Aberlour Stories

From Aberlour Orphanage to the BBC by Ron Aitchison

Ron Aitchison and three of his brothers

Picture of Ron Aitchison and three of his brothers (he is smallest!)

It all happened at 8:15 a.m one April morning. I was about to go to school at my usual time when my housemaster at Aberlour Orphanage told me that I was to go instantly to the Warden’s office. As a young 14 year old boy who had already spent all my life at this Orphanage, my fear and concerns went straight into overdrive!  Why was I being asked to the warden’s office at this time of the morning? What could I have been doing that was wrong? Had I been nicking apples in the AberlourVillage again…..hang on!….no….it was April and even I knew that apple nicking was only a sport for us after the summer!

As I walked to the warden’s office along the gleaming parquet floored corridors (which some Orphanage lads had been polishing since 7:00 o’clock that morning) and through the large ornately glazed double swing doors, I still had this uncomfortable feeling about my impending doom. You were only commanded to the Warden’s office if you had been up to some mischief and I was at my wit’s end to think what I has been doing that should mean an official order to see the Warden. Think Ron…think! What have been up to! The strap was usually meted out at the Warden’s office I had just a few seconds to think what I had been doing that should merit this early morning summons. I am now sure that this was where I developed my signature frown line placed between by eyes. All caused by a deep mistrust of officialdom and people older than me!

Two Wardens had been at the helm of Aberlour Orphanage during my 14 yrs there. Charlie Leslie was an odd mix of a man with a lined and craggy face (which for a 14 yr old seemed stern), a centre parting down the middle of his black hair (spooky!), odd spectacles, a penchant for German sausage dogs, (we had been told about the war and anything German was still treated with suspicion in early 1960’s Britain). To be fair, he had trouble filling the boots of his predecessor Clarence Wolfe (Woolfie) and was seen more of an administrator and architect of the demise and final closure of the place in 1967, much to the regret of not only all who knew and loved the place but to the locals in Aberlour and the clergy as well. The Orphanage had been built and run on religious grounds by the Scottish Episcopalian Diocese.

After a shaky tap on the Warden’s office door I was invited in. Alongside the Warden was stood a very large lady who I remembered as being a Miss Talbot who was an official of Edinburgh Council Social Work Dept (ECSW) and whom I had met previously when discussions were afoot to unsuccessfully return me to the family home in Edinburgh. This was the same ECSW who had decided that it was best to remove me and all of my 7 brothers and sisters to an Orphanage institute some 200 miles away from the family home because all 8 of us couldn’t live in a squalid 3 roomed tenement building in Leith, the suburb and Port of Edinburgh.

Instantly I was asked “Ronnie, Have you ever given any thought what you might do when you leave the Orphanage?”
Leave! Now that was a word I had never heard before! Leave! Me!
“Where would I go?”  I sheepishly asked.
“A job” came the terse reply.

“Have you ever given any thought about what job you would like when you leave the Orphanage?”
This was getting easy now!
“Oh yes Sir….I’d like to be an engine driver!” What a numpty!…
I was the lad just a few months before who had seen the first of the new diesel powered “Sputniks” arrive at Aberlour Station because the nice old steam trains were to finish and it never dawned on me that engine drivers would be the last job on earth!

The Warden became a little tetchy at this reply and said as calmly as he could “Well, they are not really looking for engine drivers right now. Have you ever thought about an apprenticeship?”  A what? I instantly thought. They never mentioned this new word at school. “What sort of things would you like to try?” but before I could blurt out anything the warden already had the answer and I recall hearing something about Electrics.

As I looked back at the Warden in an empty glaze, not knowing what these new words meant and before I could get my act together to try and gain the upper ground in this rather bizarre conversation he made a statement of utter surprise which has lived with me all my days.

“Well Ronnie, Miss Talbot is going to take you to Edinburgh and get you a job as an apprentice in Electrics”.
I know I sheepishly agreed to this arrangement but I certainly didn’t expect the next bombshell to hit me.

“So, we will just gather your things and Miss Talbot will take you to Edinburgh and sort it all out……today!…right now!”

What! Now! But…but what about my pals at school, my housemaster, my toys and games, my “pouckies” (anything from a watch, a wind-up musical instrument, a crystal set etc) I wouldn’t be saying cheerio to anyone.

It now appears that most Orphanage children were treated this way and this type of closure, to what was your family life and upbringing, dealt a heavy blow and deeply affected many in later life.
to read the rest of Ron’s story click here

Additional links

Aberlour Orphanage BellClick here to listen to the Aberlour Orphanage Bell played at the ReunionListen to the sound of the bell
This is the sound of the Aberlour orphanage bell being played at the Reunion in the marqee

Aberlour Orphanage Old Boys and Girls Memories Page (Aberlour Trust Website)

Aberlour Orphanage Old Boys and Girls Memories PageSince 1875, hundreds of children and young people have walked through the doors of the orphanage, and later, our various services across Scotland.

There are many former residents who are very proud to be a part of Aberlour’s history, and it has had a profound effect on their lives, and indeed ours.

They want to celebrate the rich and varied experiences of these people, and give an insight into how life at Aberlour was. That’s what this section of the site is about.

Aberlour Trust Bicentenary of events
Aberlour Trust Bicentenary eventsThe village of Aberlour will be celebrating its 200th anniversary in September, and the Aberlour Child Care Trust will be in attendance on the 14th and 15th.
All activities are to be held in the marquee in the Alice Littler Park.
The website also has information on the history of the Orphanage.

Aberlour Trust links to memories of the Aberlour OrphanageThe Aberlour Trust has a series of recordings by people who remember the Aberlour Orphanage. You can watch videos of first hand accounts of life there including a
Aberlour trust interview with Ron Aitchison

It was a very difficult decision to close the orphanage and was part of a new emphasis on placing children in family homes instead of large institutions.

Press and Journal article about life in the Orphanage by a previous resident.

Archival information on Aberlour Orphanage is held by Glasgow Caledonian University.


Working on the beaches near Kinloss during WW2 by Dr. John Caldwell

Anti-Tank Concrete Blocks, Findhorn Beach Double row of blocks fitted with iron loops to help move them into place. Just inland from here is Kinloss airfield. Source From geograph.org.uk

Anti-Tank Concrete Blocks, Findhorn Beach

While waiting to hear about his  application for medical school, John worked on the beaches near Kinloss. This was 1939 and John was 16-17 years old.  The objective of the work was to make Kinloss airbase more secure from enemy land craft. John worked in a gang of men digging holes and putting in telegraph poles. They had to work according to the tide which could be as early as 4 a.m. The older men in the group drove the tractors, which John would have liked a go at too. The gangs also added concrete blocks to the beaches. There were three or four different gangs working.on the beaches. The sea ravaged lots of the poles. They also put in heavy tramcar lines to see if that was better. The sand moved beneath them so the following day they would not be in the right postion anymore. Sometimes there was rock beneath or solid peat and the posts stayed in place better then.

John also worked on farms including those with Italian prisoners of war. There was a camp in Elchies. Quite a few people came from Newfoundland (“Newfies”) and they formed part of a specialised corp of wood workers. He saw the end of horse ploughing as the horses were replaced with tractors.

Eventually he heard he had been accepted to medical school at Aberdeen University (the year below Horace Thomson). He started in 1940 for five years. There was often four terms as he had summer studies to complete. He had house jobs in Aberdeen and six months as house surgeon. In 1947-8 he did National Service as a doctor.  John joined the RAF. He posted to Kirkham near Blackpool where everyone went home every weekend. There could be a very poor quality of airmen with sore heads and sore backs. He cut down the list of those on medical leave by requiring the sick person to sign in for tablets morning and afternoon including weekends (i.e. no leave). Miraculously the sick list got a lot shorter. During his period of service he went to Tripoli in Libya. There was a better standard of living there even though it was a very hot Italian town.

Pre-NHS work
John was not aware when working at the hospital of any money coming in to pay of medical treatment. Local people often saw Granny first for a traditional remedy before paying to see their doctor. Penicillin arrived in 1938 and it was very useful. During the war he remembers a batch of german prisoners coming in with horrific wounds and a batch of penicillin coming in.

Dr Beatrice Sellar submitted by her nephew Dr John Caldwell

Dr Beatrice Sellar

In 1939 he came back to Aberlour. His father was a doctor there with a surgery based in the family house. His Aunt was also a doctor (Beatrice Sellar). The house was built in 1882 as the Doctor’s house. There was a surgery but no waiting area. As mentioned earlier the first place people tended to go when they got sick was a relative. Doctors were for medical emergencies or when local remedies failed. The result was that when the doctors did go out it was usually to see very sick people in their beds. There was no dentist in Aberlour so the doctor often had to pull teeth. They also dealt with cuts, bruises, stitches and other minor surgery. Very few people had their own phone so someone had to make the long journey to the house. This could be at any time of the day or night. There was no off duty. A typical example was a man coming with his horse and then John’s Father went back with the farmer with his doctor’s bag. Over half the work involved childbirth. “Howdie” wives were local experienced women who helped with the simple births. The doctor went to every confinement. There was no antenatal work in the early to mid 1900s. The social service department would provide extra clothing for when a baby was born. Housing standards in Aberlour could be very poor with very little running water and no inside toilets. Some homes were no more than hovels.

The Fleming Hospital at Aberlour The Fleming hospital was opened in 1900, a recent addition is the  Aberlour Health Centre.

The Fleming Hospital at Aberlour

By the time that John came in 1949 there were antenatal clinics in Aberlour in the local Fleming Hospital. Housing standards were improving with a corresponding improvement in health. He had spent his school days here and some old ladies remembered him then so did not want him to examine him. John had spent six months in Newcastle to learn his midwifery. His Aunt was a great obstetrician and much respected for her skills. She had lots of experience. John thought he had a suitable pair of forceps but his aunt thought they were too small for the job. The aim at any birth was to have a dry bed at the end. Beatrice had very high standards. Post-natal infection was a great worry. Many families could have ten or more children and they often ran out of names. John found his name being used on a number of occasions for this purpose.

Additional Information

Aberlour community gallery with pictures of the old Aberlour supplied by Dr. J.S. CaldwellAberlour Community Gallery-photographs provided by Dr. John Caldwell

The Prisoner of War Camp at Elchies has been taken down but you can still see the concrete bases that the huts were on. The Camp is now a caravan park.

Images-  John’s mother working at Fleming hospital during WWI

Dr Tom Sellar during WWI.  More information on the History of Aberlour by Dr B.M. Sellar

Dr Beatrice Sellar- information on her appointment as a factory inspector
Information from John Caldwell about his Aunt-

Archive news written by John Caldwell about his Aunt Beatrice Caldwell
source for full article December 2007 Kirk News (go to page 7)

“My Aunt, Dr. Beatrice Sellar, came to help her father in 1923. She was not allowed to drive the car for the first few years and did her visits by motor cycle – a “baby” B.S.A. She foundtwo problems; the gear she had to wear – goggles, leather helmet, jacket and knee length boots were all right on the bike, but cumbersome in a cottage and very tiring if there was any walking to do. The other drawback was the difficulty of carrying breakables such as bottles of Iodine or Lysol. She eventually succeeded in crashing the cycle on a stone dyke and was then promoted to the car.”

The Howdie-Wife- by Anne EwingInformation on Howdies- untrained midwives
Click on the image on the left to read a story about a local Howdie wife.
“Hann was the howdie-wife in the small town of Markinch in Fife, where she helped to deliver the babies and tended to the sick and dying.”

BBC Voices recordings Voice clip 2 discusses Howdie wives
BBC Voice Recordings  

Senior citizens and staff meet at the Frank Jack Court, Peterhead, to talk about traditions, especially the ‘howdie wives’ who were amateur midwives in the community.

Voice clip 2 discusses Howdie Wives
Relationship of interviewees:Friends/connected by Frank Jack Court
Where: Peterhead, Aberdeenshire
Language of interview: Scots

Watch a 1955 film of horse ploughing


Timber Corps newsletterLumber workers came from across the Atlantic but there were also thousands of locals including many women. Click here to read about the Lumberjills and their role in the need for wood during WW2.


Teaching at Aberlour House by David Hanson

David began his teaching career in Slough at the age of 22 in 1963. His first school was William Penn County Secondary School, Buckinghamshire. He had achieved a degree in Physics and Chemistry at Sheffield University prior to his appointment. He was inspired in his career choice by his French teacher. His first job paid £70 per month. He set about the development of a science laboratory in the school. Went to Eton College to talk to a man about making Science benches. He used tubular steel and sheets of plywood. Had to allow space for the gas taps. The school did a study on water voles on the Thames, which was unusual. He taught all the Sciences and was self-taught in Biology, teaching up to O’level in this subject.  Got a reflecting telescope but it was difficult to open it in the evening as the school system would not pay for a caretaker to open and lock up. It was frustrating. Stayed in the school for a year.

Aberlour House gate houseAberlour House gate house

Moved then to Aberlour House in Moray, which was a total change. Applied for a job as a teacher of Mathematics and Science (8-13 years). Accommodation was included. The head, Toby Coghill (1964-1989) came up to Slough. Meeting him was an inspiration. David was invited to come and look at the school. He had decided to take the job as the train came up to Craigellachie and he saw the beautiful landscape. Prior to this he had only been as far as Aviemore. The school was for boys only until 1973 when it became co-educational.

He was able to organise a wide variety of activities for the children. There were numerous expeditions and field trips. David and his classes started a study of bird pellets from Barn Owl Roosts and other birds of prey. As the Recorder of Mammals for Moray the findings were reported to the National Mammal Society. David founded the International Bird Pellet Study Group and started communicating with people all over the world including museums and universities. the children’s role was making observations and recordings.

Porcellio spinicornis by Jomegat, Contributor  Creative Commons License source http://bugguide.net/node/view/315584/bgpagePorcellio spinicornis

Another study was the distribution of woodlice during a given year e.g. 1970. With the children, David found one woodlouse in a holiday cottage in the Cabrach and sent it to a Scottish Woodlouse Expert. It was a Porcello Spiniconis (related to Porcellio Scaber) and had not been seen in Scotland before. It had a black head and yellow spots. They went looking for it every 10 sq. km. and found them everywhere including the mortar of ruined cottages. A distribution map was created.

Click here to continue reading about David’s teaching work including flea collecting, setting up a bird pellet group and solving rubik cubes…………


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