Cluny Hills Hydropathic Establishment

Now the Cluny Hill College campus of the Findhorn Foundation, this building just south-east of Forres in Moray, Scotland, was originally a hydropathic establishment. It was built in 1863-5 to designs by A. W. Bissett. A wing was added to the west in 1896-7 by John Forrest and further additions were carried out in 1905-7 by Ross & Macbeth. [1]

Cluny Hill College photographed in 2010 © Copyright Jean Aldridge and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Before it had even been officially opened there was sufficient confidence in its success for John Brodie Innes, of Milton Brodie, to urge the benefits of a ‘hydropathic excursion’ on Charles Darwin. Writing to Darwin’s wife, Emma, in January 1864, Innes declared:

‘The building is nearly completed and certainly is very handsome and will be comfortable. The soil, water, land and sea views are all in its favour. Among other arrivals for it is an equatorial telescope by Dollond. Sir Alexanders home of the toads is close by and much other interest in the immediate neighbourhood. I hope you will come.’ [2]

The house of the toads refers to the discovery of live toads deep in the ground, exposed during excavations for the Inverness and Perth railway near Altyre. Alexander Cumming of Altyre was a friend and neighbour of Innes, and had written letters to the press about the toads.

Cluny Hill Hydro,  from J. & W. Watson, Morayshire Described… 1868

Its original architect, A. W. Bissett of Elgin, died before the buildings were completed. The contractors were: masons – Messrs Humphrey and Rennie, Elgin; carpenter – Mr Alex Smith, jun., Forres; plasterer – Mr Alex. Ross, Forres; slater – Mr James Findlay, Forres; plumber – Mr Hunter Elgin; painter – Mr Stalker, Forres. The contract price was ‘about £2,500 exclusive of the baths’. [3]

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 17.52.40
Extract from the 1st edition OS map, surveyed in 1870. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

In a guide to Moray published three years after the hydro opened the building was described at some length. The rooms were large and airy, the dining-room a magnificent apartment capable of seating 80 persons. Next to the dining-room was a reading and writing room 40 ft by 18 ft. Over the dining-room was a luxuriantly furnished drawing-room, from which plate-glass doors led to an ante-room, 42ft by 18ft, with an entire glass front. On the west side contained the resident physicians rooms and ‘several handsome parlours and bed-rooms’. Residents had handsomely and comfortably furnished bedrooms placed on either side of a central corridor.

The baths were in the eastern section, those for men were on the ground floor and for women on the floor above. There was the usual range of baths: Turkish, plunge, shower, spray, rain, wave, douche, hose etc ‘hot and cold as required’. There was a croquet lawn and a bowling green in the grounds, and in inclement weather exercise and entertainment could be had in a bowling or skittle alley and gymnasium to the north of the main building, and a winter garden or conservatory. [4]

The Hydro photographed in 1955 when it was the Cluny Hill Hotel. The original section is to the left. Oblique aerial photograph taken facing North/West. This image was marked by AeroPictorial Ltd for photo editing. © Crown Copyright: RCAHMS

In 1869 the hydro was the scene of a tragic accident when George Norman, a naturalist ‘recklessly discharged a firearm’ and fatally wounded James Calder, the managing director of the establishment. A ‘locus of crime map’ was drawn up in relation to the ensuing trial to show the area and the exact spot where ‘Mr Calder had received the fatal wound’. Seemingly Mr Norman had been ‘firing with a pea sporting rifle at a cat’. He missed the cat but struck Calder in the head, who had been talking to some labourers engaged in gravelling a path. [5]

During the First World War the hydro was taken over by the military to billet troops. It returned to its original function after the war, but in 1937 became a hotel. By 1975 this was no longer profitable and the building was bought by the Findhorn Foundation for £60,000. [6]


[1] David W. Walker and Matthew Woolworth, Buildings of Scotland, Aberdeenshire: North and Moray, 2015
[2] J. Brodie Innes to Emma Darwin 16 Jan 1864 in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol.12, pp.18-19 CUP, 2001
[3] Elgin Courier, 3 April 1863, p.5
[4] J. & W. Watson, Morayshire Described: being a guide to visitors… Elgin, 1868
[5] Edinburgh Evening Courant, 11 Oct 1869, p.7
[6] G. Gawler, Grace, Grit and Gratitude, 2008p.198

2 thoughts on “Cluny Hills Hydropathic Establishment

  1. Pingback: Dry January? Head for a Hydro! A brief look at Victorian hydropathic establishments in Scotland | Historic Hospitals

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