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6 December 1999

Out of madness comes good sense

New Statesman Scotland - A redundant lunatic asylum has been transformed into a university

By Tom Pow

In his affectionately satiric Verses on His Own Death, Jonathan Swift commented in 1731 on his endowment of St Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin:

“He left the little wealth he had
To build a house for fools and mad;
Showing in one satiric touch
No nation needed it so much.”

It was not Elizabeth Crichton’s desire 170 years ago to make a similar point. It was only because her wish for a university was frustrated by vested interests that she was forced to use her fortune to establish the Crichton Institution for Lunatics in Dumfries. Over the years, however, some would claim it was a merited outcome. A friend told me that once at a Queen of the South football match, after a particularly inane blunder, a voice rang out, “Christ, nae bluidy wunner we’ve goat a mental hame an nae a universi’y!”.

But the Crichton has another, more attractive, image in the town; that of a secret resource. As an advertisement of 1839 points out, the asylum “commands a very extensive and beautiful prospect of the whole of Nithsdale, bounded by the Criffel, the Solway Firth and the Cumberland hills . . . The grounds within the walls are about 45 acres in extent and are laid out as shrubberies, garden, drives and walks.” Changing NHS demands have made available many of the 24 large sandstone buildings spread over the site to what has often appeared to be a bewildering array of business, bureaucratic and educational interests. Of the three educational establishments – Paisley University, Bell College of Nursing and Crichton College – that together constitute Crichton University Campus, it is with the latter, with its powerful parent body and its three-year full-time degree courses, that the site has been most strongly identified. It is housed at the far edge of the campus in the Rutherford McCowan building, which had been derelict for ten years.

The views of Criffel and of the surrounding farmland have not changed greatly from the 1839 prospectus; and inside Rutherford it is immediately apparent that the architects have been sensitive to the beauty of the environment. Working with the grain of the building wherever possible, they have let in light to lift the heaviness of oak staircases and panels. This can be seen most spectacularly in the entrance atrium with its high windows, the sun on the ochre and Thatcher-blue walls. (Glasgow University’s somewhat proprietorial colours are throughout.)

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Maureen Marshall, my guide, has an obvious pride as she shows me the many seminar and lecture rooms and the library, shared with Paisley University, with its suites of computers. To her it is vitally important that people see with their own eyes that what has been an idea for so long is now a reality: Dumfries has a university; beautiful buildings of which it can be proud; lecturers, courses and students – only 85 in the Crichton College this year but with a projected rise of 100 per year over the next few years.

So what has attracted these students to study in Dumfries? For some, being in on something new; for others, the attraction of being closer to home or of getting a second chance. I think of students I’ve known over the years who have come home, crushed after a year in the city has exposed their immaturity; of others who specialised too early in subjects for which they had no long-term commitment; and of those such as my friend whose children range from 13 to 29, finally revved up with enthusiasm for an opportunity she thought had passed her by. But this is not to be a university for the restricted or the faint-hearted: its population will be drawn in equal measures from within and without the region, and from abroad.

In the long run, what the director, Professor Rex Taylor, hopes will attract students to Crichton College is the quality of the education on offer – a flexible three-year liberal arts degree. This chimes with the most recent views of many involved in further education for “a broadly based first degree course . . . stressing perspective, purpose and values rather than esoteric detail, and where the quality of knowledge, not the quantity, is the important matter” (Professor Michael Thorne of Napier University, the Scotsman, 17 November 1999).

What the university lacks will take time and numbers to build – a campus social life, an impact on the town and on the region, culturally and economically. However, that these will come is without doubt. Graham Trickey, the head of economic and community development for the region, estimates that, “if higher education continues to expand on the Crichton site and reaches a modest development, it would be reasonable to assume a student body by 2010 of 4,000, which would see expenditure of £112 million”. By that time perhaps the campus will be home to the autonomous University of South-west Scotland. And, think of it, every one of those 4,000 is a potential supporter of Queen of the South!

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