The GlaswegAsian Gems 

The South Asian community in Glasgow has been an integral part of Scotland’s history for well over 100 years. The first recorded person arriving and settling in Scotland in 1855 was Maharajah Duleep Singh the last ruler of Punjab. They have successfully contributed and settled in Scotland to make this their home. They are mainly from Pakistan and India with the majority from Pakistan. 

In 2011 according to the census of that year, the South Asian community that settled in Glasgow alone was 65,000 and as a guestimate over a decade later will be well over 100,000 in 2023. However, have you ever wondered what motivated the early generation to travel halfway across the world to a foreign country and eventually settle in Glasgow? What challenges they faced, the sacrifices and the contributions they have made to Scotland and Britain? 

The Colourful Heritage organisation is Scotland’s first and largest South Asian community heritage focused project. Its aims are to capture and preserve Scotland’s South Asian history, celebrate the community’s achievements and to inspire the present and future generations of all communities. It has been documenting their lived experiences through the use of oral video histories to create the largest digital online archive in Scotland with over 125 unique stories, as relayed by the protagonists themselves. The stories shared give an amazing insight into South Asian history from migration during the time of partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 to migrating to Scotland, finding work here and how they eventually settled and made Scotland a home for themselves and their family.  

The video footage enables you to hear the first-hand accounts and allows you to see the facial expressions and feel the emotions of each person creating vivid and poignant memories of these men and women from Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh. This in turn helps viewers to gain a better understanding of the community’s earliest times in Scotland. 

Both the online video archive and the digital timeline are treasure troves with so many hidden historical gems and pearls of wisdom of Scottish South Asian heritage. This article will barely scratch the surface as we delve deeper into just a few of the fascinating stories of Scotland’s South Asian community and their achievements and immense contributions not only to Scotland and UK but in some instances beyond this. 

This article will give you a flavour of just a small selection of the hidden stories that we have discovered through some of our oral video interviews with either the children or grandchildren of our elders or the elders themselves sharing their own stories. 

Atta Ashrif – the story of the first Muslim Association and mosque in Scotland  

Mr Atta Ashrif (Image 1) came to Glasgow in 1926 from a village in undivided India called Mardarpur as an economic migrant. He eventually setup business in the Gorbals area and owned a warehouse with Mr Tanda called ‘Tanda & Ashrif’ housed at 23 Nicholson St.  

Mr Atta Ashrif's obituary
Image 1: Mr Atta Ashrif’s obituary written by Bashir Maan in ‘The Herald’, Saturday 30th January, 1999, copyright ‘The Ashrif family’ 

The early South Asian community which consisted mainly of men that came from India and Pakistan from various faiths worked as peddlers (door to door salesmen). In order to fit in they quickly adapted from wearing their traditional ‘shalwar and kameez’ or ‘dhoti’ (sarong) attire to western clothing such as shirt, tie and trousers with trench coats and hats (See Image 2).  

Image 2: Peddlars outside Tanda & Ashrif warehouse, 23 Nicholson St., Gorbals 1953, copyright Colourful Heritage

The warehouse was a space where they got together with other countrymen to socialise, play cards and share their concerns and issues faced about work and housing amongst one another or any other interesting stories of the day. Mr Ashrif lived in the flat upstairs and at 4pm every day his wife would send tea and homemade snacks for everyone to enjoy. The warehouse also acted as a ‘bank’ for many of the peddlers as items to sell were more often given on credit so the peddlers could pay back only once they sold the goods. 

In 1933, Atta Ashrif setup the first Muslim Association in Glasgow known as ‘Jamiat ul Muslimin’ (incidentally the 3rd in UK outside of London) which later in 1945 became the ‘Jamiat Ittehad ul Muslimin’ (Muslim Mission) after joining with a splinter group. This was the humble beginning of an organised Muslim community in Glasgow and in Scotland. It was also perhaps the initial unintentional step towards Muslim settlement in Scotland. The aim of the association was to fundraise to establish Glasgow’s first mosque. With the help of around 10 people who contributed around £100 each they managed in 1944 to open the first converted building mosque at 27 Oxford St, Gorbals. The Muslim mission had purchased the entire three-story tenement building in the heart of the Gorbals, where most of the South Asian community lived. It also housed the ‘Seamens Club’ for the Indian sailors that arrived in the shipping docks.  

The mosque itself was located on the first floor and there were residential flats that they rented out as a means of income. The mosque itself was also used in later years as an Urdu and Islamic school to teach the Quran once families with young children arrived. In that sense it was a social space for parents and children to meet and learn about both their culture and religion. The Moving Image Archive has some amazing footage of the building itself and the Muslim School from the mid-1960s which shows the large number of boys and girls that attended class. This was the start of the community showing their faith identity. By 1983 the Pakistani Muslim community had raised around £3 million to build Scotland’s largest and first purpose-built mosque, the Glasgow Central Mosque. It sits pride of place in the Gorbals, a location close to the hearts of the South Asian community where once some of them owned warehouses and smaller Cash & Carrys. The mosque signs welcome everyone with the words ‘Failte’ and is visible from afar with its beautiful gold and green glass dome glistening like a jewel along the river Clyde. 

Tune into the video story of Zahid Ashrif to hear about his grandfather Atta Ashrif and some fascinating stories of his own father Dr Ibrahim Ashrif (see last section for info). 

Today there are well over 80 mosques and associations established across Scotland and continue to expand. In the words of Bashir Maan CBE for Atta Ashrif in his book Muslims in Scotland:

The seed sowed by him has now grown into a large strong tree with many branches. What a legacy to leave behind!’ 

Jeevan Pall Singh – Scotland’s first Gurdwara in Glasgow  

The first Gurdwara itself was established in the unconventional setting of a top floor flat of a tenement building in 79 South Portland Street in Gorbals in Glasgow. The property was bought on 25th March 1952 from Mr Lal. It was spearheaded by Messrs Tersem Lal, Jiwan Singh Pall (image 3) and Jagar Singh Natoowala who personally contributed money to purchase the property. These early pioneers became the first committee members of the Gurdwara along with a few others.  

Jeewan Singh Pall's driving licence
Image 3 : Photo of Mr Jeewan Singh Pall from his driver’s license issued in Northern Ireland, 1951, Copyright Mr Gurdev Singh Pall  

The committee then approached others within the Sikh, Muslim and Hindu student communities to contribute towards funds for purchasing the property. Some of those that contributed were Messrs Kher Singh Rakhra, Jagat Singh Nijjar, Bishan Singh, Sant Singh Pall, Lohra Singh Landa as well as some of the earliest pioneering Muslim arrivals of Noor Mohammed Tanda who came in 1916 to Glasgow and Fateh Mohammed Sharif who came in 1926 as well as many other small businesses. Many of these contributors still have descendants living in Glasgow today. You can watch and hear the story of the first Gurdwara from the grandson of Mr Jiwan Singh Pall, Mr Gurdev Singh Pall.  From image 4 you can see both men and women along with their children attending prayers. 

Both the first Mosque and Gurdwara in Glasgow were housed in typical Victorian tenements. They were knocked down during the regeneration of the Gorbals and today we have many mosques and several gurdwaras in Glasgow with two very large purpose-built ones, one in the West end of the city and the other in the South side where there is a large population of Sikhs. Find out more about the migration story of one of the first Sikh settlers in Glasgow and the story of the first Gurdwara through Jeevan Pall Singh’s grandson, Mr Gurdev Singh Pall’s video history. 

Worshippers at Glasgow's first Gurdwara
Image 4: Worshippers at Glasgow’s first Gurdwara at 79 Portland Street, Gorbals, Glasgow, 1950s. Copyright Mr Gurdev Singh Pall  

Sampuran Singh Battu – Sacrifices in Scotland 

Another fascinating story comes from Mrs Daljit Kaur who came to Glasgow as a young child by ship with her parents. In her video history, she relays the story of her father, Sampuran Singh Battu who had come to Glasgow from India to find work before Daljit had arrived. She also goes on to share the heart-breaking story of the sacrifices both her mother and her father made to settle in Glasgow and make a new life for themselves. Her mother was the youngest of 10 children and she had two children by the time she was 19 and by the age of 21 had to leave her parents, family and her country, India, to live in a strange country with a man she had only known for a brief while as he had come to Glasgow a few years earlier. There was no other family in Glasgow so it was very hard but there were a few other Sikh families that they made friends with, that helped to support them. About her mother she recalls,

‘They were all in the same situation…Many a night was spent crying’ 

Daljit’s father wore a head dress (turban) called a ‘pagri’ and had a beard when he first came which symbolises pride and honour in the Sikh faith. In order to fit in and find work he had to sacrifice the teachings of his faith and cut his hair and shave his beard (Image 5). By doing such, he had upset his family as it is against the Sikh religion to cut the hair. Such an act was believed to bring shame upon the family which no doubt would have been a very difficult decision for him. Daljit shares the emotional story of the struggles and sacrifices of her father in her video story.

Sampuran Singh Battu
Image 5: Sampuran Singh Battu, Glasgow, 1950s. Copyright Mrs Daljit Kaur  

Amazing academic achievements by GlaswegAsians 

Dr. Ibrahim Ashrif (son of Atta Ashrif) was one of the first young children that came from India to study at the fee-paying Allan Glen’s School in Glasgow in 1936 (see image 6). He enrolled for his PhD in Agricultural Sciences at Edinburgh University in 1948 and went on to work for the British Foreign Service in Gambia in the mid-50s having completed his PhD. By 1964 he was awarded an OBE for his work in writing a dictionary in the Mandingo language to help his fellow colleagues that were coming to work in Gambia. His son Zahid (grandson of Atta Ashrif) also relays his father’s story in his video story.

Ibrahim Ashrif's student card
Image 6: Student card belonging to Ibrahim Ashrif from Agricultural University, Faisalabad (formerly Lyallpur), 1948. Copyright The Ashrif family 

Zubaidah Hussain was one of the first South Asians to be made a ‘Dux’ in high school who managed to beat her younger sister by just one mark! She got the highest marks in her fourth year exams from the whole year in the mid-1960s. Considering she and her sister had spent a significant portion of time in Multan, Pakistan before starting Adelphi Terrace High School in the Gorbals in first year, she made her parents very proud. She recalls in her interview how much she enjoyed learning and being at school under the caring nature of the teachers (see images to the right). Hear the story of Zubaidah told in her own words.

Dr. Ihsan Ullah Khand also made a significant contribution that benefitted the scientific community worldwide. He came from Lahore in Pakistan in 1965 to study for his PhD in Chemistry at Strathclyde University in Glasgow.  

Zubaidah Azad with Dux
Image 7: Zubaidah and her Dux prize – Copyright Zubaidah Azad 

Zubaidah Hussain  
Image 8: Zubaidah Hussin (on the right). Copyright Zubaidah Hussain  

Upon its completion in 1968 and in the subsequent years, he had well over 30 papers published in a variety of well-known scientific journals as he discovered the hugely important chemical reaction widely known as the Pauson-Khand Reaction. This was a significant discovery as even today it is a very well-known and widely studied chemical reaction used during the synthesis of medicinal drugs. It involves using a double and triple bonded chemical structure along with carbon monoxide and a Cobalt complex to create a cyclopentenone structure. Such cyclic structures are very important in drug synthesis nowadays and have since been improved to give a better yield by adjusting reaction conditions (see image 9). His family remained and settled in Glasgow and are now into the 3rd generation. His daughter Lubna Kerr was recently interviewed for our video archive, so watch out for her story on our webpage in the coming months. 

Dr. Ihsan Ullah Khand
Image 9: Dr. Ihsan Ullah Khand on his graduation for a PhD in Chemistry from Strathclyde University, 1968, Glasgow. Copyright Lubna Kerr  

Many of our South Asian elders have made huge sacrifices; from being displaced during partition and experiencing trauma to dealing with displacement once again when they migrated to Scotland. Linked with this is their resilient and determined nature to deal with any challenges including staying and building their future in a foreign land. They have paved the way from creating faith schools, mosques, burial sites and South Asian grocery stores as well as creating jobs for everyone through their bigger businesses from Cash & Carrys (e.g Castle & Sher Bros) to opening restaurants that invented the nation’s favourite curry, the ‘Chicken Tikka Masala’. 

These stories and many more are the hidden gems of countless untold stories and contributions of Scotland’s South Asian community over the last 70-80 years. To watch and hear many others, visit our video archive or browse our Scotland specific digital timeline. 

Dr Saqib Razzaq (Project Officer, Colourful Heritage), May 2023 

Twitter: @ColourHeritage  

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