Obituary: Professor Derick Thomson; writer and scholar who was the most important voice in Gaelic poetry in the 20th century

Born: 5 August, 1921, in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis. Died: 21 March, 2012, in Glasgow, aged 90.

Professor Derick S Thomson (Ruaraidh MacThòmais) was the most influential and important voice in Gaelic poetry during the second half of the 20th century. His wide-ranging abilities as a writer, scholar, teacher and publisher have provided an essential impetus to the literature of Gaelic, as a living and thriving language.

Thomson was born in Stornoway, in 1921, and grew up in Pabail (Bayble), home of another great Gaelic poet, Iain Crichton Smith (Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn). After graduating from Aberdeen University and following military service with the RAF during the war, he studied at Cambridge and Bangor before obtaining a post as assistant of Celtic at The University of Edinburgh in 1948.

Inspired by his time in Wales, where the Welsh language was being protected and encouraged, Thomson established Gairm (Call) as a quarterly journal and as a publishing house. The journal was dedicated solely to the Gaelic language and ran for 200 issues over the next five decades, providing space for prose and poetry and acting as a forum for discussion of the language’s present and future. In his roles as publisher and editor, he was the driving force behind the production of some 150 works by other authors in Gaelic, through Gairm Publications.

Thomson’s first major academic work was The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson’s “Ossian” (1952), published by the University of Aberdeen. The Ossian of the title was a third-century poet and supposed son of Fingal. The book examined the genuine and historical literature which had been used to confect a series of dubious works published in the 18th century by the poet James Macpherson.

In 1963, Thomson became Professor of Celtic at Glasgow University, a position he held until his retirement in 1991. Soon after his appointment he initiated the ambitious Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic project, together with editor Kenneth MacDonald.

The venture continues to this day as Faclair na Gàidhlig (Dictionary of the Scottish Gaelic Language). In 1981 Thomson brought out his A New English-Gaelic Dictionary, which remains a valuable reference work.

Although he did not publish an anthology of his own poetry until 1970, it is in this field that Thomson is now best known outside academia. Through writings in Gairm and seven collections of verse, he influenced a generation of poets writing in Gaelic.

His poetry speaks of his youthful memories of Lewis, of love, of Glasgow and the Clearances and of religion, among many other subjects. His style turned away from the traditional rhyming structures of the language’s sung poetry, towards the use of free verse. This conversion to free verse had come around the time of his move to Glasgow and was probably influenced by the work of John Munro (Iain Rothach), a soldier and earlier exponent of the form, whom Thomson described as “the first strong voice of the new Gaelic verse of the 20th century” in his Companion to Gaelic Scotland (1983).

In 1995, the poet Andrew Mitchell travelled to the Isle of Lewis with Thomson and fellow Lewis poet Iain Crichton Smith, for the programme How Many Miles From Bayble, broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope.

Taking You Home: Poems and Conversations (2006) is a written record of their visit. A review in this newspaper said: “‘Belonging’ is a major theme for both the Gaelic poets in the book. Thomson and Crichton Smith both ponder just how much they can really be ‘from’ a village they left at the age of 17.

“What cannot be argued is that the village and the island gave them a language and a cultural background which were distinctive and which coloured their lifetime’s writing.”

In 2005, Thomson’s poem Am Bucas (The Box) was reproduced on a postcard for National Poetry Day, in Gaelic and English:

In the year

2121, digging an old site,

they came on a box

full of odds and ends of wire and glass,

fronted with a mirror

on which the shadows of the twentieth century

danced once upon a time

for people who themselves became shadows.

And they said, contemplatively,

“Strange that that was what they did

instead of reading Plato.”

Thomson was widely honoured during his lifetime, including the Ossian Prize (1974), honorary president of the Scottish Poetry Library, the Oliver Brown Award (1984), fellow of the Academy (1992), the Derek Allen Prize (2000) and an honorary degree from University of Glasgow (2007). He was the chairman of the SNP’s Gaelic Committee during the 1970s.

Last year the Scottish Poetry Library – of which he was an honorary president – celebrated his birthday with the publication of the anthology Mar Chomharra – Ruaraidh MacThòmais aig 90 (Derick Thomson at 90: A Celebration). This contained a selection of his own poems chosen by other Gaelic language poets. Anne C Frater, who contributed, told The Scotsman: “Derick Thomson was hugely important. Nobody has done more for Gaelic in the 20th century. Through Gairm he promoted new writing, giving us a reason to write and somewhere to be published. He is someone to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude.”

Considering in a wry vein his own eventual passing, Thomson wrote in the poem Ma Gheibh mi Chaoidh a Ghlòir (If I Ever Make it to Heaven): “I quite believe that St Peter will turn out to be a Lewisman if I do sneak in at the Gate.” He is survived by his wife Carol Galbraith and five of their six children.”

Marcus Williamson