Tales from closed psychiatric hospital

Bangour Village Hospital in West Lothian. Picture: HeMedia
Bangour Village Hospital in West Lothian. Picture: HeMedia
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ROTTING and in various stages of disrepair, its once busy wards now eerily given over to crumbling paintwork, abandoned furniture and graffiti, this is the once revolutionary face of hospital psychiatric patient care.

In its prime, Bangour Village Hospital in West Lothian was a ground-breaking facility, designed by one of the nation’s best architects – Hippolyte Jean Blanc – to the highest standards with the needs of the most vulnerable in mind.

The shop at Bangour Village Hospital in West Lothian taken in 1916.

The shop at Bangour Village Hospital in West Lothian taken in 1916.

It exemplified a dramatic step forward from the grim harshness of the Victorian era.

Far from the terrors of Bedlam or the tough regime of the asylum, Bangour provided gentle care in a sprawling open village complex complete with working farm, large church, shop and bakery. There were workshops for patients to learn and practice their skills, areas for women patients to perfect needlework and embroidery, a recreation hall for social gatherings and even its own railway.

Set in a sprawling rural landscape dotted with imposing villas rich in architectural detail on the exterior, with large dormitory areas for patients and accommodation for the nurses on the interior, the hospital opened in 1906 to cater for the “lunatic poor”.

The ten years since its doors shut in 2004, however, have clearly taken their toll.

The 220-acre site is being marketed by property firm DTZ on behalf of NHS Lothian, with a glossy website featuring atmospheric images which emphasise the potential for development and the quality of the listed buildings.

Its £8 million price tag makes it Scotland’s most
expensive empty property.

However, as these images reveal, the hospital buildings which were once the pride of the Scottish health service are now showing their age.
Indeed, 14 of the hospital buildings – almost all of them listed by Historic Scotland for their importance – are categorised as “at risk” on the Buildings at Risk Register for 
Scotland.

Their lack of maintenance is obvious, evidenced by missing roof tiles that allow rain water to pour in, smashed windows, vegetation growing from the roofs and choked gutters.

The A-listed church which once served as a focal point for patients and staff stands
derelict, with plants growing out of its walls.

And inside the impressive Renaissance-style, three-storey B-listed nurses’ home with its striking twin towers and red sandstone, the floors have collapsed and the stonework eroded.

It’s a far cry from the early days of the village hospital, held up as a brilliant advance in the care of psychiatric
patients.

It was modelled on Alt-Scherbitz hospital near Leipzig in Germany, which advocated a policy of self-sufficiency with patients encouraged to live and work together in communities, with few physical restrictions and producing their own food and day-to-day essentials under the close care of dedicated nursing and medical staff, most of whom lived alongside.

By the end of 1905, the site was caring for around 200 patients, while passengers were travelling along the private mile-and-a-half-long railway line on board the Wee Bangour Express.

Originally built to help with the transportation of building materials around the site, the railway linked the hospital site to Uphall Station, serving the site for 16 years until it was dismantled in 1921.

Two world wars changed the hospital’s focus from
psychiatric care to healing the war wounded and it was commissioned by the War Office during both wars to become the Edinburgh War Hospital and the Scottish Emergency Medical Hospital.
In the First World War, temporary marquees were used to help house more than 3000 wounded, while in the Second World War an annexe was built to increase capacity. The annexe later became Bangour General Hospital, catering for a variety of medical patients and specialising in the treatment of burns and plastic surgery.

Eventually, the hospital’s imposing buildings returned to their original function – although staff and visitors later told stories of a ghostly aura that seemed to haunt the wards, said to be the spirits of shell-shocked war veterans.

But construction of the new general hospital at St John’s in Livingston in the 1980s and a shift towards community care for patients spelled the end for Bangour Village Hospital. Its psychiatric wards closed one after another and the last
patients left in 2004.
There was a last hurrah in 2005 when Hollywood rolled in to use the site as the location for the psychological thrilled The Jacket, starring Adrian Brody and Keira Knightley, but since then its buildings and surrounding land has been left to just the 24-hour security teams that patrol the site at health board expense.

Now, however, hopes are gaining momentum that the site – earmarked for 500 houses in the West Lothian local plan – might finally be an attractive proposition to a shrewd developer. Its prime location just off the M8, ready-made buildings oozing character and ripe for redevelopment and attractive grounds with scope for around 250 homes, could well offset the slight hurdle posed by its conservation site status to lure a property developer into making a move. All they need will be £8m and a lot of elbow grease.

sdick@edinburghnews.com