On Friday 13 June 1975, there was an inferno in the woods surrounding Fornethy House. It was described in the Aberdeen Press and Journal the following day. Their report read:
Fire yesterday swept through two woods at Loch of Lintrathen, near Kirriemuir. Firemen from four towns fought for two and a half hours to control the blaze, which severely damaged eight acres of young firs and spruce set in dense undergrowth.
The outbreak occurred in the grounds of Fornethy House, a residential school for children from the Glasgow area, about two miles west of the loch. Rubbish was being burned in two large drums when a spark was carried by the wind on to nearby trees. The fire quickly caught hold among the trees and spread to an adjacent plantation in Middleton Estates.
Two fire engines from Kirriemuir and Alyth attended and assistance was summoned from Forfar and Dundee. The firemen used six jets to stop the blaze spreading throughout the 30 acres of plantation. Water was pumped from a nearby private loch. Damage was confined to four acres in each wood and firemen remained for some hours damping down the adjacent area.
The private loch referred to is a small mill-pond located immediately north of Fornethy. It is visible in the following map extract:
The key points here are that the fire started at Fornethy, the scale was considerable, firemen from four towns fought the blaze, and eight acres of the 30-acre forestry plantation were severely damaged. This was no small fire. It was a major incident and clearly a significant risk to the house itself.
Reassuringly, the Press and Journal report concludes:
The children at the school, which is for those in need of a holiday, were elsewhere at the time on afternoon outings.
However, one of the Fornethy Girls, a survivor of the cruel régime that tortured and emotionally scarred young girls for three decades, was present that day. Her recollection is quite different. She recounts:
I remember there was a forest fire. I remember being in the house and everyone was talking about it. Mrs Fletcher was there and she was telling us that we might have to be sent home if the fires got worse. I remember feeling relief and hoping that they would get worse so that I could be sent home to my family. (I know it sounds bad, all I wanted was to get out of there and be with my family.)
All us girls spoke among ourselves, hoping and praying that we would be sent home. Hoping the fires wouldn’t be put out. I remember we waited and waited to hear what was happening and I am practically positive that we were sent to our dorm to wait. In fact, I know we were sent to our dorm to wait. I remember we all chatted to each other from our beds.
Eventually, Mrs Fletcher (although I can’t be sure it was her, it might have been another teacher) came and announced to us that the fires were out and that we would not be going home. I remember crying when I heard the news. I remember we were sent out to play in the playground because it was safe.
If I remember right, we couldn’t go out for a walk that day because of the fires and we had to wait in our dorms. Then, when the fires were out, that’s when they allowed us to play in the playground, because we hadn’t been out that day. I’m sure I also remember, the next time we went for a walk, we could see on the ground the burned patches.
So, the real situation was quite the opposite of the story presented in public. The girls were confined to their rooms: an unusual situation, as they were left to their own devices for hours as the firemen fought the blaze. This was a rare degree of freedom at Fornethy. The Fornethy girl who recalled that day expands on this further:
… On the day of the fire, the house was unusually relaxed. I remember we were all happy and glad that we were sent to the dorm. I remember everybody being hyped up, and we were all hoping that we would be able to go into each other’s dorms—something that under normal circumstances would be unheard of. We actually thought we would be allowed to, but they got wind of it and came and told us we couldn’t leave our own dorms.
I remember it being the only time the house was relaxed, and we were all excited at the thought—hope—we might be sent home. Looking back, it was obviously because the teachers were more concerned and engaged with what was going on with the fires than to be their usual abusive selves.
How did the false story that all of the girls were away from Fornethy that day get circulated? Almost certainly, this was put out by the head teacher, Pearl Fletcher, and her staff.
Was this false information also shared with the fire brigade? We cannot be sure, but it seems likely, as the Press and Journal report likely came from the Fire Brigade: it contains much technical detail on how the fire was contained. What we know for certain is that seventy-four little girls were confined to their bedrooms and not evacuated as a four-tender fire raged in eight acres of woodland surrounding the house. Once the blaze was out, a false story was promulgated to hide this fact.
Not a one-off
The woodland fire was the first case of reckless endangerment we have discovered relating to fire safety at Fornethy, but is not the only one.
When originally constructed, the main, south elevation of Fornethy had a prominent curved external staircase from a first-floor entrance down to the garden below. It was a primary architectural feature and was executed with some grace. It can be clearly seen in the old photographs of the house.
This stair was used as a fire escape. Two of the Fornethy Girls recall fire escape direction signs pointing to this exit.
Another of the Fornethy Girls, who was there in either 1978 or 1979, recalls what happened to this stair. She said:
[I] remember the stairs that girls used to try and run away—they got removed.
Now only the door remains, suspended in the wall a storey above ground level, as evidence of the alteration.
As this is a structural alteration with huge significance to the fire safety of the building, it should have had planning permission and building warrant approval. It did not.
Inquiries with Angus Council did reveal some information, however. They replied as follows:
We have a record of a planning application in 1979. We do not have a file for this but can advise the application was submitted on 26 October 1979 by Strathclyde Regional Council, Dept of Administration, Legal Services, Regional Offices, Hamilton. The application was for the ‘erection of enclosed external fire escape at Fornethy Residential School, Lintrathen’. The application was approved without conditions on 11 December 1979.
It seems likely that, with a planning consent granted in December 1979, construction of the new fire escape probably occurred in 1980. The new, three-storey escape was added to the west elevation. Glasgow City Council no longer retains record drawings for this structure, although viewing it on site shows it to be both an architectural detriment to the mansion house and a poor arrangement for a fire escape. It has windows facing towards windows in the main house, and the escape door opens into a narrow passageway and likewise faces towards a window in an adjacent wing of the building. The windows are hazardous, since any fire in this part of the house could affect the useability of the fire escape in an emergency.
Whatever the technical limitations of the new fire escape, it is the timing of its construction that is significant. The application was lodged after the original escape was removed. Hence, Fornethy Residential School, and the seventy-four little girls lodged there, were left without adequate fire escape for some months at least, and perhaps up to two years.
For a second time, the safety of the girls was jeopardised. For a second time, control of the girls took precedence over their welfare.
On reflection, both of these events seem to indicate that Strathclyde Regional Council (the predecessor organisation of Glasgow City Council) must have known something was not right at Fornethy. There must have been some inquiry into how a major fire had been started by the Fornethy staff in the woodland around the house and why no evacuation of the girls had been carried out.
There must have been questions asked about why a perfectly serviceable staircase, serving as a fire escape, was demolished, requiring the construction of a substantial replacement stair—at no small cost. Questions must have been asked; do any records of these remain?
We must conclude that the reckless endangerment of so many little girls could not have gone unnoticed. And this serves to highlight one of the core questions regarding Fornethy: why, in thirty years, was nothing done to intervene?