Growing Up in an Orphanage: Tales of Personal Resilience


  Professor David Divine who is pursuing doctoral studies at Durham University on the resilience of young people in a care setting, shares excerpts from his recent book, Aberlour Narratives of Success. While orphanages are usually portrayed grimly in popular media, David found through his ethnographic research, including interviews with former residents and staff at the Aberlour Orphanage, along with his own childhood experience there, that personal sense of resilience and community within these institutions allow young people to eventually lead successful lives as adults. In the first of a series of posts on the subject of personal resilience, David shares an insider’s view of living in a residential care setting.


Growing Up in an Orphanage: Tales of Personal Resilience



I was admitted to Aberlour Orphanage at the age of 18 months from the residential nursery in Edinburgh, and entered Princess Margaret Nursery School in 1955. As I grew older I slowly realized that I had not been wanted in my original birth family and was ejected because of how I looked and never reclaimed. That still hurts and I am now in my late fifties. But I also grew to feel a strong belonging to Aberlour Orphanage and to the carers at the Orphanage, and particularly to Aunty Phylis, my Housemother at Spey House (one of the houses for boys at Aberlour Orphanage), where I stayed from leaving the Princess Margaret Nursery School until I left Aberlour at the age of 11 in 1964. I then entered foster care hundreds of miles south in a coal mining village, four miles outside Edinburgh.


Aberlour Orphanage 1875, from Arberlour Narratives of Success

  Aberlour Orphanage was founded in 1875 during a period in the UK characterised by rapid increases in both population and poverty, resulting in wretched conditions for many children especially those living in slums of the cities. One of the responses to this was the growth of what became known as ‘Victorian Philanthropy’; essentially rich capitalists providing for the poor through charity. Children were seen to be in need of rescue from the desperate conditions in which they lived. The underlying philosophy was that they needed a whole new life, completely separated from the past. There was spontaneous and simultaneous growth across the UK of institutions — mainly located outside of cities — where children could be given a new start, free from the drudgery of their previous lives. The institutions provided a focal point for philanthropic giving as they developed a model, providing all of a child’s life requirements. It is painful reflecting on my childhood and early adulthood, reminding myself that a large part of my early life was defined and shaped by the circumstances of my birth and my parents who disowned me at the age of three months, and abandoned me. I sometimes think how a baby could cause the parents such distress and anxiety that they can place their child outside the family with strangers and move on with their lives, without the child. No contact with the child. No cards on special occasions like birthdays, no presents at Christmas. Nothing. Such was my start in life in 1953. Having a white single parent mother who already had two illegitimate white children to two different men, who was living in poor conditions and whose boyfriend at the time, my father, a black man, was in the American Air Force stationed in Scotland, was a tragedy waiting to happen in the early 1950s. Racism was rife, mixed relationships between white and black people were frowned upon and of course the effects of that settled upon the children of such unions. I came along and the wider family, my mother’s parents and the local community (which was small, everybody knew each other, and there was a strong religious element as well), could not cope with the shame of a visibly recognized illegitimate child and the only course open for mother and family at that time was to have the child removed from the home, so that things could return to ‘normality’.   ABERLOUR6

Group of children from orphanage including David Divine (pictured right) and carer, from Arberlour Narratives of Success

During my first 19 years of life, Aberlour Orphanage was the only ‘home’ I had and the only ‘family’. The Housemother of Spey House where I lived, Aunty Phylis, was the only mother I had and I saw her as such, as did all the other children in the House, some 28-29 of them. We did not have anybody else. Most children in the Orphanage did not have any direct contact with their birth families during their time at the Orphanage, and so we had to make do with what was available. We made friends, we sought out parental figures, we created our own families; we formed a life for ourselves. I felt loved there. I thought I belonged there. Of course there were unhappy periods particularly at Christmas and birthdays precisely because you were reminded that you were on your own, regardless of the wonderful efforts of the staff to make you feel part of something special. On occasions I remember thinking if only my mother would turn up at the Orphanage and say she was taking me home. I would not question her, I would gladly go and put behind me the loss, the pain, the tears, and follow her. Unfortunately my mother never turned up and life moved on. I was thirty years old when I met my mother again. It is now 48 years since I left Aberlour Orphanage and I have had a very successful professional life since, covering three professions. I travel globally and have my home in Canada now. I am happily married and have three wonderful children, the eldest of whom was married in the autumn of 2012. On reflecting back to my own childhood at Aberlour Orphanage, I am reminded of what I owe to that institution and to the care and support staff, my only home and family as a child and young person growing up. It gave me a belief that I was loved, simply for being me — that I did belong there — that I was valued, wanted and respected. Such a sense of security and seeming permanence helped me later in life to withstand the trials and tribulations of life, and overcome them and thrive.


Billy P. was born in a slum in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1933. His mother had died in childbirth in 1936 when Billy was three years old. Billy’s father, who was a merchant seaman, had custody of him and his elder brother who was two years older. Billy recalls that in 1938, around the time of the Great Depression, when his father was unemployed, being told by a ‘matronly lady in a grey uniform’, that he and his brother ‘were going on a day trip into the Highlands’. The ‘matronly lady in the grey uniform’ took the boys on a train from Glasgow to Aberlour railway station, about half a mile or so from the Orphanage buildings: We didn’t know we were going to an Orphanage. We were just told that we were going on a day trip to the Highlands. Papers I’ve seen since tell me that in fact what happened was that (our father) handed us over to the Orphanage in the hope that he might be able to retrieve us at some unspecified future date, but in fact he never did. That was the last we ever heard of him, so he just disappeared from our lives. Never had a Christmas card, never a birthday card, absolutely no contact whatever and I’ve not heard to this day, any information or advice about what happened to him. I wasn’t aware then and I’m still not aware now of any other family members, any uncles or aunts or cousins or anything. We were completely on our own. But there were many boys who if it was possible, were in an even worse situation. They had been dumped on the doorsteps of the Orphanage by whoever had taken care of them, and some of them didn’t even have names. And the Orphanage made up names until they established their identity. There was a space at the Orphanage at that time for very young children under five years of age, called the ‘Nursery’. There were always, for the twelve years I was there, there were never fewer than twelve infants there. That’s children from a few weeks old to about five. They were then separated and put into houses, either a girl’s house or a boy’s house. The children had absolutely no contact with any parent.   ABERLOUR2

One of the dining rooms in Aberlour Orphanage around 1913.
 Photo courtesy of Jenny Maine.

The only time Billy was placed together with his brother was for the first few days after arrival at the Orphanage, in the infirmary. Thereafter, Billy and his brother lived in separate boys’ houses as children were placed in different houses at the Orphanage according to age and gender. Girls had their own section in the Orphanage. During Billy’s time at the Orphanage: Boys were split into the wee kids who were five to seven-year olds. And then there was a Mitchell Wing and then there was a Mount Stephen Wing, named after a Canadian philanthropist, Lord Mount Stephen. And then we were split up, again, at the age of 11, into two houses for the big boys, Jupp’s and Gordon’s, and they were from 11 to 14 which was the leaving age, and then in 1945, 11 to 15. In 1945 after the War they changed the school-leaving age to 15. And then in exceptional cases and I was one of them, we stayed on until we were 17, and that was only a handful of boys who did that.

Occasionally you stayed together with pals of the same age as you progressed through the houses. Billy spent ten years living in the company of a number of friends: We slept in the same dormitory, we were in the same class in school, we played football and cricket, we went swimming together. My brother was two and a half years older than me so he was always one house ahead of me, throughout my whole time at the Orphanage. And then because he left school when he was 14, by the time I was in one of the senior houses he was gone, he was working on a farm.

Other memories of the Orphanage include the schooling. The school building separated the boy’s wing from the girl’s wing and the classroom was the only setting where a boy could sit next to a girl.

But as soon as the school bell rang, four o’clock, end of school, they went back to the quine’s (girls) wing and we went back to the boy’s wing, and we didn’t see each other. I have pleasant, even fond memories of nearly all the teachers, which I don’t have of the domestic staff, the Housemistresses and Housemasters, some of whom were quite unfitting for the responsibility of small children.

Some were ‘floggers’ says Billy and one teacher in particular:

…was a notorious flogger. Corporal punishment was common both in the home and at school. As a boy I copped it a few times. You had to hold your hands out, both hands, palm upwards, and then he lashed you across the palm, and it might be three or four, you know, if it was perceived as a serious misdemeanour and you’d have these welts across your hand and up your wrist…red and then it would turn blue and you could date the punishment from the colour of the stripe on your wrist. We just accepted it I suppose. It was part of our upbringing. Sometimes a cane would be used.

Applying the standards of today, you could say that it was fairly harsh just having the corporal punishment and the segregation. But by the standards of the time, the 1930’s, it was quite good.

On leaving at seventeen years of age, the Orphanage found Billy a job with its’ own auditors, based in London, because Billy was good at figures and with words. In fact, Billy was the first Aberlour Orphanage boy who graduated from Aberlour Village High School with the Scottish Highland Leaving Certificate. Billy was kitted out with two suits and shirts and other clothing and was provided with a suitcase and boarded the train at Aberlour on his way to London, on his own. A hostel had been arranged for him to stay on arrival. Shortly afterwards Billy had to do his National Service for two years and then did a number of temporary jobs on discharge, and then by chance discovered an advertisement in the Edinburgh Evening News for experienced clerks in Australia for the Victoria Railways. He applied and got one of the jobs and went to Australia in 1956 by sea in a six-week voyage, at the age of 23. Over the next ten years Billy did a number of other jobs around Australia and discovered by chance again, an advertisement for a journalist which Billy again managed to get and from there went to Reuters News Agency, and then decided to undertake a law degree at 35 years of age and reached the top-tier of the legal profession, retiring in his seventies as a salaried Crown Prosecutor.

I look back and I think if I hadn’t had a good education, if they hadn’t sent me to the High School, if I didn’t have a Scottish Highland Leaving Certificate, then I could not have achieved what I have in my life. I’ve worked long enough. It is time to retire and relax now.

Billy is 78 years old and living in Australia.



A dormitory of Aberlour Orphanage, around 1913.
 Photo courtesy of Jenny Maine from Aberlour Narratives of Success

I have cried more in the past two years of this research than I have in a lifetime prior to this, not because of the heartache, loss, hardship, thwarted potential and sheer unjustness of the circumstances surrounding the early start of the child participants, unfolded in these narratives, but because of the resilience, the strength and the refusal to be beaten by the odds lined up against them. Astonished, awed by their determination and achievements, knowing that I am part of their select company. I’m privileged to be regarded as part of their family, as they are of mine. I was not as alone as I had thought as a child. I had a family. It was all around me in Aberlour Orphanage.

We need to balance these various sources of knowledge, and ask ourselves, whose life are we addressing: our own or that of the child and young person? The child and young person takes a risk, whether known or unknown, in having us, as care staff, attempt to make life decisions which could fundamentally alter their future life outcomes. Perhaps, just perhaps, we should consider taking a balanced risk, in trusting the opinion and judgement of the child and young person. Linked with this point, are the ‘space’, opportunities, and resources, we grant children and young people to create and re-create themselves.

Aberlour Orphanage strove to occupy the residents’ lives with a variety of activities primarily geared to building health and strength and the acquisition of practical skills, independence, confidence and self-worth. It hired staff who it thought had unique and marketable talents which could be passed on to the children and young people. The leadership of the Orphanage knew that the residents would essentially be on their own on departure from Aberlour, and therefore they had to possess marketable skills to make headway in the world outside at often very young ages, 14 and 15 years old. They had no safety net. They could not come back from the late 1950s to visit and the Orphanage closed in 1967. They sank or swam. It was a hard life. It was an unsavoury reality, but true. Do we prepare children and young people for life after ‘care’?

How young people who must endure living within a care setting are able to transcend their limitations, some key findings from the work thus far:

  •  Participants that lived in the Aberlour Orphanage re-created ‘family’, something they did not have prior to entering.
  • They developed social bonds and friendships they had never known, providing an important foundation to their childhood. Creating ‘relationships that matter’.
  • Young people can grow ‘healthily, happily and normally’ within a range of care settings.
  • They often possess the vision necessary of what they are capable of living with.

What appears to be emerging from the research is that children and young people can grow and develop quite naturally, healthily and normally, and be prepared for active involvement in the wider society as real contributors, from a variety of settings in which they are reared. Careful, thoughtful, sometimes risky, forward steps need to be taken in trying to forge the best available context for children and young people, to be reared in, when for whatever reason, they are unable to remain in their birth family. The children and young people wherever possible and practical, need to be involved in such placement discussions.

The research also indicates that children, sometimes at a very young age, but often far more advanced experiential age, have profound acuity and a clear sense as to what they ‘know’ they can live with; and adults who also ‘know’, from professional knowledge and some experience, find this message very difficult to deal with at times.


David Divine with Aunty Phylis, former Housemother at Aberlour Orphanage.
Photo courtesy of Aberlour Child Care Trust


This text is the Copyright 2013 of David Divine. It was first published in 2013 by the School of Applied Social Sciences, Durham University, Elvet Riverside 2, Durham, DH1 3JT, UK. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of Professor David Divine.  David’s PhD research is supervised by sociologist and social worker Professor Lena Dominelli.  who is an Associate Director for the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience Research with specific responsibility for the Vulnerability and Resilience Programme.

This text may not be reproduced without David Divine’s permission.


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