The Queer Folk o’ the Shaws: Flemish immigrants in Pollokshaws
As part of this blog series we will be examining evidence of Flemish immigrants settling in different parts of Scotland. The heaviest concentrations of Flemish appear to have been on the east, Flanders-facing, side of Scotland. In the article below, however, John McGee examines the oral tradition surrounding a set of Flemish immigrants that worked, and perhaps settled in the Pollockshaws district near Glasgow. The Flemish in this area must have been quite distinctive as they were unflatteringly described by the locals as “the queer folk o’ the Shaws”. John McGee is a professional genealogist and a member of ASGRA (The Association of Scottish Genealogists and Researchers in Archives).
My maternal grandparents lived most of their married life in a south side district of Glasgow called Pollokshaws and my grandmother used to say that she was ‘one o’ the queer folk o’ the Shaws’. When I quizzed her about this she told me that the queer folk were originally Flemish weavers who had been brought over to Pollokshaws by the landowners, the Maxwells of Pollok, because of their exceptional weaving skills. Over time the appendage of ‘queer folk’ was applied to any native of Pollokshaws village; however, it was usually as a derogatory term and was not appreciated by the villagers. However, trying to prove the Flemish connection has been difficult and it appears to be a legend that has been passed more orally than being recorded on paper.
The earliest record of the queer folk dates back to a broadsheet ballad called The Queer Folk of the Shaws by Glasgow writer James Fisher (born 1818). Published in 1850 the song tells the tale of a young Glasgow lad who attends the Pollokshaws races. Before he sets off his mother has some words of warning.[]
My mither tichtly coonsell’d me before I gaed oot,
To tak’ gude care and mind my e’e wi’ what I was aboot;
Said she, “Ye may be trod to death beneath the horses’ paws;
An’ mind ye, lad, the sayin’s true – there’s queer folk i’ the Shaws.”
Fisher was obviously alluding to something that was well-known about Shaws folk before his own time and it was recorded that ex-Provost Cameron of Pollokshaws ‘recollects the saying, “the queer folk o’ the Shaws” as common in the Gorbals in the year 1832’.[] Although the origins of the appendage seem lost in the mists of time the reasons for it appear to be reasonably consistent, if somewhat distorted over time. Robert Watson postulates two theories on the queer folk in his ‘History of Pollokshaws’ as follows.[]
The saying “The Queer Folk o’ the Shaws” is one which is undoubtedly current throughout Glasgow and far beyond the confines of this country during the generations of time past but is virtually unknown to the present Glaswegians. But it is said that even in the distant sub-continent of India a native ascribed the eccentricity of a certain Scotsman to the fact that he came from the Shaws and everybody knew that Queer Folk dwelled in the Shaws. Its origin is a little obscured in the mists of antiquity but it is likely that its source can be traced to one of two groups or both. After the Revocation of Nantes in 1685 denied them religious freedom, the French Protestants or Huguenots fled for safety and some came to the then rural village of Pollokshaws. They were mostly weavers and tanners. When the local Scots saw their different clothes and heard their strange tongue, they called their friends in areas such as Govan and Cathcart….and said, “Come and see the Queer Folk o’ the Shaws!”
The other alternative could be the Dutch Flemish weavers who came into the Shaws about 1850 on request for skilled workers to work in Arbuckle Mill in Coustonholm Road, near Shawlands, and lived in steep cobble-stoned Coustonhill Street….The Dutch weavers came complete with wooden clogs or sabots which were left beside their machines, useful because the [shop] floor was often swimming in water. For the same reasons as the earlier Huguenots they would be regarded as queer.
In a similar vein the following was written in ‘A Brief History of Pollokshaws’ by Jack Gibson.[]
How the expression came about is not known for certain, but a possibility is that the description was first applied to a group of French speaking weavers of the Protestant faith, probably from Flanders, who settled in Pollokshaws during the 18th century seeking work and freedom of worship. Because of their foreign tongue no doubt these people would appear odd, not only to the parochially minded inhabitants of the village, but also to others in the neighbouring towns and villages who in due course came to apply the description to all the people of the Shaws.
A third reference appears in the unlikely setting of an antipodean pamphlet, which was celebrating the anniversary of the arrival of Pollokshaws Secessionists in 1863 at Pollok Landing, Awhitu, New Zealand and which recorded the following.[]
At the time of the St Bartholemew’s Massacre in France in the reign of Henry VIII, a number of Flemish weavers came to settle in Pollokshaws and came to be known as “the queer folk”….as far back as 1724 an event known as the Pollokshaws Races took place. The theme of the meeting was spread by a popular ballad [of 1850] known as “The Queer Folk of the Shaws”, where a Glasgow mother warns her simple minded son of the hazards of a day at the Pollokshaws Races.
These three references appear to perpetuate the legend that the ‘queer folk’ were of French / Dutch Flemish origin, which suggests that the oral tradition has been handed down widely but due to the varying time periods no-one is sure when these Flemish weavers actually came to Pollokshaws. However, examination of the 1841 census for the village of Pollokshaws does not show a preponderance of names which might be classed as of Flemish origin. There is the odd Fleming family, but they are actually Irish immigrants. The only name that stands out is the surname Tassie. Appearing in Scotland as Tassie, according to Black, it is probably a nickname from the diminutive of the French taisson or ‘badger’. Spelling variations of this family name include Tasse, Taisse, Tasset and Tassiè. First found in the county of Hainault in Belgium where the name became noted for its many branches in the region, each house acquiring a status and influence which was envied by the princes of the region.[] The following is extracted from ‘Pollokshaws: a Village and Burgh’.[]
A shammy-mill [chamois] was started in 17th century by the Tassie family who were skinners and glovers on the right bank of the Cart at Shawbridge. Of the natives of Pollokshaws who have risen to distinction the foremost place is occupied by James Tassie, who achieved great fame in the fine arts. Tassie belonged to an old Pollokshaws family, whose name leads to the supposition that they came to this country as refugees….Settling in Pollokshaws they established themselves as tanners, skinners and glovers on the banks of the Cart, close to where the Shaw Bridge now is….James Tassie, skinner, is assessed twelve shillings….in the Poll Tax Rolls for “Eastwood parochine” in the year 1695….The grandson of this James Tassie….was born….”at Pollok-Shawes” on July 15, 1735….Tassie in 1766 went to London, where….his genius brought him success and ever widening fame. His cast of antique gems attained a remarkable vogue….He also devoted much of his skill to modelling cameos and intaglios….Tassie died in London on June 1, 1799….
….There is no representative of the Tassie family in Pollokshaws today. With the death of Mr. James Tassie, banker, and some time Provost of the Burgh, the line became extinct in the district.
Tassie Street in Shawlands is named after the ex-Provost James Tassie of Pollokshaws Burgh. It appears that any record of the Tassie line being one of the original Flemish immigrants, who became ‘the queer folk o’ the Shaws’, is now lost in time.
A thorough search of the extensive Maxwells of Pollok archives at the Mitchell Library, North Street, Glasgow produced nothing concrete to indicate a strong connection between the Maxwells’ industries at Pollokshaws and Flemish immigrants. Research into the Pollokshaws history archive at Pollokshaws Library, Shawbridge Street, Glasgow revealed the articles listed above, which indicated the various references to the oral legends. It seems that nowadays only the original oral legends of the Flemish in Pollokshaws remain.
Wheech Scottish Ancestry Services
email: [email protected]
 Pollokshaws Heritage Trail, Glasgow City Council publication, nd.
 Glasgow Herald, 11 April 1912.
 Queer Folk o’ the Shaws, Robert Watson, nd.
 A Brief History of Pollokshaws, Jack Gibson, 1980.
 Reunion of Descendants of the 1863 Settlers from Pollokshaws Original Secession Church, Scotland to Pollok, Awhitu Peninsula, New Zealand, 2001.
 Pollokshaws: Village and Burgh 1600-1912, A General Survey, McCallum, 1925.