Sunday 20 September 2015

Religious Sites of Glasgow. Doors Open Day 2015

Glasgow Doors Open Day, 2015

The annual "Doors Open Day" in Glasgow has been running for 26 years now. Organised by the Glasgow Buildings Preservation Trust it aims to celebrate the architecture, history and people of the city by public talks, walks and open access to many buildings normal closed to the public. This year, endeavouring to see some buildings which I haven't previously visited I seem to have ended up going to several religious buildings for a change. Despite these buildings being such prominent parts of the city skyline I had never before been inside the Glasgow Central Mosque, the 'Greek' Thomson designed St Vincent Street Church or the Catholic St Andrew's Cathedral down by the Clyde. So this is what I saw, arranged for no particular reason chronologically by their religion's origins. Religious bigotry and sectarianism has an ugly history in the west of Scotland, and I have avoided taking any interest in religion, so I apologise in advance for any wild factual inaccuracies in what follows.

Tallits, Jewish prayer shawls


Garnethill Synagogue, Glasgow
Judaism is usually dated back to the times of the Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, over 3000 years ago. Widespread throughout Europe in the modern era, the earliest records of Jewish people in Scotland come from the 1600s. The first openly Jewish graduate of the University of Glasgow was Levi Myers in 1787, forty-eight years after the earliest university graduate in Scotland, Jakob de Castro Sarmento qualified in medicine from Aberdeen in 1739.  The first person buried within the newly laid out Glasgow Necropolis was Joseph Levi, a quill merchant who died of cholera in 1832. This was because the Jewish community of the city contributed to the fundraising when the necropolis was being created, and a Jewish section was designed within it. In the early twentieth century larger numbers of Jewish immigrants arrived in Glasgow, escaping persecution in Europe and Russia. Like the Irish and Italian immigrants to Glasgow they lived in large numbers in the Gorbals area of the city. Glasgow's first synagogue apparently dates from 1823, on High Street. It moved several times before finding a permanent home in Garnethill in 1879 in Scotland's first purpose-built synagogue.

The words carved in Hebrew above the door are from Deuteronomy and translate as "God alone let him, and there was no strange God with him". I am not sure how the calculation works, but apparently the numerical value of the Hebrew letters used in this verse adds up to the date of the foundation of the building.

Inside the Garnethill Synagogue, Glasgow
So, donning the yarmulke I was given at the door to cover my head, I stepped inside. It is strange that I have visited synagogues before on holiday, but never actually been in one in Glasgow. It contains a strange mixture of familiar Victorian Glasgow architecture mixed with exotic extras, evident straight away from the floor tiles in the entrance hallway.

Floor tiles
Downstairs there was an interesting Scottish Jewish Archive Centre, where a group of local Muslim women were having their numerous questions answered.


The Christian church can be dated back to the followers of Jesus Christ and the term 'Catholic' was used from about 110AD. After the East-West schism of 1054 the Eastern church became known as "Orthodox" and followers of the Bishop of Rome "Catholic". In Glasgow St Mungo is said to have founded his church in the 7th century at the site of the Glasgow Cathedral on Castle Street. From the 12th century this was the seat of the bishop of Glasgow and became an archdiocese of the Catholic Church in 1492. In the late 16th century Glasgow Cathedral was one of the few churches which was not destroyed during the Scottish Reformation and passed into use as a Protestant church. The current Catholic Cathedral of Glasgow, St Andrew's Cathedral, was designed in 1814 by James Gillespie Graham. It lies in the city centre on the north bank of the River Clyde, almost overwhelmed by a modern day cathedral of commerce, the St Enoch's Shopping Centre, which sits behind it. Saint Enoch was a saint of medieval Glasgow, the mother of Saint Mungo (or Kentigern as he is also known).

Saint Andrew's Cathedral, Glasgow
From the time of the Scottish Reformation in 1560 until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1791, which restored the freedom of worship, Roman Catholics in Glasgow had to worship covertly.  With industrialisation in the city and increasing numbers of Catholics arriving in Glasgow from the Highlands and from Ireland it was decided to build a church for their use. The Catholic church to St Andrew was completed at this site on Clyde Street in 1816. This was not a trouble-free construction, with saboteurs damaging the nascent building at night in the early stages, requiring guards to be employed to protect the construction site initially.

Interior of Saint Andrew's Cathedral, Glasgow
A major renovation project was undertaken between 2009-2011 with new artwork commissioned and the construction of a cloister memorial garden to Italian Scots who died aboard the Arandora Star. This ship was torpedoed and sunk in 1940 whilst carrying "enemy aliens" during the war. Of the 734 Italians on board, 486 died.

As well as St Mungo establishing his church on Castle Street in Glasgow of the 7th century, St Constantine had arrived maybe 100 years earlier, about 500AD, and established a wooden church at Govan. With Glasgow only a small town at this time, Govan was a completely separate hamlet for centuries. The first Govan church was built beside a ceremonial hill and sacred well. The people here were Britons, different from their neighbouring Picts and Scots and Govan means "little hill" in their language. Ironically the hill in Govan no longer exists, as it was flattened in making the industrial Govan we know from the 20th century, to make space for the sheds of the Harland and Wolff shipbuilding company. The kingdom of the Clyde Britons was controlled from Dumbarton (Dun Breatann meaning "fort of the Britons") and was a powerful kingdom in the British Isles after defeating the Scots of Dalraida. In 756 the combined Picts and Nothumbrians ford the Clyde at Govan and defeat the Britons at Dumbarton. The early church in Govan is at the site of what is now called Govan Old Parish Church. Although I have previously read about the Govan Stones, I had never gone to see them before. The church is home to many famous early medieval stones, carved between the 9th and 11th century. One of the earliest is a beautiful stone sarcophagus from around 850AD, carved from a single block of stone.

Carving on the Govan Sarcophagus

Norse Paganism

After a four month siege in 870AD Vikings destroyed the fortress at Dumbarton. The king of the Britons is killed. A new king is appointed and moves up river, becoming based at Govan and a new name appears for the kingdom, "king of the Britons of Srath ClĂșade (Strathclyde)". The other stones found in Govan Old Parish Church come from the period 900-1100AD.

Five carved Norse "Hogback" stones in Old Gorbals Parish Church
These include carved recumbent stones, free-standing crosses and Norse 'hogbacks'. The hogback stones are usually associated with Viking settlement and suggest that over this period high status Vikings were living in this area. Although Vikings had their own pagan beliefs, in Denmark and Sweden they converted largely to Christianity in the 11th and 12th century. To which gods the Vikings of Govan prayed may never be known.

The 'sun stone'
Around 1000AD the kings of Strathclyde have their palace across the river Clyde in Partick, but worship in the old church of St Constantine at Govan, and use the hill to the east of the church for ceremonial purposes. Their royal graves are in the churchyard at Govan. Around 1050 King David I conquers the kingdom of Strathclyde and takes it into his Scottish kingdom. The importance of Govan fades as he bases religious activity in the cathedral in Glasgow. The royal lands at Partick are taken over by the bishops of Glasgow. Over 500 years the village of Govan grows up around Govan Cross. A new church is built and the gravestones from this time show the trades of the contemporary local residents.

Gravestone in Govan churchyard. Date looks like 1690
After the Scottish Reformation of the 16th century the church here became run as a Protestant church. The village of Govan continued to get bigger and in 1864 was made into a Burgh, with its own administration. Soon the church was felt to be too small for its needs and was replaced with the current building, constructed between 1884-1888. Over the next 50 years Govan continues to boom and grow with the arrival of shipbuilding. The growing town was annexed to Glasgow in 1912. In the same year Harland and Wolff buy three small shipyards and flatten the Doomster Hill to build their slipways and huge worksheds.

Current Old Govan Parish Church
A notable minister of the Govan Old Parish Church from 1930 was Rev George MacLeod. Disillusioned with post-war Britain after the first World War and concerned over social inequality in Scotland he became a Socialist and an active member of the Peace Pledge Union. He resigned his position in Govan in 1938 and set up the Iona Community.

Former fitting out basin of Harland and Wolff,
across the Clyde from the current Museum of Transport


Muslims follow the Islamic faith, a monotheistic Abrahamic faith which originated in Arabia. The Qur'an is the holy book for Muslims, which was revealed to the prophet Muhammed over 23 years by the angel Gabriel. Muhammed lived from about 570AD - 632AD.

Although many more may have been undocumented, the first Muslim known to live in Scotland was a medical student from Bombay, Wazir Beg, in Edinburgh in 1858. Manufacturing and trade in Glasgow meant that many Muslims arrived in the city working as lascars or sailors. Records from the Glasgow Sailors Home on the Broomielaw from 1903 show that at that time nearly a third of the 5500 boarders were Muslim lascars. Immigrants from South East Asia, particularly Pakistan, in the late 20th century increased the Scottish Muslim population to about 1.4% of the population by 2011. More recent immigrants from Africa, Afghanistan and the Balkans have added to the diversity of this population. The first purpose built mosque in Glasgow opened its doors in 1984.

Glasgow Central Mosque
I have visited some of the smaller mosques of Glasgow before but this was my first visit to the Glasgow Central Mosque, just south of the River Clyde at the edge of the Gorbals. It is one of the most recognisable buildings in the city with its dome illuminated at night and its prominent minaret. The majority of early Muslim immigrants to Glasgow, like the Irish, Jews and Italians before them, lived in the Gorbals area of the city where the mosque was later built. The main hall can accommodate 2,500 people at prayer and will be busy later this week with Eid marking the end of the Hajj.

Inside Glasgow Central Mosque

Taken on a tour of the building, with its adjacent community centre, our Malcolm X quoting guide was at pains repeatedly to clarify misconceptions about Islam. It is clear that some Muslims can feel at times there are constant media reports of their perceived role in all the problems round the world, causing misunderstanding and fear. When he talked about the un-Islamic actions of those fighting their fellow Muslims in Syria just now, it was hard not to see echoes of this in accusations down through the centuries within several other religions. It seems to me that most wars and battles fought in the name of a religion tend to be about power, resources and land once you break it down rather than a battle of ideals. This is the same whether talking about ISIS in the Middle East, the Christian Crusades, the Rough Wooing of Mary Queen of Scots, King Billy and the Battle of The Boyne, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Troubles in Northern Ireland... Take your pick.

Not remembered in the current portrayal of Islam are the contributions Muslim thinkers have given to the world, particularly in science, medicine and mathematics. You only need to think about the origins of the words algorithm, algebra and alchemy to see where they originated.


The Christian church in Scotland means many different things to different people. The Church of Scotland website has an "Historical Directory To Glasgow Presbytery" listing the changes in parishes and churches over the years in the city and it runs to 360 pages if you have an interest in this. The roots of the Church of Scotland date back to the Scottish Reformation of 1560, led amongst others by John Knox, whose statue looks out over Glasgow from a pillar atop the Necropolis behind Glasgow Catherdral. He established a Protestant church on Calvinist principles.

Glasgow Cathedral
Glasgow Cathedral is one of the few medieval churches that survived the Reformation and the current building dates back to the 12th century, allegedly on the site where St Mungo (a.k.a. St Kentigern) built his church in the 7th century. If you want to get an impression of how close it came to being destroyed during the Reformation look at the bullet riddled door in the Sacristy from this time. It was saved because the organised trades of the city took up arms to defend it from the mob intent on bringing it down. The defenders outnumbered the attackers and it survived, "cleansed of its Catholic trappings". The University of Glasgow was founded at this site too, within the precinct of the cathedral in 1451, before later moving west in the city. 
St Vincent Street Church, Glasgow
In contrast to the austere, gothic medieval cathedral, the Glasgow City Free Church have their home in one of the most grand and beautiful creations of famous Glasgow architect Alexander "Greek" Thomson. At the time he rejected the popular Gothic Revival style of many of his contemporary architects, getting his inspiration from Greek Classical styles. Built in 1859 for the former United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the St Vincent Street Church is currently used by a congregation of the Free Church of Scotland. It is the only one of the three churches Thomson designed which is still in tact.

Interior of St Vincent Street Church, Glasgow
Here you can see the interior which he designed for it too, full of light and space. the decorative motifs inside are more flamboyant than would normally be acceptable in a Presbyterian church. It is so sad to see the empty shell of the Greek Thomson designed Caledonia Road Church sitting in the Gorbals, with its interior destroyed by fire in the 1960s.

Another church that I visited on the Doors Open Day was also commissioned by the Free Church using an innovative Glasgow architect. In 1896 the Free Church of St Matthew, Glasgow commissioned a new church and hall from architects Honeyman and Keppie. The job was allocated to their young, talented, trainee architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Architectural drawings for the Queens Cross Church
Following the beliefs of their religion the design had to be simple, yet Mackintosh managed to handle this beautifully, producing a distinctive, charming, warm and functional building. Queens Cross Church is one I pass whenever I head to see Partick Thistle, whose ground lies just behind the church. Built between 1898 and 1899 it was the only church he designed.
The nave of the Queens Cross Church, Glasgow
 In 1929 the Free Church was reunited with the Church of Scotland, which took over ownership of the Queens Cross church. In 1976 with a declining congregation, the church merged with Ruchill Church and vacated the building, which has become the headquarters of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society.

Mackintosh designed pulpit in Queens Cross Church
In this building Mackintosh designed the interior artwork and fittings too, right down to the communion table, alms dishes and armchairs. His distinctive designs can be seen on the wood carvings of the pulpit.


Topped with their golden domes, there have been two distinctive new additions to the Glasgow skyline in recent years. The first purpose-build Sikh Gurdwara in Scotland opened its doors in 2013, in Polloksheilds beside the Tramway. Another new Gurdwara will also soon be opening soon in Glasgow on Berkeley Street, opposite the Henry Wood Halls. 

Glasgow Gurdwara on Albert Drive, behind the Tramway's 'Hidden Garden'
Sikhism was founded in the Punjab region of India in the 15th century. It is based on the teachings of Guru Nanak (the first Guru) and the ten successive Sikh Gurus. Now the book of Sikh scripture is the Guru and is treated with great respect. The first documented Sikhs living in Scotland are from 1854 in Perthshire. Sikhs date the first Glaswegian Sikhs to the 1920s when a Gurdwara was established in South Portland Street. Further immigration in the later 20th century means that Sikhs now make up 0.2% of the Scottish population, with the largest population being in Glasgow. In the synagogue I had my head covered, in the mosque I had taken my shoes off to enter the prayer hall. Here my head was covered and shoes off to enter the Gurdwara. Our young guide told us with obvious enthusiasm about Sikhism and the Gurdwara and encouraged us to visit the free food kitchen, or Langar, an important part of any Gurdwara.


Although their place of celebration was not open during the Doors Open Day, it seems only fair to also mention the Glasgow Hindu Mandir. Hinduism contains a broad range of philosophies and religious cultures and has many deities. It dates to the 6th century BCE and is the religion followed by the majority of people in India and Nepal. The majority of Hindus in Scotland arrived in the second half of the 20th century, many escaping Idi Amin's Uganda in the 1970s. Hindus now make up 0.3% of the Scottish population. I have previously been in the Hindu Mandir Glasgow building at Belle Place, near Kelvingrove Park, for a wedding which was a very laid back, friendly and colourful event. Unfortunately you will have to make do with a photo of the outside which I took when I passed it on my bike today.

Hindu Mandir Glasgow

In Glasgow I think we are now getting away from the days when the first question a stranger (or someone interviewing you for a job) asked was "what school did you go to?" to work out if you were a Catholic or a Protestant. However we are far from being a city that can preach to anyone about religious tolerance. I sadly think that we are defining people more and more by religion. There is talk of the Muslim population or Jewish community. Religion is only one aspect of a people's culture. I am not a great fan of defining people or a population by their religious views and each religion has a spectrum of differing perspectives and beliefs. Scottish Christians can be a member of the Roman Catholic, Scottish Episcopal, Free Church, United Free Church, Church of Scotland, Free Presbyterian Church, Associated Free Presbyterian Church or the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland. That's just our local ones. People living in the same street, or working in the same factory have much more in common with each other than do a businessman and a shop worker of the same religion.

A lot of people, particularly immigrants, feel a cultural link and connection with a religion. The rituals and celebrations their parents and grandparents enjoyed. I am an atheist but still enjoy rolling eggs down a hill with my children at Easter. I understand the symbolism of it and remember doing it as a child with my own parents, but I don't define myself as a Christian. The diversity of religious institutions in Glasgow that I have visited this weekend just reflects the diversity of Glasgow's immigrants over centuries. From Norsemen to Lithuanians, people from the Punjab and Sri Lanka, Scottish Highlanders, Italians and Irish.

I know it sounds corny to end this way but I agree with the city's current slogan that "People Make Glasgow" and I religion is a small part of the culture of those people, if they wish. So I finished my day in Dowanhill Church, built in 1865. I admired the work of the artist Daniel Cottier who designed its interior, the craftsmen that erected the building and those restoring it. I then had a nice pint of beer and some lunch and wondered if the day will come when all the places I saw today will become museums, theatres, community centres, restaurants and bars.
Cottiers Bar and Theatre, Glasgow

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