at risk - a gothic revival tale
Updated: Oct 9
The oldest part of Gartnavel Royal Hospital, an A-listed Victorian building, is disintegrating asymmetrically from its hilltop location in Glasgow’s West End. I’ve been observing its decline for years from my home across the railway line. I fear what will happen to it, eventually, so continue to document it photographically.
Image (c) Julie Laing
The photograph above and this essay about my view of the building were included in New Glasgow Society's Building Stories exhibition in September 2022, which highlighted the impacts of dereliction of buildings on the citizens of Glasgow. Other buildings highlighted include The People's Palace and St Simon's Parish Church.
image (c) New Glasgow Society
In 2004 I moved into a 1950s terraced house across the railway tracks from Gartnavel Royal Hospital. This Gothic Revival blonde sandstone building, which opened in 1843 as an ‘asylum’, rises above Great Western Road, Hyndland and Jordanhill and challenges the monolithic Gartnavel General Hospital for the skyline. From the upstairs rooms at the back of our house you can see, a few hundred metres away, the now-derelict eastern section which was built to treat ‘paupers’. I wasn’t really aware of its ongoing function as a psychiatric facility until someone told me a young woman they knew had been ‘committed’. I also read that my renowned namesake, R D Laing, worked there in the 1950s.
It must be over a decade since that part of the building has been viable. By 2007 a new ward opened closer to us at the bottom of the hill near the train station. Suddenly, we had neighbours opposite. In summer, when windows opened and visitors and patients and staff sat out, we could hear activities, music, laughter, shouting, screams. Occasionally, someone at the very end of what they can stand. You could tune in, only to lose the outcome in the passing of a train. While these sometimes distressing personal collapses and rehabilitations became part of our soundscape, the old Royal began to quietly rot from the East.
For a long time I didn’t really notice it. Then one evening, after the leaves from the tree at the bottom of our garden had dropped to mulch, I stopped to watch. The whole south wall was alive. A tangerine glow had swollen the sandstone to twice its size and transformed the blond into redhead for a few midwinter moments. Another time, driving over the brow of Woodcroft Avenue to Churchill Drive, I had to stop to work out what had glitched. The neighbour’s evergreen shield of fir trees had been brutally lopped, leaving the western half of the hospital suddenly exposed. A new symmetry emerged above the stumps and now that I’d started to pay attention, that daytime form became a frame for rainbows and storms, and, at night, the silhouette an impenetrable foreground to low-hanging, street-lit clouds and phenomena like meteor showers and noctilucent displays.
At some point, the Royal started to sprout. Foliage now adorns its faux-ramparts and chimneys. It grows bushier every year, and the expanding summer crown of the beech tree is consuming the building from the ground floor up. In the eighteen years since I moved into this view, my eyesight has blunted and now I can only pick out high-contrast features unaided, like the ever-black oblong windows. At night, I stab at the skies behind the roof with camera lenses and scrutinise emerging details as I enhance the image. Whichever way I look at it, I can see the building needs to be pruned.
It wasn’t until the first lockdown in 2020 that I explored it in close up. The need to find fresh daily walks took me round the back of the Beatson where I encountered an intriguing landscape of wild and cultivated growth, environmental art and disintegration. A vibrant therapeutic garden with plants for sale thrives amid picturesque-grotesque rust and ruin and rubble.
On that first Covid-constrained stravaig, when I realised where I had ended up, I remember the climactic reverse shot, from there…to here. Our house. A shudder of voyeuristic shock and brief uncanny objectivity about my own home; a feeling that at any moment I could encounter a gothic self-haunting via the bedroom window; a premonition, across a space that had contained so much trauma, of future decay. Or fire.
I shook it off and strolled back. The bats and startled birds and dripping walls shrank to tropes and faded to black. There is, of course, no one there, peering across the tracks, at us. But there should be.
Images (c) Julie Laing
Also included is its listing in the Historic Environment Scotland register.
Group Category Details 100000020 - See Notes
Date Added 15/12/1970
Local Authority Glasgow
Planning Authority Glasgow
NGR NS 55030 68034
Coordinates 255030, 668034
Charles Wilson, architect, 1841-3. Large Tudor style hospital in 2 detached E-plan ranges set at right angles; 2 or 3 storeys; attics and basements. More elaborate W range for wealthy patients, E range for the less fortunate, and correspondingly plainer. Both of stugged ashlar with polished margins and dressings; stonecleaned.
W RANGE: symmetrical N facade of 35 bays arranged with 11-bay 2-storey blocks with 3-bay 3-storey end pavilions. 7-bay 3-storey central paviion (containing Superintendent's flat) rising to 4-storey tower over entrance. 4-centred arched portals at pavilions with square-headed hoodmoulds and mask label-stops (portrait heads of Victoria and Albert to centre). Recessed architraved tripartite doorpiece to central pavilion with glazed lights. All windows in roll-moulded reveals and hood moulds. Single or bipartite with transoms and mullions; tripartite at pavilions flanked by buttresses rising to tall octagonal pinnacles. Continuous roll-moulding at cills, deep plain parapet at eaves,tall linked axial Tudor stacks. Flanks detailed as above.
REAR ELEVATION: coursed stugged ashlar; single light windows with some full-height canted oriels. Linking flanks, tall coursed rubble walls to gardens.
INTERIOR: central pavilion includes superintendent's private apartments; private garden to rear. Wings (separate male and female accommodation) with small private chambers opening off wide galleries, some with original 3-arch timber screens.
E RANGE: 21 bays arranged with 3-bay 3-storey end pavilions and 5-bay 3-storey central pavilions. Details as above except hood-moulds only to ground floor and label stops of doorpiece simple blocks. S flank with 2 small ogee-domed pavilions linking tall coursed rubble garden wall to S, (airing ground).
INTERIOR: with large dormitories, few smaller rooms off. Large dining hall, now modernised.
Statement of Special Interest
Built as Royal Lunatic Asylum. Part of Gartnavel Royal B group.