Writing the Asylum

Gillean McDougall writes about a new collaborative project bringing together writers and artists with the medical archive

An asylum building in the woods
West House, Gartnavel Royal Asylum, Glasgow. Credit: Gillean McDougall.

A largely forgotten archive

The former Gartnavel Royal Asylum stands in parkland in Glasgow’s West End, the structures of East and West Houses crumbling in places and now surrounded by a modern medical campus with a variety of satellite specialist centres. The 1843 Asylum buildings are very much visible still, with West House currently in use as NHS offices while East House is dilapidated and screened off from public access. I had accessed the archive of the Asylum during my PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow and became aware of how little-known and little-used it was. Eighty-eight metres of material is housed in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library and maintained by NHS/Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives. A large proportion of the collection was digitised with funding from Wellcome in 2017.

A new web project, Writing the Asylum, has used this digital collection as the starting point for new writing and art, finding the forgotten voices of Gartnavel and giving them new life. Twenty-eight creative practitioners drawn equally from academic and artistic communities in Glasgow have contributed to this exploration of new narratives and images, re-imagining the Asylum world in a continuing process which will shine light on this forgotten resource and encourage new archival research.

For my PhD, I walked the landscape of the Gartnavel Asylum over the course of a year. The geography and abandoned spaces of the site allowed me to reflect on the impact of mental ill health on family, the mentally ill as ‘missing,’ mental illness as abandonment and the potential for regrowth in a physical landscape as well as an internal one. The resulting memoir, A Year to Find My Father (shortlisted for the Mslexia Memoir Prize 2021) was part of a thesis on the transformation of mental illness into memoir, and an exploration of creative writing practice, in ‘Madness to Memoir: The Creative Cure’ (awarded the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts, 2022). In 2018, I wrote for The Polyphony about the impact of the archival voices on my own writing, little knowing that some five years later I would have the chance to lead a collaborative exploration of the resource in the Gartnavel archive.

In my early research, there was a strong temptation to fall into the rabbit-hole of Gartnavel’s patient records – but there was a PhD to finish. I knew there was so much there. I’d run successful workshops during my master’s degree at Glasgow, putting writers together with the work and correspondence of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald, culminating in the publication of an anthology, Honest Error. I wondered, after my PhD, if I could do something similar at Gartnavel. Along came the application for the Glasgow Medical Humanities Network ECR Awards. I applied with a proposal to get a group of around 30 writers and artists to reflect individually on the Gartnavel archive. My application for a new project called Writing the Asylum was given a small sum, and I started looking for participants.

Finding participants

The archive holds numerous documents from Gartnavel’s history including patient records extending from 1811 to 2002. However, no cataloguing has been done, so it was a case of diving into the records and pulling out stories, buildings, photographs or individuals that I felt were worthy of further creative exploration. I’m a creative writer who came to academia and then returned to creative writing so I’m lucky enough to have made contacts in both arenas. I knew I wanted my participants to be drawn equally from both groups. I could see there was a lot to be gained by academic and non-academic writers in collaboration, and this has proved to be the case as we explored the archive and our reactions to it.

The thirty writers and artists I approached all agreed to take part. I started a closed Facebook group and Twitter and Instagram accounts. We were still subject to some Covid restrictions, so there were group Zoom meetings, and later we were able to have walks at the Gartnavel site. I sent round a monthly online newsletter with updates on the project, links to sites and publications of interest, and each month a couple of participants were profiled. In fact, Covid affected the progress of the project for good and ill. The Gartnavel site had increased footfall with lockdown and became a tremendous place for walking and reflection. Covid generally found people turning inwards and thinking more about health care and its effects on us as individuals. In any other circumstances, the group would have met in person and formed friendships – but this didn’t happen, and that’s why I tried my best with newsletters and other communications. In normal times, I think the project would have come in more speedily. Everything after lockdown seemed protracted.

As I started sending particular extracts from the archive to the participants, I felt I had chosen items and areas for research that were well-suited to each person. However, I had to accept that individuals might want to make their own contributions to the project, like one writer who had a strong background of research in carceral spaces and architecture. They were inclined to turn away from the asylum plans I’d selected for them, wanting to write about the recent suicide of a sibling. Similarly, a patient record I thought would interest another writer bore no relation to the fact that their own recent medical history had included a long course of chemotherapy taken on the Gartnavel campus. They wanted to write about that. Both these departures were absolutely in keeping with the ethos of the project – giving a voice to patient experience in the Gartnavel geography and I was happy to accommodate their work in the project.

The managing of the project was challenging. I had to keep the group informed via newsletters and social media updates, as well as keeping a relaxed eye on their individual progress towards the deadlines I’d set for submissions. It was a delicate process keeping everyone involved and on board. I sometimes wondered if the writers and artists would sustain enthusiasm for this old place and the records of the individuals who lived there. Some contributors pulled out over the 18 months it took for the project to assume its final shape, but the rest of the group were enthusiastic and that pulled me through even when my energy levels were flagging. I knew I couldn’t let these people down, as they had done so much research themselves now.

Ethics of the archive

Creative writers were not always familiar with terms like ‘embodiment,’ ‘place and space,’ ‘asylum and non-asylum spaces’ and the importance of ethics to any project. Yet, in discussion, it was quickly apparent that all already had an understanding of these concerns and had been quietly working with them for years. I knew the significance of ethics in this work, and it was something we returned to as a group again and again in discussions over the months. Historical study inevitably relies on the accounts of individuals, and I knew that the digitised records we were using had some kind of safeguard given by the Data Protection Act – they were already in the public domain.

That wasn’t enough for some of the non-academic writers, who needed assurances from me that as editor of the project, I would also have sensitivity to their concerns. They were always free to anonymise patient accounts, and some chose to do so, or to adjust the point of view or voice in what they were writing so that the individual need not be named. I was very aware that when dealing with a forgotten archive, it is a redoubling of that forgetting if the individual is not named in the research process.

What’s in Writing the Asylum

So, with these provisos, my writers wrote, and my artists created their art. I set generous deadlines for submissions, with appropriate word- and line-counts. The work came in in many varied forms – individual poems, sequences of poems, photographs, fiction, non-fiction, erasure, fine art – and each participant submitted a commentary on their creative process. The three contributors featured here represent a cross-section of the group, and an extract of their work is given in each case.

Sarah Smith is a Scottish fiction writer whose first novel Hear No Evil was published in 2022 and is a fictionalised account of the first court case in Scotland with a Deaf defendant. As a historical writer, she is familiar with archive and research, and so reading the record of Agnes Simpson was an obvious starting point for her to write short fiction. The diagnosis was of mania, but Agnes had lost a number of her children to illness and was tormented by death. Sarah researched Agnes Simpson beyond the archive’s records and eventually decided to write a short story, ‘Invisible Familiars’:

You are again permitted into the gallery and enjoy reading and talking there with the other patients. The matron remarks that, when devoid of curses, your cheerfulness and lively conversation is a tonic to those who suffer from melancholia. When you are stricken with a cold and full of catarrh, you take to your bed for three days, alternately shivering and sweating. Mrs Muir comes to your room in the afternoons and reads to you. Sometimes she brings a book of poetry and leaves it for you to take up later if you wish. When the nurse comes in the evening to draw down the blind, your children slip from the pages of Tennyson and curl sweetly in your arms.

In her commentary, Sarah discusses some of the creative choices she made in her writing:

I made a couple of decisions when I began to write […]. The first was to use only first names for Agnes and her family so they aren’t immediately identifiable. I’ve written fiction based on real events where I’ve wound a lot of detail about characters’ lives into the story. I wanted to simplify things this time. The second was to experiment with the use of second person narrative. I wanted to centre Agnes in the reader’s mind and allow her more emotional depth than that conveyed by the objective tone and content of the records.

David Ross Linklater, a poet from Balintore in Wester Ross was given an archive extract about a young doctor admitted to Gartnavel in 1895. Alexander Peacock had developed an addiction to morphine and cocaine. It’s interesting to see his patient notes have an occasionally impatient tone, implying that he is letting down his profession by his behaviour. After repeated day and week passes out of the Asylum, when the doctors suspect he’s resuming his old habits, he goes off one day and just doesn’t come back. Here’s an extract from David’s poem ‘Other Side of the Sky’:

Who was one form of reality wandering the garden,
a vast absentee
living at the bottom of a well in search of the truth.
Finding strange things there — inheritances of the blood,
the wars in it, each heavy flight of the butterfly.
Who cured the sick but could not turn the tools inward,

lacking application among the lilies of society.
Who was a silhouette in practice
hungering for heaven but inhabiting hells,
and studied under the lamp, that purgatory,
the intimacies of the body and soul
perfect in their inclusion of each other

or who did not fit there at all.

David explains his approach in writing the poem thus:

The anonymity of the writer of the journal and their handwriting’s unintentional redaction formed the vehicle for the poem, the ‘Who’ in each stanza, and the tone of the poem itself; a searching one, both for the man and for some form of salvation in a personal and wider sense.

I wanted the poem to say this: here was a soul who suffered, but who lived and walked the garden and gazed upon the same moon as I do, same as his mother and father did, same as their mother and their father did, and so on all the way back to the ancients. 1895 isn’t that long ago in the grand scheme. A flicker. We could have been friends. So this poem is, in my own small way, a tribute or celebration of sorts, a handshake, a strange hello from afar.

Lumen print with translucent flowers and text: "one of the patients rose from the dead last night"
Four Lumen prints. Credit: Claire Quigley.

Poet and photographer Claire Quigley took the record of patient Agnes Dow to inspire four remarkable images created using the Lumen photographic technique. Agnes was admitted to Gartnavel in 1842 in the last of numerous admissions and would have been transferred to the Asylum from the older building in Glasgow city centre. She was obsessed with religion and death. Clare took cherry blossom from the Gartnavel grounds and transferred some of Agnes’s own words and case notes to sheets of acetate. In the Lumen technique, these are dampened then sandwiched between plates of glass and photo-sensitive paper and exposed to light. The four resulting photographic prints are stunning. Claire writes in her commentary about the Gartnavel motto – ‘reluceat,’ literally ‘let there be light again,’ and this artwork has used that light very effectively.

As the twenty-eight contributions started to arrive, my plans for creating a website myself started to seem unfeasible for the quality and length of the pieces involved. I tried not to think I had created a monster, simply something better and greater than I had at first planned. Luckily, I had some of the funding left and used it to employ a professional web designer. I submitted pencil sketches of my original idea, and the designer developed them very carefully. There were many decisions to be made on fonts and formatting of so many creative pieces written in different styles, but we did eventually reach a conclusion on the website that everyone was happy with.

The Future of the Archive

Based on this initial round of work featured on the website, the project is seeking new funding to allow for established writers to contribute articles on Gartnavel, creative writing and the benefits for mental health of this kind of engagement. The Glasgow Medical Humanities Network ECR Awards have agreed a second award in 2023; I’m planning a print publication and event, hopefully at Gartnavel, later in the year. Writing the Asylum has led to other invitations to speak at conferences and events. This in turn has led to another opportunity; The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow invited me to set up a creative witing group to work with their archive. In 2023, ‘the prescription’ is running workshops at the College with a group of sixteen writers, and a pamphlet of their work will be launched at an event in October 2023. An open competition for poetry, prose and hybrid writing on the College archive will award prizes at that event.

The Writing the Asylum website was launched on 14 April 2023 and you can learn more about it online. I hope wider engagement will encourage further research/PhD projects/funding/discussion around this little-known archive and significant cultural geography. A friend asked me recently, what do you want this project to become? My dream is to see a mental health heritage centre established at Gartnavel; a place for research and discussion that picks up on Gartnavel’s motto ‘Reluceat‘ (Let there be light again) to further illuminate this very individual landscape of mental health history. I am grateful to each person who took part in the project for their belief in the idea and their genuine will to engage with whatever it brought into their creative minds. Writing the Asylum will open up further discussion within the medical humanities about mental health history. There’s still scope for more contributions to the creative debate.

About the Author

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 and  Doctor of Fine Arts in 2022. Currently affiliated with the Department of Geographical and Earth Sciences, Gillean facilitates creative projects in medical archives and is currently working on the third draft of a novel.

Access the Writing the Asylum website here: www.writingtheasylum.co.uk

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