To mark the undergoing restoration of Glasgow Central Station to its full Victorian glory, Ian R Mitchell tells the story of the Hielandman's Umbrella at Central. This is an extract from a book he is currently researching, called Walking through Scotland's History, and is from the chapter entitled, Walking In And Out Of Town. To the extract he has appended a Teuchter Trail, to encourage the re-adoption of our ancestors' habit of urban walking.
Many migrants to the growing urban areas arrived on foot. Before railways, and even afterwards given the cost factor, Highland migrants to Glasgow often walked. The mother of John Maclean, the famous Clydeside socialist, was a victim of the Highland famine in the 1840s, and walked with her mother to Paisley from Corpach near Fort William. Maclean himself was no mean walker, and while a student at the Free Kirk Training College at Trinity on the north side of the city, walked daily there and back from Pollokshaws, at least 50 miles a week. And the Highland community, which in around 1900 represented 5% of Glasgow's population of 1,000,000, and was the largest ethnic group after the Irish, developed its own, semi-institutional forms of urban walking. These along with the Gaelic Churches and Highland Societies, helped maintain a sense of community for the Gael in the initially alien urban environment.
There is a marvellous piece of Victorian engineering, in riveted cast iron and glass, which carries the railway from Glasgow Central over Argyll Street. Recently restored to its original glory, it boasts a plaque denoting that it goes by the name of the Hielanman's Umbrella, though this name appears unknown to younger Glasgwegians. The name resulted from the habit of the Glasgow Gaels meeting there, often conveniently using the bridge as a shelter from the inclement climate, so like that of their own homeland. Glasgow's Gaels predominantly worked either in domestic service in areas like Park Circus, or in the many industries to the north and south of the navigable stretch of the Clyde, for example in the bustling river ferries, known as the 'Skye Navy.' Most also lived in the riparian areas of Govan, Kinning Park, and Partick. The Umbrella was convenient for this littoral, and so too were many of the various Gaelic Churches which the immigrants frequented.
Although arriving in the city in the era of horse drawn omnibuses and later trams, the Highlander appears only slowly to have given up his or her historically acquired ability to walk. The servant girls of the Park area would meet on their half-day off, and walk together (safety in numbers) out the Great Western Road, to the Botanic Gardens or further. Walking to Church, additionally, was also a Highland tradition, as using other transport was formerly seen as breaking of strict sabbatarian rules. In Glasgow, with places of worship not too distant from dwelling places, and the cost of fares being an extravagance, this tradition continued even into the 1950s, when Gaels from the South Side would walk to Kirks across the river.
People would meet at the Umbrella between services, for example walking down from St Columba's Gaelic Church of Scotland to the 'Hielandman's', and there swopping gossip and news from the homelands and of urban events. If the weather was fine, various groups would depart from the Umbrella in an urban promenade, in their several directions, returning to exchange more gossip. As well as its Sabbath function, the Umbrella was also used as a weekend evening meeting place, and doubtless many a troth was plighted beneath its girders, as couples 'walked out' -the old phrase showing the traditional link between courtship and walking.
At its height in the 1920s and 30s, the Umbrella tradition did not survive the social disruption of the war and the blackout, and soon became a fond memory. The educationally successful and upwardly mobile Gael moved away from the banks of the Clyde, and now the greatest concentration of Kelvinside Krofters is in middleclass Milngavie, where the Street is a source of imaginary suburban terrors.
Take the train to Glasgow Central, and exit at the Umbrella; the plaque is at its eastern end. The removal of bus stops and restoration of the shops has greatly improved the atmosphere under the Umbrella. Go up Hope Street and turn first left into Waterloo Street; at No 29 are the offices and bookshop of Gairm, the Gaelic periodical. Carry along till the end of Waterloo Street and ascend Pitt Street, whence the spire of Alexander 'Greek' Thomson's St Vincent Street Church becomes visible. Originally built for the United Presbyterians, who had many Highland members, it is now a Free Kirk, composed almost exclusively of Highlanders, or of Highland descendants.(One can occasionally gain access to this amazing masterpiece.) Turn left along St Vincent Street and almost immediately St Columba's Church of Scotland is on the right. This rosy red sandstone building was another original Highland Church and still has Gaelic services.
Keep going along St Vincent Street and cross the Motorway; a right turn along North Street takes you past the Mitchell Library, and a left turn into Berkeley Street. Here the sad relic of the former Highlanders Institute (later Berkeley Casino) awaits restoration as luxury flats. This housed the dances, ceilidhs and other events of the Glasgow Highland Societies for decades. A right turn from Granville street, and then left along Sauchiehall Street takes you to Elderslie Street. On your right ahead are towers to match those of Thomson, the Italianate spires of Trinity, now luxury flats but initially the Free Kirk Seminary. After Elderslie Street ends, Claremont Street and steps take you to Trinity. Further on is Park Circus, like all the buildings hereabouts formerly houses of the urban bourgeoisie, where Highland servant girls slept in closets or under kitchen tables.
Today the move to converting these buildings back from offices to homes is growing; who would live in the suburbs, when they could live here with outlooks to match the buildings? Park decamps into the Kelvingrove Park, and descending to the bridge over the Kelvin beside the Boer War memorial, a right turn takes you onto the Kelvin Walkway. About 100 yards along this is a curious stone. It has chiselled into it a crusie lamp, and the words An Clachan, (The Stone, or the Village) D.D. 1911. The stone was for the Empire Exhibition of 1911 and marks the site of a mock Highland village. Clearly done by a Glasgow Highlander with some skill as a mason, it is a fitting end to our trail before heading for refreshment. ( Total walk: about 2 1/2 miles, about 1 1/2 hours; Refreshments at The Big Blue on the Walkway - or Mitchell's beside the eponymous Library if you can't wait.)
Author: Ian Mitchell (C) 2000
Copyright I.R. Mitchell
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