writer and currently vice-chairman of the TRBDMT. After I'd completed
the job on the David Mitchell headstone, I recorded the story in approx.
3,000 words, and rounded it off with a 20 line poem in both English and
Scots. Both are attached here.
purpose was to use the story, perhaps the poem as well, to raise further
funds for the TRBDMT. See the link to them at the foot of this page.
Here is the story...
say that history is a thing of the past with no relevance to our present
day lives. In its defence I would say that each one of us has our own
personal history, a part of us being made up of our parents,
grandparents and great grandparents. And if we care about our ancestors,
then we care about their lives which more often than not were a sight
harder than our own. To deny history a part in our present day lives is
to turn our backs on where we came from and who we are.
on the night of Sunday, 28th
December, 1879, the Mitchells of Dundee were a typically ordinary family
– a wife and five children having risen from dinner and awaiting their
husband and father, soon to finish work by arriving in Dundee at the
controls of engine number 224 of the Northern British Rail Line. It was
pulling a passenger train from Burntisland with 55 passengers and 3
other crew on board. Suddenly, while crossing the newly built Tay Rail
Bridge from Wormit to Dundee, the high girders of the bridge collapsed
in the teeth of a violent storm, dragging the train with them into the
icy waters. There were no survivors.
of the following inquest upheld that this was a bridge which had been
badly designed, badly constructed and badly maintained. Small comfort
for the Mitchells. Like 58 other families, having been thrown into the
centre of the most shocking man-made disaster in Scotland’s industrial
history, they had become an extraordinary family, and their lives were
never to be the same again.
Before my own
link-up with the Mitchells unfolds, I’d like to make clear that I was
never driven into this like a man on a mission. I just happened to be a
trustee of the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster Memorial Trust, which from now
on I’ll refer to as the TRBDMT. While reading up on the Disaster, I
discovered David Mitchell was a Leslie man like myself, the only
difference being that David was born in Leslie.
He was the
son of a miller who worked at Balbirnie Flour Mill and a farmer’s
daughter from Kinglassie. My curiosity had been aroused and what
followed for me was an enthralling experience punctuated by hurdles
which presented themselves along the way and had to be cleared one by
one. No magic tricks, no spiritual revelations, just dogged
determination, a few good hunches and now and again something we all
need – a large slice of luck.
start, I just asked myself a question : Could David have been buried in
his home town of Leslie after his body had been washed up on Tayside on
March, 1880 ? With the help of Campbell Morris, a local historian, and
the staff of Fife Cemeteries, I established that Janet, his widow, had
in fact returned David’s body to Leslie on 4th
March and buried him in Leslie Cemetery. One year after that, his
youngest child succumbed to croup and was buried beside him,
inexplicably as an “unnamed child ”
first visit to Leslie Cemetery in search of the grave of David Mitchell
and his kiddie, the so-called “ unnamed child ” was made somewhat
nervously. Neither by night nor day am I a graveyard geek. I was armed
with a very old map of the cemetery given me by Campbell Morris, and
Fife Council had already informed me that David, his unnamed child, and
another child, who turned out to be his second son Thomas who died in
1946, were all buried in plot 731. But the crossway paths, so well
defined on the map, had long since been overgrown with grass, and the
numbering of the plots on the map was no longer reinforced by numbering
on the site. However, I was able to work out that a very wide gap,
rather like a firebreak between trees, must have been the second
crosspath, and that the section containing plots 731 to 738 was the
first on the northern, Lomond Hills’ side of it. By sheer luck, two
graveworkers were on site that morning and at my request were able to
establish, through their headquarters by mobile phone, the only visible
headstone had been raised at plot 734. From there, they were able to
pinpoint the centre of 731, the unmarked grave of David Mitchell.
don’t know why it was I had to campaign for a headstone for David
Mitchell and his family. All I know is I didn’t sleep at all well that
night, turning the Disaster over and over again in my mind. By morning
the dye was cast. I simply had to. Later that day I got an e-mail from
Murray Nicoll, who co-wrote a book in 2005 entitled “ Victims of the Tay
Rail Bridge Disaster ”. Intrigued by my tale of the unnamed child, he’d
popped in to New Register House where he was able to unearth the death
certificate of Margaret Mitchell , two year old daughter of Janet Moyes
and locomotive engine driver, David Mitchell. The certificate, dated 10th
April 1881, said she had died of croup and the informant was a
neighbour. Clearly, the mother Janet was in no fit state after all she’d
gone through. I then accessed the 1881 Census where I found widow Janet
and her family on 31st
March residing in High Street, Leslie – Janet, David Mitchell Junior 9
years old, Thomas 8, Andrew 6, Isabella 3, and would you believe,
Margaret 2. The bairn had caught and died from croup only days after the
Census. At least I now knew, if I ever did succeed in getting a
headstone, the bairn’s name would be on it.
challenge emerged when Fife Cemeteries intimated there were a further
two members of the family in the adjacent plot 732, namely Janet who
died in 1929 having survived her husband by 50 years, and daughter
Isabella who lived to the great age of 95, dying in March 1972. Well, I
thought, plenty of people have had to raise funds for good causes, why
should this task be any harder ? Not a chance, brought down to earth
again, if you’ll pardon the pun, by Fife Cemeteries. By law, I had to
find the eldest living descendant of David Mitchell, as that person
would be deemed to be the owner of the graves and would be required to
give me his or her support in writing.
outset I was a bit daunted by the prospect of doing such an in-depth
genealogical research into the Mitchell family. On the other hand I had
a little experience. Not so long ago I had uncovered the origin of my
name Nimmo. Margaret Nimmo, my great grandmother on my father’s side,
had been the daughter of James Nimmo, a church officer in Paisley. She
married a William White, shawl weaver, and they had eight children. The
family lived in a flat which size-wise would only be suitable for a
single person nowadays. And there she died, while giving birth to her
Thinking about Margaret Nimmo’s life added fuel to the old boiler. Life
had been hard for the Mitchell family as well after the shocking
circumstances of David’s death. It seemed that tragedy was par for the
course in a 19th
century family. This gave me all the empathy I needed.
where to start ? Perhaps an experienced hunter would have gone a
different way, but I chose Isabella Mitchell, David and Janet’s fourth
child. After all, she had been the longest survivor, and had died
relatively recently, in 1972.
Campbell Morris gave me a photograph of her, taken when she became the
oldest member of Christ’s Kirk on the Green, Leslie, and later in the
research I came into possession of some of her writings. In 1968 she
wrote a letter to the Courier in response to an article on the Tay
Bridge Disaster. In it she explains she was only two years old at the
time of the Disaster, but as she was growing up her mother had told her
how she and Isabella’s older brothers had received the news at Peddie
Street, Dundee, on the night of the tragic event :
the middle of the storm, mum had difficulty getting my baby sister to
sleep. When she finally succeeded, she realised dad was late coming off
his train. So she asked two laddies who were passing the house if the
train was in yet. They told her the bridge was down and the train in the
Tay. It was an awful shock for mum, and she ran into the house of her
dressmaker friend and neighbour ”.
only doubt I had about my method was that Isabella had been single
throughout her life and had died childless. This, I thought, could lead
to a dead end and fast. Nonetheless, with the help of an assisted search
at Glenrothes Registrar’s, I was able to see an image of Isabella’s
death certificate from 1972. The informant, in a clear and very fine
handwriting, was Beatrice Taylor, a niece from Edinburgh. Having learned
from this, I subscribed to the Scotlandspeople website and continued the
search on my home computer.
followed days of furious surfing, punctuated by bouts of language
unprintable here and only halted by a wife threatening to leave home if
I didn’t chill out. But enough of my consummate PC skills ! Having no
luck with tracing Beatrice Taylor, I went off at a tangent looking for
the death certificate of the eldest child, David Mitchell Junior. Again
I wasn’t all that hopeful, for David Junior had appeared as single,
still living with his mother Janet, in the Census of 1901. Surely, one
of the Mitchell children had produced offspring of their own !
more frustration, but eventually I broke through into the third
generation when I found DMJ’s death certificate from February,1945. He
had died in Edinburgh, the document confirming him as the son of David
Mitchell, locomotive engine driver, and Janet Moyes. More importantly,
the informant was a John F. Leighton, son-in-law. This meant, although
leaving it late, David Mitchell Junior had flown his original family in
Leslie and started one of his own. For the first time I felt there was a
fair chance I might resolve this.
the point when you have to get good hunches, when you have to make links
which can only lead to one answer. So what did I actually know ?
Beatrice Taylor was the niece of Isabella Mitchell, the daughter of
David Mitchell. This had to mean Beatrice was the granddaughter of
David. Now I posed myself another question : Could Taylor be Beatrice’s
name from a second marriage and could she have been the wife, by a first
marriage, of this John F. Leighton, the son-in-law of David Mitchell
Junior ? If so, this would mean she was the daughter of David Mitchell
this is where you’ve got to get lucky. Had Beatrice been a Mary or a
Jean, the search could easily have fallen flat as a badly baked cake,
but there were few Beatrice Taylors in the records of Scotlandspeople
within the timescale I was scanning. Her signature on her aunt
Isabella’s death certificate was Beatrice M. Taylor. There was only one
such, Beatrice Mary Taylor. And best of all, marriage certificates
confirmed her as wedded to John Fraser Leighton, in 1942 in Edinburgh,
when she was Beatrice Mary Mitchell, the daughter of David Mitchell
Junior and Annie Sweeting of Portobello, then wedded later to Stanley
Taylor in Edinburgh in 1959, when she was Beatrice Mary Leighton, widow.
Sadly, John Fraser Leighton had been killed in a work accident in 1952.
I now knew, if I could break through into a fourth generation, that of
the great grandchildren of David Mitchell, I’d likely find a living
looked again at the five children of David and Janet Mitchell. Margaret
had died as a bairn, Isabella and Thomas had lived out their lives
single and without issue. Andrew, the third son, had moved to Glasgow,
married a lass called Ellen Johnston, and worked in John Brown’s
shipyards. But as far as I could make out, he had died relatively young
without children. All the eggs were in one basket. If David Mitchell
Junior had not produced grandchildren, either through his daughter
Beatrice or any other children he might prove to have had, all my
success to date would be meaningless. The Mitchell line would come to a
to the hypotheses or as I call them, the hunches. What if Beatrice had
produced a son ? If so, what would she have called him ? John, after his
father, John Fraser Leighton ? Or David, after her grandfather the train
driver, being mindful of the history and wanting to keep the name alive
? Oh dear, time to go back on computer again. After sorting out one of
those insufferable breakdowns on the Internet, this latest search
through births revealed a considerable number of John and David
Leightons born in Edinburgh between 1943 and 1950. Beatrice had married
J.F. Leighton there in 1942.
the computer quit the game completely, so I reverted to an old trick
from my days in youth and community service. That job was always about
communicating with people, and to contact someone you didn’t know you
sometimes had to search laboriously through the telephone directory. It
helped if the surname was uncommon, for it reduced the number of
options. I wondered how many Leightons would be in the Edinburgh area.
Probably a lot, and it was all speculation anyway. Even if Beatrice did
have a son, he’d likely moved out of Auld Reekie lang syne, and if not,
was called Callum, Torquil – anything.
January, and a visit to the reference room of Glenwood Library, for a
riveting read of the Edinburgh telephone directory. Imagine having to
write one up ! Well, not so many D. and J. Leightons as I’d expected. I
made a note of the numbers but, frankly, wasn’t at all hopeful. Then I
went back home and tried one at random, only to hear a recorded male
voice inviting me to redial with an added security number. So I did,
only to get a pre-recorded lady operator talking in Swahili. More
dubious language, resulting in my better half calming me down by
explaining the gentleman probably had a hearing problem. At least I’d
left details on his machine of my role in the TRBDMT. I decided to do
the other calls later.
on the same day, and I was woken from an afternoon nap by long suffering
wife to be told a Mr. Leighton was on the phone. “ You’ll have to speak
up if we’re going to talk ” the voice boomed. “ Certainly ” I copied, “
I’m sorry to have bothered you if I’ve got this wrong, but could you by
any chance be the son of Beatrice Mary Mitchell ? ” “ Yes, that’s my
mum, and I know where you’re going with this. My great grandfather was
the train driver ”. For a few seconds I experienced something I’m not
known for – a loss of speech. Then a noise came from somewhere deep
inside me and frightened the poor man half to death.
fact that David Leighton, the eldest living great grandson of David
Mitchell, had lost his dear wife Elizabeth in 2004, and was now having
to make daily visits to a nursing home in Edinburgh to keep an eye on
his ailing mother, Beatrice Mary Mitchell, gives measure enough to a
thoroughly decent human being who, from the outset, steadfastly
supported me all the way to the commemoration ceremony for his great
grandfather, and indeed on one occasion said to me : “ I have to
remember, as well as my ancestor, 58 other people were killed. There is
something much bigger going on here ”.
dug out old family photographs stashed away long since by his granny,
Annie Sweeting and his mother Beatrice. Why is it always the women who
keep the family records alive ? Being sensitive and shy by nature, David
shunned the media at first, but later got used to it. I worried for him
when he had the Edinburgh Evening News and the Sunday Express hunting
him at the same time. He thought about it for a tad, then assertively
said to me “ Bring it all on, Ian ! ”
the finest moments in my research was finding out that his mum,
Beatrice, was still living. When she was merely a signature on her
auntie Bella’s death certificate, I remember doing maths and thinking
she must be over 100 years old by now, probably not with us any more.
But there she was for real, 92 years young, when I went with David to
visit her at her nursing home in February, 2011.
David Leighton, I learned he had an uncle of 91 who stays in Essex, a
younger brother to Beatrice. He turned out to be quite a character.
Although his physical disabilities prevented him from making the long
haul to his grandfather’s ceremony, he has all his marbles. He wrote to
me at regular intervals taking issue with some of my records on the
Disaster, and without him there are one or two mysteries I’d not have
solved. Amazingly, he still has the duty pocket watch taken from his
grandfather’s body when washed up on Tayside nine weeks after the
Beatrice and her younger brother David John were born in Kinglassie ,
the children of David Mitchell Junior and Annie Sweeting. They proved to
be the only grandchildren of the train driver. David Leighton proved to
be Beatrice’s only child. He has two sons, Graeme and Murray, and three
grandchildren, Aaron, Victoria and Gershom. David John Mitchell has two
children, David Iain and Kathleen Alison.
commemorative ceremony for David Mitchell, his wife and their children,
took place on Wednesday, 20th
April, 2011, at Leslie Cemetery where a fine new granite gravestone had
been erected bearing their names. Fife Councillor Fiona Grant welcomed
everyone at the start, then wreaths and flowers were laid, as John
Winton, the piper, played Good-bye Marion, a lament of his own
composition. The first wreath was laid by David and Murray Leighton,
great grandson and great great grandson of David Mitchell. Then the Rev.
Mel Griffiths of Trinity Church, Leslie, blessed the stone, and John
Winton played Amazing Grace. Speeches followed firstly from yours
truly, then Stuart the Younger of Balgonie, chairman of the TRBDMT, and
finally David Leighton.. The conclusion of the ceremony was The Dark
Island played by piper John Winton and a prayer led by Rev.
story of David Mitchell’s commemoration has moved you, then please make
a donation to the TRBDMT. We’re going to build memorials to the 59 who
lost their lives in the Disaster, one at Riverside, Dundee, the other at
Wormit in Fife. You can use our website for PAYPAL at
www.thetaymemorial.com or send a cheque to Ian Rae, Treasurer of the
TRBDMT, 11 Wilmington Drive, Glenrothes, KY7 6US. Make out to “ Tay Rail
Bridge Disaster Memorial Trust ”. In gratitude to all who helped me with
my research, to all who donated to the Mitchell Stone, and to all who
came to the ceremony, either in person or in spirit. The last words
belong to the train driver’s daughter, Isabella, for so long an active
member of the Leslie community. Clearly, good memories never dim, for
although only 2 years old at the time of her father’s death, she said
church magazine some 88 years later :
father was a sober man of gentle face, deeply fond of his children ”.
Nimmo White Leslie, April, 2011
A Train Driver and a Poet
On raising a stone at Leslie Cemetery on 20th
April, 2011, to David Mitchell, locomotive engine driver of the
train involved in the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster, Sunday, 28th
There but a cricket ball’s throw from my
were graves overgrown with grass and unstoned :
a husband and wife and three of their young,
forsaken by a Railway, a driver disowned.
In sleepless nights I tossed and turned,
as a hundred times more that Bridge gave way,
and Mitchell’s engine pitched and plunged
into metal, steam, stormed water and spray.
But now an unsung figure has place
in Scottish lore and his own hometown.
A stone is raised, fine flowers are laid,
a piper plays, and memory goes on.
Be the job complete, no pride be felt,
let the Tay be calm, let the family be one.
And let pity be reserved for the misguided souls
for whom history is nothing but theirs to spurn.
In the shadow of the Lomonds I’m stood upright
by a stone to folk I never knew. But it’s brill
that the fireside tale my mother told
returned with a mandate so fine to fulfil !
Ian Nimmo White
First published in
A Train Drevver and a Poet
On raising a stone at Leslie Cemetery on 20th
April, 2011, to David Mitchell, locomotive engine driver of the
train involved in the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster Sunday,
Ther bit a cricket baa’s heave frae ma
wir graves owergrowed wae gress, and unstaned
a mannie and wife and three o thir weans,
forsak bi the Railway, thir drevver disawned.
In sleepless nichts Ah tossed ’n’ turnt,
is a hunner times mair yon Brig gied wey,
and Mitchell’s injin pitched and dooked
intae metal, stame, gurled watter and spreh.
Bit noo an unsang chiel hus pless
i Scotland’s lore and his ain hametoon.
A stane is heezed, and flooers laid oot,
a piper plehs and mem’ry gans oan.
Be the job weel lowsed, nae pride be
lat the Tay be lown, lat the faimlie be wan,
and peety set by for the harnliss sowels
for wham historie is naethin bit therrs tae pit doon.
I the shaddie o the
Lomonds Ah’m stuid upricht
be a stane tae fowk Ah nivir kennt. Bit it’s brill
thit the ingle-cheek tale ma mither tellt
cam back wae a mandate sae fine tae fulfil !
Ian Nimmo White
Do visit the Tay Rail Bridge
Disaster Memorial Trust web site.