I first caught wind of the NVA’s sparkling proposals for St Peter’s a few weeks ago on Instagram. Since moving away from Cardross — my childhood home for over 22 years — I had been out of touch with the village. But a social media mention of Hinterland — the ambitious sound and light show that would take place at the abandoned seminary, launching Scotland’s 2016 Festival of Architecture — got me replaying faded memories… and wanting to pay a last visit to the austere carcass before it was transformed for new eyes.
The seminary itself has been through multiple transformations. Completed in 1966 next to the site of former theology building Kilmahew House, it was a place of worship and learning before crumbling into a drug rehabilitation centre in the eighties. Lauded as an internationally significant piece of modernist architecture, it is one of few buildings in Scotland to hold Category A listed status.
But for me, St Peter’s architectural credentials were far from important. Having grown up just a short walk from the seminary, the place ingrained itself into my childhood. The ‘seminary’ was not just the barren building, stripped back to its concrete shell, but the whole mystery of the grounds. These fables were passed from my father’s mouth to my eager ears, and as we walked through the overgrown gardens the seminary grew to represent the hidden heart of our quiet village.
My family — the four of us, my brother and parents — spent many a Saturday exploring the wider grounds of St Peter’s. We entered at the north end, following the waterfall and thick rhododendrons to Kilmahew Castle, then onto the hidden island of the priest pond. Sometimes you’d forget you were in holy lands until you suddenly stumbled upon a wide rusting bridge, an arch of rhododendrons too perfect to be natural, or the square stones of a festering walled garden. As a child, it was both mystical and terrifying, especially when you fell upon the grass-choked tennis courts and finally the seminary itself.
‘They should bomb the bloody thing…’ My father had always had a hate-hate relationship with the ‘concrete monstrosity’ of St Peter’s. He had moved to Cardross in the early seventies, and saw the original Kilmahew House (theology building) in its heyday. This modernist mass had nothing on the original Victorian house, he maintained, but I couldn’t agree. There was — and still is — something incredibly haunting about St Peter’s Seminary.
Although in general my memory is far from infallible, I remember the very first time I stepped inside St Peter’s. The fear rose inside me like something I could not control; terror and intrigue playing off each other like graffiti on the altar. Signatures scarred the walls at every turn, the ceiling oozed water like bodily fluid and the sacred single rooms that the priests once inhabited… well, they were shells; half-filled honeycombs open to the elements.
Since this first visit, I’ve remained intrigued by the building and its surroundings. I’ve retraced my steps up the sloping walkway to the crumbling altar; I’ve looked into the study area and crossed the walled garden; I’ve checked out books from Glasgow University library, desperately trying to make sense of the seminary’s mystery. Now, NVA are literally going to shine lights on the building and reanimate it for the next generation of art lovers.
I think it’s fantastic that something will finally be done with the hulk of concrete hidden in Cardross’s heartlands. However, my mistake was visiting the grounds as the clearance works were ongoing. It might sound like an exaggeration, but it was as if somebody had taken a sickle to my childhood memories. After removing huge swathes of rhododendron — no doubt with environmental benefits — the arch was now collapsing, the once hidden seminary clearly visible through the trees. Even the hidden island had lost its magic, the telltale stone bridge clearly visible from the opposite end of the pond. All that was left was barren concrete and a couple of rotting iron bridges.
For architecture aficionados around the globe, the revitalisation of St Peter’s Seminary will (pardon the pun) be a godsend. Visitors will be able to access the building and estate safely, instead of clambering over collapsed bridges and rotting woodwork. Yet for Cardross kids — folk like me who grew up in the grounds — the site’s mysteries and hidden spaces have (for now) lost their riveting shadows. It will take a while to get used to this new light. It’s yet another transformation in the rich and painted history of one of Scotland’s most haunting structures.