The Legacy of Orkney for Child Protection

by Dr Sarah Nelson OBE


Dr Sarah Nelson OBE, is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR) and a research specialist on childhood sexual abuse and its effects across the lifecourse. Sarah’s book, ‘Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical Approaches’, offers hope of more effective, imaginative means of protecting children and young people from sexual abuse.


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Thirty years ago on 27 February at 7 am, police and social workers took nine children from four family homes on South Ronaldsay, Orkney, under Place of Safety Orders. These cited group sexual activity, including “ritualistic music, dancing and dress”.  The case, with its “dawn raids,” became a cause celebre – and remains so to this day.

What was it about, and what impact did it have on child protection?

The “dawn raids” originated when seven children from a different, very large disadvantaged family were taken into care after allegations that their brothers and a church minister had abused the children. Their father was already in prison for assaults on his family. Three of them separately began talking and drawing about sexual abuse of young children by groups of adults and strange, occult outdoor rituals. They named many adults and children, including the clergyman and the four families whose children were “lifted” in February 1991.

All the families were ‘incomers’: three were middle class professionals. Parental access was denied. Police questioned a clergyman and the parents, who launched a major media campaign to return the children, with strong support from most media, public and religious organisations.

The nine children were interviewed by police and staff from the Royal Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (RSSPCC).Through interviews but particularly through bizarre words, chants, drawings and behaviour in front of foster parents, several children appeared to confirm certain aspects of the W children’s accounts. These are fully documented in Lord Clyde’s Inquiry report.

In April l991 Sheriff David Kelbie held a proof hearing, called the case “fatally flawed” and dismissed it without hearing the evidence. For this, Scotland’s senior judge Lord Hope said the damage he did was “incalculable”. To this day the evidence has been tested in no civil or criminal court, nor reassessed via an independent expert report. After six weeks the children were returned home in a blaze of international publicity.

The Government set up Lord Clyde’s public inquiry, to examine the authorities’ actions and make recommendations: not to ask if any children were at risk. His report (Oct 1992) found officials acted in good faith, but severely criticised their handling of the case, with 190 good-practice recommendations. They included investigation, removal into care, children’s rights, proper treatment of foster carers, training, and interviewing of children. Many of these influenced the Children (Scotland) Act l995 – like changes in child protection orders and tightening of their conditions.

There is no doubt police and social workers acted precipitately and along with RSSPCC, deserved many criticisms of their practice. Centrally, they removed children without corroboration of disturbing information they had, then questioned them; instead of conducting long, careful investigation and surveillance. That is unlikely ever to happen again.

In other ways however, Orkney’s fallout appears far less child-centred. The spectre of a huge scandal against respectable families, magnified by disinformation, dealt a hammer blow to child protection social work. Dramatic media language about children snatched from their beds at sunrise painted them as cruel monsters, despite the timing and conduct of the raids being one act Lord Clyde did not criticise: “the conduct of the workers was efficient and supportive.” Although police and social workers acted jointly throughout, some right-wing media hostile to social work but  supportive of the police painted a lasting image of social work as entirely to blame.

The Orkney case was so negatively publicised and notorious that it had a prolonged intimidatory effect on social work action against child sexual abuse (CSA) in particular.  It was one factor in the continuing decline in identification of sexual abuse through the child protection system and children’s hearings. That is despite growing police reports of sexual assaults against children, and a vast growth in online abuse images. Sexual abuse now forms less than five per cent of child protection registrations and concerns at child protection case conferences. Legislation in 1995 also made it harder to remove children from home, even with evidence of harm.

The 2005 Social Work Inspection Agency report on Eilean Siar (Western Isles) analysed failure to act on 222 official concerns about three girls who faced severe abuse, trafficking, violence and neglect. It suggested one reason for the prolonged attempts to engage with the family rather than remove the children, was the new children’s legislation and the aftermath of the Orkney Inquiry.

During my own sexual abuse research I heard numerous social workers, teachers and youth workers over decades saying they should not ask children about sexual abuse even when serious suspicions existed, because “Lord Clyde said we shouldn’t”. He did not.

With respect to sadistic and occult forms of organised abuse, Orkney further dissuaded investigation. A few third sector agencies familiar with survivors of such abuses continue to work with them. An elaborate, widely promoted and accepted explanation, the ‘satanic panic’, has ridiculed workers who take occult ritual abuse seriously.

Satanic panic theory, which rejects that satanist ritual abuse exists, claims child protection staff adopted this as a fashionable belief in the late 1980s, and became zealously eager to find it. However social workers, police and journalists did not know what they had discovered. Far from wishing to find it, they met traumatising, deeply distressing information about unimaginably cruel tortures against children. Involvement in cases across the UK also brought many professionals serious fears for their own safety.

Should child protection staff now ask if a 30-year legacy of nervous professional caution is long enough, especially given disinformation surrounding this landmark case; and begin reversing the trend whereby child sexual abuse is practically disappearing from child protection statistics? They could adapt for example the collaborative, productive, child-centred policies they now pursue with police and the third sector against child sexual exploitation.

Some of the most vulnerable of these teenage CSE victims had, after all, been left unprotected from CSA for years as younger children. The Scottish Government could also devise and publish a National Strategy against Child Sexual Abuse, following an example already set by both Wales and England.


Clyde, J.  (1992) The Report of the Inquiry into the removal of children from Orkney in February 1991, HMSO.

Nelson, S. (2016) Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical approaches to prevention , protection & support, ch. 3, ‘Fact, myth and legacy in notorious cases: Orkney in context’, Policy Press.

SWIA (2005) An Inspection into the care & protection of children in Eilean Siar, (Western Isles), Scottish Executive.

National Plan against Child Sexual Exploitation