Mass grave found at Irvine building site

image captionThe former Ravenspark Hospital operated as a poorhouse and asylum in the 19th century

Police and forensic experts have sealed off a building site in North Ayrshire after the discovery of a mass grave.

Construction workers unearthed human skulls and a large number of bones at the site on Sandy Road, Irvine, at about 09:00 on Tuesday.

Strathclyde Police confirmed that all work had been halted while forensic archaeologists examined the scene.

The site once housed Ravenspark Hospital, which was formerly an asylum and poorhouse in the 19th century.

Originally known as Cunninghame Combination poor house, the facility opened in about 1856.

Burying patients

Historian and author Peter Higginbotham notes in The Workhouse website that a report by the General Superintendent of Poorhouses in 1892 alleged that "paupers dying in this house, whose bodies are not claimed by friends, are buried in an enclosed part of the garden".

The report continued: "I am surprised that no complaint has arisen with regard to this practice and I am afraid that a great scandal may at any time arise.

"Protestants and Roman Catholics are buried indiscriminately. The ground has been twice gone over during the present governor's term of office.

"If any descendant of a deceased pauper, who may have prospered in the world, desires to erect a headstone to his parents' memory it will probably be impossible to to indicate the place of sepulture."

Mr Higginbotham told BBC Scotland's news website that despite the tone of the report, burying people in the grounds of poorhouses was "standard practice" when no relatives claimed the body.

"There was a legal responsibility on governors to organise a burial," he said.

"Poorhouses were often located out of town, so using the local cemetery was not an option.

"Bodies could also be sent off for use in medical science if they were not buried locally. There were no rules broken at the time by any of these practices."

On his website, Mr Higginbotham notes that control of the poorhouse site passed to the local authority in 1930.

Asylum block

It then became the Cunninghame Home and Hospital, providing a 106-bed hospital, with wards for the elderly, a mentally defective unit, and an asylum block.

The facility became part of the National Health Service in 1948 and in 1958 was renamed Ravenspark.

It continued to provide psychiatric and geriatric care up until its closure in 1996.

The site remained derelict until it was sold for redevelopment in the early 2000s.

The original structures have since been demolished and a development of about 75 homes, by Dundas Estates, is currently ongoing at the site.

In a statement, Dundas Estates said: "Whilst working on the Fairways View development yesterday, contractors found human remains adjacent to the historic graveyard.

"Police were immediately informed and construction work within the vicinity has been suspended whilst the police and forensic archaeologists deal with the remains in an appropriate and sensitive manner.

"The site was formerly accommodated Ravenspark Hospital and had a graveyard within its grounds."

Protection measures

Dundas Estates said it had bought the land in July 2011 "and spent a considerable amount of time investigating the history of the site".

It said current development plans, approved by North Ayrshire Council, include measures to "protect and respect the graveyard".

The statement added: "The graveyard has been allowed to become run down and overgrown and plans to create a Scented Garden of Remembrance are being finalised with local authorities.

"Yesterday's event has only reinforced the importance and sensitivity of the project.

"Dundas Estates will continue to provide as much assistance to the authorities as possible whilst the investigation is conducted."

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