The Abandoned Seminary in the Woods
St. Peter’s Seminary is an architectural gem.
The “Keep Out” sign meant what it said.
Standing in a remote Scottish forest, it is unusual to come across gates covered in barbed wire with accompanying signs telling visitors not to enter.
But in a forest near the town of Cardross, that is what bars the entrance to what was once a seminary named St. Peter’s.
The ruins of this former seminary have lain largely abandoned since 1980, when the last seminarians left. The construction of St. Peter’s had only been completed in the 1960s. It began at a time when the Church was experiencing a vocations’ boom throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. The Church in Scotland, as elsewhere, fully expected this trend to continue. In addition, the Catholic population of Scotland, particularly in nearby Glasgow, was growing significantly. Expanding congregations needing more Catholic churches served by a ready supply of priests from seminaries such as St. Peter’s was the anticipated future.
The demand for a new seminary on this spot came about as a result of natural disaster. In 1946 a fire destroyed an earlier St. Peter’s Seminary based at nearby Bearsden. In 1958 then-Archbishop of Glasgow Donald Campbell commissioned the building of a new seminary at what was Kilmahew House, a Scots baronial mansion built in the 1860s just a few miles north of Cardross in Dumbartonshire north of Glasgow. Building work began on the new seminary in 1962. From the start, Kilmahew House was perceived as being an integral part of what would become the new seminary.
As the future appeared bright, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the architecture chosen for the new seminary’s design was also futuristic. The building contract was awarded to Gillespie, Kidd & Coia and designed by Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan. Influenced by the architecture of the then foremost European architect, Le Corbusier, the pair would go on to win the RIBA Architecture award in 1967 for their work. The design of St. Peter’s Seminary was modernist and brutalist. It was a major departure from anything seen previously in Scottish church architecture. In fact, at the time, it was architecturally unlike any public building in Scotland.
Architecture critic Jonathan Glancey has written this of St. Peter’s: “The architecture of Le Corbusier translated well into Scotland in the 1960s. Although the climate of the south of France and west of Scotland could hardly be more different, Corbu’s roughcast concrete style, could, in the right hands, be seen as a natural successor or complement to traditional Scottish tower houses with their rugged forms and tough materials.” This unusual quality gave the former seminary a retrospective aura alongside its futuristic vision, so much so, that, in October 2005, the former seminary was named Scotland’s greatest post-Second World War building by the architecture magazine Prospect.
However, the initial critical acclaim for the seminary was in direct proportion to the building’s demise as a working building. St. Peter’s Seminary may have won plaudits from the cognoscenti of the architectural world, but those required to live in the building had an altogether different perception. The building was difficult to heat, a necessity in Scotland; it was also prone to leaks, which proved expensive to fix. In 1967 alone, there were 63 leaks reported. In addition, the huge concrete structure was poorly sound-insulated.
By 1980 St. Peter’s Seminary had tried the patience of those who had to run it. And with that, the building was closed.
When the seminary opened in 1966, it had a capacity of up to 100 seminarians. It never experienced anywhere near that number of students, however. In fact, its opening in the years following the Second Vatican Council coincided with a crisis in seminaries across the world, as they witnessed their former high and regular intake of clerical students drop significantly. Scotland was no different.
Forty years later, St. Peter’s still stands idle, its brutalist structure a weird find in a Scottish forest. Today the former seminary is a shattered and dilapidated shell, its interior a sad reflection on a building constructed with an optimism that proved, on so many levels, a disappointment.
Finally, in the summer of 2020, the Archdiocese of Glasgow managed to transfer ownership of the building to a charitable trust. The new owners of the site, Kilmahew Education Trust, plan to “develop a viable vision, with education at its core.”
Days after the announcement of the transfer of ownership, I took a salutary walk through the remains of St. Peter’s Seminary. The forest has encroached. The wind and the rain continue to show the transient nature of man’s designs. The graffiti and petty vandalism in evidence throughout the ruins reveal what some passersby have thought of what was once considered an architectural modernist classic without peer in Scotland.
At the center of the building is the chapel. The design of the nave and sanctuary are still there to see, but the high altar is now but a piece of concrete, without roof above, open to the four winds.
Beneath what was once the high altar one finds the strangest and perhaps saddest sight of all: The chapel was built on the cusp of liturgical changes. It was a time when the architects still envisaged priests saying private Masses each morning at various altars in the crypt below. As one descends a stone staircase littered with broken glass, there are yet visible many such altars, all in rows, altars that have long since fallen into disrepair. Today these altars are marked and defaced by obscene and macabre graffiti. The overall scene is a pitiful one; it is more Tarkovsky than St. Thomas Aquinas.
Visiting St. Peter’s Seminary is not so much a trip to a place of architectural significance, although the building, even in its dilapidated state, is still perceived as such, nor does it simply recapitulate a chapter of modern Church history, although undoubtedly it does that, too.
A visit to St. Peter’s Seminary is more than anything an eschatological experience. Long after we are gone, the elements will obliterate much that we tried to accomplish, and this place reminds us all that here we have no abiding city.