Obituary: Bettina, Lady Thomson, centenarian who recalled hearing guns from the Battle of Jutland

Bettina, Lady Thomson. Born: 1 January, 1915 in Edinburgh. Died: 26 May, 2017 in Yorkshire, aged 102
Bettina, Lady Thomson has died at the age of 102Bettina, Lady Thomson has died at the age of 102
Bettina, Lady Thomson has died at the age of 102

Bettina Thomson has died at the age of 102. She was probably the last person alive to recall hearing the distant thunder of guns from the Battle of Jutland whilst on the beach at North Berwick with her mother in May 1916.

Evelyn Margaret Isobel Thomson, née Douglas, was born in Edinburgh on 1 January, 1915. She and her younger sister, Jean, lost their father during the battle she overheard.

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Her father, Lieutanant Commander David Douglas, was third in command of HMS Black Prince when the armoured cruiser was surprised in the dark and sunk with the loss of 857 lives. Her mother Frances, from the Stevenson family of engineers and lighthouse builders and cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, went on to become a talented Scottish Colourist who exhibited in the National Gallery and spent time painting in France and Portugal with Anne Redpath and on Iona with Bunty Cadell.

Bettina’s early childhood was spent with her mother and grandparents at North Berwick. She loved North Berwick and returned to her house on the seafront annually for the rest of her life.

When the town’s museum which was established by her stepfather and first Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Scotland, James Richardson, closed she campaigned tirelessly for its reopening, which finally happened in 2014.

Bettina married Sir Douglas Thomson in 1935 when she was 20. Douglas was a Scottish Unionist MP for Aberdeen South and they based the first years of their marriage in Edinburgh whilst he worked as Private Secretary to the Minister of Shipping in London organising war convoys.

They moved to an estate in Peeblesshire in the Scottish Borders in 1942 and there raised a family of five children.

Douglas retired as an MP in 1945 and devoted his time to rebuilding the family shipping Company, Ben Line, that had suffered serious losses during the war.

Bettina launched the 11,130 DWT Benlawers in 1944 and later was responsible for decorating the accommodation on many of the company’s ships.

She was a dedicated mother, keen horsewoman, enthusiastic gardener, avid breeder of landrace pigs and Galloway cattle, but still found time to run both the farm in the borders and another at Balerno outside Edinburgh.

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Bettina took an active interest in local affairs, representing Walkerburn on the County Council from 1960 to 1974 and was a strong supporter of the local Peebles agricultural show. She was also the driving force behind the development of Priorwood Garden in Melrose, which showcased her interest in dried flowers and became a very successful attraction for the National Trust. She took a representation of her dried flower garden to the Royal Chelsea Flower Show in 1984 and received an award.

After the loss of her husband in 1972 she moved into a cottage on the edge of the estate and bought a small property in Portugal which, along with North Berwick, became a much-loved destination for her 13 grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren.

She had a lifelong interest in family history, and at the age of 82 published a book about her ancestors that included an Arctic explorer, a war hero who won the Victoria Cross and an Admiral who founded the modern Japanese navy.

She always felt great pride in her ancestors and visited Canada to see for herself where her great grandfather tackled a huge cholera epidemic, ensuring that a headstone was erected over his unmarked grave.

She spent the last decade of her life living with her daughter, Vanessa, in Yorkshire where she celebrated her 100th birthday in January 2015.

She was characterised by her boundless curiosity and ability to relate to everybody she met. She was a woman of sound judgement who was never shy to make her views known. Bettina died peacefully on 26 May.

There will be a Service of Thanksgiving at St John’s Church Edinburgh on Monday 10 July at noon.