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The finest private tomb in the country

Hamilton Mausoleum, image by G Laird  via Wikimedia Commons

Hamilton Mausoleum, image by G Laird via Wikimedia Commons

By the side of Muir Street in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire stands an unusual building.  Most visitors casually passing through Hamilton pay little attention to the Victorian domed structure which seems a little lonely, a little lost amidst a green park, flanked by an ice rink.  On closer examination what is revealed is an incredible structure, an extraordinary piece of architecture, which possesses a fascinating history linked to one of the most decadent and notorious Scottish aristocratic families, the Dukes of Hamilton.

Ceiling and oculus of the Mausoleum, image by Miss Jessel edited by Lenora

Ceiling and oculus of the Mausoleum, image by Miss Jessel edited by Lenora

In 1842, the fabulously eccentric 10th Duke of Hamilton, Alexander, decided that what he and his family deserved to reflect their glory and eminence was a mausoleum.  Not any mausoleum, Alexander wanted the grandest money could buy.  Drawing from his love of the classical world he commissioned the architect David Hamilton to design and build a Roman-styled domed structure of panelled masonry in the grounds of the now demolished Hamilton Palace.  At some point along the way the building project was taken over by the architect David Bryce and the Scottish sculptor, Alexander Handyside Ritchie. In 1858, sixteen years after the work had started, the building was finally completed. Unfortunately this was too late for the duke who had died five years previous. So sadly the proud duke never lived to see his dream fulfilled.

The building stands at a height of 37 metres with massive bronze doors modelled on those of the Florence Baptistry. The floor itself is incredibly beautiful. Produced by the Edinburgh firm of Wallace and Whyte, it is made up of 10000 pieces of marble taken from 42 Italian quarries and arranged in a Winding Stair Pattern. The floor is believed to incorporate elements of masonic symbolism in its design. Despite being an airy building the architects cleverly installed under floor heating so that mourners would not suffer during the long Scottish winters. In order not to spoil the mausoleum’s serene image the chimney 200 yards long was laid underground with the smoke emerging from the top of the caretaker’s cottage. At the time the mausoleum was considered to be one of the finest private tombs in the country and as one journalist wrote,

“The Mausoleum is believed to be the most costly and magnificent temple for the reception of the dead anywhere in the world with the exception of the pyramids”1

Floor tiles, image by Miss jessel edited by Lenora

Floor tiles, image by Miss Jessel edited by Lenora

Life, Death, Immortality

Death Mask

Death Mask, image by Miss Jessel edited by Lenora

The entire building is imbued with symbolic meaning.  Carvings and architectural devices were designed to instil in the mourners/visitors a respect for the transient nature of life as well as displaying the duke’s love and knowledge of the ancient world.  You enter the crypt via a central archway (the two either side are false entrances). Above these archways are three sculptures representing Life, Death and Immortality.

The head representing “Life” is garlanded with fruits and flowers, possibly embodying the life-giving force of nature. His face is lined with the cares and worries which life inflicts. Above him a clock hand points to noon representing the mid-point of his existence.

The head representing “Death” is crowned with poppies symbolising everlasting sleep. His finger is gently placed on his lips, asking for silence, his eyes are closed.

The head representing “Immortality” is beautiful. His face his unlined and above his brow are lilies and circles as well as a snake holding his tail in its mouth representing eternity.  In the centre there is a delicate carving of a butterfly, the Greek symbol of immortality.

It is significant that the only way to enter the crypt is to pass under the head representing death. It is also unnerving that the bust of life is the most worn of the three sculptures whilst immortality looks like it has hardly been touched.

The Mausoleum Sentries

Sleeping Lion, image by Miss Jessel edited by Lenora

Sleeping Lion, image by Miss Jessel edited by Lenora

The entrance of the crypt is guarded by two lions. One sleeps whilst the other isawake, alert. The lions carved from a single block of sandstone are incredibly lifelike and beautiful. Some believe that one represents life and the other death whilst others say that one lion keeps a vigil while the other sleeps until it is his time to take over guard duty. Interestingly the sleeping lion lies with his claws extended. In general cats sleep with claws retracted, maybe the sculptor made a mistake, maybe the sleeping lion is not really sleeping, maybe he is just lulling us into a false sense of security, waiting to pounce.

An illustrious family

Below the chapel is a stone crypt with room for the remains of 28 members of the duke’s family. It is hard to believe that the Dukes of Hamilton buried in the crypt ever really laid in peace and repose. A number of them led interesting lives none more so that the 4th, 6th, 8th and 10th dukes.

The duelling duke

4th Duke duelling, public domain image via wikimedia

4th Duke duelling, public domain image via wikimedia

The 4th Duke of Hamilton, James had a way of courting bad press. Described as perpetually drunk, selfish, arrogant, a disaster and a “bone-headed wastrel”1. He was a leader of the Scottish National Party and a vocal opponent of Scotland’s union with England. In November 1712 he was killed in a duel which shocked polite society and changed the law. His adversary was Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun with whom he had for eleven years been embroiled in a bitter legal dispute over an inheritance. Both men had married nieces of the Earl of Macclesfield but on his deathbed the Earl named Mohun as sole heir. Hamilton disputed the validity of the confession and the credibility of one of the witnesses.  Mohun himself was no saint, having already stood trial three times for murder. Finally emotions became so heated on both sides that they decided a duel was needed to settle the matter for once and for all. They met in Hyde Park along with their Seconds, George MacCartney and Colonel John Hamilton.  In the event Hamilton killed Mohun who in turn severely wounded Hamilton.  Furious MacCartney lunged at Hamilton, running him through with his sword. It is very likely that Colonel Hamilton in retaliation fought MacCartney as both men fled to the continent in fear of arrest. The duel had been so bloody that the government was persuaded to ban duels using swords in favour of pistols which inflicted less horrific injuries. The incident was immortalised by Thackeray in his novel “The History of Henry Esmond”.

A Curtain Ring Wedding


Elizabeth Gunning

The 6th Duke of Hamilton’s (another James) claim to notoriety was very different. He enters the history books as a womaniser and debaucher. On the 14 February 1752 he finally found a woman he could not have his wicked way with in the form of the Society Beauty, Elizabeth Gunning. Elizabeth was penniless but refused to give in to the duke’s demands without marriage. That same night at 12.30 he plucked a parson out of bed to perform the marriage, using a bed curtain ring as a wedding ring. Presumably at 2am he finally got the girl and she got her duke.

The Hamilton House Dance

8th Duke of Hamilton, public domain

8th Duke of Hamilton, public domain

Following in family tradition, Douglas, the 8th Duke of Hamilton was famous for his looks which he used to good effect as a womaniser. He inherited the title on his brother’s death in 1769. In April 1778 he married Elizabeth Anne Burrell, a match his family disapproved of as unequal. They had no children and were divorced after sixteen years possibly due to the duke’s numerous affairs primarily with the actress Mrs Esten and Frances Twysden, wife of the Earl of Eglinton, although the duchess was also rumoured to bed hop on occasion. Affairs were pretty much the norm amongst the upper classes but people were expected to behave discreetly, not so Hamilton. In fact Lady Eglinton actually asked her husband’s servant “if he would admit the Duke of Hamilton into her bedchamber”3. Loyally the servant refused. The dance the “Hamilton House” was named after the duke and duchess with the steps and numerous changes of partners symbolising their infidelities.

“The proudest man in England”


El Magnifico himself

The builder of the mausoleum, Alexander Douglas Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton was born on the 3rd October 1767. In 1806 he was appointed to the Privy Council, serving as Ambassador to the Court of St Petersburg and in 1836 became a Knight of the Garter. He was strongly involved with the Freemasons, serving as Grandmaster between 1820 and 1822 hence the masonic symbolism embedded in the mausoleum’s design (and the continued use of the building by the Freemasons today). In April 1810 he married Susan Euphemia Beckford. He was a famous dandy and Lord Lemington in his book “The Days of the Dandies” wrote “Never was such a magnifico as the 10th Duke”. Extremely proud of his ancestry, he was convinced he was heir to the Scottish crown. His inflated sense of his own importance resulted in him hiring his own hermit to adorn the grounds of Hamilton Palace. Increasingly eccentric as he grew older, he was affectionately called “El Magnifico” by the locals as he wandered around Hamilton wearing the Douglas tartan. He died at the age of 84 in London on the 18th August 1852. An obituary notice read

With a great pre-disposition to over-estimate the importance of ancient birth…he was well deserved to be considered the proudest man in England.”4

A sarcophagus fit for a duke

Unlike his other relatives, the 10th Duke was not content to be buried in the crypt; instead he was laid to rest in the chapel in a sarcophagus. The story goes that whilst acting as a buyer for the British Museum, he ‘accidentally’ acquired a sarcophagus, not of an Egyptian of royal birth but of an ordinary citizen. The British Museum uninterested in the purchase allowed Hamilton to keep it. On his death and according to his wishes, the duke’s body was mummified and placed in the sarcophagus. It is not known how they managed to fit his body in the sarcophagus as the duke was eight inches taller than the original occupant but it has been suggested that his legs were rearranged with a sledge-hammer and bent under him.  Unfortunately as the mausoleum had no roof, the duke had the ignominy of lying in state with building work going on around him. Probably not the grand exit the duke had envisaged for himself. Eventually his sarcophagus was placed on a black marble slab, resting in a grand manner as “El Magnifico” deserved.

Alexander Hamilton's sarcophagus c1880's.  Image source http://www.natemaas.com/2012_10_01_archive.html

Alexander Hamilton’s sarcophagus c1880’s. Image source http://www.natemaas.com

The Whispering Wa’s

One unusual consequence of the design was the whispering wa’s or walls. Two people can stand at either end of the rotunda and have a whispered conversation that can’t be heard from another person standing only a couple of inches away. This together with the echo which lasting 15 seconds has been recorded as the longest lasting echo of any man-made structure in the world, made the building unusable as a chapel but perfect for concerts and brass bands.

A lasting testimony

Unfortunately due to subsidence and flooding all the bodies were removed and reburied in the 1920s, with the majority of them being interred down the road at Bent Cemetery. I think that the mausoleum is one of the most surprising, interesting and beautiful buildings I have ever visited. It stands testimony to the vision (and ego) of one man and the skills of others as well as being the only surviving reminder of one of the grandest estates in Britain.

Immortality, image by Miss Jessel edited by Lenora








The Hamilton Mausoleum or The Duke’s Folly by Brother Robert T. Sime, http://www.skirret.com/archive/misc/misc-h/hamiltonmausoleum1.html

The Hamilton Dukes, http://everything2.com/title/Duke+of+Hamilton

James Hamilton, 4th Duke of Hamilton, 1st Duke of Brandon, http://www.clanmacfarlanegenealogy.info/genealogy/TNGWebsite/getperson.php?personID=I12265&tree=CC

Famous Beauties of Two Reigns: Being an Account of Some Fair Women of Stuart & Georgian Times, Mary Craven, Martin Andrew Sharp Hume

The Kit-Cat Club, Ophelia Field

Handsome Devils and Their Digs: Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, 8th Duke of Hamilton, http://lifetakeslemons.wordpress.com/2011/08/18/handsome-devils-and-their-digs-douglas-douglas-hamilton-8th-duke-of-hamilton/

Pamphlet guide on the Hamilton Mausoleum produced by Low Parks Mausoleum