Springburn: Rome of the North – Ian R. Mitchell

Breezes Tower, aka Springburn Castle 001 (2)

A Castle in Springburn? Read on……..

Springburn – its History and Walk

               Born Balgrayhill Schooled Petershill

               Worked Keppochhill Married Springburnhill

               Sick Stobhill Domiciled Barnhill 

               Rested Sighthill

Springburn the Rome of the North? Consider the evidence. Like Rome, Glasgow’s Springburn is built on seven hills – as the above ditty demonstrates. And the Romans were there. Through the area went a Roman Road to a fort on the Antonine Wall. But more tellingly, just as in the days of its Empire, “All Roads Lead to Rome”, so at the height of the British Empire, all -or most- of the iron roads that girdled that empire led to Springburn. In 1914 Springburn produced the great majority of the locomotives that held those dominions, from India to South Africa, together, and they all started their journey rumbling downhill from Springburn to the Glasgow docks. The trains were moved along the tramlines at night and the local population poured out to watch under the light of the gas lamps.

Springburn at its height held the biggest concentration of railway workshops in Europe and possibly the world, yet for some reason the industry and the area has never gained a similar status to that held by Govan as the World Capital of Shipbuilding. And, unlike Govan which has a history of 2000 years, Springburn is a newcomer to the scene: in the mid nineteenth century there was little there but a few farms and collieries. But when the Hydepark Locomotive Works was moved from Anderston to Springburn, it was soon followed by the building of the Atlas works, the St Rollox and the Cowlairs. These all combined in 1903 (along with the detached Queen’s Park Works in Polmadie) to form the North British Locomotive Company (NBLCo.), forming the largest privately owned locomotive builder in the world. Population in Greater Springburn grew to around 40,000 and at its height there were around 10,000 men and women employed in the four locomotive works themselves, and in associated supply industries.

NBLCo Entrance, Springburn with Science, Speed and Locomotive

NBLCo Entrance, Springburn with Science, Speed and Locomotive

Springburn continued to produce steam engines of staggering beauty for the domestic market and the far flung colonies, largely ignoring the changes towards diesel engines and electricifcation taking place elsewhere. The general manager of the NBLCo stated in 1936 “”Electricity will never replace steam on mainline trains”,and  with such an attitude – and the loss of the safe Empire market after 1945 – Springburn’s fate was sealed, despite belated attempts at producing electric locomotives. By 1962 the last railway works had closed down and gradually the repair and maintenance facilities went the same way. But like its southern counterpart, the Rome of the North retains many a palimpsest of its former glories, well worth an urban ramble.


1. Take the frequent train to Springburn station from Queen Street. (Given Springburn’s history it would be sacrilege to arrive- or depart- any other way than by train). Walk up Springburn Way and sadly see the effects of planning blight on what was one of Glasgow’s most prosperous and respectable working class communities. Stumps of former tenements stand, still with their shops and are flanked by a very unattractive shopping centre. Pause here to see the Co-operative Fountain dating from 1902 with its Unity is Strength motto,  indicating the former importance of this institution in working class life, not only in providing cheaper goods and a dividend, but credit in times of strife such as the massive locomotive workers’ strike of 1891.

How respectable these striking workers look! Collar and tie, polished shoes, fob watches…….

1891 Rail Strike (2)

Further northwards we come to some very recent attractive social housing filling a gap that was left by tenement demolition and road building, and that lay idle and an eyesore for 40 years. Under an overpass ( here used to be found Quinn’s Bar, with its famous “Wee Hoose Underneath the Sterr”- for afterhours drinking, famed in the song) and we are peching up the brae towards Balgrayhill, where there are some solid remaining sandstone tenements which escaped the craze of demolition. Crossing over to Balgrayhill Road we come upon one of the hidden gems of Springburn, a neat little double villa which was the first real commission of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and which – if you look carefully – bears some of the imprint of his genius.

CRM's first commission, Springburn 001 (2)

CRM’s first commission, Springburn 001 (2)

2. Carry on up Balgrayhill Road, in the direction of a group of high-rise flats. Now we are approaching one of Glasgow’s neglected wonders, Springburn Park. It is my personal favourite green space in the city, and is the one with the best view, including Ben Lomond on a clear day. West Enders with their spruce Kelvingrove and Botanics might weep to see Springburn Park (indeed, some such on walks I have guided, almost have). First on entering the gates, we encounter the once-splendid rockery, with its Himalayan and Alpine plants, now neglected and overgrown. Taking a leftward turn towards the northern boundary of the park we come to the B-Listed Mosesfield House, a fine old mansion by David Hamilton (of Hutcheson’s Hospital fame), where in 1896 George Johnson created the prototype of the Arrol-Johnson motor car, and founded the Scottish motor industry. Mosesfield needs tender loving care, a lot of it. And deserves it.

Hyde Park Wks (2)

Image showing the huge extent of the Hyde Park works at its height.

You can explore yourself  the fine woodlands and ponds, which include a Site of Scientific Interest at the top of the park, but time presses and you must also see the statue of James Reid, a little to the southwards. There he stands, the greatest name in Glasgow locomotive building, proud as a Roman Emperor surveying the lands he ruled with…perhaps only a little less power, as manager then owner of the Hyde Park Works, the biggest of them all, employing 2500 workers. It was his son Hugh who brought about the amalgamation of the competing rival companies into the NBLCo, and who also donated Mosesfield grounds to Springburn Park and funded the building of the now derelict Winter Gardens. Its skeleton of cast iron ribs stands in the centre of the park, as it has for almost 40 years. There are £8 million plans to restore this as an events, meeting and arts space.


3. Exit by the park’s south entrance on Broomfield Road and a right turn brings the tower of Springburn Castle, or Breezes Tower as it is known, into sight. On first encountering this mini castellated toy I was informed by a local that, “It wis built bi a Tobacco Lord, fur tae see his ships comin up the Clyde.” I discovered however, that the building was only erected in 1820, long after the Tobacco Lords had come and gone. But “Nivver spyle a story wonderin gin its true” as they used to say in my native Aberdeen. Dropping down Balgrayhill Road it is heartening to see the dead derelict depressing spaces that I have observed in my rambles for many decades, being filled with new and attractive housing. It was around here that parts of the film Red Road were shot. Past Springburn Academy and we are soon back at the railway station having completed our first loop. But you are not finished yet……more surprises lie ahead.

Women Munitions Worker NBLCo 001 (2)

Women Munitions Worker NBLCo 001 (2)

4.Descend a set of steps south of the railway station, pass the former Springburn Library,  now workspaces – and ahead at Flemington Street lies the Jewel in Springburn’s crown, the former offices of the North British Locomotive Company, a real palace of industry inside and out, and James Millar’s architectural masterpiece. Built in 1909 to house the offices of the amalgamated railway companies, the outside doorway is replete with granite pillars, wrought iron gates and bold sculptures above. These show Science and Speed – in the usual feminine forms of undress then popular- and a rushing locomotive, complete with real metal drag chains! Inside is hardly less magnificent, from the stained glass World War One memorials by Meikle on the expansive stairway (one of which panels shows a woman munitions worker at her lathe) to the ornate boardroom (with smoking terrace) -certainly the most magnificent boardrooom.

Spingburn Way restored, old and new tenements (2) Spingburn Way restored, old and new tenements (2)[/caption]

5.Cross the Springburn Road and reach the former Fire Station (now housing), with an impressive Glasgow Fish Bell Tree coat of arms carving on its frontage and witness planning blight worse that what you saw at the start of your walk, created by the legatees of the Goths and Huns who sacked Rome. Springburn was sliced in two back in the 1970s to make a wider road, the A803, for the denizens of Bishopbriggs to travel faster in and out of the city, and even now, the backs of tenements stare sadly across dead grassed areas, at the thoroughfare which replaced the former road. (Springburn has one of the lowest car ownerships in the city; the road was not built for locals). Travelling up the next stage of the much broken-up former Springburn Road we come to an interesting  quiet corner of mixed old and new housing. On one of the latter is a sad sculpture, showing the modern A803 splitting Springburn, and divorcing Keppochhill with its solid red sandstone tenements, and other areas, from their shops and services. Springburn’s Broken Heart.

1820 Martyrs memorial, Sighthill Cemetery

1820 Martyrs memorial, Sighthill Cemetery

6. Behind these houses can be seen sylvan greenery – in season. This is Sighthill Cemetery which, with the former brick buildings of the St Rollox Works still visible across the road, forms the southern boundary of Springburn. Enter, pass the Grecianate gatehouse and climb the brae to the right and you will find the Martyrs’ Monument, raised in 1847 to Baird, Hardie and Wilson, executed in 1820 for their part in the Radical War of that year.

Then 60,000 workers downed tools in the West of Scotland, the first mass strike in world history, in the struggle for political reform. Two hundred years afterwards, this hugely important event has finally found its worthy commemoration in The Fight for Scottish Democracy, by Murray Armstrong, which demolishes the myths of the Nationalists about these events. Cross the A803, walk along Petershill Road and you come to Barnhill Station at the end of the walk. Take the train home, wondering whether the planners of the 1960s and 70s, those Modern Barbarians, deliberately set out to destroy the Rome of the North, to break its heart. If so, I hope you agree, they did not succeed.

(Much more information on Springburn and its history is given in Ian’s Walking Through Glasgow’s Industrial Past, (Luath Press)

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Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

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