As darkness falls, and as the sparkling lights of the city appear in the distance, I’m encapsulated by a stunning silhouette of Victorian tombs, monuments, and mausoleums in the Glasgow Necropolis. A crisp winter breeze keeps me company as I quietly make my way through the “City of the Dead.” The entire necropolis is mine for the evening, and I embrace the peaceful silence it has to offer.
History of the Glasgow Necropolis
Officially opened in 1833, Glasgow Necropolis was modeled after the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Originally, the necropolis was planned to have a tiered level of catacombs under the hill to combat body snatchers, or “resurrection men”, who would steal bodies for anatomists who were willing to offer a generous sum for fresh corpses.
During this time, surgeons and medical students had to rely on one executed criminal’s body per year, so the act of grave robbing was prevalent across Britain and became a grizzly profession for many who would provide much-needed bodies/body parts to their customers.
In 1832, Scotland created the Anatomy Act which provided a legitimate supply of corpses for medical studies. This ensured that the resurrection men would no longer be a worry and the catacombs were not built.
The historic Cathedral House Hotel, where I stay, overlooks the Glasgow Necropolis. It emanates a distinct sense of spookiness – once functioning as a hostel for inmates released by the nearby (now closed and demolished) Duke Street Prison. Some have said that an active ghost will brush up against you in the winding stairwell.
Moving chairs have been heard and, perhaps most hauntingly of all, the sounds of giggling children! The only ghostly experience I hear is the rustling of keys as a nearby hotel patron struggles to enter their room. Since I don’t actually see any other guests for the duration of my stay – it could be the “White Woman”, who is renowned for her presence in the Necropolis!
Walking through the Glasgow Necropolis
After checking into the hotel, I immediately cross the street to visit the Necropolis and get a sense of the calming atmosphere. As I slowly climb up the stone paths, my eyes wander to each epitaph as I enjoy the history of the place. With 3500 tombs, there are many architectural variations of gravestones. Some gravestones have draped urns which are associated with cremation.
In Victorian times, people were normally buried, so the urn was used as a reference to the ancient Greeks who chose to cremate their dead. This, for the Victorians, symbolized that the deceased were cultured and educated. Gravestones with columns were also used to represent the head of the household. Some of the gravestones have images of skulls, clasped hands, scrolls, doves and even images of the deceased themselves!
Victorian Gravestones Symbolism
Seeing all of this symbolism leads me to think about the lives of the people buried beneath. When I look at the epitaphs on each gravestone I pass, I always take note of how old they were when they died.
My mind skips over the people who lived full, long lives – but my thought lingers with the children or people who died early in life. I try to think about what historical events would’ve happened around their time of death.
Was it some horrible epidemic that spread illness through the land? Were they unfortunate enough to suffer from something that could so easily be cured today? Did they fall victim to a grotesque murder? It’s like taking a step back into history and bringing these people back to life, if only just briefly!
Glasgow Necropolis at night
As night approaches, the last remaining visitors slowly descend the hill towards the exit of the necropolis. The mausoleums, tombs, and gravestones I pass are weathered and overgrown with moss, revealing just how long they’ve been there, I stand in solace, taking in the silence and stillness.
The cemetery was just as beautiful and peaceful in the shade of the night as it was when the last light peeked through the clouds. Not wanting to get lost in the labyrinthine 37 acres, I make my way back to my hotel, excitedly anticipating my visit to the cemetery again in the morning.
Glasgow Necropolis – Morning Walk
I wake up before the sun rises and hurry toward the necropolis. As I approach the main gates, rays of golden sun wash over the tombs. The necropolis comes alive with the sounds of birds and squirrels who have made their home among the dead.
I snap as many pictures as I can before entering the enchanting cemetery. As I make my way up to the memorial of John Knox which towers over the entire necropolis, I hear, off in the distance, the faint sounds of a pipe band complete with bagpipes and drums.
I am in a quiet, peaceful haven, far away from the bustling city that is just waking up and coming to life.
Glasgow Necropolis Tours
Visiting Glasgow Necropolis was such an amazing experience, and it will forever hold a place in my memories as one of the best mornings I’ve had in Scotland.
Although I opted to explore the necropolis on my own, the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis offer many guided walking tours which may be beneficial for those who don’t know too much about the history of the site. You can learn more about the guided tours by visiting the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis website.
Getting to Glasgow Necropolis:
The Necropolis is located on Castle Street, which is on the eastern edge of Glasgow City Centre and on the second highest hill in Glasgow. The main gates sit behind St Mungo’s Museum and are adjacent to Glasgow Cathedral. Walking from the Glasgow Cross, follow the high street until you reach St. Mungo’s Museum. You can find more information about this route on the Glasgow Necropolis website.
You can also get maps of the Necropolis from the Glasgow City Council’s Necropolis Heritage Trail site.