Gina Davidson: Their pain is unimaginable

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IT was exactly 7.35am yesterday morning when the knock came. It seemed to echo through the house and immediately quelled the anxious murmurings of Dorothy Maitland and her three grown-up children as they sat 

Dorothy had been up most of the night. A sleeping pill hadn’t worked, her mind was just too full of the possibilities. Determined to answer the door herself, she made her son sit down, and returned with a huge parcel – a knife was found to slit through the heavy plastic cover – and then the cardboard box inside was opened. There in front of her was a ring-bound tome with the words Mortonhall Investigation Report branded on the front page.

It was what she and hundreds of parents affected by the babies ashes scandal had longed for: Dame Elish Angiolini’s report was printed. But faced with its weighty reality she could barely bring herself to open it – opting instead for the letter sellotaped to the cardboard carton in which the details of just where her own child’s ashes were about to be revealed.

It’s been a long, difficult road for the parents of the ashes scandal. Ever since the discrepancies between the practices of private crematoria such as Seafield and the council-run institution were raised again with new management at Mortonhall – and it was revealed that ashes were recoverable after cremation and that over the years many had been buried in an unmarked plot – their grief and 
anxiety has consumed them.

For those of us lucky enough not to be personally touched by their loss – twice over with the revelation that ashes were retained and then buried – their pain is unimaginable.

Dorothy and the other affected parents who run the bereavement charity Sands Lothians have had to put that to one side for most of the last 16 months as they’ve helped others – many of whom had never turned to Sands before – deal with the appalling reality that they had been lied to by the very place in which they had placed their trust.

Then the parents who established the Mortonhall Ashes Action Committee also tried to use their grief and anger in a proactive manner, meeting politicians and campaigning for a public inquiry so parents across Scotland who have been affected in a similar manner might get some closure.

They have all had their critics for not doing enough, or doing the wrong thing – including talking to the press, demanding answers rather than going away and shutting up about their grief because it upsets others. They’ve even been accused, rather disgustingly, of seeking some kind of fame or money.

And then there was the fact that some parents, including Dorothy, agreed to let journalists see the Angiolini report before they could know for sure that every single parent had 
received a copy.

Why did they do this? They did it because Edinburgh City Council, quite rightly, refused to release it to anyone before the parents had it and didn’t want to stand accused of breaking a promise.

But Sands and Maac hadn’t made any such promises, and they knew the story was bigger than them, bigger than Mortonhall, that the report will have a national impact – as the recommendations have shown.

Let’s remember that Sands Lothians staff and MAAC volunteers are not public relations officials or spin doctors. They are real people who just want an apology, who want what happened to them to be recognised by the council, even by the government, and who want to ensure that it never happens to any parent again. They are not the bad guys.

And neither are the press. Last week I attended a conference where the question of whether Scotland was an open society was discussed. The Mortonhall ashes scandal was highlighted as proof of the need for investigative, campaigning journalism of a kind which is still raging against the dying of the light.

If Sands hadn’t gone to the press with the story of Mortonhall and if the press hadn’t kept up the pressure for answers on Edinburgh City Council, who really believes that the Angiolini report would be out now? Who really believes that a public inquiry would ever have been on the agenda?

While each parent affected is of course dealing with the reopening of old wounds and the betrayal of Mortonhall, and while many would never want their private grief made public, other parents have for their sake, spoken up and spoken out. That is something for which we should all be grateful.

As for Dorothy, her letter told her what she already knew. That the “most likely” place her daughter Kaelen’s ashes had ended up was somewhere below ground in an unmarked plot at Mortonhall. Whether that’s true she, like all the other parents, will never really know.

That is her personal tragedy.