Posted by: christinelaennec | June 26, 2015

The Glasgow Necropolis

I began writing this post nearly two months ago, but have hesitated to post it because I’ve felt there’s been such a lot of sad news, close to home and far away.  I know from previous posts that I’m not the only one who finds graveyards fascinating and thought-provoking.  They make me aware of how precious my life is, problems and all.  But if you really don’t need a post about cemeteries, come back in a couple of days for a cheerful post about a crochet baby blanket!

At the beginning of May, I had the chance to visit the Glasgow Necropolis with a friend.  It’s a fascinating place, and even a couple of dozen photographs don’t begin to do it justice.  I have quoted from Ronnie Scott’s book Death by Design:  The True Story of the Glasgow Necropolis.  I’ll try to keep text to a minimum as I share with you what I saw:

Entrance gate

Entrance gate. Notice the Glasgow City coat of arms in the middle of the globe.

The Glasgow Necropolis was opened in 1833.  The Greek name “necropolis” (City of the Dead) reflects the Greek Revival fashion that was all the rage at the time.  Once through the entrance gates, you walk down a path past the Cathedral.

Walking down the path, past the Cathedral.

Walking down the path, past the Cathedral.  They cut the stone wall open in places so that those going to the cemetery would have a visual link “to the heritage and values of the ancient High Church”. (Ronnie Scott, Death by Design, p. 35)

The path takes you across a bridge.  The bridge now crosses a road, but in former times the Molendinar Burn ran down the valley (very similarly to the Denburn Valley next to Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen).   Scott writes:  “The journey over the Molendinar reminded many Christians of the River Jordan, which separates the wilderness of the world from the Promised Land.” (p. 36)

Glasgow Cathedral on the right, the bridge leading across to the hill where the Necropolis is situated.

Glasgow Cathedral on the right, and if you look closely you can see the bridge leading across to the steep hill where the Necropolis is situated.  Trees are planted either side of the bridge.

The hill the Necropolis is on is very steep indeed.  Looking up:

Wending our way up the hill.

Wending our way up the hill.

We walked past the grave of the man who composed “Wee Willie Winkie”.  He died penniless but his friends and admirers raised this monument to him (Scott, p. 49):

Gravestone of the writer of "Wee Willie Winkie".

Gravestone of William Miller (1810-72), the writer of “Wee Willie Winkie”.  The harp carved on the top of the memorial signifies that he was a poet.

Looking across to the side of the Cathedral.

Looking across to the side of the Cathedral.  You can see the road that lies over where the Molendinar Burn once flowed (or perhaps still flows underground).

The very first grave was that of Joseph Levi, who was buried in the Jewish part of the cemetery in 1832.  The Jewish community had bought this part of the cemetery in 1830. The Necropolis was designed from the beginning to accommodate those of all faiths, but its layout “can be seen to mirror the social or class distinction of the city in the nineteenth century.  Only the truly elite were allowed to be buried on the summit of the hill, near to the monument of John Knox.” (Scott, p. 6)  It is significant that the Jewish plot is at the very bottom of the hill.

Looking down towards the Jewish part of the cemetery.

Looking down towards the Jewish part of the cemetery.

We came to an amazing and famous grave, that of the Queen of the Gipsies:

Gravestone of Corinna Lee, Queen of the Gipsies.

Gravestone of Corlinda Lee, Queen of the Gipsies.


The bronze plaque has been stolen from the monument.  The inscription reads:  Corlinda Lee, Queen of the Gipsies, Beloved Wife of George Smith, who died at 42 New City Road, Glasgow on the 28th March 1900 aged 68 years, and lies here beside her beloved son Ernest.  Her love for her children was great, and she was charitable to the poor.  Wherever she pitched her tent, she was loved and respected by all.”

Scott says nothing more is known about her.  He also doesn’t mention or explain the many coins shoved into the cracks of her monument:

Coins placed in the cracks of the monument to the Queen of the Gipsies.

Coins placed in the cracks of the monument to the Queen of the Gipsies.

Not all the coins are old, or British.  A few shiny 5 p pieces.

Not all the coins are old, or British. A few shiny 5 p pieces.

I would be very curious to know what that is all about!

Looking towards the statue of John Knox at the top of the hill; ivy.

Looking towards the statue of John Knox at the top of the hill; ivy.

Going further up the hill, you reach a kind of avenue of family crypts.  People were understandably worried about grave-diggers and robbers, and wealthy families could afford to build locked crypts for their deceased loved ones:

Starting to walk up an avenue of family crypts.

Starting to walk up an avenue of family crypts.

Some of these have been restored, and the ironwork repainted:

Beautifully painted grillwork on a Neo-classical crypt.

Beautifully painted grillwork on a Neo-classical crypt.

More interesting ironwork.

More interesting ironwork.

My friend and I peered into one; you can see us reflected in the granite.  It reminded me of the scene in The Sound of Music where the Von Trapps hide in a crypt!

Looking into one of the crypts.

Looking into one of the crypts.

I really liked this monument to an actor.  It depicts a theatre in the middle, with Comedy on the left (though the statue has been taken away) and Tragedy on the right:

Monument to an actor.

Monument to John Henry Alexander, actor and theatre manager.

The inscription is touching, and I think reflects what we often say now when a public person dies, namely that their most important role was as a friend and family member:


Inscription on the monument of John Henry Alexander.

The views from the Necropolis are pretty stunning.  You can see in almost all directions:

Amazing views out across the south side of Glasgow.

Amazing views out across the south side of Glasgow.


Necropolis, looking west again (green roof the Cathedral and its spire visible).

My friend explained to me some of the symbols that the Victorians – so fond of symbolism! – used on graves. A broken column and an upside-down torch both signified that the person had died before their time:

An upside-down torch apparently signified a life cut short too soon.

An upside-down torch apparently signified a life cut short too soon.

Most of the large monuments were to men, but this one to Agnes Shaw caught my attention, because I didn’t see any others with the likeness of a woman on it:

A woman's gravestone with her likeness - I didn't see any other likenesses of women on my walk.

Agnes Shaw’s gravestone with her likeness.

As is usual in Scottish graveyards, women are identified by their maiden names.  I’m told that a few generations back, women were known to each other by their maiden names long after marriage.

Vandalism was in evidence in some sad ways throughout the Necropolis, as in all cemeteries.  Neglect and vegetation are taking their toll.  Ronnie Scott describes the various agendas that people have concerning cemeteries, from the family history buffs who come to read the names and inscriptions, to the nature-lovers who want to make sure habitats are protected. “People with an overriding interest in health and safety would like to see all the monuments laid flat so that no one can be injured by falling stones.” (p. 27)  This may sound ridiculous, but very sadly a boy was killed recently by a toppled gravestone here in Glasgow (albeit not in the Necropolis).

I don’t know what the answer is, and I’m glad it isn’t my responsibility!  But I was amused by this graffiti:

Appropriate graffiti:  "And life goes on."

Appropriate graffiti: “And life goes on.”

When I’m wandering around a graveyard, I often think of a story told by Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking.  A very unhappy man came to see him, convinced that his troubles were insurmountable and the worst in the world.  To give him some perspective, Peale asked if he would like to go to a place where no-one had problems.  He said indeed he would!  Well, of course that place was the cemetery.

I will end with a quote from Ronnie Scott’s book that involves graffiti.  On a gravestone is carved:  “Remember, man, as you pass by, / As you are now, so once was I: / As I am now, so you must be / Therefore prepare to follow me”.  Beneath, in chalk, someone had written:  “To follow you, I’m not content / Until I know which way you went.” (p. ix)  Typical Glasgwegian banter!

References are to Ronnie Scott, Death by Design:  The True Story of the Glasgow Necropolis, Black and White Publishing, 2005.



  1. What a fascinating place to visit- but I must admit I too love to have a wander around cemeteries! Thank you for sharing and when I get to spend some time in Glasgow I hope I can visit it for myself. 🙂

  2. I found this post quite fascinating. Just to imagine the history that is enclosed within that area is amazing. I found this article which I thought you might enjoy. There’s a grave yard here on our mountain in Turkey that I hope to visit as I see the makers are written in Arabic letters. Sending you my best wishes for a wonderful weekend, Pat

  3. Well, I must type, I did not expect to laugh out loud at the end of the post, Christine, but I did 🙂 I can see why you were reminded of The Sound of Music when you looked into one of the crypts. I have wandered in just a few cemeteries but without the benefit of a guide, except when family members showed me the burial spots of some of my Bradstreet family in Danvers, MA. Thanks to the information about the necropolis you presented it points me to possible symbolism and reasons that other cemeteries were established as they were. [The slope is so steep one could be scared to death trying to navigate it!] xx

  4. Thank you for posting this. Cemeteries are such peaceful places. I need to share about the experience I had after a funeral last summer. Perhaps in the near future.

  5. i do love a good graveyard

  6. What an amazing place. I’ve often wished I knew more about graveyards as I was wandering around them. To have a guidebook with you must have made the visit especially fascinating. I don’t think I’ve ever seen old ironwork on crypts touched up with fresh paint like that before.

  7. Such an interesting post, so much history. I really would like to know the significance of the coins on the Queen of the gypsies grave.

  8. Well I’m glad you enjoyed this post, thanks for commenting! And Gracie I’m glad I gave you a laugh. Thank you Pat for the link to the article about Corlinda Lee, which explains how she was Queen of the Gipsies. Lorraine, I’m afraid I’m still in the dark about the significance of the coins!

  9. I love a necropolis, perhaps partly because they often have some of the best locations around. We have a wonderful cemetery in Sydney which is located on a hill looking over the ocean (beat this location!). I used to work right next to the “biggest necropolis in the southern hemisphere” – Rookwood Cemetery – where a number of my family are interred. It was a great place for a quiet lunch-time run. Rookwood is still active (burning & burying) but it looks like Glasgow Necropolis stopped taking new residents some time ago? And as for Corlinda Lee, I am sure I must be one of her descendants (Lee being my surname and my forebears coming from the UK) – I’d love to be able to tell people I was descended from the Queen of the Gypsies!

    • That is an amazing view! Yes, I think the Necropolis has stopped being “active” so to speak… I think you should definitely claim descendancy from the Queen of the Gipsies!

  10. J’aime beaucoup visiter les cimetières. Ce sont toujours des lieux de paix. J’ai particulièrement admiré les grilles peintes de couleurs vives : je crois bien n’ en avoir jamais vu dans les cimetières français !

    • Oui, les couleurs vives surprennent. Apparemment, la “Glasgow Necropolis” a pris comme modèle la cimitière Père Lachaise à Paris.

  11. Such a fascinating post! There is a little cemetery I drive by all the time and one day I want to stop there for a picnic and look around. I suppose this goes along with my fascination with genealogy! 🙂 Andrew and I are spending hours working on his 4h project in this area. Came across “Architecture of Glasgow” by Gomme for about 15 cents a month or two ago and am enjoying looking through it. It’s the kind of book I would enjoy using if I could read about something and then go out and see it on my next trip to town. At least I am familiar with many of the places, it just would be so fun to go and see them again or really look at them after reading.

    • You should definitely have your picnic there and get acquainted with that little cemetery. That book sounds really good!

  12. Apparently coins are left as tributes. A fascinating post! xx

    • Thanks Tina! I wonder if her grave is a kind of gypsy pilgrimage site?

  13. Oh Christine, I’m so grateful for this post. Last year we went on holiday to Edinburgh and included a day at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, so one of the books we read in preparation was ‘The case of the Glasgow Ghoul’ by Joan Lennon, one of the Slightly Jones Mystery series. DD2 really loved this book so will be thrilled to see pictures of the Necropolis which I’m pretty certain featured heavily.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: