Life in an early twentieth century lunatic colony

Just off the M8, to the north of Livingston, a cluster of buildings stretches out across acres of meadow. Some of the yellow stone buildings are remarkably beautiful, even in their run-down state, with arched windows, turrets, gables and other decorative features; it comes as little surprise to learn that they are listed as fine examples of ‘Scots Renaissance’ architecture.

A group of villas

A group of villas

Bangour village is worth a visit. You can’t enter the buildings, which are derelict, but locals clearly treat the site as a kind of country park, somewhere to have a nice stroll on a Sunday afternoon. Most know something of its history, and are torn between preserving a nice open space and seeing the site rescued for development.

What few of the dog walkers will know is just how revolutionary Bangour was. It was designed as Britain’s first village asylum, opening in spring 1904 as part of the poor relief system operated by Edinburgh parish council.

Previously, the parish had paid to send its pauper lunatics to the city’s Royal Asylum. Now, they took a train to the west of the city, there to be classified into different disorders, accommodated in well-equipped villas (five for men, four for women), with fine views across the valley.

By 1907, Bangour had over 700 patients, over half of whom were women. If judged fit enough, they were given ‘real work’ on the 900 acre estate, though of course the men were to be found labouring on the farm and gardens, while the women sewed, washed and cooked.

In contrast with the old city asylum, the Bangour patients were mostly allowed their freedom, and some promptly escaped. The village’s reputation for work-based therapies attracted the attention of the armed forces in the Great War, and between 1915 and 1923 it became a centre for occupational therapy as well as mental nursing.

The cricket pavilion

The cricket pavilion

As late as 1924, the British Medical Journal judged that Bangour ‘remains one of the best examples of the more enlightened methods of caring for the subjects of mental disease’. But hoever humane, it was also, of course, an experiment – and one conducted on patients who came largely from poor and working class backgrounds.