Gavin Bell recalls a poignant migration of a group of children from the slums of Glasgow to the sea-washed idyll of Tiree and reflects on the effect it had on

their lives and the lives of those around them

THE old house stands near the shore, above dark rocks battered by the ceaseless swell of the north Atlantic. In the distance, sunlight shimmers on the broad sweep of a sandy bay enclosed by a low headland. There is no other habitation in sight, and the only sounds are of the wind and the sea, and the occasional cry of a gull.

It is a far cry from the crowded tenements of Glasgow in the 1950s, which were Bernie Smith's introduction to life. Now he owns this fine house with its croft on the island of Tiree, he has a successful building business, and he is a prominent member of the Gaelic-speaking community. He says: ``I like Glasgow, but Tiree is my home''.

The transition was initiated by a welfare scheme which took hundreds of children from broken homes in Glasgow to foster parents in the Highlands and Islands until the early 1970s. The aim was to offer youngsters who had lost their natural parents a chance to grow up in a healthy environment away from the social problems and pressures of their native city.

Many seized the opportunity, and eventually settled in their adoptive regions. A quarter of a century on, they are raising their own families as native Highlanders and Islanders, revitalising the rural communities that adopted them. Bernie Smith is glad to be among them.

His parents split up and then his mother died when he was an infant, and he has no recollection of them or of Glasgow. For two years he and his elder brother George lived in a children's home near Dunoon, then social workers told them they were going to the Highlands to stay with their ``Uncle Jim''.

On the boat from Oban the boys, aged five and seven, were bewildered by Gaelic-speaking crofters returning to Tiree from a cattle sale on the mainland. ``They were speaking this strange language. We thought they were Germans and we were quite frightened.''

Their destination lay on the south coast of the island, among a scattering of whitewashed houses known as West Hynish, where there was no Uncle Jim. Instead, there were two spinster sisters and a half-blind brother who soon had them working in the fields.

``We used to work at the hay, a job we hated. It was all cut by hand in those days. Then we had to gather seaweed, and that was as bad because it gave you calluses on your hands.''

But there were gloriously long summer days, when the brothers would scramble among the rocks and fish for cuddies in tidal pools with string and safety-pins. Their playground was 30 square miles of wind-blown machair, and coves, and deserted beaches traversed by only a few single-track roads. ``We walked to school about two-and-a-half miles from the croft, and many's the time we were late if the weather was good.''

He and his brother had to eat their meals standing up - ``I suppose they didn't have enough chairs'' - they were beaten if they misbehaved, and they were given sweeties instead of pocket money. ``It was a strict upbringing that didn't do us any harm. They were quite good to us. God knows where I'd be today if they hadn't taken me in.''

The boys learned Gaelic, and at the age of 14 Bernie won a silver medal for solo singing at the National Mod in Oban. But a year later, in common with most of the foster children, he had to return to Glasgow to learn a trade. I was upset at leaving. They were our parents in the end.''

The call of Tiree remained strong, and seven years later he was back, staying with the surviving sisters and fishing for lobster off St Kilda. When the last of his foster parents died in 1981, he found they had bequeathed him the croft. This is where he now lives with his wife - whose father was also fostered on the island - and their two-year-old son Ian.

He has no intention of leaving, and says: ``One day I'll buy a couple of cattle for Ian. He'll enjoy milking them like I did.''

In a few years the boy will be attending the school at the north end of the island, where he will find another product of the foster scheme in the janitor, Tommy Monaghan, who arrived from Glasgow in 1966 at the age of seven with a brother. ``We didn't know what Tiree was, never mind where it was. I remember we came by plane. One minute we were at Glasgow Airport, and the next we were in this wild place and as far as I could see there was nothing here - just grass and sheep and cattle.'' Apart from holidays, he has been on Tiree ever since; and like Bernie Smith, he inherited the home of his foster parents.

After a succession of jobs - fisherman, builder, shop assistant, and mechanic - he is happy to be working at the school where his two daughters are pupils. ``It's a secure job, that's the main thing. And this is a grand place for the children, it's quiet and peaceful and there's no danger to them. I don't think we could ever go back to the mainland now.''

The mainland is not visible from Tiree, where the biggest hill is only 462 feet high. It is not far, but for all it affects the pace of life on the island it might be a thousand miles away. Tiree is the kind of place where half a dozen cars converging on the Co-op after a delivery of fresh produce from Oban constitutes a traffic jam.

Crofting is still the mainstay of the economy, supplemented by lobster fishing and seasonal tourism. The rich machair gave the island its name, which means ``land of corn'', and supported a population of more than 4000 until the potato famine of 1846. Largely due to their deep-rooted farming traditions, the present population of around 800 have retained their Gaelic culture more than other Hebridean islanders.

Tiree also has a wonderful sense of space and timelessness, with more than 500 species of wild flowers, countless gulls and lapwings, two pubs, one policeman, and no traffic wardens. A local guidebook suggests a good way to pass the time is to sing to the seals sunning themselves on offshore rocks. It says: ``We once had great success on the rocky spit of land between Vaul and Salum with the 23rd Psalm''.

John and Josie Fletcher look like typical Tirisdeachs - people born and raised on Tiree. Sitting by the fire in their house by the sea, they look back on a happy childhood working on the land and playing by the sea. In fact, they were foster children from Glasgow who met and married and raised a family of their own on Tiree.

John says: ``The people who looked after me were good folk, but I remember inspectors used to come up from Glasgow twice a year to make sure the `boarded-outs', as they called us, were properly cared for. Health and religion were their main concerns. They made sure we were going to Sunday School''.

Josie recalls: ``My elder sister was with me, and we played at houses down on the beach all summer when the days were long. I'm glad I was brought here, it's given me a good life''.

After 11 years in the Merchant Navy, John Fletcher returned to Tiree to help run the croft on which he was raised, and now he owns it. He is proud of a framed certificate in his living-room which pays tribute to 21 years of service as a volunteer in the island fire brigade.

Not all of the ``boarded-outs'' fared so well. There were casualties, those who never felt they belonged in their adoptive communities, and then felt equally estranged from life in Glasgow. There were behavioural problems, some resorted to petty crime and others to drunkenness. Some complained years later that they had been abused by their foster parents.

Some, like James MacLeod, have mixed feelings and harbour resentment against the system that committed him to the care of people whom he considers treated him harshly. ``I lost my childhood somewhere along the way,'' he says. ``They were very good with a belt, I was going to be whipped into shape one way or another. In some respects I had a good upbringing on Tiree, but there are mixed emotions. Nobody knows but me the misery I suffered.''

Twice a year Glasgow Corporation would send each child a set of clothes - in the case of boys it included identical donkey jackets, thick woollen jumpers, and tackety boots. ``It was like a uniform,'' MacLeod says. ``Everybody knew you were a `boarded out'. I felt I was branded a second-class citizen.''

But when his natural mother decided to take back her family when he was 14, MacLeod was even more miserable living in a Glasgow housing estate with a woman he did not know. During a summer holiday in Tiree a few months later, he vowed to throw himself into the sea rather than return to Glasgow. He eventually left the island to learn his trade as a joiner and work on the mainland, but he came back 10 years ago with a Hebridean wife and three young sons.

The unhappy youth in tackety boots is now a middle-aged man who enjoys singing in Gaelic at island ceilidhs. He built the pier at Scarinish, where the CalMac ferries dock, and he bears an elaborate tattoo on his right forearm that says: ``Bonnie Tiree''.

There is nothing bonnie about the builder's yard of David McCrae, who was brought up in the same croft as MacLeod. His windowless office in the east end of Glasgow is overlooked by grimy tower blocks that could accommodate the entire population of Tiree. The only scenery worth looking at is on a pictorial calendar by his desk.

``I would go back to Tiree in a minute if I thought I could earn a living there,'' he says. ``My foster parents were strict in some ways right enough, and it wasn't an easy life. When you weren't at school you were working on the croft most of the time, but you never had any worries. I'm grateful to have been brought up there. If I'd been put into orphan homes in Glasgow, God knows where I'd have been today.''

His partner Kate would be happy to take their three children to the Hebrides, given the chance. ``They're just reaching the age where we'd like to take them away from the dangers of drugs and other bad influences. If David could get a job on Tiree, I wouldn't hesitate about going.'' David McCrae says: ``When I make my fortune, we'll go back.''

At the island school, teacher Gordon Connell recalls a time when up to a third of some classes were ``boarded-outs''. ``By and large they were well cared for, and I think a lot of them felt they were better off here than in broken homes in Glasgow. Some of them might have found work on the crofts a bit arduous, but it was no more than the local children were used to. At harvest time, everybody just mucked in. I certainly think it was a great thing for these children, and if it worked then perhaps it could work again.''

It is unlikely to be repeated, however. Eric MacKenzie, who spent 20 years visiting foster children as a welfare inspector for Glasgow Corporation, says such schemes are no longer practicable because of legislation requiring greater access for natural parents to children in care. Financial constraints would also pose problems in providing adequate support in far-flung areas. Another factor is that children tend to be older now when they are placed in care, with the result that some have behavioural difficulties that require special counselling.

MacKenzie regrets the changed circumstances. ``I am a great believer in this system. There was the occasional failure, of course, but most of the children I visited were perfectly happy in their adoptive communities. They were given opportunities for decent lives that they might not otherwise have had.''

He recalls a time when at least one island school choir and a Highland shinty team were composed almost entirely of ``boarded-outs''. In the 1950s, a survey indicated that at least one-third of the foster children did not wish to return to Glasgow. At the time there were 550 living in Inverness-shire, 130 in Argyll, and 114 in Ross and Cromarty. Their guardians received a boarding allowance of 17s 6d per child per week, pocket money of 6d to 1s 6d depending on the age of the child, and an annual clothing allowance of #10 to #15. By 1970, however, with new legislation affecting such programmes, the total number of ``boarded-outs'' had fallen to fewer than 150.

According to municipal records, there is a long tradition of fostering out children from broken or impoverished homes in Glasgow, dating back to at least 1770. MacKenzie says: ``It was an enlightened approach for the time. The city fathers decided in their wisdom it was better to place a disadvantaged child in a family environment rather than an institution such as a poor house.'' The last big scheme was initiated in 1948, when the new welfare state introduced legislation requiring local authorities to care for children up to the age of 18.

There was a negative side, however. ``It separated people from their natural families,'' MacKenzie admits. ``Many grew up not knowing who their parents were, or their brothers and sisters. It left a gap in their lives.''

He is now helping to fill in the blanks as the co-ordinator of a ``family-finding centre'' in Glasgow's social work department. The last generation of ``boarded outs'', from Hebridean crofts to the tenements of Glasgow, are keen to know who they really are. The research centre is dealing with about 1000 inquiries a year.