Family tragedy secret stuns Gail Porter to silence

GAIL Porter holds her bright blue scarf up to her face, clasping it over her mouth as she stares at a pile of old documents, her forehead burrowed, her eyes visibly sad.

"I feel really emotional hearing about this," she says, putting her arm around her daughter Honey, the seven-year-old swinging her legs from a neighbouring chair, gazing up at her mum.

Gail, who grew up in Portobello, has just arrived at the National Archives of Scotland, off the Capital's Princes Street, having agreed to her family history being revealed by staff who have spent weeks piecing together strands of her past.

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They have hunted through expansive records from across Scotland for old birth, death and marriage certificates, while also joining forces with other research centres in the UK.

Some of their discoveries, laid out in a room in the historic building, make the London-based 38-year-old television personality laugh out loud, most notably the finding of records relating to her great-grandad's brother, a policeman in Leith in the 1890s.

"A policemen? In my family?" she blurts out, shaking her head with a comical grin, causing the team of archivists to smile.

But one story brings the bubbly celebrity to silence, as she shakes her head and takes a deep breath, while the archivists who have unearthed the discovery present her with a pile of painful documents related to the case, slowly detailing their find.

Gail's great-grandad, a lightkeeper, was just 46 when he was mangled by a machine in the engine room of Langness Lighthouse, on the Isle of Man.

His daughter, Gail's 91-year-old paternal grandmother Margaret, has never really spoken about the horrific day, back in 1928, when her father was killed, leaving behind his wife and four young children, all whom were likely to have been in the neighbouring house at the time of the accident.

Yet the pensioner, who still lives in Edinburgh and enjoys a close bond with Gail, has always kept a framed picture of the lighthouse in her home, clearly as a silent reminder of her dad.

"I knew something had happened in that lighthouse," Gail says. "I knew that from a young age, but for some reason I thought his wedding ring had been caught in the machine, causing his death. I was never really very sure if that story was true though. It never really came up in conversation.

"Hearing all this now though, I just cannot imagine what this must have been like for my grandma. It's very sad to hear."

Donald Thomson Gutcher, originally from Orkney, had moved to the Isle of Man just one month before he was killed on duty.

As a lightkeeper, it was common place to travel across the country, taking his wife Margaret Wishart, who was also from Orkney, and their children – all born in a lighthouse on the Scottish islands – with him.

On Sunday, 26 February, 1928 his body was found by a colleague at about 10:45am , lodged between the flywheel and bed of one of the oil engines.

His cap, lying on the floor close to the engine, had sparked suspicion that something was wrong and when the colleague moved closer, he saw Donald's face through the spokes, a pool of blood next to him and strands of hair on the wheel.

Later investigations by a coroner revealed most of Donald's left-hand side had been crushed, causing a broken neck, arm and ribs and a six-inch long wound to his scalp.

It is not known what caused the accident, but reports suggest his wife Margaret believed the otherwise healthy man may have had a heart attack and landed in the engine.

Gail reads through a telegram from the incident, sent from the Isle of Man to lighthouse officials in Edinburgh, advising them of the death.

She moves on to newspaper accounts of the accident, again holding her hand to her mouth as her great-grandad's gruesome death is outlined in full.

Much of the information was supplied to archivists in Edinburgh from staff at the Manx National Heritage Library, on the Isle of Man, who helped fill in major gaps about Donald's death, none of which was available in Scotland.

Gail picks up another document, outlining how much money her great-grandmother was given following her husband's death – 194 through insurance and a further 197 gratuity payment under the Superannuation Act, as well as compensation. She is informed by the team of archivists the money would have been a considerable amount in the 1920s.

A later letter reveals her widowed great-grandmother, having moved back to Scotland, had eventually applied to the lighthouse board for a bursary to ensure one of her sons had enough money to get through university. It was successful.

General Register Office of Scotland imaging and micrographic manager Audrey Wyper, who has compiled most of Gail's family history, smiles. "We've been really enthusiastic about finding this information because it's a great story. It is easy to forget that this actually happened in Gail's family, though, and it must have been awful.

"Unfortunately, there is always more information available in families where there has been a tragedy – there is always more paperwork involved for bad news. The same happens to families who lost relatives during the world wars."

Gail's session with the archive team is dominated by the tale of her great-grandad, the detailed documents available to her and the many questions left unanswered in her mind.

"I just wonder what it must have been like for my great-grandma, leaving the Isle of Man with her children to come back to Scotland and re-start her life?" she says.

"It makes me feel very proud of them all."

While the Gutchers have strong links with Orkney, it emerges the Porters were originally from Ireland, marrying into a family of Leithers back in the 1850s. Although less is known about Gail's mother's side, the Twiddys, archivists learned they originate from Scotland, with a long line of relatives – many with unusual names – also traced back to Leith.

Herbert George Twiddy, born in 1901, was a major in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, while Horatio Walter Stanley Twiddy, his son – Gail's grandad – was a vacuum cleaner salesman, born in Leith.

"A lot of this is really hard to take in. I really didn't know much about my family at all," Gail laughs. "I did feel quite emotional hearing about my great-grandad. I'm really looking forward to going over all this with my family."

To trace your own family's Scottish history, the Scotland's People Centre is open on weekdays from 9am-4:30pm. Taster sessions are available on a first-come-first-served basis from 10am-12pm and again at 2pm-4pm. For more information visit www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

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