History of bairns betrayed

11th December 1998 at 00:00
THE ORPHAN COUNTRY: Children of Scotland's Broken Homes. From 1845 to the Present Day.
By Lynn Abrams.
John Donald Publishers. #163;22.50.

Lynn Abrams's new book is shocking. Orphan Country destroys complacent illusions, disturbs and dismays readers at how society's moral guardians have treated Scotland's most vulnerable children.

The Glasgow University historian documents major landmarks since 1845 in the way authorities and charities dealt with children and parents facing family crisis or breakdown.

Her most powerful and best-documented chapters chronicle and thoughtfully consider the history of boarding-out, orphanages with its major players, Quarrier's, Barnardos and Aberlour. The vast scale of forced emigration, often to face brutality and forced labour in the new "promised lands" is also dealt with.

"Evangelical philanthropists used emigration schemes for almost a hundred years as an efficient means to pursue the permanent destruction of thousands of Scottish working-class families," says the author.

There were two especially strong impacts for me: first a cumulative disgust at how much unimaginable cruelty, inhumanity and conceited self-righteousness could spring from supposedly Christian and charitable motivation.

Secondly, how the profound humanity of a few critical outspoken individuals in each generation shines like a beacon through these pages: long-forgotten, inconsequential Scottish Office inspectors, journalists, heidies, brave protesting parents. Let us recognise and shun the descendants of the first group today; and listen to our own maverick, "extreme" campaigners for children.

A few caveats: Abrams graphically shows how deep, often grotesque class prejudice influenced the way our poorest children and families were treated. But the privileged elite in public schools endured many of the same brutal deprivations and moral strictures: comparisons would have been useful.

Also the vast, famed Aberlour Orphanage comes across very grimly in this book. So we should also record that the publicity-shy Aberlour Child Care Trust has evolved into one of Scotland's most courageous, farsighted, innovative providers for the young people whom others reject.

The main fault is that in attempting a massive project, Abrams accounts far too sketchily for developments and changes in childcare practice since the Social Work Scotland Act 1968. Better to play to one's strengths as a historian and leave it out than offer an unsatisfactory rush-through.

For instance the major controversy in the late 1980s over Fife's policy on taking children into care is omitted, though it raised key modern dilemmas. There are some inaccuracies and dubious claims in her brief resume of the Orkney affair, which needs thorough revisiting in its own right. But despite these weaknesses the book should be essential, salutary reading for everyone who works with children, and will make a powerful historical contribution to the children's rights movement.

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