In Conversation with Dr Gillean McDougall

Written by on January 9, 2023

As the College prepares for its new creative writing group, ‘the prescription,’ we caught Deputy Head of Heritage, RCPSG, Ross McGregor in conversation with the writer and editor Dr Gillean McDougall.

Ross: Hello Gilly, let’s talk about the upcoming medical humanities writing group we’re hosting in the College’s Library reading room – ‘the prescription.’ How did the idea for this come about?

Gilly: I’d given a talk about my project ‘Writing the Asylum,’ in June 2022 as part of the RCPSG’s Heritage programme (thirty writers and artists have produced new writing and images inspired by the archive of the former Gartnavel Royal Asylum in Glasgow). It’s been an exciting project to manage, and the new creative work has really brought that archive to life, giving voice to so many forgotten members of the Gartnavel community. In the process, I saw the potential of archive collections and how we might revisit them elsewhere, and I think the contributors found it a great starting point for their work. The RCPSG audience that evening responded very positively to my talk, and a few weeks later the College Heritage team invited me back to share some thoughts on setting up a creative writing group based at the College. So ‘the prescription’ came into being! It’s a thrilling opportunity to bring this extensive collection to wider public knowledge.

Ross: Health, medicine, illness and wellness seem to be such common themes across many different kinds of writing. I’ve recently been re-visiting Edgar Allan Poe stories and have been amazed by how much familiarity I’m finding in the body / mind and health / illness themes there. Of course this is common in genres other than gothic fiction! What are the themes of the workshops and how do these relate to your own practice as a writer (and reader)?

Gilly: Our four workshops are themed around Bones, Breath, Delinquents and Death. Across those titles we’ll cover a wide range of archive material. The skeleton is the frame on which the rest of the body is supported, on which we hang our lives. Its formation, breaking and mending has a fascinating history. Breath fuels us and gives us voice – it’s the air that we breathe, and it also carries the substances doctors have developed over the years to anaesthetise.

I know the College has a particular interest in the role of the Police Surgeon in Glasgow, so we’ll think about the delinquent, the accidental, the criminal, the carceral in Glasgow’s medical history. And death, the final event – there are many creative initiatives already looking at death and dying and how we can discuss and share experience more openly and bravely.

I’ve been interested in writing on medical humanities for a while, finding in books by the likes of Dr Gavin Francis and Dame Professor Sue Black a warmth and easy communication that goes beyond a purely professional interest. Similarly, established writers like Julian Barnes and Michel Faber approach the impact of ill health on our lives from a creative direction well-grounded in fact and research.

In my own writing, being part of a workshop group where extracts are looked at closely to see what’s working and what’s not, has been fundamental to my practice. This communal activity is something I want to recreate in ‘the prescription.’ It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn from each other as writers while sharing the lives and experiences we’ll be finding in the archive.

Ross: We’re very keen on collaborating with academics and writers, and really believe there is tremendous potential in the College’s medical collections – to inspire and illuminate a whole host of creative and imaginative responses to health, medicine, the human body and mind. What have you found so far when searching and using the collections?

Gilly: I’d attended events at the College where writers like Lindsay Fitzharris and Kaite Welsh launched their excellent books with medical themes. It’s a perfect backdrop, as medical history’s been made and documented in its august corridors and elegant rooms, including the lovely setting of the Old Library. Now, a couple of floors above, the modern Library reading room has every facility for study of archive material and will be the setting for our workshops.

I’m still getting to know the collection myself, and much can be viewed online ( but already I’m drawn to the massive, beautifully bound treatises on anatomy – the centuries-old volumes themselves are works of art meticulously detailing the elements of the human body. The collections also include writing by individual physicians demonstrating developing knowledge of specialist areas – and which give occasional unwitting testimony to their own lives. The collection is not limited to written sources. We’ll be looking at many medical items and photographs relating to our themes, and the chance to carefully touch and engage with these brings an extra dimension to the creative process.

Through ‘the prescription’ we’ll come to know how these items are conserved and maintained for the future. It’s a privilege for us to be moving among them and giving them new life and meaning.

Ross: In work we’ve done recently with a number of researchers and collaborators, we’ve been keen to emphasise and explore the ethics of working with medical collections. This includes dealing with sensitive material across library, archive and museum collections. This can include records that document patient experience of violence, or objects that can trigger trauma or stress. This is something we’ll discuss when introducing the collections used in the workshops. How do you think writers will respond to these issues in their work?

Gilly: The ethical implications of work like this are central to any creative project using health archives, and we should come to a position where our responses are instinctive and innate. Our group will have varied experience both of working with archives and writing creatively, so I hope we can mutually support each other, sounding out concerns and coming at the process sensitively and with compassion. Being hosted by the RCPSG, we should work to the same professional standards as any member of that group.

These explorations can be challenging for participants, too, and we’ll take care of ourselves as well as we go through the process. Every one of us will have different experience of health care, and writing inevitably visits some dark and deep places within us. Just sitting with an item or an extract of writing in a quiet relationship of understanding can be enough, knowing we can set it down and move away if required. Making peace with whatever it’s stirring in our creative mind.

Ross: As the name suggests, the College is very much rooted in the city of Glasgow and has been since its foundation in 1599 (even though it has long been in an international organisation with a community of members across around 90 countries worldwide). Place is such an important ingredient in writing of all kinds. Do you think the College’s archive and collections can tell us something particular or new about the city (with the help of writers of course!)?

Gilly: I’m looking forward to seeing how we can shine a light creatively on the medical history of Glasgow. It’s a place of strong contrasts, both societal and cultural and I’m sure that will be reflected in some of the items we look at – how the role of the Police Surgeon came to be established is particularly interesting and might inspire some crime writing!

Ross: Yes, the archive material recording the work of one of Glasgow’s police surgeons in the 1870s definitely gives a really microscopic insight into the city! In the Heritage team at RCPSG we find the collections we work with endlessly fascinating and stimulating, and hope the writers do too. I think all library, archive and museum collections have this potential to inspire creativity. Broadly speaking, do you think collections are opened up enough for writers and artists to engage with? Do you think more can be done to enable this kind of access?

Gilly: We’re in an exciting time for museum and library collections as more and more open up their collections to public events and imaginative creative use. A project like ‘the prescription’ creates a living history, literally giving voice to those who have been silent for generations. It’s very powerful.

Writing and art can be very solitary areas of work, so I think it’s also up to creative practitioners to emerge from their studios, knock on doors and show heritage teams just how excellent and productive collaborations can be!

Health care archives in particular have the potential to enable shortcuts to human experience. If through your collaborative work you inspire one person to read a new piece of writing and say ‘yes, that’s it, that’s how I’ve felt too,’ then you’ve won.

Ross: ‘the prescription’ has many different elements to it – workshops, reading, collections access, writing competition, and showcase event. What are you most looking forward to?

Gilly: I’m hugely excited by the thought of an open competition, a new creative writing prize in the medical humanities, awarded by the RCPSG (if I can quote Lewis Carroll, ‘Prizes! Prizes!’). But what I’m most looking forward to is the point in our first workshop where the room falls silent, and we each take some time to write. That silent, contemplative, communal act of writing in a workshop setting is magical. Can’t wait.

To submit an application for ‘the prescription’, please follow this link. Applications close on 15 January 2023.

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The College’s heritage collections – including thousands of medical and surgical instruments, rare books, archives, and pictures – span over 6 centuries and are an excellent resource for exploring the history of medicine and the history of the city of Glasgow. Many items from the collections have been digitised and are available to view here. Our digitisation work is ongoing, and we add new items to the site regularly, so keep checking back to discover more.

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