Friday 5 April 2013

Appreciation of Professor Derick S. Thomson: funeral oration, as delivered


When I arrived at the Department of Celtic at 6 Lilybank Gardens, University of Glasgow, in October 1967, and met the redoubtable and already famous Professor Derick Thomson, I could not possibly have imagined that I would have the privilege of standing here today to deliver the Address at the Memorial Service for my former Professor.  Derick Thomson was an awe-inspiring man, gentle as a dove, strong as a horse – indeed, stronger than many horses – and, like Scotland’s national emblem, the thistle, prickly, powerful and defensive when challenged.   I often trembled in his presence, because he had a way of making you tremble.  I had to draw on my reserves of energy to speak to him when he was behind his solidly protective desk in his immaculate ‘sanctum’, looking every inch the scholar, and speaking in his gentle tones.  I will always remember his sharp eyes, his dark hair, his glasses, his tweed jacket…his tendency to look out of the big bay window when the conversation was reaching its natural conclusion or going in the wrong direction.  I will never forget his voice, its measured tones, its Lewis flavour (‘am blas Leòdhasach’), its almost hypnotic quality.  Nor will I ever forget his handwriting, which was beautifully artistic, fluent and strong, the mark of the person who always used a fountain pen, ‘got it right first time’, and seldom scored out a word.  

If I often trembled in his presence, the Professor also had a way of putting me incomparably at my ease.  When ‘off duty’, so to speak, he would recline in his chair, drop the academic persona, take out a cigar, chuckle warmly, smile – and become ‘Derick’, Derick the storyteller, the joker, the mischievous rascal who wanted to see how I would respond when he disarmed me with unexpected humour and a well-turned anecdote, which I was meant to understand at several different levels.  Sometimes it took a week or more for slow-minded people like me to grasp all the nuances!  I still think about his stories, his clever phrases, the twinkle in his eyes, the movements of his face and his eyebrows, his glasses rising and falling as his expressions changed.  Glasgow University Staff Club was the place in which he relaxed best, after lunch, and I will always associate ‘Derick’ with the Club, and Professor Thomson with Lilybank Gardens. 

Derick and the club, of course, had deeper implications; it was in such contexts that he won me over, pulling me into his confidence, asking me to edit a book, to consider an article.  I became part of his club, and even part of his mind-set.  He was subtle, highly sociable, good at getting his way, outstanding in his ability to comprehend the essence of other people, and to notice any qualities in these people which could become grist to his mill.  He was a man of many, many talents, and even many personalities, certainly many personae.  He was a man of many agendas, all of them focused on Gaelic and on Scotland, and the good of both.  It also has to be said that he was a formidable adversary.  You didn’t cross Professor Thomson, and expect to get away with it.  If he didn’t like what you were doing, he would tell you! Along with all his other personae, Derick carried the persona of the schoolmaster, and, if he inspired us, he could also terrify us, by taking us into his ‘sanctum’ for a ticking-off. 

So, here I am, reflecting, remembering, and even attempting to assess one of the strongest and most influential people I have ever known.  Trying to summarise him in a mere twenty minutes is an impossible task.  He was unquestionably a colossus of twentieth-century Scotland, and I do not mean ‘Gaelic Scotland’ alone.  He belonged to the nation of Scotland, he loved Scotland, he was a Scottish Nationalist, and he was totally committed to the cause of Scotland, even when it was unfashionable to be committed to Scotland.  One of the ‘golden moments’ with Derick, which I can remember vividly and with enormous pleasure, was when I went to lunch with him in the Staff Club on the day that Margo MacDonald won the Govan By-election.  He was elated, full of joy, as if the future of Scotland was assured – and for him it was assured.  He was an optimist from beginning to end, and, although some of us, like myself, simply could not match his boundless energy and his long-haul capability, he did instil into us a very real commitment to what we regarded as important – and, of course, what he regarded as important.  With Scottish Nationalists triumphantly in power in twenty-first century Scotland, I often think of Derick, and the pleasure he must have derived from seeing such a remarkable change.  Not that he would have regarded it as ‘remarkable’. He saw it coming, of course.  He told me thirty years ago.  I am not sure if many would regard Derick Thomson as a prophet, in addition to his many other qualities, but there was assuredly a touch of that in the man. He always had his eye on the future.  As a poet, he composed a poem on ‘Playing Football with a Prophet’, and, in some ways, that sums up Derick – he asked you to play his game with him, and he would tell you the result long before it happened!

The relaxed and playful Derick is one (only one!) of the personae which appears in his poetry.   If you want to get close to Derick, read the compositions of Ruaraidh MacThòmais, as they show you how he ‘ticked’.  There is much fun there, many a joke, many a punch-line which strikes you with the force of a cannon-ball which has been gently wrapped in cotton-wool.  There is also a very, very serious side, or set of sides, to his verse.  It is ‘vers-atility’ with a capital V!  You will see his life history there, his likes and dislikes, his hopes and fears, expounded not in some direct CV-style narrative, but through the philosophical art of a profound but accessible thinker who felt deeply about each move he made, from one context to another, from Bayble in Lewis in the late 1930s to the streets of Glasgow in a twenty-first century cosmopolitanism. Life, for him, was a voyage of self-definition, in the contexts of new places, new cultures, new worlds.  It was a matter of adapting to new worlds, but also of  adapting new worlds to his own needs, while remaining at heart the Gael, the Scot, the Nationalist.  He took Gaelic to these new worlds, and showed ‘why Gaelic matters’.

As his first book of verse, An Dealbh Briste, shows, Ruaraidh MacThòmais was made acutely aware of the dilemmas, the hard decisions, facing Gaelic-speaking young people in pursuit of higher education, when he himself left Lewis at an impressionable age to begin his immensely distinguished academic career at the University of Aberdeen.  I latched on to his poetry at that stage in my own life, and it provided for me (and no doubt for many others) what could be termed a ‘shared biography’, which helped me to understand my own cross-cultural and emotional predicaments.  I cannot adequately express the consolation and self-understanding that I gained from each successive volume.  I could hardly wait for the next one to appear.  I remember how, at a lecture, he let slip that An Rathad Cian had just been published.  As soon as the lecture was over, my good friend and contemporary at Glasgow, Jo MacDonald, and I took the first (Number 10) bus from Gilmorehill to 29 Waterloo Street, where Gairm Publications had its headquarters.   We climbed the stairs which almost caused us to fall backwards with the tilt on their steps – they were so badly worn! – and returned clutching our copies of the book.  It was thrilling for us to be close to an active Gaelic poet, who was also ‘our teacher’!   He was a major figure in the Scottish literary firmament, standing alongside Hugh MacDiarmid, George MacKay Brown and Norman MacCaig, as well as being one of the ‘famous five’ Gaelic poets of modern Scotland, who included his younger Bayble contemporary, Iain Crichton Smith (my English teacher, in Oban High School).

Derick Thomson, with the support of Finlay J. MacDonald, was the founder of the celebrated Gaelic periodical Gairm, established in 1951. It was through Gairm, which was distributed to secondary schools throughout the islands, that I first became familiar with the names of Ruaraidh MacThomais and Finlay J.  Potentially dull Gaelic hours were transformed by hilarious stories, which caused the pupils and teacher to laugh heartily together.  Gairm became, without question the vehicle for a creative revolution in Gaelic literature, far beyond the schools. Edited by Derick for just over 50 years, and appearing four times a year, it was a phenomenal achievement in its own right, demonstrating the capacity for sustained hard work and creative thinking which were his hallmarks. Profits from Gairm, and no doubt fair amounts of his own money, were ploughed into the creation of Gairm Publications, which continued to publish books into the 1990s. Gaelic publication was facilitated further by the creation of Derick’s brainchild, the Gaelic Books Council, in 1968 – and it continues to this day as an essential corner-stone of Gaelic publishing, going from strength to strength and existing independently of the university. His visionary thinking also led to the establishment of the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic in the early 1960s.  Although the original venture faltered because of lack of funding, it has now been resurrected, with its own co-ordinator, and its invaluable archive at Glasgow is being digitised in twenty-first century style.  Thus restructured, the ‘Dictionary’ is now producing outputs beyond his imagining.

 Derick Thomson was unquestionably ‘the man with the plan’ not only for Gaelic literature, but also for Gaidhlig ann an Albainn, ‘Gaelic in Scotland’, the title of splendid little book which he edited and published in 1976, as ‘a blueprint for official and private initiatives’ relating to Gaelic.  My copy has fallen apart with use, but, 36 years later, I still keep it by my side.  It is quite excellent, and I realise, as I handle its individual pages with the respect they deserve, that those of us who have tried to ‘do something’ for Gaelic are, by and large, doing no more than finessing the templates which Derick Thomson and his team created all those years ago.  They are still relevant.  Before the concept of ‘language planning’ was officially invented and turned into a profession in its own right, Derick Thomson was already ‘on the job’ for Gaelic.

Long-term commitment to the totality of Gaelic – the totality of Gaelic, and not merely to one aspect of the language - was wedded to a sharp rational mind, which appears to me to have been outstandingly versatile, active and agile, right to the end. That sharp mind was the dynamo which empowered the young man from Bayble to graduate from the University of Aberdeen with a First Class degree in English Literature and Celtic.  After war service Derick embarked on the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Tripos at Cambridge, established by the pioneering scholars, Hector Munro Chadwick and his wife Norah Kershaw Chadwick, who wished to encourage bridge-building and interdisciplinary study between the Celtic and Germanic strands in early British cultural history.  He achieved similar distinction there, and in his last volume of verse, Sùil air Fàire, he included Norah Chadwick in his special poetic gallery of unforgettable friends, effortlessly mingling the good folk of Lewis and Cambridge.

Thereafter, Derick studied at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, under the guidance of the Rev. Professor J. E. Caerwyn Williams, for whom he had an immense respect.  Wales added Welsh to his quiver of specialities, and he edited a superbly useful edition of Branwen Uerch Lyr for the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.  When I was learning Welsh at Glasgow, I could hardly believe that ‘my Professor’ had produced that little gem of a book, alongside his constant output of articles and books relating to Gaelic, old and new.  His books included the seminal work, The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson’s Ossian, in 1951, and An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry in 1974, as well as the utterly indispensable  Companion to Gaelic Scotland in 1983.

Derick Thomson served through the ranks of the academic profession in Scotland, in Edinburgh (where he assisted Professor Myles Dillon and was a collector of Gaelic tradition for the new School of Scottish Studies), Glasgow (where he taught Welsh, alongside Professor Angus Matheson), Aberdeen (where he was Reader in Celtic) and finally Glasgow, this time as Professor from 1963 until 1991.  When I went to Glasgow in 1967, I was overwhelmed by the energy and freshness of the department, with its younger and older lecturers, full of ideas, tilting at old notions, and creating new ways of seeing the linguistic, literary and socio-linguistic worlds.  It was an exciting place to be, there in the terrace at Lilybank Gardens, where you went in the door of No. 6 as Professor Thomson looked through this window and watched you making your ascent on the steps!

I remember some very funny moments in the Lilybank lecture-room, interspersed, of course, with some very serious learning!  We were all astonished one day when Professor Thomson arrived wearing bright, canary-yellow socks!  The things we noticed, when we really ought to have been studying!  ‘Am faca tu stocainnean a’ Phroifeasair?’ arsa tè rim thaobh.  (‘Did you see the Professor’s socks?’ asked a girl by my side.)  On another occasion, he walked into the lecture-room as one of my contemporaries, well known to some of us, was in full satirical flow, giving us a mock-lecture on the Cardinal Vowel Scale, and making the most horrendous noises imaginable.  The august Professor, who had no doubt heard the cacophony in his ‘sanctum’ below the lecture-room, burst into helpless laughter as he came through the door, and we all enjoyed the hilarity of the moment.

‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very Heaven!’ said William  Wordsworth in The Prelude, when remembering the heady days after the French Revolution.  I could have said the same of Glasgow back in the late 1960s.  It was tough going too, hard work, as you struggled your way up and over the relentless salmon-leaps of Old Irish, Middle Irish, Old Welsh, Middle Welsh, Modern Irish, Modern Welsh, Early Modern and Modern Gaelic, alongside their respective literatures, with some Manx, Cornish and Breton for those who could last the pace of the torrent.  Derick Thomson put a strong emphasis on literature, including twentieth-century literature, which was a very welcome break from the traditional emphases.  His lectures were always magnificently crafted, and enormously interesting, whether he was expounding the Book of the Dean of Lismore, Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (who was a special favourite of his), Màiri Mhòr nan Oran, Somhairle MacIlleathain, or even the mysterious Ruaraidh MacThòmais, who was mentioned with earth-shattering objectivity from time to time!

I have mentioned the words ‘plan’ and ‘template’ already.  As I look back, I realise that, as in his thinking on Gaelic in Scotland, so also in his academic teaching – Professor Derick Thomson was ‘the man with the plan’, the ‘Thomson Template’.  He was in the business of ‘moulding’ his students, and not merely in the job of banging dry and dusty knowledge into their skulls, though there may have been some of that, especially when it came to Old Irish and Middle Welsh!  When he got you under his spell, he could certainly mould you!  When I completed my degree in 1971, and was still a little uncertain about the future, I was told that I was going to Cambridge, and to Cambridge I went.  No ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’.  When I returned to Glasgow in 1973, I approached Professor Thomson with a proposal for a PhD, but he wasn’t too encouraging.  ‘Some of us have managed very well without it,’ said he!   Of course, he became my supervisor, and I now realise that he was testing my resolve, and warning me (correctly) of the challenge that lay ahead, as I toiled away part-time until 1982.  I have kept all his comments, in his immaculate hand-writing, to this day, as they are so insightful.

Derick Thomson, scholar, teacher, Professor, language planner, poet, businessman, editor, politician, propagandist, chairman of boards and trusts in abundance, was in my view ‘uniquely unique’.  He was multi-talented, multi-skilled, multi-disciplinary – multi- just about everything you can think of.  That, together with the speed of his mind, and his determination to do the job, meant that he was enormously influential, and as a consequence he could make enemies as well as friends, or perhaps a bit of both in the same persons!  He had also come from a very rich traditional Gaelic culture in Lewis, which had been interpreted to some extent for him within a ‘magisterial’ context – the ‘magister’ being the local schoolmaster and none other than his father, James Thomson, who was for many years headmaster of Bayble School, and himself a distinguished poet.  However, what remains in my mind are the ways in which Professor Derick Thomson acted as a modernising mediator of the old, so that it became highly relevant in a new context.  That applied as much to his politicking as it did to his teaching, as much to his planning as it did to his poetry.  He took his opportunity, in the second half of the twentieth century, following the ravages of the Second World War, to stamp his own vision on Gaelic and on Scotland.  It is not too much to say that that vision made Gaelic what it is today, with its numerous means of enlightened support, but it also went some way to making Scotland what it is today.

So we remember him in the multiplicity of his persons, the immensity of his contributions to Scotland, to Gaelic, to the Celtic languages and their literatures.  Professor Thomson has passed on, and he will be much missed, and often remembered.  But he has built an astonishing ‘memorial’, which is not pompous or self-glorious in any way. It is around us and within us.  It will endure as long as Gaelic lasts.  For that we are most profoundly grateful.  Ceud mìle, mìle taing, a Ruaraidh, a charaid, airson na rinn sibh dhuinn uile.  Chan fhaic sinn ur leithid tuilleadh.


Donald E. Meek, MA (Glasgow, 1971), BA (Cantab, 1973), PhD (Glasgow, 1982), DLitt (Glasgow, 2011), FRHistS, FRSE.

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