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Glasgow has its very own City of the Dead, a monumental testimonial to the Victorian age on a hill beyond the Cathedral of St Mungo. It is an astonishing cemetery, a 37 acre site containing the remains of some 50,000 souls. Of course, the great unwashed majority lie in pitiable obscurity, but there are about 3,500 tombs (some of them up to 14 feet below ground) and extravagant memorials, altogether a shrine-like who’s who of Victorian Glasgow, when it was known as the second city of the Empire.
This vast resting place for the departed is a suitably historic spot. Here, it is said, the Druids had a sacred grove, and in the Molendinar Burn, which now flows beneath neighbouring Wishart Street, St Mungo once fished for salmon and baptised converts. Close by, in 1305, the Anglo-French Aymer de Valence, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, negotiated the betrayal of William Wallace by his fellow Scot, Sir John de Menteith. The land was bought by a group of the City’s most powerful traders, the Merchants’ House, in 1650. By the early 19th century, it had become a popular local recreation area, Fir Park. But, inspired by the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, it was decided to transform it into an interdenominational, and profitable, burial ground. And so it was, with the first committal taking place in 1832.
You’ll find Glasgow Necropolis by going through some wonderful cast-iron gates off the intriguing Cathedral Precinct, behind St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art. The gates were cast by the local Edington Foundry in 1838 and include the symbol of the Merchants’ House, a clipper sailing over the globe, with the motto toties redeuntis eodem – so often returning to the same place – which in the circumstances may be considered a little morbid. The gates name-check William Brown of Kilmardinny, who was Dean of Guild (responsible for the care of buildings) at the time and whose obituary described him as an ‘active citizen, as well as an energetic man of business’.
Glasgow has its own Bridge of Sighs too. Named for being the route the funeral processions took, the bridge spans the Molendinar Ravine (really, it is more like a shallow railway cutting) and busy Wishart Street and is your path to the Necropolis. It is a compelling walk; cemeteries can be compelling places. But there is something almost breathtaking about Glasgow Necropolis as you step onto the bridge and grasp the enormity and content of the view ahead. You can see why it might be called a city of the dead. It doesn’t help to be overlooked by the towering reputation of John Knox, hard-line leader of Scotland’s 16th century reformation, whose memorial (erected in 1825) points 200 feet heavenward on the highest, and most sought-after, part of the hill. Knox is actually buried under what is now the car park (parking space No 23, to be precise) at St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh; but surrounding him (so to speak) are Glasgow’s Victorian movers and shakers – industrialists, merchants, churchmen – all brought together in death and gazing out over the city they shaped in life.
The layout of Glasgow Necropolis is fairly informal, but some of the monuments are colossal and, to modern eyes, nauseating in their opulence. So much wealth spent commemorating those who, to be fair, are largely unremembered outside Glasgow and their time; so much that could have brought a little relief in a city where the poverty of many contrasted with the affluence of a few; but I guess the stonemasons did OK out of it. Countless monuments owe their design to classical influences from ancient Greece and Egypt. Allegedly, the place is also steeped in the iconography of freemasonry – whatever that means; I have always been slightly suspicious of people who need to hide behind arcane symbols, but I guess it keeps the conspiracy theorists and Dan Brown happy.
I do not, for one minute, denigrate any of those who are commemorated; I am sure many were good people and, besides, that was then and this is now. I merely question the degree to and the manner in which some of them, or their loved ones, sought immortal memory. That said, I would like to mention Charles Tennant (1768-1838), whose enormous effigy must be one of the largest in Glasgow Necropolis. Tennant was friends with Robbie Burns and George Stephenson, a chemist, industrialist, liberal and creator of the massive St Rollux chemical works at Springburn, once the largest in the world. Through that, Tennant was also instrumental in establishing the neighbouring railway works. All is now a retail park – I mention it because Mrs Britain and I often refuel there and like to remember Charles when we do; every little helps. Even more memorably, Glasgow Necropolis commemorates William Miller (1810-1972), the author of Wee Willie Winkie (1841) – though he was buried at Tollcross, in the east of Glasgow. Forgotten it? – here is the first verse:
Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town,
Up stairs and down stairs in his night-gown,
Tapping at the window, crying at the lock,
“Are the children in their bed, for it’s past ten o’clock?”
And in its original Scots:
Wee Willie Winkie rins through the toon,
Up stairs an’ doon stairs in his nicht-gown,
Tirlin’ at the window, crying at the lock,
“Are the weans in their bed, for it’s now ten o’clock?”
Despite the grandeur of Glasgow Necropolis, there is an inevitable air of sadness about it. A great number of the tombs are following their inhabitants into decay; there are alarming gaps in some, and weeds sprout from cracks and crevices like unwelcome body hair. The slightly surreal feeling as you wander through well-mowed pasture, reluctantly admiring shrines and surrounded by the long-dead, is exacerbated by kids playing in and out of the stones, people having picnics and walking their dogs. Again, I do not criticise; do the dead prefer laughter to tears?