Writer Gillean McDougall reflects on Gartnavel Royal Hospital, NHS archives and family history.
The old Gartnavel Royal Asylum, a well-known landmark in the West of Glasgow, sits on a busy arterial road leading out of the city. Built in 1843, it would have been visible from a far distance over green fields; a sobering prospect for a Victorian city balancing industry and commerce against the effects of poverty and unemployment. Today, Glasgow’s expansion absorbs the site, the Victorian buildings the highest point of what is now a busy hospital campus.
An ugly concrete General Hospital was built alongside in 1972, and since then numerous satellite units have been added, including, in 2007, a replacement psychiatric facility. The considerably smaller footprint of the ‘new’ Gartnavel Royal confirms the fact that many patients who would previously have been hospitalised for lengthy periods of time are now treated within the community.
The Asylum is surrounded by trees and other planting, the site sloping away at the rear of the building to the railway line nearby. It’s a peaceful place where people walk their dogs, or occasionally stop to peruse route information boards that have been dotted around the site. There are two main wings – the West House was the bigger and better appointed, for the paying patients, and is currently NHS offices. The East House, smaller and plainer for pauper and parish-supported individuals, is now abandoned; with its listed status, it cannot be demolished. So it’s surrounded by fences and signs warning against trespass. Windows have fallen out, floors have collapsed. Birds are the only inhabitants now.
My interest in Gartnavel began in the 1970s, when as a young choral scholar I sang Christmas Day services there with the University’s Chapel Choir. Originally, a church was planned linking the two wings, but funds ran out, so eventually a small Arts and Crafts chapel was built in the grounds in 1906. That’s where we sang to family members and patients who were well enough to attend. Afterwards, we were escorted through often locked wards in the main buildings, where our audience seemed largely to be made up of elderly ladies in white nighties.
I wrote a portfolio of creative pieces around the idea of madness for my Masters degree, which got me thinking about the power of Gartnavel and the stories it had played host to over the years. Visiting the site again, I spotted abandoned interiors through broken window panes. Places that had held pain, as well as – hopefully – happiness and recovery. I began a novel with one narrative set at the Asylum in the 1860s and another in the present day. And yet what I was drawn to more keenly was the business of that building, the absence and abandonment of mental illness, and the truth of how those things were experienced within my own family. My PhD project evolved into an extended piece of creative life-writing; a family memoir interwoven with my own walks around the Gartnavel site over the course of a calendar year.
It’s not a terrible truth. Nobody was murdered; nothing was stolen, except perhaps time, and goodwill. In fact, the story is so innocuous that I fear it will be of no interest to anybody except me, but I still feel the need to tell it.
My father was a respected music teacher, choirmaster and conductor in Glasgow. A Conscientious Objector in World War 2, he was a charismatic and sociable man who had moved from humble origins in the city’s East End to a life that encompassed passions for theatre and film as well as travel. In his 60s, he abruptly entered a period of mental illness that lasted for two years and included two extended stays in a psychiatric hospital. Drug therapies had little effect and it was only after a dozen ECT treatments that he returned to us, frailer and quieter. He did eventually become himself again, and suffered no further mental health issues.
His diagnosis was severe OCD, with anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Such was the view of psychiatric treatment in the 1980s that I was discouraged from visiting him and his absence became shrouded almost in secrecy. After his recovery, it was seldom discussed, and he himself said he had little memory of those years.
We’re lucky in Glasgow to have an NHS Archive held at The Mitchell Library, my first reassuring port of call as I struggled to get a handle on my project. The Mitchell is much favoured by Glasgow researchers, with its cosy 70s-retro atmosphere and near-psychedelic carpets depicting the Glasgow coat of arms and motifs of tree, bird, fish and bell. Only a few brief searches and I was handling documents from the 1800s, copperplate patient notes revealing recurring narratives – abuse of alcohol, multiple stillbirths, military service, unemployment – and also giving information about the families of patients. Outside the asylum, they waited to receive the loved one home, cured or not. Sometimes they did not want them home at all.
One ledger lists individual purchases made on behalf of the private, paying patients; items suggesting normality (a parasol, embroidery threads, notepaper) and occasionally providing a reminder that lives also ended within those walls.
And then on the page, the life of one J___ B___. ‘Sleeping gown, 6 dress shirts, 2 prs drawers. Suit (black), vests (3), snuff, gloves, nightcap.’ And in the final line, ‘shroud, coffin, lair.’
Walking at Gartnavel, I become just another person using the grounds for leisure, or for getting to work, or as fresh air after a visit to the hospital. There’s a disjoint between the empty or repurposed older buildings, and the visible evidence in greenhouses and raised beds that it’s still a place of therapeutic gardening work.
I feel a bit uncomfortable, but occasional discomfort seems to come with this territory. Someone has been planting, but on a Sunday the surplus plants remain unguarded. Banks of orange nasturtium are piled up against viburnum, heavy with red berries.
We are all levelled in that landscape, alone with our thoughts and our private stories. Sometimes when I pass another walker, I’m aware of a tension because it’s no longer obvious what our presence in that place means. Observing the empty, broken rooms of the Asylum, its walls shored up with fences and discouraging signs, I start to pull together the abandoned places and spaces of mental illness with those of family abandoned for the same reason.
By observing the changing features of the landscape across the year, I make connections with the happenstance journeys taken by generations, and what they leave by way of inheritance, both in solid objects but also attitudes, interests and obsessions. Our family stories leave us gifts both wanted and unwanted. Sometimes we’re simply unable to get away from our history.
Our short, original flights end up here, in the empty rooms where the words have become dust and the terrible goodwill lingers only in the furniture. The front doors are grand, but in the back take care not to stumble, not to roll down the hill to the railway line. A train calls in the distance, a bright perfect fourth, but then silence falls again and when the leaves drop from the trees they make no sound.
And so I continue to work on this study of place and space, abandonment and absence. Inevitably, I’m thinking about the therapeutic use of creative writing in mental health treatment – a complicated area of study, because the process of excavation sometimes required can affect vulnerable individuals negatively. As I start looking, I’m finding that art and music therapies are frequently offered in the hospital setting; writing, perhaps less so. Research contacts have, with a serendipitous connection, brought me back to the psychiatric hospital where my father was treated. There is a creative writing group, and I hope to work with them to contribute to my research in a short critical component.
I never visited my father there in the 1980s; perhaps I can bring this lived experience full circle by writing about what I learn about the work and about myself, and by addressing the wider use of creative writing in mental health treatment and research. And by walking at Gartnavel and recording my thoughts, I can celebrate a famous site while honouring family history. One small, personal contribution to the growing study of the medical humanities.
No fires burn and the tall chimneys are empty but the air is full of the smell of smoke. Shroud, coffin, lair. What little space we occupy when all is accounted for.
[Quotations from ‘Madness To Memoir: The Creative Cure’ (Gillean McDougall), research project for the Degree of Doctor of Fine Arts, University of Glasgow.]
Gillean McDougall worked in classical music and broadcasting before starting her research in the Creative Writing Department of the University of Glasgow, graduating MLitt (Distinction) in 2017. She’s currently in Year 2 of the Doctor of Fine Arts degree programme.