‘Hurt and distress’ for families after gravestones toppled

Council says sorry after headstones laid flat without relatives being informed.

Felled headstones at St Peter's graveyard on Orkney. <strong>STV</strong>
Felled headstones at St Peter's graveyard on Orkney. STV

Bereaved families suffered “hurt and distress” after a council toppled gravestones of their loved ones without telling them, a report has found.

Hundreds of headstones on Orkney were laid flat last year after a nationwide inspection was ordered – but many relatives hadn’t been informed.

Orkney Islands Council’s internal report has now also found “significant weaknesses” in safety procedures.

The gravestone of Stewart Spence’s father, Peter, was one of those moved after being deemed unsafe. He was horrified to find out what had happened.


“I was very, very annoyed. It was just something that wasn’t needing to be done,” he said.

“I would say distressed would hardly be too strong a word.”

Gravestones at 47 cemeteries across Orkney were inspected as part of the review, ordered nationwide following the death of eight-year-old Ciaran Williamson at a cemetery in Glasgow.

It was originally expected that around 150 stones would need to be laid flat, but 431 ended up being toppled.


The internal report by the local authority has found the failure to alert relatives caused “concern, upset and distress.”

It also identified “serious weaknesses” in the council’s safety procedure at burial grounds.

Mr Spence said his family were still waiting for a personal apology.

“A bit more consultation over the whole thing would be a help,” he said.

“I would love an apology. As you can see by my father’s gravestone – his name’s there, the address is there. My mother is still at the same address.

“It would have been very easy to find her in the telephone book.”

The report has made 22 recommendations, including contacting relatives if a gravestone is found to be unsafe and carrying out inspections every five years.


Orkney Islands Council said it had re-erected gravestones at five cemeteries, with work continuing to restore the others.

Gavin Barr, director of development and infrastructure with Orkney Islands Council, said: “The council has issued a full apology – we are sorry.

“However, the report also heard that the council has a duty to act in the public interest in terms of public safety in kirkyards.

“That’s a duty that all councils across the land must respond to. Those responding to that did so in good faith.

“But clearly the outcomes were unsatisfactory and certainly not as anticipated.”

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