Writing the Asylum is a project funded by the University of Glasgow and Wellcome through the Glasgow Medical Humanities Early Career Awards in 2022 and 2023, and conceived by Gillean McDougall
Is it possible to fall in love with a place? I believe it is, and for me that place is Gartnavel in Glasgow’s West End. Like all good and lasting loves, it didn’t happen straight away. As a young university student in the 1970s I sang Christmas Day services in the Gartnavel Chapel, where patients unable to be at home came to hear carols and Bible readings with their families. Afterwards, we were taken into locked wards, our singing sometimes having to compete with crying and shrieking. So many of those listening, or being forced to, were elderly ladies in white nighties.
Later, Gartnavel came to be a place of comfort to me; a place to walk and think, a geography of recovery, somewhere I could rearrange my own random thoughts into a kind of peace. Mental illness had touched my family when it visited my father, and although he wasn’t treated at Gartnavel, its quiet, stoical presence came to embody those troubled years for my family and their eventual resolution.
When I was introduced to the Gartnavel archive, held at the Mitchell Library and maintained by NHS and Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives, I was intrigued to learn about the rich heritage of this landmark site, where up to 1000 patients had once been housed, and which was famous from its establishment in 1843 as an asylum with an enlightened approach to mental ill health. With paying patients in West House and those depending on the pauper support of their local authorities in East House, this large community enjoyed spacious surroundings in green fields far from the city – its name derives from the Gaelic gart nan ubhal, the apple orchard.
The archive was partly digitised with funding from Wellcome in 2017, and it’s that resource that the 28 writers and artists used in the creation of this project. I hope you’ll find something here that allows you to share in our celebration of Gartnavel and its archive. You can find Writing the Asylum on social media (details in the ‘Find us’ tab), and visit the archive at the Wellcome website by clicking here.