The Quarantine Station on the Holy Loch
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, there were two schools of thought concerning the spread of the most feared diseases. The first belief was that disease was spread by polluted air (miasma) and the second was that disease generated in man himself and was spread by “contagion”, or contact with infected people. The contagionists presented the most logical argument and the system of isolating people or goods exposed to disease was enforced. This was not a new belief – as far back as Biblical times, lepers were segregated for a period of 40 days, and the Latin quaranti giorni (40 days) brought the name Quarantine into use. During the 14th century, when the Black Death or plague wiped out 30% of Europe’s population, quarantine was enforced, and it was recognised that ships should be included to ensure disease would not be brought from other places. These maritime quarantine stations became known as lazarettos. The name may be derived from the biblical parable of Lazarus. A lazaretto could be an island, a sanatorium, or a boat, and a secure locker “quarantined” from a ship’s crew became known as a lazarette. The system was used throughout Europe, particularly in Dubrovnic, Venice and Malta, and, although most Scottish towns and cities had stringent isolation measures to deal with outbreaks of plague, the first official maritime stations were not introduced until 1743.
In 1804 a notice appeared in the London Gazette confirming that “The King’s Most Excellent Majesty in Council” had ordered the Holy Loch to be the place where vessels bound for Scotland’s west coast ports should, if required, perform quarantine. From 1743 to 1772, Tail of the Bank at Greenock was the designated station, followed by Lamlash, Arran from 1772 until 1804. Stations at Loch Ryan (1743 – 1772) and Carsethorne near Dumfries (1741 – 1806) were the only other west coast stations.
The Customs Commissioners of Scotland sent proposals to the Treasury for a land lazaretto at Holy Loch, and the plans for a building costing £9,110 (over £500,000 in today’s money) were approved. This was to be only the second Scottish land lazaretto, the other based at Inverkeithing on the east coast. Sadly, many official documents relating to the station were destroyed in a fire and details are scanty, so a picture of the Holy Loch station must be drawn from other contemporary sources.
The buildings at the Holy Loch are shown in an old etching of Kilmun, looking from the hill behind the church and across the water. It appears in the picture that the walls may have been painted white.
The New Statistical Account written C1845 states:
“The buildings consist of an extensive and complete range of stores, suited to receive infected goods of every description. The buildings are surrounded by a high wall; and close to them is erected a range of houses for the use of the superintendent of the quarantine, and the men employed in his service”
Many other contemporary guides quote this passage, and others – even recent publications - refer to the Lazaretto using, like “Martin’s Guide to Dunoon” the words
“The Lazaretto, where ships from foreign parts used to ride quarantine”
Perhaps the most interesting description appears in Hunt’s Yachting Magazine issued shortly after the Lazaretto was closed.
“We are pleased to see that the Lazaretto, which was more fitted for a Turkish landscape than a Scottish, is entirely removed, having become wholly unnecessary, if indeed it was ever useful”
The description was expanded further in the 1854 Imperial Gazetteer
“More suitable for Turkey than on the Clyde – for a barbarous people than for a civilised nation”.
Was this implying something of the style of the buildings, or was it merely suggesting that the process of quarantine restriction and consequent function of the buildings was more suited to other, more exotic places?
The staff at the complex was led by a Superintendent of Quarantine, who was paid in 1805 an annual salary of £130 plus 15/0 for each ship in quarantine. His assistant was paid in the same way, but at a lesser rate. There are three known Superintendents – John Dood, probably the first in post, Andrew Pitcairn (serving from 1815 – 1833) and Captain Allen Chatfield (who served from 1833 until at least 1841) who all lived beside the complex with their families. In 1841 there were 5 other quarantine workers but as the station was not then at its busiest, there may have been more workers in previous years.
Throughout its life, many ships visited the station, many from the West Indies with cargoes of sugar and tobacco for Greenock and Glasgow.
The administration of the Quarantine Service became increasingly expensive, although the customs duties levied largely covered the cost. Combined with a continuous lobby from the merchants to relax the laws and the growing international distaste for quarantine, pressure was brought on the Government to act. Advances in medicine which would affect thinking about quarantine were still to be made, but the years of the quarantine stations established in the 18th and 19th centuries were drawing to a close.
Although notice of closure appeared in several newspapers, and the official date of closure was given as 1845, the major cholera epidemic of 1848 – 1849 and further outbreaks of the disease appears to have seen further uses of the Holy Loch for quarantine purposes in later years.
All that now remains at the site of the Holy Loch Quarantine Station is part of the external wall. There have been alterations to the wall when new villas were built in the 1850s and 1860s, but some features can be seen. The entrance facing the shore is the most prominent feature, looking to the North West. Although altered, the important pillars of dressed stone can be seen now serving as an entrance to Fir Park, and at each side of them is a small personnel gate. A large metal hook lies behind the right hand pillar, its metal plate firmly embedded in concrete.