Nicola Barry

Monthly Archives: February 2013

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Mortonhall Crematorium

Mortonhall Crematorium

Don’t Blame Current Staff for Lost Baby Ashes at Mortonhall Crematorium

It is shocking that an investigation, led by former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini, had to be launched into why the cremated remains of babies were buried in a mass unmarked grave at Mortonhall Crematorium, in Edinburgh. For the bereaved parents, it must be extremely painful, incomprehensible even, to be denied access to their babies’ ashes.

That apart, I happen to believe that the people who work in Edinburgh’s graveyards are unsung heroes. I should know. I live in one of the Capital’s graveyards. There is a river beyond the graves, an old church nearby and a shadowy dell in which the sun spills through the trees. There are kingfishers, otters, deer-you name it. From our cottage, we can see the whole graveyard. The visitors are few but always interesting – most notably the Cleavers, as we call them, two large men who bend over to tend a grave, allowing their trousers to slip below the point of decency, exposing cleavage at the rear, just beneath the love handles.

We also have the most amazing team of men who look after this graveyard. They are Paul, Peter, Kevin, Dino and Gareth. These guys are drop-dead (pardon the pun) gorgeous. Outdoors in all kinds of Scottish weather, they look like men are supposed to look: huge biceps, six packs, bulging thighs, glistening eyes and, boy, do they work hard. They use heavy machinery. They fetch, carry, dig and plant. In this technological age, these men are the real thing: that old-fashioned sweat of the brow after a hard day’s labour; limbs which ache from toiling. No flash business lunches for these workers-just a flask of tea and a sandwich. Most noticeable of all, these keepers of the graveyard are dignified with relatives of the deceased. They are so, so kind to them – in a way that boosts your faith in the basic goodness of people. They manage, always, to be respectful when dealing with the grieving, who, believe me, can include some of the most obnoxious so-and-so’s on earth. We have stayed here for 15 years. We know. Occasionally, bereaved people, mistakenly, knock on our door and ask whether we can help them find their parents’ grave or say they want to complain about something. We explain we are not responsible for the graveyard. In fact, I do go round checking the graves are all neat and tidy – only because I love this place so much.

I have to say the dead make wonderful neighbours but, the living – especially the grieving – can be unbelievably vicious. At times, I hear them outside, moaning to the council guys about something so trivial, I want to go out there and slap them in the face. One man, who regularly visits his father’s grave, complained constantly to us that his particular corner of the graveyard was neglected. Eventually, I mentioned it to the graveyard guys. Their response was little short of astonishing. They dug, they planted. They slashed weeds. They worked solidly on that one corner of the graveyard. It was transformed, utterly and beautifully. Then, after all their hard work, this man had the gall to complain to the council – just because they removed one little plant he’d left on the grave. It was ingratitude writ large.

Our graveyard caretakers rarely receive the praise they are due. I believe it is because the average person does not cope well with loss. None of us is equipped to deal with the death of someone close. A graveyard gives a bereaved family a focus; somewhere to mourn and, hopefully, to heal. You see people coming in to the graveyard looking morose but once they have laid their flowers, most go away smiling, happier. Maybe more visitors could give a thought to the men who work so hard to ensure our deceased relatives and friends really do rest in peace.

These men and their bosses at Mortonhall Crematorium, the people who work so hard to keep Edinburgh’s burial places spic and span, should never be used as a scapegoat for the sins of their predecessors.

Article focus: Mortonhall Crematorium

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Fox Pest

Wise up people! Stop feeding the urban fox pest


THESE days, no matter how hard you look for fairies at the bottom of your garden, you are far more likely to find foxes – aggressive ones at that. Years ago, the fox was a wily-but-shy creature, preferring to live in wide open spaces, doing its level best to keep away from human beings.

In 2013, we are hearing more and more about fox aggression; particularly the recent attack on the five-week old Denny Dolan, from Bromley, South East London. A fox chewed off the baby’s finger and tried to drag him out of his house.

It is the stuff of nightmares, yet, still, people refuse to take it seriously.

The mauling of tiny Denny and other babies, found covered in blood in their cots, has fuelled an unprecedented uproar about the risks posed by the urban fox. Perhaps now it will be taken seriously. There is talk of a cull in towns where they pose a particular problem.

Without a doubt, the main problem is that some of us have become too friendly with this particular predator. Forgetting how aggressive they can be, some daft humans have insisted on leaving food for them in their back gardens – even when children are in the vicinity. Usually Mr Fox restricts his activities to stealing things from the garden – whether it be food or clothes – sometimes shoes and kids’ toys disappear as well.

But the fox will never be tamed. Idiotic people who keep feeding them need to accept this fact. The problem with the fox is that he or she has been growing used to hospitality from some misguided humans, to the point where they actually expect their meals to be served on a silver platter. Mistake. For every person who seeks to eliminate the fox, there are a dozen others who feed them and give them names.

Fox cubs may look cute, but they are wild animals and should be treated as such. As they grow, they can become boisterous and destructive. They also tend to smell really bad; so much so, that our dafter bretheren who are mad enough to keep foxes as pets have their anal glands removed to try to reduce the smell. They also castrate or spay the fox to modify its behaviour. Some seriously deranged people even have their claws removed to ward off any nasty attacks. Such mutilations are far from natural.

Foxes should not be kept as pets – and I include feeding in that directive. The trouble is the fox has all but lost its fear of human beings and knows it is on to a good thing. The heart of suburbia is bliss for the fox – douce households in the smartest parts of our towns and cities – are precisely what they crave. The availability of leftover cold meat and delicious treats now outweigh the risks of danger. Unfortunately, babies have become just another treat.

Reactions to the urban fox vary widely. Objectors have tried to poison them, trap them, bait them, even shoot them. Yet, despite their efforts, this formerly reclusive creature has become a great deal more confident and blasé in his dealings with humans. The fox has suffered in the same way as the seagull, with the arrival of wheelie bins. These have cut off their old source of food: namely the black bin bag. Remember those? Easy for wildlife to access, the black bags used to be left in shreds on the pavements of Britain, surrounded by burping gulls and foxes, bloated and content. Thanks to the wheelie bin, gulls and foxes are now, often, left starving.

Instead of trying to deter them, urge them back to the wild where they belong, some people leave out titbits. In fact, the most humane thing to do when you find a wild animal in your garden is to go back to bed and leave it alone. They disappear as quietly as they arrive. Experts repeatedly tell us that foxes will only bite if distressed and cornered and, thankfully, such attacks are incredibly rare.

Another thing which scares me about foxes is when my Westie, Coll, chases them at night. He loves running after squirrels and foxes but never catches them. But, I sometimes wonder who would win the argument if a fight started. What if an overgrown, chubby fox – we have them in our back garden – were to find itself cornered by Coll? What then would happen to my precious pet?

Before the last war, the fox was never an urban problem. Then they started moving into the cities because there were so many opportunities to exploit human beings. Unfortunately, we have become such a disposable society. We throw out more and more – cordon bleu for the humble fox. Food and waste are a major factor when it comes to the prevalence of the fox and its presence is related to population size. The bigger the city, the cheekier its foxes. Of course, if we deny Mr Fox his food source, he will inevitably revert to type and hunt in the wild, the predator of old.

Until then, we need to be on our guard. The tragedy of Denny Dolan is proof of that. To allow children to be scarred for life, mentally and physically, is far too high a price to pay for our own shortcomings. Remember, waste not – want not.

 Article focus: fox pest

Private Education

Private education has become an embarrassment

Apparently, it has become embarrassing to admit you were educated at a private school. All the politicians who were educated at Eton, for example, do their best to keep it quiet. The head of Rodean School, Frances King, has just resigned, supposedly saddened by the lack of support from politicians for private education. The general feeling is that boarding schools are elitist. They exist for the wealthy and privileged.

St Trinians

Private education: naughty or nice?  Photo credit: Père Ubu

That makes me laugh. You should have seen the convent I attended.

The school contained the usual mix of children you’d find in any day school – misfits, clever, thick, well adjusted, happy, unhappy, horrible and nice. For children, especially those who, like me, had problems at home, the convent was a ‘safe’ place. The nuns cared deeply about us and the feeling was mutual. However, the so-called private education was beyond awful. Academic levels were so low that, if any girl was accepted by Oxford or Cambridge Universities, the whole school was given a day off. In the entire eight years I was there, we only ever had one day off.

Of course, I know that much private education takes place in high-achieving establishments. Ours, however, was not. In fact, even in the sixth form, educational standards were practically non-existent. My three brothers were also sent away to school, but to Ampleforth College in Yorkshire, a school still known for the top politicians and men of influence it produces. In the Sixties, the education of girls came second to that of boys.


Boarding school isn’t just school, it’s a complete way of life, with its own isolationist culture. Because we lived together, away from our parents, we had a strong sense of being on our own, of growing up very quickly, of fight or flight. It’s the stodgy puddings I remember best and the not-being-allowed-to-wash-your-hair-for-two-weeks, as well as the endless bad marks – never mind the punishment of standing in a hot cupboard for hours, beside the girls’ drying underwear, learning Cicero’s letters off by heart. I was always being caught for doing the wrong thing, like the time I was sent, one night, by my peers to raid the nuns’ fridge. When I opened the fridge door I accidentally sent flying a bowl of those little silver balls you ice cakes with. Most of them fell into a large vat of curry the nuns were having for their lunch the following day. One sister broke a tooth, another had a filling come loose. I wasn’t allowed out for a month.

People outside the convent walls were all immoral, according to the nuns. We were taught that practically everything going on in the world was a sin, and a mortal sin at that. The nearest we girls came to committing a mortal sin was talking about it. Consequently, we talked about it all the time. Outside, the permissive society was in full swing. Permissive society meant permissive policies. While I was at school, for example, the death penalty was abolished, homosexuality between consenting adults became legal and divorce and abortion were made a lot easier.

Man Eaters

Yet, convents have always had an undeserved reputation. Mention to any group of men that you went to a convent and your reputation immediately takes a tumble. The word convent seems to equal sex maniac. The reaction is almost always the same. God knows why. I spent the whole of the Swinging Sixties closeted away in a school where hellfire and eternal damnation awaited any girl who so much as dared to think of the opposite sex. There weren’t any men around anyway. Finding a man in those hallowed corridors was a bit like finding a sausage in a trifle: unheard of. The only time the permissive society did infiltrate our walls was at the annual school dance. For my first, I was trussed up in a ghastly silver lurex dress and looked for all like an oven-ready Christmas turkey. I can still remember the spotty, lanky youth in orange flares who sidled up to ask me to dance. Suffice it to say that, in normal circumstances, you wouldn’t pick up such a specimen on a shovel. However, by the time all his creepy schoolmates had arrived, I’d have given my right arm for him. It was that bad.

At my school, we spent our days on our knees in prayer. In fact, when I left, I had a very irritating and disconcerting habit of genuflecting all the time, especially on trips to the cinema. Ironically, the convent way of life seems so remote to me now that, if I do attend Mass, I find myself looking around for an ice-cream girl during the sermon. A few years ago I returned to find the convent and see who was still there. It was a shock to find the building had been knocked down and the nuns and girls long gone. I felt sad because the nuns had been special people. They instilled in us a lifelong sense of altruism, a feeling for what is right and wrong in society.

I cannot agree with those who believe private schools are all a bastion of privilege. I have always considered them to be a substitute for local authorities taking children into care. The nuns took on the role of parents. Some were good at it, others were not, but they all made an effort. It’s what used to be called a vocation and there are very few of those around now.


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