David Mitchell was the first press photographer at the scene of the Lockerbie bombing, the terrorist atrocity in which 259 people died four nights before Christmas in 1988. The main roads through Dumfries-shire were closed immediately after Pan Am Flight 103 from Frankfurt to Detroit was destroyed by a bomb in a suitcase in the hold. All 243 passengers and 16 crew were killed.
Wreckage from the aircraft, and the bodies of victims, were scattered over the M74 dual carriageway, the roofs and gardens of houses in Lockerbie itself and the hills and fields surrounding the village.
However, local knowledge of Dumfries-shire’s narrow back roads and farm tracks, dating back to his time as a boarder at St Joseph’s College, Dumfries, and early childhood in Wanlockhead, helped Mitchell navigate to the scene and take the first photographs.
He was met with a scene of devastation which, with his keen and sympathetic eye, he captured on film. These brilliant photographs appeared in newspapers across the world.One won him the title News Photographer of the Year.
David Robertson Mitchell’s parents were Lilla Atkins, a Londoner, and David Mitchell of Broughty Ferry, Dundee. He was the second of three sons, his brothers being Angus and Christopher.
Life was hard for the young family with David Sr enlisted into the Royal Horse Artillery, living in London and bombed out twice during the Blitz.
Available housing being scarce in wartime, David Sr was stationed in southern Scotland. The family home became the village of Wanlockhead, and a new, very different life began, with his father visiting only when on leave. Mitchell, like his elder brother Angus, proved a bright scholar and gained a place at St Joseph’s College, Dumfries, where he was educated by the Marist Brothers.
Although proud to have his abilities acknowledged, school was not for him, and he gained comfort in the food parcels sent to him by his mother and was particularly fond of Battenberg cakes, which remained a favourite.
David left school and joined the Parachute Regiment in a Boy’s Own adventure which led him to Cyprus defending the Greek residents against Atatürk.
Amidst the turmoil of that time, he won many medals for his marksmanship and made some lifelong friends, one of whom was Jim Hunt, who would be his best man.
Invalided out of the Paras after an accident which burst his eardrum, he moved to Glasgow to find work and boarded with Bessie Mackay in Hyndland. It was there that he met Bessie’s niece – Moreen – whom he courted and later married in 1963.
The couple first lived in a tenement off Byres Road before moving to India Street in Alexandria and making Vale of Leven their home. They brought up four children – Gerard, Elaine, Gillian and Jeff – all of whom have fond memories of the area, family holidays to Arran with grandparents, and Wanlockhead, where they visited their gran, cousins, uncles and aunt.
In the late 1970s the family moved to a larger house, Applegarth, in Balloch, Loch Lomondside, where the couple lived until very recently.
The Vale of Leven soon became David and Moreen’s home. She was a nurse, and became deputy matron at Erskine Hospital, and David worked at Westclox and Refuge Insurance.
David was always a keen photographer, creating a darkroom in the basement of his home and seldom seen without a camera draped around his neck, lest he missed the ultimate shot.
His first break into the protography business came with the Quality of Life Experiment in Dunbartonshire in the 1970s when he charted local life through the lens as part of a social development project.
From there he joined Brian Averell to form Mitchell and Averell Photographers and set up a small studio in Dumbarton East. Together they undertook many assignments for the local paper – the Lennox Herald – and as he took pictures in schools, few pupils missed the uncanny likeness between David and then Doctor Who star Tom Baker. Annual class photographs became a popular event and one class even gifted him a copy of the Time Lord’s famous scarf.
In time, the photographic business grew and Mitchell and Averell took on two apprentices – Gerard and Jeff – both of whom won awards under their father’s tutelage and eventually moved on to forge their own careers in London with renowned agencies such as Getty. Many photographers, journalists and public relations professionals have commented over recent days of the fond memories they hold of David and the time he spared offering tips and advice as their talents and careers developed.
David’s career developed too and he moved on to form a new agency in Glasgow, MacPhoto, and branch on to the national and international scene.
Regardless of the assignment or the scenes laid in front of him, David always returned home to Applegarth in Fisherwood Road, Balloch. This was an open house – at times resembling an ad hoc youth club – filled with family friends, stereos blaring and the Tibetan Terrier dogs Moreen bred for many years all running wild. It was a happy home and one in which, turning a blind eye to teenage shenanigans, David was always happy to share time, advice and an anecdote or two.
Always the generous host, he was rarely happier than, bedecked head to toe in multi-pocketed Rohan gear and sporting a Tilly hat, he would rummage through the kitchen cupboards to find his latest, favourite malt whisky and sit down for debate.
Malt played a vital role in many adventures and in particular when, in his sixties, David strode out to tackle the West Highland Way.
This became a family affair when Moreen was called to deliver vital whisky supplies to lubricate the journey from Milngavie to Fort William. The fun, laughter and high jinks were relived during David’s 80th birthday earlier this year, at which he was lucid and laughing, showing little sign of the illness he tackled with dignity to the very last.
He was immensely proud of his five grandsons – Fraser, Cameron, Finlay, Callum, and Tom – and always keen to support and help with the school pick-ups. He was a familiar face at the gates of Christie Park School, chatting, rolling a cigarette and poorly controlling his little white dog.
David Mitchell was a man who connected with and was genuinely interested in all who met him – regardless of age, social standing, creed, caste or colour – a true gentleman.