Fornethy Residential School—The strange tale of its sale

Fornethy House was built by sisters Lilian and Margaret Coats and was completed in 1915. From 1961 until 1991, it was used as a residential school for girls from Glasgow. Those girls, the Fornethy Girls, are now coming together to fight for recognition of the suffering they endured at Fornethy and the terrible toll that it has taken on their lives subsequently.

This article is part of a broad investigation by UK Column News and by the Fornethy Girls themselves so that we might understand what happened to them, who was responsible and why it occurred.

We start here with a detailed examination of the acquisition and sale of Fornethy by the local authorities.



The Coats family were benefactors. They lived in an age where industry and society, wealth and duty, success and charity went hand in hand. They built Paisley and made it great. In doing so, they helped educate and uplift the people who worked in their mills. They built a school, a museum, an observatory and a magnificent church known proverbially as the Baptist Cathedral of Europe. They enriched the lives of the people of Paisley and made the town famous the world over by their enterprise skill and hard work.   The dynasty was started by Thomas Coats. When the last of his children, Lilian, died in 1954, she left her mansion house at Fornethy in Angus to her nephew, Thomas Heywood Coats, with the provision that, should he decline the property, it would instead be disposed of by the trustees of her estate.   Thomas Heywood Coats did decline the property, almost certainly because the upkeep of a thirty-room mansion, designed to be run with a substantial staff of servants, was no longer an economically viable proposition in austere, post-war Britain.   It is therefore in 1958 that our tale starts with the disposition of (transfer of an interest in) the mansion house and land at Fornethy.    


18 March 1958

Fornethy House and grounds, totalling 38.919 acres, along with Parkfoot Cottage and two plots of land totalling 0.33 acres, a spring located in 0.065 acres of ground, the solum of the access road, and a triangular area of ground at the junction between the public road and the access road (0.338 acres) were transferred to the ownership of the Corporation of the City of Glasgow.   There were conditions placed on this transfer, the most relevant of which are:
The subjects hereby disponed, and the buildings thereon, shall be adapted and used at all times by our said disponees as a residential school for convalescent or handicapped children or for such other purposes of a comparable nature, which our said disponees may determine and for no other purpose whatsoever, and in the event of our said disponees ceasing to make such use of the said subjects hereby disponed, it shall not be lawful to, nor in the power of our said disponees to sell, alienate or dispone the said subjects or any part thereof and further, if the mansion house of Fornethy, erected on the area of ground hereby disponed in the first place, should not be used for the purposes hereinbefore mentioned, our said disponees shall be under obligation to demolish the said mansion house and restore the site thereof to conform to the existing surroundings as far as might be practicable.

16 May 1975

Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 provisions for the transfer of property to the new district and regional authorities came into effect.

Ownership of the lands and properties at Fornethy passed to Strathclyde Regional Council.

17 March 1993

The Education Committee of Strathclyde Regional Council declared Fornethy Residential School surplus to requirements.

27 July 1993

Fornethy House and grounds were advertised for sale in a national newspaper.

14 December 1993

An offer for purchase was accepted by the Buildings & Property Committee of Strathclyde Regional Council, in the sum of £205,000, this being conditional upon Urban Aid programme funding being obtained by the purchasers. This proposal would have retained Fornethy in use serving the children of Scotland’s cities.

2 February 1994

An agreement was minuted between the Trustees of Lilian Coats and Strathclyde Regional Council concerning the ground at Fornethy (38.919 acres), together with the mansion house, the solum of the access road to the house, and the triangular piece of land at the junction with the main road (0.338 acres), Parkfoot Cottage and associated ground (0.33 acres) and a spring (0.065 acres).   This, in outline, agreed in principle to the sale of the property on the basis of an equal split of the proceeds between Strathclyde Regional Council and the Trustees of the late Lilian Coats. It also included the following text:
The Superior also agrees, at the request of the Feuar, to execute a Minute of Waiver waiving the aforesaid restrictions and/or to sign as consentor in any Disposition of the said subjects or any part thereof to be granted to a prospective purchaser.

8 February 1994

Disposition was made by Strathclyde Regional Council to the purchasers of Parkfoot Cottage and two plots of land totalling 0.33 acres.

25 February 1994

The date of a Minute of Waiver from the Trustees of the late Lilian Coats concerning the sale of Parkfoot Cottage. This removed the title restriction preventing the sale of the cottage.

16 August 1994

A report by the Director of Estates of Strathclyde Regional Council stated that the application by the prospective purchaser for Urban Aid programme funding had been declined. It also reported that costs for 24-hour manned security were £606.80 and that the total costs incurred to date (i.e., since Forthnethy had ceased to be used as a residential school) were £31,171.

The recommendation was for the property to be readvertised.

14 September 1994

Fornethy was advertised for sale in the Dundee Courier. The closing date for applications was 12 October 1994.

1 December 1994

Fornethy was advertised for sale in the Dundee Courier. The closing date for applications was 25 January 1995.

25 January 1995

Nine offers were received by the closing date, including one from a private individual: the adjacent proprietrix (and hero of our tale) whom we will call Mrs M. Her solicitors, when submitting their offer to purchase, also claimed the right for Mrs M to seek enforcement of the title restrictions pertaining to Fornethy, specifically the requirement for Strathclyde Regional Council (SRC) to demolish Fornethy mansion house and the limitation on their sale of the property at all.

Mrs M’s agents raised an Action of Interdict in the Court of Session (Scotland’s supreme civil court) seeking to prevent SRC from proceeding to sell the property on the open market.

SRC took legal advice, which was that the interdict (judicial order) would, in all probability, be granted. Further marketing of the property was therefore halted, pending resolution of this issue and until such time as SRC could provide “clear marketable title”.

SRC’s legal advice was also to make an application to the Lands Tribunal for Scotland to obtain an authoritative determination as to the status of the title restrictions.

31 March 1996

Strathclyde Regional Council was abolished.

1 April 1996

Glasgow City Council, a new unitary local authority, came into existence. This body was created by the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994. This Act also transferred the property formerly held by SRC to Glasgow City Council (GCC). 

July 1996

SRC had raised an Action of Declarator in the Court of Session to remove the challenge to the council’s title raised by Mrs M. In July, Mrs M’s agents approached Glasgow City Council, offering a negotiated settlement based on the purchase of a portion of the Fornethy lands by Mrs M and also the imposition of further restrictions on the use of Fornethy house. Protracted negotiations followed.

15 January 1997

A report was issued by the Director of Property Services, Glasgow City Council.   A summary report looked at the background and current position and made recommendations to the Property Services Committee. This document contains several items of note, including:  
  1. A statement that the property title restriction had been known prior to first advertising the property for sale in 1993. Furthermore, the statement set out that it had been known in 1993 that a waiver would be required from the Feudal Superior, the Trustees of the late Lilian Coats.
  2. The application to the Lands Tribunal for Scotland did not proceed.
  3. Instead, SRC elected to raise a separate Action of Declarator in the Court of Session to remove the challenge to the council’s title raised by Mrs M. Such an action would not be heard until April 1997 at the earliest.
  4. The provisional agreement between GCC and Mrs M was outlined as follows:
    • GCC will sell 8 acres of ground plus the solum of one access road to Mrs M.
    • The access road concerned will no longer be available for access to Fornethy.
    • The purchase price is nominally £10,000.
    • The Council retain rights to access a sewage treatment plant located within the area of ground to be sold.
    • Fornethy mansion house will be restricted to use as a single dwelling, flatted residential development or hotel. Uses such as multiple occupancy residence, leisure complex or caravan park are specifically prohibited.
    • In any sale of Fornethy, Mrs M shall have the right of pre-emption, i.e., purchasing the property by matching any price offered in the open market.
    • Mrs M shall withdraw all challenges to the council’s title.
    • GCC shall reimburse Mrs M’s legal expenses.
    • Since those legal expenses total £10,711.45, it was agreed they would be met by Mrs M and that the sale of the 8 acres would proceed with a nominal price of £1.

In addition, it was noted that the annual running costs for security, fuel, etc., for Fornethy were running at around £35,000 per annum.

The Director of Property Services recommended that the transaction with Mrs M be completed and that he should be authorised to advertise Fornethy for sale once more.

14 October 1997

Disposition was made by Glasgow City Council in favour of Mrs M, transferring ownership of 8.27 acres (3.3495 hectares) of land to Mrs M. The documentation included a deed plan, prepared by Glasgow City Council Property Services Department, showing the extent of the land purchase.

8 April 1998

Minutes of the Glasgow City Council Property Services Committee detailed the offers received for the remainder of the ground at Fornethy following the sale of approximately eight acres to Mrs M. The offers were summarised as follows:

  1. Five offers were received.
  2. The top offer was “contrary to permitted development uses specified in Council’s title”.
  3. The second highest offer was from Mr Ian Gray in the sum of £111,222.
  4. It was agreed that the offer from Mr Ian Gray should be accepted.

Note that further investigations revealed that the top offer made was in connection with the use of Fornethy as a residential care home for the elderly and valued Fornethy at £122,000.

17 June 1998

Disposition was made from Glasgow City Council to Mr Ian Gray. This transferred ownership of “… all and whole that area of ground at Fornethy in the county of Angus containing Thirty eight acres and nine hundred and nineteen decimal or one-thousandth parts of an acre (38.919 acres) or thereby …” plus the solum of the access road, the triangular piece of ground adjacent to the public highway and the spring, "but excepting … that area or piece of ground … extending to three hectares and three thousand, four hundred and ninety five square meters or thereby … being the subjects … disponed by the disposition by Glasgow City Council in favour of Mrs M …” in return for the payment of £111,222.

This document makes reference to:

  1. The original 1958 disposition, which includes all of the restrictions on sale and the requirement to demolish Fornethy mansion house in the event that it is not used for the benefit of needy children.
  2. The disposition selling eight acres of land to Mrs M.
  3. The minute of waiver dated February 1994 concerning Parkfoot cottage. This document does not relate to Fornethy mansion house. It refers specifically to Parkfoot and names the purchasers of Parkfoot as the beneficiaries.
  4. The additional restrictions imposed by Mrs M in her minute of agreement with Glasgow City Council

We subsequently discovered via a Freedom of Information (FoI) request that the whole value of the sale had been consumed by the costs of heating and providing security at Fornethy during the period since it closed in 1993. There being no surplus to divide, no payment was made to the Trustees of the late Lilian Coats.


Fornethy never became a private residence. It fell into disrepair and suffered theft of lead roofing, severe water ingress and extensive deterioration of the building fabric. It now lies, unused and decaying, surrounded by overgrown forest and abandoned automobiles.

Cars at Fornethy


From 1958, there was a restriction on the title of Fornethy House and the associated lands and properties. This restriction was that:

  1. It could not be resold, or even given away; to do so would be “unlawful”.
  2. The mansion house must be used for the benefit of children in need.
  3. If the mansion house ceased to be used as required, then it must be demolished and the land returned to nature.

Glasgow City Council, and before them Strathclyde Regional Council, sought to ignore these restrictions and, when they could not be ignored, to circumvent, thwart or outflank them to achieve their desired sale of the property. The urge to sell the property seems to have been motivated both by a desire to realise a capital receipt and to end the ongoing running costs in heating and security necessary to keep the mansion in sound condition.

At first, the property was advertised and an offer tabled—without, it would appear, the title restriction being considered. Only after a conditional offer for purchase had been accepted did Strathclyde Regional Council seek the agreement of the Trustees of the late Lilian Coats to either waive the title restriction or countersign any sales documents. However, the conditional offer fell through and it was back to square one.

Parkfoot, a cottage on the periphery of Fornethy and included in the original bequest, was sold in 1994. In this case, a waiver, removing the title restrictions was provided by the Coats trustees, albeit only seventeen days after the sale, was concluded. But no waiver was ever provided for Fornethy Mansion house or for the surrounding grounds.

When Strathclyde Regional Council again sought to sell the property in 1995, an adjacent proprietrix sought an interdict in the courts to enforce the title restrictions. Even Strathclyde Regional Council’s lawyers concluded that she would be successful. So it is clear that in 1995, the burden on the council’s title remained in effect: that it had not been cancelled by any formal waiver and that it was legally enforceable, including by parties outside the original agreement.

In response, Strathclyde Regional Council chose not to obtain a waiver, nor to seek a decision from the Lands Tribunal for Scotland, but instead to take their own legal action in the Court of Session, piling more costs on the pugnacious Mrs M. This was decision which one might conclude was based on using the financial power of the state to overcome valid legal objections from a member of the public.

Mrs M (wisely) preferred negotiation, and obtained eight acres of Fornethy land for £1 (and had her existing legal expenses of more than £10,000 to cover). She was also able to place additional restrictions on the sale of Fornethy. What she could not do, of course—not being party to the original agreement—was to remove existing title restrictions. She merely consented not to attempt any more to enforce those conditions.

And still there was no waiver.

Finally, at the fourth attempt, the local authority (by now, Glasgow City Council) managed to find a buyer, a Mr Ian Gray, who, it appeared, wanted Fornethy as his private residence. Money changed hands; the property changed hands.

And still there was no waiver.

The documents refer to a waiver issued for a completely separate property, Parkfoot Cottage; but no legal document removing the original 1958 title restrictions is referred to, nor, as far as we can discover, does any such document exist.

It is therefore plain that the title restrictions imposed on Fornethy by the Trustees of the late Lilian Coats remain extant but have been ignored by Glasgow City Council in its sale of Fornethy to Ian Gray. Thus, in the terms of the original bequest, that sale is “unlawful”.


A possible resolution

Given that Glasgow City Council has acted unlawfully in the sale of Fornethy, there is a legal requirement for the Council to reverse all unlawful actions and return to a condition in which their duties have been properly discharged. Fortunately, such a course of action would also give them the opportunity, at the same time, to keep faith with the Fornethy Girls who suffered during the thirty-year-long reign of terror that was Fornethy Residential School.

What we call upon them to do is this:

  1. Accept that, whatever the reason, the sale of Fornethy House was contrary to the restrictions of the property title and thus was unlawful.
  2. Repurchase the property from Mr Ian Gray.
  3. Follow the requirements of the Coats bequest and demolish Fornethy House.
  4. Construct, on the restored ground, a garden commemorating the suffering of the tens of thousands of little Protestant Glaswegian girls who went there, and recognising the pain carried decade after decade by the women they became.

If Glasgow City Council can do this, do the right thing, it will mean the world to the Fornethy Girls and it may even help them to find some peace.