From the Greek myths, Moses in his basket, and the Babes in the Wood, to the Green Children of Woolpit the plight and mystery of lost children runs culturally through our veins. It is one of the situation where most people will feel a pang, stirring the memory of our own children, or our own experience when we found ourselves unteathered from those we knew to protect us. This is one of the reasons why the fate of the Unknown Bairn (Scots for child) captured the attention of so many.
Probably between two and four years old, his small body was found floating at Tayport beach, at the Firth of Tay in 1971. While this in itself is tragic, Tayport, mystified that no one came forward to claim the child, decided to hold a funeral and bury the Bairn, errecting a headstone. Ian Robertson, the Postman who found the body tended his grave until he died and was buried close by. His family look after the grave still. Tayport had decided not to let the child go unremembered, and in doing so showed a collective compassion in action that is truely touching.
Many have wondered who the child belonged too, and it was seen as one of the enduring mysteries of Scotland, that is until Davie Donaldson decided to investigate. Davie is from the Scottish Traveller community, as rumours had swirled for fifty years that the Unknown Bairn was a Traveller, Davie wanted to dive further into this mystery, as it did not fit with the family focused Traveller culture he knew.
Davie’s journey takes him around Scotland, following leads from the original investigation, and meeting people not interviewed before. As he does so he comes to realise that it is likely that the Unknown Bairn was a Traveller. However he was not abandonded because he was not loved or cared about. He was most probably abandoned because of The Cruelty. The Scottish nick name for the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Before social work departments came into being in the 1960’s The Cruelty had responsibility to investigate child abuse, and while there was most definately abuse that needed to be dealt with in all strata of society, Travelling People themselves were considered suspects of abuse and neglect by dint of being Travellers. These paternalisitic and frankly racist attitudes ultimately resulted in children being taken forceably from loving homes, split from siblings, sometimes fostered and adopted and far too often abused by those who were considered more responsible.
Understandably, this caused much trauma for the children, and the families left behind. This was all the so-called “Tinker esperiment,” which aimed to strip travelling culture away and force the people into sedentry accomodation. This is not the only time we see this behaviour, as wherever the cold clamy hand of colonialisim has touched, we find “experiments” of this sort, from the forced assimilation of Australian Aboriginals, to cutting First Nations People from their land and placing their children in residential school, we see this pattern repeated across history and continents.
So when in 1971 a wee boy died by accident, his family were far too scared to claim him. For the vast majority of parents the love they feel for their children is fierce, to the point of being illogical, so one can only imagine the weight of that decision would have hung heavily on the minds of all those who knew the real story.
As Davie, follow clues around Fife and Scotland, to try and give the Bairn his name back he comes to a startling conclusion, and the story becomes even more personal than ever. At a grave-side memorial Davie reads a poem to the boy in The Cant, the language of the Scottish Travellers, and when he says the Bairns name for the first time the wee one suddenly becomes more real and tangable, less of an idea than ever, but at the same time the poweful symbol of the children who had become seperated from their families at the hands of the state on ideological grounds.
So why have I included this in true crime podcasts? There are many who will say there is no crime. However so often in true crime and crime fiction we narrowly hold a definition of crime of only being interpersonal, and forget that the apperatus of the state can participate in crime too. Of course, it is the state itself that writes and enforces the laws that we live by and the codifying of law around the practicalities of prosecution means that sometimes actions which are legal at the time, but yet throughly unethical to us now, fade into history with no justice or restitution. Maybe not a crime in the sense of the statute books, but if one judges purely by the impact it has on it’s victims, it could be.
However, the kindness of starngers, in particularily the people of Tayport shines like a beacon through this story. We find that individual’s and communities, not the state, are the ones who were able to extend kindness and compassion. There are others who in a spirit of kindness protected those who were forced into a Sophie’s choice between burying one child, or losing their others, understanding, as many do, that the power that is weilded by others can often prop up assumptions that damage the individual and the whole. Here at True Crime Fiction we certainly hope the Scottish Government, will follow this guiding light and take a first step at restitution by apologising to our travellers for what they have endured..