Monday, August 8

Glasgow | 03: the necropolis

It's our final morning in Glasgow. The sun's out. We skirt east past the Strathclyde campus, which sprawls along the side of a steep hill, giving the side streets a slightly San Francisco feel. This area's grimier, but no less charming, than the West End: a mix of industrial buildings, student flats, and old shop signage. We visit Papercup Coffee, the coffee shop I've mentioned before. Order toast and americanos. The man in the Orbison t-shirt passes by. Then we walk up the hill to the cathedral.

Maps of the area show a swathe of green called the Glasgow Necropolis, which I'd assumed was just a bit of cemetery belonging to the cathedral. As we approach, it turns out I'm half right. Cemetery: yes. 'Bit of': massive understatement. What I don't realise at the time is that this necropolis, covering a prominent grassy hill, is just as much of a visitor attraction as the twelfth century cathedral it overlooks, and is just as stately too. The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis website shows a photo of the headstones topped with snow, but we're seeing it in all its sun-soaked June glory.

An interdenominational cemetery, the Necropolis has grown considerably since its opening in 1833, becoming a site of architectural, social, historical and cultural importance. Rich, poor, famous, unknown, Christian, Jew, Wee Willie Winkie; all are buried here, in quiet yet extravagant wonder. There's the imposing monument to John Knox, and then the unassuming headstone of a doctor and his six children who slid off the earth one by one in the space of a week. Billy Connolly once said that Glasgow 'doesn't care much for the living, but it really looks after the dead'.

It's hard to capture the hauntingly beautiful atmosphere of the necropolis. To cross the Bridge of Sighs, climb the hill among headstones and walk the gently sloping grass between graves, the city huddled below, is to feel like you've drunk the shrinking potion and stepped into Wonderland. Because the headstones are huge. All of them. They tower over you with their Victorian grandness, planted in rows like stubborn crooked teeth. Some are simple obelisks, others are more ornate: Gothic crosses, urns, miniature temples, statues. It's disorientating, how the stones make you feel so small, but disorientating in an oddly comforting way. You're nestled in the arms of the dead, but you're also open to the fresh Scottish air high above the city. Tombs hollowed out of the rock face are up to 14 feet deep, and yet the graves crowning the hill stand so tall and upright, as if they're reaching up to the sun.

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