Brian Ferguson: False dawn for St Peter's Seminary

New lease of life for St Peter's Seminary nothing more than a false dawn, says Brian Ferguson

Picture: Maccoinnich/commonswiki
Picture: Maccoinnich/commonswiki

Just over three years ago, I was led through the wooded paths of Kilmahew Glen, near Cardross, in Argyll, towards the remarkable remains of St Peter’s Seminary for the first time.

As Angus Farquhar took me around the long-abandoned and neglected training college for priests and explained his vision for its future as a new cultural venue, it felt as if a new chapter in its history was about to be written.

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Less than a year later, after a massive clean-up operation, St Peter’s was transformed by a dramatic sound and light show, Hinterland. At the time, it appeared to be a triumphant precursor for a long-awaited rebirth. Looking back now, it feels like a cruel false dawn.

The news last week that Mr Farquhar’s long-running arts organisation, NVA, was not only pulling out of the restoration, but closing down completely was greeted with widespread shock, dismay and anger. .

Back in March 2016, when Hinterland launched a nationwide Festival of Architecture, the future of St Peter’s, an empty shell since the late 1980s, seemed assured. By the end of its ten-day run, NVA had announced that it assembled a £10 million funding package for its restoration and its running costs for five years, with backers including the Heritage Lottery Fund, Creative Scotland, the Scottish Government, its Historic Environment Scotland Agency, and Argyll and Bute Council.

However, at some point between March 2016 and the autumn of last year, NVA’s vision began to falter, with reports emerging that the project was under threat due to a “financial crisis.” NVA’s problems were compounded in January with the loss of a core three-year funding deal, entirely separate to the St Peter’s backing, from Creative Scotland.

Perhaps inevitably some commentators have been quick to blame the quango for the demise of NVA and its vision for St Peter’s. On the face of it, they may well have a point given NVA’s proven track record, acclaim for Hinterland and widespread backing it secured for the revival.

NVA has admitted it decided it could not guarantee a “viable future” for St Peter’s back in September – well after the deadline for its three-year Creative Scotland funding had passed, but four months before decisions were taken by the quango. Revisiting an announcement from NVA, shortly before it knew its funding from the quango was being cut that artist Rachel Maclean was making a film set in St Peter’s, it is intriguing to discover it had dropped any mention of the long-term restoration in favour of a three-year programme of events and activities at St Peter’s, which it re-committed to in the wake of its funding cut from the quango, when it insisted its finances were in a strong state and that its work would “continue unabated.”

Within minutes of NVA’s statement emerging last week culture secretary Fiona Hyslop was facing demands to intervene over the fate of NVA and its vision for St Peter’s. When she confirmed that Historic Environment Scotland was to “consider longer-term options” for St Peter’s an impression may have formed that the government was, yet again, trying to clear up another mess created by its arts quango.

But, given the scale of public money involved, and that NVA decided in September that there were too many “financial and physical” risks involved, surely this work has been going on in the background since last year, but firmly behind closed doors. Could St Peter’s most recent history be rather more complex than on first examination? It certainly appears so.