I enjoyed reading Norrie Gilliland’s excellent history of Grahamston, the “lost” 17th century village underneath Glasgow’s Central Station and its surrounding areas. It had me wondering again about the reasons for contemporary Glasgow’s perplexingly poor diet-related health stats, especially on learning how lush and fruitful – literally – the city was in its early days.
There were, of course, many breweries in old Glasgow, and at least two in the village itself around 1743, alongside several granaries and a bakery. A large sugar refinery existed in Grahamston in the early 1800s, joining the four that operated throughout the city from the late 1600s onwards. Imported from the West Indies, sugar – for better or for worse – made the city’s first fortunes alongside, of course, tobacco.
So far, so well known. But what I hadn’t fully appreciated was how widely Grahamston was recognised for its market gardens. Glasgow had an excellent reputation for growing local, seasonal fresh produce, thanks to the many orchards in what are now Hope Street and Union Street, where Grahamston stood. In addition, Grahamston had at least six productive market gardens, growing cabbages, kale and the like, listed in 1789. And “on the western side of the village, now Hope Street, was a marshy area used for growing willow whauns for making and repairing baskets used by local market gardeners”, writes the author. Fascinating stuff! Add to that the lobster, crab, oyster and other shellfish from the clean, yet-to-be-dredged, River Clyde, and you get the picture that the Glasgow diet was once pretty ok, and available to all.
Industrialisation and the inevitable advent of the railways in the 19th century changed all that: Grahamston was demolished in the 1870s to make way for Central Station.
“Grahamston, which was first noted on maps of Glasgow around 1680, sadly vanished beneath the foundations of Glasgow Central over a century ago,” said Gilliland, whose book, Glasgow’s Forgotten Village, is the only written account of the history of Grahamston. “Over 200 years it grew from a row of thatched cottages to a commercial and industrial hub right at the heart of Victorian Glasgow and it was undoubtedly a microcosm of Glasgow’s growth into a diverse, multi-cultural and internationally renowned city of the 21st century. Yet no record of it exists in the city archives.”
I came across the book on a visit to Radisson Blu hotel, which is situated at the crossroads of Argyle Street and Hope Street where Grahamston once flourished, and just across from the station that sealed the village’s demise. The hotel has just opened a new restaurant and bar after a £1.2m transformation - and has rather cleverly named it The Grahamston.
Its massive floor-to-ceiling glass windows may be a world apart from the tiny croft-house versions that once looked out onto the village, but the interior design has many respectful nods to the area’s bucolic – as well as industrial – past.
I was interested to learn that, despite being part of a large hotel group, exec chef Stephen MacNiven (pictured below) has free reign to create a series of menus and drinks list that reflect the historic significance of this specific area. A new The Grahamston Ale, by Caledonian Breweries, is one example.
The hyper-local producers have long gone from this busy city centre site, replaced predominantly by fast-food takeaways and restaurant chains, but MacNiven has made it his mission to source as locally and seasonally as he can “to reflect Scotland’s world-class natural larder and Glasgow’s thriving artisan food and drink scene”. So far Rodgers butchers for Ayrshire beef, Campbell’s Prime Meat for seafood and Braehead Foods are on board and he’s searching for local dairy, fruit and vegetable suppliers. Breads are baked daily in-house, just like the old days.
“I’ve already had whole deer and pigs in the kitchen to demonstrate to my brigade and apprentices the traditional butchery skills that would have been practised in Grahamston in the 18th century,” says MacNiven, who has named his steak menu after John Wallace, the butchers shop that used to operate in the village. Highland lamb features three ways in his signature dish, which he says is already “flying out the door” within just a few days of opening. He’s also created Glasgow Makar Gin cured Scottish salmon, St Mungo beer batter cod fillet, Scottish monkfish with truffle pomme Anna, a hand-picked white crab starter, and a twice-cooked Lowlands corn-fed chicken dish for a menu that is pleasingly restrained and sophisticated, yet which he describes as “fun-dining” rather than “fine-dining”. He aims to add the likes of high-end turbot and John Dory and Tomahawk steaks to his menu if and when the time is right.
“A lot of hard work goes into what we do here,” says chef, above, who acknowledges that Glasgow’s eating-out scene has undergone a “massive change” in years since he left and to which he has recently returned. The confluence of centralised chains in the city centre, together with hugely popular independents especially in the Merchant City and Finnieston, makes his task, as he puts it, “tricky”.
I wish him and his team the very best. They, and Grahamston, deserve it.