Kiwi upset at how we treat our dead

Mr O'Brien found his family gravestone lying flat on its face so he could not read the inscription.
Mr O'Brien found his family gravestone lying flat on its face so he could not read the inscription.

The descendant of a Souter visiting Selkirk on a pilgrimage to research his family’s roots has slammed the sorry state of our graveyards.

Brian O’Brien, who hails from Waipu in New Zealand, spent many fruitless hours trying to find the gravestone of his maternal great grandparents, Richard and Sofia Turnbull.

Richard and Sofia Turnbull.

Richard and Sofia Turnbull.

After painstaking research and thanks to the help of several organisations, he was saddened to discover that the headstone had fallen flat on its face and was too heavy for the couple to consider lifting.

And, when he was told that Scottish Borders Council does not re-erect fallen stones, he was horrified.

He said: “My New Zealand family grew up reading about Oor Wullie and The Broons. I have marched with the Irish Guards in a New Zealand tattoo and have participated in many, many Scottish-associated events and have always been proud of my Borders heritage.

“I cannot express the sadness we felt, after coming to Selkirk from the bottom of the world to pay our respects, only to find that Selkirk apparently has no respect for its ain folk once they have passed away.

Several of the gravestones in Shawfield are in poor condition.

Several of the gravestones in Shawfield are in poor condition.

“This would never happen here in Waipu, where our Nova Scotian-Scottish descendants, many of whom travelled here after the Highland clearances, some born in the late 1700s, are still a valued reminder of our heritage, culture and traditions of our Scottish families and are revered by many here, even in the 21st century.”

He added: “I cannot believe that this disrespect to two of Selkirk’s citizens is acceptable in any way shape or form.”

He said that Richard Turnbull worked in the Turnbull and Waddell mills for over 60 years and that the couple had lost two sons in World War One – Peter in Suez and Thomas on the Somme – both lads have their names engraved on the Selkirk war memorial and Peter’s medals are on display in the Selkirk museum.

“The Turnbulls’ step-son Richard Cunningham was famous for having been standard bearer at Selkirk Common Riding for two years, owing to the Second World War, and their grandson Kenny Firth was standard bearer in the 1980s, and, believe me, our family were very proud of this distinction.

“My grandmother Mary Stoddart Turnbull was born in Selkirk, and her husband was in the 9th Royal Scots and the Highland Light Infantry in the First World War, so the family did more than their duty in the cause of freedom.

Mr O’Brien said he and his wife had retired recently and spent two months travelling through Scotland and Ireland researching their Celtic family roots and meeting family members for the first time.

He added: “We enjoyed our visit to Selkirk, although it was marked by sadness that we couldn’t even read the inscription on our family grave, and because we live so far away I doubt whether we will ever be able to return.

“I would dearly love to hear of a change in council policy and that some group (even the local rugby club) could go on a training run and re-erect the gravestone so that the inscription could be read and photographed for us.

“In closing, may I say that my wife and I are grateful for the assistance we received by the various family groups in the Borders region. It was magnificent, and I am now a proud member of the Borders History Society.

“The Hawick hub’s support was incredible, and the staff went out of their way to provide as much information as they could. We also enjoyed visiting all the attractions in Selkirk we had read about over seven decades or more, but our search at Shawfield and Brierlylaw Cemeteries made us quite depressed.”

Shawfield Cemetery was recently part of the council’s rolling headstone-testing programme, having been inspected between November and January.

The council says this work is essential to make sure that anyone who visits or works in its 154 cemeteries is safe.

On its website, the council describes how the checks are carried out.

It states: “We will ensure the work is undertaken with due respect and only where absolutely necessary.”

“The test involves checking if a memorial is safe. If deemed unsafe, it will be cordoned off, and signage put in place to make the public and family members aware of the issue.

“However, if there is an immediate safety concern, the memorial will be made safe as soon as possible.

“If the memorial is cordoned off, the family – who are responsible for the memorial – can contact us and arrange for the headstone to be made safe themselves.”

As for the Turnbulls’ headstone, it looks as if it has been lying flat for some time, and therefore was safe, so it would be unlikely that the council workers would have attempted to move it.

While there are many memorials in the cemetery which are well looked after, there are also several in a poor state of repair.