Whatâ€™s better than a brisk walk though a picturesque village, maybe an hour or so, pick up some supplies and return home to settle down with the newspapers? A perfect Sunday afternoon for many a casual walker and Bangour Village, near Dechmont in West Lothian, delivers just that â€“ with an added twist.
A general store, bakery, library, recreational hall, multi-denominational church, hospital and several bus stops; what more could a small village need? The mood is further enhanced with a mix of optimistic birdsong casually interrupting the lethargic silence; verdant backdrops, wooded pathways, a large central playing field and the crisp smell of freshly cut grass all add to the comforting feeling of idyllic rural contentment.
But silence will be victorious. When the birds retire to their nests and the dog walkers and ramblers return home for the day, the only activity at Bangour Village will be the ghosts of patients past hurriedly making their way back to their deserted wards before lights-out is called. This West Lothian village hospital community is completely abandoned â€“ the last staff, residents and patients left in 2004, now it lies deserted, its future uncertain.
This rambling psychiatric village complex was modelled on the contemporary Alt-Scherbitz asylum near Leipzig in Germany. An architectural competition held in 1898 was won by the somewhat exotically named Scottish architect, Hippolyte Blanc. He proceeded to build an eclectic mix of south facing villas, all set in landscaped grounds, in the 17th century Scottish Renaissance style. There is also an Edwardian Baroque Hall and Romanesque style church and a plethora of functional, multi-purpose workshops and halls. The forward-thinking applied to the patientsâ€™ accommodation did not extend to that of the nurses, their quarters remained in traditional, and somewhat formal, classical institutional style.
The first patients, from the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, were transferred to Bangour in 1904 and the hospital officially opened in 1906. It was one of the first â€œcolonyâ€ style psychiatric developments in Scotland and it quickly became a self-contained village. With its own gardens, workshops, kitchens, water supply, drainage and fire-fighting equipment it could be self-sufficient through the efforts of the large on-site staff and the regular employment of the more able patients. It even had its own railway station.
However, clouds were already gathering ominously on the horizon and the whole village was requisitioned by the War Office through both World Wars, when it was transformed into the Edinburgh War Hospital and The Scottish Emergency Medical Hospital, reverting back to a psychiatric establishment between and after the wars.
Patient numbers peaked at record levels in 1918 as over 3000 sought treatment, prefabricated huts and marquees had to be erected to house both staff and patients. This supposedly temporary arrangement lasted until the late 1930s when a separate general hospital was opened in nearby grounds.
By the late 1980s and early 90s modernisation and N.H.S. re-organisation meant that many medical services in West Lothian were being centralised in the new St. Johnâ€™s Hospital in Livingstone. The 1930â€™s General Hospital was first to close and the once cutting-edge village complex also started to wind down. The last villa, number 32, closed in 2004 â€“ one hundred years after the first patients had arrived.
Today, as dusk falls, the paths, roads and pavements are in decent condition and all the original buildings still stand â€“ eager, ready and willing. If only someone would remove the ill-fitting intruder-proof boards from the doors and windows they would spring eagerly back into action at a momentâ€™s notice – the sports pavilion looking for its athletes, the shop for its customers. Through splintered wood you can still see the remains of that very last performance in the concert hall. No time to tidy up â€“ not time to dawdle. But only the church retains its full dignity â€“ the shoddy wooden boarding making little impact on the austere exterior of the village matriarch; she seems to think her time will come again.
You can easily spend an engaging hour walking around the grounds, investigating nooks, crannies, large open spaces and a diverse mix of architecture in various states of disrepair. As darkness nears the more distant, tall, ominous structures slowly fall into Hammer Horror silhouettes.
It is perhaps no surprise that this deserted village has been used as a film location, most famously in the 2005 Hollywood film, The Jacket, starring George Clooney, Keira Knightley and Kris Kristofferson – Bangour Village being transformed into Hollywoodâ€™s Alpine Grove, an asylum for the criminally insane.
The sense of forgotten lives and lost souls is also enhanced by the fact that it was recently discovered that 566 patients had been buried in unmarked graves – thankfully not in the actual grounds but in three nearby cemeteries. Memorial plaques have now been placed at Ecclesmachan, Uphall and Loaninghill cemeteries.
Strange goings-on at Bangour are not restricted to the past. In 2009 the area faced the horrific scenario of 250 people requiring treatment for serious wounds, sickness and radiation poisoning – luckily they were all medical students taking part in a counter-terrorist training exercise for the emergency services. It must have been quite a shock for the regular dog walkers.
Even though it has continued to live an active life since retiring, and the whole area is protected by regular security patrols, the future for Bangour Village is far from certain. Leaking roofs, the odd bit of vandalism, broken boards, shattered windows, increasing rot and rain damage are all starting to take their toll. A housing developer purchased the site in 2004 â€“ itâ€™s debatable whether this is a positive or negative step â€“ and Historic Scotland have categorised twelve of the buildings and the church as â€œAâ€ listed. To date, no planning applications have been approved and in March 2011 West Lothian Council appointed property advisors DTZ to further assist them in finding a buyer.
For a short walk you will struggle to finds something more unusual and atmospheric than a walk around Bangour Village Hospital. Go soon. Itâ€™s a place thatâ€™s definitely between two lives – it wonâ€™t be like this forever.