Anyone think it’s a good idea to write and perform a faerie story about a paupers cemetery in the grounds of a decommissioned psychiatric hospital?
It’s a wet November day, on the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh, I glance out of the window and see a grand, baronial-style mansion looming out of the mist, but it’s derelict, no more than a charred husk. The next station is Hartwood. Sensing a story, I google ruined mansion, Hartwood and Hartwood Hospital pops up on Wikipedia; a psychiatric hospital for 100 years decommissioned in 1995.
If I hadn’t met Margaret McSeveney a playwright from Shotts, my curiosity might have ended there, but when we meet to discuss storytelling and Spotlight Shotts, an organisation committed to reinvigorating the once thriving arts scene in the area Margaret asks if I’d like to write a play together and without hesitation I reply Yes!
Later as we leaf through Margaret’s amazing collection of theatre posters and programmes, I talk about my work in mental health and mention Hartwood Hospital.
Everyone in the area knows Hartwood, a local landmark with imposing towers. Margaret tells me her sons had summer jobs there, one worked in the library and the other served tea, she asks if I’ve heard of Hartwood Paupers cemetery, where patients who died with no money or family to claim them were buried with only a number to mark their grave.
After the closure of the hospital, the cemetery fell into neglect and many lairs and their markers were lost under mud and undergrowth but, Margaret tells me, a group called Friends of Hartwood, are dedicated to finding them and reuniting each with the names of those interred.
Would I like to visit?
Our first meeting with Loraine Duncan and Rona Condie Barr from Friends of Hartwood is in the cemetery, now a beautiful space, with flowers, teapot planters left by visitors, benches, interpretation boards displaying names and corresponding lair numbers, and even a wee library.
We learn that nobody was buried here after 1954 and hear some histories. Felice McHardy, was an enigmatic figure in dark veils, known as Stra’ven’s Russian Princess; John Williamson or Jock O’ Law believed he was a knight of the realm; baby Martha’s grave has windchimes which tinkle even on a still day; thirteen soldiers are buried without military honours because they died after the great war; and there are women who drowned themselves in a nearby reservoir.
Rona has planted hundreds of bulbs and seeds which bloom and fragrance the air. She tells me about her dreams, in one, she saw a line of soldiers, in the corner of the cemetery where they’re buried, long before the lair markers were recovered.
Most people laid to rest in Hartwood were othered in life, and not all experienced mental illness, among their number were unmarried mothers, gay men, and people with dementia or epilepsy…I learn that when the hospital closed and old administrative documents were cleared out, a ledger containing the only record of burials, was
chucked into a skip.
If a member of nursing staff hadn’t rescued the ledger and given it to
Motherwell Heritage centre…
When the friends started clearing weeds from the cemetery and researching its history, they met with resistance. Not everyone wanted the secrets of Hartwood cemetery to be revealed, but undeterred they navigated ill-will and bureaucracy to transform the place from an eerie wilderness where no birds sang, to a cherished community space.
I ask if I can share the story and they give me their blessing. but Lorraine asks,
How will you share the stories?
I can’t answer yet, all I know is the story, like the cemetery, needs a community.
We are commissioned to create a storytelling performance for SISF Right to be Human and begin by hosting three community workshops. The first happens at Hartwood attracting thirty attendees, the second at Lanarkshire Association for Mental Health’s Wellbeing Hub and third at Stane Primary School in Shotts where the children give up their golden time to participate. They’re lively, social affairs which create space for people, interested in Hartwood’s story, to contribute ideas and reminiscences. Each workshop begins with a traditional tale: Rashiecoats, Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin and participants craft felt flowers, which I sew onto an army surplus blanket creating the blanket of Earth and flowers which will symbolise Hartwood in our storytelling performances.
An online search for further information about Felice McHardy, one of Hartwood’s interred, leads me to local historian, Bob Currie who wrote a book about Stra’ven’s Russian princess. I reach out and he invites me to lunch at his retirement community in Lesmahagow. Here I discover that Felice, really a Polish baroness, was married to an
Edinburgh Doctor of Music, Robert MacHardy, whose compositions, commissioned by aristocracy and world-famous sopranos, have all but disappeared into obscurity…though a few copies remain in the music archives of the British Library.
Hartwood is already a faerie tale, more than any municipal graveyard, it offers a space where living and deceased commune, a place of dreams and stories, I imagine the faerie queen leading us to this liminal realm and can almost hear harp music.
I am excited when Heather Yule agrees to accompany the story, and her playing creates enchantment. All I can find of Robert MacHardy’s music is a fragment of his Fantasia which Heather weaves through the performance like a golden thread.
October and the Storytelling Festival approaches, I’ve lived, breathed and, as Rona predicted, dreamed the story for months. Margaret who has been with me on this adventure, helps prepare the performance, having staged two plays at the Netherbow in the 90’s her flair for dramatic tension and focus on detail is reassuring.
Without giving away the narrative or any surprises, I can reveal that fantasy and reality merge in the Hartwood, but the true story’s even more incredible.
Is it the responsibility of the living to share stories of those who no longer have a voice? I believe so, and the Friends of Hartwood’s mission resonates, but whatever you think, or whoever you choose to remember, the ones who lived before us paved the way for all we hold dear.
Since SISF 2023 Friends of Hartwood have become National Lottery’s Scottish Charity of the Year and secured official recognition for their thirteen soldiers who will be honoured with a war memorial. They prove in all they do, that a few determined people who care can make a difference. Hartwood may no longer be a hospital, but it is a place of healing and the cemetery, now a tranquil green oasis, welcomes visitors and inspires wellbeing.