Scotland and England are both currently conducting inquiries into child abuse. There is one extremely important difference. The English inquiry focuses on sexual abuse carried out in any setting involving children. In Scotland, we are looking at all forms of maltreatment of children but only in residential settings such as care homes, List-D schools, school hostels, foster care, religious institutions, and residential, including fee-paying, schools.
The broader remit of the Scottish inquiry doesn't surprise me: Scotland has been routinely bad to its children and young people. Until recent times, Scotland had an abusive, authoritarian culture which was so ingrained that native Scots, myself included, thought it unremarkable.
Fortunately, one chronicler of Scotland's past had an acute sense that the most vulnerable were ill-treated. That person was Kenneth Roy. The chronicles were his two history books – 'The Invisible Spirit' and 'The Broken Journey'.
They tell Scotland's story from 1945-99. His original portrayal of our past is partly down to their structure. In both he devotes a chapter to each year. Most of Roy's material comes from contemporary newspaper reports giving the books a wide-ranging and lively perspective. This approach allows Roy to record not just what happened in Scotland but how events were seen and presented by the press – a reflection of public opinion. Inevitably, they have much to say about Scotland's painful journey from making things the world wanted to plant closures and deindustrialisation. The growing political disenchantment with Westminster also features. And there is also information about religion, sport and popular culture.
Scotland's punitive and authoritarian past emerges strongly from both books. Roy refers to shameful events regularly omitted from conventional histories of 20th-century Scotland. For example, in 1958 dozens of teenage girls 'incarcerated' in the Lochburn House and Laundry, in Glasgow's Maryhill, managed to escape. The home's original name was the 'Magdalene Institution for the Repression of Vice and Reformation of Penitent Females'. The Magdalene laundries in Ireland, whose brutality we know about thanks to film maker Peter Mullin, were under the control of the Catholic religious orders. Lochburn was non-denominational but had close contact with the Church of Scotland and was partly funded by public subscription. None of the 1958 escapees had been convicted of wrong-doing yet they were hunted down and treated as if they posed a public danger. It soon emerged that the girls were regularly beaten and drenched with cold water and their letters censured.
The Scottish Home Department investigated. The laundry closed at the end of the year. But there was no official public inquiry and the department never published its findings. No one was ever held accountable for the maltreatment. What I find particularly chilling is that, after studying contemporary newspaper reports, Roy states 'in the Glasgow of 1958 there was no public sympathy for the victims of Lochburn'.
In 1962, another maltreatment case emerged. The South Inch detention centre in Perth, which dealt with young offenders from 17 to 21 years old, had such a draconian regime that there were seven serious incidents of attempted suicide by inmates. According to Roy these lads 'would rather have cut their wrists and bled to death than submit to the brutality'. A private inquiry was held but, as with Lochburn, the report was never published. No action was taken against the prison officers involved.
However, it is the routine way ordinary Scottish schoolchildren were belted to which Roy repeatedly refers. Some of these references are to court cases where, despite evident harm, the teacher or headteacher was often exonerated. Roy reports evidence which shows that corporal punishment was much more common in state schools in Scotland than in England and Wales. Indeed, extrapolating from Edinburgh data on the incidence of corporal punishment in the city's schools during one term, Roy claims that in the mid 1970s there would be an 'annual total of 30,000 beatings in Edinburgh alone'. Even more worrying is the 1976 Scottish Education Department document he quotes which indicated that there were 10 times more beatings in Scottish approved schools than in those in England and Wales. And these were often more vicious than routine school punishment as the belt could be applied to the buttocks, not just the hands, of these juvenile offenders.
Roy reports that in the 1970s secretaries of state for Scotland advocated 'a consensual approach to abolition' but felt no pressure to ban it. 'They had no cause to fear public disapproval,' writes Roy, 'for the Scots as a whole were almost as keen on the idea of corporal punishment as the teachers'. Fortunately this wasn't the case for two Scottish mothers. They appealed to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that their children were being physically disciplined without their consent. After a legal case lasting years, Scotland was forced to abandon the practice in 1987. The era of 'barbaric excesses' in Scottish schools, to use Roy's terminology, was finally over.
It was reading Roy's two-part history of Scotland which encouraged me to think about corporal punishment in Scotland. Up till then I had (wrongly) assumed that all societies used the belt or other implements to discipline school children. It was reading Roy's books that led me to look into the topic and I present my views in 'Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health'. I also wrote an article for SR on Scotland's use of corporal punishment. Kenneth Roy chose to title it 'Scotland the cruel'.
As far as I can see, Scotland was an outlier in its extensive use of corporal punishment. Most of our European neighbours abolished corporal punishment in schools decades, if not centuries, before we were forced do likewise. In fact, Poland abolished it in 1783. Anglo-American countries, taking their lead from England, were enthusiastic corporal punishers yet we were outperforming many of them. Not only were we using it more in state schools than England, but every Scottish pupil was a potential victim – girls, boys, even infants. What's more, Scottish pupils were belted not just for indiscipline but also for academic mistakes.
Scottish education normalised the punitive treatment of children and most Scottish parents not only accepted this but also hit their own children, so it's hardly surprising that many youngsters in Scotland's children's homes were treated abysmally. In October 2018, Scotland's Child Abuse Inquiry published its first set of findings relating to two residential homes run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. It found that the children did suffer abuse.
Lady Smith, chair of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, said: 'For many children who were in Smyllum and Bellevue, the homes were places of fear, coercive control, threat, excessive discipline and emotional, physical and sexual abuse, where they found no love, no compassion, no dignity and no comfort'.
Lady Smith also reported that some of the children were beaten every day with a variety of implements, including the Lochgelly Tawse, regularly used in schools. This first report is an indictment of Catholic religious orders, and much of the abuse was carried out by nuns, but there have been allegations of abuse in homes run by the Church of Scotland and medical institutions. Currently, the inquiry is investigating allegations of child abuse in over 80 individual establishments.
In the 1990s, some of those who had been in care in Scotland began to meet up, support one another and speak publicly about what they had endured. It was only at this point that the scale of the suffering and abuse of so many children became evident and pressure mounted for an inquiry. As Kenneth Roy mainly confined his historical accounts of post-war Scotland to what was reported in the newspapers of the day, it is understandable that none of this institutional child abuse is mentioned in 'The Invisible Spirit' and 'The Broken Journey'. However,
armed with hindsight, and a strong sense of just how punitive Scotland could be to the vulnerable, Roy couldn't resist making some barbed comments about his native land. '… if Hell was the ultimate sanction in authoritarian Scotland, there was never a shortage of shorter-term earthly alternatives,' he writes.
Reporting on a 1976 Glasgow Citizens play on the Marquis of Sade, which some Scottish critics thought didn't feature much sadism, Roy quips: 'In Scotland, however, there was no need for sadism on the stage when there was so much of it in real life'.
By the time the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry published its first findings, Kenneth Roy was seriously ill and no longer writing weekly columns. Sadly, we shall never hear his distinctive voice on the topic. But it's telling that when Roy knew his death was imminent he chose 'The Girls on the Bridge' to represent his journalism. This was the tragic story of two teenage girls in care in the Good Shepherd Centre in Bishopton who jumped to their death from the Erskine Bridge in 2009. Roy undertook an in-depth inquiry and paints a bleak picture of professional incompetence and indifference. He takes issue with the fatal accident inquiry as he concludes that their deaths were preventable.
In his chronicles of 20th-century Scotland, Roy is largely critical of how youngsters are treated. But he does report positively on one development involving children – the creation of the Children's Hearing system in the early 1970s. This abolished juvenile courts and replaced them with lay panels. Even by international standards this was a progressive development. But given how enlightened this was 50 years ago, I can't help asking why, in 2019, Scotland still has the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe (eight), and we are only now legislating to raise the age to 12, two years below the European average.
Some readers may wonder why I'm dredging up these aspects of Scotland's past. Our politicians are now setting their cap at being 'the best place in the world for children and young people to grow up' and it's evident that Scotland's punitive instincts have waned. But they haven't disappeared completely.
Over 50 countries in the world have made it illegal for parents to hit their children. The Scottish Parliament want to follow suit but there's considerable opposition. The Catholic Church in Scotland is mounting a stout attack on a ban even though many Catholic countries have legislated against smacking. The Church of Scotland has given support to the Scottish bill but many small Protestant churches have lodged objections. And many of them are being encouraged to do so because they believe they are in tune with public opinion. A ComRes poll published in 2017 showed that three-quarters of respondents opposed a ban. More worrying is that recent evidence from the 'Growing Up in Scotland' study showed that 22% of eight-year-old Scottish children report frequent physical punishment at home.
Jillian van Turnhout was an Irish senator and is now a children's rights advocate. She was responsible for the implementation of a smacking ban in Ireland and spoke recently at Holyrood on Scotland's proposed legislation. Interestingly, she said there was not the same level of opposition to a ban in Ireland than there is currently in Scotland. 'In Ireland, we didn't have a concentrated campaign in opposition, though we had some individuals who spoke out against it,' she reported. The Catholic Church in Ireland decided not to campaign and remained silent. So why is it that so many Scots still support the idea of hitting children?
Until recent times, Scotland treated its children badly. Much has changed since those dark, punitive times and the incidents now being reported to Scotland's Child Abuse Inquiry. But the best way to ensure that we genuinely uphold children's rights is for Scots to freely acknowledge our past errors and where we went wrong. There's little doubt that Kenneth Roy's portrayal of Scotland in the 20th century illuminates that darkness and encourages us to look honestly at our past. Until his death, he played an important and courageous role in Scottish public life and we are the poorer without him.