IT'S hard to imagine, Ian R Mitchell says enthusiastically as he paces the quiet, mid-morning, midweek streets of Glasgow's Pollokshaws, what it was like here, a century ago.

Street-level politics was a big thing, back then. It was a form of open-air entertainment in an area dominated by churches and pubs. There would be political campaigners, and religious revivalists, and people who spoke out urgently against the perils of alcohol. Hundreds of people would turn up to hear them - and, sometimes, to heckle.

Few if any of these speakers are remembered today, though, adds Mitchell, an author and historian. "But there's one who is still famous. John Maclean." Maclean was a Pollokshaws boy, through and through. He was born here, at 59 King Street, in August 1879, when the place was but a village. Everything he needed was a few minutes' walk away: his school (Pollok Academy), the shops where he worked as a message boy, his family's church, the library where he pored over books. He was politically active here. He taught here (amongst other places). When his father died, he moved with his mother to another house near his first home.

But times have changed. Pollokshaws has changed, and the changes it has faced have been mirrored in communities across Scotland. Mitchell is fascinated by how cities develop and change, sometimes abruptly. What interests him are the universal stories that impact on people's lives. In some ways, the stories of one small community, such as Pollokshaws, tell a bigger story about urban decline and renewal.

Like many towns and cities across Scotland, industry has declined in Pollokshaws, buildings have made way for other buildings that were in their turn demolished. Maclean himself, an untiring opponent of the slaughter of the Great War, a former Consul for Soviet Affairs in Scotland, died in extreme poverty on St Andrew's Day, 1923, at 42 Auldhouse Road, a few streets away from where he had been born. "He died of pneumonia after suffering hard labour in Peterhead Prison, force feeding and poverty through loss of his teaching job," says the website of the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement.

Mitchell is an Aberdonian, but he has lived in Glasgow in 1973 - coincidentally, the same year in which a cairn in Maclean's memory was unveiled. He quickly fell in love with the city. Like Maclean, he is an inveterate walker. His latest book reflects both pursuits. Walking Through Glasgow's Industrial Past, it's called. The opening chapter is on Pollokshaws.

"In large measure," Mitchell says as we meet up outside Pollokshaws West railway station, "the story of Pollokshaws is the story of Maxwell and Maclean, the laird and the Bolshevik.

"This was almost a pocket burgh of the Maxwells'. They were so important in the community up until 1912, when the 'Shaws was annexed to Glasgow. They owned most of the land around here and a lot of their wealth came from the industry here and from nearby mining, rather than from agriculture.

"The Maxwells were very important patrons of the burgh. Sir John Maxwell, the 10th Bart, was on the council, the education committee, all these sort of things. It was almost like a feudal relationship between the landowner and the burgh, right into the early 20th century.

"Some of the buildings that are left - because a lot have gone, unfortunately - he either commissioned or contributed towards the building costs. That idea of patronage was very common at that time.

"But a lot of fine buildings in the 'Shaws have disappeared," he continues. "Not a lot of people know this, but there was an Alexander Greek Thomson-designed school, on a piece of waste ground next to the burgh hall. It was only demolished in the 1960s. That was Maclean's primary school. One of the teachers was James Maxton's father [Maxton of course being another 'Shaws boy and Red Clydesider, and MP for Bridgeton]. That demolition was the kind of thing that went on in those days without a second's thought."

Has there been an unwillingness to recognise Maclean? Mitchell ponders his answer. "In some ways I'm surprised, in the centenary of the First World War, that there's been less attention paid to the people who opposed the war. Most of the stuff I've seen has been about the combat and the home front ... but we're a century away from the year when Maclean was sacked from his school job and his evening class for his opposition to the war.

"Hopefully, as time goes by ... he's an important historical figure whom I would like not to see being airbrushed out of the whole picture."

The 'Shaws was once known for its textiles industry, which exploited the water power of the White Cart and Auldhouse Burn. An observer as long ago as 1799 came across "two cotton-mills, a printfield, and several bleachfields." Other industries, other factories, followed, in time.

"There were very few tenements here," says Mitchell. "Mainly, it was a pre-industrial place with a lot of pre-industrial housing. It was a very poor slum area in terms of its housing, and probably more than anywhere else in Glasgow. When the comprehensive redevelopment came, in the 1960s, the 'Shaws almost disappeared, apart from a couple of buildings, right out on the edge."

Eight or nine high-rises were built; some, on the northern end, have been restored, but the ones in the centre have, all but one, been demolished. The effect has been "to make the 'Shaws resemble a doughnut with a hole in the middle," is how Mitchell puts it.

Frankie Boyle, in his autobiography, My Sh*t Life So Far, skewers the Pollokshaws he grew up in, describing it as an "aching cement void, a slap in the face to Childhood." In general, he adds, the 'Shaws was "a lot like Bladerunner without the special effects." He recalls an "underground shopping centre where the shops struggled to stay open." In the middle of it was a memorial to Maclean. "Maclean," Boyle writes, "would have wept."

Mitchell, strolling round the 'Shaws today, notes that some new-build housing has begun "but as you walk around the central 'Shaws - Shawbridge Road - you might almost call it Desolation Row." (Mitchell is a lifelong Bob Dylan fan.)

We make our way to one intriguing, B-listed building that has survived the ravages of time. "This is really nice," murmurs Mitchell. "Pity you have to take your life in your hands to get to it."

It's called the Round Toll, a circular, weathered old building that stands on its own on a grassy knoll surrounded by fast-flowing, dual-carriageway traffic. Mitchell, the photographer Colin and I have to wait a few minutes for a gap to appear. We dart over the road.

The Toll had windows (now boarded up) facing north, south, east and west, giving the operator a clear view of all approaching traffic: money had to change hands if you wanted to continue your journey.

Back over the road, Colin spots a sign in a wall, dating from 1979: it explains that the Toll was built in 1754, that all traffic apart from mail coaches had to pay a fee, and that it would cost 1s 4d for a single horse and gig to travel the three miles from the 'Shaws to Glasgow - between £1.50 and £2 in 1979 money. Tolls were abolished in 1833 but families still occupied the property until 1963, the sign adds.

Maclean himself would have seen the Round Toll every time he came out of his mother's house at Low Cartcraigs, just over the road. That has gone now, too.

Further up the road, we come at last across a tangible piece of the Maclean story: a squat building, set back from the road. "This was the Original Secession Church," notes Mitchell. "This is where Maclean's parents would have worshipped. He himself would have gone there until he rejected religion at the age of 18 or 19." The church is still in use today, as Pollokshaws Parish Church. The building's interiors are superb: architect Peter Drummond's work can be viewed on the internet).

Mitchell points out the site where once stood Victoria Pottery, where Maclean's father, a Mull-born potter named Daniel, worked - he died from silicosis ('potter's lung') in 1888, leaving four children fatherless. The site is now a car park. His widow, Anne, had been a weaver before she married, and once Daniel died, she took it up again, at Auldfield Mill, just a few yards from the pottery.

Mitchell mentions that when she was a child, Anne had come from Corpach, near Fort William with her mother to join her father in Paisley. They walked all the way. Neither spoke a word of English. In later life she raised four children on her own. It's an acute reminder of the endless hardships that ordinary people faced.

We come to the stately, red-sandstone edifice of the Sir John Maxwell School, which was built in 1907 and closed a couple of years ago. The gates still have their separate entrances marked 'boys' and 'girls'.

Neglect has given it a decidedly forlorn look.

In the school gymnasium, once upon a time, Maclean would give evening classes, teaching industrial history and economics to hundreds of workers. Many of the shop stewards who attended went on to make their mark in the fabled Red Clydeside unrest.

Mitchell has a personal connection with the school, in a way: it was here that his son Peter had his primary education. "I also feel strongly about it because it's connected with Maclean. It has a lot of resonance for me.

"It's a very fine Edwardian Glasgow primary. But there seem to be no plans to develop it. It's a fantastic building and it would break my heart if that is knocked down, for all sorts of reasons. If you were to convert it to flats, you'd probably be talking £200,000 a flat, and with all due respect to the 'Shaws, and as much as I love the area, nobody's going to pay that sort of money for a flat here. Maybe it will come eventually, but the building will probably be gone by then."

It's Mitchell's contention that the "desolate" nature of the central part of the 'Shaws has not been helped by the presence of a 1960s shopping centre, which he memorably characterises as resembling "an SAS counter-insurgency training centre."

We walk round it, our spirits sinking a little: it has lots of closed shop-units and a decisive feeling of being out of time. It's not entirely deserted, though: a convenience store still operates in one of the units.

Across the way we come across the cairn dedicated to Maclean. It was, according to the Pollokshaws Heritage Trail booklet, unveiled by his two daughters in December of 1973 on the 50th anniversary of his death. "Famous pioneer of working-class education," it reads. "He forged the Scottish link in the golden chain of world socialism". It's heartening to know that he has not been entirely forgotten.

Mitchell, standing nearby, says that 5,000 people walked from Eglinton Toll to Eastwood cemetery for Maclean's funeral, passing through Pollokshaws, that long-ago December day in 1923. Thousands more lined the streets. I leaf through the book in search of a phrase he uses of Maclean: "possibly the most loved - and probably almost the most hated - man in Scotland."

Two pages later, there's a vivid reference to the Maxwells. When Glasgow annexed the 'Shaws in 1912, the Maxwells, on their adjoining estate, occupied almost as much land as did the area's 12,000 residents.

But in time, Sir John Maxwell's daughter would leave Pollok estate to the city, in lieu of death duties. Today, Pollok Country Park is Glasgow's largest park: Pollok House is, in the words of the National Trust for Scotland, "Scotland's answer to Downton Abbey and gives a real taste of upstairs/downstairs life in the 1930s." The park is also home to the Burrell Collection, one of Scotland's finest collections of art, which is to undergo a £66 million, three-year-long refurbishment.

Our last port of call is Rowand Anderson's splendid, A-listed Burgh Hall, which Maxwell helped to finance; the architect's many other accomplishments, Mitchell adds knowledgeably, include the Central Hotel, in Glasgow city centre.

The 'Shaws, then, like other parts of the city, has changed considerably over the decades. But one small element has remained.

"In many ways the old 'Shaws triangle still has a village feel to it," Mitchell says in conclusion. "Everybody seems knows everybody else, and from time to time you still find someone who remembers John Maclean and his legacy." Which is always something, at least.

* Walking Through Glasgow's Industrial Past: This City Now - and Then, Luath Press, £7.99

Other Glasgow industrial areas worth visiting:

* Govan: Includes the former Govan Town Hall; Govan Cross with the Pearce Institute and Govan Old Kirk; the old Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering offices, with its "grand office doorway and sculptures."

* Parkhead: Parkhead Cross "and its fine cluster of buildings", a 1915 steam hammer; the site of Beardmore's axle works; Tollcross Park and its Winter Gardens.

* Clydebank: world famous as the place where so many classic ships were built, at the John Brown's yard. Mitchell recommends walking along the Glasgow Road here, passing the site of Brown's - its Titan Crane is open to visitors.

* Bridgeton Cross: Old tenements, the former Carstairs Street Cotton Mill of the Glasgow Cotton Company; the remains of William Arrol's Dalmarnock Ironworks; Calton Old Cemetery.

* Springburn: "A great walk," says Mitchell. Mackintosh villas as Balgrayhill Road; Atlas Road, Atlas Square, Flemington Street (North British Locomotive Co. offices); Sighthill Cemetery and the Martyrs' Memorial.