glasgow has always seemed to strike me as a city i am very much at home in. i guess a lot of that boils down to the fact that it really found its feet as a city at the same time that manchester did, so walking the streets and seeing grand buildings which are paeans to victorian industry, i can’t help but be reminded of the architecture which made me fall so deeply in love with manchester the first time around. that is before i get down to the business of it having one of the finest record shops in the world in monorail (they have a specific section for 60s french pop, and one of the finest collections of electronic music around), the terrific pubs and quite amazing food. though one of the things that i’ve always admired glasgow for is that the city, the heart of the city, is full of green space. this is something which the victorian masters of manchester didn’t plan into their metropolis, whilst i can point to the fact that even on a three day trip last week i visited four different parks, all within walking distance of each other – and there were more on my list which i didn’t get to see. there is always next time…
the green area i was most focused on visiting this time around was the necropolis. towering high above the city, this monument to the memory of the industrialists and traders who built the city we see today, has always captured my imagination. it seems to have been a backdrop to most of my engagement with the city, which is pretty understandable as it is the backdrop to vast swathes of the place. overlooking the city from the east, towering up over the 800 year old cathedral, the front face of the necropolis is a grand sight. right at the peak of the park stands the sixteenth century clergyman/actionman john knox, literally towering above all that he views. this is the view of the necropolis that most people know, and take as read. i will readily admit that i had not previously been aware that knox actually pre-dates the cemetery, and that actually this monument was in place from 1825 in what was then fir park.
the necropolis, based very much on the nouveau style cemetery which was becoming popularised on the continent in the style of père lachaise in paris, was constructed following an 1831 competition (sponsored by the merchants’ house), offering a top prize of £50, to convert fir park into a site “respectful to the dead, safe and sanitary to the living, dedicated to the genius of memory and to extend religious and moral feeling.” the competition, and resulting exhibition at the argyll arcade (nb – home to the oldest pub in the city, sloans. nice enough downstairs, quite stunning if you get the chance to poke around in the rooms coming off the beautiful staircase as you move up the building) resulted in the 1833 opening of the necropolis.
the necropolis has seen 50,000+ burials, with over 3500 tombs covering vast sections of the 37 acre site. the grander tombs towards the top of the hill had to be blasted into the rockface itself, which very much accounts for the feeling of permanence that you pick up from walking around the place. here are the fine, lasting memorials to the great, and not too great, of glasgow. there are monuments designed by the pre-eminant architects and designers of the time, including alexander ‘greek’ thompson, john bryce, david hamilton and charles mackintosh – monuments which go a long way to confirming the visual representation of “the feeling of confidence and wealth and security of that time.”
it is really difficult to work out where to start talking about the impact of the necropolis. face one direction and you are overwhelmed by the scale and grandeur of glasgow cathedral (which looks 100 times more impressive from the inside) and the behemoth of james miller’s royal infirmary buildings, acting as gateway to the city. the infirmary in particular screams of the civilising aims of late victorian/early edwardian society. continue following the city around and your eyes will eventually catch up your nose, with the yeasty wafts of tennent’s wellpark brewery probably reaching you before you see it below you. you can just about make out the people’s palace in the distance too. oh, and of course you can see the scottish countryside all around the city limits too. this is a stunning view, and that is before you start looking around the necropolis proper.
walking around the monuments, tombs, trees and parkland on a bright late autumn afternoon, this place looks just stunning. memorials to loved ones rise from the hillside, reaching up towards the bright blue sky. one of the hugely interesting, and massively impressive things is that just when you think you’ve got the whole place in your view you reach a summit or corner, beyond which there stretches another perfectly kept field of headstones. on one occasion this happened and it was impossible to do anything other than stop and admire the beauty; it looked as if a row of trees has decided to drop their perfectly golden leaves about ten minutes earlier, which were now creating a boastful pathway between the graves. simply beautiful, and one of those quiet moments when you look around, wanting to find everyone else in the city and make sure that they see this.
though it wasn’t all calmness and quiet. like all the burial grounds which i have spent any amount of time in, the necropolis is still an active place. it isn’t overgrown like abney park; it hasn’t been managed into a modern park-space like angel meadow, but there are still people using the place. one old chap was out running around the peaks of the hill, much like i used to do at crookes cemetery. tourists wandered. stonemasons made sympathetic repairs to crumbling monuments. and knox watched on, the necropolis and the city carrying on about their business.
i’ll leave it to stevie jackson of belle and sebastian to have the last word. i’m more than willing to trust his opinion.
“one of the quietest and most beautiful spots in glasgow, not so much hanging with the dead but just hanging with yourself. well, they say when you talk to the dead, you’re really talking to yourself anyway. gives that serene feeling. marvel at the tombs of the tobacco lords, the dimensions of which eclipse the size of some of the flats i’ve lived in.”