History and Story: Chapel at the University of Glasgow

The chapel at the University of Glasgow has history and stories in its stones and wood and glass.

Though it is part of the main building at the university it is a bit out of the way, with an entrance around the west side of the building.

There no big sign, either, but what an entrance: to reach the chapel area you go up what is known as the unicorn and ball staircase.

uni glasgow chapel unicorn ball stairs

It is named after the statues guarding the staircase. They have been doing that since 1690 — not always at this spot, though. They were first at the original location of the University of Glasgow on the other side of town. When the present campus in Gilmore Hill just west of Kelvingrove Park was created in the mid nineteenth century, the unicorn, the ball, the stair treads and the stair rails were moved stone by stone across town and reassembled.

They were not guarding the way to a chapel at that time, either, but rather to an area in the professors’ quad. As the university grew, more space was required. When a decision was taken to enclose the end of that quadrangle, it was decided make space for a chapel. When you reach the top of the stairs, walk a short way to your left, then look right. You will see a door, go through it and look for the doors on your left. You are at the chapel.

uni glasgow chapel scotland lights carvingb

The work was entrusted to architect Sir John Burnet, who planned to create a space which would compliment the Gothic Revival design of the main hall and other nearby buildings. Work began in 1914, but soon halted as workers and resources were needed elsewhere during World War One. Some progress was made as the war drew to a close, but worldwide economic difficulties and bad weather had their impact on Glasgow, delaying the completion of the chapel until 1929.

At that time it was decided to dedicate the space to the memory of men and women associated with the University of Glasgow who had given their lives during what was then called the Great War. Plaques bearing the names of 750 such people are on the walls. Memorials to 432 who fell in World War Two were added subsequently, and plaques have been updated with additional names in recent years as new information has come to light.

From that you might think the Memorial Chapel is a sad and sombre space. It’s not.

uni glasgow chapel east copyright kerry dexter

It is filled with light and story from stained glass windows. Douglas Strachan designed the windows and worked on nine of them, including the Rose window, the first to be installed.

University glasgow scotland chapel stained glass

After his death in 1950, others worked on the chapel windows using his designs. The window above the altar at the east end of the chapel, known as the Benedicte window, was designed by Lawrence Lee and installed in 1962.

There are carvings from two gifted sculptors. Archibald Dawson made much of the carvings throughout the chapel, and Walter Gilbert contributed as well. The figures of Scottish saints Columba, Bride, Oran, and Margaret around the pulpit are by Gilbert.

uni galsgow chapel  saint kerry dexter

The space well balances intricacy, light, and simplicity.

It can be a quiet place to experience all these things, but the chapel is no museum piece. It is a very popular wedding venue (you must have a connection to the University of Glasgow be married in the chapel) and is one of the few sacred spaces in Scotland where weddings officiated by Protestant, Catholic, and humanist celebrants may all be held.

There is a ten minute prayer service every morning during term time, too, and Anglican and Roman Catholic eucharists are regularly celebrated at the chapel.

The university’s history points out that

“…the Chapel is not only a War Memorial, but also a memorial to all those significant moments in the lives of the alumni that have been celebrated there. Many generations of Glasgow University graduates, members of staff, and current students, have used the Chapel for baptisms, funerals, weddings, and more recently civil partnerships. The Memorial Chapel continues to be the hub of worship within the University, welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds.”

uni glasgow chapel scotland lights

It is used for music, too, with concerts of varied sorts, including those by the Chapel Choir, often taking place. They were holding a rehearsal — for a concert honoring Robert Burns — when last I visited the chapel.

university chapel glasgow choir rehearses by kerry dexter

It is not exactly on a tourist trail, even if you are exploring the University of Glasgow campus. The chapel at the University of Glasgow is well worth seeking out, though. It offers opportunity to take part in a service, to attend a musical event, and to seek a quiet place to reflect. As part of the ongoing story of Scotland’s second oldest university, Memorial Chapel offers may layers of history to contemplate and intersecting eras of art and creativity to explore.

All photographs by Kerry Dexter.

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