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The Abandoned Village of Bangour

Most locals are aware of the abandoned village of Bangour, an impressive collection of buildings on the hillside just north of Livingston, near Dechmont.

Bangour, which is an old Celtic word meaning “The Hill of Wild Goats” is set in around 200 acres of hilly woodland. From the site of a stately home, through its development as a hospital village, to Hollywood film set and now long abandonment, it has a long and interesting history. Today the site is a haven for dog walkers, sightseers .... and ghost hunters.

One of the buildings at Bangour
One of the buildings at Bangour

Bangour House, of which there are now no remains, was home in the 1700’s to William Hamilton, the famous Scottish poet whose portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland. Two hundred years later the site became home of Bangour Village Lunatic Asylum.

A search of the sasines (register of ownership of land) for the site reveals the first mention of the Edinburgh District Lunacy Board in 1897. The District Lunacy Board was set up by order of Secretary of State for Scotland, with Sir John Sibbald as Commissioner and Medical Advisor. Sir John recommended the building of a village type asylum, and following a visit to Leipzig where a very successful village facility called Alt-Scherbitz had been running for a number of years, the board agreed that the new asylum at Bangour should be modelled on Alt-Scherbitz.

The architect chosen to design the asylum was Hippolyte Jean Blanc (18 Aug 1844 – 17 March 1917) who was born in Edinburgh to French parents. His architectural designs include many of Scotland’s churches, Leith Sailors Home, Bruntsfield Golf Club House and the tenements on Marchmont Road in Edinburgh.

Work started on the Bangour site in 1899 and the 1901 census for Uphall shows Elizabeth Fox, a widow residing in the old town, as a lodging housekeeper. She has living in the lodging house with her a mixture of labourers, stonemasons, bricklayers, painters, an Irish navvy and even a saw sharpener. These men would appear to be the workmen building Bangour and bringing much needed money into the area – there could not have been enough local men able to work on such a big project.

Pressure to complete the project was immense as the facilities for mentally ill patients in the area were extremely basic. The village officially opened 1906 although patients were admitted from 1904.

Bangour was very forward-looking for its time. It did not promote the use of physical restraints such as straitjackets and padded cells, which were in widespread use in other mental health institutions of the time. The village operated as an independent organisation, where the patients were ‘put to work’ as part of their rehabilitation and it was hoped that some would eventually be able to leave the asylum and take the trade that they had learned out into the wider community. The village had its own farm, shoemakers, bakery, laundry and tailor; they even had their own water supply, a reservoir that was stocked with fish, providing a pleasant and relaxing pastime for the staff and patients.

War-time hospital

In May 1915 the British War Council commandeered the hospital for care of soldiers who were wounded in battle. The site was in a perfect location and had the added benefit of having its own railway line – soldiers could be transported from the coast by rail to the hospital. By 1918 the hospital accommodated around 3000 patients. One of those was Ivor Gurney the war poet. Gurney had been gassed at St Julien and was admitted to Bangour where he wrote some of his most famous poems.

The hospital reverted to being a psychiatric hospital between the wars, and in 1939 was once again transformed into an Edinburgh War Hospital and an annexe called Bangour General Hospital was constructed to accommodate the expected numbers of war casualties. The hospital started admitting general patients in 1948, and was a busy and important general hospital until it was finally wound down in the early 1990s when all services were transferred to the newly built St John's Hospital in Livingston. The services of Bangour Village Hospital were also gradually transferred to St John's, and the last ward closed in 2004.

Bangour Memorial Hospital
Bangour Memorial Hospital

The Church

This was a later addition to village life – at the end of the First World War the people of West Lothian who had supported many of the soldiers who had lived and died at the hospital wanted to build a memorial to these brave men and the result was Bangour Village Memorial Church.

The church was officially opened in 1929. It was built using the stone from The Duke of Hamilton’s recently demolished palace near Hamilton – by strange coincidence the church was built very close to the only remaining visible sign of the estate of William Hamilton, the poet – the wall of the estate garden.

Film Set

In 2005 Bangour was used as a film set for the Hollywood film “The Jacket.” Many budding local actors and actresses attended auditions at a local hotel, some appearing as extras in the finished production. Ironically Bangour was used to portray an American mental institution where various physical restraints are used, whereas Bangour actually prided itself in being free of such devices.

Still standing today are buildings of various styles and sizes, some of which have been categorised by Historic Scotland as category A listed buildings.

Published in Konect November 2011

Author: Maureen McIntyre

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