Fornethy—The Fairbairn Connections

The Fornethy Girls are the survivors of Fornethy Residential School. This school was owned by the Corporation of the City of Glasgow and its successor, Strathclyde Regional Council, despite being located many miles from bustling, industrial, crowded Glasgow. It is nestled in the peaceful and remote Angus Glens on the edge of Scotland’s majestic highlands. From 1961 until 1991, little Protestant girls from Glasgow went to Fornethy for short periods of time, rarely more than six weeks. The abuse they received there changed many of them permanently; some still struggle today with the terrifying effects of what they endured.    A few months ago, one of the Fornethy Girls sat quietly at a simple table in the Motherwell Health and Wellness Hub. She slowly examined a series of photographs. After viewing each, she softly said, “No.” The photographs had been assembled by the research team working to uncover the true nature of the abuse that took place at Fornethy. Many of the Fornethy Girls had reported being taken to “parties”. The men present at these parties, the men who abused them, were well-heeled and well-dressed. Often, the girls were taken out of Fornethy to other houses for the parties. But they did not travel far; and from their descriptions of the houses they recall and the travel time involved, and from their descriptions of the men who attended, a list of possible suspects had been assembled. It was photographs of these men that this particular Fornethy Girl was examining.   Turning over the next photo, her reaction was an uncontrollable physical recoil, a moment of horror and revulsion too strong to be restrained. She immediately broke down. It was not exactly tears. The reaction was beyond tears. She said nothing. She needed to say nothing. Her response was more powerful than words.   The Fornethy Girl did not know who the man was: she had no name, no knowledge of him except for the terror his image caused her. The man in the photograph was former MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn.   Of the fifteen Fornethy Girls who examined the photographs that day, six picked out Nicholas Fairbairn as a man they recognised from their stays in Angus. Those visits spanned almost the whole decade of the 1970s.  

Who was Nicholas Fairbairn?

He was born on 24 December 1933 in Edinburgh to Mary Ann More-Gordon and William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn, the psychoanalyst who was a central figure in the development of the Object of Relations theory of psychoanalysis. Nicholas was educated at Scotland’s oldest independent School—Loretto School in Musselburgh—and then went to the University of Edinburgh, where he studied law and graduated with an MA and an LL.B. Fairbairn was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in July 1957.   He married well.   Those who remember Fairbairn from his days in front-line politics probably do so for his eccentric dress as much as anything else. This element of showmanship was apparent on his wedding day. The Edinburgh Evening News reported on Monday 1 October 1962 that:
A nostalgic touch of the past came to Edinburgh with the wedding in St Giles Cathedral of Edinburgh advocate Mr Nicholas Fairbairn and the Hon. Elizabeth Mary Mackay, elder daughter of Lord and Lady Reay, Langlee House, Galashiels. The bridegroom wore a Regency-style outfit for the ceremony. The pages and flower girls were dressed in sixteenth-century costumes.
Nicholas Fairburn

Nicholas Fairbairn

His political career began in the 1960s when he stood for election in Edinburgh Central. But it was in 1972 that he was appointed Queen’s Counsel and was selected to succeed former Prime Minster Alec Douglas-Home when he announced his retirement from Parliament between the two general elections of 1974. Fairbairn won the seat in October that year.   He was appointed Solicitor General for Scotland on 6 May 1979, two days after the momentous 1979 election victory of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. This position is the second highest law officer in Scotland, essentially a depute for the Lord Advocate.   In 1979, he also divorced Elizabeth Mackay, with whom he had three daughters plus a son and a daughter deceased.   When the Daily Mirror reported on Thursday 24 December 1981 (Fairbairn’s birthday) that Pamela Milne, a secretary at the House of Commons and the only child of Major-General Douglas Milne, had tried to hang herself outside Fairbairn’s London home (one of the terraced cottages in Roupell Street, Waterloo) following the ending of an affair with him, it saw fit to describe him as:
… one of the most powerful men in Scotland.
Fairburn with Alec Douglas-Home

Nicholas Fairbairn with Alec Douglas-Home


What was Nicholas Fairbairn?

An interview by the Independent newspaper entitled “Sir Nicholas, too sexy for his trews?” in 1992 revealed much about his view of women and of sex. He said:
It is shameful the way we are made ashamed of the pleasures of the flesh. The flesh is among the greatest pleasures, along with the pleasures of the eye and of the mind. I often wonder how the ministers of the Kirk have children. Do they hold their noses when they’re at it?
  The interview continued:
His present marriage, so he says, is very satisfactory, adoring and, he hopes, permanent. But has he been faithful? ‘Good Lord, no,’ he said. ‘It’s the sanctimony of alleged fidelity which destroys marriage, not other occasional liaisons.’ Did his wife know? ‘We don't even discuss it. As long as no one is hurt, it is not a matter which matters. Sex is a human activity like any other. It's a natural urge, like breathing, thinking, drinking, laughing, talking with friends, flower-arranging, golf. They are not crimes if you plan them with someone other than your wife. Why should sex be?’   ‘Let us say I have spent all night screwing a mongoose, and next morning I have to appear in the House or in court. The vital thing is: does it show? If a sexually frustrated fellow, or woman, does not let their indulgence affect their professional performance, then bullshit, it doesn’t matter. Why not be honest about it?’
  What we see here is a man ruled and directed by desires of the flesh so completely that he cannot conceive of any moral limit on his conduct.  

A Second Connection

The Fornethy Girl who reacted with such revulsion to the photograph of Nicholas Fairbairn later picked out a second image: this time, calmly and definitely. “He was in the dining room at Fornethy,” she said. The man she picked out, and who has also been identified by numerous other Fornethy survivors from the 1970s, is Robert Henderson QC.    Some years ago, Henderson was exposed as part of the infamous Magic Circle paedophile ring operating in Scotland’s legal and judicial establishment. He was known as “Shiny Bob” and “the Devil’s Advocate”. Amongst those he abused was his own daughter, Susie.   After her father died, Susie Henderson reported her abuse to the police in 2014, and the operation which followed led to the extradition (from the USA), trial and conviction of John Watt QC for her rape and that of a ten-year-old-boy, and for abusing two other children.   Susie Henderson’s courage in waiving her right to anonymity means we know much more about Shiny Bob. She said:
My father had parties where I had to dance for people. He’d then put me in a bedroom. People came in. They had drugs there, lots of drink. My Dad used to give me drink.
There were parties and drink and drugs and people half-naked. I remember him taking me to a sauna one time. Another time, he took me to a judge’s house and left me there.
I was abused many, many times by different men, all at the same time …
Now compare this to the statements from some of the Fornethy Girls:  
… there was some sort of gathering in a square dark room with a lot of chairs round the walls with little girls on their knees. I witnessed this. Also the smell of a pipe and cigar smoke. I’ve never smoked in my life, but that smell will never leave me. It also scares me …
When I came home, I knew about sex. I don’t know why; I just know I did not know anything about it before I went there.
The horrible smell of stale drink and cigarettes, the loud music and laughter, the parading of you amongst the other wee girls in their pants and [being] told to dance in the smelly stale room with those horrid women and men—one of which, a stout red-faced man, that I can still smell in my mind—laughing, smoking. The smell never leaves you.
  And Shiny Bob Henderson’s network of abusers included Nicholas Fairbairn. As the Scotsman reported on 17 August 2014, Susie Henderson alleges that:
… she had been assaulted by her father, Robert Henderson QC, and Fairbairn, both of whom are now dead, from the age of four. She said they were members of an organised paedophile ring which abused her in her family’s five-storey Georgian house in Edinburgh’s New Town and other locations.
  Susie Henderson’s assessment of Fairbairn’s character was reported in the Scottish Daily Mail on 10 July 2022:
My dad could be quite a nice person. When he wasn’t drunk or in a vile temper, he could be quite loving. But Fairbairn was nasty and horrible, and the way he spoke to my mum it was obvious he hated women—hated everything, except maybe other men. He was vile; he was what I would describe as the sort of man who would have a woman for sex, for children and to clean.


Connections mean influence, power, authority and access. The memories and testimonies emerging from the Fornethy girls so far provides evidence that those in power and authority in Scotland had access, terrible and brutish access, to the tens of thousands of little Glaswegian girls who passed through Fornethy in its three decades of operation.   This links the abuse at Fornethy to Scotland’s legal, judicial and political establishment. It links it to the powers that made prosecution cases disappear with such amazing rapidity that they were nicknamed the Magic Circle. In turn, this linkage raises fresh questions about the reasons why Fornethy was allowed to operate without inspection or oversight for thirty years.   With these connections made, it becomes all the more vital for the full truth about Fornethy to be revealed, so that the survivors may have peace and so that the public may know what was done to their neighbours and in their name. This disclosure must include the role of Sir Nicholas Hardwick Fairbairn QC, Robert Henderson QC and the rest of the legal-judicial network. Police Scotland, the Crown Office (the Scottish public prosecutor) and all those in possession of relevant facts owe it to the Fornethy Girls to reveal what they know. There is no doubt that the true horrors of the Fornethy story are just emerging, and this time there must be no ‘Magic Circle’ suppression of the facts.