Inverness District Asylum (former Craig Dunain Hospital)

Inverness District Asylum, otherwise known as the Northern Counties Asylum, opened in 1864. Latterly it was renamed Craig Dunain Hospital and treated patients suffering from mental illness until 2000. Since then parts of the building have been converted to housing, while the rest awaits restoration.

Craig Dunain Hospital (Inverness District Lunatic Asylum), photographed around 1990 © Harriet Richardson

The imposing main building, mostly of three storeys, is enlivened by gabled bays and, at the centre, bold twin square towers. It was designed by James Matthews of Aberdeen, who had also established an office in Inverness some ten years earlier. The Inverness office was run by Willliam Lawrie, and Lawrie assisted Mathews in the asylum commission. Mathews had experience in designing poorhouses, and was also architect to the Royal Northern Infirmary in Inverness.

The former Craig Dunain Hospital, photographed from the old golf course in 2005. © Copyright Ivor MacKenzie and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

As early as 1836 attempts were made to set up a lunatic asylum in Inverness. In that year the management Committee of the Royal Northern Infirmary recommended a separate establishment for the mentally ill, recognising the unsuitability of housing such patients in the infirmary. In 1843 a committee was established to promote the erection of a lunatic asylum at Inverness for the Northern Counties and in 1845 the movement gained Royal favour and would have produced the eighth Royal Asylum in Scotland. £4,500 was raised but this was not sufficient to build and endow such a hospital.

Craig Dunain Hospital, AeroPictorial Ltd photograph from 1952. the large building in the foreground on the right-hand side of the photograph was the nurses’ home.

After the Lunacy (Scotland) Act of 1857 the scheme was proposed once more, this time by the District Lunacy Board. In 1859 the Board purchased the site, 180 acres on the hillside above Inverness, and a restricted competition was held for the architectural plans. Designs were invited from James Matthews, who secured the commission, Peddie and Kinnear of Edinburgh and the York architect George Fowler Jones.

Extract from the first-edition OS map surveyed in 1868. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Construction took several years, beginning in 1859. The contractors were Greig & Co. of Aberdeen, masons; A. Duff, Inverness, carpenter; J Gordon of Elgin, plumber; John Russell of Inverness, slater; Mr Hogg of Montrose, plasterer; and Smith & MacKay of Inverness, ironwork. The stone used was rubble whinstone and dressed stone from Tarradale on the Black Isle. The building was opened in May 1864 and was the third District Asylum in Scotland, being preceded by the District Asylums of Argyll and Bute at Lochgilphead, and Perth at Murthly. The first medical superintendent was Dr Aitken, who was accommodated in a ‘commodious and pleasantly-situated house near the Asylum’. This was to the south of institution, screened from view by a belt of trees.

The Medical Superintendent’s House, photographed in 2000. © RCAHM

George Anderson, solicitor, was Clerk to the Board of Lunacy, the Matron was Mrs Probyn. Mr C. W. Laing was the house-steward, Mr Macrae the head male attendant, Mr Logan the engineer, Mr Finlay the grieve, or steward. [1]

Detail of the extract from the first-edition OS map surveyed in 1868 (above). Turned round to show the main range of the former asylum in greater detail. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

The asylum was a palatial building, standing on a magnificent raised site. It was built to the standard scale and plan at this date, being a development of the corridor plan. There was the usual central kitchen and dining‑hall and the whole complex was symmetrical with a basic division of females to one side and males to the other. There was an extensive view taking in the Moray Firth, the light-houses of Lossiemouth and Tarbetness. All round the asylum the hillside was ‘gorgeously covered with gorse or whin’ – but was destined to be turned into farmland to serve the institution.

The central section separated the female (east side) and male (west side) divisions. Nearest to the centre were convalescent wards, then at right angles to these were single rooms for the severest cases. Beyond these was an infirmary ward, with a degree of separation from the rest of the building to contain the spread of infectious diseases

Interior of the main north-south ‘corridor’, this broad space served as a day room, photographed c.1902. © RCAHMS

At the back of the building ran the main staff corridor, which meant that visitors and staff didn’t have to pass through the patients’ day rooms to get from one part of the asylum to another. This was one of the many attempts around this time to design asylums that would provide a more home-like appearance, while still keeping the patients supervised. ‘Everything tending to indicate seclusion or imprisonment is carefully avoided. The windows resemble those of an ordinary dwelling house; there are no cross-bars, and no enclosure walls, beyond those which surround the airing-yards for the worst of cases’. [1]

The gas-brackets were designed in such a way that if they were broken the gas supply could be isolated, thus keeping the rest of the system in operation. (The gas was manufactured on the premises.) Other safety precautions included blunt table-knives, which could thus be ‘harmlessly seized by the blade, and wrested from the grasp of nay excited patient’.[1]

Female day room, ward 7, photographed around 1902© RCAHMS

As part of the important measures to guard against the hazards of fire, the asylum was constructed with a series of barriers, 80 to 90 feet apart, consisting of a thick, stone party wall with iron sliding doors to allow access from one section to another, but which could be drawn closed in the event of fire.

Interior view of specimen ward, photographed about 1902.© RCAHMS. This appears to be a male dormitory  – possibly an infirmary ward.

The day rooms were supplied with books and newspapers, and there was a piano from the outset, though the one in the photograph above may have been a later instrument. Patients slept in a mix of wards or dormitories and single rooms. The latter were for the sick, aged or refractory. Dormitories had from ten to ‘upwards of thirty’ beds in each and occupied the full width of the building, making them light and airy. The attendants were accommodated in the same rooms.

The laundry, farm-offices and gas works were situated away from the main building. The whole of the work was intended to be done by the patients. The laundry was fitted up with ‘the most approved mechanical contrivances for washing, drying, and mangling’. [1]

Interior of the main kitchen, photographed c.1902. © RCAHMS

The original kitchen was positioned in the central part of the building and communicated with the dining hall ‘by two large windows’, copying the arrangement in English asylums. ‘The patients assemble in the dining-hall and their food having been arranged and placed in vessels for the purpose, is handed through the windows or apertures to the warders, whose duty it is to see that each inmates is duly supplied.’ Dirty plates were passed through another window into the scullery. [1]

The ‘New Main Entrance’ corridor c.1902, © RCAHMS

The hospital claimed to be one of the first to remove its airing courts in 1874. This progressive act was somewhat belittled by the constant complaints of the Commissioners in Lunacy, when they inspected the hospital, of the lack of warmth in the buildings and the poor diet of the patients.

Extract from the 2nd-edition OS map, revised in 1903. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

Overcrowding had soon become a problem and additions were eventually made in 1881, with Matthews again acting as the architect. Extensions were erected in 1898 to the designs of Ross and Macbeth for male and female hospital wards which were constructed at each end of the building. Ross & Macbeth had earlier added a byre to the site (1891), stables and a gas house (1895). Later they added piggeries and a slaughterhouse (1901); dining-rooms (1902), and a mortuary (1907). In the 1920s and 30s the hospital expanded further.

Interior of the recreation hall, built in 1927. Photographed in 2000 © RCAHMS

In 1927 a large new recreation hall was provided, designed to blend in with the original building but constructed from pre‑cast concrete as well as red sandstone rubble, instead of the dressed stone used on the original buildings. The hall was large enough to take 400 patients and staff, and could be used as a theatre, cinema or dance hall as well as for less formal gatherings. The projecting bay on the photograph below contained a small kitchen.

Recreation Hall, photographed in 2000.© RCAHMS

In 1936 a new nurses’ home was built in a chunky manner with Baronial traces. It was deliberately constructed from materials which would blend in with the principal block. It provided accommodation for 100 nursing and domestic staff. Two isolation blocks were built around the same time for TB and Typhoid.

The church, Craig Dunain Hospital, photographed in 2000. © RCAHMS

The last major building scheme was the construction of a chapel which was dedicated in 1963. It was designed by W. W. Mitchell of Alexander Ross & Son to accommodate 300 people. It is very simple in style, owing  its origin to plain seventeenth‑ and eighteenth‑century kirks. Indeed, its birdcage bellcote could have come from such a building, though this church was interdenominational.

Former Craig Dunain Hospital photographed in 2016 during redevelopment of the site. © Copyright Jim Barton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Craig Dunain Hospital was earmarked for closure in 1989. This took some years to accomplish, and the hospital only finally closed in 2000. Listed-building consent was applied for soon afterwards to redevelop the site for mixed use, including the demolition of several buildings on the site – including the 1960s chapel. The site was acquired by the developers, Robertson Residential and work began in 2006 to convert the original range into apartments.

 Former Craig Dunain Hospital, during redevelopment in 2010. © Copyright Steven Brown and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

But in 2007 an arson attack caused serious damage. Development shifted to less badly damaged parts of the old hospital, but many of the buildings had deteriorated and had for some time been on the register of historic Buildings at Risk. By 2013 only one part of the old building had been converted and occupied, although new housing had been built in the grounds, and works ground to a halt on the redevelopment of the historic core. To the north, New Craigs Psychiatric Hospital was built to replace both Craig Dunain and Craig Phadraig Hospital.

1. Inverness Courier, 16 June 1864, p.3

Records of the former Inverness District Asylum can be seen at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness
The Builder, 6 Aug. 1859, p.527: Architect & Building News, 8 April 1932, p.56: Highland Health Board Archives, Booklet on hospital.

21 thoughts on “Inverness District Asylum (former Craig Dunain Hospital)

  1. Unfortunately the Superintendents House has recently been demolished in preparation for further development on the site :((

    • Much to my disappointment as I was actually born in that house (Ruigh Ard) when my late father was physician superintendent of the Hospital.

      The whole area would have been better served by a more considered developer who recognised that a site of this potential could have offered exclusive quality of living for its future residents rather than a developer whose sole interest appeared to be commercial gain secured through cramming as many houses as possible into every last square metre.

      • Gordon, Looking for some historical information on Ruigh Ard house. Was the property situated on the grounds of the larger Craig Dunain building. Do you have any photos of ruigh Ard house and the location that it once stood. My interest stems from personal interest in the lost history of the surrounding area as i currently live in Robertson’s new build street name Ruighard Place. Any info would be appreciated as local history fascinates me and to pass any knowledge or images on would certainly keep forgotten times alive being such a nice area in Inverness that has recently succumbed to drastic commercial and housing development. I would highly appreciate any time you could spare to furnish me with whatever you have please.

      • Sean,

        I’ll be delighted to help out and share what I have in terms of knowledge, photos etc…I do have numerous photos and can dig them out as and when I have time over next 2/3 weeks. Would be good to speak too perhaps as I’d be happy to come over there at some stage and explain everything in terms of what was where on the site if this would be of interest?

        I can be contacted at and will then furnish you with contact number. Hope this helps.

    • thank you. The chapel looks as if it could be saved, and would make a good community space. I don’t hold out much hope though. As long as it is cheaper to knock things down and build new, the chances of saving such buildings will probably remain slim.

  2. I was there last Thursday. The access road has more potholes than there are craters in the moon. The walls look to be really sound as you would expect from this type of construction. The views will be excellent towards Inverness, especially over the local crematorium which lies to the North at a lower level. The developers were busy repairing some of the black painted hoardings that “hide” the main buildings from the newer houses they had previously built to the south. These hoardings were made of chipboard or similar and must have been rather a mess to look at. I say, appoint an architect with imagination and restore the shell. …….. Jim

  3. Pingback: Stratheden Hospital | Historic Hospitals

  4. Hello
    This is so fascinating ! I had ancestors that worked at the Asylum, and only do I know this through letters that have been passed down to me. The letters are dated 1938 and 1939 mailed from there to my GGGranmother and GGrandfather in Saskatchewan Canada, my ancestor talks about how they built a home within walking distance of the Asylum, how her husband just retired and her son Angus was taking over his fathers position at the hospital. Any pictures of any of the homes in that area built in this time frame would be wonderful to see. On her letters she wrote the address as Craig View Leachkin Road Inverness. My ancestors name was Marg Vore, and I know nothing more of this family or any of our family from Scotland. I write this from Manitoba Canada. Thanks

    • Hello Denise, my great grandmother and great grandfather built Creag view and after my great grandfather died my great uncle lived there. Their names were Mary and Donald and their surname was Clunas. They married in 1902 after meeting while both of them worked at the hospital. My great grandfather retired in 1939 and I still have the clock he received from them as a retirement gift. They had 4 boys and 1 girl. When I was born we lived in a caravan next to the house for a short while. The house was sold when my dad Ian passed away and it has now been demolished. I have some pictures if you would like to get in touch I can send some on. I think my cousins husband Fraser may have contacted you already but it would be great to find out more about our family in Canada as I know that there are Clunas’s there. So wonderful to read your comment Iand hopefully we can be in contact. Love from Mairi Clunas now MacKinnon. Xx

  5. An absolute travesty, such a beautiful landmark. Stands in such a sorry state, still today.
    I pass it most days.
    In my opinion none of the other associated houses should of been preserved.
    I fear the gate house on the A82 will be destroyed completely too, in the future.

  6. When Dr Whittet took over he was the one who stopped sleeping drugs he was so annoyed that people had no real life. He used to play the melodeon and in his wiseness, taking all the drugs the patients were igivwn it was a long haul, He would play his melodeon we never knew when it would happen but how happy they were. I never call Craig Dunain anything but Craig Dunain not a mental home. Such happy memories of those lovely people getting better. God bless you Dr Whittet an unsung HERO.

    • Many thanks Joan for your kind words about this amazing fellow. I copy below some more information about him…….

      In 1951 Dr. Martin Whittet was appointed Superintendent of Craig Dunain Hospital, commonly known in those days as Inverness District Asylum.

      Very much a new broom, Dr. Whittet was to attempt to alter the perceived stigma of the word “asylum” and turn Craig Dunain into an “open” hospital where able patients were allowed to walk freely around the grounds.

      He emphasised that he was Superintendent of a psychiatric hospital and in time built a reputation for the sterling work being done to foster treatment for mental illness.

      A patient, Frank B., currently incarcerated within the walls, was deemed a hopeless case by relatives, friends and doctors alike.

      Because of alcoholism. Frank’s career was in ruins and his future bleak.

      ​One day he was to read an article on the work of Alcoholics Anonymous in Glasgow and wrote away for more information. The reply filled him with hope and subsequently created an unforeseen chain of events.

      Having been discharged from hospital and residing with Dr. Whittet, Frank approached him about the benefit of AA for himself and was delighted with the response.

      ​Dr. Whittet had previously worked with Dr. Alan MacDougall at Gartnaval Hospital, who had taken a great interest in AA and the effect on alcoholics.

      The connection led to a meeting being arranged in Craig Dunain Hospital to which two members of AA were invited; one a second officer serving on an oil tanker, the other a business man.

      These two – Frank B. & Bob B. together with members of the medical and nursing staff, comprised what was to become the inaugural meeting of the Inverness branch of Alcoholics Anonymous, chaired by Dr. Martin Whittet.

      Following a visit to the only group in Perth, membership began to increase in Inverness. The first meetings were held in Craig Dunain Hospital, and also a restaurant above the Carlton Bar in Inglis St.

      Then it moved from Inglis Street to the YMCA building at the corner of High St. and Castle St.

      After some time, the increase of numbers necessitated more space, and the next venue became a room at the Palace Hotel.

      Then the first female member (Catherine), used her connections to allow the use of the Cathedral Hall on Kenneth Street.

      ​After some time, Dr. Whittet offered the fledgling Inverness AA group the use of the board room at the Craig Dunain Hospital for meetings on Saturday evenings. It was not unusual at the time, for Dr. Whittet to knock on the curtained glass door, pop his head round, and ask if he be allowed to sit in. He was of course made welcome.

      You can see a fuller account of how he helped so many people in the Highlands of Scotland here……….. under the heading Local History.

  7. Pingback: The Western Isles Hospital, Stornoway, and its forebears | Historic Hospitals

Leave a Reply