Chemist, businessman, inventor and geology pioneer

Standing on a small incline, above the headland of Meall Geal on North Lewis, is a tall, concrete obelisk commemorating one of Linlithgow’s forgotten celebrities: John Wilson Dougal.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 6th June 2015, 3:37 pm
John Wilson Dougal
John Wilson Dougal

The monument has escaped being adopted by any official body and, 80 or so years after it was first constructed by the local people, a man from Port Sgiogarstaigh still ventures out across the moor every few years to spruce it up with a lick of paint.

Had it been sited on one of the other flatter headlands, such as Cadha, the monument would have been much more visible from the townships, so one can only assume it was either built at Meall Geal as a prominent landmark for those at sea or that its location marks the very spot where in 1905 this amateur geologist first identified the flinty rock formations that fascinated him until his death.

Flinty crush rock is found along major fault lines and at every opportunity for over 30 years, he slipped away from his family and business commitments in Edinburgh to trace its presence throughout the Outer Hebrides and as far afield as the Monach Isles, Sula Sgeir and North Rona, all the time returning to Sgiogarstaigh where it all started.

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John was born in 1866 at 47 High Street and was the second son of Alexander Dougal and his wife Margaret, who at the time on the 1871 census were living at 47 High Street. Alexander was a senior partner of Dougal and Steel, a boot and shoe manufacturer and merchant employing 36 men and seven boys in a factory at nearby Dog Well Wynd now the Scout and Guide Hall. Being raised in a family where success came through hard work and personal initiative set the tone for the rest of John’s life.

Initially, he attended the Linlithgow Grammar School before continuing his education at Daniel Stewart’s 
College in Edinburgh where he excelled at maths and science.

He found employment as an analytical chemist for a firm in Abbeyhill and travelled into work each day on the fairly recently opened railway.

He also studied part-time at Edinburgh University – eventually graduating at the age of 41 in 1907.

He married local school teacher Emma Morris and set up home in a newly constructed four bedroom house in Chalmers Buildings, Linlithgow Bridge. Later he moved to Edinburgh and set up the Dunedin Chemical Company in Royal Park Place. Although he was noted as an initiator and inventor, it was in the field of geology that he most left his mark.

As often as he could, he would travel out to the Scottish Islands studying their rock formations and publishing his findings.

He became the world’s foremost expert in the field and his work was acknowledged in 1928 at a meeting of the British Association in Glasgow when Dr Craig of the Geological Department of Edinburgh University called him ‘a pioneer of the finest type’.

Later that year, he was also awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of
Edinburgh in recognition of his contribution to geology.

He died aged 69 in 1935, at his home at 17 Spring Gardens, Edinburgh.

John is just another 
forgotten pioneer who 
deserves to be better known - perhaps with a plaque on his birthplace at 47 High Street. – now the ‘Taste’ Deli and Café.