Pure Dead Magic: Glasgow's Enchanted Landscapes

Ronnie Scott (Scottish History: University of Glasgow)


Glasgow encompasses a wide variety of urban and rural spaces, many of which resonate with significance and meaning. This paper surveys some of the city's enchanted landscapes, focusing particularly on two neighbouring planned spaces: the Glasgow Zen Garden and the Glasgow Necropolis, and applies the concepts of cultural landscapes and psychogeography to explore any similarities there might be between these two spaces.

The first section of this paper looks at some magical aspects of Glasgow; the second and third look at the concepts of cultural landscapes and psychogeography; the fourth looks at enchanted landscapes in Glasgow; the fifth applies the two concepts to some Glasgow sites; and the final section makes some tentative conclusions about what all this might mean 
Overall, the question this paper aims to explore is to what degree it is productive or enlightening to apply the differing concepts of cultural landscapes and psychogeography to these two spaces.  
Now, as we all know, Glasgow's magic ... in fact, Glasgow's pure dead magic. By any definition of the word - and there were plenty of them offered during the course of the conference - the city is positively awash, if not hoaching, with magic. A tour of the more mysterious aspects of the city might include:
  • a pyramid atop a Christian church (Anderston Kelvingrove Church of Scotland, 759 Argyll Street).
  • a sphinx, albeit a headless one (just east of the entrance to Cowcaddens Underground station).
  • an Egypt, in the mysterious East (a few streets east of Tolcross Park).
  • an inner circle that operates underground, and moves widdershins (operated by Strathclyde Passenger Transport).
  • a number of temples devoted to Mithras (for example, at 98-100 West Regent Street).
  • the bones of Saint Valentine (in the Blessed St John Duns Scotus Roman Catholic Church, Gorbals).
  • a civic coat of arms depicting five miracles (there is a fine cast-iron example at the east end of Kelvinbridge bridge).
  • a Paradise, also in the mysterious East (just south of the Eastern Necropolis).
  • a network of aligned prehistoric sites (described below).

That's nine, a magical number and a good place to stop. The ninth aspect was the Glasgow Network of Aligned Sites,[1] an enchanted landscape system discovered or devised by Harry Bell, a printer from East Kilbride who tried to identify the "straight road, along where there was no path",[2] the route along which St Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow and the man whose miracles are depicted on the city's coat of arms, arrived in Glasgow following the body of Fergus in a bullock cart.  

Bell's hypothesis is that Glasgow is built on a framework of prehistoric communication lines. The Necropolis is one of the four nodes of this putative enchanted network. Bell, however, cheerfully points out that "the purpose of the network is still unknown".[3] 

Cultural Landscapes

The notion of cultural landscapes, introduced by cultural geographers and found useful by cultural historians, is an effective tool for examining what we are happy to call enchanted landscapes. Almost all landscapes, and certainly all those in a city as old and as developed as Glasgow, have been affected by human action or perception. So they all have cultural associations, and they can all claim to be cultural landscapes. This concept can be used in a more narrow sense to interrogate and interpret a defined area and its associated cultural meaning.

Ingolf Vogeler of the University of Wisconsin has written that "cultural landscape elements are markers that announce and display the presence of cultural groups' most cherished ideals to their own members and to outsiders".[4] This seems a very useful position from which to examine the material culture of any designated landscape, which this paper will shortly do.  


Psychogeography, which began in avant-garde cultural criticism but has since influenced the diverse practices of conceptual art and town planning, is another potentially useful tool for examining enchanted landscapes. The term, which dates from the early days of the Situationists in the 1950s, was first defined - in their journal in 1958 - as: "the study of the precise effects of geographical setting, consciously managed or not, acting directly on the mood or behaviour of the individual."[5] A more recent, and slightly amended, definition has been proposed by Maddox. This reads: "the hidden landscape of atmospheres, histories, actions and characters which charge environments; the lost social ley-lines which make up the unconscious cultural contours of places".[6]  
The Situationists, led by film-maker Guy Debord and artist Raoul Vaneigem, used the technique of experimental dérive, or drift, to explore the psychogeographical contours of urban Paris. The dérive was defined, again in the journal of the Situationists in 1958, as "an experimental mode of behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society; a technique for hastily passing through varied environments".[7] It involved groups of people travelling through Paris, making choices of direction based on the feelings invoked by structures, boundaries, landmarks and other features of the urban landscape.  
10  People undertaking this activity will notice - as Debord wrote in 1955 - "the sudden change of ambience in a street within the space of a few metres" and "the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres".[8] The dérive, which was envisioned as a group activity, has two aspects: ludic and analytical. Debord and his drifters saw it as both a playful interaction with one's surroundings and a way of analysing them.  
11  Now, enchanted landscapes need enchanted maps, and one result of the dérivistes' playful interaction with the city was psychogeographic maps. Debord and Asger Jorn produced "The Naked City" in 1957, and the non-geographical map, expressing the closeness of areas by feel and not feet, came to prominence. This psychogeographic map shows the city - Paris in this case - as fragmented and discontinuous, and yet integrated and unitary, bound together by emotion and feelings. Rather than imposing order on the city, as topographical maps are intended to do, this new style of mapping was intended to "put the spectator at ease with a city of apparent disorder",[9] as Simon Sadler has written.  
12  Tourist maps show some of the same concerns. Sadler has pointed out that the early Situationist maps "described an urban navigational system that operated independently of Paris's dominant patterns of circulation",[10] and it could be argued that tourists also operate in different time spaces and using different routes from commuters. The typical tourist map is restricted to the central area, with lesser streets omitted, and perhaps with some insets of outlying areas of interest, chosen for the tourist by mainstream considerations of density of attractions, ease of navigation and, not least, safety. These are surely conceptual rather than strictly topographical charts. Other tourist guides promote particular routes among particular attractions, and these designated tourist trails are perhaps as far away from a dérive as one could get.  

Enchanted landscapes

13  There aren't too many parts of Glasgow that are exactly as nature intended, so this exercise deals with planned, urban landscapes or the remains of these. The ones that most lend themselves to the term enchanted are designed spaces deliberately intended to evoke emotions or feelings, such as parks - designed as a heightened form of nature, tidier and without the jaggy bits - university campuses - designed to show a dedication to knowledge and intellect rather than the mundane - or hospital grounds - designed to promote restful healing.  
14  Other intentionally enchanting landscapes might include retail parks, such as the Great Western Retail Park, a phrase as ominous and heavy with dread meaning as the Great Scottish Novel; so-called leisure parks, such as The Quay, formerly one of the greatest iron ore terminals in Europe; and that area, part building site, part luxury shopping area, part designer car park, now known as the Merchant City.  
15  Probably the most significant enchanted landscape of recent years, though, was the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival, which transformed a blighted, post-industrial area of the city into a magic garden, offering visitors, in its marketing, "a day out of this world". Quite which alternative world visitors were whisked away to was never stated. This was a masterpiece of spectacle, with artful recreations of the High Street and many other attractions that already existed across the city, but in less convenient and less well-policed locations.  
16  Today, the St Nicholas Garden, behind Provand's Lordship, and the burial grounds of Glasgow Cathedral could also be considered enchanted spaces. They, like the Necropolis, have elements expressly designed to invoke particular thoughts or feelings: in the case of the Cathedral burying grounds, the stonework includes a complex symbology predicated on the injunction "Momento Mori!": Remember Death!  

The Glasgow Zen Garden and the Glasgow Necropolis

17  This section of the paper applies the "tools" of cultural landscape and psychogeography to two enchanted landscapes in Glasgow, focusing on the first two words of the title: the Zen Garden, as in "pure", and the Necropolis, as in "dead". The magic will speak for itself.  
18  The Zen Garden, promoted by Glasgow City Council as Britain's first permanent Japanese Zen garden, was created in the spring of 1993 by Yasuataro Tanaka, who is the bearer of an unbroken tradition in garden design. Transmission of skills and authority is a feature of Buddhism, one of the faiths - or cultures - examined in the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, in which the Zen garden was built. In the Zen tradition of garden design, the stones, gravel and grass represent mountains, water and land.  
19  To an outsider, the only easily-grasped aspect of Zen is its contradictions: Zen is about simplicity and natural-ness, yet here is a centuries-old rigid tradition of stylised, unnatural arrangements of natural objects, fixed in their relation to each other and defying the changing seasons. And while Zen is, as artist Frederick Franck asserted, "the unsymbolisation of the world and all the things in it",[11] the garden is a highly symbolised object. A Zen Koan, indeed. 
20  The Glasgow Necropolis, almost since the first burial in 1832, has enchanted poets, novelists, photographers and film-makers. It has also charmed architectural historians, art historians, history historians and other academics. All regard it as, in one way or another, a special place, a differentiated place. It was developed around 1830 by the Merchants' House of Glasgow, which turned a tree-covered park for the exclusive use of its members into a new landscape of memory and commemoration, one that was both a tribute to the entrepreneurial activity of the city and itself an entrepreneurial activity. The creators looked to the celebrated Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris as a model for their hygienic, tasteful and enlightened new burying ground.  
21  Is it possible to productively apply the notions of cultural landscape to the Zen Garden and the Necropolis? 
22  Vogeler noted that the elements of a cultural landscape "announce and display the presence of cultural groups' most cherished ideals to their own members and to outsiders". While the elements of the Zen Garden are - apparently - simply rocks, gravel and grass, the spatial arrangement and inter-relationships of these items is itself an element, putting on display the creator's understanding of the long tradition of dry landscapes in Zen Buddhism, and also the Glasgow City Council art establishment's discernment is choosing the artist, the location and its relationship to the surrounding culturally-charged structures.  
23  The garden, in common with all Zen gardens, celebrates the virtues of contemplation and meditation. Which were two of the stated objectives of the perpetrators of the Glasgow Necropolis. John Strang, in his 1831 manifesto for a garden cemetery in Glasgow, pointed to the need for a new type of burying ground, "peculiarly dedicated to the Genius of Memory and calculated for the extension of religious and moral feeling".[12] He proposed a garden cemetery with particular trees, traditionally associated with mourning and eternal life, particular styles of monument, based on classical precedents, and particular landscape features, such as picturesque walks and vistas, all made, in Strang's word, "eyesweet".[13] Here is a cultural landscape planned to the finest detail.  
24  The Zen garden and the Necropolis share a number of other features, such as: they appeal to tradition and precedence, in Japan and Paris, they deny nature, either by eschewing the four seasons or by perpetuating the individual beyond death, they are designed structures with named authors, they rely on symbolism to communicate their meanings, and they are both tourist attractions, spectacles that can be consumed and collected. 
25  Now, turning to the second tool of psychogeography...  
26  The Situationists were a revolutionary, oppositional group, and psychogeography was one of the weapons in their armoury. As well as having a propagandist function, its principal active tool, the dérive, or drift, was used to demonstrate that buildings, junctions, streets and areas provoked different emotional responses, and people undertaking a drift made choices of route based on these feelings. The Zen Garden is too small, and too roped off, to host a dérive, but it could certainly be classed as a feature of the Cathedral Precinct environment that people could choose to go towards or propel themselves away from, during a dérive. The Necropolis, however, is almost an urban space in itself - its name translates as city of the dead, after all - and is a self-contained landscape perfect for drifting through. It is one of Glasgow's, and has its own, "zones of distinct psychic atmospheres", to use Debord's phrase.  
27  So one could perform a dérive in the Necropolis, with its own urban quality, and record the results in a psychogeographic map. What might this reveal? That some areas are linked to others through ambience, that some paths are more popular than others, that some monuments or sections are more attractive or repulsive than others. Possibly there are as many maps as there are people, or maybe there is a broad consensus on the trunk roads and landmarks of the Necropolis. Since psychogeography, as its name implies, attempts to bring together subjective and objective modes of study, we should not be surprised if its methods produce a wide range of equally acceptable results.  
28  So, in psychogeographical terms, what unites the Zen garden and the Necropolis? They are both "sacred spaces" one to Zen Buddhism and one to the nineteenth-century Cult of the Dead, tourist attractions, open during the day but forbidden at night, devised and not organic structures, and their keepers are tasked with conserving and not improving them. 


29  This paper has been a first attempt to explore the notions of enchanted landscapes, cultural landscapes and psychogeography in Glasgow, in particular the Zen Garden and the Necropolis. The original question was: To what degree it is productive or enlightening to apply these differing concepts to these spaces? The tentative answer is that this paper has generated a few insights and useful avenues for further exploration.  
30 The outcomes can only be tentative, but among the issues this double-barrelled approach has raised is the question of individual intellectual and emotional responses to two highly charged - in a cultural sense - locations in Glasgow, and how an academic methodology, such as cultural history, might encompass these reactions. Exploring these topics in these ways has raised more questions than there has been space to answer here, but this paper has at least introduced some new perspectives on how we see two features of the city, and how an academic study of them might be broadened and deepened by taking a novel approach.  



[1] Harry Bell, Glasgow's Secret Geometry: The City's Oldest Mystery (East Kilbride: Leyline Publications, 1984).

[2] Joceline, The Life of St Kentigern.

[3] Harry Bell, Glasgow's Secret Geometry: The City's Oldest Mystery (East Kilbride: Leyline Publications, 1984).

[4] http://www.uwec.edu/Academic/Geography/Ivogeler/w188/3meang.htm, consulted May 2002.

[5] Internationale Situationiste 1 (June, 1958).

[6] A. Maddox, Classic Cafes http://freespace.virgin.net/a.maddox/Psy.html, consulted July 2002.

[7] Internationale Situationiste 1 (June, 1958).

[8] Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography (Paris: 1955).

[9] Simon Sadler, The Situationist City (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998), p. 82.

[10] Simon Sadler, The Situationist City (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998), p. 88.

[11] Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing (New York, NY: Random House, 1973).

[12] John Strang, Necropolis Glasguensis (Glasgow: 1831).

[13] John Strang, Necropolis Glasguensis (Glasgow: 1831).

eSharp issue: autumn 2003. © Ronnie Scott 2003. All rights reserved. ISSN 1742-4542.