On our registers: University of Glasgow and the Western Infirmary

At Registers of Scotland (RoS) we have centuries of history on our registers, from the 400-year-old General Register of Sasines to the modern, digital map-based Land Register of Scotland. This is the first in a series of articles that examines in depth some of the more interesting or unusual titles on our registers.

For this first article we’re in Glasgow, looking at the former Western Infirmary site. Its current demolition and planned redevelopment by the University of Glasgow (UoG) has been in the news recently, but behind the 21st century transaction is an astute piece of 19th century conveyancing.

The Western Infirmary was built in 1874, and its construction was intrinsically linked to the expansion of the University of Glasgow. It was developed on land owned by the University at the time, as it looked to expand beyond its traditional West End base, and was purpose-built as a teaching hospital for the University. Its construction was funded through public subscription, initially advertised in 1865, with the aim of raising £120,000, of which a fifth would go towards building the hospital and the rest would be used to construct the new university buildings. Thanks to the generosity of the general public, they actually raised £150,000 (or the equivalent of over £17 million today), meaning the hospital received £30,000.

Though it was affiliated with UoG, ownership of the Infirmary was passed to its trustees, and in doing this the University ensured they maintained a strong legal position with regard to the property.

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Nurses of the Western Infirmary of Glasgow awaiting the arrival of Their Majesties King George V and Queen Mary – 7th July 1914 // Image courtesy of the University of Glasgow

Reading the fine print: title conditions

When the deed transferring the land, called a disposition in Scotland, was recorded the General Register of Sasines for the Barony and Regality of Glasgow on 10 May 1878, it contained a number of clauses conferring rights and imposing burdens on the property – one clause, for example, gave the Trustees of the Infirmary permission to build a children’s hospital on the site. The UoG representatives also inserted a few canny and interesting clauses into this particular disposition.

Throughout its roughly 140-year lifespan, the Infirmary was consistently used by UoG medical students gaining valuable experience for their studies. But this wasn’t done thanks to the goodwill of the Infirmary; in fact, the seventh clause of the Disposition stated that “reasonable provision shall be made in the Western Infirmary for clinical instruction” by University professors, and that any staff at the Infirmary needed to be equally accommodating to student learning. This clause demonstrates how important this teaching facility was to the University and protected the pivotal role that Scotland’s universities played in making the country a centre for medical learning in the late 19th century.

The Disposition gave UoG oversight on the Infirmary’s patients as well as its staff and operations. Indeed, clause eight was very much a product of Glasgow’s urban Victorian environment of the time. It required that

“neither in the said Infirmary nor in the foresaid Sick Children’s Hospital, if erected, shall cases of infectious diseases be admitted… and no building shall be erected on any part of the area of ground hereby conveyed for the admission of infectious diseases without the express consent of the Senate of the University”.

To our 21st century eyes this may seem quite strict, but in a time when outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis and cholera were common, the sense in having this right, which benefits the UoG, included as a burden upon the owners of the hospital site comes through. Another potential motive can be found by examining the Ordnance Survey maps of the time, which is another form of property information that RoS keep on file. As seen in the image below, the Infirmary site was not only located in the immediate vicinity of the University, but directly adjacent to ‘Professor’s Square’, where many of the Professors named in the Disposition lived! Though this may have been a self-preserving reason to keep infectious patients away at the time, it’s certainly no longer UoG policy; the University’s medical department is a world leader in advancing medical knowledge.

Glasgow Western Infirmary blog image

For the recent transaction that forms the basis of this article, however, the most important clause was the ninth. It stated that, in the event:

of the said Western Infirmary ceasing at any time to be used as a general hospital, available for clinical instruction as aforesaid, the Senate of the said University shall be entitled to re-acquire the said Infirmary buildings and the lands hereby disponed, in so far as the same may then belong to the said Managers, at their value for Infirmary purposes, as such value shall be fixed by an Arbiter to be named as hereinafter mentioned

This particular detail is known as right of redemption, which, when created in a disposition, gives the seller the right to re-acquire the land should a certain event take place or on some future specified date. There was usually a fixed price included or, as in this case, the provision for the price to be determined by an arbiter. It’s interesting to note that the valuation of the land has to be “for infirmary purposes” as this is obviously going to be significantly less than, say, residential or commercial development.

It was thanks to this that UoG were not only able to re-acquire the Infirmary site when the hospital closed down, but to do so for a fraction of what the site might have cost on the open market. As Dr Jill Robbie, Lecturer in Private Law in the School of Law at UoG, told us, “clauses such as this show how the public interest in land can be served through the imposition of title conditions which can remain enforceable for centuries after their creation.”

The purchase is certainly a reasonable outlay when you consider the £1 billion expansion scheme UoG has planned. This major extension to the Gilmorehill campus will see the 14-acre site transformed into one of the largest education developments in Scotland. The new facilities will support research and teaching for a range of studies, including business, chemistry and, most fittingly, health. There will also be new public routes and a central square, along with the potential for related commercial opportunities.

Thanks to the continued certainty delivered by the land register, the UoG’s ownership of this new development will be just as legally protected as the Trustee’s title to the land included in the original 1878 Disposition, but with the added benefit that the exact boundaries and all details are clearly mapped out– more on this later.

Notable signatories

There were some recognisable names in the 1878 Disposition, which included important figures at the University and in Glasgow society at the time. For instance, one of the most recognisable to posterity is Sir William Thomson, a professor at the University. He may be better recognised by his hereditary title, 1st Baron Kelvin – the Kelvin scale of measuring absolute temperature is named in his honour.

Another notable party to the deed was one of Kelvin’s former engineering students, Dr James Burn Russell who left engineering to study medicine at the University. In 1878 he was one of the first Trustees of the Hospital, and during his medical career he became a leading expert in infectious diseases, playing an instrumental role in the development of improved hygiene and sanitation in Glasgow. We can only wonder what he would have thought about the inclusion of the clause on infectious diseases discussed above!

All the professors of the University were parties to the deed, from academic areas including Mathematics, Materia Medica (study of the therapeutic properties of any substance used for healing – a forerunner of pharmacology), Forensic Medicine and Biblical Criticism. The Managers and Trustees who represented the Western Infirmary were drawn from the great and good of Glasgow and the time, and were indicative of Glasgow’s place in Britain during the Industrial Revolution. They included shipbuilders, an oil refiner, church officials (including the Moderator of the Church of Scotland), merchants and, as you would expect, some renowned physicians.

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Images courtesy of the University of Glasgow

Why this disposition matters

The ability to record deeds relating to land in a public register has been a vital part of the Scottish legal system that has underpinned the strength of our economy for the last 400 years. No two deeds are the same, and this title demonstrates the importance of smart and effective conveyancing.

With the clauses outlined above, the University ensured that the new Western Infirmary would remain closely linked to the University in the future, despite the fact that it had been sold to another party. Whether it was ensuring the use of the Infirmary for teaching, keeping the infectious Victorian population at arm’s length, or giving them the right to re-acquire the site almost a century and a half later, the drafting of this Disposition meant that it was an exceedingly effective one. It echoes an early 1990s advertising campaign for the Law Society of Scotland, which reminded people “It’s never too early to call your solicitor”. Although they may not have had this particular transaction in mind at the time, it’s definitely an example in which well thought out conveyancing has paid dividends for the client in the long run!

Comparing the sasine register and the land register

This deed was recorded in 1878 in the General Register of Sasines. We just celebrated the 400th anniversary of the sasine register, which makes it the oldest continuously operated national land register in the world.

Land registration has moved on a great deal since 1617. The sasine register is a register of written deeds, which relies heavily on the interpretation by legally trained experts. Today, we’re moving away from the sasine register and towards the Land Register of Scotland. The land register uses Ordnance Survey data to create a map-based record of land ownership in Scotland. This visual representation helps remove the potential ambiguity that can be found in historic, written sasine records. At the same time, the land register is historically linked to the sasine register, meaning that the deeds and burdens found in the latter remain a matter of public record in the former, but much easier to access and search.

Though the Infirmary’s original 1878 Disposition was recorded on the sasine register, the UoG’s title to it was registered in the land register in 2011. This certainty in the extent of property ownership will continue for years to come, as the new developments are also registered in the land register.

Find out more

The completion of the digital land register is one of our most important tasks here at RoS – we’ve been asked by Scottish ministers to do this by 2024. To find out more about RoS, the work we do and the registration of land, visit www.ros.gov.uk

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