Ellen Sager of British Columbia, Canada, is very proud of Thomas Douglas, her grandfather she never knew. Douglas was a lighthouse keeper in Scotland for 16 years before his life was cut tragically short at the age of 40. Sadly, not much about Douglas’s life as a keeper has survived, but Sager has her own impressions. “Even if one didn’t know him,” she says, “one knows he must have loved being a lighthouse keeper and must have loved the sea.”
Thomas Douglas was born in Campbelltown on Scotland’s west coast on October 26, 1879, into what was said to be a well-known business family. He became a lighthouse keeper in December 1901, at the age of 22, and was assigned by the Northern Lighthouse Board to be an assistant at the Ailsa Craig Lighthouse in the Firth of Clyde. A 1 1/2-year stint there was followed by 3 1/2 years as an assistant keeper at the Sanda Lighthouse, offshore near the entrance to the Firth of Clyde, not far from his hometown of Campbelltown.
After shorter stays as an assistant at the Nosshead and Monach (Shillay) light stations, he was promoted to be the principal keeper at the Monach station in the Outer Hebrides in September 1908.
Douglas spent four years at the Monach Lighthouse and almost five years as the principal keeper at the Dhuheartach (Dubh Artach) Lighthouse, a tall, dramatic granite tower on a stark offshore rock whose name is derived from Gaelic meaning “the black one of death.” In August 1917, he moved on to become principal keeper at MacArthur’s Head Lighthouse at the southern entrance to the Sound of Islay, only about 30 miles from Campbelltown.
Three days after Christmas in 1917, Douglas married Bessie McEachern, a nurse from Conisby, Islay. Their daughter, Isabella (she later spelled her name Isobel) Johnston Greig Douglas, was born in Glasgow on February 13, 1919.
On November 8, 1919, less than seven months after the birth of his daughter and 13 days after his 40th birthday, Thomas Douglas went out in his boat from the lighthouse to buy fish from a passing fishing vessel. The person operating the fishing boat apparently never saw Douglas. His wife, Bessie, was watching from the dock and tried desperately to warn her husband, but he was run down and was killed instantly.
Another story surfaced about Douglas’s death. The incident occurred several months after World War I had ended, but some said it was a German vessel that deliberately killed the keeper. So far, Ellen Sager has found no report on the accident, and she believes the details of the story may have died with Bessie Douglas.
Bessie and her infant daughter had to leave the light station for Glasgow on the same day Thomas was killed. “Bessie was small in stature, but a very strong lady,” says Sager. “She proceeded on her own to make a life for herself and her daughter after the tragic accident.” Bessie and her daughter moved to Ontario, Canada, when Isobel was 12 years old. “
“Bessie lived on her own until she was in her 80s,” says Sager. “She was taking courses in her 70s, making plastic items like a cribbage board, which I have. She worked in the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and so did Isobel.” Bessie died at the age of 94. Isobel married an Ontario farmer in 1942 and had four children, including Ellen.
Ellen Sager and her husband have visited Scotland, with Bessie Douglas’s cousin serving as a tour guide. She’s gotten documents from the National Archives of Scotland, but so far she’s found few details on the life and death of her grandfather, Keeper Thomas Douglas.
This story appeared in the
July 2006 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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