The barrowers

It's our version of the Paris flea market, a rich tapestry of Glasgow life which rose from the poverty of the slums which once surrounded it. The fakir might be long gone, but The Barras market is still as vibrant and varied as its colourful history. 

By Jack McLean
Publication Date: Apr 1 2001

FIRST day at Allan Glen's and Ralph Cowan was the art teacher; later I was to discover that he was a legend and one of the greatest stained glass artists of Scotland. I didn't know that then. "Draw a market," he said, "a market with vigour. A market with people in it. Draw ... life!" I came from Townhead and so I drew the only market I had ever seen. I drew The Barras. And so I drew life.

I drew stalls and old clothes and people. I drew, as best I could, old hunchbacks and peddlers in berets, beggars and musicians, a clown dressed as a harlequin with a little girl beside him, a blackamoor and a silent fakir in a turban, an old roast chestnut wagon and its vendor, a whelk stall, a florid man in an outsize checked suit, some girls in finery. I drew every romance I could think up. Mr Cowan looked at everybody's drawings and, I remember, gazed at mine and said: "Have you been looking at paintings by Picasso?" I had never heard of the Spanish painter. But I had been to The Barras. All that, I had seen there.

The Barras, the inspiration for a new comedy musical opening at the Pavilion next week, was near me; Townhead and the Calton. Properly The Barras is situated in the Calton district of Glasgow, not far from the cathedral and near the origins of the city, near the River Clyde and Glasgow Green. It was bounded by some of the most appalling slums of Europe, albeit former Georgian terraces and mansions which were later cleared by the idiots who claim to be our city fathers. The Barras was Glasgow's - even Britain's - version of the Paris flea market.

It had started off in the early 1920s, shortly after street traders had been evicted from Clyde Street, then known as the Broomielaw. And the lady who started it was Maggie McIver. When she died, aged 78, she was a multi-millionairess. But Maggie, born Margaret Russell, the daughter of a Bridgeton policeman and her mother a French polisher, was of fairly proletarian stock. She began by looking after a "cart" for a trading friend. She soon found herself selling - fruit it was then - and then began buying the fruit and retailing for profit. It was Maggie who thought up the idea of hiring out barrows to other traders and charging a small commission.

She'd married a fellow street trader, James McIver, when she had just turned 17 and, though James was an astute fellow, it was always Maggie who had the vision and, for a street girl, the remarkable business sense.

At first they rented out a variety of premises in the Calton area. Premises like Tortolini the cabinet-makers, Mary Dale's fruit shop, Maggie Diver's oyster shop, a pawnshop and the Lucky Midden, part of an old sweet factory.

Business boomed and soon the McIvers had over 300 barrows. The problem was that the clothes dealers were in difficulty because foul weather meant that they could not display their wares. The rain simply ruined the clothes. There had been a second-hand clothes market for some 50 years in Glasgow but it was a desperate business, straight out of Dickens. It was then that Maggie McIver had the big idea. She suddenly thought of a permanent site, covered. It wasn't as easy as she first thought. The site was expensive and the titles of the property were difficult to fathom.

One of the major problems was that part of the site had been the estate of the late Marion Gilchrist, about whom litigation had been fomenting for over 20 years. Miss Gilchrist is a part of Glasgow's history too, as the woman for whose murder Oscar Slater, wrongly and disgracefully, was to serve 18 years in prison.


But Margaret McIver was a very determined woman and six years after they had bought the land she had everything in hand, just in time for the Depression years. This was a good time for The Barras: what was bad for other, smart, businesses, was ideal for a flea market. In 1929 she had the property covered and the dealers, the clothes traders, the second-hand merchants, the knick-knack sellers, the peddlers, were out of the rain, and so were the customers. In an era in which money was tight, The Barras were affordable for poor folk. But in 1929, the high point of the Depression, James McIver died, succumbing to the malaria which he had contracted during the Great War. Maggie, in her 40s, was left to bring up her family of nine, with a massive estate overlooking half a mile of the east end of Glasgow.

Mrs McIver then thought up a new venture. She had regularly hired out venues for stall- holders' dinner dances. Nights out with soup and steak pie, a fair amount of illicit alcohol and a night's dancing for 13 pence a head. Glasgow was then, as now, entertainment daft. It had more cinemas per head than any other city in the world - and more dancehalls. Maggie McIver thought it needed one more. The Barrowland.

The Barrowland ballroom opened on Christmas Eve 1934 and it could have been a disaster. The drummer of the band which had been hired couldn't make it and a substitute had to be found. He was Billy MacGregor, who went on to become the leader of the resident band which served in the Barrowland for many decades. The original band had been The Bluebirds, led by - surprise, surprise - Billy Blue. The new band was Billy MacGregor and his Gaybirds. Today, doubtless this would stir up derision and homophobia though it has to be pointed out that as late as the 1960s, a popular beat group who played the Barrowland many times was Dean Ford and the Gaylords, later to find fame as Marmalade. It was a wee bit different, that era. It was a very different era indeed, the 1950s and 60s.

Let me tell you a little of The Barras I knew. Its heyday was the late 1950s, when prosperity was setting in but goods were in short supply, save for those rich enough to travel elsewhere. My father loved it and took us regularly on a Saturday or Sunday. Frankly I was a bit scared of it, the raucous traders, the derelicts and drunks, the tarts and their gaudily-clad pimps. The dreadful poverty about, high-coloured women with the pinched faces straight out of Orwell, or women older than their years, fat with cholesterol, rough roustabouts in sideburns and quiffs, sleekit- looking men in expensive suits, spivs: it was Derby Day by Frith.

Back then, at the advent of television, The Barras was street entertainment. I'm not kidding about the harlequin and his little girl. They were there, at the opposite end from Prince Abadou, a massive African who, being the first black man I'd ever seen, frightened me a lot. He sold - yes there really was such a product - snake oil. An advertisement above his head read: "From the Dark Jungles Where No White Man Has Set Foot". A tattoo artist plied his trade in an open booth while the curious looked on. There was Bert and Barry's which sold shoes (and which were subsequently to ruin my feet for ever). Bert and Barry had been seen on film and appeared on radio: they had more patter than George Robey. There were the interminable traders in china and delft, or the then new nylon fabrics, in girls dresses, cheap underwear, girls' knickers for a shilling, throw in the vest, school uniforms "straight out of Paisley's, missus". The latest in drainpipe trousers. Everything was cheaper. "I'm not asking 10 quid; I'm not asking five; Give it to you, GIVE it to you, missus, for two bar. I tell a lie, I like your face, youse kin huv it fur a wan pound note!"


Everything was cheap. Especially the music. I cannot hear an Everley Brothers record without going back to the late 1950s and thinking of The Barras. Connie Francis, Ruby Murray, Alma Cogan. The Barras was where I first heard Elvis, for this was an era when Auntie at the BBC didn't play popular music unless it was especially anodyne. But you could also find old gramophones with horns which today would end up in museums and old 78s of Nellie Melba or Clara Butt or Count John McCormick. There were stalls selling antique jewellery which the murdered Miss Gilchrist might have been killed for and for which auctioneers today would commit homicide. It was cheap, I tell you.

It was also democratic. Why did I mention school uniforms? Because in those days even those who chose to send their children to fee-paying schools, especially the less bourgeois ones like St Mungo's or Charlotte Street or Hillhead or Allan Glen's, could buy the outfit at half the price they paid in Copelands or Arnott Simpsons, let alone Paisley's or RW Forsyth's. The impoverished middle classes came to The Barras as well as the respectable working class. And they all rubbed shoulders with the underclass, with the lumpen proletariat.

Today is different. True there are those who come to gawp a little, a spot of slumming and curiosity, a diversion on a Sunday afternoon. But The Barras is still an institution, even though it is not what it was. And the Barrowland ballroom is as much of an institution as well, even if it has seen considerable vicissitudes. Its first misfortune was to be burned to the ground in 1958, the year of Maggie McIver's death. So famous had the Barrowland ballroom become that in the second world war William Joyce - Lord Haw Haw as he became known to Britons - made a broadcast in which he told the nation that Glasgow's Barrowland would welcome the German troops as they had done the French and Poles and American soldiers. This would be a wee bit unlikely.


This article appeared in the Sunday Herald 12 April 2001
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01 September 2009 16:32