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Long lost family: Niece’s tribute to ‘unexpected’ Aberdeen uncle David McGhie

A search for her birth father ended at his graveside, but a last chance letter reunited a niece with her long lost uncle.

Long lost family, niece Laura Couper and uncle David McGhie from Aberdeen.
Long lost family, niece Laura Couper and uncle David McGhie from Aberdeen.

As he lay dying, David McGhie used his last breaths to sing along to The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen, with niece Laura by his side.

Just six years earlier neither knew the other existed, but after tracing her long-lost birth family Laura and David not only met, but became the best of friends, even making a pilgrimage to the Granite City together, where he grew up.

Today, in tribute to her uncle who died earlier this month, Laura shares the amazing story of finding the man that made her “a whole person”.

An unexpected pregnancy

She was 18-years-old before paralegal Laura Couper discovered her backstory.

Fostered, then adopted as a newborn, Laura – who was then named Ashley, was the birth daughter of James McGhie and Isobel Anderson.

An unexpected pregnancy, her parents – both then working as chefs – made the decision to have baby Ashley adopted.

“I later found out my dad had been married with a child before and on finding out about me, didn’t want to support that pregnancy,” said Laura, 33.

Family search led to grave discovery

Raised by Elizabeth Flynn and Allister Brown, who later divorced, Laura says her childhood was happy and her parents “fantastic” but she always longed to find out where she came from.

On celebrating her 18th birthday she was finally able to access social work documentation which led to her finding and meeting her birth mother, in Ireland.

Married with two sons Laura was able to forge a relationship with the woman who carried her for nine months, but when the search turned to her father a tragic end was in sight.

Paralegal Laura Couper who traced her birth father and his family. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson

“In 2018 my search led me to his grave. He had passed away nine years earlier.

“I read the death certificate and discovered he’d had problematic health conditions. I found out he had a daughter before me.

“The thing I really wanted at that time, was to speak to him. I had a lot of anger and wanted to hold him to account, which of course, became impossible on realising he was gone.”

Hope, in the form of her dad’s siblings… ‘I was scared in case you don’t want to know me’

Curious as to whether she could find other family members on her dad’s side, Laura kept scouring social work records.

Eventually, she found an address for the old family home.

“The very same night I found my dad’s grave, a comment on a missing people social media post said ‘your uncle is still at that address,’ so I went back and put a letter through that door.”

This is part of her letter:

An extract of the letter Laura posted through the door of the McGhie family home.

Explaining who she was and information about her adoption she went on to tell her prospective aunts and uncles that she had hoped to find them “for years” and how she was devastated by learning of James’ death.

Poignantly, she expressed her fear that her relatives may not want to know her.

“I enclosed pics, and just waited,” she said. “When the phone rang three days later with a Stirling dialing code I nearly jumped off the chair.”

Long-lost family reunion

In between times David McGhie, brother of James, had taken the letter to his sister Ann. Neither knew that Laura existed but both were thrilled to find out they had a niece.

Within days Laura visited her aunt, uncle and cousins.

“It was just so lovely. Everyone was really warm and welcoming. We had a blether over tea and cake. I couldn’t believe it when they showed me a picture of my dad. He had dark red hair, like me.”

James McGhie, biological father of Laura Couper.

What started as a search for her birth father, resulted in Laura getting “more than ever expected” in the form of her Aberdonian uncle David.

Aberdeen-born David McGhie

David was born on October 8 1951 in Aberdeen. His parents were coppersmith Ernest, originally from Glasgow, and his wife, registered nurse Jean McGhie, from Aberdeen.

One of four children, David had a brother – Laura’s dad James, and two sisters Jane and Ann.

Little David, with his parents, granny and sister, in Aberdeen.

All experiencing happy childhoods, the McGhies loved spending school holidays on their grandparents’ Buckie farm.

At the age of 11 David and his family moved to Stirling.

“They all came down on the train, with their pet goldfish in the train toilet,” laughed Laura.

Aberdeen always had his heart

On leaving school David took on a number of jobs including fruit and veg delivery, forestry work, dry stane dyking and serving as a kitchen porter. When his parents became unwell in later life David gave up work to look after them.

Although he never married David was a hands-on uncle enjoying many a holiday to the Granite City with his siblings and their children.

“He especially loved Cullen,” said Laura, “it was a place he visited many times. Also Buckie and Banff where his grandparents farmed.”

Then in 2018 he met the niece he never knew he had: Laura.

David McGhie revisiting his childhood favourite places, in Cullen.

“I didn’t know it but when I met uncle David I was half a person. It was only getting to know him, I became finally whole,” Laura explained.

Making up for heartbreak of the past

Getting to know him was easy. Now self-employed, Laura was working in Glasgow when she first met David. A fan of “putting his bus pass to good use” he’d visit the city two or three times a week to take his new niece out to lunch.

She was a welcome addition to his family, which had been blighted by sadness.

David McGhie and his niece Laura Couper.

Up until then, David lost his father in 1995, his sister Jane in 1997, his mum in 2008 followed quickly by the death of Laura’s dad in 2009.

Granite City pilgrimage for the pair

But Laura opened up a new season of life for her uncle.

She took him on his first flight and hotel stay and together they joined books and speakers club. Laura even persuaded her “always suited and booted” uncle to take part in a park run.

David McGhie on the streets of Aberdeen where he grew up, with niece Laura caught in the window’s reflection.

“He walked it, which was just as well considering he was in his usual attire,” she said.

And together they visited Aberdeen, where his Doric was quick to return.

Wedding day joy, amidst sickness

In 2022 after a lifetime of good health David fell and broke his knee. The same year his sister Ann passed away. Though he made a good recovery, in November 2023 he became unwell. A shock diagnosis of oesophageal cancer resulted.

“He was only given three to six months to live so a decision was taken for David to leave the home I found him in, after 60 years living there, to move into a care home,” said Laura. “I wasn’t sure how we would be, or if he would be there for my wedding.”

When March 2024 rolled around, despite being “much thinner” David did indeed make it to Laura’s wedding.

Happiest of days as David McGhie walked his niece Laura down the aisle.

“He walked me down the aisle. It was just the loveliest thing, and I was so proud to be there with him and to have him by my side.”

Just three months later, on June 14, David passed away with his family beside him.

‘He’d been a wanderer all of his life…’

“I was greatly privileged to be with him in his final moments,” Laura added. “He was a proud Aberdonian until the end.”

As she held his hand, she sang an adapted version of The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen.

Laura Couper and her beloved uncle David McGhie.

“With what little breath and voice he had left, he joined in with my version.

“‘David’s been a wanderer all of his life and many a sight he’s seen. Godspeed the day when he’s on his way to his home in Aberdeen.’

“And with that, he passed away.”

‘I miss uncle David greatly’

Reflecting on the gratitude she has for meeting her uncle, and the sadness at losing him, Laura said she has a “strange peace” since his passing.

“At first I was really twisted and upset, but since he passed I feel oddly peaceful.

A moment to remember for Laura Couper, showing her wedding dress to her uncle David McGhie for the first time.

“He changed my life. I’m so thankful I never waited to look for him. I don’t know who I would be without having met him.

“I went back to my dad’s grave recently, lay on top of it and just bawled. That didn’t happen before, but now I can grieve that loss too, thanks to uncle David connecting me to dad.

“I miss him dearly.”