From bibles to bullets and battling bishops: Things you didn't know about Glasgow Cathedral
The stones which make up Glasgow Cathedral were first consecrated by Kind David 1st in 1136. It has survived throughout centuries of religious turmoil, Glasgow weather and tipsy folks getting lost on their way to the Tennent’s Brewery (in my imagination, at least) as the most intact, post-reformation Cathedral (we’ll get to that bit) on the Scottish mainland, AND it still looks better than you do in the morning. Time to brush up on your history and get to know this monumental building in all its ancient glory, as well as its place in the Glasgow we know and love today. Each story corresponds to one or more relics which you can go and find in the Cathedral whenever the mood takes you: enjoy!
Surviving the Reformation
The religious turmoil between Roman catholic and protestant worshippers came to a head in 1560, and the Cathedral was surrounded by an angry mob, determined to raze it to the ground like so many other cathedrals around the country. In true Glasgow style, affection for their city and a respect for the sheer amount of skill and work that had gone into the construction, inspired the organised trades to protect it. On your visit, look for the dark marks on the pillars in the nave (the entry part of the church) which were caused by the tearing down of Catholic idols, and represent the most substantial part of the damage incurred by the building. For more clues to this tumultuous period, the beautiful trades window in the quire (main body) of the church displays all the crests of the various trades who stood up to fight for an essential building in the Glasgow Renaissance.
One of Scotland’s most celebrated authors, Walter Scott, discussed these events in his 1817 novel Rob Roy. He described with gusto how ‘the trades assembled, and offered downright battle to the commons, rather than their kirk should coup the crans as others had done elsewhere. It wasna for luve o’ Paperie (Roman Catholic Religion)—na, na!— nane could ever say that o’ the trades o’ Glasgow’. Preach it, Scott.
St Mungo in Life
Wherever you are in Glasgow right now, there is a good chance you can see the mark of Mungo still. For someone who was alive sometime in the 6th-7th centuries, he is doing a pretty good job of remaining in our hearts and minds. Amongst many other miracles, he began the first little wooden church where the Cathedral now stands today. If the only Glasgow Mungo you can think of is HiFi or beer, then have a look at our bus stops, lamp posts, the Glasgow Uni logo: anything blessed with the coat of arms of our dear green place, which were inspired by the life of the city’s patron saint.
If you’d ever wondered about the bird who never flew, the tree that never grew, the fish that never swam or the bell that never rang, the story is beautifully illustrated by this window in the quire, just next to the trades house window. If you prefer old books to old pictures, then the depiction of a monk in the bottom right hand corner of the window is the one for you. He is none other than Bishop Jocelyn, who wrote the first book about the Life of Mungo. Later you can continue your journey down to the lower church, where an old and treasured copy of this text is kept in a display cabinet for all to see.
St Mungo in Death
If there’s one thing those saints were good at, it was being even more illustrious and fascinating in death than they were in life. Glasgow Cathedral has been a pilgrimage site for centuries as people have come to pay their respects at the tomb of Saint Mungo. It is deep within the lower church, marked with bright cloth and a tapestry specially made in Edinburgh. Over the years, the Cathedral has been fought over by all sorts, and it is said that the remains have been moved a few times to keep them safe. There is a rumour going around that they may now be closer to the well in the far right hand corner of the lower church. Head over there now to see the next artefact in our list.
The First Stone Cathedral of 1136
As we have now learned, the original church built by Mungo was made of wood and has long disappeared. This fragment, however, is still remarkably old (up to 900 years) and still has its face on – the paint was probably touched up at some point but the fact that some still clings is very impressive. Its technical name is a voussoir, or an arch stone, and it was found tucked away beneath the newer foundations in 1916.
The Battling Bishop
This enigmatic figure was laid to rest to your left hand side, and he played a significant part in the bloody civil wars in the 1300’s, as a supporter of Robert the Bruce. In 1306, Bruce famously murdered his rival Sir John Comyn, in a church in Dumfries. Whether a meeting gone wrong, a treacherous move on the part of Bruce, or something else entirely, our battling bishop, whose real name was Robert Wishart, defied the expected response of the Church by refusing to excommunicate him. On the contrary, Wishart urged Bruce to gather his forces and a matter of weeks later, handed him coronation robes and a royal banner when he was coronated King Robert I. Wishart was imprisoned for many years for fighting for Scottish independence, and he was later buried in his beloved Cathedral.
The Hebrew Mystery
If you go to the lower church on a sunny day, the light might just hit the stone pillars and reveal a centuries old, as yet untranslated Hebrew graffiti engraving. A few possible translations have been offered for what it might read, but none are conclusive. Perhaps it came from the time that the very first person was buried in Glasgow Necropolis after its opening in 1832 – the Jewish jeweller Joseph Levi, whose grave can still be seen today. Reckon your old-hebrew reading skills are up to the challenge?
Nane o’yere whig-maleeries and curliewurlies and opensteek hems aboot it…
We began with Walter Scott, and it seems only right to finish with this quote, again from Rob Roy, and said to have been the words of priest Andrew Fairservice:
“Ah! it’s a brave kirk—nane o’ yere whig-maleeries and curliewurlies and opensteek hems about it—a’ solid, weel-jointed mason-wark, that will stand as lang as the warld, keep hands and gunpowther aff it.’
Stand as long as the world, indeed. Our wee cathedral is doing a commendable job so far.
If you are interested in finding out more, the Friends of Glasgow Cathedral offer free tours most days throughout the summer (donations welcome). The guides are friendly and endlessly knowledgable so don’t hesitate to have a chat, either at the bookstall in the nave of the church – they wear blue robes – or their website is here.