Unimaginable empires

Nicola White

Nicola White




Before we enter the site, our hosts warn us about the restricted areas, the asbestos, the sudden voids. They hand out plastic hard hats and high-vis waistcoats. In our matching outfits we proceed up a rhododendron-shaded drive to address the problem: the remains of St Peter’s Seminary.

In the woods behind a spiked security fence, the behemoth lurks: four stepped concrete floors ornamented only by the pebbles pressed into their surface and the rhythm of shallow vaulting on the underside of the big slabs. At one end, a line of rounded towers look like silos, but are light wells, siphoning daylight onto the ruined side altars below. The structure – what remains of it – combines modernism and ruination in a way that seems somehow more calamitous than the soft attrition of tumbledown castles or roofless cottages.

The Archdiocese of Glasgow, requiring a new home for St Peter’s Seminary in the early 1960s, commissioned a new complex of buildings from the Glasgow firm Gillespie, Kidd & Coia in a spirit of religious and architectural idealism. At that time, the seminary occupied the Victorian mansion and demesne of Kilmahew outside Cardross, about forty minutes’ drive west of Glasgow. The new buildings formed a quadrangle around the old mansion, their concrete masses butting up close to the fussily ornamented red sandstone. The main block was intended to house one hundred trainee priests in monastic style, the vast refectory and chapel spaces surmounted by tiers of modest bedrooms. The building work was completed in 1966, and the seminary had a brief heyday, as captured in Murray Grigor’s short documentary film Space and Light. In one sequence the boys in black disport themselves chastely in the cleared refectory, playing badminton. Grigor’s camera captures the white feathered shuttlecock arcing through the lofty, pristine space.

But even as the concrete was setting, the world was changing. Vatican II advocated for Catholic priests to be trained in the community – and with each passing year, there were fewer aspiring priests to train. It was just fourteen years before St Peter’s closed its doors. The building had a brief afterlife as a drug rehabilitation centre, but was abandoned by the end of the eighties. Despite – or perhaps in part because of – its dilapidation, the building’s reputation as a magnificent example of modernism has only increased over the years. Since 1992, it has been listed in Category A, the most exalted status available to a building in Scotland, restricted to structures ‘of national or international importance, either architectural or historic; or fine, little-altered examples of some particular period, style or building type’. While that designation protects the building against intentional alteration, it can do nothing to stop the alterations wrought by nature and vandalism.

In single file, we step through a gap in the fencing and crunch up a narrow staircase to reach the interior. The curtain walls of glass are long gone, and a tangle of trees presses around the buildings, even springing from the footprint of the Victorian mansion, which burned to the ground in 1995. Inside the main building, graffiti and charred wood create a kind of visual static, making it hard to re-imagine the interiors as they once were, with elegant wood panelling and serene white plaster. At the far end of the main space, in front of a curved wall, a big granite altar lies in shattered chunks.

The architects Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein were in their twenties when they designed St Peter’s, along with a radical series of new churches for the Archdiocese of Glasgow. MacMillan was from a Scottish Presbyterian background; Metzstein, the son of Polish Jews, had arrived in Glasgow via Kindertransport from Berlin. They admired Le Corbusier and forged a marriage of European modernism with the medieval massing of Scottish keeps and castles. Their designs were often masterly in conception, but impractical. At Cardross, water still fills the reflecting ponds on the terrace that were designed to bounce light back into the interior. These, like the flat roof, were ill suited to the climate of Scotland’s west coast. Even when the seminary was new and in use, it leaked copiously. Buckets cluttered the walkways, catching drips. Splits appeared in the wooden beams; the window frames warped. The mismatch between form and function at St Peter’s is perhaps captured best in a story that is told about the lighting in the seminarians’ living quarters. It seems the bedrooms were lit by expensive Danish bulbs, difficult to source; and so the young men often took their bulbs with them to meals or mass, to ensure their classmates wouldn’t steal them.

Many people have tried to save what remains of St Peter’s over the years, without success. Now the arts organization NVA has taken it on; our visit is at their invitation, part of an initiative to generate ideas around, and interest in, another new life for it. After a tour of the main building and the extensive, overgrown grounds, half a dozen of us sprawl on the stepped floor of the chapel, talking about time, about faith, about whether a building can die. Someone mentions Ozymandias. I think of a painting I studied during my history of art degree – Goethe reclining on ruins near Rome.

A man with camera and tripod appears by the altar. He sets up and starts to take photographs of one of the more luridly elaborate pieces of graffiti, a goat-headed devil enthroned in pomp and pentacles.

‘Mate,’ says one of my companions, ‘that’s a no-go area.’ He points to a charred beam above, holding on by a splinter.

‘I’m not with youse,’ says the photographer, looking at our hard hats with scorn. He carries on.

‘My father used to be a seminarian,’ I say, to break the atmosphere.

‘Here?’ asks an artist I’ve known for years.

‘No, back in Ireland, long time ago.’




On my next visit back to Dublin, I take out the cardboard box with the silver-coloured lid that has always been the repository of our family photos. I have a vague memory of coming across evidence, here, of my father’s time studying to be a priest, and I find it again at the bottom of the box.

A large photograph shows formal rows of young seminarians; my father is at the end of the middle row. He looks very earnest and very young, shorter than the boys around him; he wasn’t long out of school. In the background are the grounds of St Patrick’s Missionary Society, Kiltegan, Co. Wicklow. I count the pale faces above the black clothes and find that there are a hundred of them – exactly the number that St Peter’s was built to house. The photo was taken around 1946 or ’47 – I’m not exactly sure, and it is too late to ask him. What I know is that some missionary priests visited his school and showed the boys picture slides of their work in Africa. He was the eldest child in his family and an intelligent boy to boot. He wanted to get away from his small Laois town, as did all his siblings after him.

I’m not sure when I learned that my father once intended to be a priest – it wasn’t talked about much. There was an air of embarrassment around the subject, perhaps because we as his children represented the abandonment of that former life, or just because of the human tendency to brush over false starts and wrong turnings, to streamline the story of how we got to the place we find ourselves in.

I remember one thing. When the film of The Exorcist came out, I was too young to go and see it, so I read William Peter Blatty’s book instead, because novels weren’t censored in our house. Seeing it in my hand, my father commented, ‘I’m an exorcist myself.’ He said it was one of the levels of training to be a priest, and that even though he hadn’t been ordained, he was still qualified to expel demons.

‘They can’t take that away from me,’ he said. He made it seem a fine joke.

Among the photographs, there is an extraordinary one of a line of seminarians, elegant as blackbirds in their soutanes, edging out onto a frozen lake. My father is first in the chain – an unlikely thing in itself – and has a finned black biretta perched on his head. Each of the young men behind him in the chain has a hand on on the shoulder of the seminarian in front, until the middle of the line, where someone is messing, slipping about, pointing at the camera instead. A few older priests wait on the grassy edge. Everyone is smiling or laughing, but my father’s smile is hesitant, and he looks like the young Dirk Bogarde in an unaccustomed role. The photograph reminds me of Mario Giacomelli’s classic images of priests playing in snow, and yet it has something of Father Ted about it too.





One of my good friends from university decided to become a monk. I think the appeal of the monastic life was, for him, largely about aesthetics and order: a minimal cell, a venerable library, a garden, plainchant sung in the stone church at set hours. Once I went to visit him at Glenstal Abbey, in Co. Limerick. There were two other female visitors, and we took breakfast together in a small room, not in the refectory with the monks and male visitors. I asked my friend later whether this rule derived from medieval times, like so much of their daily round.

‘No,’ he said, ‘but there was a Japanese nun staying and she came to breakfast in fluffy pink slippers, so, after that …’ He shuddered.

The small convent which is part of the St Peter’s complex is also a ruin. It served as a residential block for a team of nuns who served God by fulfilling the domestic needs of the teachers and seminarians. Some things are beneath a man’s dignity. Remember that line of light-drenched side altars? Well, on the floor directly below was a corresponding line of washing machines where the nuns hauled heavy wet linen, while above them priests in white vestments turned wine into blood.

When my father decided to leave the seminary, he was terrified about telling his mother, but his younger brother – who told me this story – stepped in to alleviate the crisis. He instructed their mother to dry her eyes, for he would be entering holy orders himself. One out, one in. ‘I’ll believe it when I see you ordained,’ she said. And although she did not live to see it, he was ordained in Rome a few years later, and spent his career in the Vatican diplomatic service, living in Colombia, Rwanda, Switzerland, Taiwan and Ethiopia, among other postings, rising to the rank of archbishop.

One summer in the late sixties, my family travelled down from New York, where we were living, to Guatemala City where Uncle Tom (then Monsignor White) was on the staff of the Archbishop of Guatemala. The archbishop’s palace was indeed palatial, in the centre of a walled garden, with a chauffeur and a white-jacketed waiter to pour milk onto our cornflakes, and a flock of small nuns who begged, plainly begged, for our laundry to wash, and who seemed delighted to serve us. They called me Nicolasita and made an enormous fuss.

Archbishop Casariego was small and plump, but obviously held in awe by everyone around him, myself included. One day when I was bored, sliding up and down on the cool tiles of a corridor in my freshly washed socks, he called me into his study, indicating he wanted to show me something. Being alone with him made me nervous, but no, this is not that kind of story. He took a large gold cross, about a foot and a half high, from a cupboard, and pointed to the place where the vertical and the horizontal met. He encouraged me to look closely. There was a little glass-fronted nook there, filled with cotton wool, and resting in the wool was a splinter, just like one my mother would have taken from my finger with a needle.

The archbishop pointed again and whispered, ‘Cross. It is Jesus Cross.’

During that trip, we drove out into the countryside to see the ruins of the Mayan civilization. We travelled along dirt roads, past tin huts where naked children stood watching. I thought they looked remarkably like the children in the missionary pamphlets we got at school. I was seven. I didn’t think about right or wrong. The world was not something I could affect.

We walked to jungle clearings to see massive stepped temples built to honour the sun and the moon, vast ballcourts with tiny stone hoops, great carved friezes with fantastical birdmen and snake people, frightening sinkholes where human sacrifices were flung to their death. An almost unimaginable empire, now disappeared, leaving only stone.





One of the many books in my father’s study was Pleasure of Ruins by Rose Macaulay. The title was strange enough to make me take it down from time to time and look at the cover – two turbaned men sitting cross-legged and smoking on a tumble of elaborately carved temple fragments. I don’t think I even opened it, but the fact of its existence made me look at broken buildings in a different way. In a secondhand bookshop in Inverness this week, I finally found that same edition of Pleasure of Ruins. We sold off my father’s book collection after his death, but sometimes it feels like I am buying it back, volume by volume.

Macaulay lists some of the strands of enjoyment that ruins afford us: ‘admiration for the ruin as it was in its prime … association, historical or literary … morbid pleasure in decay … righteous pleasure in retribution … mystical pleasure in the destruction of all things mortal … egotistical satisfaction in surviving … masochistic joy in a common destruction … and a dozen other entwined threads of melancholy and emotion.’

Another photo from the box: my father, seven years married, stands with his weight shifted onto one leg, balancing the heft of the books held in his arm. His hair is windblown and he wears a dark polo shirt open at the neck and a worn-in tweed jacket. Flanking him, no more than waist-high, are my brother and myself, attendant angels in the roofless church we’re standing in. Behind us are the bones of a large gothic window, perhaps Corcomroe in the Burren. I am brightly lit, my dress burning white under some stray ray of sun, looking up, dumbstruck. This is the life that he made after leaving the seminary, captured in the camera of the woman he married.

Outside of casual blasphemy, I don’t remember him ever speaking about God. Yet he was deeply attached to the artefacts of Christianity – its architecture, sacred music, the old Latin rites. When other families took holidays on the beach, we toured Ireland’s ruins. A ruin is open in the way a working building is not; it is anyone’s for the taking.





The new owners have published a plan for St Peter’s. They propose to restore a portion of the main building and halt the decay elsewhere. The structure will be made safe and the sanctuary and its glass ziggurat roof restored. The result will be, in their words, ‘a consolidated ruin’. Theatrical performances, conferences and art installations will be staged there. NVA say their plans ‘represent an unheralded form of regeneration; one that accepts loss and ruination as part of the site history’.

Sitting by the shattered altar of St Peter’s that day, I experienced a distinct ambivalence about ‘regenerating’ it. The failure of the seminary, like the failure of my father’s vocation, fills me with Macaulay’s ‘egotistical satisfaction of surviving’. Though I was baptized and confirmed into it, there was never a time I felt the Catholic Church was on my side, so to speak. I learned this early from nuns who slapped or shamed me, and in a wider sense from laws designed to reflect the Church’s desires.

In a television interview filmed shortly before his death in 2014, Andy MacMillan seems exhausted by the very thought of St Peter’s. ‘You see a malevolence in the destruction of the building,’ he says. ‘It might have been kinder to knock it down, I don’t know.’

The complete abandonment of St Peter’s by the archdiocese meant that devastation was inevitable: the forces of nature were ably assisted by arson, theft, and the brainless joy of smashing stuff. St Peter’s is still predominantly the territory of young men – but now they are urban adventurers, open-air drinkers, graffiti artists, weekend warriors, treasure seekers and pyromaniacs. But some magical things have happened in the wreckage. People still talk of a rave night when volunteers covered the open voids with boards and swept the debris away, strung up fairy lights along the beams and drove in a sound system and mobile bar, turning the space into a one-night starlit dancehall. The central concrete beam bears the graffito ‘pleasure scene’ in high white letters.

Ruination is in the eye of the beholder. Or, to quote Ovid, ‘Nothing perishes in this world, but things merely vary and change their form.’ Those who have made use of the wildness of Kilmahew for its privacy and freedom may resist giving up what for two decades has been a kind of common space, unpatrolled, unsurveilled.

The anarchic afterlife of St Peter’s can be glimpsed in various YouTube videos, exploring the ruins or using them as a backdrop. The most remarkable is a video of two boys doing parkour. The film is edited with care; the director brought smoke flares for added drama; there are the bones of a sci-fi narrative. But it is just the boys, running lightfoot along the tenuous beams, jumping from level to level, turning somersaults in the air above the bell tower, that take your breath. The choreography of these boys – the same age as the seminarians would have been – articulates the spaces of the building just as powerfully as Murray Grigor’s 1972 film. In one slow-motion sequence, a boy stands on the roof, then slips like silk down one of the silo light wells to land on the altar beneath. He crouches there a moment, as weightless as a spectre, lit like a new god; then is gone.


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