There have been three hospitals on Islay: a poor law institution that provided medical care for paupers and in the early decades of the National Health Service became the island’s general hospital; an infectious diseases hospital, established in the 1890s, and provided with a permanent small building in 1904; and the present Islay Hospital built in 1963-6, pictured above.
The earliest of these was the poorhouse, built in 1864-5 on the outskirts of Bowmore on land owned by Charles Morrison. The local Parochial Board decided to get their plans from an Edinburgh architect with experience in such buildings, J. C. Walker. As can been seen from the map above, the building comprised an H-shaped complex. The main north wing was of two storeys, the rest single-storey. (For a photograph of the poorhouse see the Islay History blogspot)
To comply with the Public Health Acts the local authority had to provide accommodation for cases of infectious disease and so a fever hospital was established at Gartnatra, to the east of Bowmore. Although the building pictured above was built in 1904, there had been a hospital hereabouts since at least the mid-1890s. The local Medical Officer for Health, Dr Ross, reported on an outbreak of measles in 1895, the patient being removed to the hospital. However, as there was no nurse employed by the local authority to attend the hospital, the patient’s mother went to nurse her daughter. Dr Ross had no authority to confine the mother to the hospital, and she went in to the village on many occasions. In a short time the disease spread rapidly throughout Bowmore.
The situation was finally remedied with the erection of a new building for which the plans were approved by the Local Government Board for Scotland in 1902. To cover the cost of construction a loan of £1,100 was secured from the Public Works Loan Board. The building is dated 1904, and the Local Government Board sanctioned it for occupation in February 1905. It was built by James MacFayden. The building survives, though the interior has been completely refurbished and a large extension built to the rear. It is now in use as a cultural centre. In the photograph below, the old hospital is the gabled block on the left, with the short bay attached (the former sanitary annexe). The rest has been added to form the new cultural centre and cafe.
With the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948 the administration of Gartnatra Hospital and the poorhouse, latterly known as Gortanvogie House, passed to the Campbeltown and District Hospitals Board of Management, under the Western Regional Hospital Board (WRHB). Under the terms of the National Health Service Act responsibility for the elderly remained with local authorities, so the presence of elderly as well as the sick at Gortanvogie posed problems. In the opinion of the Board of Management, although Gortanvogie left much to be desired, the conditions were probably better than most of the patients enjoyed at home.
Photograph taken in 1955 outside Gortanvogie Hospital. The Matron, Miss C. E. M. Morrison, is seated on the left, and behind her in uniform is the hospital sister, Agnes Watson Miligan. A colleague is pictured seated to the right, and a young patient standing behind. (Reproduced by kind permission of L. Tudball. © L. Tudball.)
Given the list of improvements that the Matron had requested, this makes for a depressing view of those conditions. She had asked, without success, for: electric light – the Hydro Electric Board’s supply reached the front door, but the building was not wired; hot water on the ground floor; a bathroom directly off each main ward on the ground floor; a linen cupboard; wooden or other suitable flooring instead of stone floors; a brick side screen with steel windows along the outside of a covered way between the front and back of the building to stop the inmates from passing through the staff dining-room; essential repairs to the structure of walls and ceilings, and re-slating a large part of the roof. Neglect of building maintenance during the war, common throughout Britain, had left many of the inner walls damp and rotten, with plaster having fallen from many of the ceilings.
Gartnatra, on the other hand, was described as well-built with no serious trace of damp except in two W.C.s at the back on either side which were below a flat part of the roof where the rain water had forced a way in during stormy weather.
‘The site of Gartnatra is bleak and exposed to the prevailing westerly wind coming off the bay; there is nothing “cosy” about the building, but Matron remarked that the islanders are used to hearing the wind roar about their houses. Our visit was on a day of cold rain. A shelter belt of trees would obviously be desirable, but we were told that owing to the wind and the salt spray from the sea, there would be little chance of trees growing.’
When the question of modernising the hospital facilities was under discussion, a small team from the mainland visited Islay in May 1952 that included Mr Guthrie, the Regional Hospital Board Architect, Dr Guy, the Medical Officer of Health, and representatives of Argyllshire County Council. The Secretary of the Board of Management for Campbeltown & District Hospitals favoured an extension to Gartnatra but the local doctors argued for a new hospital on a more convenient and sheltered site. Funding was the main problem, but the Department of Health were conscious that spending money on upgrading inferior accommodation was not the best long-term policy.
Plans for extending Gartnatra were drawn up by the WRHB architects, only to be rejected by the Board of Management. With patient numbers dwindling to none, Gartnatra closed in April 1955. The following year the tide had turned towards using Gortanvogie as the hospital and turning Gartnatra over to the local authority as a home for the elderly, and in 1958 sketch plans were drawn up by the WRHB for a new hospital building on the Gortanvogie site. By May 1959 these plans seem to have evolved into something like their final form, encompassing the demolition of Gortanvogie and building in its place two separate buildings, a hospital and a home for the elderly. This was certainly the case by the following May, when some of the problems of shared staff and services were beginning to be discussed.
By July 1960 detailed plans had been drawn up by the WRHB and submitted to the Department of Health. Forbes Murison, Chief Architect to the WHRB, had been building up a central staff of architects with some success, and did not want to have them sitting around doing nothing. The Islay job was one on which he was keen to let them cut their teeth. In 1960 Douglas Gordon McKellar Adam had joined as Principal Assistant, (he became Assistant Chief Architect in 1962).
In the hopes of gaining the necessary approbation from the Department of Health, the WRHB stressed that Gortanvogie was one of the few examples of an old poorhouse still used in the hospital service in the Western Region. It not only had 12 beds for the sick, but 8 for the old and infirm under the charge of the local authority. Despite the nature of its original purpose, the hospital had in recent times been fulfilling the functions of a cottage hospital by the admission of general and maternity patients. The fabric of the building was so poor as to make reconstruction unviable. Many of the floors were laid directly on the ground, and there was practically no sub-floor ventilation. The intention was to provide all the services of a general cottage hospital and make the island as independent of the air services as practicable. Argyll County Council wished to arrange for the provision of a 20-bedded Eventide Home as part of the scheme, and it was agreed that the one architect should design both, and that this should rest with the Regional Board’s architectural staff.
The new hospital was also originally to provide 20 beds (an additional maternity bed was added later), as well as X-ray, casualty and treatment room, mortuary, boiler-house, kitchen etc, accommodation for the matron and six nurses – considered essential given the location on a ‘remote island’. From the start, the hospital was to be linked to the eventide home by a covered way, and the heating, hot water services and kitchen were to be shared. This raised the question of who should fund what. It also required authorisation from the Treasury as sharing facilities was not authorised by the National Health Service Act. Although combining a hospital with a home for the elderly went against government health policy, as well as introducing the complexity regarding shared funding, mixed institutions were thought to have a place in the more remote parts of the Scottish Islands and Highlands.
At this point the estimated cost was £146,000. At the end of October the Department forwarded their comments on the plans. Within the Department of Health these were circulated to a team of advisers on the different elements of hospital design, function and administration, each of whom submitted comments, criticisms and suggested alterations. The list of criticisms was lengthy, ranging from concern over the position of the maternity unit below the staff residential quarters (as babies’ crying was liable to cause disturbance), to suggesting that the entrance to the visitors’ viewing room into the mortuary should be placed opposite the doctor’s room rather than in the main hall. Some rooms they thought too small, others too large.
Treasury approval was granted in November 1960, and the following month the Department was able to give the Regional Board approval in principle to enable planning to proceed. In June 1961 the WRHB sent in revised plans, and raised the issue that the scheme would need to be carried out in two phases, the first phase being the provision of the hospital which could be done without demolishing the existing building, and the second phase being the eventide home following demolition. The revised plan for the eventide home had by then already been agreed to by the County Council, but one of the Department of Health’s architects, R. L. Hume (presumably Robert Leggat Hume, 1899-1980), also discussed the plan with the Regional Board, which seems to have resulted in further revisions.
Some of the criticisms revolved around room allocation, others around safety. The home was designed around a garden court with a pool in the centre – and so there were concerns that the old people might fall in. Hume discussed the plans with Mr Ellis (Kenneth Geoffrey Ellis), one of the Regional Board’s architects who confirmed that the points raised had been attended to, and that the pool was intended to be shallow with low shrubs or flowers planted around it to keep old people away from the edge. (The plans submitted to the Department were drawn by Ellis, and are dated January 1962.)
Although it had been hoped that building would start in the financial year 1961-2, the already complex bureaucracy was exacerbated by the apportionment of costs between the Department and the County Council. It was not until June 1962 that the Department sanctioned the preparation of final plans.
Revised plans were submitted in April 1963, and circulated yet again to the Department’s professional advisers for comment. As comments trickled in they were relayed back to the Regional Board, but the Department was at pains to stress that they would not expect drastic alterations to the proposed layout at this stage. The main delaying factors were not difficult to identify: the amount of scrutiny that the project was given had led to ‘a good deal of adverse comment on the plans’; the architectural staff of the WRHB were under pressure to cope with the wider building programme; and the awareness of the shortage of capital funds had generated a reluctance to embark on a relatively expensive project for its size. Once the plans were agreed and the costing completed, work began towards the end of 1963.
Caution over the estimates was well founded. Within the three years since the original probable costing of around £100,000, it had more than doubled to £236,816. The revised figure took into account the special prices that might be expected to be charged for building on Islay. But everyone involved was aware that costs might still creep up. The main difficulty was attracting a sufficient number of contractors even ‘reasonably interested’ in building on Islay, in order to avoided inflated prices.
The hospital was built first, then Gortanvogie House demolished and the home built on its site. In 1966 work on the hospital was completed. It had cost about £180,000, and provided 12 chronic sick beds, 6 beds for general medicine and 3 maternity beds.
National Records of Scotland, HH101/1491: Dictionary of Scottish Architects
5 thoughts on “The Hospitals on Islay”
My mum was a sister at Gortanvogie House hospital around 1955. I have a very tiny photo of her with the matron, a colleague and a young patient. I think the matron may be the one who requested the improvements!
How lovely! I would dearly love to see your photograph. The matron sounded wonderful – and Gortanvogie in great need of improving.
I can share it with you but am not sure how to upload on this site.
Thank you! Could you email it to me? My email address is Harriet.Richardson@ucl.ac.uk