Angus Farquhar, Anti-Catholicism, Architecture, Art, Brutalism, Cardross, Catholicism, Gothicism, Graffiti, Graffiti Art, Health and Safety, Humor, Libertarianism, Liberty, NVA, Opinion, Puritans, Regulation, St Peter's Seminary, The Devil, Tourism
St Peter’s Seminary stands ruined in the woods outside Cardross. It is a two hour and twenty minute train ride from the centre of Edinburgh. I visited St Peter’s with a friend called Stefan in 2012. Today I am going alone. That I have not brought anybody with me this time admits to the embarrassing possibility that I might not be able to break into the site. I can picture myself dejectedly turning my back on St Peter’s and setting off on the long train journey home to Edinburgh, having failed to get over, under, or through the perimeter fence.
Since my last visit, the arts organisation NVA have secured millions of pounds in funding from the National Lottery and Creative Scotland to redevelop St Peter’s into a venue for performance art. This probably means a bigger perimeter fence, I think gloomily. On their website, NVA warn that “the St Peter’s Seminary site is currently inaccessible.” I tweet them to ask if this is really true, but there is still no reply by the time that I am boarding the train.
St Peter’s has lately become an acquisition of the Doors Open Day treasure-trove and it is supposedly unlocked to the public only in September, on the two designated days of this event. So today, on one of the year’s greatly more numerous Doors Closed Days, will I be able to get in?
Nowhere in Cardross is St Peter’s referred to by name. It has been chopped off the pictorial map of the village on the station wall. There is an obstinate silence from every signpost. Indeed, once you are on the northernmost road out of Cardross the sign that you need to follow reads, “Public footpath to Renton.” There is something faintly comical about this. Is St Peter’s held in superstitious dread? If you hiss its name in the village Co-op, will people blanch and cross themselves? Such superstition appears to have submerged the normal capitalist infrastructure. Surely, in any regular community, there would be a shop and a cottage museum, a heritage fund, a range of glossy merchandise and a novelty St Peter’s craft beer. Instead, the seminary has been cast out, literally beyond the pale.
You have to know that it is there already. Out in the woods it is bunched below the treeline, flashing no concrete fin that might intrigue any idly passing walker and rouse them to investigate. The fortifications commence on the approach road, with ten foot tall metal gates padlocked shut and a sign that toys darkly with a threat to prosecute trespassers. I grow instantly disheartened but I then spy a small, devious-looking path that branches off away from the gates and seems to disappear behind them.
Had I rejoined the road that the security gates were blocking I would have seen this pattern being repeated directly in front of the seminary. Another fortified gate and another small path leading off to one side. Around the corner of this path there is a single railing unfixed from the perimeter fence and a merry handmade sign that reads: “THIS WAY→.” This sign is the first word of welcome on the road to St Peter’s and it is uttered only on the very threshold.
Unfortunately, I have plunged into the woods by mistake. I encounter a shallow garden river that descends in quaint storeys. It is crossed by three disintegrating bridges. This river is in effect a moat. The first bridge is clearly a death-trap, the second looks like equally bad news, but the third has joined forces with a fallen or pushed-over tree to furnish a navigable enough crossing.
Once across, I begin to circle the perimeter fence, still pessimistic that I will be able to spot an opening that I can fit through. “Go home, go home, little man!” the fence sings tauntingly. The irony is not lost on me that this must be the only Catholic seminary remaining in the world where both an earnest young applicant wants to get inside and he is not gladly received. Over the morning, I have been wondering why I took Stefan with me the last time. We were both rather shy of each other and there were other potential co-adventurers available with whom I was far more intimate. It hits me now that he was almost seven feet tall. I must have wanted him to lift me over the fence. I am very shocked at being reconnected with how calculating I am.
Then, miraculously, I hear young male voices, clear and musical, coming through the woods and from over the opposite side of the fence. I am going the wrong way around – I have been on the less hospitable, more wooded side of the seminary. To my relief, I finally reach an ordinary-looking gap in the fence, the sight that I have been hungering for all this time. I drop into an interior that is silken with fine dust underfoot and crunchy with rubble. There is a jackdaw lying crumpled in one doorway as if it is improbably asleep.
When I emerge from the campus again at the end of my visit, I will undertake another circuit of the perimeter fence and locate four more points on the fairer side where any slender adult can get in. Only one is suitable for the larger gentleman and this comes with a disagreeably risky jump.
Everything that remains of the principal building is colourless and dank, and yet, whenever you look up to take the whole structure in, it is almost ethereal in its beauty. The gaunt curves float as though winged angels are discreetly busy under the concrete eaves holding them up. The graffiti that clings to every wall like mildew is sporadically witty and occasionally of great merit, but it is always engrossing. There is no detectable logic to which images have survived and which have been painted over since I was last here, though I take a conspiratorial view of the disappearance of the huge goat in a sea of owls that had overlooked the altar. Perhaps this was too offensive, or else too teenaged and crass, for the tone of NVA’s arts venue. There is still a Satan lurking in the passage beneath the altar space, complete with a hearty “Your Soul Is Mine.”
No doubt without being aware that it is doing so, this graffiti replicates the traditional irreverence of gargoyles within a medieval cathedral. Catholicism, or rather anti-Catholicism, is, as I have written previously, the aesthetic motor of St Peter’s. There is exactly the same Gothic tendency that had peopled English country houses with the ghosts of Catholic monks and nuns. No Protestant seminary could have ever succumbed to such a gorgeous and ponderous decay.
Yet the campus is also smaller than I had remembered. The buildings are boxier the second time around. You are satisfied that you have seen everything after half an hour.
“If I were called in, to construct a religion, I should make use of water.” The woods are boggy after a week’s rain. Now and then the drips from the ceiling surprise you with a sharp sound like that of a footstep. The catacombs underneath the main building and the teaching block are flooded, reminding me, with their pillars and arches, of abandoned Roman baths. Out in the courtyard, I hear the voices again. I have been careful, on some storey of my consciousness, to ensure that there is always a good distance kept between myself and them. Finally, on the uppermost terrace of the main block, I look down and see an ugly white dog skulking in the courtyard. Someone calls to it and it pads stiffly out of view.
I realise then that I must have taken Stefan with me for protection. He was, as I think I have said, almost seven feet tall.
I am now no longer rejoicing in the freedoms of the wilderness but wishing for CCTV, a security guard even. Out here, these guys, with their thuggish dog, could tie me up and cut pieces off me with a knife. I involuntarily think of that rebel sipping from a bottle of Budweiser as he sliced the ear off the Liberian president. Doe, was that his name? Take me a mile out of Cardross and I am thousands of years back in our prehistoric past, listening to the voices of strangers with the burning, hysterical suspicions of a hunter-gatherer. I later see the two men again at a window and they wave cautiously at me. One of them has a camera hanging around his neck. They also take great pains, in their tours of the campus, for us never to meet.
NVA aspire to have 50,000 people visiting St Peter’s annually. This evens out at around 136 per day. A libertarian such as myself grows wary of this. Bringing in the public will mean also bringing in disabled access and busting through all of the beauteous dilapidation with ramps and elevators. It will mean installing toilets and fire alarms. This will in turn mean installing running water and electricity. It will mean CCTV and a little office to watch the footage in. Next, there will be all of the various licensing requirements and the community consultation. Gradually, this majestic ruin will fade back into the world. St Peter’s will become as controlled and managed as everything else.
You might reply that all historical ruins are opened up and cared for; and that a genuine wilderness is impossible these days, anywhere on our islands. No forest can truly run wild and no species of bat can remain unringed and unaudited. And you can point to the fact that St Peter’s is hardly some precious libertarian outpost. Over the years, the broken glass has been swept up, the litter has been cleared away, railings have been installed and metal grills fitted over those terrifying gasps between the stairwells and terraces. There have been numerous, inconspicuous interventions, just as the Catholics might themselves fancy there to be a vigilant benevolence behind the world’s own tumbledown façade.
When you look in on the main building from the courtyard there is a line of pillars with a letter painted on each one. They spell out P-L-A-T-E-A-U-U. I assume that the final U was added absent-mindedly. When I am back home, I hunt down the song by the Meat Puppets and the lyrics read like a mission statement for NVA:
When you’ve finished with the mop, then you can stop
And look at what you’ve done
The plateau’s clean, no dirt to be seen
And the work, it was fun.
Angus Farquhar, the founder of NVA, has nonetheless stated that, “I believe Britain is a deeply over-regulated country… It is endemic. There are rafts and rafts of laws made every year, but never any repealed.” This outlook will equip him better than an entire CV of public sector positions for the tricky, complicated responsibility of safeguarding St Peter’s. In truth, he is not merely safeguarding the seminary but the wilderness that currently resides within it. St Peter’s is not a place where the law can be ever realistically broken but it is still one where the rules are sometimes pleasantly bent.
That perimeter fence is high and sharp and it has been erected at obvious expense. But if you persist it will, like the face of an ostensibly stern barman, crack into an eventual smile and admit that closing time is simply a formality. Yes, you are invited to the lock-in. There is a constant cat and mouse between you and the management of St Peter’s, with the signs warning you to get off the premises and the fence slipping you in if you prove to be sincere enough.
Within Scottish culture, the closest thing to St Peter’s is conceivably the Loch Ness Monster. It is not really dangerous and not really a monster, in being, at least in all of the cartoons, as friendly as a terrier.
If somebody did end up being murdered here by bandits, or if a concrete beam did ever loosen from its bracket and squash some hipster photographer in the courtyard, then the sly self-delusion that enhances these buildings, the pretence of danger that is like a mild drug, would promptly end. A real fence would go up, the structures would be knocked down, and they would build flats.
[Tychy’s 2012 article on St Peter’s is here.]