Argyll & Bute Hospital, Lochgilphead

I spent a couple of hours visiting the Argyll & Bute Hospital in Lochgilphead today, hard on the heels of my visit to the new Community Hospital in the town on Friday.

The old Argyll & Bute was the 19th century asylum for the county, founded a hundred and fifty years ago. At one time it would have had hundreds of patients in residence but in the last two decades there has been a complete change both in treatment of the mentally ill and in how society responds to and considers mental illness.

As a result the entire complex now only has 40 or so in-patients with most of the space either empty or used for the staff who oversee the community services throughout the area. These historic buildings are ill suited for 20th century psychiatric medicine and plans are in preparation for a much more suitable new facility on a small part of the site.

But the hospital will be hard to utilise for anything else , partly because it is in the wrong place, partly because of the nature of the buildings and partly because of its former usage. The poet Tom Pow put this complex problem of emotion, history and our changed society very well in the final poem "The Great Asylums of Scotland" in his wonderful book "Dear Alice", written about and around the former mental hospital that is now a University site, the Crichton in Dumfries.

These are the first four verses - but get the book. for it is all moving and inspirational :

The great asylums of Scotland, cloistered
like the proud abbeys we tore down brick
by brick. Yet harder to love. They docked
at the edge of our towns like relations
with whom we felt ill at ease. Ones who kept
themselves to themselves. Their farms. Their laundries.

Their water supplies. We stand in their portals
our eyes drawn down the tree-lined avenues
to the prospect of distant hills. Country houses?
Hydros? Oh what shall we do with them ? -
the great asylums of Scotland, still with us
as keen to serve as the day they were built.

A fleet for their time they set out, freighted
with hope and grand design. Look at them now
scuttled on the ocean floor. Light floods them
Along their corridors, doors flap open
on empty cabins with nothing to hied.
in attic rooms the sky's light pours over

a tide wrack of maps, plans, records - a grid
to lay over a waste of rage, grief, anger
and pain. None of that will make a cairn.
In these, the great asylums of Scotland
always it is evening about to fall
The heavy doors are closing on us all.

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