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Famous Scots - Alexander Greek Thomson

ALEXANDER 'Greek' THOMSON (1817-1875) Glasgow's other great architect. Not yet awarded the international status of Mackintosh, but recognised as a unique talent whose contribution to the architecture of the city is immeasurable and whose remaining works, in the light of what has been lost, merit careful preservation. He was born in Balfron, Stirlingshire, and despite the absence of a formal education, the young Thomson secured work in a lawyer's office before joining an architectural practice.

His output was prolific and he produced a remarkable portfolio of work such as Moray Place (1859) and the Grosvenor Building (1859); the stunningly original villas of "Holmwood" (1857), "Ellisland" (1871) and 25 Mansionhouse Road (1856); the powerful streetscape of Queen's Park Terrace (1857) in Eglinton Street; and the landmark churches on Caledonia Road (1856) and St. Vincent Street (1859). Thomson poured his creative energies into the Queen's Park U.P. Church (1867) and Great Western Terrace (1867) - this work finally securing him the approval (9 April 1817 – 22 March 1875) was an eminent Scottish architect and architectural theorist who was a pioneer in sustainable building. Although his work was published in the architectural press of his day, it was little appreciated outwith Glasgow during his lifetime. It has only been since the 1950s and 1960s that his critical reputation has revived—not least of all in connection with his probable influence on Frank Lloyd Wright.[1]

Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote of Thomson in 1966: “Glasgow in the last 150 years has had two of the greatest architects of the Western world. C.R.Mackintosh was not highly productive but his influence in central Europe was comparable to such American architects as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. An even greater and happily more productive architect, though one whose influence can only occasionally be traced in America in Milwaukee and in New York and not at all as far as I know in Europe, was Alexander

Thomson was born in the village of Balfron in Stirlingshire. The son of John Thomson, a bookkeeper, and Elizabeth Cooper Thomson, he was the ninth of twelve children. His father, who already had eight grown children from his previous marriage, died when Alexander was seven. The family consequently moved to the outskirts of Glasgow, but tragedy struck when the eldest daughter, Jane, and three of her brothers died between 1828 and 1830, the year that Alexander's mother died. The remaining children moved with one of the older brothers, William, a teacher, and his wife and child to Hangingshaw, just south of Glasgow. The Thomson boys all worked from a young age, but the children were also home schooled. It is believed that Alexander worked in a lawyer's office, possibly Wilson, James, and Kays, where his older brother, Ebenezer, was employed as a bookkeeper and where he later became a partner in the business.

[edit] Career

Alexander was eventually apprenticed to Glasgow architect Robert Foote, ultimately gaining a place in the office of John Baird as a draughtsman. In 1848 Thomson set up his own practice, Baird & Thomson, with John Baird II, who became his brother-in-law, and this firm lasted nine years. In 1857, as "the rising architectural star of Glasgow,"[3] he entered into practice with his brother George where he was to enjoy the most productive years of his life. He served as president of both the Glasgow Architectural Society and the Glasgow Institute of Architects. Thomson was an elder of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and his deep religious convictions informed his work. There is a strong suggestion that he closely identified Solomon’s temple with the plan of the Greek basilica.

Caledonia Road Church, Glasgow

He produced a diverse range of structures including villas, a castle, urbane terraces, commercial warehouses, tenements, and three extraordinary churches. Of these, Caledonia Road Free Church (1856–57 - now a ruin), Queen's Park United Presbyterian Church (1869 - destroyed in WWII), and St Vincent Street Church (1859), the last is the only intact survivor. Hitchcock once stated, “[Thomson has built] three of the finest Romantic Classical churches in the world”.[4] Thomson developed his own highly idiosyncratic style from Greek, Egyptian and Levantine sources and freely adapted them to the needs of the modern city.

Thomson's Egyptian Halls on Union Street
St. Vincent Street Free Church

At the age of 34, Thomson designed his first and only castle, Craigrownie Castle, which stands at the tip of the Rosneath Peninsula in Cove, overlooking Loch Long. The six-storey structure is Scots Baronial in style, featuring a central tower with battlements, steep gables and oriel windows, in addition to a chapel and a mews cottage.

Thomson's villa designs were realized at Langside, Pollokshields, Helensburgh, Cove, the Clyde Estuary , and on the Isle of Bute. His "mature villas are Grecian in style while resembling no other Greek Revival houses,...[and they] are dominated by horizontal lines and rest on a strong podium."[5] According to Gavin Stamp, "Thomson carefully designed his villas with symmetries within an overall an overall asymmetry in a personal language in which the horizontal discipline of a continuous governing order—whether expressed or implied—was never abandoned.[5] Regarding similarities to Frank Lloyd Wright, Stamp states, "It has often been remarked that there are clear resemblances between the early houses of the Prairie School and Thomson's horizontally massed design, with its low-pitched gables and spreading eaves -- together with a connecting garden." As Sir John Summerson noted, "There is something wildly 'American' about Thomson -- a 'New World' attitude. You can see it in the villas...a sort of primitivism, ultra-Tuscan." [5]

Caledonia Road Church, Glasgow

Later in his career he would abandon his eclecticism and adopt the purely Ionic Greek style for which he is best known, as such he is perhaps the last in a continuous tradition of British Greek Revival architects. In attacking the Gothic, he "insisted that 'Stonehenge is really more scientifically constructed than York Minster'...[alluding to] Pugin's comment that in their temples 'the Greeks erected their columns like the uprights of Stonehenge'."[6] Other important works still standing include Moray Place, Great Western Terrace, Egyptian Halls in Union Street, Grosvenor Building, Buck's Head Building in Argyle Street, Grecian Buildings in Sauchiehall Street, Walmer and Millbrae Crescents, and his villa, Holmwood House, at Cathcart.

Terraced houses on Millbrae Crescent in Langside, c. 1870

Grave monuments designed by Thomson that are worthy

Headstone Photograph

Further Information



Cemetery: Sothern Necropolis

  Caledonia Road

Town: Glasgow

Region: Glasgow and Clyde Valley

Country: Scotland


Please Note, the marker on this map indicates the Cemetery location, not the location of a particular grave. is a privately owned website with no affiliation to any Local Councils.