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Immediately adjacent to Glasgow, Calton was a relatively large community with an estimated population of 6,695 in 1791. It was predominantly working-class, but there were also wealthy residents such as the textile magnate David Dale (1739-1806) whose home in Charlotte Street overlooked Glasgow Green. Concerns about policing and environmental problems prompted calls for more effective local government and in 1817 Calton was turned into a self-governing burgh of barony with its own provost and council. Calton soon acquired a reputation for the efficiency of its administration, and when the burgh was annexed to Glasgow in 1846, many of its practices were adopted by the city.
The city’s east end has been a hotspot for bric-a-brac hunters since the late 18th Century. With the industrial expansion of Glasgow, and mass immigration from the Scottish Highlands, Ireland and elsewhere in Victorian times, the area became overcrowded. The swelling population of the lower working class needed somewhere to trade and make a living in the city. The Bridgegate or Briggait was synonymous with the rag and second-hand clothes trade at that time. The Glaswegian word barras (pronounced ba-ras) describes the handcarts which the traders used to hawk (sell) their wares.
When they were not selling from the barrow, the hawkers would travel to the middle-class parts of town to source bundles of clothes and other goods. Once home they would wash and mend anything saleable. This system of bartering and street hawking served many social purposes: it gave the poor and unemployed a degree of respectability, preferable to begging or stealing, and it also served to clothe the majority of the poor. Nothing was wasted.
It was from this background that Maggie McIver (later known as “The Barras Queen”) was introduced to a way of life which was to become her destiny and affect the lives of thousands of people for generations to come.