Table Talk: Dan Taylor on the History of High Street
The owner of McCune Smith Café talks about his passion for Glasgow’s past
McCune Smith, my café just off High Street (see our Best Cafés in Glasgow hitlist), was conceived after a slave walk with the author of It Wisnae Us, Stephen Mullen. His tour used architecture to illustrate the city’s involvement in slavery.
I was not only struck by how architecture is so illuminating of history but how I needed the imagination of Stephen Hawking to envisage how an old and significant street had once been. Its architecture gone, today High Street is a frontier between the city centre and the neglected East End.
The victim of truly impaired thinking by generations of Glasgow’s city fathers, High Street is now a congested thoroughfare to the M8, an ignoble conclusion for what should be the most venerated street in Glasgow.
The tour stopped at the site of Old College, which stood on High Street from 1451 to 1870. It was a centre of the Scottish Enlightenment, one of the most significant movements in western civilisation.
Robert Adam, the father of neoclassical architecture, had a building facing it. Adam Smith developed his theories on economics there. James Watt, William Cullen, Joseph Black, John Anderson, John Millar, Thomas Reid, Francis Hutcheson and Tobias Smollett all taught there leading Voltaire to remark: ‘We look to Scotland for our idea of civilisation’.
James McCune Smith, my café’s namesake, was the first African-American MD, graduating from Old College in 1837. In the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment, he logically dismantled the arguments for slavery that had changed the health and diet of Scotland, the face of Glasgow and the lives of millions of African origin.