Claire Bothwell: Mother’s positivity helped Alistair MacLeod

Amedlia MacLeod recently turned 100. Picture: Greg Macvean
Amedlia MacLeod recently turned 100. Picture: Greg Macvean
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AMELIA MacLeod’s belief in her son is an inspiration to us all, says Claire Bothwell

Amelia MacLeod is, in her words, “just an ordinary mother” but many would say what she has achieved is extraordinary. Amelia has just turned 100, her son Alistair, who has Down’s syndrome, is now 65. Amelia taught her son far more than was expected of anyone with learning disabilities at the time.

Alistair was born in 1950 and was a very active child who developed typically until it came to his speech. Amelia’s husband wouldn’t acknowledge that there was anything wrong with his son but Amelia knew he had Down’s syndrome. Amelia had to fight for a diagnosis for her son, being sent between her local doctor and a handful of nurses until it was finally confirmed by a paediatrician at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children. In the early 1950s, there was very little provision or even consideration for children with disabilities and even less for children with learning disabilities.

Amelia was determined that Alistair was not going to be limited by Down’s syndrome. Rather than institutionalise her son or separate him from society, as was normal then, Amelia sent him to play with the other children on the street and soon he became known as “the best climber on the Avenue”. Amelia was not satisfied with just this, she knew he would be capable of collecting her shopping from across the road. She walked the route with him every day for a month, instructing him on how to cross the road, how to explain to the shopkeeper what he wanted and not to talk to strangers. By the age of four Alistair was getting the shopping for his mother independently. Many in her community and even her own father were shocked by the things she would get Alistair to do. Amelia was insistent, however, that if she didn’t give him the confidence to do things on his own, then no-one else would.

Alistair attended Gogarburn School, requiring them to get two buses, one to Haymarket and then a second one out to Ratho. The journey was gruelling and Amelia often found it hard to collect Alistair. So she began teaching him to get the bus home alone. She “trained” him in the same way she had taught him to collect her shopping, allowing him to work up to doing the whole journey himself. Amelia admits that she worried about how Alistair would get on with this task, however it soon became part of their routine and after a few weeks Alistair asked if he could travel to school on his own as well! When Amelia contacted the headmistress at Gogarburn to tell her, she was astounded as she had never heard of a student with Down’s syndrome travelling on the bus themselves.

Once he left school, Alistair secured a job at a local Scotmid where he worked for ten years. As Alistair could not read, he required support, however when the support teacher left and was not replaced, Alistair was deemed capable of working alone. This began to cause problems for Alistair, and after one incident with the new manager, Amelia decided to take Alistair out of the job. Following this, he spent a lot of time with an artist friend of the family. Alistair had many pursuits including photography and swimming for which he won several medals.

Sadly, Amelia’s husband died in 1998 after which Amelia and Alistair moved to Gorgie Road. In 2011, Alistair was diagnosed with dementia and admitted to Drummond Grange Care Home. His mother visits him there every Wednesday accompanied by his cousin.

At 100, Amelia looks back on her life and believes that what she did for her son are the things any mother would do. I believe that what she achieved, at the time, is extraordinary. She was motivated by love for her child and a strong belief in equality. She raised Alistair with patience and positivity. Amelia has always maintained that her son could and should achieve everything a typical child would be expected to. From a young age she made it clear what she expected of him, and he rose to the challenge, thriving on her confidence.

• 21-27 March is Down’s syndrome Awareness Week. To find the facts rather than the myths about Down’s syndrome, please visit