AN evocative name, the Bridge of Sighs. The original, in Venice, was built in 1600; Glasgow’s was opened in 1834 and, as you walk across it today, you are struck by the history etched in its surroundings. To your left, the splendour of medieval Glasgow Cathedral; just beyond, the Royal Infirmary, opened more than 200 years ago.

The bridge itself leads to Glasgow Necropolis, where the first recorded burial – of a Jewish jeweller who died of dysentery – was carried out in 1832, a year before the first Christian burial in the garden cemetery created by the Merchants’ House. Across its 37 acres there are 3,500 monuments. Fifty thousand people lie buried here, largely in unmarked graves, though all are in the Burial Registers.

Ruth Johnston knows the Necropolis exceptionally well. Over the decades she has taken a very close interest in its inhabitants and chronicled many of their stories. “I have lived in Dennistoun for more than 40 years, and where else but here would you want to walk around?” she says as we walk over the Bridge. At first, she was drawn to the architecture and sculpture that are in such profusion here, “and it was obviously such an amazing place to be. Later, it became evident that every single person here has an amazing story”.

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Johnston, a graphic designer, is chairwoman of the Friends of the Glasgow Necropolis, and has written several books about the cemetery. The Friends was formed in 2005 to promote and conserve the Necropolis. It stages tours and encourages investment in order to reverse decades of under-investment, vandalism and decay. It has resurfaced paths, has raised £34,000 for the restoration of the Monteath Mausoleum (notable for its 48 grotesque carved faces) and is two-thirds of the way through a project to record the monuments. “We help people find their family memorials,” Johnston adds. “I get enquiries every week from somewhere in the world, asking if we could help find a family memorial.”

Many of the monuments at the Necropolis speak to the Victorian city’s restless entrepreneurialism, mercantile instincts and creative endeavour. The name of William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (he was buried at Westminster Abbey after his death in 1907) is engraved on to the Thomson family monument. Elsewhere, chemists, inventors, merchants, industrialists, ministers, poets and writers are commemorated in stone, as are the founders of the Stephens of Linthouse shipyard, and the retail pioneer Malcolm Campbell. There are monuments to Charles Tennant, whose chemical works at St Rollox were once the largest in the world, and to Hugh Tennent and his fifth son Charles, of brewing fame.

“You also have people like William Miller, who wrote many poems and nursery rhymes, including Wee Willie Winkie,” says Johnston. “His monument was put up by public subscription. The city really loved its artists and writers who could never have afforded to have a monument here. Miller himself is buried in Tollcross Cemetery.”

In the same fashion is there a monument to the Paisley-born poet, William Motherwell. His friend and fellow poet, William Kennedy, Johnston says, “came every day and put a piece of poetry in this spot until the money was raised for a monument”. Its distinctive bas-relief friezes, however, have partly been erased by industrial pollution and the weather.

Not everyone who name is written in stone here was famous, or wealthy. There’s a monument to the firefighters and salvage corps who perished in the Cheapside Street blaze of 1960 and the firemen who died in the Kilbirnie Street fire of 1972: 26 men in all. More than 150 of the memorials list someone who died in the Great War, among them Douglas Alexander Bannatyne, a lieutenant in the Royal Scots, who was killed in action, aged 40, in France, in August 1918. The bodies of many of these war dead, of course, lie in a foreign field.

Johnston’s experienced eye has long been caught by the symbolism on many monuments. “Here and there,”she says, “you will come across examples of the way the Victorians felt about the landscape, and flowers. If you gave somebody a bouquet of flowers, every single flower had a meaning. There are examples on monuments of upside-down torches, for instance, which represents Death; a lit torch would symbolise a belief in resurrection.” Her book, Afterlives: Tales of Internment, lists others: ivy represents immortality, the fleur de lys speaks to the Holy Trinity, the pelican symbolises sacrifice and resurrection.”

Many well-known architects designed monuments here, she adds. David Hamilton, Alexander “Greek” Thomson, John Thomas Rochead (designer of the Wallace Monument in Stirling), and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The latter’s boyhood home, in Dennistoun’s Firpark Terrace, can actually be glimpsed today from the Necropolis.

Johnston points to a solemn row of mausoleums that have been carefully restored by the Friends and the city council. One commemorates the “Three Misses of Bellfield”: Margaret, Jane and Elizabeth, the daughters of George Buchanan, a well-to-do figure in the cotton trade. Ten thousand pounds was left for the perpetual upkeep of their tomb. “This is all new stonework here,” she explains. “The balustrade was missing, there was quite a lot of work to be done.” The row also includes the 1837 Egyptian Vaults, designed by David Hamilton, where bodies were stored while their graves were being readied.

It’s a pleasant day for a walk round the Necropolis. We pass a jogger doing a steady circuit of the winding paths. A cluster of amateur photographers has been drawn to the monument to John Knox, a 12ft-high statue of him, Bible clutched in his right hand, atop a 58ft-high Doric column. The monument actually pre-dates the cemetery; it has stood here since 1825, when this immediate area was more of a formal park. Some 10,000 people gathered on this spot just to see the foundation stone being laid.

There’s a great view to be had from the top of the hill across the city. As we look, the sun appears from behind clouds and illuminates the city below. “This was the highest hill in Glasgow when the Necropolis opened,” Johnston remarks, “but places like Sighthill were absorbed into the city later, and that is even higher. But it is an amazing view.”

One of her favourite monuments is the one to the theatre impresario John Henry Alexander - “an amazing piece of sculpture”. It has figures representing tragedy and comedy, and Alexander himself is depicted wearing a wreath. Descendants of the family came here to bury ashes here as recently as 2012. In the same way is the monument to Malcolm Campbell studded with apples and other fruits.

As is the case with every graveyard, many of the headstones at the Necropolis mark the deaths of infants, or of children who died too young. Mary Margaret, daughter of James Jeffray, professor of anatomy at Glasgow, was just nine when she died on April 22, 1839. Jane Milligan was two years and four months when she died on August 29, 1876: she was the daughter of Lieut-Col William Bannatyne and his wife Aimee. A nearby monument was erected in memory of James Clerk, a Glasgow merchant, who died, aged 62, in June 1872, “and of his infant son, who died 22nd October, 1859”.

We walk past wide stretches of grass, where unmarked graves lie. Here and there you make make out gentle undulations in the ground. We stroll past the monument to Walter Macfarlane I, who created the famed Saracen Foundry; he was buried here in 1885 though his monument, with his portrait in a bronze panel, did not follow for another 11 years. “These portraits aren’t so unusual, though they are mostly of men,” observes Johnston. “We used to have a bronze portrait of the Queen of the Gypsies [Corlinda Lee], but that has been stolen, and we have one of a woman peeping out from behind her husband’s profile, but apart from that there are no images of women here.”

A short walk away is the monument to stockbroker David Edmund Outram, whose uncle, George, was an advocate, a humorous poet, and editor of this very paper.

Ruth Johnston continues her tour, pointing to more of her favourite monuments, to the riveting little details – the sculptor’s “sweet commissioned grace”, in Philip Larkin’s words – that she has grown to love. The Necropolis, she says, never quite loses its atmospheric beauty, and you can see what she means.