West Highland Cottage Hospital in Oban

The cottage hospital at Oban was founded by a wealthy widow, Mrs Agnes Parr of Killiechronan, Mull, and was officially opened by her in September 1896. A competition was held for the design, which was won by the Oban-based architect and engineer George Woulfe Brenan.

Postcard of the West Highland Cottage Hospital. The photograph may be of the opening of the hospital in 1896, although the card was not posted until 1926. © H. Richardson

Agnes Parr had first offered £2,000 to build a cottage hospital for Oban in 1892. Such a hospital was much needed.  In the 1880s an article in the influential journal The Hospital noted that Oban was not only the destination of thousands of tourists and pleasure-seekers, but the head-quarters of the fishing industry on the north-west coast, and it was to Oban that accidents at sea were most frequently brought. The only local institution for accident cases or the sick was the local poorhouse, so most patients made the long and uncomfortable journey to Glasgow.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 20.14.21

Extract from the 2nd edition OS map, revised in 1897-8. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

In 1890 it seemed that Oban was to have its cottage hospital. Plans were prepared by Robert Mortimer of Westminster for an L-shaped building, funds having been provided by an anonymous donor. But two years later the Glasgow Evening Post noted that the scheme had apparently fallen through. Perhaps Agnes Parr had been involved in the earlier scheme, or was prompted by the failure of the earlier plan to take up the cause. At that point she was recently widowed, her husband, Thomas Philip Parr, having died in October 1891 at their London home in Upper Belgrave Street, Westminster, leaving her a substantial fortune.

Detail of the postcard, showing the assembled dignitaries being addressed.  The gentleman with the white beard, right of centre, resembles Colonel Malcolm in later years.

Progress on the revised scheme was less than rapid. The plans by Robert Mortimer were laid aside and a competition held for new designs. It took a few years to raise additional funds to provide an endowment to cover the hospital’s running costs, but finally the new hospital was completed in 1896.

Colonel Edward Malcolm of Poltalloch presided over the opening ceremony. He noted that the hospital committee had considered twenty-three different schemes for the hospital. The architectural competition was supposed to be anonymous, but, as so often was the case, it was won by a local architect. The hospital had two wards with five beds in each and two private wards. The plans also allowed for subsequent enlargement ‘to a considerable extent’, with the minimum of interference with the design. Heating and ventilation were supplied by E. H. Shorland & Brother of Manchester in the form of their patent grates, exhaust roof ventilators and inlet tubes.

Woulfe Brenan’s plans for enlargement were soon required, with the work put out to tender in June 1898. Further extensions were carried out in 1911 and 1934‑6, the latter by Lake Falconer who had taken over Woulfe Brenen’s practice. The 1930s work comprised an extension of one of the existing wards to provide a further six beds, and nurses’ accommodation. Lord Trent of Ardnamurchan declared the new wing open in June 1936, remarking that the hospitals was now so comfortable that illness or convalescence was now  ‘almost a pleasant thing’.

It was at the West Highland Cottage Hospital that Unity Mitford died in May 1948. She had been taken ill at Inch Kenneth, and when her condition worsened she was taken across to Mull, but having missed the ferry to Oban undertook a five hour journey on a motorboat, arriving at the hospital at one in the morning. She died a few hours later.

The hospital closed in 1995, a year short of its centenary. It was replaced by the Lorn & Islands District General Hospital (Reiach and Hall, architects), as were the other small local hospitals: Dalintart, the Mackelvie, the County hospital, and the maternity hospital at Gleneuchar House. A small group of houses now stands on the site, on Polvinster gardens.

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 14.59.38The marker to the right on the map of Oban indicates Polvinster Gardens, the site of the cottage hospital. © OpenStreetMap contributors

For more information on the hospitals in Oban and the surrounding area see Argyll and Bute

Sources: 

H. C. Burdett (ed.), Hospitals and Charities Year Book, 1925: Campbeltown Courier and Argyll Herald, 26 Sept. 1896: Dundee Evening Telegraph, 19 Sept 1896, p.2: Glasgow Evening POst, 4 March 1892, p.4: Edinburgh Evening News, 6 May 1893, p.2: The Scotsman, 19 Sept 1896, p.6: The Hospital, 18 Dec 1886, p.201:16 Aug 1890,  p.296: British Architect, 17 July 1896: Building News, 24 June 1898, p.909: Scotsman, 15 July 1933, p.11: Dundee Courier, 15 May 1934, p.4: Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 19 June 1936, p.7

About Harriet Richardson

I am an architectural historian. I worked on the Survey of London from 1991-2018, and am an honorary senior research associate at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and an honorary fellow of the University of Edinburgh. I have worked on surveys of hospital architecture in Scotland and England.
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