Lately I’ve been obsessed with numbers. Not the Lottery kind, but the numbers attached to magic and superstition. After my last trip to Camphill Earthwork and recalling the three rings drawn by Marsha, the American psychic who visited the site with Harry Bell, it occurs to me that I’m developing a small fixation. But then, who doesn’t place faith in numbers? It might be phone numbers, PIN numbers, birthdays, bus numbers, even bingo – we each have our preferences and prejudices, no matter how irrational.
For instance, during my recent house move, I was pleased to find myself living at number 34. According to Chinese lore, moving into a single-number house is considered bad juju because it denotes separation, that a member of the house will either leave or die. In my case 3+4=7, a classic lucky number. Even better, when cleaning the fanlight above our front door, I uncovered the original house number – 16, which also adds up to 7. Weirdly – or not – my street happens to be situated just off the A77.
By typing the words ‘three rings’ into Google I find a bunch of references to games and Tolkein. Not much use. But when I search images, I’m led into a bizarre maze of religious mythology, conspiracy theories and snake-oil salesman hokum. Part of me wants to believe. Everyone does. It’s in our DNA to want to tell and be told tales. It’s what connects us – from office gossip to the gospel – storytelling is a social adhesive, a leveller, the means of inclusion – or its opposite.
On this trip, the number 13 seems auspicious. My first house as a child was a number 13 – 13 Sleads Street, Kinning Park. Until recently I also lived at number 13, during my four-year sentence in Edinburgh. My name starts with the 13th letter of the alphabet. Jesus had 13 disciples, if you include Judas, hence the infamy of the number. Or how about Friday 13? On Friday 13 October 1307, King Phillipe IV of France ordered the arrest of the Grand Master of the Knights Templar and many of his ilk, accusing them of ‘wrongdoing’ and eventually torturing and executing them, thus creating the legend of Black Friday.
On YouTube I’ve watched endless clips about the number 13. If it’s conspiracy theories you’re after, there’s plenty to be had – example – how the dollar bill is riddled with number 13 references. Same goes for the street geometry of Washington, linked – so it’s claimed – to the rituals of Freemasonry, with its Council of 13. It’s heady stuff if you’re inclined to believe any of it, though I’m not totally convinced by the trick of folding a $20 bill to discover a pictorial representation of the destruction of the World Trade Center with the words United American.
Could Glasgow hold some similar, great, untold secret? Luckily Dr. Ronnie Scott got in touch recently and kindly offered to guide me through the mystery that is the Necropolis. I admit I’m attracted to his proposition – that the topography and layout of the City of the Dead symbolises explicitly the journey of a Freemason through his career. Commenting on an American certificate dated 1887, titled From Darkness into Light, Ronnie states:
We swap numbers and arrange a time.
At the black and gold entrance gates, I watch the clouds. It’s threatening to rain and my guide is seven minutes late, but no matter – to be in the company of such an authority is a privilege. As we pass through the gates, Ronnie points out the insignia of the Glasgow Merchant’s House, of a sailing ship atop a globe circled with the signs of the zodiac and the city’s coat-of-arms. But before I read too much into it, Ronnie reminds me that ships navigated by the stars, hence the astrological depiction. That said, in his recent paper, Freemasons and Freemasonry in the making of the Glasgow Necropolis, Ronnie refers to the crest as having exactly the same sphere that sits on top of a column, known in Freemasonry as Jachin.
It comes as no surprise then that the Necropolis was created by a group of like-minded commercial aristocrats, its main players linked to the practice of Freemasonry. The city’s association with Freemasonry dates back to the 11th century with the granting of a charter by Malcolm III, King of Scotland. Eight centuries later, Glasgow’s Freemason fraternity participated in public ceremonies linked to the city’s more significant buildings and monuments.
We cross the Bridge of Sighs, or ‘Brig of Dread’ – symbolically marking the passage from life to death. It’s another spot that Ronnie claims to have a particular resonance in Freemasonry teaching. Reaching the Façade, we chance on a trio of employees of the city council’s Land Services – a fancy re-branding of the Parks department. Without much prompting, they tell us stories of a lucrative trade in bronze and how enterprising – not to mention courageous and muscle-bound – thieves liberated parts of the more elaborate monuments, selling them on to scrap metal merchants who in turn flog them back to the council. According to the men, one particular piece was reckoned to require ten bodies to shift it, presumably under cover of night and under the nose of the security guards of Tennent’s Brewery, a mere spit away from the cemetery.
Ronnie’s story of the Merchant’s proposal – to tunnel through the Façade to create a series of catacombs, which literally collapsed due the fragile geology of the site – is confirmed by the Land Services guys. While the use of catacombs proved successful in the Saint Louis-Pere Lachaise, the Parisian model for the Necropolis’ design, there seems to have been a resistance by Glaswegians to the idea of being interred underground, preferring their lairs to remain in the open, especially on the summit of Fir Park. Today the Façade has to be one of the world’s most impressive garden sheds, a store for lawn movers and the odd piece of detached bronze.
Moving on, my guide points out the three arches of the Bridge of Sighs, explaining that on the Fir Park (Necropolis) side, there once stood a Town Mill. The large central arch spanned the Molendinar Burn (also spelled Molindinar), the waters where St Mungo is said to have bathed each day, reciting all 150 psalms of David before drying off on the grey rock of Fir Park and where he is said to have walked with St. Columba. The waters were culverted in 1877, running beneath Wishart Street and into the Clyde. The third arch, on the Cathedral side, is said to have been a towpath or track wide enough to accommodate a horse and cart. A Townmill Street still exists close to Glasgow Green.
Next Ronnie leads me to the Jewish section. According to the city council’s account, the Necropolis was the first non-denominational burial ground in the city, unattached to any church. How did I manage to miss this on my many previous visits? Described on the city council website as ‘The Jewish Enclosure’, the section is noted as the site of the first burial in the Necropolis, that of a jeweller, Joseph Levi, who died of dysentery in September 1832. Strange to think that when I was three-years-old, I contracted dysentery in the slums of Kinning Park. I still have memories of being quarantined in Belvidere Hospital, my parents’ faces watching intently from the other side of a glass partition.
Ronnie points out the column and arch, designed by John Bryce circa 1831, a bizarre confection of quasi-Oriental Baroque. In his Freemasonry paper, Ronnie compares the column to Boaz, one of two columns found within a Masonic Lodge. Reading this, I’m reminded of the columns of Jachin and Boaz depicted in the Tarot, namely on the High Priestess card, their positions reversed, said to be an anti-temple, or rejection of Solomon’s teachings.
I’m struck how this plot, in comparison to the overall size of the cemetery, is so small. Yet even close-knit communities find room for exclusion. On the border of the site, Ronnie points out two modest stones which, he says, are the burial sites of two Jews who chose to marry outside the faith.
Placing stones on the graves of the excluded as a mark of remembrance, we move on. It’s hard to believe it’s July. Above, a sodden grey blanket of sky casts a gloom that seems only fitting in these surroundings. You don’t need to look hard to see just how dilapidated, if not downright dangerous this cemetery has become in the last few decades. Prior to 1833, the year of its opening, money and politics conspired to shape this place. Today much the same principle applies, albeit in a negative sense, since it’s hard to see how anybody can turn a buck here, not even from tourism.
Large bequests made to the Merchant’s House for the upkeep of monuments in perpetuity were, along with the cemetery, transferred to the city. But from appearances these funds seem to have been hijacked. The grass may be clipped, but loose aggregate paths serve only the council vehicles, not the tourists, who are always in danger of slipping, if they’re not at risk of being crushed by falling tombstones. Meanwhile the monuments and mausoleums appear condemned in simulacra of the city itself. Trees and shrubs sprout from sandstone and granite, monument gates, beyond rust, crumble, leaving gaping voids. Bronze plaques have been wrenched out, delicate carvings and reliefs have melted, weather-worn. Many monuments feature signs warning passers-by of their dangers.
Following the path uphill towards the John Knox Monument, we stop at an impressive mausoleum housing three sisters, Margaret, Jane and Elizabeth Buchanan, daughters of James Buchanan who was, like many interred here, a Glasgow merchant. When, I wonder, did the custom of declaring one’s occupation on gravestones become unfashionable? If the practice was still in vogue today, arguably the list would be less noble – IT consultant, taxi driver, nail technician perhaps?
Ronnie informs me that it was common for the owners of these lairs to commission funerary sculptures well in advance of their demise, a situation almost unimaginable today. These were often generic, off-the-peg, usually from catalogues and pattern books. He points out several motifs – Grecian urns feature heavily, as do broken columns – ‘cut off in their prime‘. He also points out other common features – Roman upturned torches with added Victorian flames and reversed laurel wreaths. My attention is drawn to a rebus in the form of a winged hourglass – tempis fugit. There’s a surfeit of obelisks and Egyptian pastiche, some by Alexander Thomson, others straight plagarism of the great architect’s work. Here I see a style that could only belong to Glasgow – bold, often vulgar, playful in its pastiche, but nonetheless beautifully crafted.
The panorama from the John Knox monument is well worth the climb. Ronnie tells me, not altogether seriously, that the builders must have had some precogition given that old Knox looks towards Ibrox Stadium, his back turned to Parkhead. Having departed from the meandering path of the earlier section, we now walk among regimented rows.
Here stand the later monuments, many featuring a good dose of Victorian sentimentality, others nothing short of magnificent, such as the Allen family tomb with not angels but seraphs, similar to those Ronnie identified as two cherubim on the top of the Ark of the Covenant as depicted on the Great Banner of the Supreme Grand Royal Arch Chapter of Scotland.
We pause to look at the extraordinary William Rae Wilson mausoleum. Following the death of his first wife after only eighteen months of marriage, the solicitor travelled in the Middle East, writing an account, Travels in the Holy Land and other titles. He remarried and when he died, his second wife commissioned J. A. Bell to build a domed, hexagonal Moorish kiosk, notable for its concealed joint construction and using no lead, wood or iron.
For a moment I become completely disoriented, lost in the city of the dead. Surely these tombs couldn’t have moved since my last visit? Then, out of nowhere, comes a thought – didn’t Harry Bell say something about how he had found three sightline centres, all on high ground? He cites Crookston Castle, Camphill Earthwork and the Necropolis, so where does that leave the De’il’s Plantin? It would be tempting to concentrate only on the triangle, but it’s not straightforward. Harry Bell quotes Lao-Tzu –
I’m daunted. The facts – names, dates, places – are all here. But why does this place have such a resonance beyond its function? Why did Harry believe the Necropolis was such an important site, predating any of these trappings? If I’m ever to make sense of any of this, I need to arrive at some theories of my own.
Stopping at the John Houldsworth mausoleum, Ronnie describes the story behind the statues of Faith, Hope and Charity, another reference to Freemasonry wisdom. Here the carving is fine, particularly in the statue of Hope who, unlike her sisters, is protected from the elements.
Still it’s good to see that not all the bronze has made it to the scrappy. We arrive at the imposing mausoleum of an industrialist, Walter Macfarlane, suggestive – by Ronnie’s reckoning – of the symbol of the Royal Arch degree and where a fine portrait of Macfarlane survives.
By now it’s plain that me and my guide have strayed from the official Heritage Trail, a tour of 35 sites of interest suggested by the City Council. If, as has been stated, that the Necropolis was originally designed –
The question is – what’s the point of this place today? As Ronnie reminds me, there are still interments, but only ashes, not corpses. He also reminds me there are tens of thousands of unmarked graves on this site. Under this brooding sky, I’m suddenly aware we’re standing on the remains of ordinary men, women and children whose lives and deaths passed unremarked. Sadly they’re not eulogised in stone.
We’ve been here three hours now and I have a hungry face and a parking meter to feed. Wending downhill back towards the bridge, we pass other, notable monuments: Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s first commission, looking decidedly un-Mackintosh-ish and hence overlooked, even by the city council, who fail to include it in their Heritage Trail guide. Only yesterday I learned that Mackintosh, hailed as the city’s only notable architect – that is – outside Glasgow, is not interred in some grand monument but was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium in 1928.
On the slope, we pause at a modest heart-shaped stone in memory of George Lennox Watson, a naval architect and designer of the royal yacht, Britannia. Close by, Ronnie also points out an unusual stone erected by East Park Cottage Home and featuring the names of more than 20 children. Nearing the exit, he indicates one last, unprepossessing monument marking the mortal remains of Right Worshipful Archibald St Clair Ruthven, an ex-pat who died on a visit to his native Scotland and who served as former Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Masons in the Republic of Texas. At least he’s in good company.