FAMILIES have been left devastated after a safety inspection at Peebles Cemetery led to more than 700 headstones being taken down.

Inspectors spent five weeks testing almost 1800 memorials at the graveyard on St Andrew's Road.

Despite prior warnings that only 'old and large' headstones would be tested, dozens of small memorials were taken apart and 'socketed'.

Among the many stones which have been 'made safe' are memorials to babies and soldiers killed in the wars.

David Brunton from Peebles has written to local councillors, MSPs and his MP to complain.

He told us: "This is the worst case of vandalism witnessed in Peebles since the kirk was burnt down in the 1500s.

"This has devastated our cemetery and left a lot of people upset and angry.

"It was supposed to be a safety inspection to look at old and large stones that posed a risk - how does a small child's cross pose a risk to anyone?

"And from what we were told, they were going to inform families if a stone required work to make it safe.

"There are now broken gravestones lying all over our cemetery - this wasn't a safety inspection."

Scottish Borders Council is responsible for 154 cemeteries across the region.

And they have health and safety obligations for all employees, contractors and visitors to each of the graveyards.

Although headstones are the responsibility of the lair-holder, due to the age of many graves tracing families is difficult.

A five-year rolling programme of safety checks began in September with 18 cemeteries earmarked for the initial checks.

But for several families the heavy-handed testing regime - which has left many memorials broken - has come as a shock.

One daughter, who we agreed not to name, said: "My parents' grave is neither old nor what you would describe as large, yet it has been taken from its base.

"I have been really upset by this - if I or any of my family had known the stone was loose we would have had it repaired.

"Nobody has been in touch with me or my brother."

According to the Scottish Borders Council's own guidelines on the testing procedures, an initial sight test would be followed, if required, by a 'gentle hand push'.

All memorials were to be classed as either 'stable', 'slight movement' or 'unsafe'.

And only 'memorials found to be in a dangerous condition will be cordoned off and/or made safe'.

The guidance also states that they will 'ensure the work is undertaken with due respect and only when absolutely necessary'.

Scottish Borders Council has defended the testing procedures by the contracted company.

A spokesman for the authority told us: "The council took the decision to test all the headstones in the old section of Peebles Cemetery, regardless of size and age, following a risk assessment.

"This is part of a phased approach to testing which sees sections of cemeteries categorised based on estimated footfall, age, location and size of the memorials.

"So far the majority of unstable memorials tested across the Borders have been made safe by socketing, which means keeping the headstone upright with the majority of the inscription still visible for families and visitors to read.

"This is a recognised approach which balances the cultural importance associated with these historic memorials and the need to keep our cemeteries safe for the public to visit.

"Socketing is the preferred technique compared to other alternative methods such as lying flat, staking, banding or full repair, all of which carry significant consequences to the future stability of the memorials or significant costs."

A total of 1788 headstones were tested in Peebles Cemetery with 710 deemed unsafe.

Council bosses have admitted they will discuss issues over stones being broken during the inspection.

The spokesman added: "We accept that during this significant safety programme, and considering the nature of the memorials that we are dealing with, there will be occasions where a memorial can become damaged while being made safe.

"If anyone notices a memorial which they have a legal interest in and which they believe has been damaged during the process of making it safe, they can contact the council to discuss the matter further."

Other graveyards which are included in the initial phase of inspections are Innerleithen, Wairds (Melrose), Shawfield (Selkirk), Ashkirk, Earlston, Heriot, Lilliesleaf, Kelso (Old Churchyard) and Kelso (Rosebank), Ancrum, Denholm, Wellogate (Hawick) and Wilton (Hawick), Ayton, Duns, Lennel and Eyemouth.

Babies graves, war graves and many broken

Where a memorial is classified as unsafe and there is an immediate safety concern, the

memorial will be made safe. If a memorial is cordoned off or pocketed, the family, who are

responsible for the memorial can contact us and arrange for it to be made safe themselves.

Memorials will be laid flat if there is no other practical way of making them safe.

If it is found that a large number of memorials are unsafe within a section of the cemetery,

we will fence off the whole area. We will display signage to inform visitors of the danger

and provide our contact details for further information.