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A ‘Boarded-Out’ Boy: Mick by Willie Orr

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By Willie Orr

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This is the story of a ‘boarded-out’ boy. In Scotland it was the custom for local authorities in the cities to foster children in their care to families in rural – and often remote – parts of the country. Known as ‘homies’ or ‘boarded-out’ children they became a feature of communities in the Highlands and Western Isles. The scale of this social engineering was extraordinary, Glasgow placing nearly 800 children in 1953.

Some were welcomed into families and treated with kindness while others suffered indescribable cruelty and neglect, a veil of silence being drawn over the latter cases. Those who were abused were afraid to speak of their pain partly because they feared vicious retribution and partly because they felt that their complaints were not heard.  The authorities continued the practice, believing that such children, once removed from the squalor of the slums where they were exposed to disease, crime and ‘immoral’ activities, would thrive in the fresh air and uncorrupted communities of the countryside.

While I worked as a hill shepherd in the West Highlands and Islands I met many of these youngsters, some grown to adults, and heard of their experiences. Some had been treated with exemplary kindness and respect, a few inheriting the crofts on which they had been placed. Others were exploited as cheap labour, excluded from the family, isolated and ignored. In many cases their loneliness had been intensified by being told that their mother did not want them or that she was dead, a falsehood designed to sever any connection with the parent.

Having fostered youngsters, I can understand this reluctance to involve birth parents in the new life of a foster child, particularly when the adult is damaged by addiction, abuse or mental illness. Yet, in spite of these flaws, the child may yearn for the contact and the bond may be vitally important to the welfare of both parent and child. ‘She’s still my mammy.’ That intense longing I have tried to recreate in ‘Mick’, having seen it in the ‘boarded-out’ boys and in the adolescents we fostered.

What inspired the novel was a programme in television which focussed on the memories of adults who had been ‘homies’ and a reference to a book by Lynn Abrams entitled the ‘Orphan Country. Lynn’s meticulous and sympathetic research provided vital reference to original sources for setting the background. Mick is not based on a particular case in the files, but is an amalgam of many voices and also the memories of the boys I encountered.

To give Mick an authentic voice presented a problem. If the text was written in broad Glasgow dialect the story would have been almost impenetrable to most readers and yet I could hear the boy so plainly he might have been with me in the room. I had to translate into a milder form of language and yet, by preserving part of the dialect, keep the tone. Also I wanted his language to change as he matures, to develop from ‘ restricted’ to ‘elaborate’. I’m still not sure that the effort succeeded. Some relief from the dialect is given in chapters devoted to the Children’s Officer, an educated, compassionate character whose brother had died of TB.

I could have written the story showing Mick, fatally damaged by abuse, sinking lower and lower into addiction, homelessness and despair. Yet I wanted him to win, to survive, to take control of his destiny as many of these boys did. Having spent 15 years working with deprived, damaged and disaffected teenagers, I am left with lasting admiration for their resilience and courage. That affected my relationship with Mick. He had to succeed.

Sligo, the ‘down-and-out’ from the same slum as Mick, was invited into the story

as a version of what Mick might have become – a lonely old man. When I lived in Glasgow in the early 1960’s I met many such characters – derelicts, meths drinkers, vagrants, victims of the Great War. Some had been heroes, some cannon fodder, some deserters. A few were proud men with shreds of dignity; others, battered by misfortune, had surrendered and passively waited for the next blow. Sligo had to have some of these characteristics and also some compassion.

Mary, the girl Mick meets while he is ‘on the run’ in Glasgow, had to be a feisty, insolent but loveable lassie. I still see the girl – bare legs spattered with mud, staggering on high heels several sizes too large through puddles in the Gorbals, frayed frock torn on the hem, a fag in her fingers and hair not quite clean. The very one for Mick.

Henderson, the Children’s Officer, having trained wireless operators to work behind the German lines in WW2, harbours some contempt for convention and middle-class ‘benevolence’. He sees Mick’s potential and supports him when he is accused – unjustly – of rape. I see him with his pipe, sports jacket and crossword in his bungalow in suburbia, a supporter of the post-war Labour party and the National Health Service.

In the background there are many references to TB which was, of course, rife in the cities. Glasgow embarked on a massive campaign of public diagnosis using mobile X ray vans and prizes for lucky participants. I included this as a medium to bring together Mick’s mother and her ‘saviour’, a prosperous sheep farmer in need of a companion. He not only rescues her but brings Mick to live on the farm.

It is always tempting to choose an enigmatic ending or to finish with a flourish but I chose a ‘happy ending’ because I came to admire Mick as I still admire the youngsters I knew who fought their way out of chaos, neglect and destitiution.

(c) Willie Orr

About Mick:

Mick Crossan is a ‘homer’, removed by social services from his widowed mother and slum home in the Gorbals and placed in ‘care’.

Along with his sister, Mick is forcibly removed from the slum for his ‘moral protection’, but faces a life of abuse, first at the hands of priests and nuns, and then on farms as cheap labour. Through it all Mick’s spirit burns bright, and his determination to find his family and reclaim his identity draws him back to Glasgow and eventual happiness.
In 1950s Scotland, thousands of children were removed from their families for a ‘better life’ in the rural idyll of the Scottish Highlands as ‘boarded-out’ children.Willie Orr deftly writes with a lightness of touch, and addresses a rarely talked about aspect of recent Scottish history.

Lynn Abrams – Professor of Modern History – University of Glasgow:
Between the 1860s and the 1970s, Scotland boarded out thousands of children requiring care, many of them placed with foster parents in rural parts of the country. Mick is a moving and chastening novel in which we follow the fortunes of one of those children moved from pillar to post, mistreated and abused by those the state entrusted with his care but ultimately finding a good life for himself. While the majority of ‘boarded-outs’ received adequate care and some were treated as equal members of the family, the fate of the unlucky ones deserves our attention. It warns us against complacency and reminds us that vulnerable children are the most deserving recipients of our compassion and support.

Order your copy of Mick online here.

About the author

Formerly hill shepherd in Scottish Highlands but forced to abandon that way of life after tractor accident. Graduating in History from Stirling and Strathclyde, published non-fiction books and several short stories in Harper Collins Scottish Short Stories. Worked as a school counsellor for troubled adolescents, a research assistant for Tom Devine and a free-lance journalist mainly with The Scotsman. Awarded Scottish Arts Council writer’s bursary and Scottish Book Trust mentorship. Just completed novel on slavery in 18th century Scotland and Virginia. Two books published in 2019 – ‘Shepherd and the Morning Star’ and ‘Mick’ about ‘boarded-out’ children in Scotland in the October.

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