IT'S been a long time since the old, brick-lined print-hall of the Herald and Times, in Glasgow's Lighthouse building, has seen so much activity.

For almost a century before 1980, the hall trembled as giant printing-presses churned out newspapers at high speed. Former workers recall the full-time policeman who directed the traffic through a bottleneck of Mitchell Lane as delivery vans, laden with papers, made their way to shops and trains.

In later life, the Mackintosh-designed offices, which were built in 1895, became The Lighthouse, Scotland’s first dedicated national centre for architecture and design. Today, down in the evocative old print-hall, there is a fast-changing tableau of some 60 people – young actors, mostly, and a few greyer heads – putting together a “site-specific thriller” that runs for three nights this week. Piles of newspapers, which speak to the place’s inky history, are strewn about the floor.

Ghost Office, which is being staged by the National Youth Theatre (NYT), dramatises the stories of those who once worked at the Mackintosh-designed venue. The audience will promenade around the gallery, following the action as it unfolds. The production brings together 20 NYT members, 21 young Glaswegians and 11 over-50s, says project manager Alison Irvine.

“There was no story as such before this began,” she explains. “It was very much dependent on what venue we found. We knew we wanted an empty space that had a big history. We looked at the Rotundas on the Clyde and at the court-house in Rutherglen, anything that had lots of stories to tell, but the Lighthouse seemed perfect, because of its space, lay-out and rich history of The Herald and Evening Times.

“We’re delighted that some of the older participants are going to perform in the show. Others are acting more as advisors – people who can teach us songs and tell us about their own working lives. They’ve told us stories about the bars that people drank in, about the hustle and bustle of Mitchell Street, and even about what the newspapers were like. They have an incredible knowledge of how the city has changed over the years.”

The fine detail of the story was assembled from scratch, with the older Glaswegians, volunteers from local writing and creative groups, voicing their memories of the Lighthouse.

“The Lighthouse fitted the bill perfectly,” agrees Scottish playwright Rachel Clive, the author of Ghost Office, “not just in terms of Mackintosh but also of The Herald. We’re focusing on the printing and despatch side of the newspaper business, because where we are at the moment is the old print-hall. You can only imagine what it must have been like at its peak, with the printing presses running at full capacity, and the place full of activity and smelling of ink. We have been out to Newsquest’s [current owner of Herald and Times group] printing place at Cambuslang and they have been fantastic in filling us in on the technological changes and their implications. They’ve also provided us with newspapers for use in dressing the set.”

Ghost Office is a narrative of three generations of women, from the immediate post-war years to the present day. “It looks through these characters at different points in time, and at the many social and technological changes over the decades, as well as the position of women,” Clive adds.

Some of the action takes place in the 1980s, a decade marked by the onset of Thatcherism and by industrial strife, including the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

“We have a powerful central female character,” the writer continues, “and through her we look at the key events of that decade, and what it meant to be a woman then. A key element for me has been the human stories, the stories of people and relationships. I have relatives from way back who worked here on the printing side. My daughter also has relatives who worked here. The most fascinating thing to me is what a hub this place was: Mitchell Street, Mitchell Lane, Buchanan Street, and all of the different relationships and pathways and journeys that came around this space because of that, from the despatch side right up to the journalists and editors. What must this building have been like to negotiate?”

Jennifer Cunningham, a leader writer on The Herald, remembers the Mitchell Lane years well.

“There was a long corridor on the editorial floor, from the swing-doors we came in through, all the way to the editor’s office, which was used by reporters on night shift for fairly wild games,” she recalls. “The games seemed to be an impromptu combination of football and rugby.”

She also remembers a former colleague telling how he was once interviewed for a job on The Herald by the then editor. “Anxious to make his escape at the end, he opened the first door he saw – and found himself in the editor’s private toilet. He had to make an embarrassed lunge for the real door.

“Looking back now, the place seems kind of eccentric. There was a lift called the hoist, which had been designed to take coffins, from the days when an adjacent part of the building was occupied by [funeral directors] Wylie & Lochhead. The hoist was worked by a security man who would tell you tales of the olden days. The building had grand windows, which caused the Mackintosh groupies who toured it to talk excitedly of the architect’s ‘fenestration’. Although the editorial floor was largely open-plan, the building was a maze of stairways and passages which provided cubby-holes for small offices and even the switchboard.”

Back at the Lighthouse, in one corner of the gallery space, Susan McGinlay, one of the older participants, is exchanging notes with Ruby Richardson, an NYT actor who is also studying at Glasgow’s RSAMD. “It’s been absolutely exhilarating,” says McGinlay. “We were apprehensive when we first came in because we’d heard there would be a lot of young people here, but they have all been hugely welcoming. You leave feeling energised.”

McGinlay, who worked in the nearby Arnott Simpsons store in Jamaica Street/Argyle Street, thinks back. “I remember the phenomenal volume of noise coming from The Herald building – the cars, the machinery – in the early 1970s,” she says. “It was always a loud and active place.”

“It is great to be able to hear about the building’s history and to bring it to life,” adds Richardson, who is from London.

Ghost Office director Peter Collins agrees. “Through the language of theatre-making we want to explore, with local people, old and young, and NYT actors, the creation of something that is about community, about Glasgow’s identity, and about the identity of this building and what it means as part of the heritage of the landscape,” he says.

Twelve years ago, Deyan Sudjic, director of Glasgow 1999: UK City of Architecture and Design, said that the Herald and Times building “was, putting it at its most prosaic, an office block that housed journalists, advertising sales staff and distribution teams. But in Mackintosh’s hands, it was also a building that symbolically announced its presence in, and commitment to, the city around it. It was built at a time when it was taken for granted that an important institution would take its responsibility to Scottish culture seriously.”

And now, 31 years after The Herald quit Mitchell Lane, part of its story is being reassembled in a way the old hands could never have imagined.

Ghost Office is at The Lighthouse, July 21 (7pm), 22 and 23 (both 7.30pm). Tickets (free) from; by email from, or 0207 036 9083. The Herald and Sunday Herald are the project’s media partners