If you drive west out of Carnwath in North Lanarkshire, you pass along the north side of a small settlement called West End. A sign into it directing traffic to the "State Hospital" is the only obvious clue from the main road that you are passing one of the the most secretive and poorly-understood institutions in Scotland. For many travelling in this direction along the road for the first time, the sign may not be the moment that realisation dawns. That comes a couple of miles further west, where you find the village of Carstairs.
"Carstairs" is a name that evokes a shiver down the spine, a little like the names of Broadmoor or Rampton do south of the border. The State Hospital in Carstairs provides care and treatment in conditions of high security for around 140 patients from Scotland and Northern Ireland who cannot be accommodated anywhere else. As the author says in his introduction, "It is effectively a prison holding the most seriously demented and dangerous men in our society, among them the perpetrators of hideous crimes... All are there to protect them from us; and we from them. In short, it is a hospital for horrors."
"Carstairs: Hospital for Horrors" by David Leslie gives a compelling insight into what goes on within the hospital. The stories are told of the brave and dedicated nurses, doctors and psychiatrists who seek to help those in their care make as much progress is possible along the path back towards sanity. The book also sets out the history of the institution, which often involved savage and inhumane treatment that saw many suffer terribly. And it looks at the stories of some of those who have been incarcerated here. What can lead to someone being sent to the State Hospital? Here we read about some of the grisly crimes committed by inmates; about some of those who have been trapped here with little or no chance of ever being released; and about cases where inmates have been released only to commit further crimes. The book also tells the inside story, for the first time, of an escape in 1976 that left three men dead.
Next time we drive along the A70 past the State Hospital we will, thanks to the efforts of David Leslie, know a great deal more about it. Now the shiver down the spine will be an informed shiver rather than an ignorant shiver: but it will still be there. And it's the one place in Scotland we'd never consider picking up a hitch-hiker.