In the first of three articles exploring some of the main themes of his new book, 'The Broken Journey: a life of Scotland 1976-99', Kenneth Roy re-visits a controversy that rocked the country in 1991
Two years ago, the novelist Will Self, for what purported to be an informed analysis of the Orkney child abuse scandal, was assured by a local woman that some children on South Ronaldsay had indeed been abused. Mr Self appears to have been surprised by this casual revelation; he had bought into the received wisdom that all the allegations against the parents were false.
It should not have required local gossip to have the case of the W children confirmed: by 2014 it had been a matter of public record for 27 years. In March 1987, the father of the W children received a long prison sentence for sexual and other abuse. This was the precursor of the media whirlwind which swept South Ronaldsay four years later, in the early weeks of 1991, when the Orkney social work department convinced itself that an organised network of abuse – what came to be known as 'Satanic’ abuse – existed on the island: that perverted sexual entertainments involving children were taking place at a quarry. As a result, nine children from four other families – the W children having already been removed to places of safety – were taken from their homes in a covert early morning operation.
Will Self’s ignorance of the W case could be explained, if not entirely excused, by the strange reluctance of the media to acknowledge it: the father’s conviction for serious criminality was seldom mentioned in the many press reports. It may have been so off-message, so inconvenient to the approved version of events, that it was airbrushed from the narrative whenever possible.
On the 20th anniversary of the scandal, there was even an attempt – by the Daily Record – to rewrite its history. The paper claimed that the raids on the homes of innocent parents had been the result of allegations by a single child, a 'relative’ of whom – an oblique reference to the father of the W children – had gone to jail for incest. In this selective account, there was no reference to what had been described in court as the 'sadistic and horrific’ catalogue of abuse for which he was actually sentenced; or to the fact that several children, not just a single child, had testified to alleged events in South Ronaldsay. That left the Record free to ridicule the allegations as 'completely false’ and to wonder why it was still called a child abuse scandal when no abuse had occurred. (It seemed that incest, which it was prepared to acknowledge as a reality, did not qualify as abuse.)
The Guardian, in an earlier retrospective (2006), adopted the same cavalier attitude. It dismissed the allegations as 'lunacy’ and said that the sheriff who threw them out, without troubling himself to hear a word of evidence, deserved the public’s gratitude. The media were unanimous: if there had been a scandal in Orkney, it was confined to the disgraceful behaviour of local authority social workers in 'snatching' children from their beds in 'dawn raids’, airlifting them to foster homes on the mainland, and subjecting them to overbearing questioning, all on the flimsiest of untested grounds.
Much of the criticism of the social workers was justified, but its escalation into vicious stereotyping, which demonised their profession, generated an atmosphere of hysteria and made a more open-minded approach impossible. South Ronaldsay, which had its fair share of dysfunctional families, was simplistically depicted as a law-abiding, God-fearing community rallying in support of the rights of parents and in defiance of autocratic social workers. One newspaper (the Mail on Sunday) went as far as to assert that the Orkney social workers were politically motivated and out 'to destroy the institution of the family’.
There was an ugly denouement. After the sheriff had found in their favour, the parents and their supporters moved on social work HQ in Kirkwall, pausing only for a TV crew who wanted better pictures, and went on marching unimpeded into the council offices, where one of the staff was violently restrained from telephoning the police. 'They were abusive, aggressive and assertive’, noted Lord Clyde in his official review of the case. By then, the children had been away from home for five weeks. They returned to a packed Kirkwall Airport, which was bedecked in bunting for the occasion, with a piper in attendance. At the first sight of the children, the crowd surged forward, engulfing them.
The journalists who had campaigned tirelessly for their release, had co-operated with the parents as welcome visitors to their homes, had unquestioningly accepted that there was no truth in the allegations, had been vindicated. There was jubilation at this triumph of a free press. The episode did, however, leave one question unanswered; and the last people who would have wanted to confront it were the journalists themselves. Was it right to send the children home?
The impression was created of nine children overjoyed to be reunited with their parents. It is a little-known fact – little-known because so few have ever accessed the archives of the saga – that not all them were keen to go back. One eight-year-old girl, when told she was returning to Orkney, went into a fit of rage. She smashed her doll on the ground, started sucking her thumb and seemed to her foster carer to be shocked and bewildered. She said she did not want to go home and stood like a wooden doll refusing to get dressed. She left the house in tears and, at the airport, began speaking in baby talk, 'very different from the quiet and retiring person she had been at her placement’.
When an eight-year-old boy from another of the families heard the news of his impending return, his foster carer was taken aback by the response. She expected him to be excited, yet he seemed subdued. He asked her if it meant that 'all the bad things' would not happen any more. The foster carer was lost for words. She immediately got on the phone to a child psychologist, who advised her to listen carefully to what the child had to say. The boy then began to tell her about events in the quarry, demonstrating with the use of soft toys how someone – a person he named – handled him sexually. He added that he was worried about certain 'games’ at home.
The foster carer found the experience 'very upsetting’ and contacted a social worker, who in turn spoke to the Orkney social work department to see if the boy could be retained in his place of safety pending futher investigation. That would have been a legitimate course of action, for the place of safety orders were not yet time-expired.
The answer was no: he must return with the others without delay. So urgent was this imperative that there were no discharge medical examinations of the children, leaving the foster carers vulnerable.
Lord Clyde defended this extreme haste on the grounds that 'the prevailing climate of opinion’ made it necessary. In the end, even a High Court judge rated the demands of the mob higher than the welfare of the children. He added that, though a renewal of the place of safety orders would have been possible, it would have created 'an even greater public outcry’.
So what if it had? Did the rule of law count for so little?
The sheriff's decision not to hear the testimony of the children was indefensible. Clyde stated plainly in his report that it left unsettled the one question most people wanted answered: were the South Ronaldsay parents innocent or guilty? All of them – with the exception of the father of the W children – rightly enjoy a presumption of innocence, but the central question posed by Lord Clyde seems destined to remain legally unresolved.
I find three aspects of the case particularly troubling. The evidence independently given by two of the foster carers is the first of them. The second is the repeated assurance that the alleged perversions in the quarry could not have occurred because they would have been witnessed on an island where everything was visible: an assurance somewhat undermined by the knowledge that a child of the W family was kept chained like a dog in the yard, apparently unseen by anyone.
My third and main concern relates to the local Church of Scotland minister, the Rev Morris McKenzie, whose name was repeatedly mentioned or implied in interviews with the children. After the nine had been taken off the island, the police belatedly visited his manse, which was in a filthy condition. Among several potentially incriminating exhibits, they recovered a rubber hot-water bottle from his bed. McKenzie is long dead, so we shall never know why, on that hot-water bottle, he wrote the name of one of the W children and the words ‘the big boy’. That question, along with many others, should have been considered by a court of law.
Kenneth Roy's deconstruction of the Orkney case, 'The Climate of Opinion', appears in his book, 'The Broken Journey', out this month. In next week's Weekend Essay, he
re-visits the Dunblane tragedy