Losing asylums

Arsonists strike at former Denbigh asylum for third time in a month

Denbigh is far from the only building being targeted by vandals.

Some of you might remember back in 2004 and 2011, Hartwood Hospital, formerly Lanark District Asylum, caught the attention of some arsonists, too. Rumour had it that magnesium had been stolen from local schools and used to set the fire that quickly got out of control in a building where most of the original features, furniture and even the paperwork were left behind.

Everyone expected those Towers to be ripped down after that. Yet, despite that they’re still standing today.

The most recent attack was in March this year. Another fire, pretty sizeable, in a different building from the original one that pretty much burnt the central block up from the inside and left only the stones and architectural structure behind.

And again came the chatter about tearing it down.

From the Centenary Pamphlet for Hartwood Hospital/Lanark district asylum, (1995).

From the fire in March, 2016. Posted on: http://urbanglasgow.co.uk/archive/hartwood-hospital-asylum__o_t__t_812.html

Now obviously I’m biased – I love these institutions – and there was quite a bit of grumbling in the community about the possibility of demolition. I mean, everyone and their nan worked in that place. But there were just as many who seemed quite cheerful for them to go.

Could it still be the spectre of the towers looming that makes people uncomfortable, I don’t know. Or maybe I’m just naive and don’t realise that people just see an old. burnt, meaningless building that using us land that could be used for something else.

Like a luxury housing complex. Ugh.

And arson isn’t the only way people are stripping back these old, forgotten asylums. The copper wires, old piping systems etc were looted years ago, probably not too long after the hospital’s closure in 1995. But they’re always going back to find more.  Various little snags of history have been pilfered from the floor, filing cabinets, library, wards… though I can’t be angry about this much at all really, because at least they’re going to people who’ll preserve them. See – so idealist. The fire department also took their turn, using the fenced-in complex to train and repeatedly setting a skip or container on fire. But in order to do so, the mortuary was taken down.

I would love to see something done to preserve these buildings. They were built with palatial facades and are beautiful to look at. We know the history didn’t always reflect this but still.  I wouldn’t even mind following the lines of Colney Hatch and turning it into flats (if just a bit more affordable), if the original character of the building – the external masonry and the complex at least, could be preserved.

Then I read this on the Canmore website:

The remaining buildings of the former Hartwood Hospital site are an important remnant of the extensive late 19th century asylum hospital complex which was designed with fine Scots Baronial features and stonework including prominent paired clock towers and near symmetrical flanking wings. The surviving buildings act as striking architectural landmarks in the wider open landscape.

Let me tell you a bit about Hartwood asylum.

It opened in 1895, and took about 75,000 tons of building material to finish.Including the farm it eventually covered around 200,000 acres. It’s first Superintendent Dr Archibald Campbell Clark was an advocate of occupational therapy (especially out of the wards), non-restraint and open doors, and reportedly recognised the danger of the monotony which could so easily develop inside the asylum. He even contributed to Scotland’s first ‘Handbook for the Training of Mental Nurses’ in 1885. In it’s first two years, Hartwood had one of the best release rates in Scotland.

But. It also used patients as a means of generating income – it actively looked for private and out-district patients. If oral histories are to be believed, it had real problems with keeping patients away from the onsite lake. Patients who ran away, we brought back – like one 19 year-old boy who was scheduled to get ECT in the Summer on 1968.

It’s significant. It’s significant to the wider history of mental healthcare in Scotland and it’s significant to the stories the communities like to tell each other.

And I’m sure this is true for all the asylums falling into dereliction or already demolished.

I obviously don’t know the finances around any project that could possibly save buildings like Denbigh and Hartwood. We all know that pockets are being pulled a little tighter these days. I know charities have been interested in Hartwood. I know that private builders have been interested. I know that the NHS is most certainly not.

But I do hope something can be done for them. They;re an important part of our history – socially, professionally, and an important part of community identity and shared experience, I’ve found. Would be a shame if they were left to be burned down again.



Publishing for Historians

It was one of those workshops I’d signed up for weeks in advance, and then proceeded to forget about completely until a couple of days beforehand.

I did the obligatory wheedling – did I really want to go now? I only really want to see such and such a panel. Is it worth it…

Well, yes. Yes it was.

Once I got over my whingeing I’m really glad the Royal Historical Society and the Institute for Historical Research had decided to run this workshop.

You get introduced to publishing from day one of the PhD, but often beyond the ‘this is something you absolutely must do’, you hear little else about it.

Well this workshop broke all that down for you. I had no clue what was involved in producing my first monograph. Now I do, and really, that particular journey starts now. And publishing isn’t just about specialised niche journal articles and turning your doctoral thesis into a book, no no. The panellists all had different perspectives, different areas of expertise and this opened my eyes to a whole host of new ways to approach getting different pieces of work out there.

Those experienced with the REF and REF panels, un-demonised the whole thing when it came to doctoral candidates and early-career researchers and our often limited publication records. We had a publisher on hand who gave us their perspective and what they were looking for (which does not begin and end with your supervisors). Maybe it could be an idea to approach journal editors with an idea first, to see how they react? And what about deciding where to publish? Look at the editorial boards – do you recognise any names or faces?

I also discovered some of the ‘myths’ about publishing. In terms or the humanities, really impact-factors are a really poor way of testing the relevance and importance of your work. They’re more a measure for the sciences. Apparently someone else had heard that co-authoring was bad practice for historians. I know, it was news to me too, but the panellists were quick to shoot that one down. Speaking of bad practice – only send your article/book/conference proceedings etc to one publisher at a time. The time and effort it takes for publishers and their review boards to go through a piece of work demands this courtesy, at least.

And, something I don’t think postgraduates hear enough of to be honest, you have power in the relationship between publisher and researcher. You can decide whether you’re work is being reviewed or published in a reasonable time-frame. A reviewer’s comments aren’t gospel and get into that dialogue with them and come to some kind of agreement.

All in all this was a seriously informative day, full of stuff we postgraduates get introduced to, but that are never fully explained to us. I no longer balk when I see ‘REF’ scribbled or typed or stamped anywhere, and I feel far more relaxed as I step forward and continue to develop my publishing record.

The only issue I had – and in one way it’s a minor issue and in another way it’s not – was the almost-assumption that you would use a post-doc position to fund your first monograph. Like it’s that easy to get one. They did go on to clarify that publishers don’t look for you to be established within a university in order to get published, but realistically how else are you going to afford it – even in most cases with Open Access publications?

Post-doctoral positions: research associates, teaching associates etc, are not that common these days, and the competition for them is fierce. I love what I do. I have went above and beyond for what I do, well aware that academia is not a 9-5 leave your work at work type of job, especially in the early stages when you’re trying to gain a foothold. But even so, with my publishing, continuous professional development, my participation in public engagement events, my development of future projects to attract outside funding (which I can’t apply for until I’m finished the PhD) am finding it quite difficult to ensure a position come my (expected) submission date.

A minor blip in an otherwise helpful workshop, however. The University of Glasgow’s Simon Newman and all the panellists did a great job, and if you get the opportunity to go to this next year, I’d take it.


Beyond Epilepsy

What started as a pretty creative public engagement idea turned out to be a brilliant exhibition which launched yesterday at Glasgow’s CCA.

It’s running until the 19th and is free (!!) so go and see it.

Now. Stop reading and go now.

In a nutshell, the project brought together artists and historians to explore the history, representations and experiences of epilepsy in the past, present and future.

And boy did it.

For weeks we’d been hearing about the artists’ projects and we were getting really excited about seeing it all come together, but I don’t think any of us expected all the artwork and all the panels to complement each other so perfectly.


The past few days have been frantic. Getting last minute supplies for artists, tech, historians and the guests. There were people to calm down, rooms to clear, enormous foam board to collect, wine glasses to assemble (yes, assemble) and the biggest bucket in the world to fill with ice.

But, after a few days of harried running around and an unhealthy dose of stubborn determination on the parts of many (I’m looking at you Rachel Hewitt, Si Walker) the launch as a GO.

We got so much positive feedback from everyone who came along. There was something for everyone: animation, literature, interactive exhibits, conceptual art and sketches, paintings…

It was almost enough to make you forget the heat. Almost…

This may have been my favourite exhibit though.


Mirror writing! Everyone can have a go and its a great way to interact with the exhibit. My handwriting has never been so wobbly.

So if you’re in or around Glasgow, I highly recommend you take a look. You don’t need to be a bona fide historian or artist to really appreciate what’s been done with this exhibition. It’s a truly enjoyable space and well worth a look.