Originally known as Fir Park and based on 37 acres of land on top of a hill to the east of the city’s iconic cathedral, Glasgow Necropolis is a Victorian garden cemetery full of inspired architecture and monuments to some of the city’s and Scotland’s most famous sons.
The cemetery started its journey in 1650 when the Glasgow Merchants House acquired the land, and as the west side was rocky and not able to be developed it was subsequently planted with fir trees – hence its original name.
However, in 1804, the Scots Firs in the park started to die and were replaced by mainly elm and willow and the area became a Victorian park and arboretum.
In 1831 the chamberlain of the Merchants House noted that the park appeared “admirably adapted” to that of the iconic Parisian cemetery Père-Lachaise. He noted that transforming the land into a place to let the dead rest would “afford a much wanted accommodation to the higher classes, would at the same time convert an unproductive property into a general and lucrative source of profit, to a charitable institution”.
A competition was then launched with prizes of £5 to £50 to masterplan a design that could transform the land into a working cemetery. Despite brothers David and John Bryce claiming the top two prizes the ultimate decision led to landscape gardener George Mylne named as Superintendent and head gardener tasked with undertaking the project.
A year later and Glasgow Necropolis was open with the first burial taking place that same year. Jewish jeweller Joseph Levi had the honour of becoming the first permanent resident of the newly completed burial ground.
Since then around 50,000 burials have taken place at the Necropolis and some 3,500 tombs, mausoleums and sculptures have been constructed, some up to 14 feet deep with stone walls and brick partitions, with some tombs created after they were blasted from the rockface.
The Necropolis features notable work from a range of famous Scottish architects including Charles Rennie Mackintosh, David Hamilton and Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson. The main entrance is approached by a bridge over what was then the Molendinar Burn, in which St Mungo was said to have fished for salmon, designed by Hamilton and was completed in 1836.
It became known as the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ because it was part of the route of funeral processions and is in reference to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, of which it was inspired. The ornate gates by both David and his brother James Hamilton was later erected in 1838, restricting access onto the bridge.
In addition, three modern memorials lie between the gates and the bridge: a memorial to still-born children; a memorial to the Korean War; and a memorial to Glaswegian recipients of the Victoria Cross. Interestingly, the Necropolis’ most notable statue, celebrating the leader of the Scottish reformation John Knox, was erected long before the cemetery was even created in 1825.
Famous Glaswegian names laid to rest at Glasgow Necropolis include Charles Tennant – the industrialist who discovered bleaching powder and founded the famous St Rollox chemical works, James Templeton – founder of the carpet factory on Glasgow Green, William Thomson – otherwise known as Lord Kelvin, the renowned physicist who gave his name to a unit of temperature, and poet William Miller who wrote the famous Scottish nursery rhyme ‘Wee Willie Winkie’.
In 1966, the Merchants’ House gave the Necropolis to the Glasgow City Council which now administer and maintain it. The cemetery also benefits from the work of local charity The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis who help tender to the site and offer guided tours and programmes promoting the Necropolis.
The cemetery, as most early Victorian cemeteries, is laid out as an informal park, lacking the formal grid layouts of later cemeteries and was always designed in mind to – unlike the modern preconception – be welcoming and enticing to its visitors.
This is best summed up by actor and comedian and Glasgow native Billy Connolly who reportedly said: “Glasgow’s a bit like Nashville, Tennessee: it doesn’t care much for the living, but it really looks after the dead.”