On May 23 1971 a heart breaking discovery was made on Tayport beach – a young child was dead and identification would turn out to be impossible. Now 50 years on will the public ever really know the name of The Unknown Bairn?
There have been numerous theories and even claims that individuals knew the young boy’s identity.
However after five decades there are still no confirmed leads.
A grim discovery
It was mid afternoon on May 23 1971 when Fife Police received the grim call from local postman Ian Robertson.
A young boy had been discovered washed up on Tayport Beach.
Ian had been walking his dog along the beach towards the sawmill at high tide when he saw a figure laying still in the sand.
Upon closer inspection it was that of a young child who showed no signs of life.
A team of police officers and detectives headed up by Detective Chief Superintendent Whyte from Kirkcaldy raced to the scene around 3pm. Calls were then made to neighbouring police forces for a check on missing person files.
The boy was described as being aged between two and three at the time of his discovery.
Initial thoughts suggested he had died from drowning in the Tay and it was reported he had been in the water for two to four months before he washed up on the shore.
He was just 2ft 9in and was wearing a blue short sleeved shirt with a small pocket on the lower left side and tabbed with “Achilles size 3”. He was also wearing a cotton long sleeved shirt that was fleecy-lined and featured rectangular and oval shapes in blue.
Those descriptors would be all the solid information that would ever be known, or publicly released, about the child.
The Unknown Bairn
A nationwide inquiry into the child’s identity was launched.
Who was he and where had he come from?
Extensive enquiries were carried out with many possibilities explored, including the theory that he may have been from one of the visiting ships that had stopped just across the Tay and he had possibly fallen over board.
The official post mortem verdict at the time ruled the death was “apparently due to drowning”, but it is said that the pathologist found later that the boy had died of natural causes before he ended up in the water.
With no concrete evidence or identification the decision was made to bury the unknown bairn, as he was now known, in the Tayport Cemetery on May 27, just four days after the initial discovery.
Community funding for headstone
In the days and months following the unknown bairn’s discovery, the story had pulled on the heartstrings of residents in the local area and beyond.
It was decided that a headstone would be erected in the boy’s memory to give a final resting place for the youngster who continued to go unclaimed.
The community raised more than enough funds for the grave marker.
His headstone, erected in July 1971, read: “Erected in memory of the ‘Unknown Bairn’, a wee boy aged between two and four years, found on the beach at Tayport, May 23rd 1971. ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’”
Reverend George Edington led the ceremony which was attended by a number of community figures including postie Ian Robertson who had found the boy less than two months earlier.
It would be the first visit to the grave for Ian but it would be far from the last.
Ian and his family would tend to the grave of the youngster up until his passing in 2007.
Ian is now buried just a few yards away from the bairn.
Ian’s wife Irene said it was their wish for her husband to be near the child he regarded as a part of his own family.
Theories, rumours and claims
For the past five decades there has been no shortage of rumours over how the boy ended up on the sandy shore with the most common being the claim he was the son of a travelling family.
Around the same time Travelling families were known in the area and had set up camps locally where they stayed in cold, damp tents.
A Traveller couple were believed to have been heard on a bus in Thornton talking about a child they had lost with the female visibly upset and the pair seemingly under the influence of alcohol.
The woman was said to have been told to be quiet by her male partner with him going on to say “shut up, you’ll get us both the jail”.
The pair were arrested and brought in for questioning.
But there was no evidence to go on, and with the alcohol having worn off, making the couple much quieter, the pair were released and never seen again.
Over the years the case has attracted massive publicity, in print and on television and radio.
Former detective Bob Beveridge who investigated the case believes he does know the true identity of the child.
But so far he has refused to give a name, fearing the public’s interest in the story, and in turn, their interest in the little boy, would be lost.
Speaking in 2018 he said: “At that time these Travelling people were known to have been in the vicinity.
“Today, forensic evidence – DNA – would be possible, but at that time it fell short of evidence and the parents will be long gone now.
“I’m quite sure I know the identity of that child – but it would be a shame to have him identified now because you know something, every year, and sometimes from all corners of the world, people will come and have a special service for the Unknown Bairn on the anniversary.
“If he was identified he would lose his fame.”
A possible clue was found when reports came out of the discovery of two dolls which were caught in the nets of an Aberdeen trawler just 60 miles from the site in Tayport in early May 1971.
Aberdeen police did not know of the dolls until some time later but immediately contacted Fife police when made aware of the discovery.
A spokesman for Fife CID at the time said: “The fact that there is any connection is purely speculation but our file on this case will never be closed.”
The toddler will never grow old, but his memory will continue to live on within the local community which has adopted him as their own.