The remains of St Peter's Seminary lie about half a mile north of Cardross in Argyll & Bute, and only about three miles north west of Dumbarton. For such a large building it is remarkably reclusive, and access is not encouraged. We've wanted to see it for years, so one fine day in May 2018 we set off along a track that cuts across Cardross Golf Club. Having passed through the open gate at the west end of what was obviously a once rather lovely stone bridge across the Kilmahew Burn, we followed the access road round to the much more determined, and locked, gate barring access to what would once have been the car park on the east side of the seminary.
We confined ourselves to exploring, and taking photographs, from outside the gate and the boundary of which it forms a part. It's pretty obvious from the graffiti liberally applied to most of the visible surfaces of the seminary that others have felt the need to explore it more closely, and leave evidence of their having done so.
St Peter's Cardross was built to serve as a Roman Catholic Seminary capable of training up to 100 novice priests at any given time. What emerged was built in a modernist, brutalist style that, at best, always sharply divided opinion. St Peter's has been acclaimed as a modern building of world significance. It is also one of only 42 post-war buildings in Scotland to be listed at Category A, the highest level of protection for a building of "special architectural or historic interest". Yet it can also be seen as a strong candidate for the title of the most ill-conceived and ill-fated building ever constructed. If nothing else, this all serves to make it an interesting building, and one well worth seeing. There is, after all, a risk that plans to bring about its renaissance come to nothing and the old "demolition in progress" sign on the gate once more comes to describe the activity taking place beyond it. (Continues below image...)
In 1946 a fire at St Peter's Seminary in Bearsden made it necessary to find a replacement. The site chosen was at Kilmahew House, a Scots baronial mansion built in the 1860s just north of Cardross. Building work began in 1962, and St Peter's Seminary opened its doors in 1966. Kilmahew House formed an integral part of the hugely ambitious project, and was linked to the structure whose remains you can see in the photos on this page, plus a smaller south range which can be seen less clearly on this page.
St Peter's Seminary ran into immediate problems. It was conceived as a response to a growing Roman Catholic population in west central Scotland, just at the point at which the rate of growth of that population diminished dramatically. It was conceived as a means of training priests for the Roman Catholic Church, but completed just after the Second Vatican Council made fundamental changes to the way the priesthood would in future be trained which seriously undermined the building's rationale. And it was built in a modernist, brutalist style that, at best, sharply divided opinion. The result was a building far too large and far too expensive to run; which had poor sound insulation and heating problems; and whose core, its chapel, was no longer suitable for the purpose to which it was put. And, in a country not renowned for a constantly benign climate, the building failed - really seriously failed - to keep the rain out. According to the definitive book on the subject, during the winter of 1967 heavy rain revealed fifty-three leaks in one small part of the building alone, with many more elsewhere.
St Peter's closed as a seminary in 1980, just fourteen years after it opened, and reopened as a drug rehabilitation centre. The continuing problems with the modern buildings meant that the centre operated mainly from Kilmahew House, which was more usable and in a better state of repair. The centre had closed by the end of the 1980s. In 1995 a major fire so severely damaged Kilmahew House that it had to be demolished, leaving the 1960s buildings stripped of their focal point.
Which all raises an important question. What do you do with a building variously described as both Scotland's best 20th century building and its worst? Hopes were high in 2017 that the arts charity, NVA, had succeeded in raising the large amount of funding needed to restore at least part of the building and safeguard the rest, but at the time of writing - May 2018 - is seems unclear what the future holds. There has to be a question about the viability of any future use given the demolition of Kilmahew House on the one hand, and the fact that the 1960s buildings could never be persuaded to keep the rain out, even when new, on the other. Would their demolition be a loss to Scotland's architectural heritage: or a welcome removal of a seriously failed building? We can see both sides of that argument and await developments with interest.