The People’s Friend Magazine thought that Halloween would be the perfect time for a graveyard story so on a wet and windy day I made my first winding ascent up the path to the top of Glasgow’s Necropolis where the usually magnificent view from the top was obscured by heavy soot-grey clouds making the dilapidated graves look even more forlorn. There were broken angels on the ground, some without heads, and lichen and ivy growing profusely over the stones. In the encroaching dusk as I headed back down towards the warmth of the cathedral I passed the monument to William Miller who wrote Wee Willie Winkie. He is not actually buried here but it is rumoured that at nightfall a shadowy figure in a nightgown is often seen flitting across the entrance known as the Bridge of Sighs and on murky that day I could quite believe it.
The following day couldn’t have been more different. The cloud had cleared to give everything a clean and bright newly-washed shine. The colours seemed vivid, insects buzzed, birds perched and people chattered in the weak wintery sunshine as they strolled the lower paths or puffed up the higher ones. The beautiful architecture of some of the memorials and vaults made it more like a sculpture park than a graveyard. Even the fallen angels looked like modern art rather than forgotten relics as a bracing breeze blew away the cobwebs and dust and the watery light made the re-erected monuments and new memorials simply gleam.
Built on a hill, beside the cathedral and above the old part of the city with views way into the distance the Necropolis has become quite a tourist attraction, drawing in crowds from all over the world. With a design based on the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, but due to the geography of the land laid out in twisting curving upward paths, it was arranged as a garden burial ground by the Victorians when the churchyards became overcrowded and unhygienic. With the idea that people would like a flower-filled hill to take their eternal rest in, they set out to make the place as Eden-like as possible. It was open to all faiths, including those who had no faith at all and to rich and poor, although the poor tended to be buried further down the hill, often without a headstone and the rich had ornate mausoleums with columns and pillars and angels to mark their spot.
It is a delightful jumble of newly renovated and wild crumbling. The original 15 acres now extends to 37 and includes some new sculptures and monuments, a wildflower meadow that is attracting animals, insects and birds, well-maintained pathways and seats and even guided tours for those who want them. The ruined graves are being restored by a volunteer organisation, ‘The Friends of the Glasgow Necropolis’.
This spectacular City of the Dead attracts students and experts in a variety of fields, from the archaeology students and artists who learn about sculpture from today’s patron the renowned sculptor Alexander Stoddart, to families tracing their ancestors from the extensive burial records, history pupils hearing the tales of the famous figures and wildlife experts searching for rare species of insects. The friendly new museum offers sustenance and more information or look at their website: www.glasgownecropolis.org. The full article appears in The People’s Friend Special No 148.