“The whole world joined the search for Maddie McCann and Ben Needham, but forgot all about our Sandy.”
A missing person mystery which has caused a family heartache for almost 40 years could be tantalisingly close to being solved.
In 1976, four-year-old Sandy Davidson vanished from an Irvine garden. Now the Davidson family has fresh hope after Sandy’s “age progressed” picture triggered new leads.
A DNA test has been carried out and the family await results this week. It’s a glimmer of hope amid decades of pain. Ali Kirker spoke exclusively to Sandy’s sister Donna.
Irvine’s Bourtreehill is a respectable area.
The gardens are well-kept and there’s a corner shop here and there. At Broomlands Primary School, mums and dads, grans and granddads wait to pick up their wee ones.
It seems there’s nothing much to single out the area. There are housing estates like this in towns right across Scotland. But Bourtreehill is the home of an enduring mystery.
In April 1976, four-year-old toddler Sandy Davidson went missing from his gran’s garden. It’s possible someone still in the area knows what happened to the cute-as-a-button toddler with the curls.
At the time, a huge police operation swung into action. Doors were knocked, sheds checked, rivers dragged. Nothing. And there’s been no trace of Sandy ever since. It’s as if he just vanished into thin air.
Sadly, you could say Sandy is Scotland’s Madeleine McCann.
For his family, the pain has never gone away. And for sister Donna, who was there the day he disappeared, it’s something she’s lived with since she was a two-year-old. She says she’s “always known it was there”.
Donna and her family are trying to raise awareness of Sandy’s disappearance.
Now, after an internet campaign to help provide the family with answers, two people have come forward to say they know someone who bears a strong resemblance to Sandy’s “age progressed” picture.
One agreed to take a DNA test. He’s the same age as Sandy would be and lives around 20 miles away.
Donna has informed Police Scotland of these developments. And she claims she’s always had to push them to investigate new leads.
Donna just wants answers. She’s lived with her big brother’s disappearance for so long. And she’s very frustrated by what she sees as lack of interest in Sandy’s case.
“Over the years, we’ve had a few sightings. The latest is a prime example of what it’s been like with the police. Two people have come forward to say they recognise the age progressed picture. Someone passed me the details of one of them. When I gave the name to the police, they did nothing.
“I contacted the guy myself, he said he’d take a DNA test and it’s only now the police have taken action by arranging the test. It’s a waiting game now until we get results.”
Donna, 39, can’t help but compare the family’s experience to that of Kate and Gerry McCann and Kerry Needham, the mum of Ben Needham.
Neither family is ever far from the headlines. And she envies what she sees as the first-class support they’ve received from the police and media.
“I wish them all the luck in the world, I really do.
“When I met Kate, she asked how it had affected me Madeleine was three, almost four, when she went missing, just like Sandy. I was roughly the same age as her twins.
“I told her it hadn’t been easy she looked upset,” Donna says. She pauses before continuing.
“But at the same time, I can’t help feeling resentful of the support they’ve had. I just wish Sandy’s case would get the same publicity.
“I was actually with Kerry Needham when they thought Ben was under a mound of earth. It was all over the papers. And the police were straight on the phone to her, I couldn’t believe it.
“And a couple of weeks ago, when there was a new sighting, they checked it out within 24 hours. And that was abroad.”
She can’t help railing against the injustice of it all.
“Sandy went missing in this country. The McCanns’ and Kerry Needham’s children went missing abroad. And British police are doing everything they can to help them, yet they’re not helping us.”
Over the years, she’s never stopped thinking about her big brother, saying he’s in her thoughts every single day. And, sitting in her living room talking to her, I can see the pain is as raw as it’s ever been.
“People have asked me over the years why I keep searching. But if it was me who had disappeared instead of him, I’d like to think he’d have kept looking for me,” Donna, of nearby Saltcoats, says simply.
That terrible day in 1976 is never far from her mind.
“I’ve felt every emotion, including guilt. I don’t know why, but I do,” she says, breaking down.
Donna’s a mum of three herself now, to Decklyn, 20, Giorgia, 17, and Brendan, 13. And she admits she’s been over-protective of her kids, saying she’s been a “nightmare” just as her mum, Margaret Davidson, was over-protective with her.
Margaret has, of course, found her boy’s disappearance agony. She says: “It’s so fresh in my mind, I can’t let it go. I still have nightmares.”
For years, his disappearance was barely discussed in the Davidson family. Then something changed.
“Brendan’s dad took him round to my mum’s one day. The next day she phoned and told me to get his hair cut,” she said. “I refused, but she was insistent. She said, ‘It’s just my Sandy’.”
Donna falls silent as she searches her phone and finds two pictures one of Sandy and one of Brendan as a toddler.
They’re like a mirror image of each other.
Although Donna says it’d be wonderful if these developments provided a happy ending, she admits there have been times she’s hoped her brother is no longer alive.
“Part of me has hoped he’s dead because I couldn’t bear to think he’d been in the hands of a paedophile ring or the torture he could have gone through.”
Margaret refuses to give up hope that her boy’s alive.
“I firmly believe he is,” she says. “Someone took him and I really do think he’s out there somewhere and I’m not getting any help at all.”
Because of her belief Sandy is alive, Margaret can’t help “seeing” him everywhere.
“A couple of years ago The X Factor was on and there was a young boy with blond hair. And I was thinking, I wonder if that’s my Sandy. I know it’s just my imagination but I can’t help it.”
Of course, no one actually knows for sure what happened to Sandy.
But two witnesses at the time said they saw him leaving happily with a “well-dressed” man.
Donna falls silent after we discuss the witnesses. Dozens of “if onlys” must be going through her mind, as they’ll have done a million times. Her life hasn’t been “normal” and probably never will be.
“I can remember years ago we went for chips in the days when they were wrapped in newspaper. And there was Sandy, staring at me.”
A mundane moment, jolted by a harsh reminder of the big brother Donna never really knew, but has never given up on. Her life has been littered with them.
I leave the house hoping they finally get answers this time around.
A Police Scotland spokesman said: “This case remains open and officers are currently carrying out enquiries. The Sandy Davidson enquiry has been subject of regular reviews over the years. Should any additional information on Sandy’s disappearance come to light, either now or in the future, it will be fully investigated. Police Scotland is in regular contact with the family and has kept them fully updated.”
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