Home > cultural commentary, Process and technique > Stories from the grave?

Stories from the grave?

I was in Glasgow some while back, and in a free moment went wandering round the Necropolis – the large cemetery on the eastern side of the city centre. You may have seen it on TV as the location for a couple of wildlife programmes, since deer live there; you may, at some point in the future, see it as the basis for a location in a story – especially since one of the tombs looks for all the world like a Victorian Gothic space rocket.

Walking around the Necropolis, I got to thinking about someone I know on WordPress who specialises in writing novels based on Scottish settings. Because you’d think, wouldn’t you, that a Scottish setting would imply Scottish characters – and indeed many of those residing in the Necropolis were pillars of Scottish society. Quite a few tombs were inscribed with the person’s name and dates, and a legend such as ‘Merchant and Protestant’.

But one tomb set me thinking, and then investigating. I spotted it because it was well tended, with fresh flowers and candles in small glass containers. It belonged to someone who died in 1832. And it was inscribed to someone as (I’m writing from memory, I didn’t make a note at the time) ‘Lieutenant in the late Polish Army, died in exile, Greenock, 1832’.

I don’t know this particular person’s story. But one part of it at least has to do with Polish history. By 1795 the Polish state (what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) had ceased to exist, most of the territory of Poland having been partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria. For a number of years there were periodic changes in the control of various bits of territory and semi-independent vassal statelets, but the only part of Poland that might be thought of as ‘Polish’, in that nobody had actually annexed it, was a coastal area around Krolewiec. This state of affairs led to the ‘November Uprising’ of 1830, a challenge principally against Russian control that was quickly repressed.

From 1831 onwards, there was a ‘Great Emigration’ in which Polish combatants, political elites, and many of the Polish intelligentsia (including, for example, Chopin) became refugees. I’d assume this Lieutenant also was a refugee, and died a year or two after arriving in Greenock.

Whatever he did in Scotland when he arrived, did it involve fathering children? Has he created a Polish/Scottish family that continues to remember him? Why were there flowers and candles? And how did he come to be buried with the great and good of Glasgow in the Necropolis, rather than in a local Greenock cemetery?

There are, when I think about it, plenty of other ‘foreigners’ who’ve been involved in Scottish history (apart from the English!) – French, obviously, but also people of Italian descent mostly from the period from the 1890s up to World War 1, Lithuanians, some (principally Lithuanian) Jews who became a distinct population subgroup in the 1700s and so forth.

And I’m sure there are plenty of other places in the world where wandering in a cemetery would leave you thinking ‘how on earth did this person come to be living in this part of the world?’. But probing this story gave me a little more insight into European history. And for a writer, that turns out to be worthwhile at a number of levels beyond passing curiosity.

For one thing, a novel based on Scotland would probably be enriched by having characters such as an emigre Polish lieutenant in it. For another, the twists and turns of Polish history, the uprising and the Great Emigration would make an amazing setting for a historical novel (or, suitably adapted, a science fiction novel).

So anyway… whoever remembers this lieutenant and tends his grave, thank you for leading me on a bit of a journey of historical exploration that was interesting on its own terms, whether or not I ever incorporate any of it into my fiction.

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  1. Author
    June 10, 2010 at 12:11 am

    Interesting post, I don’t find modern cemeteries to be all that fascinating compared to the grand old ones. I have friend who loves to take pictures of cemetery headstones, and the old sculptures in Rome are really fascinating. Emelyn Story has one of the most beautiful graves – her grave’s sculpture is more famous than her. It’s known as the Angel of Grief and the pun on her name Emelyn story has often been romanticized.

  2. June 10, 2010 at 1:18 am

    It’s certainly true the older established cemeteries can be interesting because of the styles and designs of tombs/gravestones. I can think of Highgate in London, Pere Lachaise in Paris, some of the ones in New Orleans where the high water table prevented burial so they used mausoleums instead if my memory is correct…

    Cemetery history itself has some strange twists and turns. I’m thinking of Brookwood Cemetery in Woking (Surrey), opened as a private cemetery by the London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company in 1854, following legislation intended to encourage burials outside London itself due to problems caused by contamination of water supplies as well as space issues. And there’s the old Cross Bones cemetery in Southwark, London, specifically for prostitutes.

    I still have a half-written story based on the idea of a dispute about where a notorious exile should be laid to rest, with neither the country he was exiled from or the country he lived in being prepared to allow burial. Maybe I’ll get back to finishing it sometime (I have several others I’m working on first!).

    Thanks for the Emelyn Story reference – that’s something I wasn’t aware of, but I just checked it out. Wonderful sculpture, though why people would buy paperweight replicas I have no idea. On the other hand I once knew someone who had their pet cat cremated when it died and used the urn as a paperweight…

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