Stories behind hospital for mentally ill revealed

Trevor Cromie with an old carpenters saw and some old toy ducks that were given to children to play with while their parents were asessed. Picture: Greg Macvean
Trevor Cromie with an old carpenters saw and some old toy ducks that were given to children to play with while their parents were asessed. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Exhibitions tells stories of staff and patients like the man who kept a pet wasp in a matchbox and inmate who wrote Reminiscences of a Lunatic.

TWO little wooden ducks are on a table, their paint a little worn and wheels a little scraped, both battle-scarred from being bashed and clashed by tiny hands.

Sleep monitoring at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in 1967. Picture: TSPL

Sleep monitoring at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in 1967. Picture: TSPL

Lying next to them are a rusty snow shovel, some golf clubs that have seen better days, a few glittering Christmas tree decorations and an aged hacksaw, its blade worn down and its wooden handles stained by the sweat of hands that gripped it tightly and used it to make something special.

On the surface, there’s nothing obvious to link the strange jumble of bits and pieces.

Soon they’ll be put together with a diverse range of other objects and fascinating documents, which together will help tell the sometimes sad and poignant story of life within the walls of Edinburgh’s hospital for the mentally ill.

Artlink’s Trevor Cromie spreads them out next to a 1911 journal he’s received from a resident living near the Royal Edinburgh who heard of a search for everyday objects related to the institution as part of its bicentenary celebrations. Written in neat, spidery handwriting, its title reads: “Reminiscences and Stories of a Certified Lunatic.”

Some Christmas decorations. Picture: Greg Macvean

Some Christmas decorations. Picture: Greg Macvean

While its pages reveal one man’s unusual life story, it is hoped eventually there will be 200 items – one for every year the hospital has been in existence – which will hint at dozens more. Not all stories, it is suspected, will have had a particularly happy ending.

“We found the ducks in Kennedy Tower,” explains Trevor, referring to a modern building within the 200 year old hospital grounds which houses the Division of Psychology.

“They’re probably from the 70s and would have been given to the children of patients,” he adds. “The patients would be interviewed and if they had children, the ducks would come out so they could play with them.

“Once you find out how they were used, you start to think of the people involved, their children and their lives.

“They help bring the human side of the hospital to life.”

Art and disability group Artlink is gathering the items as part of a project aimed at illustrating what life was like beyond the hospital’s intimidating façade.

They will be put together with poignant drawings, stories and documents – some detailing the distressing treatments given to vulnerable patients, others revealing “moral” disorders which seem ridiculous by today’s standards – and passed to New York based artist Mark Dion.

He will combine them with specially-crafted items to create the Ever/Present/Past exhibition.

“We wanted to focus on ordinary items and tell the story of the staff and patients’ experiences through them,” explains Trevor, Artlink’s programme producer.

“It’s easy to think of the Royal Edinburgh as just a hospital full of people with problems and medical staff, but actually, it has always been just full of people.”

Among the most curious objects which will be recreated for the November exhibition will be a matchbox filled with dust, intended to illustrate a particularly touching story of one patient’s lonely hospital life.

“There’s a story about a patient in 1911 who kept a pet wasp,” explains Alison Stirling, Artlink’s projects ­director.

“It was kept in a matchbox and called Vespa. Apparently the patient would whistle and it would come to him. When it died, it turned to dust.

“It’s understandable that patients would seek comfort in whatever was around them.

“There are stories of patients being given toys made by other patients, something for them to just cuddle.”

As the hunt for objects and stories began, a search of the hospital basement uncovered 11 names scratched into the blackened vaulted ceiling, all of them young painters who worked for J Clark. Dated May 1902, it is 
entirely possible some would soon have been marching to war, perhaps even to return, shell-shocked, to the hospital as patients.

“There was a real mix of people at the hospital,” adds Alison. “There were children whose mothers had postnatal depression. With no drugs to treat it, the women were hospitalised and often treated with shock therapies like cold baths.

“Letters in the archives talk of soldiers from the Second World War and others who had been held in camps, arriving while there were still soldiers from the First World War being treated. One patient was a woman with her arm branded who had been kept in a concentration camp and had come to Scotland.”

Alongside the heart-wrenching stories uncovered in the search for exhibits, are others that are downright quirky, such as the bizarre tale of Happy the donkey, a four-legged friend who turned out to be rather too happy to bother with work.

“He was supposed to pull the plough but he was a lazy donkey and didn’t like to do much. Eventually they gave up and attached the plough to the patients to pull,” says Alison.

“Another story that brings the hospital to life is that of a huge Polish man who was a patient at Craig House, part of the hospital originally for well-heeled paying patients.

“He died in the 1980s and was ­apparently massive. He believed he had a cat in his stomach and had a huge appetite, He’d eat two whole chickens and a large portion of chips for dinner.

“There were pigs kept at the hospital grounds at the time, and he’d be called upon by the vet to hold them down while he treated them.”

Perhaps the most visually striking item is a book of drawings held by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, entitled Bruised Reeds.

“Some drawings of patients are very sad,” adds Alison. “Some are accompanied by extracts from the patients’ medical notes, referring to them as “imbecile” and one says simply “lost soul”.

While there is already a diverse range of items – even Christmas decorations to reflect the celebrations that go on even behind ward doors – Artlink is appealing for anyone with items they think may be relevant, to come forward.

“Everyone is working together, staff, patients and local people looking for objects,” adds Trevor.

“We’ve been taken aback by the number of objects and stories we are uncovering and the interest people have in the wider history of the hospital. We’d love to see some more.”

n Artlink is seeking more objects, stories and memories of the hospital down the years for the exhibition. If you can help, contact

Mirror of a time long before the sexual revolution

THE intent may have been to “cure”, but documents uncovered in the hunt for objects to help illustrate 200 years of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital reveal the sometimes shocking and tragic experiences of the patients.

Among the strangest is the treatment suggested for men who displayed homosexual tendencies. “A man caught cottaging and arrested could lose his job, maybe go to prison or go to the psychiatric hospital to be ‘cured’,” explains Artlink’s Alison Stirling. “One report in the archives talks about teaching effeminate men to walk like a man and not be so limp wristed.”

In years gone by, “illnesses” existed which would not be considered illnesses now, she adds.

“There were ‘moral’ patients, like women who’d had sex outside of marriage or younger women who’d fallen pregnant and would be admitted to hospital for treatment. There were folk in hospital for not very good reasons.

“And there are sad stories of postnatal depression – one report from the late 1800s talks of a woman who spends ten months in hospital every time she has a baby. They shaved her hair and gave her cold baths and ‘blistered’ her whole neck.

“This was a time when they had no drugs to treat mental illness and it was thought you could shock someone to sanity.”

But life at the hospital could be worthwhile, even good, for some. Not everyone wanted to leave, she adds. “In the late 1800s, the Old Town was a slum and people were in abject poverty. Patients came to the Royal Edinburgh, were fed and given beer and a nice clean place to sleep and work to do. Quite a lot came and stayed.”