Dry January? Head for a Hydro! A brief look at Victorian hydropathic establishments in Scotland

After the feasting and convivial drinking over Christmas and the New Year, a dry January has become increasingly common. The adverse effects of alcohol on our health are widely known and understood today, as are the benefits of keeping well hydrated, preferably by drinking plenty of water. These twin truths go a long way to explain why hydropathic establishments and spas have survived long after other institutions offering specialist treatments have either disappeared or remain rare.  Sea-bathing, anti-vivisection, galvanic, and mesmeric hospitals all had their promoters and supporters from the eighteenth into the twentieth centuries, though widely condemned by the medical profession. But a water cure, particularly if it was balanced with exercise in country air and abstinence from alcohol, did few any harm and benefitted many.

Shandon Hydro library of congress
Shandon Hydro, Helensburgh, image from National Library of Congress. West Shandon House, built in 1851, was altered and greatly extended by Peddie & Kinnear in the 1870s to turn it into a fairy tale castle of a hydropathic establishment.

Spas and Hydropathic establishments are generally set in attractive locations, occupying imposing buildings, and have not been neglected by historians. Health tourism has been studied both from an architectural and historical perspective in recent years. [1] Hydros had their heyday in Scotland in the later nineteenth century, the Shandon Hydro at Helensburgh and the Dunblane Hydro were both built to designs by Peddie & Kinnear in the 1870s. By that time they had become popular as health resorts and were often closely linked to the temperance movement. They attracted the healthy as well as the invalid, and water treatments began to subside in importance. Unsurprisingly, in terms of architectural planning later hydros were little different from hotels, only the treatment rooms set them apart.

Dunblane hydro Lib or Congress
Dunblane Hydro, designed by Peddie & Kinnear 1875. Image from National Library of Congress 

The water cure had been introduced into Britain from the Continent in the mid-nineteenth century, as a separate medical strand from taking the waters at a Spa. For the water cure primarily concerned water as an external treatment, with baths, douches and other inventive ways of applying water to the body. Hydropathy was big business in England and Wales before it gained much ground in Scotland. The first hydropathic establishments north of the border were small, located at Rothesay, Dunoon and Aberdeen. [2]

L0010944 Graefenberg: Hydropathic Establishment of Vincent Priessnitz Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Graefenberg: Hydropathic Establishment of Vincent Priessnitz, circa 1839 Life of Vincent Priessnitz Metcalfe, R. Published: 1898 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Graefenberg, Hydropathic Establishment of Vincent Priessnitz, from the Wellcome  Library reproduced under under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

At Rothesay the hydro was set up in 1843 by Dr William Paterson who had visited Vincent Priessnitz, the founder of the water cure movement, at Graefenberg. Paterson’s hydropathic establishment occupied Glenburn House, overlooking Rothesay Bay on the Isle of Bute. The house was converted to provide accommodation for just ‘a few invalids’. [2] Unlike Priessnitz, Paterson combined the ‘judicious use of medicine’ alongside cold water in his treatments. The hydro was successful and underwent a number of additions before it was rebuilt in the 1890s following a fire. [3]

Glenburn hydropathic Rothesay
Glenburn Hydro, Rothesay from Wilson’s Guide to Rothesay and the Isle of Bute, 1848

The short-lived hydro at Dunoon was established in 1846 by another Scottish doctor who had been directly inspired by Priesstnitz, Dr Rowland East. It too was in a converted house, which was situated near the recently built Kirn Pier, on the banks of the Clyde. Here water treatment was combined with a regime of sea-water bathing.  The third hydro, opened at Aberdeen in 1850, was perhaps the most influential, but it was begun not by a doctor but a churchman, the Reverend Alexander Munro. Munro belonged to the Evangelical Union, and his interest in hydropathy was very much a product of his faith, providing scope for ministering to both the physical and spiritual needs of his flock. [4]

Extract from the 1st edition OS map, surveyed in 1867, showing the Aberdeen hydro at Loch-head, (just west of the Royal Lunatic Asylum). Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland. Alexander Munro moved the hydro here in 1853 from Angusfield, where he had begun his hydropathic establishment in 1850.  [5]

Munro’s Aberdeen hydro proved sufficiently successful to warrant additions to the house at Loch-head. He built a new wing ‘of three storeys, two of these having fine oriel windows’. The new wing contained a dining room, drawing room and recreation room in addition to further bedrooms. Later he added a Turkish bath, in moorish style. In 1864 Munro left for the new Cluny Hills Hydro and his position at Loch-head was filled by Dr Meikle, for whom it proved a stepping stone to founding a new purpose-built hydro at Crieff.

Bridge of Allan Hydro, National Library of Congress

The Allan Water Hydropathic establishment was built in 1861-4 to designs by a lesser Glasgow architect James Hamilton, and was an early work in his career. Soon after he was commissioned to design the West of Scotland Seaside Home at Dunoon (later remodelled as the Dunoon Hydro), the Glasgow Hydropathic and Turkish Bath, and possibly desinged extensions to the Glenburn Hydro, Rothesay. James, his son John and grandson Arthur were all closely associated with Rothesay and designed a number of villas thereabouts.

Strathearn Hydro, Crieff.  Library of Congress

The Hydro at Crieff is possibly the best known Scottish hydro, and one of the few to survive as a hotel to this day. It was first opened as the Strathearn Hydro in 1868, built for the not inconsiderable sum of £30,000 and founded by Dr Thomas Henry Meikle, on the back of the success of the Loch-head hydro at Aberdeen. The original building was designed by Robert Ewan, an architect and engineer who was commissioned in 1866 while still working as an assistant architect to J. Russell Mackenzie in Aberdeen. The early success of the establishment is attested by the almost immediate need to extend the accommodation, first with attic bedrooms in 1872, then in 1875 the dining and drawing rooms were extended. Further substantial additions were made in 1888 and 1894, and a winter garden was added in 1903-5. Ewan and his architect sons, Robert and Charles, were retained for these additional works. They were not foremost amongst Scottish architects, and the hydro is not the finest piece of architectural design, but it has distinct charm and a lively roofline of turrets and gables.

The Winter Garden from Strathearn Hydro’s souvenir brochure produced in the 1950s.

During the Second World War the Strathearn Hydro at Crieff was requisitioned by the army, it partially re-opened in 1949 and after refurbishment a souvenir brochure was produced to entice new visitors and encourage former guests to return. It advertised various sports: golf, tennis and croquet out of doors, billiards and a swimming-pool in doors. It also boasted 58 separate ‘lock-up’ compartments for motor cars. The medical side had not been entirely abandoned, there was a physiotherapy department, which it was hoped would prove increasingly helpful in the treatment of rheumatism ‘and in the restoration of function’. [6]  It remained dry, though, until the 1970s, when the management finally applied for a table licence. [2]

[1]  Phyllis Hembry, British Spas from 1815 to the Present… 1997: J.Bradley, M. Dupree, and A. Durie ‘Taking the Water-Cure: The Hydropathic Movement in Scotland, 1840-1940’ in Business and Economic History, vol.26 no.2, Winter 1997 pp.426-37: James Bradley ‘Medicine on the margins? Hydropathy and orthodoxy in Britain, 1840-60’ in Waltraud Ernst ed, Plural Medicine, Tradition and Modernity 1800-2000, Routledge, 2002: Allan Brodie, Travel and Tourism in Britain, 1700 – 1914, 2014: Eric Zeulow, A History of Modern Tourism, 2015.
[2] Alastair J. Durie, Water is Best The Hydros and Health Tourism in Scotland 1840-1940, 2006
[3] John Wilson, Wilson’s Guide to Rothesay and the Isle of Bute, 1848: Richard Metcalfe, The rise and progress of hydropathy in England and Scotland, 1906, p.157
[4] Alastair J. Durie ‘”The drugs, the blister and the lancet are all laid aside” Hydropathy and medical orthodoxy in Scotland, 1840-1900’ in Repositioning Victorian Sciences: Shifting Centres in 19th century… D. Clifford, E. Wadge, A. Warwick, M. Willis eds, 2006
[5] ‘Aberdeen in Byegone Days’, Aberdeen Journal, 30 Sept 1909, p.2
[6] Strathearn Hydropathic Crieff, souvenir brochure printed by David Philips, Crieff, n.d. but describes the hydro as being 90 years old.

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
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