A Mystery for Sherlock? Conan Doyle's Father and 'Sunnyside'
For those who do not know, Sunnyside is a name which perhaps conjures up a happy, warm place, basking in a content and peaceful location. In fact, Sunnyside – near the village of Hillside - is a former mental hospital in north Angus, which closed its doors finally in December 2011. The institution (and its predecessor) had been in operation for over 200 years. As a personal aside, I can vaguely remember mention of the name from childhood, bandied about by adults in a black humoured context about certain acquaintances who had ended up there via a weakness involving drink.
Publicity surrounding the condition of Sunnyside Royal Hospital, the state of the complex and plans for redevelopment, brought it back into the minds of local people. Montrose Lunatic Asylum, Infirmary and Dispensary was the creation of Mrs Susan Carnegie of Charleton and was the first purpose built institution of its kind in Scotland. Before this foundation, unfortunate mental patients in the burgh were incarcerated in the tollbooth. Miss Charlton expressed the reasoning behind her civic benevolence (in a letter 16 July 1815):
My view in this undertaking was merely to rid the Town of Montrose of a nuisance – that of mad people being kept in prison in the middle of the street – and the hope that, by providing a quiet and convenient Asylum for them, by good treatment and medical aid, some of these unfortunate persons might be restored to society.
Ten years after its founding (in 1781) it was recorded there were 37 lunatics domiciled in the asylum, of which 12 belonged to the town an parish of Montrose. Some patients received free treatment, while offers were fee paying. (A report in December 1836 noted 67 patients, 10 of them free, while the others paid sums between £10 and £40 per year. This compares with 53 patients in 1818.)
Far from being a stigmatised institution, the asylum was looked on with pride by locals from the beginning, as evinced by the proud inclusion of the building on one side of an unofficial conder halfpenny minted in the town in 1799 (issued by the Montrose tobacconist Nichol):
Official reports also show that the institution was far from a grim place of confinement which popular imagination might suppose it being in early Victorian times. The report in autumn 1832 states:
The Asylum at Montrose was clean and well-aired; and the Patients well attended to by the Superintendent and Matron, and those acting under them. The male patients were 37 in number, and the females 38. Six or eight of the males work constantly in the garden. A clergyman preaches weekly on Thursday, and says prayers on Monday, to a select number of the Patients, who listen attentively. On Friday a fiddler attends, and the Patients are allowed to dance – the males together and the females together. This is said to delight them very much, but has no permanent effect on them either to the better or the worse. The general state of health was good; and the Registers were accurately kept. [Memoranda Regarding the Royal Lunatic Asylum, Infirmary and Dispensary of Montrose, Richard Poole (Montrose, 1841), p. 55.]
Three years later the visiting Sheriff witnessed a ‘religiously insane’ female inmate who was in the habit of sternly denouncing visitors, bible in hand, was found to be happily participating in the revelry. She came up to the Sheriff, ‘and made some observations as to turning their kirk into a ball-room, and laughed heartily’.
It was noted in several reports that idleness affected the patients badly and that separation from the surrounding scenery of the countryside was not beneficial. This was taken into consideration by the late 1830s and patients were allowed out to places such as Dunninald Woods, and were allowed to spectate at ship launches in Montrose. Despite this the authorities were frustrated by lacking leisure activities to distract patients: A difficulty is often experienced in devising means of re-educating the obscured or barren mind – means which shall be sufficiently attractive to create an interest, and yet so little exciting as to be compatible with perfect serenity and equanimity. In 1835 it was advised: 'No visitors, whose motive is curiosity, are allowed to see the Patients. The public have a right to know whether such an establishment be conducted on principle of justice and benevolence, and the law has provided that this right should be duly exercised.' [Memoranda, p. 128]
From the initial site on Montrose Links, the hospital moved to Sunnyside farm in 1858 following a nationwide review three years earlier by the Scottish Lunacy Commission. There was a growing site for patients on the new site, leading to the provision of a new facility for private patients named Carnegie House, which opened in 1899. Howden Villa and Northesk Villa opening in 1901 and 1904 to house non-paying patients. Angus House, an annex for dementia patients, was built 40 years later. Around this time, in 1940, patient numbers reached the maximum recorded, 1052. But pressure on the hospital’s resources had levelled off, in terms of inpatient need, throughout the 1950s and 1960s because of new drugs and improved treatments. In 1962 the institution was renamed Sunnyside Royal Hospital and came under the jurisdiction of new management. Sunnyside Royal Hospital celebrated its bicentenary in 1981, at which time the number of patients was nearly 400.
Following the transfer of services to the new £20 million Susan Carnegie Centre at Stracathro in 2011, Sunnyside site was declared surplus and was empty and in limbo for four years until it was put on the market by NHS Tayside. A victim of changing times and perceptions, the hospital buildings soon fell into disrepair and dereliction, like that other major mental facility, Strathmartine Hospital, just north of Dundee. Collections from the on-site museum and archive were split between Montrose Museum and Dundee University. Exhibits included nursing uniforms, lantern slides, straigh jackets, and – most poignantly – crafts completed by long gone patients, including some Victorian paintings. In common with other abandoned buildings the complex became the target of criminals and much copper and other material was robbed from the upper floors. The place also attracted other unauthorised visitors, including various official and amateur investigators who heard that the hospital was haunted. Whether this rumour of haunting was inspired by its history or dereliction, at least one ex patient advised the place was haunted by the sound of female footsteps. One Arbroath based paranormal team, Afterdark, were refused permission to enter when they asked, on the basis that the buildings were too rundown to ensure physical safety. The site was eventually sold in 2016 to an Edinburgh-Montrose business partnership and plans were drawn up to rejuvenate the site as a ‘development of distinction’, a process which is still in the pipeline.
Sunnyside’s most famous inmate was the father of author Arthur Conan Doyle. Born and raised in England, though from an Irish family, Charles Altamont Doyle (1832-1893), was an artist who moved to Edinburgh in 1849. Struggling with depression and alcoholism he was dismissed from his employment at the Office of Works, with a pension, in June 1876. The extent to which drink got a grip of him is described in a letter by his wife Mary: ‘He would strip himself of all his underclothes, take the very bed linen, climb down the water spout at risk of his life, break open the children’s money boxes. He even drank furniture varnish.’ Five years later he was sent to the nursing home of Blairerno House at Drumlithie in the Mearns, and shortly afterwards he developed epilepsy. Following a violent attempt to escape he was sent to Sunnyside on 26 May 1885, where he remained for some years. At that time, Doyle was one of 500 patients at Sunnyside.
His mental state on arrival was perilous, with Doyle telling staff that he was receiving messages from the unseen world. He then accused staff of being devils and refused to speak to them. But by the summer he was more calm, though he later had recurring delusions that he was going to die. Doyle, the doctors noted, was always drawing and sketching while at Sunnyside, though his talents almost entirely drained away towards the latter part of his incarceration there. A record art, completed between March and July 1889, while he was a patient at Montrose Royal Asylum, was eventually published in 1978 as The Doyle Diary. Doyle’s work combines fantastical images of animals and imaginary creatures. ‘The Spirits of the Prisoners,’ a picture now in Australia, shows those creatures swooping and circling around the asylum. The image, whether intended as symbolic or real, brings to mind Arthur Conan Doyle’s later fascination with the spirit world, and perhaps unfairly those infamous Cottingley Fairies he believed in (which were actually a photographic hoax by two schoolgirls).
Some of Charles Doyle’s work also reflects more placid times at Sunnyside. Doyle was described by his famous son in his autobiography:
full of the tragedy of unfulfilled powers and of underdeveloped gifts. He had his weaknesses, as all of us have ours, but he had also some very remarkable and outstanding virtues. A tall man, long-bearded, and elegant, he had a charm of manner and a courtesy of bearing which I have seldom seen equalled. His wit was quick and playful. He possessed, also, a remarkable delicacy of mind which would give him moral courage enough to rise and leave any company which talked in a manner which was coarse… He was unworldly and unpractical and his family suffered for it.
In January 1891 he was transferred to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and died in the Crichton Royal Institution in Dumfries in 1893. Doyle junior organised an exhibition of his father’s work in 1924.