BENEATH the stalwart wooden beams of the Old College Bar, believed to be Glasgow’s oldest tavern, a small group of seasoned drinkers are facing up to the prospect of another eviction. These are retired men mainly, their features wizened further by the watery daylight captured through the pub’s panelled windows. When you sup a pint of Guinness in one of the city’s most ancient howffs in the middle of its oldest street – the High Street that once swaddled the infant Glasgow – you feel you could be in a small cathedral. The conversation is conducted quietly and there are extended silences, but they are the easy silences of familiarity. On the walls there are holy pictures and icons paying homage to this city’s past and the fading glory of the High Street outside.

On the exterior wall a little plaque proclaims: “Glasgow’s Oldest Public House (built circa 1515) Ancient staging post and hostelry.” Soon it will go the way of all the other ancient hostelries on this, the city's most historic street. The owner of the building, a company called Bishop Loch, which houses the Old College Bar, is seeking planning permission to demolish it along with several other historic addresses on the High Street. It is the second time in three years it has sought to destroy these premises. Incredibly, and curiously, the building which houses the bar – despite dating back to the 16th century – does not enjoy the protection of a listed status.

The men gathered around the bar are wondering where they will go to next. Some of them had been regulars at the well-known Lamppost Pub at the mouth of Duke Street. This old tavern was sold to Glasgow Housing Association for £1 a few years ago and, in the blink of an eye, it was replaced by a bleak and hulking brick cabin which will house students. Before that some of them had drunk in the old Royal Bar opposite the Royal Infirmary at the top of the High Street. This is now a car park.

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Around and above all these old locations to the north-east of Glasgow’s city centre Strathclyde University advances and expands, consuming everything in its path. As it does so it scatters these ugly student breezeblock gulags. The numbers of winters they will withstand can be counted in decades; the buildings they replace were built to last centuries. The attitude to Glasgow’s built heritage in its most historic quarter has come to look like a grotesque version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In this instance instead of bodies being kidnapped and changed it is buildings, ancient and sometimes beautiful buildings, which are being run down.

In the Old College Bar, John Higgins says he is running out of decent pubs to meet with old chums of an occasional afternoon. The 74-year-old retired lorry driver has been a customer here for almost 50 years. “We’re being told it's going to make way for more student flats, but how much student accommodation does the High Street need? On every corner of this street they are throwing up these ugly buildings and its special character is being lost.”

The Old College Bar sits beside the British Linen Bank building, one of the most instantly recognisable buildings in Glasgow. This beautiful red sandstone edifice was built in 1895, and is renowned for its wooden turret and the statue overlooking the High Street. If the bar beside it goes it will be swamped by the cheap, angular and unlovely student units.

However, the Glasgow pub entrepreneur Colin Beattie, whose company owns the building that houses the Old College Bar, offered some hope that it might yet be preserved. "It's not over till the fat lady sings," he said. "I've spent a lot of money trying to maintain this site over the last decade or so. The pub, as it is now, bears no resemblance to what it was in its pomp. What are important are the founds underneath. I'm meeting with some agencies next week and all I'm saying is that there's a decent chance of emerging with a solution."

The developer, Structured House Group, says it would be open to retaining elements of the pub if it is given planning consent for student accommodation on the site. "The actual building itself is in too poor a condition to be retained, but there are parts of the interior which could be re-used and bring character and a bit of history to a new pub."

Even if that does happen, it looks like the end of an era for the Old College Bar.

All around this part of the street, which is home to some of the finest tenement architecture in Scotland, there are signs of decay.

The ornate facades still look magnificent but almost a third of the shop fronts on the ground floors are vacant, many of them having been derelict for up to nine years. Across the road Samantha Cooper, owner of Ladywell Healing and Crystals, is waiting for the sheriff officers to evict her from her business any week now. Ms Cooper is chairwoman and co-founder of the Glasgow High Street Merchants' Association. This was established four years ago by traders acting out of sheer desperation at what she and others claim is a deliberate policy by Glasgow City Council to isolate and run down these buildings. There is a deep suspicion among the members of the merchants' association that this policy is being advanced for the sole purpose of accelerating the process of turning the district into a soulless student dormitory.

Cooper says eviction papers have been served on her because she has been vociferous in speaking out about what she regards as wilful neglect by the council. “My partner Andrew and I have ploughed most of our life savings into this business but we lost half of it owing to the ruinous rot and decay at the back of the premises which housed our counselling and therapy suites.

“When we took out the lease we were not shown the back courts which were in a run-down, almost medieval state. Then we discovered there were similar problems with many other small business tenants around here."

On the other hand, the council’s various agencies blame tenants and past factors and accuse them of not meeting their own responsibilities.

Cooper says: “We’ve been caught in a vice over which property agency is responsible for repairs. City Property [the company created by Glasgow City Council to manage its properties] appointed Ryden as its commercial partner and the Glasgow Housing Association is also in the mix. Of course Glasgow City Council is ultimately responsible but you can’t help thinking they set up these so-called arms-length companies as the perfect means to evade direct responsibility and to tie ordinary people up in knots.”

She claims that life is so difficult for them that they will be forced out as a result. “It’s social cleansing,” she said. “They have increased rents for the shops in this part of the High Street to up to 50 per cent in some cases and that has resulted in several properties lying empty and the whole area being disfigured by To Let signs.”

There is a widely-shared suspicion that in a few years only the listed tenement facades will remain and behind them yet more multiple student hives will appear as part of a grand plan to turn this site into a vast concrete extension of Strathclyde University.

Already, the skyline in parts is blotted out by block after formless block of student flats. There is gold in the huge market of affluent overseas students who are paying tens of thousands of pounds a year for their degrees and for whom a stiff rent for living in the concrete jungle of the newly-designated Collegelands, just off the High Street, would not present a problem.

Across the road Gordon Jennens runs an established electrical business. He echoes many of Cooper’s concerns. “One of the problems is that they keep changing the terms of the lease and divesting themselves of more and more responsibility. Many people around here have been willing to put their life savings into their businesses but the prohibitive and, frankly, bizarre nature of some of the leases prevents people from doing so. Even so, some people, like Samantha, have already lost a lot of money and parts of their businesses because nobody at an official level seems to be taking responsibility for essential repairs and maintenance.”

Following seven years of pain, Samantha Cooper is still waiting for someone at Glasgow City Council or their multifarious arms-length companies or their partners to answer questions, such as: why weren't tenants consulted on changes to custom and practice when new leases made tenants liable for historic issues such as rot. After all, City Property admitted that the condition of the properties they "bought" from Glasgow City Council was a "concern".

Vivid photographs and a very graphic short film show where a river of raw sewage ran beneath many of the properties on Cooper’s side of the High Street. It had been running unchecked for decades and is thought to be responsible for much of the rot that has been infesting many of the buildings.

A petition with 5,000 signatures was handed in to the City Chambers but the council, it seems, is still hiding behind its arms-length companies headed by career executives pulling down six-figure salaries and squeezing every ounce of profit from communities such as the High Street.

“Morale here is as bad as I’ve ever known it and much of that is due to the vacant shop fronts and the massive and sudden hike in rents,” Cooper says. “For years we have been trying to engage with the agencies who have made life so difficult here. City Property has simply point-blank refused to visit and engage with the tenants. They hide behind glib statements about 'market values' and surveys that point to 'satisfaction' among tenants. Yet they know and we know that many tenants destroyed their surveys in disgust. We simply want them to treat us like human beings and come out here and listen to our concerns. What are they afraid of?”

City Property insists, though, that it has acted in good faith. In response to some of the complaints they said in a statement: “At the time when we purchased the portfolio from the council, there were no changes to the leases, or the terms or liabilities placed on the tenants. Consequently as there was no change there was no need for consultation. City Property regarded the leases the council had put in place as good practice, and have subsequently followed that style when issuing new leases since 2010. Unfortunately, some of the properties at High Street are in a poor condition because of a previous lack of investment by the factor and the tenants.

“Vacant units in any high street are not a new phenomenon. It is a challenge for both the public and private sector. However, City Property is committed to assisting small businesses, by offering properties to let on a competitive basis."

The tenants on the High Street are concerned about more than their own businesses. Most of them are knowledgeable about the history that lives in the stones of this place. The High Street was the birthplace of Glasgow and many of the city’s first and oldest are evident if you know where to look. A golden, historic mile stretches from Glasgow Cathedral at the top of the street, which stands guard over one of Scotland’s biggest graveyards, down to Glasgow Green on the banks of the Clyde.

To take a walk down this street is to take a dip in this city’s deep and gnarled story. Between the Old College Bar and the British Linen Bank are the ancient stone cobbles of Nicholas Street, the last intact example of the old vennels which once existed here. Just beyond that are the rescued stones of an ancient well, thought to date back to beyond the medieval period and now gathered into an artistic constellation.

Provand’s Lordship, the oldest house in Glasgow, is here and the shadows of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Mary, Queen of Scots and Oliver Cromwell once fell on the High Street. At the foot, where it gives way to Glasgow Cross, is the old Trongate clock tower where Saint John Ogilvie was martyred. City Property claims to be sympathetic to concerns about preserving the historical integrity of the High Street. “We consider the historic shops on High Street to be one of the most culturally valuable parts of the property portfolio, and would be supportive if the city was to raise this as part of a wider tourism strategy or area regeneration. We acknowledge that the condition of the properties was a matter of concern when we bought them from the council and unfortunately this position has not significantly improved.

“City Property is committed to work in conjunction with tenants to improve the premises. City Property continues to work with the factor to address issues.” The company also denied there had been a blanket 20 per cent increase in rents but said that “each rent review is considered on its own merits and any increase will be based on comparable market evidence”.

The High Street is the gateway to the east end of Glasgow and those districts which endured the birth-pangs of a city that’s always been in a hurry. The thought persists that Glasgow has missed a golden opportunity to make something much more of the streets that surround the old High Street, the place in which is interred most of its earliest known history.

I also depart in the knowledge that this wouldn’t have happened in Edinburgh or Glasgow’s anointed west end. As ever in Glasgow it is the people and the communities of its northern and eastern approaches which are compelled to bear the brunt of its dubious improvements and resettlements.