It was never intended as a great secular pilgrimage – quite the opposite, in fact – but if you veer off Carman Road, a country lane which ekes its way up the north bank of the Clyde, you can still discover one of the country’s 20th century marvels.
When I first visited the former St Peter’s Seminary two decades ago, the path was less certain. Overhanging branches of yew trees obscured the route, with the invasive species of contemporary Scotland – glass Buckfast bottles and empty Tennents cans – dubious navigational aids.
Along the way, however, there were abundant hints of wonder: sandstone gorges spanned by moss-flecked stone bridges, the ruins of a 15th century castle, and walled gardens which nature had long since robbed of their Victorian order.
Yet nothing quite compared to the final reveal, when the unruly woodland seemed to thin out and bow in quiet reverence before the seminary itself, a building so out of place and time it makes Cardross feel like Scotland’s answer to Roswell.
It is a journey that has been made over the past three decades by countless artists, designers, and writers intent on savouring a contested architectural masterpiece in person. How sad it is we can offer future generations no guarantee of following in their footsteps.
The news coverage of St Peter’s earlier this week will be wearily familiar to those who have championed the building’s merits over the years. Its owners, the Catholic Church of Scotland, conceded it was in a state of limbo and faced an “impossible situation” in trying to secure a future for the site.
Such a quandary has defined St Peter’s almost from its opening in 1966. At its peak, it only ever housed little more than half the number of trainee priests it was intended for. By the time the Second Vatican Council decreed that the community, rather than isolated cloisters, was the best place for their education, the building’s fate was sealed.
A short-lived rebirth as a drug rehabilitation centre offered some respite, but a building designed to do God’s work eventually went to the devil. In the years that passed, a host of unrealised solutions for St Peter’s were floated, but they were either drearily lumpen (turn it into a police training college or, worse, a block of flats) or fanciful (a boutique hotel or a health spa with a swimming pool).
Only in the past decade did a thoughtful and pragmatic blueprint emerge courtesy of Angus Farquhar’s NVA, one of Scotland’s most energetic and ambitious arts organisations. It moved mountains to turn St Peter’s into an arts and community facility through partial restoration and consolidation of the abandoned and careworn structure.
Having secured millions of pounds in backing, it restored scores of the seminary’s vaults and rid it of hazardous material, even offering a hint of what might be possible with Hinterland, a spectacular 2016 art installation which harnessed St Peter’s desolation as well as its energy.
Sadly, such promise went unfulfilled with NVA’s collapse last summer. The reasons for its demise are numerous, but included increased costs within the capital funding package and uncertainty over whether a Scottish Government loan could be repaid over the next quarter of a century. The nail in the coffin was being turned down for long-term funding by Creative Scotland, which put paid to any alternative plans for the site. Now, with St Peter’s abandoned once more, the church has described it as a “huge albatross around our neck”.
Ronnie Convery, communications director at the Archdiocese of Glasgow, explained: “We can’t sell it, we can’t give it away, we can’t demolish it. We are in a Catch 22 situation. We would literally give it away for nothing but we can’t find anyone to take it off our hands.”
On the one hand, the church deserves sympathy for its reluctant stewardship of the A-listed white elephant. It has indeed tried to give away the building, only for potential suitors to realise the extent of their obligations.
Yet the church must also realise that even the promise of handing over an internationally significant treasure for free is not enough. It will cost several million pounds on top of what NVA spent simply to make St Peter’s safe, and there are few bodies with that kind of money to spare.
One of them, however, is the Archdiocese of Glasgow. It is currently sitting on more than £50m in funds, as well as fixed assets and investment properties with a net book value of nearly £25m. It is not duty bound to delve into its coffers to come to St Peter’s aid, but perhaps investing a modest sum towards its preservation is the only way it can finally be freed of its burden.
There are glimmers of hope. Argyll and Bute Council has designated the land surrounding the seminary as an “area for action”, while Historic Environment Scotland is currently considering viable options for the building’s future at the behest of Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop.
Granted, the local authority barely has two pennies to rub together, while the quango is not in the business of saving derelict shells for the nation.
But if they and the church can work together, it may help broker some kind of compromise. No one realistically expects St Peter’s to be restored to its former majesty, but neither should we stand by while a slice of modernist brilliance disappears from view.