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Opened 1840

In 1839 a public meeting was held in the Gorbals Baronial Hall with the proposal that land should be bought for the provision of a much needed Southern Necropolis, resulting from the cholera outbreak of 1832. After further meetings a management committee was set up which included particularly noteworthy member, Colin Sharp McLaws, Tea Merchant from King Street. The committee issued a prospectus and emphasised that the new cemetery was one where lairs could be disposed of at such moderate prices and payment taken in such small instalments as to put the prospect of a burial place within the grasp of even the poorest citizens. There was to be no common ground and of course no pit burials. People were then invited to become subscribers.

The Southern Necropolis was opened in the year 1840. It is a cemetery rich in the history of the past. Early Chartists and Socialists, poets, artists, soldiers, merchants, engineers etc. are all buried here. All were players in the drama of the changing life of the city. Like any other graveyard the Southern Necropolis has its very own white lady. The mournful lady’s head is said to turn after someone passes. But if you ever see it turn you too will be turned into stone. The cemetery and the gatehouse are an important historical and education resource that has much to offer for the present and future generations to come.


History of The Southern Necropolis

The Southern Necropolis was established for two main reasons. Firstly, the old burial ground, first established in 1715 to meet the needs of the one time village of Gorbals was, by the late 1830’s, in an appalling state; the unfortunates “on the Parish” were buried in long trenches, left barely boarded over until the trenches were full; it had been used for mass pit burials in the cholera outbreak of 1832; the bought lairs were full, and not much space was left. Secondly, the city had its great Necropolis by the cathedral, and the new Sighthill Cemeteries-both places of great dignity.

Gorbals, now joined by Laurieston and Hutchesontown, and full of merchants and professional people, and prospering mill-owners and engineers, aspired to similar dignity. But with a difference. The dignity was to be shared by all. This later point was emphasised at a public meeting in the Baronial Hall on the fifteenth of November, 1839. There it was proposed that the Southern Necropolis should be established “to enable the working classes to become proprietors of burying places similar to those in the Necropolis, or Sighthill.”

This meeting was chaired by Archibald Edmiston, the Chief Magistrate of Gorbals, Timber Merchant and Builder. A second meeting followed very quickly, on the 27th of February, 1840. A Committee was formed, made up of the Magistrates of Gorbals. Two members are particularly noteworthy: Colin Sharp McLaws (who it was later stated was the projector of the scheme), and Archibald Edmiston. This committee issued a prospectus, re-emphasising that the new graveyard was to be one “where lairs could be disposed of at such a moderate level, and payment taken in such small installments as to put the prospect of a burial place within the reach of the poorest.”

What is now called the Central Division, the original seven-acres, was bought from a Mr. Gilmour, father-in-law of Colin McLaws, and was afterwards vested in a committee of the Magistrates of the Gorbals. (Archibald Edmiston has now disappeared from the scene). This committee`s function was apparently to act as guardians of the land and legal protector. The organisation of the affairs of the division was by a committee of lairholders, who met annually, were elected, were responsible for the recording of, and payment for, lairs, appointment of a superintendent, and his necessary staff. The affairs of the Central Division seem to have gone along fairly smoothly for many years, although signs of alteration to the original plans appear after a while. In the first two years, there is a surprising amount of burials, and then reburials, almost exactly a year later. But this could be explained by the time it would take to prepare the ground, and lay it out.

After the first years though, there is correspondence between the burial books and the actual lairs, i.e. if the burial book says that x is buried in lair 192, one finds that a stone to x is there-or no stone at all, since many have collapsed, and been removed. But this is not so in the Eastern and Western Sections. The Burial Book may say x is in lair 192. One goes to 192, and the stone is inscribed to a totally different family. This happens repeatedly. The reason can be found in the history of these sections.


By 1846, all the cheap lairs in the Central Section had been sold and it was decided to buy more land, and set it out, largely in cheap lairs. These lairs were to be seven feet by three, cost £1/1, payable at 6d a week. When 5/-had been paid, the lair could be used for burial, and when all had been paid, the lair became the property of the buyer. Colin McLaws, accordingly bought from Mr. Gilmour (father-in-law) a further seven acres. And here the first great mistake was made…

The Management Committee of the Central Lair-Holders did not wait to take on extra responsibility, so the agreement between McLaws and Mr.Gilmour was an agreement between individuals. The agreement was that as soon as the price of the additional ground, and the expense of building a wall round it, and laying the ground out, (all paid for by Mr. Gilmour) was repaid by Mr. McLaws, and the new lairs disposed of, then the extension should go into the control of the Magistrates of Gorbals (or of Glasgow when the Gorbals take over took place) in trust for the lair-holders.

In 1847 on the same conditions, McLaws bought a further stretch of land from Gilmour. Clearly the faster the lairs were sold, and the more lairs were sold, the sooner McLaws was out of debt. How he set about this can be seen more clearly when we reach the Western Section. In 1853 McLaws borrowed £300 from Mc Glashan, monumental sculptor, security was the unsold lairs in the Eastern Division. In the meantime in 1848 Gilmour died, in 1857 McLaw went bankrupt. His estate was sequestered, and his rights sold publicly. The rights to this section of the Necropolis were acquired in 1865 by the Central Management Committee.

According to the original agreement, the Management Committee, prepared to convey the extension into the protection of the Magistrates of Glasgow. But all the lairs had not been sold, and so, in accordance with the original agreement, the Magistrates decided it was not yet time for them to come on the scene. This is understandable. What is difficult to understand is that in 1891 when all the lairs were sold, and the Magistrates were approached again in the name of the lair-holders, they still did not want to be responsible. They suggested application should be made to the Court of Session to constitute a new body of trustees. This suggested application was made in 1893 by the Central Management Committee and they suggested as suitable trustees for the Eastern lair-holders, their chairman and treasurer, Mr. J. Hovett and Mr. W. Hovett, of 146 Buchanan Street.


Still running short of space, Colin McLaws bought more land-9½ acres from the trustees of a Mr. Jardine, claiming that it too was to be laid out in cheap lairs. The ground cost £4,858. (£1,000 paid in cash the rest to be paid for the sale of lairs.) McLaws launched his selling campaign. Canvassers were sent all over the city and surrounding country-offering every inducement. “Lairs were to become private property of purchasers and successors for all time, were to be preserved inviolate as a repository for the reception at death of all held most dear.” So that the ground be tastefully laid out, 30/- lairs were raised to 36/9- the additional charge to be used for ornamental gardening. The section was to be laid out on the general plan of the central. All lairs were to be private. No place for burial of strangers (common ground). No pit burials. Sales were rapid, but not rapid enough…

In 1855 McLaws borrowed from the City of Glasgow Life Assurance Co. £6,000 on security of 9½ acres of Western Division. Three gentlemen were bound with him for interest on the loan, and £700 lodged to build a wall. One of the seventeen was Mr. W.T. Edmiston, son of Archibald Edmiston, who had been chairman of the inaugural meeting of the Central Necropolis. In 1857 McLaws was bankrupt. The Assurance Company sold lairs until 1859, when the three gentlemen (cautioners) who had guaranteed the loan, borrowed from the Royal Bank to pay the balance due to the Assurance Committee and proceeded to pay themselves back with the sale of lairs. Edmiston defended it by saying that he had noticed some “respectable artisans” could not afford the price of lairs, and he had proposed to set aside a certain portion of the 9% acres where this type of burial could be offered, at a low cost of 8/- for an adult and 3/- for a child.

At the same time other actions were brought about the reselling of lairs, on the grounds that a lair had not been selected, or that it was not fully paid. Other practices, totally opposed to the original concept of the Necropolis were hinted at-the re-opening of pits, after a time, and the remains huddled together in a piece of waste ground lying on the south side of the cemetery; certain undertakers claiming that they held land of their own within the cemetery, offering special terms, and making use of the pits, and the waste ground (we have found indications of this service from undertakers in the Burial Books).

All this accumulation of complaints finally brought about collective action on the part of the lair-holders of the Western Section. They sent deputations to Mr. Edmiston, to no avail. Through his lawyers he claimed he was the sole proprietor. They offered to buy the remaining land. No reply. They had a public meeting in October 1869. The complaints were once again recorded, and a decision made that if they were not remedied, they would go to law. A conaittee was formed to collect funds for this purpose. The Committee applied to the sheriff for an interdict on pit burials. This was refused. But a small victory was won, when Edmiston’s lawyer, although he still upheld Edmiston as the proprietor of the ground, conceded that the lair-holders became the proprietors of the lairs.

At a second public meeting in December 1869 the committee of the lair-holders decided that since the land had now very largely been disposed of as lairs, Mr. Edmiston had no right to manage them. That right now belonged to the lair-holders. The meeting authorized the committee to assume management. The committee decided to force a confrontation. They advertised that after the 3rd January 1870, they would conduct internments (until this none could take place without Mr. Edmiston’s consent). Several lair-holders stated that they wanted to conduct internments, but Mr. Edmiston reacted strongly, and advised the committee that a strong body of police would be in attendance to prevent any attempt to conduct funerals without his consent. This the local police superintendent confirmed. Clearly a long battle with the law was imminent, and an appeal was made to the lair-holders to build up funds for it.

Constitution, Regulations etc. of the Original Southern Necropolis-1865.
Report on Burial Grounds to the Town Council-1870.

The Western Southern Necropolis-A Statement of the Dispute between the Lair-Holders and Mr. W.T. Edmiston-1870-71.

Petition by Peter Luineden and other Lair-Holders in the Eastern Section of the Southern Necropolis for appointment of Trustees-to the Lords of the Court of Session-1893.

3 replies added

  1. Álvaro Belmar September 25, 2019 Reply

    Hi. In 2017 I travel to glasgow and visit this cemetery looking for my family burial. In that time I dont know wich was the burial. Now I know that my family burial is N°527 Lairs 52/6. Do everyone knows where this tumb is in cemetery? Central, eastern o western sección? How I can find it? Thanks

  2. Heather Ducourneau October 24, 2021 Reply

    With the help of a friend in Glasgow I have finally found the final resting place of my grandmother Annie Holmes Fenwick. She died 1920 and is buried in the Southern section. Does anyone know what procedures I have to take or who I have to contact to place a marker on her grave. I’m in Canada. I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely Heather

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