The area was traditionally home to large numbers of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, as well as at one stage housing the vast majority of Scotland's Jewish population. The Jewish population has more or less left the area completely, and although the Irish-Catholic population has diminished to an extent, a high number have remained after the area's redevelopment.
The area today is now a mixture between working-class and middle-class people, with a rather cosmopolitan atmosphere. The name Gorbals comes from the Scottish Gaelic appellation, Gort a' Bhaile ("field of the town").
The origins of the Gorbals area date back to the 14th century, when it was a village - sometimes known as Bridgend - which grew up around what was then the River Clyde’s most westerly crossing point: a bridge completed in 1345 by Bishop William Rae of Glasgow, aided by Lady Lochow. This bridge stood until the 19th century and was the only one on the Clyde below Bothwell till the erection of the Broomielaw Bridge in 1768.
Five years later, a leper hospital dedicated to St Ninian was founded by Lady Lochow at the Gorbals end of the bridge. Hospital Street stands on the site. After the Protestant Reformation, in 1579, the church feued the land to Sir George Elphinstone, a merchant who was Provost of Glasgow from 1600 to 1606. The barony and regality of the Gorbals was confirmed in 1606 by a charter of King James VI which vested the powers of regality over barony in Elphinstone and his descendants.
These powers descended to Sir Robert Douglas of Blackerstone, who in 1650 disponed the Gorbals to Glasgow's magistrates' for the benefit of the city, the Trades' House, and Hutchesons' Hospital. The magistrates from then on collected the rents and duties and divided them: one fourth to the city, one fourth to the Trades' House, and the remaining half to Hutchesons' Hospital.
In 1790 the lands were divided into lots; the City acquired the old feus of Gorbals and Bridgend, and also the Kingston portion of the Barony of Gorbals; the Trades' House obtained a western section; and the remaining section lying to the east and south was allocated to Hutchesons' Hospital. The Hutcheson's Trust then sub-feud a portion of their lands to an ambitious builder - James Laurie, whose grave - along with many of the other builders of Gorbals, all marked with well-carved masons' implements, indicating Masters' status - is still visible in the Burial Ground (established 1715,now the Gorbals Rose Garden) The districts are now known as the Gorbals, Laurieston, Tradeston, Kingston, and Hutchesontown. What was once known as Little Govan to the east is now known as Polmadie. Glimpses of Old Glasgow, from which the above is taken, by Andrew Aird gives a careful history of Gorbals as well as a detailed portrait of a lively and successful industrial suburb of the late 19th century (1894) just about to be overwhelmed by industrialisation and over-population.
The Gorbals has long had a reputation as a gritty and rough area. Attempts to clear the slum tenements (originally attempted by The City Improvement Trust in 1866) by Glasgow Corporation and replace them with new high-rise housing in the 1960s did little to improve this reputation. Throughout the 1980s the Gorbals was often referred to as the most dangerous place in the UK, as street gangs and casual violence were rife. The poor design and low-quality construction of the concrete 20-storey flats led to innumerable social and health problems in the area; many of the blocks developed damp and structural problems. The most infamous of these schemes, the Queen Elizabeth Square flats designed by Sir Basil Spence, was demolished in 1993 to make way for a new generation of housing development. Tragically one local resident was struck on the chest by debris during their demolition and killed. In 2004, Glasgow City Council announced plans to demolish yet more of the decaying high-rise blocks, and to comprehensively refurbish and re-clad others.
Much of the area, particularly Hutchesontown, has now been comprehensively redeveloped for the third time, providing a mix of private and social housing. Earlier phases of this recent redevelopment tended toward yellow-brick reinterpretations of traditional tenements, in a post-modern style. More recent phases, masterplanned by Piers Gough, have employed noted modern architects such as Page/Park, Elder & Cannon and CZWG, resulting in more bold and radical designs, accompanied by innovative street plans and high-quality landscaping and incorporating many pieces of public art. Most of the area's few remaining Victorian tenements have also been refurbished and reoccupied, often by young professionals. Along with the district's close proximity to the city centre, redevelopment has caused property prices to rise dramatically and the area is in the throes of gentrification. Shopping and leisure facilities, however, remain limited.
The well known Citizens Theatre is based in the area. The area also has a local newspaper "Local News for Southsiders". The area is served by Bridge Street and West Street Subway stations and numerous bus routes. Plans were unveiled in March 2007 that would give the area a further Subway station, in the heart of the redeveloped Hutchesontown.