What Was Craiglockhart?

The Story Behind Britain’s “Dottyville”

Shell shock — A term originally coined by Charles Myers in 1915 to describe intense, psychological casualties endured during the First World War.

Symptoms of the condition included involuntary shivering, episodes of intense fear. Patients would cry as they re-experienced horrific battlefield scenes.

Although the term isn’t used in psychiatric practice today, the identification and treatment of intense, psychological trauma are recognised and acknowledged.


Following the battle of Somme in 1916, a British hospital was set up to deal with soldiers suffering from shell shock — The infamous Craiglockhart.

As casualties racked up, carried in from the muddy trenches, the hospital’s population grew steadily.

Poetic, Medical Licence

Craiglockhart would have remained relatively unknown had it not been for two of the finest war poets in history.

Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon both received treatment at the hospital between 1916 and 1919.

Sassoon even nicknamed the place ‘Dottyville’ in his letter written in 1917. Author Pat Barker also made reference to the hospital in her trilogy Regeneration. The place also made an appearance in a film version of the first novel.

Rank Was Everything

The actual role of Craiglockhart’s as a war hospital tends to be somewhat misinterpreted. Many writers give similar accounts of their stay at the place, usually involving a strong relationship with a doctor, or other medical professionals. This has led to a simplified view of the place, and a rather disturbing theory.

According to most accounts, most notably Siegried Sassoon, higher-ranking officials treated at the hospital would have their minds subtly reprogrammed. This would be done through friendly chats with doctors and professionals, usually over tea and scones. The idea was that patients suffering from shell shock would eventually help themselves through the ordeal. Doctors were only there to help patients help themselves.

Lower-ranking officials weren’t so lucky. Not only were they not admitted to the place, but their ‘treatments’ usually involved physical torture and humiliation. It’s important to keep in mind that, at this time, shell shock was still perceived as something that only affected the weak, or ‘soft in the head’.

The Hospital’s Contribution To Medical History

Developments in neuropsychiatry, the branch of medical science dedicated to mental disorders as a result of trauma to the nervous system, owe a lot to places like Craiglockhart. Cognitive concepts addressing repression and the unconscious mind gained greater acceptance in medical circles due to experimental treatments conducted at the hospital.

Conflicting Views

Craiglockhart closed its doors after only 28 months. The building itself still stands to this day, housing Edinburgh’s Napier University. During its short existence, the place was inspected twice by the War Office, the commanding officer being changed in the process.

This rotation of officials is evidence of the conflicting views held by the War Office and the workers of the hospital, particularly civilians. At the time, the War Office was sceptical of any diagnosis and therapeutic strategies suggested by the medical staff.

The military and societal belief at the time was that shell-shock sufferers were ‘lead-swingers’, cowards who would have benefitted more from punishment rather than having their mental needs met. Sasson even went as far as to write;

‘After the War Rivers [a commanding officer] told me that the local Director of Medical Services nourished a deep-rooted prejudice against [Craiglockhart], and actually asserted that he “never had and never would recognize the existence of such a thing as shell-shock”.’

Activities based on sporting and entertainment at the hospital were often dismissed as frivolous and considered a waste of money. Later on, treatment would involve giving patients a new lifestyle and routine, often setting them up as teachers at local schools or workers at local farms, depending on the case.

Brock, the second commanding officer at Craiglockhart, firmly believed that shell shock was not a wartime phenomenon, but rather a chronic, nervous condition which could only be cured by keeping the patient engaged in other activities where he (all patients were male) would be forced to forget the harrowing scenes.

The Hydra

One of Brock’s best communicative tools with his patients was a hospital magazine called the Hydra. The idea was that it would serve as reassurance for the patients, and help nurse them back to health. The magazine also served as a Medium (pun intended.) through which patients could share their experiences, as well as express their opinions.

Unknowingy, through his publication Brock might have sparked one of the world’s best poets into life.

During his stay, Wilfred Owen was editor of the monthly periodical and had his first poems published in it.

Owen began writing poetry when he was at Craiglockhart, although his budding friendship with Siegfried Sassoon at the time might have also been a factor. It was during this time that Owen wrote what is perhaps his most famous war poem — Dulce et decorum est.

A Story In Numbers

Between October 1916 and March 1919, a total of 1736 patients suffering from shell shock were treated at Craiglockhart.

Of these, 735 were discharged from military service and deemed medically unfit to fight.

89 were given home service duties, usually in administrative or clerical roles.

78 were discharged into light, military roles, training new recruits or assisting with military bases in Britain.

141 were transferred for further treatment.

758 returned to duty.

Despite what the numbers say, Sassoon hints that, in reality, discharge to duty was a much rarer occurrence. In a 1917 letter, and after the war, he writes:

‘… it is quite out of the question for a man who has been three months in a nerve-hospital to be sent back at once…’

‘I was then duly passed for general service abroad — an event which seldom happened from [Craiglockhart].’

Looking at the hospital’s records reveals a macabre twist. The default column in the admission and discharge registers was titled “Discharged to Duty”. This, coupled with Sassoon’s allegations implies that ‘discharged to duty’ may have just been a shortcut taken in filling in the registers. It raises the question whether the hospital was in fact as effective as the records suggest it was.

Owen and Sassoon’s writings at Craiglockhart are a view into the lives, experiences and traumas endured by its patients.

They give a unique perspective into the effects of war on the human psyche, as well as changing medical and psychiatric beliefs and practices. A lot of progress has been made since the early 20th century.

The medical profession and military’s responses to shell shock were not congruent, co-ordinated or in line at the time, however, they did serve to highlight the grim realities a battlefield can bring about.

While the success in healing the shell-shocked patients is hard to measure, Owen and Sassoon’s writings highlight the fallacies of heroism and glory that were indoctrinated into soldiers during the First World War. As an unnamed poet who wrote in The Hydra put it:

‘Craiglockhart memories will be sad, Your name will never make us glad; The self-respect we ever had We’ve lost — all people think us mad.

Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine, 2006. ‘Dottyville’ — Craiglockhart War Hospital and shell-shock treatment in the First World War. [online] 99(7), pp.342–346. Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1484566/> [Accessed 20 July 2020].

Daniel is a writer, senior teacher and geographer based in Malta. His main passion is empowering students to fulfill their aspirations and reach their goals.

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