The stories behind the buildings
Sometimes visiting an abandoned place is the product of hours of online research, either randomly checking locations on Google Maps and just typing “abandoned X” (where X equals any city/tow/country), or trying to decipher locations through pics we’ve seen on someone’s Instagram/Facebook etc page. And as most locations go by code names this research becomes funnier and funnier.
Even though we may find ourselves eventually standing outside a location we’ve been waiting to see for quite a while, it is not always necessary that we know much of its history. Sometimes you may bump into abandoned places quite randomly and by chance, or someone takes you to one, so background research does not apply.
I personally look into the past of places if and during the time I am doing location scouting. But most of the time, the desire to dig deep into a place’s past comes to me after a visit, after I have smelled and tasted the moldy air.
Tracking down information about a place’s history is not always as easy or as straight forward it might sound. Big institutions or places of long history that goes decades back into the region’s history are easier to track online. But some, if not most, remain a mystery.
Learning about Birkwood was not that hard.
The House that was a Castle that was a Hospital
The following information has been collected from several online sources
Located at Lesmahagow in Lanarkshire, Birkwood House was built in late 18th century. The original structure (villa) went through several stages of expansions turning into a gothic style castle in 1858 and again in 1890. The castle was the seat of the McKirdy family and it is recorded as having been designed prior to 1859 by the Glasgow Architect John Baird. The further expansion work was designed by James Thomson of Glasgow.
As of 1864 Birkwood House was in the possession of John McKirdy’s son, John Gregory McKirdy Esq., “owner of 1250 acres in the shire.” As of 1892 Birkwood had then passed to his son, General David Elliot McKirdy who in 1890, and at great cost, added a new wing to the house (mentioned above).
Birkwood was purchased by Lanarkshire Council in 1920 for £10,000 and was first occupied as a certified Institution for Mental Defectives on 3rd July 1923. Birkwood House was one of several institutions which opened in accordance with the Mental Deficiency and Lunacy (Scotland) Act of 1913. The Act was passed ‘to make better and further provision for the care of Mentally Defective Persons and to amend the Law relating to Lunacy in Scotland.’ The hospital cared for boys and girls with learning disabilities, and was “one of the few psychiatric hospitals which dealt exclusively with children.”
Extensions were erected in 1921, 1946 and 1958. The new wing added in 1958 cost £94,000 and accommodated up to 80 more patients. The 1966 Western Regional Hospital Board, Hospital Survey and Draft Proposals for Mental Health Services, stated that Birkwood had 316 beds but suggested that could be extended to a further 376 beds to accommodate for overcrowding in Kirklands Hospital. However, by 1976, The Evening Times reported that Birkwood would have to cut beds due to a degree of overcrowding. Gradually, community based care became more acceptable concerning psychiatric patients and The Evening Times reported in 1981 that Birkwood was trialling an independent unit which would allow improving patients to look after themselves with minimum supervision. The Community Care Act 1990 gave rise to a more community-based focus for long-term care and consequently many of the long-term psychiatric hospitals closed. The hospital began to relocate patients in 2002 and officially closed in 2005.
Following the reorganisation of mental health care in the 1990s, the hospital closed fully in 2005 and remained vacant. Plans were revealed in 2008 to turn the deteriorating building into a 28 bed hotel and leisure centre, however the developers went into receivership in 2011.
In 2015, part of the castle’s wall collapsed, and there were reports of an explosion. Local paranormal experts attributed this to the castle being haunted.
In 2016, South Lanarkshire Council gave planning permission for a £15 million conversion of the house to a hotel. This hotel was part of a planned £80 million redevelopment of the castle and its grounds. In January 2018, the castle was put up for sale after its owners went into administration. In January 2020 demolition of the building, retaining the porte-cochere, has been conditionally approved.
The castle is claimed to be one of the most haunted places in the UK. The castle has allegedly been haunted by a cigar-smoking spirit and the ghost of a man stabbed through the throat. When a group of Glasgow paranormal experts filmed at the castle in 2013 for their work Haunted Planet TV, they described the castle as “one of the most active locations they had ever filmed.”
Soon Birkwood Castle will be no more. And this is the saddest thing we explorers face. The demise of a location we have visited and appreciated, hits us hard. Weirdly enough it is equally sad as when we get a chance to see pictures online from a location during its heyday. Perhaps it is easier for us to accept the natural process of decay, especially after one has been doing this for many-many years. But when a place no longer exists, I guess it is a kind of death we have to deal with and accept. Deep down I am certain we would all like these locations, at least our favorites, to remain forever in the state we’ve witnessed when we visited them.
Sometimes I read comments of explorers claiming they’re happy an abandoned building is restored, or wish this was the case. I believe some actually do feel that, but if I am being honest, I accept the existence of abandoned buildings, I accept the fact that an abandoned place is the result of hardship and bad luck, and that it definitely brings sadness to those related to it, but I can’t hide the fact that because I find these buildings extremely beautiful in their decayed state, I’d rather always see them like that, rather than turned to modern flats, hotels, or completely torn down.
Lesson’s over. You can return to the fun part now I guess.
The ghost caravan and the important questions
Prior to our visit that gloomy day, we have read reports online from people who have explored (or tried to) Birkwood. It was known that the property’s owner at the time had his white caravan stationed at the front of the building, living in it. We had actually seen some photos of it so we knew it was not just hearsay. But would this caravan and/or person be there on the day of our arrival? And what would the security be like?
Security related questions are fairly common. Usually details on security can be more crucial than any other information, like the way in. Whereas the window someone used to enter a site in May could be barricaded by June, if a site has a certain level of security attached to it, usually this doesn’t change significantly in short periods of time. The level of security is something that may derail a perfect day of exploring, but it can also make a day quite memorable.
The answers to security questions may not always be 100% reliable or accurate (there are cases where people exaggerate their answers either to build themselves up, or just want to deter people from visiting a place they believe is too perfect as it is and don’t want them to become too popular in our community).
Security varies, it can be of the living and breathing sort, guards and dogs, or the other kind, fences, barbed wire, secured doors and windows, cameras, motion sensors etc. The country you find yourself in plays a big part in what type of security you are destined to encounter, but also the type of location. I could go on and on about security but these stories will come in time.
Finding the way to your heart
So yes, the caravan, it wasn’t there! We could see from a distance the entrance was caravan-free, and we could spot no other person, or animal. Birkwood looked deserted.
However, we decided to skip the pathway leading to the front of the castle, and we walked uphill, cutting directly to the back of the hospital. Some things you’ve seen in movies and tv shows so many times do come in handy when exploring, even on a subconscious level. Like the fact that approaching some location from the back is always safer, but also toughest in some cases.
Reaching the building we saw there were metal fence panels erected running along the perimeter, but not only were there quite visible gaps at parts of this fencing, but this clumsily assembled obstruction did not run the full perimeter of the building. These portable fence plates are always the easiest to tackle, especially when they are not secured between them. You can just lift and slide, lift and slide.
Leaving the fence behind, we started admiring the beautiful architecture from up close, as the rain was not coming down that hard anymore. I can still remember the feeling of standing there. I had never been inside a similar building at the time and my heart was beating fast, pumping adrenaline in my body. Now we had to find a way in. There is always a way.
Lo and behold, hidden from plain sight, as we walked around the back and turned a corner, a small open window was waiting for us.
We quickly moved towards it and climbed inside staring at the darkness that awaited us.