The sisters who
evil at Lagarie
They are among dozens alleged to have been abused there.
This is their story of survival.
(Warning: Contains distressing themes)
Dressed only in their nighties, three girls climb through the unlocked toilet window of an imposing Victorian mansion and make their way silently across the immaculate lawn.
At the wrought iron gates of Lagarie Children's Home in Rhu, the Montgomery sisters stop briefly and look back at the place which had become their prison.
Any second thoughts about escaping are quickly banished as they close the gates behind them and set off barefoot down the road, guided only by the light of the moon.
For middle sister Angela, 10, the building she knows as home reminds her of an asylum. It is big, old and scary-looking, especially at night time. She’ll be glad to see the back of it, though at this point she doesn’t really know why they are running away, or what they are running from.
Eldest sister Mary, at 11, knows only too well.
On the night of their escape, Mary rouses Angela, and youngest sister, Norma, nine. “I’m running away. You’re coming too. Let’s go.”
The Montgomery plan, although somewhat ambitious, is perfectly formed. They are going to walk for about a mile towards the picturesque Rhu marina, on the banks of Gareloch.
From there they will steal a boat and row it to Brazil, where they believe their merchant seaman father is working. Simple. They know where Brazil is because they have seen it on a map.
Mary decides not to take their little brothers, on account of them being too small.
At the marina, they find a leaky rowing boat and struggle a few hundred yards out to sea. Shivering and scared, they are eventually rescued and taken to the police station.
“I don’t want to go back there,” Mary pleads with the officer. “Mr Barrie’s hurting me.” Her pleas fall on deaf ears, and not for the last time.
Donald Montgomery was a handsome merchant navy seaman, but prone to drink and parties when onshore, and seemed unburdened by obligation to his children.
His wife, Mary, bore him six before she was 30, kept poor health and died in 1970 from injuries believed to have been caused by a hit and run.
With their mother gone and father at sea, the Montgomery clan, comprising three girls and three boys, were separated into a variety of homes and foster families.
But one day around 1972, Donald Montgomery collected his children and brought them to Lagarie.
Angela, now 56, recalls, “We’d never had a proper holiday before. So when we arrived at Lagarie there were woods, the orchard, the vegetable gardens, a football pitch for the boys, extensive lawns, and we just thought, ‘oh, we’ve cracked it’. So yeah, that was my first impression - it was wonderful.”
Though they missed their father, and looked forward to his visits, they were initially happy in their new home.
The children were awestruck by their beautiful surroundings including the building’s tower which they planned to climb to watch their dad’s ship come home.
Lagarie House was built in 1901 by the renowned Scottish architect AN Paterson and is a handsome mansion with wondrous views along the upper Firth of Clyde.
It was taken over by the Christian seafarer’s charity, The British Sailors’ Society, as it was then called, in the late 1940s and was opened as a home for the families of seafarers in need of help with their children.
It had a huge dining room, three reception areas and six dormitories housing up to 40 children.
Several acres of land and wooded areas surrounded the house. It was 200 yards from the village of Rhu and a stone’s throw from the banks of the loch. It was truly idyllic.
The Rev William Barrie and his wife Mary arrived at Lagarie in late 1972 as the new, live-in superintendents of the home. Mr Barrie, who had been a minister of the Congregational Church, lived on the grounds in a cottage with his wife, about 30 metres from the main house. Hand-picked by the society, they boasted an apparently impressive pedigree of experience.
Within days of the Barries arriving, it was clear to some that life was never going to be the same again. Religion and discipline became the mainstay of the new regime. The Barries’ “pedigree” seemed to involve ruling by fear and violence; stick or scholl in one hand, Bible in the other.
And soon, Donald Montgomery’s visits to his children became fewer and farther between.
Heather Le Sommer, who worked at Lagarie in the early 1970s, said she noticed the change right away, seeing first-hand how violent Mrs Barrie could be when she assaulted a 10-year-old boy for making a mess in the corridor.
Heather said, “Mrs Barrie came flying through a swing-door to my right, came up to this child and full force cracked him twice right down from the side of his face. I felt physically sick.”
Heather left six months after the Barries arrived.
She says: “I couldn’t stay there. But I had no idea what lay in store for those children.”
Angela recounts: “The level of cruelty we were subjected to on a daily basis went way beyond the boundaries. She [Mrs Barrie] could have you on your bed, face in your pillow, pants whipped around your ankles, hands held together and pressed against your back, before you had time to blink. Then - in one deft movement - she’d remove her scholl, and several whacks later; your arse was glowing.
“When I wet the bed, she’d drag me through the corridors by the hair. I would pull down on her wrists to lessen my weight, fearing I was going to be scalped if I didn’t. The pain was horrendous. If I screamed, if I tried to fight back, this only fuelled her anger even more and she’d start punching me, kicking me, biting me. It was absolutely crazy.”
More than a dozen former residents and staff claimed Mrs Barrie was a cruel, violent tyrant who spared few her wrath.
She would seek to punish and humiliate the children, especially those who were prone to bed-wetting, an indication, often, of childhood anxiety.
Even the youngest of Mrs Barrie’s charges were not spared, according to Anne Munro, another former worker, who recalls the beatings meted out to a three-year-old girl.
“She was leathered if she wet herself. Three years of age, there was no need for it. And I’m not talking about once a day, it was about three or four times a day with that one child.
“I never thought of intervening, I just stood there and watched her.” On reflection, this makes her feel “terrible,” she says. “I was only 17 at the time”.
According to some accounts, Mrs Barrie reserved her worst for the older girls.
Mary believes she knows why. “She must have known what her husband was doing. He was getting up out of bed at night to come into the home, into our room, to take one of us. She knew all right.”
Mary, who is now 57 and living in the US, says the abuse she endured began soon after Mr Barrie arrived.
“It started with a kiss goodnight. Then it progressed with him taking me out of my room and into his office.
“He used to make excuses to his wife to take me places in his caravanette and he’d stop on the quiet roads. I was never safe from him.”
Speaking with an American drawl which occasionally lapses back into west coast Scottish, Mary says Mr Barrie must have raped her “hundreds of times”.
“He told me that if I didn’t let him, he’d take my younger sisters. I suffered so my siblings wouldn’t have to.
“But in the end, I couldn’t stop him. He moved on to them anyway.”
For Angela her abuse at the hands of Mr Barrie started with a gentle night-time kiss on the forehead.
“It was quite comforting - it felt like a dad coming in to kiss you goodnight.”
But one day the fatherly tenderness stopped and the church minister told Angela “you’re not kissing me properly”.
“He stuck his tongue in my mouth, and I gagged, but I made the fatal mistake of spitting at him. And then I paid dearly for it, because in front of the other girls, he punched me in the face.
“I remember when I eventually did give him a full-blown kiss, after he’d forced me, I told Norma and Mary, and they said, ‘Well, we’ve been doing that for ages’.
“So we used to then make fun of him, you know, thinking, oh, he’s disgusting, dirty old bugger. And then laugh about it.”
But after a while, Angela says, darker things started to happen, and it was no longer a laughing matter. And from then on, none of the girls spoke about it.
Angela says: “I remember one night he’d woken me up, took my hand and led me into the laundry room. He unzipped his trousers, shoved me onto my knees, and… I won’t say anymore.
“And when he was finished, he threw me aside. And I remember, because I’d peed myself, and I was lying on the floor, and he said I was disgusting.
“And I still couldn’t move, and then he just left. Nothing like that had ever happened before. I didn’t know that someone was supposed to do that to you.
“I didn’t want to tell Norma and Mary, because I felt embarrassed, because I didn’t know how to describe it. So I didn’t say.”
“He’d work his way around,” Angela says. “I remember several times seeing Norma going out, or Mary. In fact on one occasion, Mary moaned at me, and said, ‘Well, it is your turn, because I did it last night’.
“After a while, even as unpleasant as it was - not that you got used to it - you just thought there was no point struggling or fighting. It became part and parcel of life at Lagarie.”
Mary would later write about her memories and draw pictures. The drawings and poems are child-like, visceral, and unbearably sad.
“He is here, I can hear him.
“He is here, I can smell him.
“He is here, I am hiding.
“He is here!”
The sisters would lie in bed at night, dreading the sound of Mr Barrie’s approach.
His footsteps would crunch on the gravel between his cottage and the big house, and then his hand would turn the handle to their door.
Whose turn would it be tonight?
If the Montgomery sisters thought life under the Barries couldn’t get any worse, they were wrong.
It soon became clear Mr Barrie’s contacts and influence stretched further than the Firth of Clyde area.
The younger of the sisters, Angela and Norma, were by now conditioned by their abuse, and they say Mr Barrie took full advantage.
Each of them say they were loaned out to other paedophiles by the Reverend.
Angela tells how sometimes she was forced to sit down on the floor of the Lagarie van, so that, she now supposes, she would be unable to see where Mr Barrie was driving them.
Under the pretext of a weekend holiday, they would be taken to a house where they would be in turn pampered, then abused.
Angela tells of one occasion – the first of around 20 similar experiences involving up to five different sets of people – when she and her sister Mary were taken to a house in Musselburgh, where the British Sailors' Society had a presence.
Angela was about 12 or 13, and remembers feeling elated when Mrs Barrie dropped them off.
At the house was a young couple and because they didn’t have children the girls were looking forward to the attention they would receive.
They were entertained with dinner and games, before the woman took Angela upstairs for a bath.
“She was bathing me, stroking my hair. And she said that I was such a good girl.” And then her husband came in.
Angela describes how she was raped by the man, while his wife held her down, soothing her all the while. She says she was given a hot drink and fell into a deep sleep afterwards.
The same thing happened the second night, a ritual identical to the first.
Angela says: “Throughout this time, there was nothing in their manner that gave the impression that this sort of incident was their first. They seemed to know exactly what they were doing.”
“There was nowhere safe for us.”
Mary remembers the visit. “We went to a house in Musselburgh. The couple were really interested in Angela, the man seemed - looking back on it now - a bit sleazy.
“Why, did something happen to Angela that night?” she asks. “I remember she didn’t look right the next morning.”
To this day, the Montgomery women haven’t sat down with one another and talked about what really happened to them at Lagarie.
Every year, the Barries would take the children on holiday to the Arbroath Convention, which was a religious festival held annually.
Angela and Norma had hoped it might be a holiday in every sense.
“We thought he might have left us alone,” says Angela. But he didn’t, she says, and neither did his friends from the British Sailors’ Society.
Both Norma and Angela separately describe nearly identical, multiple attacks, involving a man associated with the society, whom they believed to be a chaplain.
“I liked him. He’d ask me to put Bibles out. He seemed really friendly. Then one day he followed me into the toilet,” says Angela.
In her front room in Helensburgh, less than two miles from Rhu, Norma, with one of her beloved cats by her side, talks about the man.
She knew him only by his surname, the name he used from the pulpit, when invited to speak at services by Mr Barrie.
Norma says that in the toilets of the Baptist church, close to where they were holidaying and minutes after giving a sermon, the man followed her in and raped her.
“Mrs Barrie was there when I came out, and it was one of the rare times she was nice to me. I was sobbing, and she helped me clean up. She knew what had happened to me. She said nothing.”
After the telling of this story, the cat looks up at Norma, as if offering support; she gently cuffs him away. “Don’t look at me, Charlie.”
“He knows I’m upset,” she explains.
Norma’s body is laced with scars, some are fresher than others. She started self-harming when she was at Lagarie. Now aged 55, she looks back at her turbulent life and says, quite simply, it was “ruined by Mr Barrie”.
According to several accounts heard by BBC Disclosure, Mr Barrie was a prolific child sex abuser who used his position as a minister within the British Sailors’ Society to operate - or at least facilitate - a paedophile ring, with others connected to the organisation.
The children of Lagarie, some of whom had been effectively orphaned, had to fend for themselves in an environment where Mr Barrie chose his victims in a calculated and careful way.
He wore them down and somehow ensured their silence. At various points, the Montgomery girls tried to raise the alarm.
Police officers who’d brought them back as runaways turned a deaf ear. Angela says she once filled out an apparently confidential questionnaire about life at Lagarie.
She says she soon discovered it was not secret, and paid for this indiscretion when the Barries punished her – together, like a deranged tag team – for “telling such lies”.
At a religious rally in Glasgow, Mary was due to sing a solo before the congregation, but instead of breaking into song, she shouted down the mic, “Mr Barrie is hurting us”.
She was tackled from the stage by Mr Barrie himself and nothing more was said.
When they tried to speak out, no-one listened. No-one, it seems, was looking out for the kids of Lagarie. Mr Barrie was untouchable.
On turning 16, Mary, then Angela departed the home. Mary married quickly and had the first of her seven children quickly.
Angela moved to London, soon to be joined by the not-yet-16 Norma who had run away from the clutches of Mr Barrie.
But life wasn’t easy. The three had finally escaped Lagarie, but would spend the next 40 years trying to wash away its indelible mark. From this, there would be no escape.
Each would suffer failed relationships, endure lifelong trust issues and carry Lagarie like an invisible weight.
William Barrie died in 1993 and never faced justice. Police investigations in 2001 and 2016 failed to result in charges against anyone. Mary Barrie died last year, and according to one former Lagarie resident, was in denial to the last.
Stuart Rivers, who is head of the Sailors' Society - as it is now known - says the police were contacted about the allegations shortly after he took up his role in 2013.
He said: “It’s a very dark time in the society’s history. I was deeply upset by it. I can’t change the past, but I can make sure that that we do things right now. I think no organisation would feel good about having this type of thing in their history.
“I was horrified when I heard these accounts. We do regret that any abuse happened and we have apologised unreservedly.”
Mr Rivers said the charity is in touch with 18 survivors, and has provided counselling services to some of them. He called on other Lagarie residents to get in touch with him personally, and pledged his support to them.
You took a child full of hope and dreams
replaced her with a broken replica,
now unable to feel true happiness.
You are blind to the suffering you have caused.”
A letter Mary wrote to her abuser, unsent.
After leaving Lagarie, Mary struggled to maintain a normal life as a new mother.
She moved to America but her children are still in Scotland. Though she is in constant touch, she has regrets. “I wish I could go back in time. Be able to go back and explain things a bit more. I regret I wasn’t a more hands-on mum.”
Now the story of Lagarie is finally being told, the 57-year-old says she hopes it might help explain why she wasn’t able to have the kind of relationship with her children that they wanted.
Mary works as pre kindergarten teacher and loves every minute of it. “I will never be able to put what happened at Lagarie behind me. But it’s not the first thing I think about anymore.”
Norma’s adulthood has at times been chaotic and punctuated by abusive relationships with men. She has five children and eight grandchildren, and is close to all of them.
She has battled mental illness throughout her life and sought escape by cutting herself.
The recent trauma of reliving the events of her childhood led to a breakdown and stay in hospital, from which she appears to be slowly recovering.
“I want my story told," she says.
“I want people to know what they did to us. I want the Sailors’ Society to know that I’ve been in hospital for the past month and what Lagarie has done to my life. I want them to know.”
On leaving Lagarie Angela married quickly, but the marriage failed. She married again and had two children, whom she adores, though their father died young.
Over the years Angela too has struggled with her mental health. Diagnosed with PTSD, she suffers from extreme anxiety, but finds comfort in painting and music. She has learned to play guitar and harmonica through the various support groups she joined. The 56-year-old has a partner, Irvine, who dotes on her.
Several years ago, she attempted to confront her past by writing a book about Lagarie. She called it, “Deliver us from Evil.”
Few have read this raw, unpublished account. But the story of the Montgomery sisters and their lifelong attempt to escape the horrors of Lagarie deserves to be told.