Fornethy Residential School: Tales from the Archives

In early 2023, UK Column began its coverage of the Fornethy Survivors Group, an organisation of women who were emotionally, physically, and sexually abused at Fornethy Residential School in remote Perthshire, Scotland, from 1960 to 1991 as Glaswegian girls. The group has been advocating for 4 ½ years to find answers about why they were sent there and to seek justice for themselves and their perpetrators. Much progress has been made in their fight for justice in recent months. UK Column’s update begins with this article.

The Group filed a petition in 2022 with The Scottish Parliament for Fornethy survivors to be allowed to access Scotland’s redress scheme for survivors of institutional child abuse, an improvement which would require a widening of the eligibility criteria. Two years later, it is still under review, and the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee will consider it again on 20th March, 2024, with new evidence. Scotland’s SNP Deputy First Minster, Shona Robison MSP, will be asked questions by the Committee regarding why Fornethy survivors do not qualify for redress applications. Why do the survivors not qualify to apply for redress now, and what is the new evidence?

The Scottish Government appointed an ‘independent researcher’, Dr Emma Fossey, in September 2023 to gather evidence in relation to the petition. She primarily talked to government officials and searched the archives of Glasgow City Council and the National Records of Scotland to answer the questions of (a) Why and by whom girls were sent to Fornethy and (b) What Glasgow City Council has done to find records from Fornethy.

Why was Dr Fossey chosen to research the Fornethy case and submit a report to Deputy First Minister Robison? Her 1996 PhD dissertation, Growing up with alcohol: A developmental study of the perceptions of young children, does not seem to match up well with the task of helping historically abused women seek justice. She appears to have no research publications since the time of her doctorate; instead, she runs a business called PhEW—Plain (helpful) English Writing. She claims on her website:

In a career spanning academia, central government and the wider public sector, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to experience the misery of unplain English first-hand. I’ve even inflicted it on others myself! But after being faced with a particularly impenetrable report one day, I finally realised:

If I, with all my insider knowledge, struggle to read the information we put out, how can we expect the people we’re trying to help, to understand it?

Now, with every piece of work I do I get to help other people make the world a little fairer. And in these times of misinformation, disinformation and alternative facts, the clarity that Plain English brings feels ever more important.

After learning about Dr Emma Fossey’s credentials, the Fornethy Survivors Group chose to appoint me as their researcher, which was made possible through my UK Column connections. I finished my MSc, a qualification necessary to become a professional librarian, in 2001, and my PhD in 2006. I have been employed full-time in libraries and informatics since 2002. I am currently a Professor of Social Informatics at a university in Edinburgh. According to the survivors, their choice of researcher was clear, and I was honoured to accept.

From September to December 2023, I was granted the same access as Dr Fossey to archival sources in the Glasgow City Archives, the National Records of Scotland Historical Search Room, and the Historic Environment Scotland Library to gather all the information available about Fornethy and the circumstances surrounding its history, inception, and closure. The large amount of material found was surprising, considering Glasgow City Council’s and The Scottish Parliament’s line that ‘there are no records’ about Fornethy. The following sources have comprised my evidence:

  • Committee minutes and reports from the Corporation of Glasgow (CG) and Strathclyde Regional Council (SRC)
  • Annual reports from the CG Education Committee and its School Health Service
  • CG’s Education Committee Handbooks and SRC’s Directories of Schools/Directories of Educational Establishments
  • CG Education Department’s Handbook for Regulations and Information for Head Teachers
  • The destruction register from Glasgow City Council’s (GCC) Records Management Department
  • National Records of Scotland archives
  • Education (Scotland) Codes and Acts
  • Previous UK Column coverage
  • Historical and current mainstream media sources

Robison’s official evidence contains several errors and misleading statements. In addition to my officially published submission in support of the petition, in which I was limited to 1,000 words, a longer version has been provided pointing out the issues that exist within Dr Fossey’s evidence.

1. The name of the school. Dr Fossey called it ‘Fornethy House Residential School’ in her report, titled Enquiries into Fornethy House Residential School. When the survivors attended, it was called ‘Fornethy Residential School’.

2. The dates of the school’s operation (Fossey, page 14). Dr Fossey’s report said, ‘Fornethy House [sic] Residential School … is understood to have closed in 1993. (I did not see any documents confirming its exact closing date)’. 

Fornethy was a residential school for female pupils from 1960 to 1990. It then functioned as an ‘outdoor pursuits centre’, and was called Fornethy Residential Education Centre, as described in the Paisley Daily Express on 18th September 1990. It remained this way for boys and girls to spend a week there, usually with their classmates and teacher, until the building closed.

On 17th March 1993, SRC declared the building ‘surplus to educational requirements’. On 20th March 1993, the Paisley Daily Express wrote that Fornethy was to be closed by Strathclyde Regional Council in June 1993.

3. Why were girls sent to Fornethy? (Fossey, page 6). Dr Fossey wrote: ‘primary-school girls from Glasgow were sent to convalesce after an illness and/or so that they might benefit from a “recuperative holiday”’.

There is no actual evidence that this was the only reason, although it is one of the reasons that was printed in government documents. There is more evidence that Glasgow children were sent to ‘convalescent’ schools such as Fornethy because they were from deprived or disadvantaged backgrounds. That said, there is at least one survivor in the Group who was neither convalescent nor deprived when she was sent to Fornethy.

In 1945, the Director of the Corporation of Glasgow’s Education Department provided a report outlining the Scheme for the Provision of Short-Term Residential Schools (National Records of Scotland file ED48/932), containing experimental ideas which essentially remained unchanged through the timespan of Fornethy Residential School. Part of the stated benefits of establishing residential schools were as follows. Note that he focused on preventing illness, but not on recovering from illness, as well as social education:

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Other reasons provided for sending children away for ‘a spell of residential education’ included being from a ‘socially deprived’ area and suffering from ‘general debility’, being ‘smaller than average and underweight’, or demonstrating ‘primary enuresis’ [e.g. bedwetting], according to a 1970 report from the School Medical Officer of Health. In a 1987, Strathclyde Regional Council report, Fornethy was said to have hosted ‘girls from deprived families—ND primary—aged 5 to 12’.  

Like all schools under the Corporation of Glasgow’s Scheme for Residential Education, Fornethy operated under the leadership of qualified teachers, and there were no medical professionals on staff at Fornethy, which suggests that girls were not there for recuperation. Indeed, girls were sent to Fornethy as educational pupils at a residential school, not as children attending a respite care centre or a holiday home. In fact, the original Scheme differentiated between residential schools and holiday camps, a difference which can be seen throughout the timespan of Fornethy. Here is another quote from the original Scheme, also shown on the previous page:

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From this same file is a letter published in the Glasgow Herald in 1945, objecting to the idea of short-term residential schools, with concerns that it would place the selected children behind in their studies: 

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Further supporting the assertion that Fornethy was a residential school and not a holiday or respite camp, the Corporation of Glasgow Education Department’s Handbook of Regulations and Information for Head Teachers said that pupils at residential schools, including short-term residential schools such as Fornethy, were ‘removed from the custody of their parents’. This Handbook also stated that ‘parents should not visit children at residential schools unless there is a recognised Visiting Day, in which case details will be supplied to the parents concerned’. 

Fornethy pupils were removed from their Glasgow school’s register and added to Fornethy’s register until they returned to Glasgow, when they were expected to resume attendance at their local primary school. This is mentioned in the Handbook, as well as in memos regarding the Scheme of Residential Education: 

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Additionally, the Children Act 1948 granted powers to local authority committees across the United Kingdom whereby they could pass ‘a parental rights resolution’ and remove a child from his or her home simply by a vote. Local Authorities such as the Corporation of Glasgow could vote to remove children from their homes because a ‘person is unfit to have the care of the child by reason of unsoundness of mind or mental deficiency or by reason of his habits or mode of life’. 

The Care of Children (Scotland) Act 1948 ‘introduced a duty of care on the local council; prior to this the liabilities lay with the carer in respect of powers and rights. This was further evidenced in the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968’ and this power was not removed until the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. It is therefore possible that the Corporation of Glasgow could have overridden the choice of the parents’ attendance at residential schools, especially given the documented history of girls from disadvantaged backgrounds being chosen for Fornethy and the Director’s statement in the Scheme for the Provision of Residential Schools cited above that:

Education is a self-contained community makes it possible for precept to be supplemented by example and, still more important, for children to have an opportunity of living and acting as good citizens should.

All the schools that operated under Glasgow’s Scheme of Residential Education complied with the Day Schools (Scotland) Codes, which meant they were subject to inspection, and also meant they were also expected to teach age-appropriate curriculum whilst pupils were in residence. Archives from the National Records of Scotland show that Seafield Residential School, a short-term ‘convalescent’ school for Glasgow boys under the same scheme, did go through an inspection and was registered with the Scottish Education Department.

4. The role of ‘health visitors’ intervening with ‘defaulters’ (Fossey, page 17). Dr Fossey wrote that the role of health visitors was to ‘visit the homes of “defaulters”. This term is not explained, but it appears to mean parents who opted not to take up their child’s offer of a place’.

The report she cited, the Corporation of Glasgow’s Health and Welfare Department’s 1959 Report on the Medical Inspection and Treatment of School Children, does not mention ‘defaulters’ in relation to children or parents and residential school attendance. For this reason, mentioning ‘defaulters’ in Dr Fossey’s report is unclear and misleading. The report does talk about ‘defaulters’ in relation to (1) adults with venereal disease, (2) tenants who do not clean their premises, and (3) factories.

5. Registered/inspected school (Fossey, page 29). Dr Fossey wrote that ‘it is not clear that Fornethy itself was ever officially registered as a school and therefore whether it should have been inspected by HM inspectors of education’.

As the Scheme of Residential Education operated under the Education (Scotland) Acts and Codes as well as the Day Schools (Scotland) Codes, it is perhaps irrelevant whether it was registered as a school, because those Acts and Codes did require inspection of all educational institutions falling under this legislation. It was in essence a registered school, however, considering its history.

Dr Fossey did not include in her report that Fornethy Residential School was originally Hillfoot Holiday School. In 1945, it was renamed to Hillfoot Residential School, when CG’s Scheme of Residential Education came into effect.

After acquiring Fornethy, the Corporation of Glasgow wrote in the Progress Report on the Work of the Education Committee, 1953–1955:

Scheme of Residential Education. In May, 1955, with the approval of the Secretary of State, Fornethy House, Alyth, Perthshire, became the property of the Corporation as a free gift to be used as a residential school. When the necessary alterations are completed, pupils will be transferred from Hillfoot Residential School, which will then be used as a residential school for mentally handicapped pupils, the only remaining large category of pupils for whom permanent provision is not made in the Scheme.

Hillfoot pupils and Hillfoot staff were moved from Hillfoot Residential School in Bearsden, just outside Glasgow at the time, to Fornethy Residential School in Alyth. It had the same remit: to teach female pupils from deprived backgrounds in Glasgow, simply in a new location and with a new name. National Records of Scotland files show that Hillfoot had been assigned Number 6983 under the Day Schools (Scotland) Code 1939, demonstrating Fornethy’s status as a residential school under the Code, and further showing that Fornethy was a residential school, not a holiday home or respite facility. It is unknown to me whether Hillfoot Residential School acquired a new Number for its new remit as a school for mentally handicapped children when Fornethy opened.

National Records of Scotland record ED48/932 contains a document called Short-term residential schools, stating:

In December, 1954, however the Secretary of State agreed in principle to a proposal by Glasgow Education Authority to accept the gift of Fornethy House, Alyth, Perthshire, for adaptation as a residential school for convalescent children. Approval was given only because the proposal would release Hillfoot Residential School for use as a school for mentally handicapped children.

Below is the 1945 memo from ED48/932 showing the additions of the newly added short-term residential schools to the list of schools under the Day Schools (Scotland) Code, 1939, with Number 6983 belonging to Hillfoot Residential School.

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New answers to old questions

Previously, UK Column asked the following questions in its article Fornethy House: Beyond the Pale. With our newly found archival evidence, we can now provide some answers to them.

Q: How is it that a residential establishment for young girls run by the state could go without any regime of inspection for thirty years, in the late twentieth century?

A: As explained above, it was subject to inspection, and there is evidence of Council-level inspection throughout the years of its operation. In the Corporation of Glasgow’s Education Committee Handbooks available in the Glasgow City Archives, there are lists of visitation rotas including Hillfoot Residential School. The rotas were no longer included in the Handbooks after 1955, so these rotas were no longer available after Fornethy opened in 1960. However, there are mentions of inspections including Fornethy in the Education Committee meeting minutes, and in Strathclyde Regional Council papers after 1975. Although not an inspection report, here is evidence of a Strathclyde Regional Council rota visitation on 25th March 1980, obtained from the Glasgow City Archives.

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Q: Were all such residential convalescent homes (for Glasgow Corporation had many) left uninspected, or was Fornethy unique in this regard?

A: The post-1955 Corporation of Glasgow Education Committee meeting minutes mentioning school inspections were not specific to individual school names. Strathclyde Regional Council papers are less organised and therefore take more time to search, so the focus was on Fornethy.

National Records of Scotland file ED18/3456 contains a Scottish Education Department Inspector’s Report for Seafield Holiday School which was for the year ended 31st July, 1939. It was assigned a Scottish Education Department number under the Day Schools (Scotland) Code in 1937. Seafield Holiday School became Seafield Residential School under Glasgow’s Scheme for Residential Education in 1945, as did Hillfoot Residential School, which was moved to Fornethy in 1960.

Q: Why does Glasgow City Council hold the view that Fornethy House was exempt from inspection when the reports from its legal predecessor, the Corporation of Glasgow, place Fornethy in a category—Residential Schools—that did require regular and varied forms of inspection?

A: This is an excellent question which cannot be answered with the evidence available.

Q: Even if Fornethy House was indeed a respite and holiday facility (and we can find no evidence that it was ever regarded as such), why would that exempt it from inspection?

A: We know now for certain that it was not a respite and holiday facility, but even it had been one of these, it would still have been subject to inspection. Separate items in the Corporation of Glasgow committee minutes addressed the issue of summer holiday camp inspections.

Q: Is it credible that the Corporation of Glasgow and Strathclyde Regional Council never—during a combined period of thirty years—sought to establish whether the place to which they were sending thousands of girls was actually safe?

A: Yes and no. Although it was subject to inspection, no inspection reports have been located.

Q: Should Glasgow City Council’s position that Fornethy House was exempt from inspection due to its use prove to be incorrect, is there something else to be uncovered here: some intentional act or perverse omission?

A: This is an excellent question which cannot be answered with the evidence available.