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The South Ronaldsay child abuse scandal began on February 27, 1991 when social workers and police removed nine children belonging to four families from their homes on the remote Orkney, Scotland island South Ronaldsay in dawn raids, following suspicions of ritualistic Satanic child abuse. The nine children were placed into foster homes and barred from any contact from their parents. During lengthy interviews the nine children denied that any abuse had occurred, and medical examinations did not reveal any evidence of abuse.


The father of a family, identified at the time as "family W" to protect their privacy, was imprisoned in 1986 shortly after the family's arrival in South Ronaldsay, for sexually abusing a daughter. In late 1990, 8 further children from the family were taken into care by social workers. The children were separated and sent to different institutions and foster homes, and the two youngest, aged 4 and 5, were told that their mother was dead and given to another family for adoption. No accusation of abuse was made against the mother, and local people began a campaign for the children to be allowed home. However, it was six years before the last of the children was returned to their mother. The family was subsequently identified as the Willsher family in 2006 when May Willsher, one of the 8 children taken into care, broke her silence regarding the events.[1]

In February 1991 a girl from family W reportedly made allegations of organised sexual abuse during "disclosure therapy sessions" with police and social workers. She told social workers that her family and playmates gathered at a local quarry to chant, dance and have sex with "The Master", a man wearing a black cloak and a black mask, who would hook them out of the dancing circle with a crook. Additional details included that the children were sometimes dressed as Brownies or members of the Boys' Brigade and that the minister made love to their mothers while they were dressed as cowboys or "the white ghost".[2] The stories were confirmed by a brother and sister, but not by any other members of the family. "The Master" was subsequently identified as the local Presbyterian Minister, Reverend Morris MacKenzie, who had apparently been campaigning for the return of the children to their mother.

After consultations among police, social workers, and local officers of the RSSPCC, pre-dawn raids were made on the houses of the minister and the four families who had assisted his campaign. Objects suspected of being used in Satanic rituals were seized and 9 children were taken into care. One child was Jewish, and her parents requested that she be fostered by Jews, but the request was ignored.

Following a community meeting, many of the parents organized a support group, the South Ronaldsay Parents Action Committee, led by Helen Martini, a local doctor, and assisted by the voluntary organization Parents Against Injustice (PAIN). The group collected petitions of support that showed overwhelming scepticism about the charges.[3][4]

Court case

The case came to court in April, and after a single day of evidence the presiding judge, Sheriff David Kelbie, dismissed the case as fatally flawed and the children were allowed to return home. The judge criticized the social workers involved, saying that their handling of the case had been "fundamentally flawed" and he found in summary that "these proceedings are so fatally flawed as to be incompetent" and that the children concerned had been separated and subjected to repeated cross-examinations almost as if the aim was to force confessions rather than to assist in therapy. Where two children made similar statements about abuse this appeared to be the result of "repeated coaching".[4] He added that in his view "There is no lawful authority for that whatsoever". Sheriff Kelbie also said that he was unclear what the supposed evidence provided by the social services proved.[5]

The children were returned by plane to Kirkwall airport on April 4, 1991 where they were reunited with their parents.

The objects seized during the raids were later returned; they included a videotape of the TV show "Blackadder", a detective novel by Ngaio Marsh, and a model aeroplane made by one of the children from two pieces of wood, which was identified by social workers as a "wooden cross". The minister was asked to sign for the return of "three masks, two hoods, one black cloak", but refused to sign until the inventory was altered to "three nativity masks, two academic hoods, one priest's robe".


Paul Lee, Orkney's director of social services, said after the court case that he would be taking legal advice about appealing against Sheriff Kelbie's decision.[5] However he stated that the case against the parents would no longer be pursued.[6] An appeal was later lodged by the Recorder in the case at the Scottish Appeals Court. The court upheld the appeal on 12 June on the grounds that the Sheriff had "allowed himself to form views about the contents [of the social workers' evidence that] would have made it impossible for him to bring a fair and balanced judgment to the issues".[6]

The controversy nevertheless continued and caused an official inquiry to be established in August 1991, chaired by Lord Clyde. After 9 months' investigation at a cost of £6 million, the inquiry published its report in October 1992. It described the successful appeal against the first judgment as "most unfortunate" and criticized all those involved, including the social workers, the police, and the Orkney Islands Council. Social workers' training, methods, and judgment were given special condemnation, and the report stated that the concept of "ritual abuse" was "not only unwarrantable at present but may affect the objectivity of practitioners and parents".[7]

The inquiry's official report included 194 recommendations for reform, ranging from methods used in sexual abuse investigations to the training of social workers. It advised that interviewers who had dealt with children making allegations about other children should not be involved in interviewing those other children, a recommendation that sprang directly from criticism of interview techniques used by Liz McLean, a local social worker who was in charge of interviewing the children. It also recommended that sheriffs (who are legally qualified) rather than justices of the peace (who are not) hear requests for children to be removed from their families and that social workers provide more documented material to sheriffs when seeking such orders, a recommendation which appeared to weaken the role of Scotland's unique children's panel system.[8]


Liz McLean, the social worker, who led the interviews with the children, advocated controversial new theories from America on child abuse and interviewing techniques. Orkney social workers based their removal of nine other children solely on claims made by three of the W children against the parents of the nine children, and the local minister, the Reverend Morris MacKenzie.[9] McLean had also been involved in the 1990 Rochdale "Satanic Abuse" case. She was later sharply criticised by Lord Clyde in the official inquiry into the South Ronaldsay case, and in another investigation into similar allegations in Ayrshire.[1]

Interviewing techniques

During the investigation the children received a number of lengthy interviews. McLean was later described by several of the children as a terrifying figure who was "fixated on finding satanic abuse", and other children described how she urged them to draw circles and faces, presumably as evidence indicating abusive rites.[1] These techniques were strongly criticised by Sheriff Kelbie.

One of the W children later said of the interviews:

In order to get out of a room, after an hour or so of saying, "No, this never happened", you'd break down.[3]

May Willsher, one of the children from "family W", later said:

I would never say that a child's testimony in the company of Liz McLean at the time [is reliable]. She was a very manipulative woman, and she would write what she wanted to write. I would doubt any child supposedly making allegations in that situation."
—Interview with May Willsher, 2006[1]

2006 documentary

On 22 August 2006 a documentary on the case entitled Accused produced by Blast! Films was transmitted by BBC2. The programme included dramatic reconstructions of some of the interviews conducted with the children by social workers, and allowed participants in the affair - including the children - to speak for themselves.[10]

Victim lawsuit

In September 2006 it was announced that May Willsher, who had been 8 years old when she was taken into care by social workers in November 1990, intended to sue the council for damages of £100,000. Ms. Willsher said that she had been the victim of a "witch hunt" by overzealous social workers determined to break up her family. She said that the interview techniques used at the time were designed to break the children down, and that she was bribed with sweets to tell social workers what they wanted to hear.[11]

In February 2008 it was reported that Ms. Willsher had won a struggle for legal aid to sue the Council.[12]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Addley, Esther (21 October 2006). "Interview: Esther Addley meets May Willsher". London: The Guardian.
  2. Bennett, pp. 286-287
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Orkney abuse children speak out". BBC News. 22 August 2006.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Jenkins, p. 186
  5. 5.0 5.1 "1991: Orkney 'abuse' children go home". BBC News "On This Day". 4 April 1991. Retrieved 23 May 2010.
  6. 6.0 6.1 The Independent, "The Orkney Inquiry: 'Reporter' is central figure in emotional saga", Wednesday, 28 October 1992
  7. Bennett, p. 287
  8. Cusick, James; Braid, Mary (28 October 1992). "The Orkney Inquiry: Child abuse report urges 194 reforms: Lord Clyde's paper will be a 'major influence' in the transformation". Independent (London).
  9. Glasgow Herald.[dead link]
  10. "Accused - Blast Films". Blast! Films.
  11. "Orkney abuse scandal victim to sue for lost youth". The Scotsman. 11 September 2006.
  12. Thompson, Tanya (27 February 2008). "Woman wins legal aid to sue over child abuse scandal". The Scotsman.


  • Jenkins, David (1992). Intimate Enemies: Moral Panics in Contemporary Great Britain. Aldine Transaction. pp. 186. ISBN 0202304361.
  • Bennett, Gillian (2005). Bodies: Sex, Violence, Disease, and Death in Contemporary Legend. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1578067898.
  • Black, Robert (1992). Orkney A Place of Safety?. Canongate Press. pp. 192. ISBN 0 86241 350 8.
  • Dr. Reid, David H. S. (1992). Suffer The Little Children. Napier Press, St. Andrews, Scotland. pp. 168. ISBN 1 871479 03 7.

Further reading

Sex Abuse: An Issue in Human Sexuality (revised extract from: Fitzsimons P. 'Michel Foucault: Regimes of Punishment and the Question of Liberty', Int J Sociol Law (1999), 27, 379-399)

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