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Polmadie and the Ancient Hospital of St John the Apostle


Bruce Downie immerses himself in some of the oldest known references to Polmadie, and explores the history of the ancient hospital. Get lost in a world of medieval references and travel through Polmadie’s history via kings, popes, pigs and recycling.


In the 19th century, Polmadie, just east of what we now know as Govanhill, was one of the busiest industrial areas of Glasgow. Notable businesses located there included Dübs and Company – later called the North British Locomotive Company who made steam trains that were sent all over the world – and Alley and McLellan, engineers who built steamships and the renowned Sentinel steam waggon, spelled with two g’s.

There has long been debate about the meaning of the name Polmadie’. The most commonly accepted interpretation is provided in Colonel James Robertson’s ‘Gaelic Topography of Scotland’ (1869) that Polmadie is derived from two Gaelic words, ‘Pol’ for pool and ‘maddah’ for wolf, translating as ‘the wolf’s pool’ or ‘the pool haunted by wolves’.

Today, Polmadie is still largely an industrial area of Glasgow, home to the Alstom train depot, one of the largest train depots in Scotland, where Virgin Trains and other operators stable and repair their carriages. It is also home to the Viridor Recycling and Renewable Energy Centre, previously the Polmadie Refuse Works (which opened in 1958).


The Viridor Recycling and Renewable Energy Centre, Polmadie Rd
The Viridor Recycling and Renewable Energy Centre, Polmadie Rd


However, Polmadie and in particular the site of the Viridor Recycling Centre, on Polmadie Road near the junction with Calder Street, was the likely location of the Ancient Hospital of Saint John the Apostle, or the Hospitti Sanct Johannis de Polmadde in Cliddesdale as it would have been known in official documents. Built in the thirteenth century or possibly even earlier, this hospital was for the relief of pensioners, poor men and women, and possibly as a place of rest for pilgrims and travellers.

Establishing exactly when the hospital was created is impossible. Some historians have speculated that it was built in the twelfth century, during the reign of David I (1124-1153) because of the interest he took in the area, giving the Lands of Govan to the Church of Glasgow and granting Rutherglen the status of a royal burgh but a connection to the hospital cannot be proven.  According to the ‘Origines Parochiales Scotia’, published in 1851, the hospital was known to be in existence during the reign of Alexander III (1249 to 1286) because of a charter granted to the hospital by Robert the First in 1316. In that charter, the ‘Registerum Episcopatus Glasguenis’

‘Be it known that we confirm to the Master, brothers and sisters of the hospital of Polmadie, near Ruglen, all the rights and privileges they were accustomed to have in the time of my predecessor, King Alexander, and we have forbid that anyone should presume to oppress or annoy the said Master, brothers or sister against this our confirmation.’

The Mastership or ‘de custodia’ of the hospital was a coveted position but perhaps not as influential as some hoped. The remote location may have suited the residents but may also have been frustrating to men of ambitious temperament, eager to advance their careers.


“Oot o’ the world and into Polmadie”


An old phrase ‘oot o’ the world and into Polmadie’ may indicate just how far the hospital was from court or civic life but Polmadie has always been an outlier of sorts, a kind of no man’s land because it has always been divided by the boundary between Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire and between the parishes of Govan and Cathcart.

In fact, in the 19th century, when modern municipal burghs were being established and new boundary lines were being drawn part of the area could not be easily classified, and was thus known for a while, at least informally, as No Man’s Land.

Despite being defeated at Bannockburn just a few years earlier, in 1319 Edward II still harboured ambitions of conquering Scotland, much like his father before him. From the relative safety of York, he ineffectually nominated several English priests to Glasgow prebends, including Guliemus de Houk as Master of the Hospital in Polmadie, but Guliemus was unlikely to have ever served in that position.

That same year, Bishop Robert Wishart of Glasgow, a friend of King Robert, constituted Patrick Floker as ‘Master and Guardian of the Home’ with the power of ‘restraining the excesses and correcting the faults of the brothers and sisters therein or of removing them for their delinquency’.

In order to attend to his duties in Polmadie he was given dispensation for non-residence at his church on his lands in Kilbryde, provided that he took care that it was not left ‘destitute of the due celebration of divine duties.’


A sixteenth century link between Polmadie and Crosshill or earlier?


Floker would have been able to rely on revenues from the Lands of Polmadie which, tradition suggests, included what we know today as Crosshill. Proof that Polmadie and Crosshill were indeed linked only comes to light two hundred years later during the Reformation when land was secularised.

In 1564, the land was feued to Sir John Stuart of Minto, Knight, a Provost of Glasgow, by Robert, Bishop of Caithness, Provost of the Collegiate Church of Dumbarton, with the consent of Mathew, Earl of Lennox, the patron. The feu charter reads ‘All and singulars the five merk land of Polmadie and Crosshill’, a clear indication that the two places had been linked for some time, leading many historians to suggest and believe that Crosshill had been part of the outfield lands of the hospital.

The name of Crosshill probably comes from a cross that stood at the top of the hill, probably marking the southern boundary of the hospital’s lands. According to the Statistical Accounts of Scotland from 1845, – ‘the cross erected at the top of Crosshill was made of hard stone, ten feet high and three and a half feet broad, ornamented with various figures. The most remarkable has that of our saviour riding upon an ass. This religious monument fell, the sacrifice to the fury of a mob during the civil wars’, that is, during the seventeenth century.

Even so, these revenues were not quite sufficient for Floker to maintain divine services in Kilbryde and provide for the pensioners in Polmadie, so in 1320, the Bishop of Glasgow granted him part of the Lands of Little Govan, laying between the hospital and the western boundary of those lands, probably taking in some parts of present-day Govanhill.


Strains, strife & power struggles over the hospital in the medieval period


In 1333, the Earl of Lennox, granted the Master ‘a charter of exemption’, freedom from all kinds of services, burdens, and extractions both as regards their own house (the hospital) and the Church of Strathblane. In 1334, Adam, son of Alan, Burgess of Dumbarton lent the Hospital a sum of money ‘in their necessity’.

On the 18th of May, 1347, Margaret, wife and Queen to David II, ‘by grant of her Lord the King, made on her behalf from the Bishop of Glasgow, William de Kirkintulloch, Master of the Hospital.’

On May 10th, 1391, a precept from Bishop Glendoning of Glasgow directed the Master, brothers and sisters to receive Gillian de Vaux and ‘grant her all the rights due to a sister and portioner of their house during her lifetime.’

In 1403, the Earl of Lennox appointed William de Cunnyngham, Vicar of Dundonald as Master of the Hospital, but the Bishop of Glasgow opposed this appointment, claiming that Cunnyngham ‘had intruded himself into the administration of the Poor’s House of Polmadie’. The bishop laid claim to ‘the right of presentation’ and threatened Cunnyngham with excommunication if he dared to take up the post.

This tension between the Church and the Lennoxes continued until a summit in 1424, held in the west chapel of Edinburgh Castle where Duncan, Earl of Lennox, surrendered to Bishop William Lauder, any and all supposed rights he and his progenitors had to the hospital.


The beginning of the end for Hospital of St John the Apostle in Polmadie


In 1427, Bishop Cameron, with the consent of the chapter, erected the Hospital and the Church of Strathblane into a prebend of Glasgow Cathedral, basically ensuring that the Bishop retained the patronage. This was confirmed by a Papal Bull, signed by Pope Martin V, two years later, in 1429.

The Bishop then appointed a clerk ‘cantu bene et notabiliter instructus’ to manage Polmadie and Strathblane. The clerk was instructed or ordained to raise the money to pay a vicar in the Church in Strathblane and to teach and instruct four chorister boys in singing, giving them 16 merks annually for sustenance.

This arrangement was almost certainly the beginning of the end for the Hospital at Polmadie. The final blow came around 1453, when the Lands of Polmadie, including Crosshill, (those parts of Crosshill in Govan parish anyway) and the Church of Strathblane were without any apparent objection from Bishop Muirhead of Glasgow, disjoined from the hospital and handed over the Collegiate Church of Saint Mary in Dumbarton, which had recently been founded by Isabella, Countess of Lennox.

Nothing now remained to the Ancient Hospital of its original endowments, and we can only conjecture that without sufficient financial support it fell into decline and eventually closed. That decline may have been accelerated by the building of a new hospital in 1470, dedicated to Saint Nicholas, established with similar aims, of which only one part remains, known today as the Provand’s Lordship, near Glasgow Cathedral.


Pomadi on the Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654
‘Pomadi’ in Praefectura Renfroana, vulgo, dicta Baronia. The Baronie of Renfrow, Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654


Nothing remains of the hospital at Polmadie, but the best evidence for its location comes from a number of sources. Joan Blaeu’s map of 1654, shows a house near a place called Pomadi, which may have been the original hospital building, long fallen into disuse, but could equally have been a small settlement because other villages are indicated in the same way.

More conclusive proof comes from a well-documented and tragic incident which took place in 1685, in the village of Old Polmadie, believed to have been built around the ruins of the hospital, in which three Covenantors were apprehended and executed for their beliefs. The Covenantors were buried in the churchyard of Old Cathcart Parish Church and are known to this day as The Polmadie Martyrs.


Polmadie in the Roy Military Survey of Scotland, 1755
Polmadie in the Roy Military Survey of Scotland, 1755


In 1755, the Roy Military Survey, the first systematic map of Scotland, shows a number of buildings in Polmadie, a clear indication that there had been a village in that location for a number of years.

In 1793, according to The Statistical Account of Scotland, there were ‘vestiges of religious houses’ in the grounds of the farm-house in the village, much older than the farm itself, which were assumed to be part of the ancient hospital or of its outbuildings.


Polmadie area Ordnance Survey map, 1858
Polmadie area Ordnance Survey map, 1858


According to the census, in 1851, there were fifty miner’s families living in Polmadie and over two-thirds of them were Irish. There were two main streets in the village one called Young’s Row and the other called Paterson’s Row.


Polmadie area in Ordnance Survey map, 1910
Polmadie area in Ordnance Survey map, 1910


The ‘vestiges of religious houses’ and the village itself had been built over by the late nineteenth century and replaced by tenements, schools, churches and shops, part of a much larger thriving area, but the farmhouse itself remained in place until around 1914, downgraded to a piggery, surrounded and eventually overwhelmed by industry.

Thankfully, its appearance on modern maps, on the site currently occupied by the Viridor Recycling Centre, provides us with the most likely location of the ancient hospital.



By Bruce Downie

Published: 19th August 2021


Image sources:

1. The Viridor Recycling and Renewable Energy Centre, Polmadie Road (photo by Bruce Downie)

2. Polmadi in ‘Praefectura Renfroana, vulgo, dicta Baronia. The Baronie of Renfrow’ From Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654; reproduced by kind permission of the National Library of Scotland

3. Polmadie in The Roy Military Survey, 1747-1755; accessed via National Library of Scotland maps online; reproduced by kind permission of the British Library

4. Polmadie area in Ordnance Survey, 1858; reproduced by kind permission of the National Library of Scotland

5. Polmadie in Ordnance Survey, 1910; reproduced by kind permission of the National Library of Scotland

6. The Viridor Recycling and Renewable Energy Centre, Polmadie Road (photo by Bruce Downie)


1 reply added

  1. Joyce Senanian August 22, 2021 Reply

    I was born 1940 in Polmadie St. There were at least 6 families named Lorimer, we were all related and my grandparents from Ireland were the first of the Lorimers living there. We had 9 children, no money but lots of great memories.

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