Professor Derick S. Thomson (5 August 1921 – 21 March 2012)
Derick Thomson – Professor of Celtic, Gaelic scholar, teacher, language planner, poet, writer, editor, businessman, politician, propagandist, chairman of boards and trusts in abundance - was a colossus of twentieth-century Scotland. In both the sharpness of his mind and its many practical applications, he carved a niche for Gaelic (first and foremost) and for himself (as a ceaseless promoter of the language in word and in print) that is unlikely to be replicated in the near future, and will certainly never be surpassed.
Privileged with a gifted ancestry, steeped in traditional Gaelic culture, Derick Thomson was born in Stornoway in 1921, but he was reared in Bayble, Point. His father James Thomson, a stalwart of the Church of Scotland and a published poet, was for many years headmaster of Bayble School. His mother’s people from Ceòs – from whom he derived his middle name ‘Smith’ – were noted for their wealth of Gaelic song and story. Thomson’s Lewis upbringing thus facilitated and combined many of the strands which would later characterise his own career as a magisterial and multi-talented exponent of Gaelic language and literature, a creative poet and a commentator on island life and society, including its ecclesiastical dimensions.
Thomson graduated from the University of Aberdeen with a First Class degree in English Literature and Celtic. After war service in the RAF, he 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, to encourage bridge-building and interdisciplinary study between the Celtic and Germanic strands of Britain’s cultural heritage. He achieved similar distinction there, and then proceeded to the University College of North Wales, Bangor, to study with the Rev. Professor J. E. Caerwyn Williams, for whom he had an immense respect.
Splendidly equipped for analysing the wider Celtic family of languages and related cultures, Derick Thomson served through the ranks of the academic profession in Scotland, first in Edinburgh (where he assisted Professor Myles Dillon and collected Gaelic tradition for the new School of Scottish Studies), then Glasgow (where he taught Welsh, alongside Professor Angus Matheson), followed by Aberdeen (where he was Reader in Celtic) and finally Glasgow again, this time as Professor from 1963 until 1991. His academic hallmark lay pre-eminently in placing Gaelic literature, rather than the minutiae of the language itself, at the centre of his curriculum. The rebalanced programme for Celtic and Gaelic studies was particularly evident at Glasgow, where, as Professor, he built a powerful and vibrant department which was at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, and contributed immensely to the formation of Gaelic teachers, broadcasters, writers and academics. All the main Celtic languages and their literatures were taught, with Gaelic at the centre. In presenting Gaelic afresh within this broad perspective, Thomson formulated new approaches to scholarly analysis and understanding, while encouraging wider interest, as is evident in his many books and articles, among them The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’’ (1952), An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry (1974), and his indispensable Companion to Gaelic Scotland (1983).
Thomson’s name will always be associated particularly closely with Glasgow, as it was there that he laid, and later built upon, the foundations of his distinguished and multi-faceted career, within and beyond the cloisters. In Glasgow in 1951, with the support of Finlay J. MacDonald, he established the celebrated Gaelic periodical Gairm. It was through Gairm, which was distributed to secondary schools throughout the islands, that many became familiar with the name and persona of Thomson’s alter ego, Ruaraidh MacThòmais. Gairm became without question the vehicle for a creative revolution in Gaelic literature, far beyond the schools. Edited by MacThòmais for just over 50 years, and appearing four times a year, it was a phenomenal achievement in its own right, demonstrating his unrivalled capacity for sustained hard work and creative thinking. 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 his brainchild, the Gaelic Books Council, founded in 1968. It continues to this day as an essential corner-stone of Gaelic publishing, going from strength to strength and existing independently of Glasgow University, where it began.
Ruaraidh MacThòmais’s creativity was evident in every aspect of Gairm, from its business and trading arrangements to his concise editorials, penetrating reviews, Gaelic short stories and essays – but it was manifested pre-eminently in his verse. For MacThòmais, poetry in traditional and modern (free verse) forms was the breath of artistic life, animating no less than seven volumes – An Dealbh Briste (1951), Eadar Samhradh is Foghar (1967), An Rathad Cian (1970), Saorsa agus an Iolaire (1977), Creachadh na Clàrsaich (1982, his collected works, up to that point), Maol Garbh (1995), and finally his retrospective and valedictory Sùil air Fàire (2007). Like the forms of his verse, his themes changed across the years, spanning the hankerings of the young exile for Lewis, his reactions to city life in more settled middle age, the umbilical nature of his relationship to Lewis (forever central to his world), his political perceptions of Scotland, Highland and Lowland (he was a forthright and unashamed Nationalist), his expeditions to the hills of Perthshire (where he lived for some years), and his cameos of multi-cultural Glasgow in the 1990s and early 2000s.
From 1950 onwards, Derick Thomson was unquestionably ‘the man with the plan’ not only for Gaelic literature, but also for Gàidhlig ann an Albainn, ‘Gaelic in Scotland’, the title of an influential little book which he edited and published in 1976 as ‘a blueprint for official and private initiatives’ relating to Gaelic. Subsequent language promoters, by and large, did no more than finesse the templates which Derick Thomson and his team sketched out. 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. His visionary thinking also led to the establishment of the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic at Glasgow in the early 1960s. Although the original venture faltered because of lack of funding and a less than robust long-term strategy, it has now been resurrected as Faclair na Gàidhlig, with its own Skye-based co-ordinator, while its invaluable archive at Glasgow is being digitised in twenty-first century style. Thus restructured, the ‘Dictionary’ is producing outputs beyond Thomson’s imagining.
Derick Thomson was, in sum, a creative genius, whose many activities have shaped both Gaelic and Scotland. This was justly recognised in the award of several distinguished prizes and honorary degrees, including a Fellowship of the British Academy and DLitts from the Universities of Wales, Aberdeen and Glasgow. He was sharply analytical, subtle, highly sociable, disarmingly humorous, skilled at getting his own way, outstanding in his ability to comprehend the essence of others and to notice any of their qualities which could become grist to his Gaelic mill. He was also a formidable adversary, if crossed (sometimes accidentally) in planning or debate. Although a powerful figurehead, he was not, on the whole, a ‘consensus operator’ or a ‘team player’; at times he could be almost imperial, if not quietly dictatorial, moulding his students’ and his employees’ minds to conform as closely as possible to the ‘Thomson template’, with all the tensions implicit in such an approach. Nevertheless, his knack for ‘talent-spotting’ and the excellence of his ‘template’ encouraged many aspiring scholars, poets and writers to try their hands, and he often provided the means to publish their work. Thomson was thus a complex individual of many personae, a one-man institution with many subsidiaries and agendas, all of them finding their focus and fulfilment in Gaelic and Scotland, and his commitment to the good of both.
Appearing on the Gaelic and Scottish scene in the late 1940s, Derick Thomson was able to shape his world as he wanted it to be. He was allowed, and perhaps even encouraged, to do so by the nature of Scottish universities in the second half of the twentieth century. His like will not be seen again, not only because he was unique, but also because the intellectual milieu in which he flourished has changed dramatically. Focusing on its own survival in an ever more challenging political and economic climate, and increasingly under the thumb of managers, the present-day university ‘system’ no longer allows staff such a generous degree of creative latitude to promote their own wider causes. In a liberal post-war ethos which favoured reconstruction and the emergence of strong personalities, Professor Derick S. Thomson saw his chance and took it, and we – most notably the Gaelic speakers of Scotland – are the beneficiaries of his many endeavours. Tapadh leibh, a Ruaraidh, a ghaisgich gun choimeas, airson gach euchd a rinn sibh.
Donald E. Meek