ORKNEY, SCOTLAND — A woman whose husband survived a series of baby killings carried out by his grandmother in Orkney early last century claimed yesterday the murder of illegitimate babies was relatively common in the area at the time.

Margaret Gray, whose husband Gordon survived while three newborn babies were killed by Tamina Gray, claimed it was wrong to describe her as a serial killer.

The remains of three babies had been discovered beneath the floor.

Police confirmed earlier this week that the remains of three babies had been discovered beneath the floor of St Olaf's Cottage, a remote croft in the parish of Harray, and are investigating claims that they were drowned by their grandmother.

The newborn babies had been buried there between 70 and 80 years ago and the police inquiry looked into rumours that they might have been killed by their mother, Violet Gray.

But Margaret Gray, 61, said yesterday that Violet was innocent — and that each of the children had died at the hands of their grandmother, Tamina, who lived at the cottage.

"I've heard it said that the way they got rid of babies at that time was to drown them in a bucket of water," she said. "They were literally born into a bucket of water. But I've no idea, it happened so long ago, if that's what she did."

Mrs Gray added: "But she'd have thought she was doing the right thing — that it was better to kill a baby than have an illegitimate child. Having an illegitimate child was a terrible thing at that time. Violet's children would never have been allowed to breathe.

Gordon survived because the birth was difficult and a doctor needed to be called.

"Her mother would have killed them as they were born and before they took their first breath. You have to remember this wasn't uncommon in Orkney at that time.

There was no abortion or contraception, so what were people to do when they fell pregnant if they weren't married?"

"I don't suppose she even thought she was doing anything wrong — and that it would have been a bigger disgrace for Violet to have had an illegitimate child — and that she was doing her best for the family."

Mrs Gray, who married Gordon in 1975 and divorced in 1990, said she had been told that Violet was a prostitute whose clients were rich Orkney businessmen. She said her former husband — who shot himself in 1995 — had never mentioned his family's terrible secret. Violet, who never married, was in her 50s when she died in the 1950s.

"Violet told him on his [her?] death bed what had happened," she said. "I suppose her conscience got the better of her after all those years. I had known about it before we got married. It was part of local folklore, but he never once talked about it. I was shocked when I first heard about it. But I know, though, that his wasn't the only family where babies were killed in this way."

Gordon survived because the birth was difficult and a doctor needed to be called to St Olaf's Cottage, the house Violet always went to when each of her illegitimate children were about to be born. She took him to back Horroquoy, her own house just 100 yards away from St Olaf's Cottage, but had to hide him in the attic for the first three or four years of his life, fearing that Tamina would try to murder him too.

Inspector Paul Eddington of Northern Constabulary said: "We are not carrying out a murder inquiry. We are currently involved in information gathering to put all the pieces of this puzzle together. These bones cannot be proved to have come from any particular member of a family, as they are too small and fragmented, and to suggest ownership would be insensitive."

The ultimate responsibility for disposing of the bones now lies with the procurator-fiscal, who will consider whether they should be given a Christian burial.