Craig Dunain, old lunatic asylum Inverness
Do places keep a sense of pain, a sense of the fear and anger that was once felt there? Can fear linger in stone and wood?
Does an abandoned lunatic asylum still hold some sense of insanity?
Some places certainly feel different, more scary perhaps, more sad and alone. But maybe that is just our imagination, trained by the entertainment industry, horror movies and stories. We fear what we don’t understand. The Victorians certainly had no real understanding for mental illness and psychology. Treatment was insufficient if not cruel. Craig Dunain will not have felt like a place of safety for all the inhabitants.
Above Inverness towers the ruined Craig Dunain hospital, the new one was built a few meters down the road. “Old Craigs”, opened 1864, fifty years after the asylum in Edinburgh. The Northern Counties District Lunatic Asylum was an impressive building overlooking the Caledonian Canal in true Victorian grandeur.
Now an impressive ruin. (1)
But not only the buildings remain, the stories of some of the patients do, too.
On May 19, 1864, Inverness mariner Donald Donaldson became Craig Dunain’s first patient. According to the hospital’s ‘Register of Lunatics’, his bodily condition was “insecure”, his disease was “paralysis” and his form of mental disorder was “dementia”. He died just a few months later of what were described as “pecuniary losses”. (2)
Scary insights into the way the system dealt with problematic patients are offered by the records. They make the possibility of ending up in a lunatic asylum come uncomfortably close to those who feel far from mad.
The hospital’s records have now been made available to the public in the Highland Archive Centre. They contain the details of hundreds of patients whose cause of admission ranged from “disappointment in marriage” to losing a Highland Games competition. (3)
One of the patients was Angus McPhee a stricken man from a croft in South Uist who fought in World War II and became mentally ill.
He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1946 and spent much of the rest of his life in Craig Dunain Hospital. (4)
McPhee did not speak for nearly fifty years an turned into an artist, expressing himself through horses and other objects he made out of grass, twigs and wool. He became famous as “the silent weaver”. McPhee would walk around the park of Old Craigs often. He would have been to the graveyard, too. It belongs to the asylum and is not used anymore. McPhee is not buried there, the ground took those had nowhere else to go in death. A graveyard of the unwanted. A burial ground for the forgotten.
The graveyard was closed in 1895 because it was full, only three headstones remain within the walls. There will have been wooden crosses now long gone. The space has kept a special atmosphere of serenity that is peculiar to graveyards.
A fourth stone is right outside the walls, the grave of Sgt. James Munro of the 93rd Highlanders who died as a patient of Craig Dunain Hospital on 15th February 1871. He was 45 years old.
The mental wound he received in battle proved deadly.
They seem a sad end to a life led in an asylum.
Here rest those who were unwanted.
In life and in death.
(4) Roger Hutchinson; The Silent Weaver. pub.Birlinn, 2011.