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Once-troubled youths reunite to honour their ‘fallen’ classmates after series of tragedies

Oakbank School closed in 2008.
Oakbank School closed in 2008.

Chinese lanterns were to be lit-up and released into the night’s sky – each emblazoned with the name of a schoolmate who was gone but would never be forgotten.

The idea was put forward by Rachel Whyte last year, in recognition of a heart-breaking series of tragedies that had befallen an alarming number of former pupils of Oakbank School in Aberdeen.

Rachel Whyte

One of those lanterns, there can be no doubt, would have been dedicated to Rachel’s “first love”, Derek Youngson, who she met while they were both at Oakbank.

He died at 19 alongside his stepfather when a suspicious fire burned through their top floor Fraserburgh flat on Hogmanay in 2006.

The Youngson family have said they believe the pair were murdered but, as is the case with the lives of several former Oakbank pupils, justice has been in short supply.

Rachel had suggested the tribute to Derek and others as she set about organising a reunion for the school’s former staff and pupils, many of whom had turned their lives around after the most difficult of beginnings.

The popular Elgin mum had already successfully spearheaded an enormous effort to bring them together in 2015, when any lingering differences from their school days were put aside as the group mixed together as adults for the first time and danced the night away.

“We came together to celebrate, not just Oakbank, but to celebrate the people we had a lifelong bond with. It was one of the best nights out I’ve had in a long time,” recalled Zach Gold, another former pupil.

But Rachel will not now be able to attend the gathering she had been planning, after she became the latest Oakbank alumni to pass away at the end of April this year, aged just 31.

“She was a character, and I mean, a character,” her mother Fiona, a carer in Elgin, said in tribute last night.

“She was so, so funny. Rachel was a hysterical, loving, kind, caring, sensitive, vulnerable – very vulnerable – character. She’s missed very sorely, but I just pray every day that she is at peace.”

Recalling her daughter’s “big heart”, Mrs Whyte added: “Two Christmases ago, we went away down to Aberdeen. I bought Rachel a coat and she took off her other jacket and she put it round a homeless guy and she said, ‘keep yourself warm please this Christmas’.

“Then we went and bought sandwiches and hot coffee, and we handed it out. I’ll never forget that.”

The Press and Journal believes that with Rachel’s death, close to 30 former pupils who attended the school from the mid-1990s to its closure in 2008 have now had their lives cut cruelly short, but the true figure is feared to be even higher.

This includes seven, such as Derek Youngson, who did not even make it into their 20s, and 10% of the roll in some years, as well as several of Rachel’s own classmates.

The school, for 11 to 16-year-olds with emotional and behavioural problems, only had a roll of about 50 in 1995 and that fell progressively to just 18 when it shut down.

About two-thirds of the deaths are understood to have been linked to drugs, including that of Rachel, who attended Oakbank between 2002 and 2004.

She had been from a “very normal, law-abiding, dignified family” who had moved to Moray from Dundee when her dad Kevin got a job with the RAF.

Zach and Rachel

And Rachel was intelligent too, passing her school exams despite going through a troubled period as a youngster, and graduating three years ago with an HND in social and media studies from Moray College UHI.

“She could have been anything and made anything she wanted of her life. She just got in with a wrong crowd,” her mother said.

“Rachel, to be honest, made choices that were wrong but she was young when she made those choices, and plus she had us as a family, and a lot of the other children never had that.

“You’re there (Oakbank) until you’re 16 and then you’re out, which is difficult, and after that I couldn’t reach her for a while, but I would say the last two or three years, Rachel’s relationship with the family was just wonderful.

“She was so loving, and her heart was there. But addiction is addiction.”

Although they were not together at the time, Rachel was “devastated” by Derek’s death in 2006 and, more recently, was “absolutely heartbroken” by her dad’s terminal cancer diagnosis.

“Do you know what? They were troubled children, but their hearts were there, and that’s all I can say,” her mother said. “Because Rachel would have given her last, even although she didn’t have much.”

Rachel’s mum had a “good relationship” with some Oakbank staff at the time she was there, while former pupils also said the teachers and social workers had played a pivotal role in the lives of many of the youngsters who attended.

Lisa Scott

Former pupil Lisa Scott, a 28-year-old care home worker from Aberdeen, said: “It’s the only place I look back on childhood and think ‘that was my home’. I think a lot of us feel that way.

“Some of them have gone on from Oakbank to college and university and have really good jobs, and I fully believe it is because education in Oakbank was one of the best.”

Zach, a security consultant from Kilmarnock, agreed, saying: “I do love Oakbank and it’s a travesty that it has gone.

“Oakbank was a home to many of us who don’t have a family, and within a community like that building friendships with the staff and people that take care of you – it becomes a lifelong bond.”

As such, when Lisa and Zach and others heard about Rachel’s death, they were in no doubt about what they needed to do next.

“It was Rachel’s wish that we all got together for another reunion and we’re going to honour that wish, and we’re going to honour the fallen,” said Zach.

“Not only have we lost Rachel but various other kids and staff – it’s now time we finish what she wanted.”

Lisa said: “We wanted to come together to share our memories, and maybe give family members of passed loved ones coming and give them some comfort, that although it was a difficult stage in our lives, there were some happy memories.”

A special reunion to celebrate the lives of former Oakbank school pupils will be held on August 31.

It is being organised on a Facebook group, which former pupils can join, and a crowdfunding page has been set-up to help pay the costs.

Lisa, who was at the school at the same time as both Derek and Rachel, hoped another reunion would be happening elsewhere around the same time.

“They were each other’s first love in Oakbank. At least they will be reunited again now,” she said.


Oakbank Industrial School for Boys opened in Aberdeen’s west end in 1879, having previously been part of a mixed establishment in Skene Square.

It could accommodate 250 boys, although fewer than half that number were in the school in the early 20th century.

In the 1930s, it was named an “Approved School” for boys aged six to 12 under nationwide reforms, before such facilities were put under the control of local authorities in the 1960s.

Oakbank later became the main residential school for 11 to 16-year-olds with emotional and behavioural problems in northern Scotland.

It had a roll of about 50 in the mid-1990s, but that number had fallen to 36 by 2005, and then halved to 18 in 2008, when it closed because of the drop in referrals and rising debts. More than 100 staff lost their jobs.