Incredible journey of discovery for long-lost sisters

The story of Gladys with her sister Glad.
The story of Gladys with her sister Glad.

A new poignant BBC ALBA documentary is to chart the journey of one woman’s extraordinary life from a Dublin mother and child home to adoption in a remote Scottish village in the 1930s – and her recent return to Ireland for the first time ever.

Popular presenter Cathy Macdonald accompanies Gladys Johnston and bears witness to her incredible story that she kept hidden away for over 30 years - until now. A story that began in Dublin, Ireland in 1936.

Gladys Johnston, nee Cameron, is a Gael in every sense of the word. A mother, a grandmother and a great grandmother.

However, Gladys wasn’t born in the Gaidhealtachd of Scotland: she was born in a Dublin suburb in the protestant orphanage, Bethany Home in 1936 to a young unmarried Irish woman.

She arrived in the remote village of Ardtoe, Acharacle in 1939 and was adopted by Mary and Duncan Cameron. “They gave me a very good life,” recalls Gladys.

Her happiness in her early years was dealt a blow, however, at the age of 12. Gladys was asked one day by her headmaster to read out the register and her name wasn’t the name she was expecting: it was Gladys Patton/Murphy - not Cameron.

A confused Gladys told her mum, who said: “Oh never mind that, you’re a Cameron, Gladys Cameron”. This was accepted until she later heard a local boy describe her as “an orphan”. At that, Gladys had to find out what was going on.

Her mum arranged for an official who had been involved in the adoption to visit Gladys.

Whilst Gladys was very upset to hear that her birth mum had to give her up for adoption, she felt that it would be best to forget about it.

In July 1948, Gladys accompanied Mary and Duncan to Oban sheriff court where she was officially adopted and known as Gladys Cameron.

It was only in later life, following the death of her parents, that she needed to know more.

With only the names she had from her school register to go by, Gladys undertook the daunting task of searching for her birth mother.

Gladys managed to track down her birth certificate which revealed she was born Gladys Mabel in Bethany Home to Dorothy Patton or Murphy, born in 1909, in Newry, Northern Ireland.

Dorothy had another child born in 1943, named Gladys Iris, whom she soon discovers moved to England with her parents at the age of six. On the 1st April 1986, Gladys met her sister Gladys - ‘Glad’ as she is known - for the first time.

Glad recalls her very first call with Gladys when she said: “Mum called me Gladys because she was reading a book at the time and the heroine’s name was Gladys, and Gladys said ‘well she must have been reading that book for a heck of a long time’”. This helped the sisters break the ice.

Having found her sister, Gladys gave up on her search into her birth mother but decided to look into it again 30 years later - and travelled with Cathy Macdonald to Ireland.

In Ireland, they meet historians and academics who provide an insight into what life would have been like in the mother and child home – and reveal that Gladys was fortunate to survive at a time of high infant and child mortality.

This joyous and sorrowful documentary explores Gladys’ relations further down the line as she traces her great grandmother, grandmother and grandfather – and attempts to learn who her biological father was.

With specially composed music by Sorren MacLean and Hannah Fisher, Gladys has been produced by Solus Productions and directed by Tony Kearney for BBC ALBA.

It will be broadcast on New Year’s Eve, Saturday 31 December at 9pm, repeated on Friday 6 January at 10.00pm and will be available on the BBC iPlayer.