The Glasgow Barrowland

Barrowland Ballroom (in the days when we could go to gigs there)

When we read that a new mural had been unveiled on a wall of the Barrowland Ballroom, we decided to take a walk down to the East End to look at it. It celebrates the novel Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, who last year became only the second Scottish writer to win the prestigious Booker Prize. It’s a gritty tale of the eponymous Shuggie, growing up in and around Glasgow in the 1980s with an alcoholic mother and a sense that he is different from the other boys, with all the problems that brings with it. The mural was commissioned by the novel’s UK publisher, Picador, to celebrate the publication of the paperback edition.

Despite the harshness of his life, Shuggie ends the book on a dance step and the artists, Cobalt Collective, have chosen a bright moment for the mural in which Shuggie’s mother tells him: “You’ll not remember the city you were too wee, but there’s dancing. All kinds of dancing.” I love how the stars mimic the Barrowlands’ own iconic neon sign.

It wasn’t the easiest mural to photograph, being down a narrow lane and with vehicles parked in front. The third photograph in the gallery above looks down the lane to the mural from the loading bay, the signs of which almost look like ghost signs, so ancient are they.

There is much more street art / decoration around Barrowland. On the opposite side of the lane to Shuggie’s mural is a former wash house, which has served as a café in the past, but I think now contains creative spaces to rent. The inscription reads “We can evolve while staying true to who we are”.

Another piece of philosophy, “The perfect words never crossed my mind ’cause there was nothing in there but you”, and the Barras Pirate.

The Pirate was created by Rogue-One in 2017 and is based on an image by photographer Simon Murphy of his then six year-old daughter, Lola. A few more below that I know nothing about:

However, I do know the origin of the cartoon strip above Bill’s Tool Store. It comes from The Sheriff of Calton Creek by Bud Neill, Calton being the area of Glasgow in which Barrowland is situated. It’s a surreal world featuring a Glaswegian Sheriff called Lobey Dosser and his two-legged horse El Fidelio.

So what is the history of Barrowland, I hear you ask? And knowing Anabel’s fondness for women’s history, who is the heroine? Step forward Maggie McIver (1880-1958), who worked as a barrow girl selling fish and fruit. She  and her husband began renting barrows to other hawkers, then founded a static market in 1920 which became known as The Barras. Maggie put on a dinner dance for her hawkers each Christmas and, allegedly, when her usual venue was booked one year she built her own! The original ballroom burned down just after Maggie died – the current Barrowland dates from 1960 and is still a hugely popular gig venue. As well as the plaque on the building itself a gate into Glasgow Green commemorates its founder.

I’ve been to many gigs in the Barrowland and, in some ways, can’t wait to get back in there, though I’m not sure how I’ll feel about the heaving crowds. It’s a popular venue with musicians, as well as with audiences, and several have written and / or performed songs about it including Amy McDonald, Christy Moore and Simple Minds. The one I have chosen to end on, however, is Eddi Reader. The video quality’s not great, but you get some archive shots and a live view of that gorgeous neon starburst from the top of my post. I hope you enjoy it – and remember, ladies, never let a chancer an inch above your knee!


  1. Another gem of information about a strong Glaswegian woman. I wish I’d known more when I was close enough to visit! Was the wash house for the washing of people or laundry? I used to get the phrase,’ you’ll be the talk of the wash house’ when I got caught up to no good when I was younger.

    Actually, I still get that off my Dad now as a civilized forty something who hasn’t done anything remotely scandalous for years. Give a dog a bad name, or what?

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  2. Thanks for showing us this. I had no idea about the history of the ‘Barrows’ as we called it. To me it was a fascinating market that my Dad and I would occasionally go to at the weekend – he’d be looking for some parts he needed for the car or for his latest electronics project, and I’d just be amazed at the colour, the variety of things available to buy and the banter of the market traders.


  3. Anabel. I love your stories about the history, music, and art of Glasgow. You live in a place where the culture is incredibly rich and woven into every neighbourhood and every aspect of daily life, from street art murals to window displays. Thanks for sharing.


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  4. Hi Anabel – this was fascinating to read up, * and definitely a place to visit when in Glasgow* … fascinating reading. My *s (not this one) * show the end of typing in the comment box. * Not sure how it’ll turn up when published.
    All the best – Hilary