Glasgow, one of Britain’s great cities and Scotland’s largest, is famous for many things; but probably not for its cathedral. Indeed, at first glance, Glasgow Cathedral appears a little drab compared with some of its squeaky-cleaned up, maybe wealthier, siblings elsewhere; there is not much trace of a busy, comfort-blanketing close, or precinct, as you would find in many cathedral cities; and it is dwarfed by the imposing, faded, Edwardian bulk of the neighbouring Glasgow Royal Infirmary – which was built on the ruins of Glasgow’s (Bishop’s) Castle. Even the cathedrals in England’s and Wales’ smallest cities, Wells and St Davids respectively, seem superficially more impressive than Glasgow’s. Situated on a busy road that discourages casual pedestrians, a stranger in town might find it easy to pass by and head onto the Buchanan Shopping Centre to worship at the shrine of the god Retail.
Yet Glasgow Cathedral was the hub for the foundation of the city, and one of the few medieval churches in Scotland to have survived the Reformation in good condition. The University of Glasgow can trace its roots back to classes held in the Cathedral during the 15th century. Beneath the coating of industrial grime, which symbolises the city’s socio-economic story, is a fine Gothic building, with a splendid spire and striking copper-covered roof. Built on sloping ground, underneath the main church is an extraordinary under-church, a unique, fascinating and quite large, vaulted space. There is some wonderful stained glass – not least the millennium window in the north wall of the nave – and military and civil memorials litter the place, reminders of the part the cathedral has played at the heart of a community, which in turn has been at the heart of a nation.
It is believed that St Ninian, the man who brought Christianity to Scotland, established a burial ground in 397AD at Cathures in the Celtic Kingdom of Strathclyde. Sometime in the mid-6th century, St Kentigern (aka St Mungo, which means “dear friend”) called in at Cathures, bringing with him (as you do) the corpse of Fergus, a holy man, who he buried there. Mungo – or Kentigern – renamed the spot Glasgui – “dear green place” (some sources say Gleschu, or Clas Gu – translated as “dear family”) and established a church on the site. No trace of this building, which was undoubtedly made of wood, has been found; but it is reputed to lie somewhere under the Cathedral. Mungo’s tomb, by tradition, is in the lower church, immediately beneath the altar: Glasgow Cathedral is dedicated to him and he is also the patron saint of Glasgow as well as the generally acknowledged founder of the city.
Mungo lived from c528 – 614AD. Like most illusive figures from Britain’s shadowy past, he has an intriguing mythology. For a start, he is reputed to have royal roots, albeit unconventional ones. According to legend, his mother was a princess, Teneu, (variations include Denw, Theneva, Thanea and Enoch, a derivative of St Teneu), daughter of King Lleuddun, or possibly King Lot, or Loth, of Lothian or the people called the Gododdin, in what is now Southern Scotland. Teneu was seduced (or raped) by Owain mab Urien, King of Rheged (modern Cumbria), and became pregnant. Bizarrely, Lleuddun ordered that she be thrown from the top of Traprain Law, a 724 foot high volcanic rock and ancient site in East Lothian. Perhaps, he reasoned that a daughter in her condition was no longer of any value; who knows? Anyway, somehow the unfortunate Teneu survived, was cast adrift in a coracle on the River Forth and came ashore at Culross. Here, she was befriended by St Serf, who ran the local monastery, and Kentigern-Mungo was born shortly after. The name of Teneu lives on in St Enoch Square and shopping centre, built over the site where a chapel was once dedicated to her.
Apparently, apart from a spell away in Wales (where he met St David), making an obligatory pilgrimage to Rome, and spreading the Word in what is now Galloway, Mungo spent most of his austere adult life in Glasgow. His visitors included St Columba and he lived in a simple hut, reputed to have been built adjacent to a spring, or well. It has been speculated that this well was a sacred place in older times, but it has been known for centuries as St Kentigern’s Well. It can be found today in the under-church Chapel of St John the Evangelist and was once a place of pilgrimage, along with Mungo’s shrine.
Outside the Cathedral are wonderful lampposts which feature four symbols, a bird, tree, bell and fish, which appear in the City of Glasgow’s coat of arms, as well as those of Glasgow University, and which are associated with four miracles St Mungo is said to have performed.
The tree – Mungo was in charge of a fire in Saint Serf’s monastery. He fell asleep and the fire went out (or was put out by his irritating friends). Mungo took a handy hazel branch and prayed over it, causing it to burst into flames so that he could relight the fire.
The bell – Mungo is said to have brought back a bell from Rome (makes a change from models of the Colosseum or a nice bottle of Chianti), which according to legend was used in services until being replaced in 1641. The latter bell is now in the People’s Palace Museum.
The fish – King Riderch of Strathclyde suspected his Queen, Languoreth, of infidelity. He had previously given her a ring as a present, but believed she had given it to her lover; so he demanded to see it, threatening her with death if she couldn’t do so. In fact, Riderch had taken the ring from Languoreth’s sleeping lover and thrown it in the River Clyde. The Queen, apparently guilty as charged, pleaded for help from Mungo, who dispatched a monk to do a spot of fishing. The monk duly came back with a nice, plump, salmon and gave it to Mungo, who cut it open and found the ring, thereby obliging the King to accept his wife’s innocence.
An old verse is used to remember Mungo’s miracles, though, given the stories above, it doesn’t make a lot of sense:
Here is the bird that never flew;
Here is the tree that never grew;
Here is the bell that never rang;
Here is the fish that never swam.
So much for Mungo. Skipping forward four or five hundred years, the first stone church on the Cathedral’s site is believed to have been dedicated in the presence of King David I in 1136, though this was destroyed by fire and a new building was consecrated by Bishop Jocelin in 1197. Jocelin (c1130s-1199), by all accounts, was an interesting character – at the centre of occasionally uncertain relations between Scotland and England and successful in ensuring that the Bishopric of Glasgow would never be subordinate to York. He was also instrumental in establishing Glasgow Fair, which is still marked as a holiday today.
Glasgow Cathedral was extended in the early 13th century and largely completed by the 14th. The Reformation cut the ties with the Roman Catholic Church in 1560, the trappings of ‘popery’ were removed and, in 1689, bishops were abolished. In fact, since then, technically, the Cathedral has not been a cathedral…but when a group of protestant zealots tried to completely wreck it during the Reformation, they were fortunately outnumbered by rational trades people and other citizens. Even so, after the Reformation the Cathedral was divided up for three different congregations and earth was actually brought into the lower church to be used for burials. Sanity was restored in the 19th century and, since about 1835, the Cathedral has been used more or less for its intended purpose.
I was particularly keen to visit the Cathedral for its associations with Bishop Robert Wishart (1371-1316), sometimes known as ‘the Battling Bishop’, patriotic figure in the wars of independence with the English, and friend to both William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. His much dilapidated effigy is in the lower church, on what might be his tomb. Up topsides, the 15th century carved stone ‘pulpitum’, or ‘quire screen’, which separates the choir from the nave, is unusual and strangely fascinating; there are figures at the top which are thought to represent the Seven Deadly Sins – lust, gluttony, avarice, wrath, envy, sloth and pride (just in case you need to catch up). I particularly loved the upper chapter house, which is not stunning, architecturally, but a simple, relaxing, room with its fireplace, plain furniture and beautiful tiled floor.
Overall, Glasgow Cathedral is a gem – the nave, by the way, is full of bewitching light. A particular feature, though, has to be the 15th century Blacader Aisle, built by Archbishop Blacader (or Blackadder), who was Bishop, and then Archbishop when the see was elevated, from 1484 until his death in 1508. The Aisle – it’s really a chapel – is on what is believed to be the site of Mungo’s first church. It is painted white and has intriguing, highly coloured, carved stone bosses – faces, fruit, all sorts – set into the ceiling. And Blacader was another interesting, influential, historical figure – an experienced diplomat, he was instrumental in the marriage between James IV of Scotland and Margaret, eldest daughter of Henry VII of England, which was a cornerstone of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace of 1502 – and which James swore to uphold in Glasgow Cathedral. Whilst the peace unfortunately did not last, the marriage provided the foundation of the union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603, when James and Margaret’s grandson, James VI of Scotland, also became James I of England.
And I’m sure that Archbishop Blacader thought that was a cunning plan.