Glasgow didn’t have any history before the Industrial Revolution – or at least I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what many people thought. It’s true of course that it developed into a major city during the Victorian era, but it might surprise some people to learn that it was founded way back in the 6th century when a missionary called St. Mungo built a church at a place called Glas Gu (meaning ‘Green Place’).
If you haven’t heard of St. Mungo then perhaps you’ve heard of St. Kentigern, who just happens to be the same man. The difference in name is down to which branch of the Celtic language you believe the name originates from, but as we’re in Scotland I think we should call him Mungo. It seems that he was born in Culross, Fife, but the date of his birth isn’t quite so clear.
Talking about dates from this period is notoriously unreliable, but most accounts suggest that Mungo was around 25 years of age when he established his mission at the spot where Glasgow Cathedral now stands.
Like most missionaries, he led a humble existence, but for any self-respecting preacher of God’s word to become a saint they would need to perform a miracle or two – and Mungo managed four, which are recounted in the poem below.
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
A brief explanation is as follows: –
The bird was a robin which he brought back to life
The tree was used to restart a fire that he had let go out
The bell was an object he brought back from Rome
The fish was where the ring of Queen Languoreth was found
You’re all probably thinking the same as me, and I can expand on these miracles if you wish, but I suspect you’ve heard enough already. The reason I’ve gone to the trouble of telling you all this is because these four miracles are incorporated into Glasgow’s coat of arms, and St. Mungo is recognised as the city’s founder and patron saint. So now you know!
St. Mungo died on 13th January, but which year is still open to question. Some say it was 614 A.D but the Cathedral says it was 603. How they know the day but not the year I’m not quite sure but that’s the day he is remembered every year. The dates of his birth and death may be open to debate, but there’s not much disagreement about where he was buried, and as you’ve probably already guessed, it was right here where Glasgow Cathedral now stands – or more precisely, in a plot under the crypt.
At the time of St Mungo’s death, the present church wasn’t here of course, but his burial site soon became a shrine for pilgrims, and by the 12th century it was decided to build a more fitting resting place. A new stone church was built, and on 7th July 1136 it was dedicated in his name. Unfortunately, not long afterwards it was destroyed by fire but a replacement was built and consecrated in 1197. During the 13th century it was substantially enlarged, and also amazingly survived the 16th century Reformation. According to the official guidebook, Glasgow Cathedral is the “only medieval cathedral on the Scottish mainland to survive virtually complete”. If you didn’t realise that, then don’t feel too guilty about it, because neither did I.
My tour of the Cathedral was cut short by a ceremonial occasion, but I saw enough to realise that there was more to this church than I realised. It’s true that the Gothic architecture could do with a bit of a clean-up and a bit more light, but when all’s said and done, it’s not just an unexpected medieval gem, but also the place where Glas Gu was born – whatever date it was.