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In Memory of Hugh Douglas
1928 – 2003


Hugh DouglasBill Caudill, Director of The Scottish Center at St. Andrews College in Laurinburg, North Carolina, emailed recently that Hugh Douglas had died. It was not going to be a good day! Another friend was gone! That all too familiar feeling that most of us know when we reach the "September of our years" immediately popped up in my gut. I never met Hugh in person or had the honor of looking him in the eye as we shook hands. I never had the opportunity to capture first hand that ever-present twinkle in his eyes; the sparkle that told you here was a good man. We conversed via the Internet and through that forgotten and out-dated form of communication - the letter.

I reviewed his book, Robert Burns: A Tinder Heart for the 2002 Christmas issue of The Family Tree. I’ve been a big fan of Hugh Douglas for years, and I plan to review A Right Royal Christmas this year. So, it is difficult for me to write about Hugh Douglas without writing about his books. I have most of the 15 books Hugh wrote and have read them all. They are excellent and worthy of your library. He was, in my opinion, one of Scotland’s greatest writers. The Scottish community around the world will greatly miss him and his writing skills.

Hugh Douglas was a modest, gracious and humble man, as evidenced by the following. Upon receipt of the above mentioned book review on The Tinder Heart, Hugh immediately fired off an email to me with this opening sentence: "Review received - who is this chap you are writing about? Not Burns, the other one. I’m truly flattered if a trifle embarrassed." On another occasion he wrote: "Many thanks for the copies of The Family Tree - fascinating! I’m enjoying them." He was polite, cheerful and gracious.

In a recent email, Ivan Howlett, Editor of BBC Radio’s Making History, stated that in "reading Frank Shaw’s review of The Tinder Heart, I cannot but agree with every word of it. I came across Hugh a few years ago and was so taken with his work that he was a regular guest on the radio programme I edit and produce. Sadly, Hugh died suddenly, a fortnight ago. He was in Venice with his wife on holiday. His last radio interview, a brief one, is about The Tinder Heart…Thought you’d like to know."

The humor of Hugh Douglas was ever present. Even in print he had a way of making me smile and chuckle. In a follow-up email, Mr. Howlett recalled, "Hugh was such a funny man. I remember him smiling ruefully about the bookshop he had opened in Peterborough. ‘Ouch’, he sighed, ‘I didn’t realize they couldnae read in Peterborough’.’’

Here are a few lines from the obituary that appeared in THE SCOTSMAN about Hugh. "His first job was with the Glasgow Bulletin, from where he moved south to the London evening newspaper, the Star, as a sub-editor. After ten years in daily journalism, and disillusioned with Fleet Street - but with a newspaperman’s thirst for facts - he determined to spend the rest of his life unearthing hitherto little-known information. He chose topics ranging from the history of London’s Underground - The Underground Story - to the grisly exploits of the Scottish body-snatchers in Burke and Hare, the True StoryScotland remained his main source of inspiration...While pursuing the solitary occupation of a writer, he took care to keep contact with a wide circle of friends from the newspaper and public relations world…"

Like one of the great loves of his life, Robert Burns, Hugh was born in Aryshire. The remains of Burns’ father lie in the auld kirk yard at Alloway. When I asked who in his family was buried there at the kirk yard Hugh replied, "…it is my great-grandfather who is buried at Alloway. Also other ancestors dating back to Burns’ time."

Frank McLynn, who wrote The Jacobite Army in England, 1745 (Reviewed in The Family Tree April/May 2001) penned the following about Hugh Douglas for the Glasgow Herald: "Although an avid Scotophile, Douglas chose to retire to Peterborough in Northamptonshire. He liked to point out that Scots were of two kinds: those (like his hero Burns) who could not flourish outside the homeland, and the much larger species (including James Boswell, Robert Louis Stevenson, and David Livingstone) who flourished only when they were removed from Scotland’s soil. Douglas clearly belonged in the latter class, but there could be no doubting his commitment to the land of his birth. By all accounts he was a lover of life, and his personal Internet page shows him beaming and laughing…Douglas’s heart was in the Highlands (FRS: that sentence is familiar to all Burnsians)…Douglas was an optimist who would have endorsed Stevenson’s famous lines: ‘The world is so full of a number of things I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings’."

Frank McLynn went on to say that "the sudden death of the author Hugh Douglas, while on vacation in Venice, ends the career of a prolific late starter". The writer in THE SCOTSMAN concluded that "he never tired under the weight of the extensive research involved" in writing books, and he referred to Mr. Douglas as "something of a workaholic". Personally, I’m sure Hugh would have something amusing to say about dying in Venice while on holiday. He would consider the irony too much to let it pass without a quip.

My thanks to Ivan Howlett for providing me with some of the above material. Ivan wrote: "I live in Suffolk, only a couple of hours drive from Peterborough, and I went to the funeral. Sheelagh, his wife, is being very strong and read one of the lessons. There is no such thing as a good funeral, but this was close as you could get to one. There was a warmth, and you could sense that people were there because it had been both a privilege and fun to have known him."

Hugh Douglas is survived by his wife, Sheelagh, and their children, Eithne and Jake, as well as a host of friends around the world who join me in expressing condolences to the Douglas family.

Thanks, Hugh, for all the scholarly writing you did for us and for working your brand of magic by making those scholarly books so readable for, as Burns would say, "the common man".

To read the book review of A Tinder Heart and "A Chat With Hugh Douglas", please see The Family Tree web site at http://www.electricscotland.com. Also, a list of Hugh’s books can be found at http://www.maybole.org/community/minishant/douglas/booksbyhughdouglas.htm .

(Frank R. Shaw, jurascot@bellsouth.net, April 23, 2003)


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