Earlier this week, this popped up on Haggard Hawks:
And, as so often happens with this kind of thing, there’s a brilliant—if a fairly sketchy—story behind it. Unlike a lot of slang expressions, the Glasgow magistrate has found its way into the OED, who have traced it back to 1833. But the OED also cites a 1950 issue of The Scots Magazine, which offers this tentative explanation of how the phrase came about:
Herring were cured there by Walter Gibson, a merchant of Glasgow and Provost of that city in 1688, and it is perhaps because of Provost Gibson that salt herring acquired their nickname of “Glasgow Magistrates.”
Walter Gibson indeed helped to found Glasgow’s lucrative herring industry in the late 1600s, and he did become provost (chief magistrate) of Glasgow in 1688. But is he really the origin of the term? And is the establishment of a herring-curing factory really the best story we could tell you? No. No it’s not.
The problem is that if Gibson were the original Glasgow magistrate, we’d have to accept a century-and-a-half gap between his appointment as provost in 1688 and the earliest record of the phrase in print in 1833. That’s not impossible of course (slang expressions are used relatively rarely in print, after all) but it nevertheless casts doubt over the Walter Gibson theory—and it becomes a lot more doubtful given the other explanation on offer.
In the revised edition of his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in 1894, EC Brewer included the Glasgow magistrate (alongside the Yarmouth capon and the Billingsgate pheasant) as a nickname for a salted herring. He also offered this brief yet brilliant account as an etymological explanation:
When George IV visited Glasgow, some wag placed a salt herring on the iron guard of the carriage of a well-known magistrate, who formed one of the deputation to receive him.
Where or how Brewer came across this story isn’t clear, but he goes on to explain:
I remember a similar joke played on a magistrate because he said, during a time of great scarcity, he wondered why the poor did not eat salt herrings, which he himself found very appetising.
So is this tale of a local Glaswegian scallywag secreting a herring onto a processional carriage true?
Well, by name-checking George IV, Brewer is certainly proposing a date that seems to fit with the evidence: George took to the throne in 1820 and reigned for the next ten years, so written evidence dating from around 1833 is perfectly reasonable. There is, however, a problem: King George only visited Scotland once in his ten-year reign—and he never set foot in Glasgow.
In 1822, George IV became the first Hanoverian monarch—as well as the first reigning monarch in nearly 200 years—to visit Scotland when he stayed in Edinburgh for three weeks in mid August. During that time, the king attended all sorts of predictably glamorous pageants and processions (all stage-managed by Sir Walter Scott, no less) and gamely managed to make a complete fool of himself by opting to wear bright pink stockings under a criminally undersized kilt. At no point, however, did he travel across to Glasgow.
So does this blow Brewer’s fishy theory out of the water? Perhaps not. It’s thought that some 300,000 Scottish people—one in seven of the entire population at the time—turned out to see the various events put on for the royal visit in Edinburgh in 1822, and a large proportion of those had made the 40-mile trip from Glasgow, reportedly leaving the city all but deserted.
So could it be that Brewer’s Glaswegian prankster was in fact among the crowds in Edinburgh, rather than his home city? It’s not only plausible, but it’s a much better story...