who’s done a CV, their first CV realises it’s a very traumatic thing you do, because you’re getting nothing to say.

Niall Murphy

Oh, tell me about it.

Chris Leslie 

Particularly the skills of interest. It was like… It was half a page, it was blank, and I put it in photography and said, “Yeah, I quite like the idea of the photography, and it’s quite cool.” And then, yeah, so faxed the CV off, and then a few months later they come back and said, “We have this project in a small town called Pakrac in Croatia.” A small kind of rural town, and a volunteer project where they like to come and work there and live there for three or four months.

And yeah, one of the… It was a social reconstruction project doing a lot of different projects. But one of the projects was, “Can you teach children photography? We have a small school here and we work with Serb kids and Croat kids, and it’s a kind of integration project.” And I said, “Yeah, of course, that’s easy.” And I then had three months sitting in a dark room to try to hold up a camera, all of these things. So, totally I winged myself out. Winged it.

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie

And totally kind of yanked myself into photography. So yeah, it was a big fat lie on the CV basically.

Niall Murphy

So, you hadn’t even been in a dark room before?

Chris Leslie

No. Well, I’d learned at Airdrie, and I joined the amateur photography group.

Niall Murphy

Right.

Chris Leslie

Where a lot of men who were taking pictures of these Swans and developing them, and you kind of waited outside the cupboard for a long time to get to.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, yeah. Yep.

Chris Leslie

To develop your work, but it was perfect because I had no idea. Once I’d learned that and I bought lots of books from Oxfam and was a photographer, I then spent four months living in a small kind of destroyed town.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

Working on social reconstruction projects, and unfortunately the photography project never took off really, because there was no supplies. And in the end the project was kind of falling apart anyway, but I kind of then decided to go back to Sarajevo, and I then kind of set up my own Sarajevo camera kids project. And that’s what I’ve done for the next three years, every summer.

Niall Murphy

Right, fantastic.

Chris Leslie

All of this pretty much, also in avoidance of getting a real job I guess, and social sciences degrees are great for that. I’m grateful for that if you want to, to be honest. Yeah, but just for me it was just that time, it was just that time to absorb things. It was really special for me, the Balkans, because I wasn’t a photographer and there was no pressure to capture anything, and that’s kind of key as well.

Niall Murphy

Yeah. Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Chris Leslie

Yeah.

Niall Murphy

Yep. Were you then taking photographs at that time? Were you recording what you were seeing out there, in the aftermath of the war?

Chris Leslie

I took a few, yeah, I took a few photos. I mean, everything was heavily destroyed. It was a very surreal experience.

Niall Murphy

I can imagine.

Chris Leslie 

Pakrac It’s a small town, because Lebanon was 80, 90% destroyed. So…

Niall Murphy

Right.

Chris Leslie

The war was over and there was no conflict for our stuff, but everything was heavily destroyed, and the time was divided, and there was a lot of stress. And obviously peace time brings its own kind of issues, and then going into, Sarajevo was, Sarajevo was a city like Glasgow heavily, heavily destroyed.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie 

Bombarded encircled for almost four years.

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie 

And completely kind of… Right, so it was very surreal, but I had the camera but I took a few photographs, but they weren’t very good and I just kind of left them. And it wasn’t about photography, it was about the experience for me.

Niall Murphy

Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Chris Leslie

And my reason for being there was to teach these kids. And so, I really wasn’t interested at all, and I took a few photographs but none of them were that good I think. Or I didn’t have the pressure of capturing images, it’s been such an important time for me I guess, because as soon as you start working professionally you’re always taking pictures. It’s impossible not to.

Niall Murphy

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, but it’s kind of a key formational stage in your career.

Chris Leslie

Yes.

Niall Murphy

And you as a person as well, that must have been a massive influence on you.

Chris Leslie 

Yep. Yeah, definitely, definitely when it comes around to moving into Glasgow and living in the East End.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

And then starting to see a lot of frontline areas almost. And this is the connection between the Balkans, kind of started to slowly kind of steep into my own work and when I was going to work there.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, I can imagine. I mean, obviously it’s… That was from warfare, whereas what was happening in Glasgow was planned.

Chris Leslie

Yeah, yeah.

Niall Murphy

In a sense, but it was the same kind of psychological impact on a population, the destruction of that meaning that a place gives you and is wiped out and obliterated. How do you as a population recover from that?

Chris Leslie 

Yeah. I mean, listen, there’s an obvious… Right from there, you see there’s obvious differences between what happened in the Balkans and what happened in Glasgow. Or let’s say Sarajevo as an example in terms of a city. In terms of a city, sorry.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

The human suffering can’t be underestimated in terms of what happened in Bosnia. This was a deliberate kind of warfare campaign.

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie

Ethnic cleansing and genocide. So, I have to always… Have to call it out, but as an artist and as a photographer and living in the East end… And I started this kind of documentation at Glasgow around the time when we awarded the Commonwealth Games back in 2007, and how that was going to transform the city.

Niall Murphy

Right.

Chris Leslie

And there was usually… There was obvious similarities in terms of the physical landscape, in terms of the destroyed or neglected, particularly Dalmarnock. I lived around the corner from Dalmarnock, and it was just frontline Sarajevo. There was a block around Kenard and Lee Street, Victorian red sandstone buildings that had been left to rot for 10 years. And all the windows were smashed, half the buildings had gone because they’d been set on fire. It was just absolutely mental. And these, they then realised there’s lots of areas around the city like that.

Niall Murphy

Yes. Yep.

Chris Leslie

And then you started to see these partially demolished high-rise flats as well that were slowly being brought down by long reach cranes with these huge steel teeth on the end of it, slowly and inevitably, or they would be blown up overnight. It was just really kind of intense, an intense assault I would say. And that’s what kind of started to kind of make this connection with my time in the Balkans and what’s happening in Glasgow.

Niall Murphy

That kind of brings us onto question two, which is… We’re kind of just moving forward a little in time to where you are kind of at that point. And this is kind of from where you were in Sarajevo to kind of coming up to things like Red Road and Glasgow, and by 2010 you’d graduated with a master’s in distinction in documentary photography. And for your final project you’d chosen to focus on what was happening with Glasgow’s high-rise flats. And it’s that same kind of… What we were discussing, that kind of link between the two in terms of the impact of what happens to a city and the meaning of a sense of place.

Chris Leslie 

I think the first place that caught my eye around 2008 when I started my master’s was the Oatlands, was the old Oatlands, which kind of was across from where I was living in Bridgeton. And that was the first kick, because that was an area that had been emptied about 10 years ago, and it has been partially slowly destroyed to make way for the M74 extension at that time. So yeah, and that resembled… That took me back to Pakrac, that small town in Pakrac.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

There was roads leading into it, they’d all been ethnically cleansed and all the families had been… So, quite horrific ways of leaving your home, but people left lots of belongings behind because it was a real hurry, there was a real rush, there was a real uncertainty. And that was the thing with Oatlands.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

Here was loads of stuff lying around and I was coming back with bin bags, full of stuff, and starting this kind of. Trying to track down residents from things that had been left behind and stuff. So that kind of caught my eye, and I guess in terms of my imagination, it was like…

Niall Murphy

Right.

Chris Leslie

The buildings, and in the particular the high-rise buildings, are either on route to be demolished or partially demolished. The joint photograph that already came out, dystopian, great, big, massive structures. But what was important, what I didn’t kind of grasp is the action scale of it.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie 

Because Glasgow was knocking down these high-rise flats at such a ferocious pace. Between 2007 to 2016 the city lost about 35% of its high-rise housing stock

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

That’s massive, kind of a small part. People reminisce about slum clearances and stuff, but this was happening in a short, short period of time.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm. I totally understand where you’re coming from there. One of the things, this is my hidden past, I was one of the architects for Elphinstone Place in Glasgow, which is going to be this 39th story tower block that was going to be on the site, which is now Scottish Power next to the M8 on St. Vincent Street, which is going to be Scotland’s tallest building. And so, as part of that, we had to do kind of a whole impact assessment of what the impact of this was going to be on Glasgow’s skyline.

And so, we had to go and do kind of distance shots across the city that could show how the building would be dropped into that context. And you could see the whole skyline of the city, and you could see the roller tower block, and this was at that time, this was 2004 or 2005. And that was a really interesting experience because you got to realise just how it wasn’t like… I mean, Glasgow, when you’re in the city centre and you’re moving around the city centre, you’re very conscious of it being a grid city and having this very American feel to it.

But then when you go back out to the outskirts and you’re looking back in at that time, you’re really conscious. There was no kind of classic pattern of a traditional central business district kind of thing with the tall buildings being clustered there. It wasn’t like that at all in Glasgow, it was these kind of random outcrops of tall to very tall buildings scattered around the city with no kind of clear pattern to what was going on.

And when you look at that now as the clearance of it, it’s pretty phenomenal. It has gone through a massive change, and at one point Glasgow in Europe was slightly… It was right up there with Moscow in terms of the numbers of 20 plus story blocks of flats around the city. But I think if you reevaluated that now, it would be completely different because so many of them have gone.

Chris Leslie 

Yeah, yeah, and there was so many that I didn’t even get a chance to document. It became a full-time job to keep up.

Niall Murphy

Yep. Yeah, I can imagine.

Chris Leslie 

And I wasn’t there. So, I started this as my master’s project and I finished my master’s in 2010, but I just continued documenting it. But I had no client, I had no commission, I got some funding from Creative Scotland towards the publication and to kind of collaborate some of the work.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie 

But it was pretty much me, myself, and I just continually doing this because I couldn’t believe the scale of it. It was buildings that I photographed, the Gorbals that I didn’t even document properly. I acknowledge that I documented them because I think any stories from residents and stuff, I just didn’t have the time because Red Road was a massive sighthill was massive.

Niall Murphy

Sure.

Chris Leslie

But yeah, it was a massive change in… And they say it, but what got me is that nobody really cared about that, because this is all progress and this is all good for the city of course. So, and I just was like, “Where are the other voices here? Where are the residents?” With the headlines of Evening Times and all that kind of stuff.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

And that’s what kind of inspired me.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, that to me has been what’s really been very interesting about your work, is being able to capture that. And it’s the kind of thing that really came to the foreign public discussion in advance of the Commonwealth Games and the proposal to demolish Red Road on the Commonwealth Games as part of the opening ceremony. Which was just astonishing because it was in such bad taste, because those were people’s homes and they’re people’s memories.

And there’s this great quote from here of a voice from Red Road, that it’s not the actual building itself, but it’s all your memories. “That was where I was brought up and that’s where I was made.” And that’s true, and doing something that’s an act of violence that would perform, be shown to the world, the Glasgow thing of active violence against itself. I just thought that was completely bizarre and I’m so glad they dropped it, it was totally inappropriate.

Chris Leslie

Yeah. I think, I’ll tell you, I had a few kind of fall-outs. Not fall-outs, or heated discussions in pubs, because I wanted them to do that. I wanted them to blow up right in in front of this audience of about a billion people.

Niall Murphy

Really?

Chris Leslie

Because you know what? From that audience of a billion people, let me think, Glasgow, it would have generated a discussion about it. Because the point was there was not even a discussion, there was some MSPs coming out and saying, “Oh, these flats should be used for refugees. Isn’t it terrible?” The 180 block which I documented was full of refugees.

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie

And the other ones were stripped back to their skeletal state years ago. So there was no way back for them, and all of a sudden they had this period in the limelight. Which then kind of faded away when that demolition didn’t happen. But yeah, I just thought, “Let’s have a dialogue about it, let’s go. Is blowing up failed social housing a good thing?” Because it just felt… Going to Glasgow, there was no alternative. What was the alternative at that point? These flats had been stripped back and emptied of residents for years.

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie

They were never just a blot in the landscape. All they knew were the wee pockets of housing that were built across the road from it, they were continually looking at a skeleton of a building for years.

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie

So that’s the thing, what can you do about it?

Niall Murphy

Yes. Yeah, yeah. Yep, definitely.

Chris Leslie

I mean, yeah. As we both know, in the end that didn’t happen.

Niall Murphy

I get all of that, but I don’t know, because I don’t come from Glasgow. I was brought up in the far East, and to me, something like that, it was like the message that was being sent was that we’re so affluent and careless that there are millions of people throughout the commonwealth who are living below the breadline and in poverty. And here we are in the affluent West, we could just kind of… Well, yeah, it was a failed housing experiment.

Chris Leslie

Yeah. Yeah, of course. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Niall Murphy

Just blew it up for a bit of entertainment. And…

Chris Leslie 

But it was seen as progress. So that’s the idea, it’s how deeply entrenched the hatred of high-rise buildings were, and the idea that because… It was a rebirth, that was what the city council and the city fathers, the Commonwealth Games organisers,

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie

The rebirth of a city, because we could talk all day, but that’s the idea of you bring down the building. And you take away all the social problems that are connected with that building in that area, because that’s causing all these problems.

Niall Murphy

Yes.

Chris Leslie

And so, they resist this kind of mindset that’s always existed in Glasgow. It’s just, “Let’s just clear the buildings.” And you clear all the social problems and you rebirth it, which is bollocks.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s like you don’t learn any lessons. I mean, went through all of this with the city improvement trust, and 1866 onwards with the clearances all around where I am at the moment in the heart of the merchant city and right next door to Trongate. All this area is completely flattened, and then it was only kind of the noble poor who were allowed back into these more prestigious tenements, because it was all protecting this image of Glasgow.

And everybody else was like, “Oh, I’m sorry, you can’t get back in, you toddle off to Gorbals.” And hence all the overcrowding in the Gorbals, because all it did was shift the problem from one place to another and it’s not actually solving the problem.

Chris Leslie

Yeah.

Niall Murphy

And it’s not actually… Some people got better housing conditions out of that, a lot of people ended up in worse housing conditions as a consequence. And that’s, it’s kind of Glasgow’s… That’s a problem that’s been with us all the way because you just can’t keep up with the extent of the problem.

Chris Leslie

Yeah, definitely.

Niall Murphy

So, going back to Red Road, this obviously… It was a really proud symbol for Glasgow that we had the tallest council flats in Western Europe. What was it like documenting their dying years?

Chris Leslie 

Yeah, it was a long project I think, documenting it. I was invited in to do some documentation, it was a group of artists invited in to document Red Road, because the city council and the GHA, Glasgow House Association, realised I guess the scale of what was happening in the city. So, Red Road flats would be the poster girl if you like. Yeah? For a better word, lack of a better word.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

To kind of facilitate all these changes, and have stories and lots of projects for the young people that are left in the flats or predominantly younger asylum seeker children, some kind of documentation and stuff. So it was a very good project to get invited into, but it was very controlled if you like, in terms of what stories you could tell. No mention of asbestos, no mention of… I mean, at that time as well, there was the tragic incident of the asylum seekers who jumped off one of the buildings.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yeah, it was horrible.

Chris Leslie 

And so, it’s just lots of things going on, so I just felt to me it wasn’t getting the real story, but it got accessed. It was a long project and it was myself and a few other artists involved in it, and it took a long time. It took a long time for that building to be deemed unfit for habitation until it was actually demolished. It was like 2007, finally being… Or maybe, probably even earlier, I just started working there in 2007, so there was a kind of real connection with it.

For me, it was this idea of this kind of… What was the role of the photographer here and what I was doing, because I realised I’ll tick the boxes for the Red Road project it was called, but I knew I had other stuff I wanted to document. And I guess it was that tension between doing some kind of fine art photography of interiors, of partially demolished buildings and views at the window. Or was it something bigger? Was this a social history project and it wasn’t about my photography?

So there was that, that kind of started to develop through that time period of Red Road as well. And because that became more important than my style of photography or the images I was taking, and without the residents’ voices, the pictures to me were nothing really. I think it was good because I had the time to do it, because it was such a long period of documentation as well, going back and forth, and we just thought they would last forever. They would always be there even in a skeletal state.

Niall Murphy

Yes.

Chris Leslie

So, there was no… Yeah, I admit that for that work.

Niall Murphy

Sure. When you’re capturing those images, obviously you are using camera equipment, et cetera, to kind of record both those images and the voices. Can you tell us more about the technical aspects of it? Because I’m sure some of our listeners will be interested in that thing. What are your favourite lenses? Do you have any unusual kit or techniques as part of your work? Do you still have that old Canon camera?

Chris Leslie 

Yeah, I mean, I think I started because I was doing my master’s, I saw a lot of work around the site. How we are here with the 6×6 film camera, and I’d done a few portraits and kind of shots, but it was quite a slow process that idea. And it wasn’t allowing me to capture as much as I wanted, so I then jumped to digital SLR shooting, and the SLR’s changed at that time, but digital SLRs that you could then shoot HD video with the same.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

So that was a transformation thing.

Niall Murphy

Yep.

Chris Leslie 

Because you could then shoot HD video, as well as… Rather than this 6×6 medium format film. So, I kind of just… I ran with that, and there was no particular lens, there was no particular… It was a kind of standard Zoom lens that I used. I then got an audio recorder to help record, to record audio interviews with the residents.

Occasionally video, but mainly audio, and I wanted to capture the audios in high quality as I could. It wasn’t never about a specific lens or look, because I needed kind of flexibility to capture everything, and time was tight because the buildings were disappearing around me. It was almost like a supermarket sweep, I was getting and capturing as much as I could. And digital was great, it’s great for that, and I’ve still got a half life full of…

Niall Murphy

Sure. Yeah, yeah.

Chris Leslie

Thousands of photographs. So yeah, it was… And again, that’s why when you look, the book that came out, Disappear in Glasgow was a very wide-ranging style of photography with different lenses.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie 

And it was because it was just… And it was over eight years as well, so it was like things changed, technology changed and stuff, but it was a bit. Capturing it as fast as I could.

Niall Murphy

Sure.

Chris Leslie 

It was never about the aesthetics of the camera then or the lens.

Niall Murphy

Sure, absolutely, and with regards to capturing stuff and the audio aspect of it, just wanted to say that your stories, those recordings that you made as part of Disappear in Glasgow, highly recommend our listeners do actually listen to these and that we’ll have links that we can give at the end of this conversation. And just having heard them that these are really moving stories and the stories of people’s loss, loss of people’s homes and memories of place.

And so, and this is all part of… When we begin to look at this as a society, we realised that the actual impact… And this is something I’m very interested in, because it’s stuff that Harry Burns talks about with the kind of open health aspect of Glasgow, and how much things like the urban clearances in Glasgow damaged the psyche of the city. And people’s kind of…

Because of their loss of sense of place within the city, so I’m very interested about stuff like that, but I wanted to know about how the impact of the demolition was for you personally, and how did you feel recording that final destruction of Red Road?

Chris Leslie 

Yeah, I think I remember that the last day we spoke earlier about the idea of the flats maybe blown up as part of the Commonwealth Games up in the city that didn’t happen. So October 2015, this was the day the rest of the flats would be demolished, and yeah, I’d photographed a few. You remember Red Road came down in stages as well, so this was the third stage.

And you get 200 people out in their pyjamas for the north of the city, taking pictures with their phone, and the building comes down and everybody goes. But that, to blow up the remaining six or seven buildings was a big event. So there was lots of people in the street, and I remember just waiting all day in the press area waiting because I was filming it for the documentary I was doing, as well as shooting it.

Niall Murphy

Right.

Chris Leslie

But yeah, it was just… I don’t know, maybe they had… I always joked that they had a sale by date on all the explosives they had and then they had to blow up everything in a year. But yeah, it was a relief when it came down, because it was almost like the end of a chapter for me at the end of this kind of project.

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie 

Because this is where they started to kind of wind down, and the Sighthill was… There’s still stuff going on the Sighthill, but Red Road was a big project, so it felt like a kind of full stop, maybe a comma, I don’t know, I don’t know what’s the best way to explain it. But then obviously when the dust settles and there’s two buildings, half buildings left, that was just brilliant.

Niall Murphy

Yeah. Yes, to go forward.

Chris Leslie

Because it was just us, they were going to hang around for a wee bit more.

Niall Murphy

It’s very photogenic.

Chris Leslie

Yeah, I know, for a wee bit more just kind of watch the demolition, but not disappearing that easy. And then the next day I was up again, that morning I was up shooting those, shooting the buildings. That there was no… There was very little security, there was… I think they were all in a meeting, trying to work it out.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

How to demolish all your buildings, and I remember myself and a few other photographers, because all the press had left the day before buildings were down. But the next morning it was like they’re still there, and it was… The most amazing photographs were just walking around, and people from the area walking around, and right up close to the buildings. The buildings are like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and yes, it was almost as if I couldn’t let go of Red Road. Red Road was still kind of hanging around for a wee bit longer.

Niall Murphy

Sure.

Chris Leslie 

So, that was quite interesting.

Niall Murphy

Yes.

Chris Leslie

Yep.

Niall Murphy

Yes, yeah, absolutely. Okay, your book Disappearing in Glasgow, which documents this multimedia project over the course of the eight years that you’re working on. It was published in 2017, then it too disappears and there’s a whole kind of story about that, but can you explain what happened and talk more generally about the impact or influence of photographs on the open landscape?

Chris Leslie 

Yeah, I guess it was just for the book. So, Disappearing in Glasgow as a project always existed online in terms of the short film. So, the short films were done way before the book, and it’d never been about doing a book. It was never… I started this project and said, “I’m going to do a book.” Because it would have been a very different approach we would have had.

So it was just the idea of when we had discussions, we published this around 2016, and they said, “Yeah, we’d like to do something.” And that was like, “Wow, we’re getting published.” And I brought in some really good architects and academics to write short essays on the different areas and areas that they have the knowledge of, but also tell all the resident stories. So it was more than a photo book. It was more than just…

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

It was quite a substantial kind of document, telling what’s happened in those times. But yeah, so it was published, they sold two editions and it was great in downloads, and tours, and the done Edinburgh book festival and Aye Write and all that.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

And then obviously, they send you a royalty statement saying this is how much you’re getting. You’re like, “Oh, that’s quite exciting.” You know, you could get money, and then it went into liquidation and there was no money. And the book disappeared because it didn’t always sold, and then became a quite… To me, quite a toxic project. Not because, “Oh, I didn’t get the money.” But just because it felt like eight years of my work that I handed to someone else and they botched it.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, yep.

Chris Leslie

And they kind of didn’t look after it, and it was like giving your child to someone to look after. So anyway, the book’s gone, and the book’s… The positive thing about it is the book’s very rare now. People contact me daily, talking about, “Have you got books, anybody?” And they’ve gone, and there’s a few copies out there going at quite a crazy price. So, but again, it was never about that. The project was to be accessible and it was to be accessible from people who I had spoken to and interviewed in the residents.

But citywide, it wasn’t about having the book. So everything’s on disappearing-glasgow.com as a website, and that was always the key aspect to it. And that’s still there, that’ll be there for a wee while longer so people can access the short films there. But I guess to me, in terms of photographing the Urba landscape and stuff like that.

As I’ve said, the book, I’ve showed it to some photographers and they kind of scratch their head because there’s so many different styles and variety and approaches. But most photo books, we get a book and it’s the one consistent style all the way through it, and that kind of fine art approach to it and stuff. But as I explained earlier, to me it was about social history, it was more important.

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie

So, that’s why it’s… Maybe in some ways it’s not a photography book for all the purists out there, because it’s such a range of styles. And maybe not great images, but the images relate to the text and what’s been kind of said in the stories by the residents and stuff.

Niall Murphy

Sure, absolutely. I suppose it kind of falls into that kind of Glasgow tradition where you’ve got Thomas Annan. And, I mean, obviously he doesn’t interview all the people that he’s seeing, but you know that fantastic set of photographs.

Chris Leslie

Yeah.

Niall Murphy

Recording this kind of unwinding of a great mediaeval city and its replacement with something completely different. It’s very similar to what you were doing, just the best part of a century and half later.

Chris Leslie

Yeah, and I guess you just use the technology that you’ve got to do that, that’s available to you at the time.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, yes.

Chris Leslie

I’m fairly… All these are always very heavy, those images to Thomas Annan. How did you answer that. Absolutely outstanding, and at the same time you’re shooting multimedia, shooting HD video, shooting with drone, shooting me. So, I’m sure he might have been quite envious of what we can capture these days.

Niall Murphy

I bet, I bet, I bet you always. The thing that fascinates me about Thomas Annan is that when you actually really think about what a city is like, it’s not just the pretty images, you actually have to think about all the other stuff associated with the city. So the smells, the noise, all of that.

So, when he was actually going into some of these wynds and back lanes, they must have stunk to high heaven and he would have to spend ages setting up all his kit to take those photographs and kind of put up with all these people going, “What you doing big man?” Kind of thing at the time.

Chris Leslie

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Niall Murphy

And it would have been… Must have been really, really interesting and fascinating, and very similar to what you’d been up to. Kind of recording this snapshot in time before it all disappears.

Chris Leslie

Yeah, yeah. I mean, there was… That, I think the idea as well, running around any city with a camera is… You’re always asking for trouble, you’re certainly asking for questions. “What are you doing? What are you filming for?

Niall Murphy

Yes. Yep, yep, yep, get on board.

Chris Leslie

Yeah, and with discipline, with that whole project, Disappearing in Glasgow, I didn’t really… There was nothing that I encountered that was kind of similar to that. I think there was a thing about gaining people’s trust as well. People had began to know who I was in these kind of communities because I’d spent so much time documenting. But also, what was key in many ways is for a lot of the places I went to put it around Dalmarnock, I didn’t take the camera initially. I just arrived and had a chat with people. It just felt rude, it just felt like, “Need to take a picture.” And then…

Niall Murphy

Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Chris Leslie

And that was… It was the case where one of the ladies documented Margaret, Jaconelli, who was living in Dalmarnock at the time of the Commonwealth Games.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

And that was quite an emotional kind of hard story to document. Eventually she was forcibly evicted from her house and stuff. And I remember meeting her photographing these same Victorian red sandstone tenements I was talking about, which I thought were empty back in 2008. And I didn’t even notice there net curtains and wee ornaments that weren’t in the windows. And she was shouting out the window to me, and she started speaking to me, and then we sat and spoke for hours. And she talked to me, having a bit of her story, and if I immediately got the camera out it would have broken that conversation.

Niall Murphy

Absolutely. Yeah, definitely. No, there were two points I was going to sort of come back to you there on. Which was… This is in a previous life that’s back to 2006, 2007. This is with a firm of architects who I was working for at the time, Austin-Smith:Lord. We did a whole kind of survey of that area as part of trying to get Bridgeton Cross turned into a conservation area, and trying to show how you could regenerate the area, and it was kind of a master plan for the area.

So we were out scouting the whole area and it was then you realised the respect you had to treat people with, particularly some of the traveller settlements that you had to be really careful with. If anyone saw you with a camera you were an automatic threat. And so, you had to make sure that you asked for permission and you treated people with respect.

Chris Leslie

Yeah.

Niall Murphy

First of all, before embarking on anything like that.

Chris Leslie

Yeah.

Niall Murphy

And so, it was acutely kind of conscious of all of that. And the second thing, this is more personal stuff. My partner, my other half was brought up in a tenement on the corner of… It’s just up from the Kinning Park complex. There’s a tenement right next door just to the south of the Kinning Park complex. Do you know where I am?

Chris Leslie

Vaguely, vaguely.

Niall Murphy

Kind of? This is in Kinning Park, right next to the subway station. He was in the opposite tenement from that, which is now under the M8. And so, he kind of was brought up, a whole kind of… Is it McClellan Street that was the longest street in Glasgow? And it’s just this ruthless line of tenements that just keeps going and is completely astonishing. Of course none of that exists anymore because it completely disappeared, and the way he talks about all of that was actually… This was a really fantastic area, and how they were… They could all kind of play in the streets, and people were safe, and they had a fantastic park right next door. And then all of this kind of just disappears, and he’s got photographs of what the area was like after everyone had moved out of it and how haunting it was.

And it would have been exactly the same as you were experiencing pre Commonwealth Games, and you’re thinking, “Didn’t we learn anything from what happened in the 1970s and the devastation that inflicted on communities then?” And it’s quite depressing that we still haven’t learned those lessons and quite, quite, quite frustrating that. Anyway, back to where you are on your journey. So, you then went on and produced another book, which was also kind of about… This was an even longer term relationship with a place which was a Balkan journey.

So, and all about your experiences out in that part of the world, and how that’s kind of a culmination of 24 years worth of work. And you’re now doing this again with the invasion of Ukraine, and of course it now looks as though that poll… Obviously, that’s a massive issue, and there was an article on The Guardian earlier this year and you wrote about a striking image of hope you captured on your last visit, and I was just wondering if you could tell us about that.

Chris Leslie 
Yeah, I think The Guardian… I do some photo essays for The Guardian and stuff. And there was…

Niall Murphy

Yes.

Chris Leslie
A series.

Niall Murphy

It’s very good.

Chris Leslie

My favourite image I think was in these, and that’s very hard to choose. But yeah, just to clarify, it was in… This is all Bosnia and I haven’t entered in Ukraine yet. But yeah, I went to document Sarajevo 20 years after the peace agreement had been signed in that city that brought an end to the four years of war and siege. And going back to my first time then, when I had this camera and shooting black n white film, and not very… It wasn’t very interesting, the photographs weren’t very good. Now the city’s been rebuilt completely. Now, so that’s been… The black and white pictures I took 20 years ago.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

Suddenly they were quite interesting. So, I was going back 20 years in a document.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, very much.

Chris Leslie

Or whatever, how the people were marking this event and what was happening in the city. And not much was happening because life kind of moves on. The city’s been rebuilt, people move on, people have things to do with their lives. Bosnia in particular don’t want to dwell on a lot of anniversaries, because certainly with the younger people, they want to kind of look forward as well.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

There’s certain events around the genocide Srebrenica and stuff that require to be marked and understood and remembered. But there’s also a lot of young people who just want to kind of move forward, they can’t have the war dragging them there, setting their country back. So, there was just a photograph I was taking, in a landscape picture of Sarajevo, and it’s from an area called Tabia, which is an old fort and there’s a viewpoint over the city where you get to see the whole city.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

And then this couple kind of came and walked in my shot and I was raging. And then they just sat and did a grasp, they grasped each other and they looked over at the side, and it was like, “Bang, there you go.” They ruined my picture, but maybe it’s all right. But I think the image was represented, Sarajevo gets dark. A name that evokes a lot of things about war and about destruction, and about division, and ethnic cleansing, and just everything that was wrong in that war. And this was one moment looking on when the city’s being rebuilt, and this idea that cities will kind of come back to life.

They slowly rebuild themself back kind of from anything, from destruction from I guess, looking at Glasgow. And what will we keep doing wrong in Glasgow? Things will hopefully get better in Glasgow. The idea of maybe there’s lots of new building working on and lots of homes being built across the city. Glasgow is rebuilding, it also requires, as you’re pointing on those, we need 200,000 people to move back within the city boundaries.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, yes. Yeah, absolutely.

Chris Leslie

To make this a functioning city, to get the taxes to pay for all these things, and all this in infrastructure. People come in and out Glasgow then kind of leave and that’s a real problem. Glasgow’s attempting to address that, but within new housing and all these kind of things. That was, to make a connection with that image of hope, to have an image of hope for Glasgow.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, yes.

Chris Leslie

We need to ensure that we’re building proper housing, sustainability, affordable housing, and for families, for all Glasgow regions to actually stay within the city. Because we can’t be in this position as well where we get to this level of hope and everything’s great in the city, and then forty years later down the line we’re knocking down the same buildings that we’ve just kind of replaced.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, I know.

Chris Leslie

It has to change in some ways. Yeah, so that was the slight connection. I’m trying to connect that image of looking over at Sarajevo. And what’s this image of hope across Glasgow?

Niall Murphy

Sure.

Chris Leslie

I don’t really have an image, I’ve got an idea in my head that a lot of people have.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, absolutely. Because I mean, to me that’s absolutely critical. With Glasgow, Glasgow’s challenged, they’re challenged by our generation and future generations. Is, “How did you put Humpty together again?”

Chris Leslie

Yeah.

Niall Murphy

Because it’s been through these kind of… You got the mediaeval city gets wiped out by the Victorians. Well, the Georgians and then the Victorians and then the Edwardians, and you kind of got into war growth. And there’s kind of… There is kind of a bit… It’s all quite cohesive then, though our area is kind of getting redeveloped so it’s a bit more organic, then suddenly you got this huge rupture after the second World War, even though Glasgow comes through the second World War with the exception of Clyde Bank pretty intact. And then you’ve got this huge rupture where about there was a guy looking at this and reckoned it was about 25 to about 30% of the city, the original kind of Victorian Edwardian city was demolished.

And starting again, to me it’s the impact of that on people, and it’s also… You just can’t keep affording it, it’s so wasteful to just bulldoze everything and start again without adapting it. And, I mean, I’m interested when you look at places like Amsterdam where they don’t have that kind of choice because land is so precious there that they can’t afford to let whole chunks of their city just be bulldozed and start again. They have to work with what they’ve got, and we’ve kind of got to learn how to do that.

And part of what we have to do as a generation is figure out how to heal the city and to create spaces that can be as cherished as what some of these old spaces were. And that’s going to be a massive challenge for the city, but hopefully something can arise from the destruction that happened. Talking about destruction and loss, there is a lot of beauty in yours too. And you’ve been talking about wanting people to stop and look, and does beauty pay a part in any of that?

Chris Leslie

Yeah, I mean, some of the images of the high-rise buildings that I took, they were never taken to put on a wall or whatever. But when the buildings are stripped and the light’s spilling in from every angle and you’re looking out, you’ve got some kind of nice aesthetic images. I remember looking at Sebastian Salgado’s work when I was doing my master’s, and images of farming and poverty and stuff were often criticised for being too beautiful and therefore insensitive to the subjects.

Niall Murphy

Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Chris Leslie

He always argued, I think a lot of talks are. You need to view it in your photographs to capture attention I feel like.

Niall Murphy

Yes.

Chris Leslie

And particularly now, online photographs now have even less of an appeal because we’ve all been programmed to view them online like a slot machine, you just swipe, swipe, swipe.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, yes.

Chris Leslie

They’re looked at for less than a second and then they’re gone. So, my aim is to create images that could stop people in their tracks.

Niall Murphy

Yes.

Chris Leslie

Even just for a few seconds. So, what is that? Where is that? To question why and who.

Niall Murphy

Yup

Chris Leslie

And that was kind of half the battle for me, if feel like. It was just to create these images. Images that took of underground bingo holes at Red Road flats and stuff, trying. My aim was to get in as deep into the building and from every angle possible to get different pictures, because from the ground level there’s only so many ways you can shoot a high-rise flat as well.

So, I was really trying to get in the inside to get underground, to tell that whole story and create these images about what you photograph, completely Red Road underground. Why is there a bingo hall under Red Road? And then from the story from there up to Red Road itself, what happened to every body? Red Road, that was a small town of 4,070 people.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, absolutely. That fascinates me, and this is kind of personal. Again, personal stuff for me. I was brought up in Hong Kong, and so for me that kind of connection… Because it’s something I’ve never really understood about how Glasgow handled high-rises, that because the administration in Hong Kong were able to learn a lot from the things that went wrong here. So they were able to learn the lessons of that. In Hong Kong when I was growing up, and we were probably by that point onto third generation of high-rise, big.

And Hong Kong had… With Singapore, they were the biggest social landlords in the world. So, we always get this kind of… It really bugs me when you hear people from the Tory party talking about Hong Kong and Singapore becoming these visions of capitalism that they want to emulate. And you’re like, “Well, hold on a minute. Actually…” They’ve got these massive social housing programmes which are the biggest in the world, and if you actually wanted to do some of that, maybe you should be holding some council housing here.

But the point I kind of wanted to make about that was what the people and the planners in Hong Kong completely got, was you can’t just build tower blocks in isolation. You have to tie them into the surrounding fabric and you also have to provide all those amenities. And they’re obviously trying to do that with Red Road, and the only thing I can suspect was maybe Red Road was too far out of town. But that was absolutely critical to how Hong Kong operated, because they were conscious they had to provide homes over the longer term that people really wanted to live in. And that meant you had to have all of these amenities as part of it. Marketplaces, swimming pools, tennis courts, your pubs.

Chris Leslie

Yeah.

Niall Murphy

Clubs, shops, all of those kind of things had to be part of the package, it couldn’t be separate. So I remember coming here on a school visit in the kind of… This was to the garden centre, we stopped on route in the Gorbals, and kind of no foot court, Sterling Court. Sterling Court, all of that, and being completely horrified that there were no amenities, there was nothing. And it was like…

Chris Leslie

Yeah.

Niall Murphy

“What got missed as part of this programme?” That you can’t not have those things, the city doesn’t function without it. I thought that was bizarre.

Chris Leslie

There’s been a lot of new housing schemes and stuff in the north of the city, but very few facilities, very few amenities. You drive to your home, it’s still very much… Springburn seems to be the place. Yeah, and you go by bus if you don’t have a car. Really, there’s nothing else there, and I think this was one of the arguments in a lot of the residents who I’ve spoke to and people around. That there’s the population of small towns living in these blocks, and once you… If you don’t provide facilities for that, then that’s… It’s going to fundamentally fail.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, yep.

Chris Leslie

So it’s about what’s in place now.

Niall Murphy

Billy Connolly’s phrase, desserts with windows

Chris Leslie

Yeah, yeah. I think I’ve got the chance to see the new kind of Sighthill area, and there’s lots going on in the Sighthill to potentially address some of that. There’s a better community facilities being built, and obviously infrastructure and connection by the city centre and stuff. Hopefully things are starting to.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, yeah, be neutral. I see that too.

Chris Leslie

Yeah, but then… And it’s good, but it’s almost like it’s simple answers. It’s not difficult, it’s not rocket science to provide these things. I think it’s just all down to the budget and what budgets are available. And who’s going to…

Niall Murphy

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it very much is, and I think in Hong Kong they were lucky because there was a rising tide of the economy. And because the… Again, this is where Hong Kong’s very different from the UK. The government earned all the land, and so the government taxes were low because how the government funded itself was it drip fed chunks of land onto the market. And so, developers were always prepared to bid high for the land, and that was what paid for the running of the city. And the great irony about all of this is kind of Glasgow and kind of…

Not quite now because the high-rise is coming back, but in places like Manchester where ironically it’s mainly pitched at Chinese investors. And the great irony is like, Hong Kong learns the lesson from everything that goes wrong in the UK. And then what the irony is, is that China sees Hong Kong as a symbol of modernity, and suddenly you get all these Chinese cities that want to emulate Hong Kong.

Chris Leslie

Mm-hmm.

Niall Murphy

And they get covered in tower blocks. It’s this kind of weird cycle that… Yeah, stuff that we’ve turned our back on, they decided is a good thing. And yet, I don’t know, it’s how that gels and you’re thinking there was a reason for them in Hong Kong because we really lacked space. But in China you don’t, so did you have to do it? I don’t know, it’s quite weird.

Chris Leslie

Yeah, I think… I mean, I guess with Glasgow as well, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong. We’re living in high-rise buildings as well, but during that period of time…

Niall Murphy

Yep, yep, tell me child of the high-rise.

Chris Leslie

During that period when they demolished everything, all these estates, it was just that fear of if asylum seekers moved into your block then it’s no longer fit for habitation. If students moved in, it’s no longer, and that’s exactly what happened in Red Road. It’s not fit for habitation, but we’ll move the students in.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

And we’ll move asylum seekers in and it’ll be demolished, and it was that kind of pattern. So, if you were living in… Or…

Niall Murphy

Yes.

Chris Leslie

A high-rise block at that time, there was this kind of fear of, “Are we next?”

Niall Murphy

Yeah, yeah. Such a shame because when you do tend to talk to people who have lived in high-rise, actually, people do love them. And it’s the views, it’s the curious kind of detachment from the city, that you’re living above the city but you can get access to the city really quickly as well. Things like that, people love all those aspects of it and you get real kind of tight-knit relationships between people within them as neighbours. And yet, we as a society were not very good as maintaining them in the longer term, having invested so much in the first place.

Chris Leslie

Mm-hmm, but I think they’ll actually… With Glasgow is that the flats passed the point of being saved, because the kind of social fabric in the building from the inside was just a riot.

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie

And there was drug dealing going on, because a lot of these buildings had no concierge here just to start with.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Chris Leslie

The early 80s in the Glasgow, very, very, very bleak place. Started the industrialisation, all these high-rise buildings built the communist model. You build your workers near the workplace, when these workplaces go and then high unemployment, drugs take over by default when someone starts dealing in a flat. Once you get a series of dealers in flats, once people and families start to move out and you’re moving in single parent households, all these things just kind of spiral down into.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

There was one block I documented down on Plain Street in Scotstoun, and the residents there actually petitioned the GHA to blow up because they called it the towers of hell because it was so bad in terms of drugs, in terms of antisocial behaviour, and people were just desperate to get out. All around, those areas were completely… Were the same flats, the same exact same architects, the exact same planning, the exact same buildings. And they managed to be all right, but these individual blocks themselves, some were so bad.

And it was just real, because they mentioned that part of the demolition is about these buildings only have a lifespan of 40, 50 years. There’s structural problems and things like that, and these buildings only had a certain lifespan, and that’s just not true. That’s just… This was… It’s all tied in, the economy and demolition brings a lot of money. And you say you don’t pay VAT demolition as well, so it’s favourable. That’s a big thing across the UK, a big thing.

Niall Murphy

Oh yeah, I know, it’s incredible and frustrating. Yeah, some we absolutely have to change in the future.

Chris Leslie

Yep, definitely, definitely, and there’s a few people seeing it though. Yeah.

Niall Murphy

Yep, and the carbon generated from that.

Chris Leslie

Yep.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, yeah, I’ve got to get… So, it’s something I feel quite strongly about, that that’s… When we look at things going forward, you have to look at not just the cost of demolition compared to retention, but it’s also things like the carbon that would be generated as part of that should be factored into any new construction.

Chris Leslie

Yep.

Niall Murphy

So you’re not necessarily at net-zero because you’re already starting with a huge deficit, so you have to think about things like that. Anyway, what’s next for you then? And is there hope in your work, and can we talk a little bit more about those things?

Chris Leslie

Yeah, I think for me, I mean, the latest project I’ve done, just come back to your last point about sustainability and, demolition and stuff. A few months ago I was contacted from residents from the Wynford Flats in Mary Hill and they contacted me specifically saying, “Yeah, you’re the guy who documents buildings being demolished.”

Niall Murphy

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, really important to stay.

Chris Leslie 

And I’m like, “I’ve retired from that.” And they’re like, “Okay, you want to come down and speak to us?” And I went down and this was months after COP26, and all these promises of that everything made about demolition is wrong.

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie 

The carbon footprint of demolition should be, and they were going to demolish all these flats down at at Mary Hill.

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie

On the front line of the West end kind of thing. So, a property developer must be just gleaming with the idea.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I don’t see why they aren’t looking at retrofit for that estate, because it’s great wee enclave and it could work really well for that. It could be really… It could be a great place.

Chris Leslie

Yep.

Niall Murphy

It is a really interesting place. It could be, you could have great homes there as a consequence of that, and easy to heat.

Chris Leslie

Yeah, yeah.

Niall Murphy

Which is a real issue now, and is a massive… Fuel poverty is a massive problem in Glasgow.

Chris Leslie

Yeah.

Niall Murphy

So you could be addressing those kind of things, exactly what kind of Collective Architecture had been doing with the three tower blocks. Where is it, Woodside?

Chris Leslie

Yeah, yeah. Yep, yep.

Niall Murphy

The tower blocks that are being completely over clad and have these sunrooms, and you can do that. And that’s what I had hoped the future of the tower block would be in Glasgow.

Chris Leslie

Mm-hmm.

Niall Murphy

That we would try and save these, because if you’ve made that initial investment you should be able to turn it around. It should be possible and you should be able to integrate it into the building fabric. I mean, all these things have been looked at since the 1970s. You’ve got to know how to do it. And…

Chris Leslie

Yeah.

Niall Murphy

I kind of wish they’d get on with it.

Chris Leslie 

And there was also… A lot of this, residents didn’t want to move, I documented it. And so, it just felt just like…

Niall Murphy

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Chris Leslie
Have we learned anything here? Are we just kind of going back to the same model? Because it’s right.

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie

It’s chosen by market forces at play, and that’s just always, always going to win.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie 

And it must have been known during that COP 26 because there was national discussions and announcements made in January. All these things must have, and you just think that there’s a better way of managing this. I don’t know, so in terms of hope, I was very kind of gutted by that. And just, I said, “Are we ever going to learn?” But other projects, I’m still pushing this Balkan journey book. I still got a few more talks and events planned, so.

Niall Murphy

Right.

Chris Leslie

I’m giving a talk at Doors Open Day this year as well around Glasgow and Sarajevo, windy landscapes it’s called. It’s very kind of similar to what we discussed today, so that would be an illustrated talk.

Niall Murphy

Right, okay.

Chris Leslie

But yeah, I mean, it’s still… I’m also looking at a project in Cumbernauld with two of my friends and colleagues. We’ve called it Recollect.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie 

So there’s three of us, myself, Mitch Miller an illustrator, and Alison Evan who’s a writer. And we want to look at Cumbernauld because Cumbernauld town centres is obviously very topical just now because they’re potentially…

Niall Murphy

Absolutely, I was just about to say, you can beat the town centre, and what’s going to happen with it?

Chris Leslie

It’s a political hot potato, but it’s a hot potato that we want to juggle. We want it.

Niall Murphy

Yes. Yeah, quite, absolutely. Good. Well, good luck with that. I mean, it is the most fascinating building.

Chris Leslie

Yeah.

Niall Murphy

Really, I’ve been around it a couple of times now, and really interesting. And it does kind of… It reminds me a lot of my childhood.

Chris Leslie

Yeah.

Niall Murphy

So, because every real similarity is going to mega structures out in Hong Kong and stuff here, and I find it in a town in Scotland fascinating.

Chris Leslie

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Niall Murphy

It’s quite something.

Chris Leslie

I mean, with all three of us, I don’t know Cumbernauld really that well. Since I’m new, we’re approaching it with idea that we don’t know much about it, because I know there’s some people who hold Cumbernauld dear to their heart, and that’s part of the argument just now, obviously. But I think as well, the other side of the argument is it’s a town centre that’s dead on its ass for lack of a better word. It just doesn’t function as a town centre.

Niall Murphy

Yeah. No, I know.

Chris Leslie

No town centre functions.

Niall Murphy

It stopped functioning? Yeah.

Chris Leslie

So, we can see both sides of the arguments, of people who want to preserve it, but at the same time it’s for people who live there as well.

Niall Murphy

Yeah, yes.

Chris Leslie

We want to try and document that.

Niall Murphy

Yes, absolutely.

Chris Leslie 

So, but yeah, very, very political. But again, in terms of the buildings, even through my own work it was never about the buildings and Disappearing Glasgow. It was always about the stories, it was always with the people. Easy to photograph buildings in a majority photograph, but what’s harder is getting the stories, and that’s what’s kind of interesting is myself, and Mitch and Alison as well. So we just have to see, I’ve got an application in for funding for that project, and we’ll see kind of how that goes.

Niall Murphy

Great. Well, I wish you luck with that, that would be a really fascinating project to kind of hear more about.

Chris Leslie 

Yeah.

Niall Murphy

And see what happens with that legacy. Okay, final question then, and we ask everybody who comes on the podcast. And it’s totally loaded, but it’ll be interesting to see where you show of your bands. What is your favourite building in Glasgow? So still around or gone, and what would it tell you if its walls could talk?

Chris Leslie

It has to be one that’s gone. Obviously, I would be shooting myself in the foot foot if I chose something that’s still here. I think to me, living in Dennistoun and always being in the East end, the white veil blue veil flats for me the Gallowgate are demolishing in 2015 were just spectacular for many reasons. Even though the kind of brittlest concrete towers that… Architects and photographers and artists just loved.

Niall Murphy

Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

And every day it was absolutely hated, including the City Council.

Niall Murphy

It was quite something on the skyline.

Chris Leslie

Yeah, get them…

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie

Get them to… Every day wanted them gone, and I could see them from the windows. You could see them from anywhere on the East end. Very dark, imposing, kind of clean and monolithic structures.

Niall Murphy

Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Chris Leslie

That just screamed to be brought down for anyone passing through Glasgow.

Niall Murphy

Yeah.

Chris Leslie 

And after Red Road and doing the documentation, that was the big project in Glasgow museums, involved and funded by the GHA Glasgow life. I thought, “Well, there’ll be a project there obviously, because these are unique kind of buildings.” And these were the tallest buildings in terms of thirty story, seemed bigger than Red Road. And yeah, and I thought, “How did you get involved in this project of documentation, of remembrance, of collective memory?” And there isn’t one, we just wanna and demolish them. So, I kind of took that aboard myself and done my own project around it, and photographed the inside and outside.

Niall Murphy
Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Chris Leslie

The first residents that… The last residents. So, it kind of felt personal to me because it didn’t feel it was after this much documentation.

Niall Murphy
Yeah.

Chris Leslie

And in terms of what that building would say, I don’t know because I only captured the fraction of its stories before they came down. And I guess that’s the real kind of tragedy of it, because they probably could have so much more to say. But yeah, that would definitely be the building. I would choose the white veil, blue veil flats. And it’s interesting, my studio next door , I’ve got the original lettering.

You have the 10 lettering outside the blocks 51, white veil. I borrowed that from… I did ask for it, I didn’t steal it for an exhibition of an exhibition that never happened, but I’ve got them on my wall. So very, very kind of, yeah, strong memories, and just always seeing them from the window as well. But I can understand as well simply why they were hated as well.

Niall Murphy

Well, that was fantastic, Chris, thank you very much. Thank you so very much for sharing that with us, and I’m sure that our listeners will really appreciate hearing your thoughts on Sarajevo, those kind of connections with Glasgow, and where we go from here in terms of how we look after our cities and our high-rise buildings and what that means to the communities who live in them. Thank you very much. Now, let’s give the last words to some of the people whose voices Chris recorded before their homes were demolished.

Speaker 3 
And all I’ve seen was ruins, just to see a lifetime destroyed sort of thing. And all those people, where have they all gone? It’s probably like Eleanor Rigby in the Beatles, it is. It is, it’s a sort of story. All the people, all the lonely people, where did they go? Where did everybody go?

Speaker 4
So, it’s not the actual physical building, it’s all your memories in it, because that’s what was kind of brought up mainly. That’s what made me a man. And so, it’s like any man’s made the memories in it, so if your physical manifestation, your memories goes in, it’s quite a fetch I think. But I’ll be very, very sad to see it go. You just always thought it’ll always be here, they’ll always be and last forever. But when you see it, no, you realise it’s not going to last forever.

Craft and Traditional Skills Careers

Photo of someone chiseling a piece of stone, wearing orange and yellow gloves, with traditional stone caring tools in the background.

As Scotland’s historic buildings and places are a unique resource, taking care of them requires expert skills and knowledge. But these skills are often in short supply. Training to work in a craft or traditional skills role could offer you ample opportunities and a chance to work in a sector that is wide, vibrant and exciting.

Series 2 Episode 1: Glasgow on Film with Dr Emily Munro of the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive

Niall Murphy

So, hello, everyone. I am Niall Murphy, and welcome to If Glasgow’s Walls Could Talk, a podcast by Glasgow City Heritage Trust about the stories and relationships between historic buildings and people in Glasgow. The stories of our buildings and streets can be told in words and pictures, but perhaps nothing can bring those stories to life more powerfully than a moving image. There is something magical about people and places from the past appearing on our screens today. We can walk again through doors of buildings destroyed by fires or bulldozers, ride on buses and trams on streets that no longer exist, rediscover daily events and life-changing dramas from 50 or 100 years ago.

Films connecting yesterday, today, and maybe tomorrow too. This is the stuff of the great collection of material in the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive. It’s an extraordinary treasure trove offering fascinating insights into the social, cultural, economic, and political history of Scotland. Home movies, documentaries, public information films, short clips, full length feature films. There are 3,000 films available to view online, so it’s hard to know where to start. And in a world increasingly dominated by small screen images, might me wonder when seeing is believing. Who funded these films, for instance? And what is their message? How can we tell the public record from propaganda?

Fortunately, help is at hand. To answer or at least explore some of these questions, we are delighted to welcome Dr. Emily Munro, a curator of films at the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive. Emily’s job requires an inquiring mind as she finds ways of bringing Scotland’s rich screen heritage to audiences in the here and now. Emily is also a talented writer and filmmaker in her own right. Her film, Living Proof: A Climate Story, released before COP26 in 2021 used footage from the library’s collection, which she selected with a keen and critical eye.

The film exploring roots of the climate crisis in Scotland’s industrial and economic history was widely seen and highly acclaimed. The Times called it an evocative documentary that asked difficult questions. For today’s podcast, Emily has chosen a intriguing selection of films from the Archive, and we’re looking forward to some stimulating questions and answers. But, let’s start with a fairly simple one. So, firstly, Emily, what is the Moving Image Archive? Can you give us a brief background to the history of the National Library’s Moving Image Archive? Where is it, how did it come about, what does it contain, and who is it for?

Emily Munro

I certainly can, Niall, thank you for that wonderful introduction. Well, the Moving Image Archive is Scotland’s national collection of moving images. And the Archive itself began relatively late for a moving image archive, in the 1970s, when Janet McBain was employed through a job creation scheme to identify a collection of films that were held at the Scottish Film Council offices. And under Janet’s Stewardship, alongside the technical expertise of Alan Russell, the Archive has grown over the years to a collection of around 20,000 films and videos about Scotland and its people. And as you’ve already said, these include professional films, amateur films, promotional films, propaganda, home videos, television, artistic films, experimental films, almost anything you can imagine.

So, Janet was the curator for the Archive from 1976 to 2011. And within, I know, she did win a BAFTA for her service. And within that time, the Archive moved from the Film Council over to the National Library of Scotland. So, in 2007, we became part of that heritage context, national heritage collection. And the Archive itself, it is for absolutely anyone. We’ve got an expansive online catalogue, which enables you to watch footage wherever you are in the world, and we are always collecting. So, it’s not a static collection, it’s something that’s ever-growing, which comes with its challenges, as you can imagine.

Niall Murphy

I can.

Emily Munro

Yes, but, it’s a really exciting place to work and to learn.

Niall Murphy

Great. So, tell me more about your role as the curator. It’s a fantastic resource, the archive, but how do you personally use it? What responsibilities does a curator carry? How do you reach out to engage new audiences say?

Emily Munro

I feel like it’s an immense privilege to work within an institution like the National Library of Scotland, but specifically in the Moving Image Archive, because I have my own personal time machine that will take me to places that I would never have gone without it. As a curator, I’m interested in stories and what the Archive tells us about ourselves. On the one hand, moving image is quite a specialist area of history, but I think most curators who work in film archives would see themselves as generalists. You need to have a wide range of interests and knowledge, historical knowledge about society and about culture. And there’s certainly certain, there’s areas that I gravitate towards. There’s some things that are my own pet projects, things that I have a specialist interest in. But, there is so much material that honestly every day is a school day here and I’m never bored, because there’s always something new for me to look at or explore.

And my role is partly about research. It’s about understanding the material, the context in which it was made, but it’s also about how I communicate that to the public, and also involve the public in interpreting the material as well. It’s not really just for us as curators to interpret the material. There’s so much in there. We couldn’t possibly be experts in everything that’s here. So, we really need the help of the public and from other researchers, historians, experts, to tell us the stories that are within the films. And I really like the idea of the Archive being something that people go on a journey with, and it’s quite a personal journey. It’s a bespoke journey, because everyone’s experience is different. So, I think what’s exciting about a moving image archive, particularly if it’s so focused on a nation as this one is, is that you can look for your own story within it and you can find things that speak to your experience and the experience of your ancestors.

And that can be extremely powerful, because I think we need continuity in our lives. We need to feel like there is some kind of thread, particularly at times when society can seem chaotic. So, the Moving Image Archive, I think provides a little bit of that comfort. But, at the same time, as a curator, I’m always looking at things with a critical eye. So, I am also quite interested in pulling apart films and really questioning the motivations behind their production.

Niall Murphy

Indeed, that is fascinating. When you look at the selection that you have put together for today, and I’m very interested in how you put that selection together. There’s things within that that are quite fascinating, and you do wonder how much of this is propaganda in places? What is it they’re trying to pitch? And then, on the other hand, you’re acutely conscious, there’s a whole film in there about the development of council housing in Glasgow and how Glasgow is very pioneering about it. And you look at that back through a lens where we’re going through a housing crisis at the moment, and it’s so optimistic. And you’re thinking, if only you had some of that optimism now and foresight now.

Emily Munro

That’s absolutely true. And I would say that within the Archive, although we do continue to collect, most of our material is from the middle of the 20th century, and that was an incredibly optimistic period. So, the films definitely reflect that.

Niall Murphy

True, absolutely. Does it then give you a sense of loss about what has disappeared in that selection? It is fascinating, particularly when you look at Glasgow now, there was one with Bill Forsyth running through Glasgow Streets, and I’m looking in the background as he goes along going, oh, there’s a John Burnet Sr building, which probably says something about me. But, it’s fascinating to walk along those old Glasgow streets. And, from that point of view, it’s a really invaluable source of social history and condense all of these really revealing details such as the footage you supplied on the Great Glasgow Fires and the blaze at the old Kelvin Hall, or the film of the Glasgow School of Art, which was fascinating because that was 1950s, but yet when I was at the Glasgow School of Art in the 1990s, it really hadn’t changed.

Emily Munro

Absolutely. And I think one of the interesting things about an archive is that you get to see those moments of continuity through time, and buildings provide that, don’t they? Well, sometimes there’s a rupture that changes things. If we think about the fire, Glasgow’s no stranger to fires, unfortunately.

Niall Murphy

Sadly.

Emily Munro

But, footage of fires is relatively unusual actually. And the film that I shared with you from 1925 was an example of a fire where actually something better came out of it, I think.

Niall Murphy

Indeed, yes, absolutely. It’s a much better building now.

Emily Munro

Absolutely. The phoenix rose from the ashes and then some… But, it’s a really interesting social document as well, because it was a film that was made by Green’s Film Service. Now, Greens were a family of show people.

Niall Murphy

Hugely important.

Emily Munro

Absolutely. A family of show people who began exhibiting films, and then saw a commercial opportunity to sell films to other exhibitors and created their own production company. And this wasn’t unusual at that time, cinema exhibitors would produce films, local films, and quite often they were out there looking for news. And on this day, in July 1925, the big news was this fire at Kelvin Hall. And you can see its big news, because there are literally hundreds of people gathered-

Niall Murphy

Absolutely. It’s quite something.

Emily Munro

… to watch that fire.

Niall Murphy

You’re seeing that smoke blow across, what is it, Dumbarton Road by that point, towards the Kelvingrove. And there are hundreds of people there, and you’re thinking, you’re possibly a wee bit too close to that fire. You might want to get away.

Emily Munro

Not only that, Niall, because you can see they’re set on the other side of the road, and they’re all in the embankments up leading up to Kelvingrove. But, not only that, but you can see hordes of school boys running towards the area, desperate to see it. And you have civilians who are helping the firefighters. So, you actually have ordinary people, including boys, straightening out the hoses for the firefighters. It’s quite extraordinary.

Niall Murphy

It is. When you look at their equipment, you’re thinking, there’s no way they’re going to cope with this fire.

Emily Munro

No, and they didn’t.

Niall Murphy

It’s pretty primitive. It’s fascinating though.

Emily Munro

But, it is really interesting, because it’s not all that long ago, a 100 years ago. And now I’m actually sitting in the new Kelvin Hall today.

Niall Murphy

Indeed, you are.

Emily Munro

So, I’m speaking to you from Kelvin Hall.

Niall Murphy

Which is a fantastic building.

Emily Munro

It is, indeed. And, if I could go back to what you were saying about Glasgow School of Art, because we have quite a lot of footage of the Mackintosh Building, and it’s so poignant now that, that footage still exists. I think it provides something different from a photograph to see people actually using the building. And that film from the ’50s, which was made by Eddie McConnell, who was a great Scottish filmmaker, documentary maker, very expressive, and made when he was a student at the School of Art, and he ran a film club there. And I think what’s really lovely about it is, you do get a sense of the Mac as a working building, and you get an idea of what the student experience was like. But, there’s also some really beautiful details. There’s footage of a cleaner washing the steps.

Niall Murphy

That’s a lovely touch, but that was what I meant, but nothing had changed. Ironically, I headed up the film club at the Mac for a year in my dim and distant past. There you go.

Emily Munro

That is fantastic. You know what, what’s interesting, we’re talking about these resonances through time. And another famous filmmaker, Norman McLaren, also attended the Glasgow School of Art and made a documentary called Seven Till Five in 1934. And that was similar to Eddie McConnell’s film. It was about the student experience. But, Eddie McConnell claims he never saw that film, or certainly hadn’t seen that film at that time. But, I think students feel such a sense of affinity with the building while they’re there, and almost like the building becomes its own personality, it’s a friend. And there’s a certain sense in which people have felt a need to document not just the place, but also what it might have felt like to have been inhabiting that place. And McConnell later shot Murray Grigor’s film about Macintosh, alongside Oscar Marzaroli, the great Glasgow documentarian.

And, there’s all sorts of interesting artistic collaborations within the Archive, but I think McConnell and Marzaroli, they’re ones that, it’s always worth looking at material where they collaborate. One of the films that I absolutely love, which is quite a weird, it’s a surrealist experimental drama called Faces, made just a couple of years after that Glasgow School of Art film in 1959. And it was made by Eddie McConnell, but Marzaroli worked on the production. And it has characters wearing masks that were designed by Alasdair Grey. And it’s a really special and unusual film.

So, I love all these, the little cliques, I guess, they’re kind of cliques, film making cliques, but it’s really interesting to see how people dot about productions. And you mentioned Bill Forsyth. Bill Forsyth was in there as well. So, anyway, I digress. But, I think there’s definitely a link between a lot of the filmmakers that we have work in the Archive that represent their careers and appreciation for art and architecture and the City of Glasgow in particular. And also, a sense, particularly in that mid 20th century period, of just trying to get to grips with the rapid change that’s going on, and holding on to some things and trying to learn how to let go of other things.

Niall Murphy

There’s a one really fascinating film that you included, which tells a story of Glasgow Corporation. This is just directly post Second War War, tells a story of Glasgow’s Corporation and what they did, and all the various facets to Glasgow Corporation. There’s some really good hidden gems within that. It shows the Keppochhill Tram Depot, which is now Tramway. Pinkston Power Station, which is amazing.

Emily Munro

Can I say something about that film? Because, honestly, that footage was really startling for me when I saw it. It’s actually quite a, it’s the kind of film that people wouldn’t necessarily look for in the Archive because it’s an educational film. And you might have noticed quite a few of the films that I’ve suggested that we talk about are educational films, because I absolutely love them. But, this one was made by the corporation as part of a series of civic films. So, it was made in 1949. And I think there was quite a progressive viewpoint in terms of the importance of civic values and citizenship coming out of the war.

Niall Murphy

Very much. There really was. It really comes across in that film.

Emily Munro

And using film as the main teaching material is a really modern thing to be doing.

Niall Murphy

Very much.

Emily Munro

And so, you’ll notice the film is silent.

Niall Murphy

But, involves the wee boy in it, kind of [inaudible 00:18:46]

Emily Munro

There’s characters.

Niall Murphy

The character comes across.

Emily Munro

Exactly. So, the wee boy or wee boys appear in a number of these civic series films. There was a school textbook that went along with it as well, an illustrated textbook. And the idea is that the film would be shown in the classroom and the teacher would narrate it in some way. So, there would be teaching materials that would go along with it. So, with this film, it’s about transport in Glasgow, it’s called Our Transport Services. And so, you see various forms of public transport, and you see the coal-fired power station that was generating power for the trams and the underground, and before the big cooling tower was built. And what’s so lovely about it is that, the building was camouflaged during the war. So, it was painted in camouflage paint. And it’s really camp.

Niall Murphy

It is. It’s quite something. It’s a shame it’s in black and white., because I’d love to have seen the colours of that and what they actually did. Because, it’s quite, you look at that and you think, wow, there’s pop art for you. And it’s like, all the things that come after, Pink Floyd using Battersea Power Station and all that. You can see where that comes from and the whole language or the visual language of The Beatles, and the various albums. It all comes from that. You can see what that is.

Emily Munro

Absolutely. It’s so fascinating. I love that film. And like you say, the footage from the tramway, seeing the trams being built, or repaired and cleaned.

Niall Murphy

They’re incredibly modern, the trams.

Emily Munro

Absolutely.

Niall Murphy

It’s really interesting to see them. They were pretty slick.

Emily Munro

Absolutely. And I suppose there’s a sense in which, I don’t know, I watch it and I do feel a sense of loss. Obviously, this wasn’t a period that I lived through, but you do get a strong feeling of the civic pride and of that effort in society to move towards what progress looked like at that time. And, I just think it’s a really special little film.

Niall Murphy

It was fascinating. For me, I was lucky because I was brought up in Hong Kong, and ironically Hong Kong I think got some of Glasgow’s trams, because Hong Kong still has trams. And so, it’s just on the island. There’s a big long line of trams, and it’s kind of has a loop either end that allows you to go backwards and forwards. And then, it loops around Happy Valley as well. But, the trams were, they were really fantastic. And so, when I see images of Glasgow in the 1950s with all these trams, I actually think it’s pretty progressive. At what point did you get rid of them? They worked so well in a compact small city. It’s a great way of getting people who wouldn’t be able to afford a car about.

Emily Munro

Absolutely. And I think 1949, we’re just at the cusp of that time where the motorcars, it’s about to have its moment, big style, but at that point, 1949, public transport was still the way to get people around. And so, you get a sense of investment in that.

Niall Murphy

And it is ironic, particularly this kind of where the next question’s going to go when we’re talking about demolition and dislocation. It’s ironic when you see other films like the Battle of the Styles film, which kind of made me laugh, this architectural film on the development of styles and architecture, which is a great wee film. And then, at one point it goes, and here we are at St. Enoch’s Station. It’s got this kind of terribly 1950s voiceover. Here we are at St. Enoch’s Station. This is the finest of Scotland stations. And then, you’re thinking, oh, oh, a decade later it’s toast. It’s people toast. And you’re like, what are you thinking? And there’s a separate film on St. Enoch’s and you’re thinking, what a fantastic facility. Why would you want to get rid of it? Completely bizarre. And yet it’s part of that white heat of technology and we need to move on from all of this kind of thing. It’s such a shame.

Emily Munro

Absolutely. And that period, we’re getting into that period now of that redevelopment. And you think about how devastating in a lot of ways that was, and the dislocation that created. You mentioned the film with Bill Forsyth, and it’s a film, it’s a drama about a young artist who goes into the city of Glasgow as it’s being demolished, and is really trying to get to grips with what is this place?

Niall Murphy

Absolutely.

Emily Munro

It’s a dystopian film.

Niall Murphy

Very much. It may made me think of Lanark, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, it’s like this is Lanark on film.

Emily Munro

And I’m sure there’s definite connections there-

Niall Murphy

There must have been.

Emily Munro

… with Alasdair Gray’s work. And I think, you see this artist in his studio and he’s painting these classical motifs, Corinthian columns and things. And then, he wanders out into the city where all of that kind of classical architecture is being destroyed, and is just surrounded by plumes of smoke, pollution or dust. And those young artists at that time, you do get a feeling, gosh, not everyone was like, great. We’re moving forward. This is progress. There was some real devastation going on. And people must felt quite powerless actually at that point, really just to have to accept what was happening. And a lot of the films that we have about that time period, which are films made by the corporation, they’re really about justifying the decisions that were happening.

Niall Murphy

Very much. The one St Mungo’s medals talking about the various awards that the corporation was getting for social housing work. And some of the buildings are very good to get produced out of that. But, looking back at it now with jaded Generation X eyes, and you’re thinking, particularly when they’re getting to the outskirts of the city and these garden cities that they’re developing there. And we know all of the floors of that now, the kind of great Billy Connolly phrased, deserts wi’ windaes. And you’re looking at it and you’re thinking, the incredible irony that they thought they were doing absolutely the right thing, getting people out into the air and the greenery. And yet it wasn’t enough. It didn’t work.

Emily Munro

And I think Glasgow really has suffered from a slightly myopic viewpoint where the housing is seen as the cause of social ills rather than the symptom of what’s going on in society. So, rather than thinking about inequality and lack of opportunity, looking at houses and saying, oh, this house is falling down, so need to provide people with somewhere nice to live, and then everything will be fine. And, of course, we know that that’s not the case. Of course, everyone deserves to live in a nice environment, but it doesn’t take away the social problems. And, it is interesting. We’ve got so many films that show the demolition of Glasgow, some extraordinary things. One of the demolition of the Grand Hotel in Charing Cross, I think-

Niall Murphy

Which is something else.

Emily Munro

… you can see men standing on the half ruined building at the very top, just kind of chipping away.

Niall Murphy

It is extraordinary. Lack of health and safety.

Emily Munro

It’s like something from another, it is from another century, but another century before that. And you also get these quite painterly images, almost like a grand civilization and decline, which I think are really poignant. But, with the corporation films, they’re obviously going to take a particular viewpoint, and for a critical view we need to look elsewhere. So, we need to look at things like the KH-4 film with Bill Forsyth, or there’s a film called The Planners Approach from 1968, which was made within Jordan Hill College of Education. And in that film, I think a student probably was interviewing the chair of the new Glasgow Society at that time, who was Mr. Jarvis, an architect.

Niall Murphy

Geoffrey Jarvis. I knew Geoffrey. So, he was on the Glasgow Open Design Panel, or as it was called before it became the Urban Design Panel, the amenity panel and the council. And he was a really interesting guy. He looked like Abraham Lincoln. He was a fascinating guy. And when you hear about the launch of the new Glasgow Society, and they put an advert in the paper, he was like, anyone’s interested in going walk for a walk around the city centre and discussing some of the things happening at Glasgow, and I think 500 people turned up. There’s such demand for it.

Emily Munro

That’s amazing. And really, so it’s quite a, you get this idea of a divided city, because you do have people at that time who were really starting to advocate strongly for the retention of some important buildings, Victorian architecture. And on the other hand, there’s this kind of understanding that there needs to be change and there needs to be, things need to shift somehow. And when Mr. Jarvis is interviewed, he has really quite well-formed ideas about the riverfront. So, the riverfront of the Clyde that it should be picture postcard. I think he says it should be the equivalent of what Edinburgh Castle is for Edinburgh, the riverfront should be for Glasgow. So, that’s the vision.

Niall Murphy

Which is a very unusual view for the time when you consider how industrialised the river had been.

Emily Munro

Well, absolutely. And it came later, of course, that focus on river fronts came 20 years or even more later. But, he also had plans to redevelop the St. Enoch’s Station site, which included a concert hall, a international hotel, and perhaps, and this is the one that always makes me laugh, the new Strathclyde Region headquarters could be there with the whole area pedestrianised.

Niall Murphy

Fascinating.

Emily Munro

It is fascinating. And, I guess, we did get some kind of pedestrianisation in the form of the shopping centre.

Niall Murphy

Which unfortunately turns its back on that kind of, it’s the thing that blocks the city centre actually getting to the river, ironically. And in some ways, St. Enoch’s Station actually handled all of those things better than the current shopping centre does, which is one of these ironies. What he was reacting to was there was this plan to basically deck over the river at that point and put a bus station on top of it. And which seems completely mad, and yet this did happen. That was a very American vision, and happened in places like Providence and Rhode Island, and they’ve later undone that. But, it did happen in various places. And they’re like, thank God avoided that in Glasgow.

But, it’s funny, because we’re still dealing with all of those issues now. And one of his great proposals, which sadly did not go anywhere, was to get the Royal Britannia back to Glasgow, and tuck it into the Graving Docks in Govan, and use that as a huge visitor attraction, and basically retain the Glasgow Garden Festival as Tivoli Gardens for Glasgow, which would’ve been such a fantastic, would’ve given an amazing regenerative boost to that part of the city. And yet it was in this Thatcherite era, because that was reliant on the public purse to make it work. It was rejected in favour of a private scheme to put it in Leith. And you’re like, but it came from Glasgow originally. It should be back in Glasgow. And a real lost opportunity.

Emily Munro

That would’ve been incredible. What a lost opportunity. And you were still talking about, there’s still buildings that we’ve lost recently along the riverfront, which it’s a real shame, and we’re still making the same arguments, about retaining some of the architectural heritage that we have.

Niall Murphy

Yes, we very much are. It’s an interest, that whole film, The Battle of the Styles is very enjoyable.

Emily Munro

I was going to mention actually, about that film, because the film shows this tension between the gothic styles and the classical revival in Scotland. And I don’t know if it’s the best, it’s not the best film that we have on architecture in Scotland. I think maybe Murray Grigor’s film for the Scottish Civic Trust, Raised From Stone, is a really special one. But, I like the Battle of the Styles, again, because it’s an educational film, so it’s interesting to imagine school pupils being taught about architecture. And the education advisor for the film was someone called Louise Annand, who also made films and worked for Glasgow Museums for many years, and was really interested in architecture and heritage within the city. She made a lovely film about the history of lighting, and one very atmospheric film about Monkland Canal in the 1960s, which was filled in, was concreted over.

So, I wanted to bring that in because I think sometimes there’s an inclination to look at the big films, the big commercial films, or the promotional films, because they’re professionally produced and they look very beautiful. But, actually someone like Louise Annand contributed a lot in terms of documenting parts of the city, and its art and its architecture, and communicating that to a different audience, which was an audience of young people. So, I think there’s a lot to be said for those educational films and how they speak to younger people about what’s happened in the past, and the changes that were happening at that time.

Niall Murphy

Well, I thought it was a really interesting film because she captures Kirkland’s Warehouse on Miller Street, which is one of Glasgow’s great lost buildings. And it’s a fantastic story that David Walker tells about this, and how he tried to persuade the planning committee not to let the building’s owners demolish it. And he won his case, and he managed to get the Scottish office. It was the first time the Scottish office had put money into a Victorian building., because this is one of the reasons why Edinburg’s better preserved them Glasgow, is because they would only put money into something that predated Victoria’s reign. And so, it was the first time they were going to put money into something post the start of Victoria’s reign. And the owner of the building was so incensed by this and the fact that one had been pulled over on him, that he blocked up every sink in the building and turned on the taps and flooded it so badly that the damage done outweighed the value of the grant that they were going to get from the Scottish office.

And so, the planning committee reversed their decision, decided on demolition. But, when you see that film, and it talks about what a fabulous building this is and the sculpture on the building, and how this is just for a warehouse, but look at the beauty of the sculpture on it, and that this is actually taken from Sansovino’s Library in Venice, and you’re looking at it with its courtyard in front, which this guy hated because he said that the vans and the drivers using the vans, it was too posh for them. And they kept on bumping into the corners and smashing their vans off the corners, and he hated it for that reason. And you think, what a snob. And so, Glasgow lost something that was really amazing, and we’ve ended up with, I think it’s the back of C&A, it ended up being, and it’s just this most awful. It’s directly opposite where the Tobacco Merchants has his, and you’re thinking, what a lost opportunity. It would make the most fantastic little courtyard space. Really stunning building.

Emily Munro

That is so sad. And we’ve lost a lot of those spaces, or it’s the privatisation of those spaces as well that is problematic. And in a way, the Battle of the Styles is kind of, it’s almost like a battle of values. It’s aestheticism versus functionalism or something like that. I don’t know. But, we seem to be having the same battles-

Niall Murphy

Very much.

Emily Munro

… over and over again.

Niall Murphy

The other film I enjoyed too, which I’ve seen before, is the Larry the Lamplighter one, which is 1956. So, and astonishing to think that somebody was still doing that in 1956, but it makes you realise just how much in need of modernization Glasgow was by that point, because the infrastructure just hadn’t been invested in. But, it’s so evocative at the same time of what the city was once like.

Emily Munro

Absolutely. It’s a Robert Louis Stevenson poem that’s been adapted. So, it’s already nostalgic for that reason. But, I think not long after, we have a film that shows the scrapping of the gas lamps, the removal, and the scrapping of the gas lamps. And so, they were disappearing at the same time. And maybe that was why the film was made, was to evoke those childhood memories, I suppose, for the person who made it.

Niall Murphy

The irony is, it’s actually incredibly contemporary, because there is a battle going on in Kensington in London at the moment to save its gas lamps. Because, I think its council wants to replace them with LED lighting instead. And people are really offended by this, because it’s still the original, there’s only a handful of them and it’s like, come on. And you could save them because they are still evocative of that period. But, it’s weird to think that’s survived into the 2020s.

Emily Munro

It is really weird, but it’s a lovely thing that they have. When you see that film about the scrapping of the gas lamps, you see some beautiful iron work being just chucked out. And I grew up in Edinburgh in the 1980s, and I remember the concrete street lights were being removed and being replaced with, they were evocative of Georgian but more kind of Victorian looking lamps, things that seem to be more in keeping with the conservation areas. And it’s just incredible that we’re still having discussions about scrapping things like that. It’s lovely that we still have some lamps in Glasgow, the provost lamps and things like that, that we can still look back on those. And actually, I don’t mind that they don’t work.

Niall Murphy

They’re just beautiful objects.

Emily Munro

They’re just beautiful to look at, absolutely, and kind of unexpected and evocative.

Niall Murphy

There’s the beautiful Alexander Greek Thompson one on Queens Drive, which is wrecked-

Emily Munro

I love that.

Niall Murphy

… sadly, but I love walking past it.

Emily Munro

Me too.

Niall Murphy

It’s so evocative. There’s another one buried in the hedge in Strathbungo too, so at least they have somehow clung on. And it’s funny, because you can see on the Ordnance Survey map where the others were, and it’s just these last fragmentary survivors, but they’re really beautiful artefacts.

Emily Munro

That’s it. My dad talks about visiting his grandmother in Shawlands and the gas lamps flickering, and he says that as a child, he was terrified of being sent out. John, go to the fish and chip shop. And he was terrified, because it was so spooky being in those dark, close’s with the flickering gas lamps. It’s something that I can’t imagine what that must have been like. But, there are people who still remember that.

Niall Murphy

That would be incredibly evocative, wouldn’t it? Quite terrifying at the same time. Fascinating stuff. Another strand in these films is all about how people in Glasgow got to work and the kind of this fascinating integrated traffic and transport network that we had of trams, trains, buses, and ferries, and how it all meshed together. So, I thought that was really interesting too. And other footage too, which I thought was amusing when they were talking about how awful the Gorbals were. And, yes, when you look at it, children playing in bin stores, not a good thing, but when you look at the streets, I’m looking at them nowadays and thinking, oh look, there’s a low traffic neighbourhood.

And it’s like, it’s 15 to 20 minute neighbourhood as well, because everything’s in the street, everybody’s playing in the street, people are really congregating in the street, and the traffic is so much lower than it is nowadays. And it’s really interesting to see how that is a active city that you could walk around or take the tram around. And if you really needed to jump on a train to somewhere more remote actually functioned. And the lessons that we can learn from that nowadays when obviously we’re thinking about carbon footprints and obviously COP26 happening in Glasgow and what’s just happened with Egypt as well with COP27, how we basically have to shift back towards that idea of a city. I think that’s really fascinating.

Emily Munro

It’s so interesting, isn’t it, that we’ve gone through this cycle of feeling like the city’s overpopulated and that we need to push people to the margins. And then, now we’re like, oh, actually we need people living in our city centre, because otherwise it’s barren. So, let’s bring people back.

Niall Murphy

Post COVID in particular.

Emily Munro

Exactly that. So, yes, these cycles that go on. And in some ways, I think actually the new towns were more successful than the city development areas because-

Niall Murphy

Yes, they were.

Emily Munro

… at least there was an idea of what was required to make a functioning community, that people needed to be able to get around. That the car was going to be important, because it was at that time and people needed to get to work, but actually there needed to be spaces for pedestrians as well. And there was less of that less density, that high rise thing. Cities in the sky, there was less of that.

Niall Murphy

And a child of the tower block.

Emily Munro

Well, some of those schemes were relatively successful and actually well-loved, but others, of course, were not. I’m thinking about the Gorbals and the Hutchesontown Block E, which I think survived only a few years and then was demolished because of damp.

Niall Murphy

Actually, a comprehensive disaster. It was a construction system that came from the south of France and it just was totally unsuited to Glasgow’s climate. And ironically, when you look at it nowadays, it’s got these fantastic super graphics on you thinking, wow, that looks really cool. But, it just didn’t work. It was never going to work in our climate.

Emily Munro

You’re right, absolutely. You appreciate the aesthetic. But, actually, to just take something from the south of France and put it in the west of Scotland, now, gosh, we’ve got real challenges on our hands with the amount of rainfall for new buildings as well as for the old buildings. And that’s something we’re going to have to grapple with for years to come.

Niall Murphy

Very much. It’s something that we look at when we’re looking at tenements. We ask people to check the size of the rainwater goods that they’re actually, they can cope with that increased capacity. And that’s having been involved in other schemes where nobody has checked, and then suddenly you’re getting water ingress in a newly conserved building. You’re thinking, ah, this is exasperating. Somebody should have checked those things, and how we then work with that. That’s part of the thinking behind the Avenues project in the city centre. That’s the main motivation for it. It’s not actually that it makes those streets look prettier. That’s a handy side effect of it. It’s tackling the drainage problems in Glasgow because of stormwater runoff, and it’s slowing all that down and making it more manageable, and thereby releasing sites which can’t be developed at the moment because the system has been at capacity. It’s about building a capacity so those sites can be properly developed and brought back into the city once more.

Emily Munro

Some of the films that I love, absolutely love with all of my heart are the New Town films, because of that utopian imagining of what society could look like. And there’s one film in particular about Cumbernauld, and in part of that film, there’s a wee boy on roller skates, and the camera follows him going through the neighbourhoods on his roller skates, just flying down hills with ease, going through underpasses and things like that. And sometimes I look at that and I think, wow, when I’m able to go around Glasgow in my roller skates, I’ll know that we’ve cracked active travel.

Niall Murphy

Absolutely. That would actually be, I used to do a lot of roller skating as a teenager, and I don’t do it anymore. And it’s one of these things you kind of think, that’d be quite fun to revisit it and actually do it in the streets rather than in a roller rink somewhere. But, if you could do that and you could enjoy it without worrying that you’re going to be mowed down by a car in the next five minutes, that would be a real sign that things have moved on and progressed, that streets are for everybody and not just for one class of person who happens to have access to a car.

Emily Munro

I think so.

Niall Murphy

Very much. What next then for the Moving Image Archive? We’re living in an era where everyone has a smartphone. We can all be filmmakers. Tell us about your kind of plans for, where you’re going to go in terms of outreach and engaging with citizen filmmakers? I presume you’re really enthused about this, so tell us all about it?

Emily Munro

Absolutely. We never stop collecting, and those smartphone films are going to become part of the Archive. Not all of them, but some of them will be. And I think it’s more important than ever that we take a critical look at our past as well as how our media is produced. So, there’s a role for film archives to play there in thinking about both of those things. I want to see people enjoying history and to have the same privilege that I do to step into the time machine and observe lives past, see old streets and buildings that have disappeared, fashions that have all but vanished. And to that end, I think what we want to do is to keep having conversations with people about the collections in all sorts of different ways. And sometimes that might involve a co-curation exercise where we’re working with community to pull out the things that really matter to them. In other cases it might be actually working with the community that we haven’t worked with before and who are underrepresented within the collections too.

Niall Murphy

Sure.

Emily Munro

Because, while it’s easy for me to say, oh, well, the Archive is for everyone, not everyone is well represented within the collection at present.

Niall Murphy

Sure. I can completely appreciate that.

Emily Munro

So, we really have a bit of work to do on that front. We hold regular events at Kelvin Hall and they’re free. So, please come along to some of our events to find out about the collections and talk about the collections. Next year we’re going to be doing a special focus on the history of broadcasting, which is going to be a lot of fun. I’ve been doing some research into community television production in the ’70s, the first community television experiments, one of which took place in Leith in Edinburgh in a high rise here that no longer exists.

Niall Murphy

Fascinating.

Emily Munro

And another one that took place in Vale of Leven, which was part of the quality of life experiment set up by the government at that time, which was a big cultural experiment in certain deprived areas of the United Kingdom. So, it’s a really interesting story. So, there’s lots of possibility. I’ve definitely got plans for things that I’d like to explore myself. I’m really interested in whether we can use the Archive to envisage a future. So, can we look back and look at how people were imagining futures then, and what can we learn from that that we can bring forward into the future? I’m quite interested in that, and doing some work around that. And I always say to people, I’d love to do a project on the M8 and I say this all the time to people and some people roll their eyes, but actually maybe this is the moment for that. I would love to do a project looking at the M8 and the communities that are cited along the M8 and the footage that we’ve got about that story. I think it’s a really interesting focal point for lots of different reasons.

Niall Murphy

It is. It’s very fascinating. We talked to the Scottish Motorway Archives last year about that and that actually, and having been to some of their talks as well, completely changed my perception of the motorway. I’m still not a fan of it, but it was the whole thinking about how it was designed as this scenographic trip through the city and how they were lining up vistas on it. And they really thought through it in this very, as though it was a film. It was what you were seeing at speed as you drove through the city, and how they lined up things like the Park Circus Towers, how you went over the Clyde, all of it was actually quite carefully thought through. Still, it was pretty damaging to the city, but it was fascinating. And there was a recognition that you had to accommodate the car somehow, and that was the thinking of the day.

Emily Munro

Absolutely. We’ve got films that completely reflect that point of view. In my film, Living Proof, I took the opportunity to do a montage sequence, which starts with the Kingston Bridge and really tears apart a promotional film that was celebrating the opening of the Kingston Bridge, and interweaves pictures, footage of the demolition of the city at the same time. And there’s this very pompous music that was in the original footage, and it was great fun to play with, extremely cathartic, I have to say. Being able to tell those two viewpoints in one short sequence.

Niall Murphy

And intertwine them. It’s a great kind of unwinding of the city at the same time, that there’s this new vision of the city overlaid on top of it. It’s one of the things I really enjoy about Glasgow is, it’s not like Edinburgh where you got one city, then another city built next door to it, and Glasgow was super in position and layering up of different cities. So, you can appreciate, it’s how two very different visions of the city end up getting butt spliced together, actually it’s quite enjoyable.

Emily Munro

I agree, Niall. Actually, I really do. And I think what I admire about Glasgow is seeing the beauty in the everyday, and that unexpectedness. And in a way it’s a bit like the films in the Archive, because you’re getting these glimpses and it can be a bit frustrating at times, because it’s always a partial viewpoint and films, that’s exactly what it is. It’s always a partial viewpoint. You never get to linger long enough. It isn’t like a still photograph where you can really gaze upon something. And Glasgow as a city is a bit like that. It’s full of these wonderful, extraordinary, beautiful things, but up against some really ugly, brutal things. And it’s surprising and it’s frustrating, but that’s part of the appeal of the city, I suppose.

Niall Murphy

Very much. I suppose it makes me think of Christopher Isherwood when he talks about himself as I am a camera, when he is documenting Berlin, and that’s how he sees himself as this narrator. It’s the glimpses of the city, and then how it all stitches together to tell the story of the city at a point in time. And that’s really what’s fascinating about your Archive, is you’ve got all of these different kind of visions of what the city was like in particular moments. And it’s seeing all that together in one place is fascinating. Well, in conclusion then, this is the question we ask everybody and it’s completely loaded. So, lovely to hear this one from you. What is your favourite building in Glasgow, whether on film or not, and what would it tell you if its walls could talk?

Emily Munro

Niall, this kept me awake last night. There’s so many possibilities. The more I thought about it, the more confused I became. And maybe it’s just me, I don’t know, but it’s like if someone asks me as they often do, what’s your favourite film in the Archive? And I’m like, what? It’s like, well, for a start, I haven’t seen all the films in the Archive, but also are you talking about my favourite film this week? My favourite film today?

Niall Murphy

This is me to a tee. I can’t make the mind up because I’m like, oh, but I really like that one. And then, oh no, that meant I couldn’t choose this one then.

Emily Munro

Totally. So, today I love the ambition of some of the commercial buildings in Glasgow, and especially the Victorian obsession with light and glass. So, I’m going to choose Gardner’s Warehouse on Jamaica Street.

Niall Murphy

Good choice.

Emily Munro

It was built in 1855 to ’56 by John Baird, and is really unusual in that it’s got a cast iron structure inspired by London’s Crystal Palace.

Niall Murphy

That’s right.

Emily Munro

So, I think it’s that sense of a temple to trade, and I guess I just love the ambition of it and the story of how it was built. For someone who’s an environmentalist it’s perhaps bizarre that I’ve chosen what is probably one of the least energy efficient buildings you could conceive of. It’s metal and glass, but I always get pleasure when I look at that building.

Niall Murphy

It’s a lovely building, and it’s the predecessor to the skyscraper, so it’s the first applications of the technologies from the Crystal Palace in a commercial building in the world. So, it’s really important from that point of view. And it’s also on Jamaica Street, Union Street access. It’s a rare survivor, because we used to have dozens of them down that street, and they’re hardly any left now. And one of them is on, very sadly, is on the buildings at risk register just around the corner where Tower Records used to be, which is by the same design team, which is a great shame because it is, that’s a cracking wee building as well. And, of course, there’s still the Ca d’Oro, the House of Gold up on the corner, which is-

Emily Munro

I love the Ca d’Oro.

Niall Murphy

… fabulous. But, there were more. So, where that car park is, directly opposite Gardner’s Warehouse, there was a whole series of them there, and I think they were taken out in a fire in 1988. So, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, who’s the great American architectural historian of the 20th century, he regarded Glasgow’s collection of cast iron warehouses as up amongst the best in the world, an equivalent of New York and Chicago, and we’ve really lost so many of them and they’re actually really important. So, it’s fantastic that Gardner’s Warehouse still survives and is in fantastic shape as well. It’s really a beautiful building.

Emily Munro

It looks to be in great shape, and I’ve actually never been inside it.

Niall Murphy

Have you not?

Emily Munro

I’ve not.

Niall Murphy

Oh, you should go.

Emily Munro

There’s a business which I don’t need to name.

Niall Murphy

I hesitated there.

Emily Munro

So, it’s possible go in?

Niall Murphy

It still has its original lift inside it as well, which is, it’s one of the first Otis lifts I think, in Europe. So, it’s really important from that point of view as well. So, that’s why I went inside it. I don’t think I ever, it used to be Martin and Frost’s furniture shop, but I don’t think I ever went in then. So, there you go. But, great building, very good choice, and thank you very much, Emily. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking to you.

Emily Munro

This has been great fun.

Niall Murphy

And I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Emily Munro

I certainly have. Thanks so much, Niall.

Niall Murphy

Thanks for sharing all your images. It’s really very fascinating. And it was quite poignant, look back in time to some of the things that we’ve lost, which are actually really special when you look at them now. It’s much appreciated.

Speaker 3

Glasgow City Heritage Trust is an independent charity and grant funder that promotes the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of Glasgow’s historic built environment. Do you want to know more? Have a look at our website at glasgowheritage.org.uk and follow us on social media @Glasgow Heritage. This podcast was produced by Inner Ear for Glasgow City Heritage Trust. The podcast is kindly sponsored by the National Trust fo

Student Bursaries

Photograph of Glasgow skyline at sunset

Applications are now open for Glasgow City Heritage Trust’s new bursary scheme for postgraduate students in relevant taught Masters programmes, who are undertaking dissertation research that focuses on any aspect of Glasgow’s historic built environment. The purpose of the bursaries is to engage with, and support, student research into the city’s built heritage.

There are four bursaries available, each for £750. The bursaries are awarded on a competitive basis. To be eligible students must be enrolled in a taught Master’s programme through an accredited university based in the UK and planning to complete their dissertation by the 1st September 2023.

Successful applicants will be asked to fill in an evaluation report within two months of completing their dissertation, detailing the process and findings of their dissertation and how the bursary helped with their research.

If you have questions about the scheme or whether your dissertation topic is applicable, please contact taylor@glasgowheritage.org.uk

Download an Application Form 

Applications are due by 17th April, 2023 

Please send completed application forms to taylor@glasgowheritage.org.uk