Current photo of the now derelict bar, Fox and Hound, and rumoured birthplace of Sir John A. in Glasgow at 20 Brunswick Street.
The City of Glasgow has pledged to carry through with a planned downtown memorial to native son Sir John A. Macdonald despite the expected sale of a derelict property — including a vacant pub now owned by Canadian retail mogul Galen Weston — that’s long been touted as the possible birthplace of Canada’s founding prime minister.
The Macdonald commemoration was proposed after Weston-owned Selfridges — a high-profile seller of luxury goods in the U.K. — purchased a rundown block of buildings in central Glasgow that had been earmarked by the city for a major commercial revitalization.
Among the buildings, Postmedia News originally revealed, was a shuttered pub identified as Macdonald’s birthplace by various historians and visited by his great-grandson, Hugh Gainsford, for a CBC television special in 1967, the centennial of Confederation.
Though the building at 20 Brunswick St. was slated for demolition, the fact that the 18th-century structure had been purchased by a famously philanthropic, history-minded Canadian billionaire — the husband of Ontario’s former lieutenant-governor, Hilary Weston — raised hopes that the site might be preserved or somehow used to celebrate Macdonald’s Scottish roots.
And Selfridges quickly agreed to do just that, promising to honour Macdonald’s pre-eminent place in Canadian history in any future development at the site.
A proposal submitted to Glasgow city council in 2011, which would have seen the purported birthplace building demolished, envisioned the creation of a downtown plaza and outdoor art gallery — “Macdonald Square” — and the erection of a statue of Sir John A. at the centre of a temporary parking lot that would later become the heart of a new commercial district.
But Glasgow officials delayed approval of that interim plan and have made it clear that full-scale redevelopment of the linchpin property in the Merchant City district should proceed sooner.
Now, according to Scottish news reports and a top city official, Selfridges is poised to sell its holdings in the area to the Frogmore real estate group, which owns other properties in the area and is believed to be ready to move more quickly on the downtown revitalization project.
A 1979 photo of Fox and Hound.
“They will be aware of the John A. Macdonald connections, and it will be reinforced by us in any conversations going forward,” Liz Davidson, head of the City of Glasgow’s design, development and regeneration department, told Postmedia News.
She added that Frogmore appears to be interested in acquiring the property and “keen” to kickstart redevelopment of the area.
The Merchant City district is the site of the last extant building — the former Fox and Hound pub in its latest incarnation — with clear links to Macdonald’s family at the time of the future statesman’s birth in January 1815.
City records show that Macdonald’s father owned a business at the address in the early 1800s, and some historians have speculated that the family might have lived in rooms above the business at the time of John Alexander Macdonald’s birth on Jan. 10 or 11, 1815.
Plans to commemorate Macdonald at the Glasgow site had been expected to come to fruition ahead of the January 2015 bicentennial of his birth, a date cited frequently by the Canadian government in its list of major, upcoming anniversaries to be marked with federal funding and special projects backed by the Department of Canadian Heritage.
The Brunswick Street building in central Glasgow is best known as the former home of the Mitre bar, a legendary watering hole that had previously occupied the Fox and Hound premises.
In 1967, for a special report ahead of Canada’s July 1 centenary that year, Gainsford was interviewed at the Mitre by then-CBC broadcaster Craig Oliver. The video, in which the two discuss the coincidence of the notoriously hard-drinking Sir John A. being born in a future pub, can still be viewed today at the archive resource on the CBC website.
Several historians, including Macdonald biographer Peter B. Waite, have concluded that Scottish property records point to Brunswick Street as the likeliest place of Macdonald’s birth. But another, long-since demolished building on the opposite side of the River Clyde is considered a better birthplace candidate by other researchers.
Either way, the Fox and Hound site is — apart from the nearby Ramshorn Kirk, where the young Macdonald is believed to have attended Sunday school before the family’s emigration to Canada in 1820 — the only remaining building in Glasgow directly associated with the early years of Canada’s political patriarch.
In 2009, Selfridges planning consultant Shahid Ali told Postmedia News the company was “keen to commemorate Macdonald’s birthplace” with a lasting memorial at the property now expected to be sold to Frogmore.
News stories in 2005 probing Macdonald’s birthplace prompted heritage experts from Historic Scotland to conduct a snap inspection of the Brunswick Street building, confirming that it dates from the late 1700s.
Reprinted with the express permission of the author.