The story of Glasgow’s Coat of Arms

On the front wall of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, in Kelvingrove museum and incorporated into our university’s emblem are 4 symbols: a tree, a bird, a fish and a bell. In fact, just walk around Glasgow, and you may find them decorating some of the older lampposts as well.

There is an old rhyme about them that goes:

There’s the tree that never grew,
There’s the bird that never flew,
There’s the fish that never swam,
There’s the bell that never rang.

I always thought these words sounded a little sad and wistful somehow, but here are the stories and legends associated with the 4 symbols and the background to Glasgow’s coat of arms:

First, did you know Glasgow has a patron saint? His name is Saint Mungo – Mungo meaning “dear one”. He was the founder of the modern city of Glasgow, just like Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore!  Before he came and established a monastery on the banks of the Molendinar Burn, a tributary of the River Clyde, there was just a little salmon fishing hamlet where the towering city of Glasgow stands today. (Doesn’t that sound similar to a certain tiny fishing village in the Straits of Malacca!)

In order to make someone a Saint, it was necessary to prove that the candidate had performed miracles during their lifetime. St Mungo was said to have performed four, referred to in the poem above.

The Tree That Never Grew

The tree is now depicted as an oak but it started in the legend as a hazel branch. As a boy in the monastery Mungo was left in charge of the holy fire in the refectory. He fell asleep and some of the other boys, being envious of him, put out the fire. When he woke and found what had happened, Mungo broke off some frozen branches from a hazel tree and caused them to burst into flames by praying over them.

The Bird That Never Flew

This commemorates a wild robin which was tamed by Saint Serf (Saint Mungo’s teacher). It  was accidentally killed by some of his disciples who blamed it on Mungo. Mungo took the dead bird in his hands and prayed, restoring it to life, whereupon it flew to its master. So the bird did fly after all…

The Fish That Never Swam

The coat of arms always shows the fish with a ring held in its mouth.

This is because a King of Strathclyde had given his wife a ring as a present. But the Queen gave it to a knight who promptly lost it. Some versions of the story say that the King took the ring while the knight was asleep and threw it in the river. The King then demanded to see the ring – threatening death to the Queen if she could not produce it. The knight confessed to Saint Mungo who sent a

monk to catch a fish in the river Clyde. When this was brought back, Saint Mungo cut open the fish and found the ring. When the Bishop of Glasgow was designing his own seal around 1271, he used the illustration of a salmon

with a ring in its mouth and this has come down to us in today’s coat of arms.

The Bell That Never Rang

This relates to a miraculous bell Saint Mungo is said to have brought back with him from Rome from the Pope. By the fifteenth century St Mungo’s handbell had become a notable Glasgow symbol. Handbells were common in the Celtic church and were used to call the people to worship.

In 1450, John Stewart, the first Lord Provost of Glasgow, left an endowment so that a “Saint Mungo’s Bell” could be made and tolled throughout the city so that the citizens would pray for his soul. The bell was still ringing out in 1578, as there is an entry in the City Treasurer’s accounts two shillings (10p) “for one tong to St Mungowis Bell.” A new bell was purchased by the magistrates in 1641 and that bell is on display in the People’s Palace museum near Glasgow Green.

Our University’s Emblem

The University of Glasgow’s crest has the tree, the bird, the fish and the bell too. The mace in the middle and the open book at the top represent the University itself, being the University Mace from 1465 and The Book of Learning.  with the addition of the Book of Learning and a representation of the University Mace. The Latin motto on the ribbon – ‘Via, Veritas, Vita’ – is ‘the Way, the Truth, the Life’.

Mr Jani Helle, who is also a student at our Uni and who has a photoblog thinks the the mace and fish together make an anchor and though he’s not sure if it’s intentional or not, he thinks it might hark back to Glasgow’s shipbuilding days.

-many thanks to:

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