One of the pleasures of spending holidays with my aunt and uncle at Altas shop and Post Office in the 1950s, was playing with local children, including some of the “Boarded Out” children, often referred to as the “Glasgow orphans”.
Apparently, at one point there were at least 25 such children living in the district and attending Rosehall Primary School.
A report by Glasgow Children’s Officer in 1959 says that “The boarding-out of children deprived of a normal home life has been a distinctive feature of Social Welfare Administration in Scotland since the latter part of the 18th century (…) the practice of boarding children in rural areas was found to be more beneficial to the children than placing in towns.”
It seems that crofters in Altas had been taking in Glasgow children since 1912, receiving some expenses to augment their income and also receiving a clothing allowance. Most of them seemed to have had a fairly happy life in this caring community but we only have evidence from one such person, Willie Phelps, who was interviewed by an Alness lady some years ago and eventually started coming to some of our Rosehall local history events.
He told us that he was born in a Glasgow hospital and lived there until he was five years old, when he and another 11 children, accompanied by two nurses, set off on the long train journey from Glasgow to Invershin. A bus met them at Invershin, dropping off children at various croft houses. He said at each place a woman would come out saying “I’ll take one” or “I’ll take two.” Of course he didn’t realise that arrangements would have been made previously.
He was last on the bus and it was dark by the time he was dropped off at a wee croft house in Altas. He was welcomed in by a kind woman called Hannah Munro, who invited him in to sit by a blazing fire. It was all very strange to him, but he was too tired to take it in. After she fed him, she tucked him in to a warm bed where he slept soundly till the morning.
Hannah had other Glasgow boys staying but they had left for school by the time he woke up.
After breakfast she took him out to help her feed the hens.
“How are they no’ eating the food with their hands?” he had asked. He’d never seen hens before!
Willie told us that although he’d had a very happy life with Hannah, he always wished he had some family of his own.
He once overheard a neighbour telling Hannah that she wasn’t going to take more Glasgow children in because there was more money in pigs!
He left school at the age of 13 and went to work on a farm near Alness. Life improved when he got married and had a family of his own. Years later, he discovered that he did have two siblings, who had also been boarded out but on the west coast. Eventually a reunion was organised and he met his brother and sister.
Some of those children spent their whole lives in the Rosehall area. One that comes to mind, being Jimmy Miller, who married an Ardgay girl. He was the first to buy the old church in Altas, where he lived until he died.
One day, while we were holding a local history exhibition in Rosehall hall, we had a visit from a lady who told us a very sad story.
She was brought up outside Glasgow but knew very little about her father’s background. When she was leaving school, she got a holiday job in Dornoch and told her father about it. His ears perked up and he said, “I was brought up near there. In a place called Altas.” She was getting ready to go out to a dance that night, so he said “I’ll tell you more about it when you come home.”
Sadly, her father died that night but she was determined to find out more.
She was working with a girl who said, “I have a car. I’ll take you up there to see if you can find out more.” At the first house they called at in Altas, the occupant said, “Yes, I can show you where he was brought up. It was her father’s aunt who had brought him up. The girl and her friend climbed in the window of the ruined cottage and looked around the very place where her father had grown up. She said she was overcome by sadness but decided she would find out why he had been boarded out. It took her a long time but eventually she discovered the the records of the Boarded Out children were held in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. She also got more information from Army records. He had not been an orphan but the illegitimate child of a poor woman who had to survive by prostitution. She searched for his mother’s death certificate and eventually discovered that she had married and settled in America.
While we were holidaying at the shop we met several of the adult boarded-out “children” who were always made welcome in my aunt’s kitchen for a cup of tea. Two I remember very well are Davy Hunter and James Craig who were brought up with many others by the MacKays at Invenauld farm.
We still have enquiries from families seeking information about their “boarded-out” relatives.
I’m sure there will be people reading this, who remember going school in Rosehall with some of them. The scheme seems to have come to an end around 1958.
By Lily Byron
*In this article Lily Byron uses the original spelling ‘Altas’ (from the Scottish Gaelic Alltais).
Last Updated on 10 June, 2022 by Kyle Chronicle