A SMALL brown leather case rests on Bill Dudgeon’s lap and as he opens it to reveal a clutch of ageing sympathy cards, the painful memories inevitably flood back.
It was once his daughter’s, he explains. Diane, a pretty, bright, adventurous girl who used it for all the vital scraps of paper with names of best friends and pop stars that a 15-year-old girl really needs.
Now, as her dad slowly turns it over in his hands, 40 years of heartbreak and grief surface and gently overwhelm him.
“It’s always just there,” he says, swallowing hard to stop the threatening tears. “Just under the surface of your skin, it never ever really goes away.
“She would have been 55 in April. She’d probably married, have children – maybe even grandchildren. She wanted to be a librarian,” he manages a smile. “Imagine, who’d want to be a librarian?”
Of course, all of that was not to be. Instead Diane, with her dimpled smile and glossy chestnut hair, was doomed to perish alongside four school friends and a teenage instructor on one of Scotland’s most beautiful yet equally vicious mountain ranges, in what would become the UK’s worst hillside tragedy.
And the passing of time, says Bill sadly, even 40 years of it, has failed to stopped the hurt.
It was November 1971 when the father of five watched Diane leave for a school climbing expedition in the Cairngorms. In all, 14 children went from Ainslie Park School along with their 23-year-old leader Ben Beattie and his 21-year-old girlfriend, bound for Lagganlia, the Edinburgh Corporation’s new outdoor centre near Aviemore.
The trip north to the spectacular Highland mountains would have held all the promise of a journey into a thrilling adventure, a chance to experience nature at her most stunning, wildest extremes and to put individual strength to the test.
But within hours of their arrival a horrific and perplexing chain of events would unravel, leaving five local teenagers dead and costing the life of their young instructor.
And even now, precisely four decades later, why it happened, who was to blame and exactly what went wrong, remains a mystery.
What is known is that the mountain range’s fickle weather, a string of inexplicable decisions and sheer bad luck provided a fatal combination in one of the most horrific events to ever unravel amid the beauty, drama and might of one of Scotland’s most scenic treasures.
Now 76, Bill still clearly recalls the nightmare sequence of events that resulted in the worst news possible – that his daughter Diane had perished in the snow along with three other girls, one boy and their 18-year-old instructor.
“We let her go,” he remembers. “She was 15 but she had some experience of climbing. Of course we didn’t realise they were going so high up the mountain. We thought it was just a trip around Lagganlia and back.
“We didn’t know that plan was to spend a weekend on a hilltop in the middle of winter.”
Indeed, the notion that a party of youngsters in the care of three relatively inexperienced instructors should tackle a challenging mountain climb in the grip of a November blast would, these days, probably require intense consideration.
But this was 1971, Mr Beattie, from Granton, was Ainsley Park’s outdoor instructor and had organised the expedition with his girlfriend Catherine Davidson from Ormiston. With newly arrived Lagganlia instructor Sheila Sutherland from Newcastle, the parties split into two and set off.
Mr Beattie – who would later perish in a climbing accident in the Himalayas – took the strongest and fittest, mostly boys, leaving Miss Davidson and her teenager instructor companion to take the weaker party of mostly girls, the plan being they would all meet to spend the night in a bothy in the heart of the Cairngorms before making their way separately back down the next day.
“The weather was terrible,” says Bill, who lives in Pennywell Road with partner Josey, 70. “Even here the wind was howling and the snow was thick – it must have been awful up there.
“They left on the Friday and set off up the hill on the Saturday. But it was Sunday night before we heard anything might be wrong.”
Miss Davidson’s party of six children had struggled to reach the bothy. The weather had closed in, visibility was poor. Lost and increasingly tired, the decision was made to settle for the night in a snow hole and wait for the weather to lift.
It would have been a challenging experience for the most hardened climbers. But these were children aged just 15 and 16. And even with their Icelandic sleeping bags and protective covers, the bitter cold and biting wind must have made for a harrowing night.
By all accounts Miss Davidson attempted to cheer the group by leading them in song. But she had opted to camp out in an area notorious for accumulating snow. And by morning the group was covered in a thick powdery layer that was impossible to walk through.
The alarm was finally raised when Mr Beattie’s group made it back to Lagganlia to find the others had not yet returned.
“It was Sunday night, a policeman came to the door to say they would be late home,” recalls Bill. “Later on that night a newspaper reporter came to the house and said they were all missing.”
Worried families gathered at the school next morning, hoping their children had taken shelter in a bothy. It was not until that afternoon that the most harrowing news of all emerged – the children had been finally found, just a few yards from a snow-covered bothy, but five were dead.
Diane, Carol Bertram, 16, Susan Byrne, 15’ Lorraine Dick, 15, and William Kerr, 15, were buried beneath the snow along with their instructor, Miss Sutherland.
Miss Davidson survived along with one schoolboy, Raymond Leslie, aged 15.
“He was the smallest,” says Bill, “and he was found at the bottom of the snow hole – we think the girls’ maternal instinct may have kicked in and they tried to use their bodies to shelter him.”
An inquiry later probed the incident and made several recommendations for future climbing expeditions – rules which Bill and Josey believe have helped prevent further tragedy. But no-one was ever found to be responsible for the tragedy.
That, says Bill, left a further scar on grieving families who were faced with simply having to dismiss their child’s loss as nothing more than a terrible accident.
“The fact is that it shouldn’t have happened,” he says sadly. “I can’t imagine it would happen these days. For a start people would have radio equipment before they even set off. I can’t help but think the instructors were too young to be in charge – it would be like a game, them in charge of kids not much younger than themselves.”
And as another significant anniversary passes, the grief for a daughter he never saw grow up remains as strong as ever.
“I wonder what she would have been like. She was bright, outgoing, she had lots of friends. A typical teenage girl with her whole life ahead.
“And then she was gone, in an instant.”
THE 1971 tragedy raised serious questions over the kinds of outdoor activities offered to children and the systems used to help prevent such tragedies.
And it left its mark on the brave men who attempted to reach the stricken party.
John Duff, police sergeant and mountain rescue leader who was involved in the search, recalled in a book written in 2001 – the 30th anniversary.
He said: “There was no need for the tragedy ever to have happened. To my mind, it was an expedition planned for the benefit of the instructors rather than the teenagers – it was far, far too ambitious for them.”
The mother of Sheila Sutherland, the young instructor who died, seemed to agree. She was 76 and living in Staffordshire in 1996 when she spoke for the first time of her loss. “You never forget it,” she said. “It was such a dreadful waste of young people.
“The decision to split the parties up should never have been taken.”