I grew up in graveyards. The dead were my babysitters, my quiet companions. Not silent, though. They announced themselves with great formality. You only had to read the stones.

Here Lays

The Corps Of Mary Dickie

Who Died Dec 18th 1740

Aged 3 Years & 9 Months

Suffer The Little Children

To Come Unto Me

That’s one I remember from the Old Town Cemetery in Stirling. I’d spend whole summers there, a little-ish child myself, trying to catch tadpoles, those living commas, in the small pond called the Pithy Mary, or taking a poke of penny sweets up on to the Ladies Rock, a steep outcrop in the centre of the cemetery, where one could enjoy flying saucers and foam shrimps while looking out over the panorama of graves.

Those graves. Laid out in rows, they were shelves full of stories. I was a shy boy; wary, watchful, living inside myself, living in books. Treasure Island, The Hound Of The Baskervilles, adventures from an earlier age. Headstones, in that company, were just more tales. I would wander among the headstones, reading the inscriptions, gawping at the 18th century carvings, poking a soft finger into the sockets of stone skulls.

It never felt frightening to be surrounded by dead people. In those days – the late Seventies, early Eighties – the living seemed much more of a threat. The cemetery was in poor repair. Lots of vandalism. Worst of all was the monument to a pair of women, Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson, put to death in Wigtown in 1685 for refusing to give up their Protestant religion. They had been tied to stakes and drowned in the rising tide of the Solway Firth. Now, here in Stirling, they had suffered a second martyrdom, the glass of their memorial smashed, the heads and hands of the marble statues broken off and stolen.

Who would do that? The sad truth is it could have been anyone. The cemetery was haunted by ne’er-do-wells: junkies, punk dafties, solvent-huffers with fairy rings of plooks around chafed lips. I lived in mortal fear of a lad known as Tommy Gluebag who was rumoured to have inhaled so much solvent that a pouch of the stuff had mushroomed on the back of his head, pushing tight and milky through his short ginger hair. Nobody wanted to get close enough to verify this. Tommy had a reputation for recreational violence. One day, while I was playing alone on Ladies Rock, he saw me and began, cursing, to climb. But his legs were rubbery beneath him, and about halfway up, he became – rather appropriately for a gluesniffer – stuck. Still, it was a bad moment. I felt like Jim Hawkins in the rigging, looking down in terror as Israel Hands climbed, dirk in teeth, towards him.

That was the thing about graveyards, though: they felt like – feel like – treasure-houses of stories. Some of these stories are international bestsellers. George Eliot and George Michael in Highgate, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison in Père Lachaise. Others, though, are known only locally, if at all.

Sometimes you need only walk out your door. Cathcart Cemetery is just at the back of my house. One day, walking there, I chanced instead upon a pink granite stone marked with these words: “Mark Sheridan, Comedian.”

Sheridan was a music hall star. His real name was Frederick Shaw and he came from County Durham. A faded photograph shows a man in heavy make-up wearing bell bottoms and a comically oversized bowler hat. That we all know I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside is because of the popularity of his 1909 recording. Nine years later he was dead, taking his own life in Kelvingrove Park while on tour in Glasgow. He was buried two days later.

Cathcart is the least celebrated of Glasgow’s historic cemeteries. It doesn’t look as dramatic as the Necropolis with its huge glowering effigy of John Knox. And it doesn’t have the disquieting air of urban gothic that characterises the Southern Necropolis, where tower blocks loom, brute and mute, over the eerie marble figure known as the White Lady. That monument, which marks the grave of two women killed by a tramcar in 1933, is said to turn its head to gaze – blank and implacable – at passers-by. The cemetery is also home to the legendary Gorbals Vampire, a creature with iron teeth and a taste for the blood of local boys. Between the eyes and the teeth it’s a wonder that anyone ever walks their dog there, yet they do. Glesga dugs have sceptical bladders. They will happily cock a leg in the Southern Necropolis, never cocking an ear to the stories.

What can I tell you about Cathcart? It is mine. It is inside me as, perhaps, one day I will be inside it. When you find a graveyard that you enjoy it can become like a favourite beach or woodland walk; the pleasure is in familiarity, belonging, a sense of home. One summer evening, with my wife and children, we climbed a green hill to the highest point in the cemetery, and, sitting on a tartan picnic rug, listened to the Artic Monkeys drifting over from their concert four miles away on Glasgow Green. On Hogmanay, we followed our ears and discovered a woodpecker rat-a-tatting high in a beech. Head a blur of white and red, it was knocking on the new day, on the new year, on the old wood, asking to come in.

If a tree can look haughty, this beech did. Around its foot were several headstones, some so overgrown with ivy that they seemed more like topiaryh. When ivy is carved on a gravestone it symbolises eternal life, but in Cathcart, as in so many old cemeteries, the plant has made the figurative literal, smothering what must once have been beautiful carving as if to show its distaste for metaphor. Ivy in a graveyard is disgustingly ostentatiously alive. It strikes names from stone as, below, flesh strips from bone.

Still, as the woodpecker kept time on the trunk above, I could make out some of the names. One granite cross, erected by a William Fulton Young, marked the resting place of his wife Isabella, and their sons, Alexander, John and Robert, all of whom died as a result of their war service. Only Alexander appears to have been killed in action – on 26 September 1916; the others survived the fighting but succumbed, eventually, to their injuries. Robert, “BADLY GASSED IN FRANCE”, lingered on until 2 February 1921, and what a universe of suffering must be contained within those four capitalised words. Poor Sandy, John and Rab – as their parents may well have known them – who went to war as boys and come back with lungs full of death, if at all. To visit that grave on new year’s eve, drawn there by the bird, was to experience a jump cut: from the rattle of guns to the beat of beak on wood.

In an old graveyard the mind snags on stories, just as a fox, pushing between overgrown tombs, might catch on the undergrowth and carry away burrs in its coat. Mark Sheridan, Comedian – that one got under my skin, a burr snagged deep. It was such a simple stone; pink marble, just his name and dates, and that word: comedian. I had to know more.

A visit to the Mitchell library, furnished a report from the Glasgow Herald, dated 16 January 1918: “There was a bullet wound in his forehead and a Browning revolver was lying beside the body.” Sheridan had left his hotel in time to attend a noon rehearsal, but never arrived. At 2.20pm, his corpse was discovered by two men out walking. “The spot where the tragedy occurred is an unfrequented part of the park on the west side of the Kelvin. The body was lying on the footpath.”

Sheridan’s burlesque Gay Paree, in which he played Napoleon, had just opened at the Coliseum on Eglinton Street. His daughter and two sons had parts in the show, and his wife, Ethel, was on the road too. Shortly before 7pm, the curtain was about to be raised when police informed the theatre manager of his leading man’s death. He made a sombre announcement and the audience filed quietly out.

Received wisdom has it that this desperate act was prompted by bad notices for Gay Paree, which is odd as the Herald’s review on the day of his death observed that it “admirably fulfils its purpose of mirthmaking, and is in every way an attractive entertainment”. The following November, in a court battle with an insurance company, lawyers for Sheridan’s widow argued, unsuccessfully, that he had not intended to end his life. Ethel Shaw claimed her husband had gone into the park to rehearse a scene in which he had to fire a pistol, and – while doing so – “the unfortunate accident” occurred. George Robey, known as The Prime Minister of Mirth, later famous as Falstaff in Olivier’s film of Henry V, gave his view that Sheridan “was not the man to commit suicide because his play was not a success the first night”. All very curious.

A fellow performer once recalled: “When you saw Mark Sheridan sing I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside, it was something more than someone singing a good, rousing song … As he strode across the stage, singing lustily in his Tyneside voice and slapping the back-cloth with his stick, he was a man full of fresh air and vigour and health, striding along the promenade.”

It is strange – and more than a little sad – to think of this fellow of infinite jest buried so far from home, beyond the sound of the silvery sea.

A Tomb With A View: The Stories & Glories of Graveyards, is out now on Headline, priced £20.