Safe place for grateful dead to get some sleep

May 13, 2005

The history of Glasgow's Necropolis has been buried for 150 years. Olga Wojtas meets the man who is unearthing it

Ronnie Scott pauses on the muddy pathway leading up the Glasgow Necropolis hill and points to a large round blemish on the nearest tombstone. "There used to be a bronze portrait there, but the locals took it for safekeeping," he deadpans.

Some of the two dozen people on the Glasgow University PhD student's tour nod seriously, but most grin. Until now, the Necropolis has been a commanding silhouette of indistinguishable ornate memorials on the city skyline, but Scott personalises the tombs with verve. He may not believe phantoms haunt the graveyard - "as far as I'm concerned, Glasgow has no ghosts and no downstairs" - but through his research and his patter, Scott is bringing the dead back to life.

He points out a broken column, symbolising a prominent citizen cut down in his prime. He identifies a Moorish kiosk built for a Paisley lawyer who travelled in the Middle East, a Celtic cross garlanded with apples and damson for a fruiterer, and a Tudor-style monument commemorating the poet William Robertson. "He wrote Nordic action poems, and these are scenes from his poetry. There's one here of a chap with a lance through his eye."

Dominating the Necropolis is a pillar topped by a statue of the father of the Scottish Reformation, John Knox. "Whoever put him up here showed enormous foresight. He's got his back to Parkhead (Celtic's football ground) and is looking out over Ibrox (Rangers' ground)."

The last full-length work on the Necropolis was published in 1857. By making it the subject of his PhD, Scott is uncovering a remarkable amount of material that illuminates the lives of the Glaswegians interred within.

He is a mature student who quit a career in journalism and corporate communications when he hit 40 to sign up for an MPhil on Scottish culture at Glasgow. He funded it through savings and occasional corporate commissions. While considering a subject for an essay, he found that little had been written about the Necropolis. As he dug deeper, his fascination grew. He discovered untouched papers, such as the minutes of the committee that set up the Necropolis, and the records of funeral directors Wylie and Lochhead, established in 1829.

The site was developed by Glasgow's Merchants' House, an influential body of businessmen, which charged a guinea per square yard for a burial plot, far more than could be raised from agricultural land. The cemetery was established at a time of social upheaval, when church and state were challenged, workers gained rights, schisms racked the Church of Scotland and slave ownership was outlawed - changes echoed in funereal architecture.

While earlier tombstones highlighted the horror of death, death for the Victorians was about sleep, with pre-Christian neoclassical emblems such as inverted torches or laurel wreaths.

"Here was a new way of burying people among all these social changes, a new way of seeing death and memorialisation, a microcosm of the built city, because the people who commissioned houses, factories and offices also commissioned tombstones in the city of the dead, the most important sculpture park in Scotland," Scott says.

The Necropolis records Glasgow's industrial history, housing not only noted magnates but also emigrants posthumously repatriated from various parts of the British Empire. One was returned from British Guyana in a lead-lined coffin reputedly filled with rum to preserve the body. The place of death recorded on the next grave is Madras. "I suppose he was curried," Scott quips.

The visitors are fascinated by the tour, peering at inscriptions, rubbing the football carved on the tombstone of the first secretary of the Scottish Football Association, and scampering across rough terrain to see the remains of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's first recorded commission.

When the surgeon-anatomist Granville Sharp Pattison died in 1851, he was buried in the cemetery. He was an irascible character who during his career occupied five chairs of anatomy in the UK and the US. He was accused, with three others, of stealing the corpse of Janet McAllister, pieces of which were found in jars in Glasgow's medical school. But defence counsel pointed out that McAllister had borne three children and some bones produced in court were from a woman who had not given birth. The verdict was "not proven".

Scott notes that grave robbing in Glasgow was done by students tipped off by doctors about deaths from intriguing conditions to provide the bodies needed for the teaching of anatomy. "They could pay their medical school fees in dead bodies," he says.

The 1832 Anatomy Act, guaranteeing anatomists an authorised supply of bodies, ensured that Pattison could rest in peace, safe in a Necropolis tomb, a far cry from the dirty, crowded churchyards from which he had received specimens.

The Necropolis was the place to be seen dead, Scott says. Prominent inhabitants include Walter MacFarlane, who established the Saracen Foundry that exported elaborate balconies to New Orleans and lampposts to Sydney Harbour. Scott points out the way the nose on the statue of Charles Tennant, who founded the giant St Rollox chemical works, has eroded, noting that his employees could work for only 15 minutes an hour before their noses started to rot from the toxic chemicals.

Scott stresses that the Necropolis was far from simply a money-grabbing venture. "It looks like an elite cemetery, but there are 50,000 burials and only 3,500 tombs. There are people who paid ordinary prices to be buried in common graves, in clean ground, with their names in the burial register."

The Necropolis is the city's only unmediated tourist attraction, with no guides to the 15-hectare site, no signboards, no postcards. But Scott's efforts are putting that straight. Alongside his PhD, he has written a pocket guide for the casual visitor, published this month. He has found great public demand for a tour he gave fellow postgraduates, which he repeats at weekends.

Scott always has the same starting point - a burial place set up a year before the Necropolis officially opened. Glasgow's then tiny Jewish community, Russian emigres who had fled London fearing they were becoming too conspicuous, raised 100 guineas for a burial enclosure.

The Necropolis spent 60 of the 100 guineas hiring architect John Bryce to build a wall and covered gateway because they wanted to beautify it. There are verses from the Torah and Byron's Hebrew Melodies on it. "I think it says a lot about Glasgow's attitude to an immigrant group - there's more than tolerance, there's a respect for other traditions."

Death by Design: The True Story of the Glasgow Necropolis is published by Black and White, £5.99.

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