From Burgh to bust…

Down the years, Glasgow has been so careless with its architectural heritage that you’d almost think the Council had it in for anything gracious and gorgeous. To paraphrase Oscar Wild: “To lose one great building may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose so many looks like carelessness.”

A case in point would be this neo-classical Byres Road beauty, the former Hillhead Burgh Halls.

Look again at this late 1960s picture; the Burgh Halls, and the block of Police flats to the right, are both long gone; replaced by the brutalist concrete box containing Hillhead Library. A petrol-head pal assures me that the car in the foreground is a Ford V6 Zephyr Zodiac.

Designed by Lanarkshire born George Bell, of local firm Clarke and Bell, and opened in 1871, the Halls were built when the up and coming burgh of Hillhead still lay outside the Glasgow City boundary. As well as a public hall, the building also accommodated the Burgh Court, Fiscal's office and Police office, complete with cells.

The building’s foundation stone was laid on May 13, 1871, as part of a masonic ceremony following a large parade from Botanic Gardens by the Provincial Grand Lodge of Glasgow, with the halls and associated chambers opening to the public in 1873.

Byres and bishops

With Glasgow University only recently having relocated from its ancient home off Glasgow’s High Street, and the West End welcoming an influx of wealthy and middle class families, all eager to escape the city’s polluted air, Hillhead experienced a building boom, with fine flats, terraces, and villas popping up almost overnight.

This was all a far cry from the area’s humble beginnings.

The Byres Road area had existed since the Middle Ages, when the Bishops of Glasgow travelled through "the Byres of Patrick" to reach their summer residence at Partick Castle, near the confluence of the Clyde and the Kelvin. Back then, most of the area was open farmland. If you step into Ruthven Lane you’ll find a remnant of its agricultural past, a farmhouse, dating from 1870, which now operates as The Bothy restaurant.

The area was also the last overnight resting spot for Highland drovers bringing their cattle to market in Glasgow. Horny, hairy, and covered in glaur – both the beasts and the men – would rest their feet, and hoofs, weary from the exertions of the West Highland Way, in the Byres of Partick, before trudging into Glasgow.

The Curlers pub, next to Hillhead Subway, is the oldest remaining building on Byres Road. Its name comes from its association with Partick Curling Club, whose members used to drink after matches on their nearby outdoor rink.

Incidentally, back then, Byres Road was called Victoria Street.

Self-governing community

By the late 1860s, Hillhead's population had increased from just a few hundred to over 3,000. This large growth led to difficulties in administrating the area, as there was no local authority in place. The burgh of Hillhead, complete with its own council, Provost, magistrates, and police force, was created on 14th May 1869.

Hillhead remained a separate Burgh until 1891, when it was gobbled up by the city of Glasgow. After that, the former Burgh Hall provided several uses, being used to house local youth and church group meeting, dancing classes, and regular weekend soirees, ceilidhs and parties.

And, so it could have continued. A regular lick of paint, and some roof and window maintenance could have seen the Halls still serving the local community to this day; an ornament to the area, and fine and useful presence on Byres Road.

Sadly, for West Enders, the council had other, more modernist plans.

Wreckers ring the changes

Hillhead, despite being the seat of Glasgow University, and packed to the gunnels with students, professors, and well-read locals, had always lacked its own library.

Billionaire Fife-born US industrialist Andrew Carnegie had offered to build one as early as 1907, but a suitable site couldn’t be found.

Hard to imagine it now, but that all changed in 1970, when the wreckers’ ball put paid to the Burgh Halls, and the next-door flats, clearing the way for today’s Hillhead Library.

Designed in the Brutalist, concrete style by Rogerson and Spence, the library opened in 1975, and immediately became the most popular in the city in terms of the number of items issued, a position it has maintained ever since.

The library, always more impressive inside than out, has since been included in Historic Environment Scotland's list of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest. It is listed category B.

Now, just imagine if they had maintained and adapted the old Burgh Halls to become the new library. We dare say that might have merited a straight A-listing!

The Herald: