50-year anniversary of Leitholm disaster

Family members of the boys who died, along with the two survivors from the tragedy and others who were involved, along with Reverend Alan Cartwright, who took the service.
Family members of the boys who died, along with the two survivors from the tragedy and others who were involved, along with Reverend Alan Cartwright, who took the service.

The tragic death by drowning of three boys on a Sunday school trip to Spittal burst the heart out of the village of Leitholm 50 years ago.

So says George Simpson, who was one of the two nine-year-olds who were thankfully plucked from the raging sea, which had been so calm moments before.

A service was held in Leitholm on Sunday, 50 years after that tragic trip, bringing together families who had since left the village.

George, now 59, is a retired Chief Superintendent of Lothian and Borders Police, and stays in Galashiels.

He remembers the day well.

He said: “Back then, all the little villages had trips to Spittal, when just about everybody went.

How thev Berwickshire News reported the tragedy.

How thev Berwickshire News reported the tragedy.

“The conditions were perfect on the day, but we were not prepared for how it can change.

“As I know now, the Tweed doesn’t tend to rise an inch at a time – it comes bursting out at Tweedmouth in spate, which is what happened that day. There was also an ebb tide.

“We had followed a sandbank on the way out and we were about 90 metres from the beach, in water only up to our knees.

“Then, suddenly, we were marooned.

“It was a footrace back to the beach and we ran headlong into deep water with a strong current.

“My friend Ian Lees and I were saved – I was resuscitated on the beach – but the other three boys perished.

“It was devastating – it burst the heart out of the village – so much so that several of the families involved moved away soon after.

“But as was the way of things back then, it quickly became something nobody spoke of. It was how they dealt with things ,”

A plaque with the drowned boys' names and date of the tragedy, which was put up in a prominent position within Leitholm Church a few months after the incident in 1966. It remains in position.

A plaque with the drowned boys' names and date of the tragedy, which was put up in a prominent position within Leitholm Church a few months after the incident in 1966. It remains in position.

He said one of the things he wanted to do to mark the 50 years since the day Ian Cockburn, William Paxton and Thomas Craig lost their lives, was to trace the woman who raised the alarm which led to him being saved – the then 49-year-old Janet McDerment from Jedburgh.

He said: “I found out that she was there quite by chance, totally independent of the Leitholm trip, helping her daughter with childminding.

“She was a self-taught swimmer and she raised the alarm, as well as saving my friend Ian .

“I was saved by a group of men – but it was only because Janet raised the alarm.

“I have so much to thank her for, but she is no longer with us. She would have been 100 in August.

“However, her daughter Irene Tait – who,then aged 29, was with her mother on that day in 1966 on a trip with her four young children – was able to come to the service, and that meant so much.”

The one-off commemorative service at Leitholm Parish Church was taken by the Reverend Alan Cartwright, and was attended by around 100 people from the families concerned and the community past and present.

There followed a wreath-laying service at Leitholm cemetery, and the day concluded with a get-together of almost all of these people at the Plough Inn, Leitholm, until well into the afternoon.