Kirsty Logan: Growing up in the shadow of an old gothic asylum

Woodilee Hospital in Lenzie on the outskirts of Glasgow played a major role in Kirsty Logan's childhood
Woodilee Hospital in Lenzie on the outskirts of Glasgow played a major role in Kirsty Logan's childhood
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As a fiction writer, I find it easy to write about my life. If anyone asks me whether uncomfortable or revealing details are true, I can hide behind the mask of fiction.

Only I know which parts I made up. So when I was asked to contribute a piece about Glasgow to the Hometown Tales project, I decided to take off my mask.

Author Kirsty Logan

Author Kirsty Logan

I decided to write honestly about my life – and what felt so vivid to me about Glasgow was my adolescence, my dad, and how the long shadow of Woodilee Hospital lay over both of our lives. Not only did he take me there for driving lessons when I was 15, we also had our own individual struggles with mental health linking us to Woodilee. This is an extract from ‘The Old Asylum in the Woods at the Edge of the Town Where I Grew Up’:

The old asylum where my dad taught me to drive was called Woodilee, and it lives still in my imagination as vivid and timeless and explorable as Narnia, Hogwarts, Middle Earth. In 1999, when we did our driving lessons, you couldn’t get sectioned to Woodilee. It was almost completely closed by then; only a few small buildings by the entrance remained open, rebuilt as modern boxes, not the gothic red-brick glories my dad and I drove our slow circles around. Back in the days when people were put into Woodilee, when mental health facilities were still called asylums, I don’t think sectioning existed. The Mental Health Act 1983 came into law the year before I was born, and means that you can be involuntarily detained in hospital if your mental health makes you a danger to yourself or others. If I’d lived in that town in 1899 instead of 1999, carving lines in my arm and refusing to eat and taking overdoses and crying every day and telling my parents I was bisexual, I’m sure I would have been put in Woodilee. I loved the thought of being sectioned. I loved the thought of losing control; of giving control over to someone else, an adult who knew what they were doing.

I don’t know what sort of people stayed at Woodilee at the time we went driving there. I think maybe it was a care home for old people. Or for people of any age who couldn’t look after themselves. All I know is that people stayed there, and they weren’t locked in because they didn’t need to be locked in.

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One time, a guy wandered out of the front door and into the woods around the buildings. It was autumn, not cold but not warm either, and he was out there in the woods for a few days before his body was found, frozen to death. I don’t know why he wasn’t found sooner; the woods weren’t large. It’s easy to be lost if you want to be.

My dad occasionally would talk about suicide. He said that if it ever got too much for him, he’d go into the woods and take off all his clothes and wait to freeze to death. He said it matter-of-factly, wryly almost. I had read somewhere that if people talk about suicide then they’re probably not going to actually do it, and also I thought if he could talk about it so wryly then he couldn’t really mean it. He told me lots of things, anything I asked about.

When I was much younger, instead of bedtime stories my dad would do Question Time, which I can only assume he named after a political debate show for his own amusement. I was five, so I had never heard of it; all I knew was that Question Time was when I had my dad to myself – a rarer occurrence since my little brother had been born the previous year. I have a photo of when my brother first came home from the hospital, and my dad is holding us both, my brother an enormous red slug-baby born three weeks overdue and me a serious and Victorian-looking four-year-old dressed in a nightie and holding a toy seal, and my dad is the happiest I ever remember seeing him; he’s beaming so wide it looks like his face is about to split into sunlight.

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At Question Time, my dad would lie on the edge of my single bed – pink frilly duvet cover and sheets, as I was still in the phase where I refused to wear or sleep under or put in my hair anything that wasn’t pink – and he’d answer my questions. I was obsessed with the milkman, and asked my dad over and over how the milk got into the bottles for the man to deliver in the mornings. I asked him how fish got into the sea, how cars go, what ghosts were really, why gran powdered her nose but mum didn’t, why some people didn’t have food, what I was like when I was a baby, what I’d be like when I grew up. He never once didn’t know an answer. I realise now he must have made up a large portion of the answers, because he was 36 at the time and that’s the age my wife is now and she knows the answers to a lot of questions but she doesn’t know half the shit I asked my dad when I was five.

I kept asking him questions all through my life, and he always answered them. As I got older the questions were less fanciful, more practical. How do I pay my council tax? Can I return these jeans even though I took the labels off if they ripped the first time I wore them? How should I format my CV? Is it better to have the same supplier for your gas and electric or shop around? He always knew.

After he died I had so many questions. What were we supposed to do? How did we cancel his mobile phone contract? Where was his will? Which was his favourite jumper, so that I could keep it? Which coffin should we choose: the cheaper, environmentally friendly cardboard one or the traditional, fancy, chunky, expensive one; and since he was being cremated anyway did it matter less or more, as the coffin would presumably be burned with him and mixed with his ashes forever?

The only person who always knew the answer to all of my questions was my dad. Several times I reached for my phone to call him before remembering. I knew he was dead, but also he couldn’t be dead. In that moment before reality came back into focus, there were two of him: the dead dad who I had to deal with, and the permanent dad who would always help me.

Hometown Tales: Glasgow by Kirsty Logan and Paul McQuade is published in hardback by W&N, out now.