By Elizabeth McQuillan
Glasgow’s Barrowland, with its 1960s Las Vegas-inspired neon signage, is an iconic Glasgow landmark. Integral to the Scottish music scene, it has seen David Bowie, The Who, Robbie Williams and U2 – among a veritable Who’s Who of celebrated and exalted bands – belt out tunes to please the querulous punters.
Popular with the artists themselves due to the tremendous buzz and atmosphere of the place, as well as the superb acoustics, it has its own celebrity fanbase. Scottish songbird Amy McDonald pays tribute to it with her song, Barrowland Ballroom: “Oh nothing beats the feeling of the high Barrowland ceiling / When the band start to play.”
However, the Barras has grown from hard times and humble beginnings, and owes its existence to the entrepreneurial spirit of a 12-year old Scottish lass called Margaret Russell.
Working a fruit stall in Parkhead, belonging to her mother’s friend, the young Maggie found that she was a dab hand at selling her wares. Thriving in the hustle and bustle of the environment, and with an enormous dollop of guts and determination, she saved enough cash to buy a small fruit shop in the East End of Glasgow.
Regularly visiting the fruit market to stock her shop (or perhaps to flirt with the local lads), Maggie met James McIver, and became Mrs Maggie McIver after the usual courtship. Having met her kindred spirit, who also appears to have been business-minded, it didn’t take long for the pair to hatch new ideas to further their little empire.
At a yard in the Calton district, the pair hired out carts and horses so that those with produce, crafts or wares to sell could head off to the affluent districts of the city and flog their goods to the wealthy. This was successful, and provided a reasonable source of revenue, but street hawkers were not encouraged.
After the first world war, the city streets became busier, with higher volumes of traffic, and Glasgow Corporation tried its best to stamp out street trading.
In 1923, Maggie – not one to be defeated by a bit of bureaucracy – began organising Saturday markets on waste ground in and around the Kent Street area. This weekly market grew quickly to become one of Glasgow’s most famous institutions.
At that time, the sign over the door was of a man pushing a barrow, but this was taken down during the second world war when it was referred to by Lord Haw-Haw in German propaganda broadcasts. It was feared it might be the focus of a bombing raid.
It has been suggested that Maggie first opened the ballroom to entertain her stallholders when their annual Christmas bash was double-booked at a local hotel, but information on the specifics are difficult to find, so it may be a story that is a blurring of fact and fiction.
Being an entrepreneur, my guess is that she saw a gap in the market and jumped at the opportunity to provide a unique dancing and music hall venue in the centre of Glasgow.
However the idea actually came about, the Barrowland Ballroom was launched by Maggie in 1934. The resident band was Billy MacGregor and the Gaybirds, and the entertainment was an interesting combination of music, stunts and patter.
Lucky dancers might have the opportunity to “open the box”, and the prizes inside could vary from a reasonable wad of cash to a rotten egg. That could really make, or ruin, your night. But the Glaswegians loved it.
With the American servicemen shaking their exotic booty to the jive and the jitterbug, the city’s dancers were a step ahead of the rest. Maggie’s gin palace rocked.
Maggie drew her last breath and died a millionaire in 1958, and within three months the ballroom was razed to the ground in a fire. Unlucky coincidence. However, phoenix-like, it emerged from the ashes in 1960, with a neon sign that might have been designed by Elvis himself.