Hugh Osborne Douglas


The Very Revd Hugh O. Douglas KVCO, CBE, DD, LLD became widely known through his popular TV series 'Coping with Life', and as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. His notable ministry was above all a parish ministry. Hugh the preacher, Hugh the leader of worship, the pastor, speaker to civic life, and so on.

Hugh DouglasHugh Osborne Douglas (1911–1986), Church of Scotland minister, was born in Glasgow on 11 September 1911, the son of the Revd Robert Baillie Douglas (1870–1943) and his wife, Mary Isabella Osborne (1870–1955). His parents served as missionaries in India. His early years were spent in India, first in Jalna and then in Bombay. He returned to Glasgow for his schooling at Glasgow Academy (1919–28), and stayed with his maternal aunts. Through his school days he was to see his parents only when they were home on furlough. He was joint dux of the academy, and in 1928 went on to study classics at Glasgow University. His experience as a child had not given him any enthusiasm for the organized church, and his aim was to be a lawyer. But the Scottish Schoolboys' Club had encouraged a healthy, liberal religious commitment which the Student Christian Movement was to mature, and he came to find a vocation to the ministry.

In 1932 Douglas graduated with a first in classics, though it is questionable whether that gave him greater pleasure than his blue for rugby. During his theological study at Trinity College he became assistant to the Revd Dr George MacLeod at Govan, and continued to work there for five years, as probationer and then as ordained assistant. These years in an industrial parish in a time of depression shaped his entire ministry. MacLeod's vision gave him hope that the church could be relevant to the whole of life, to the slum and the street as well as to the sanctuary. In 1938, when MacLeod left to found the Iona community, Hugh Douglas continued in Govan until the appointment of MacLeod's successor. In March 1939 he was inducted to St John's, Leven. He took a bit of Govan with him, however, for on 29 April he married the girls' club leader, Isabella Crammond Rutherford (1910–1995), who was to be his lifelong companion and helpmeet. During their time in Leven their three children, Molly, and then twins, Colin and Ruth, were born. At the outbreak of war he wished to volunteer as a chaplain, but his congregation persuaded him to stay.

In November 1942 Douglas was called to the parish of North Leith. Here he developed more fully his style of ministry, using many of the insights of Govan. A congregation used to an individual gospel soon warmed to the demands made on it, in a mission of friendship to the parish and in many other ways. Yet although the influence of Govan was always there, Douglas was never an imitator of MacLeod. His style was his own. He did not aspire to be the visionary orator. He was a pastor who cared intensely for his people and who preached quietly, persuasively, and comfortingly to their needs in a world at war.

The church building had suffered bomb damage in 1941, and not until war restrictions ended was it possible to think of full restoration. Then structural damage and rot were found and costs escalated. But by 1950 Ian Lindsay's scheme of restoration of the Georgian building was complete and paid for, and George MacLeod preached at the rededication. In 1951 came a call to Dundee: St Mary's, the original parish church of Dundee. The congregation was spread citywide, and the minister was called on for many civic duties. These Douglas could take in his stride. His main concern was to develop the life and witness of his congregation, and here he had the help of a succession of young assistants and deaconesses. Those he trained in this way kept their affection for him until his death.

In 1945 Douglas had written a pamphlet, What is Christian Marriage, and he became the founder chairman of the Dundee Marriage Guidance Council. He was a natural broadcaster with his persuasive, almost confidential style, and became known to a wide public through a series of talks, later published as Coping with Life (1964). Life in Dundee was not all work. A month each summer was spent with the family, usually on Iona, and Monday mornings were frequently spent on the golf course.

The wider church began to use Douglas's gifts in committee work. He convened the committee which organized the celebration of the fourth centenary of the Scottish Reformation in 1960, when the queen attended a special session of the general assembly. But he had overstretched himself with unremitting pastoral work, meticulous pulpit preparation, and demanding committee work. A coronary thrombosis sounded a warning. He learned to pace himself better, and in 1970 was able to undertake the onerous duties of moderator of the general assembly.

In 1958 Douglas received a DD from St Andrews University, and in 1971 an LLD from the University of Dundee. In 1959 he became one of the queen's chaplains in Scotland, and in 1974 dean of the Chapel Royal, a post from which he retired on his seventieth birthday in 1981. In 1961 he was appointed CBE, and in 1981 was made a knight commander in the Royal Victorian Order. In 1977 he retired from St Mary's and settled in St Andrews. He had given many talks to ministers on how to cope with retirement, and now he put his own advice into practice. He served as locum tenens in Hope Park church, and later accepted the invitation of the new minister to become his part-time associate. It was a happy association in which the younger man had the responsibility and the older man now did as he was asked. Douglas loved it, and the people loved him. Sadly it ended when a further series of heart attacks took his life on 4 January 1986 at Broomlea, Windmill Road, St Andrews, Fife. He was buried at the western cemetery, St Andrews, on 9 January.

Douglas was a shy man, whose reserve could be misinterpreted as aloofness. Yet he attained distinction both in church and in state, carried both without any pretension, and earned the affection of all who worked and worshipped with him.


This page was last updated on 30 September 2021

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