Hidden Glasgow: Craig Robertson's macabre mystery tour

Who better to act as guide to the city's secretive side than a crime writer?

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Like so many cities, Glasgow offers sharp contrasts – between rich and poor, old and new. Such diversity and constant change makes it rich pickings for crime fiction and particularly for the subject of my latest novel. In Place of Death revolves around the shadowy world of urban exploration.

Known as urbexing, the practice involves entering abandoned buildings, exploring disused railway tunnels or climbing tall structures such as the city's shipbuilding cranes. It's about going to places you shouldn't, not least because you're told you can't.

It's the kind of subject that is irresistible to a crime writer. The more I learned about it by talking to those who discover the hidden Glasgow under the cover of darkness and out of sight of the law, the more it fascinated me. Writing about urbexing allowed me to explore the city's shifting landscape and society on the page and in the company of people who revel in taking risks. I spent months both on foot and online, researching the scene and the places to go. Some of those, by the nature of the game, have already disappeared. Others, such as the derelict line to the former Botanic Railway Station or the maze that is the Gray Dunn biscuit factory remain gloriously, chaotically available to those who dare.

However, if you want to explore Glasgow's hidden depths without running the risk of breaking the law – or your neck – there are still plenty of fascinating and strange places to explore that even many Glaswegians don't know about.


The White Lady

Ghost roads

Among the green expanse of the Southern Necropolis cemetery on Caledonia Road is a statue known as The White Lady. The monument tells the tale of Magdalene Smith and Mary McNaughton who, returning home from church in heavy rain and shielded by an umbrella, walked out in front of a tramcar and were both killed. Local legend has it that the White Lady turns her veiled head towards you as you walk by but if you look her in the eye then you'll turn to stone. In my fourth novel, Witness the Dead, the body of a young woman was found draped round the White Lady's feet. southernnecropolis.com


Cabinets of curiosities

The Hunterian Museum in the University of Glasgow is famous for its collection of Roman artefacts and its outstanding displays of Whistler and Mackintosh, but if you're looking for something a bit more esoteric then visit the first room off the foyer. Among the oddities in William Hunter's "sports" collection are an eight-limbed chick, a two-headed sheep and three little pigs who have varying numbers of heads, legs, eyes and ears. This is before you get to the leg and feet of an Irish dwarf strongman known as Leather-Coat Jack, a penis simulacrum or teeth belonging to a pre-Ice Age elephant. gla.ac.uk/hunterian


Laurel's old music hall

The Britannia Panopticon in the Trongate is the world's oldest surviving music hall. It opened in the 1850s and had an uproarious existence until it closed in 1938. Chief among its claims to fame is that it was where Stan Laurel made his stage debut as a comic before heading to Hollywood to meet Oliver Hardy. The Panopticon was rediscovered in 1997, auditorium intact as if Stan had just walked off the stage. The new owner and a band of volunteers have restored it to a living museum of music hall. britanniapanopticon.org

Edwardian bathtimes

For a fascinating glimpse into the Glasgow of 100 years ago, take a look inside the magnificent Govanhill Baths, the city's last surviving Edwardian public bathhouse. As well as a public swimming pool, it offered clothes-washing facilities and bathing facilities to local people whose tenement homes had none. The baths faced closure in 2001 but irate locals staged an occupation for five months to force the city council to keep them open. Now work is continuing to have all three pools refurbished and reopened. govanhillbaths.com


On the beat

As a crime writer, I'm almost duty bound to tell you about the Glasgow Police Museum, which is hidden up a close in Bell Street in the Merchant City. Run by volunteer ex-coppers, it tells the history of the UK's first police force from 1799 to 1975. There's a fine collection of uniforms and headgear but the real insight comes from the stories uncovered about the lives, careers and personalities of those who patrolled the city's streets. policemuseum.org.uk

The lost village

One of Glasgow's most popular urbexing locations now comes as an official tourist tour. The city's Central Station allows visitors a behind-the-scenes look, taking in everything from the huge glass roof to the warren of underground tunnels. As you get deeper below ground you come to the remains of a village called Grahamston, which was levelled to make way for the station in the 1870s. I featured this underground lair in my book Snapshot and now readers can make their way down there legitimately. glasgowcentraltours.co.uk

Going underground

Finally, if you are up for some proper urban exploration, then walk along the old line to the disused Botanic Railway Station in the city's West End. The entry at Kirklee is barred by a security fence, but if you can persuade the keeper of the gate to let you through, then you can take a walk through a suitably spooky tunnel till you reach the derelict station. The platforms are still in place (although overgrown), the station walls covered in graffiti, and light streams in – on a good day – from the public park above.

Craig Robertson's new novel 'In Place of Death' is published by Simon & Schuster (£14.99)