Obituary: Tom Forsyth, land reformer, crofter, youth leader, master dry stane dyker

Tom Forsyth talking to visitors to Eigg in 2005
Tom Forsyth talking to visitors to Eigg in 2005
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Tom Speed Fisher Forsyth. Crofter and legendary land reformer. Born 11 December, 1930. Died: 30 August, 2018, aged 87

Tom Forsyth, who has died aged 87, might be described as a crofter and dry stane dyker who became something of a guru to the Scottish land reform movement.

Those us who spent our summers as children on the Hebridean island Iona in the 1950s will probably also vaguely remember him as a swack young 20-something-year- old who worked there as a youth leader and would later describe the experience to me as his real education and elaborated on his memories.

He was the son of a mine manager from Dunfermline and although he had left school at 16 he had an inquiring mind and read voraciously, mostly of the philosophies of those who advocated an obligation, as he would put it; “To live simply so that others might simply live.”

After national service with the navy and gaining a diploma from Edinburgh’s Botanical Gardens his job on Iona was to act as a youth leader for the religious organisation known as The Iona Community and he had a particular interest in the poor broken-down prisoners who would be sent to live in a remote and very basic bothy on the neighbouring island of Mull for the last few weeks of their sentence. A keen hill walker and sea swimmer he tried to make them see that happiness could be had from very little and to avoid the pitfalls of consumer-based aspiration.

Tom was a strong young man who liked to live in the outdoors. Often barefooted and with tiny leather shorts he would be squelching on wet machairs and running like a goat up cliffs and down geos and although his maverick nature meant he was often noticed he was quiet and thoughtful and easy to like.

A walk with Tom saw him encouraging little children such as this writer not to trample on wild flowers and he would title many a bird and plant and make us relish gaelic-derived place names such the soft meadow of the ottter or the seat where Columba looked out to sea so that we would put them safely in our mental satchels for later in our lives.

Perhaps sadly The Iona Community , his employer, were more interested in their focus on the restoration of the Cathedral with ritualistic liturgy as their backbone and when the maverick Tom started suggesting to his youngsters that worship could be done as well by running wild on the green machaire as following rigid doctrines inside the cathedral he had to go.

However, recognising his potential the Community arranged that his next important job was to be in America working with their friend Jane Owen, the granddaughter of the legendary social reformer of New Lanark. Here Tom was again working with the young and disadvanted, and like back on Mull, showing that personal serenity could sometimes be as easily achieved through not wanting as owning, and that the great open spaces were a good classroom.

This was to be a confidence building time for Tom and when the Iona Community asked him to come back as warden of the Cathedral his bold response was to present them with a document of the changes that he would insist on if he was to take up the post, again suggesting that the Iona Community go to a more radical and etherial ecological stance than their demanding objective of rebuilding a ruined Cathedral on a Hebridean island would allow.

His document called for more vegetable growing and less talk, more bread making, more fishing, more integration with the tides and enternal patterns. It was rejected, perhaps wisely as the now fully restored Cathedral will witness.

On returning to Scotland Tom, by now married and with children, followed up an advertisement for abandoned land in the Highlands and armed with his Iona document went to take over a number of crofts on the Scoraig peninsula, becoming one of the co-founders of a remarkable alternative community that now numbers about 80. Last week I spoke to one of those who in the 60s cycled down the four mile track to join him.

A high achieving dentist, he spoke with great reverence of Tom. “Tom was everywhere. He was building a retreat centre from scratch out of rocks, and then running retreats, growing amazing food, fishing, cooking. We were strangers but he welcomed us, gave us shelter, work, land of our own and much discussion on the need to avoid becoming slaves to a consumer culture.”

And he practiced what he preached. For much of his life Tom would live in a tiny house on Scoraig with no proper electricity or facilities, fishing off a rowing boat called power without power and often burning wood from trees that he himself had planted, sometimes earning cash from dry stane dyking.

In the mid-90s Tom decided to take some of his hard won philosophies to the neighboring island of Eigg and established a Trust to buy the island and have it run by the people. At first the notion was widely derided both in the press and Highlands but six years later, once the locals who had been inspired by Tom’s dogged tenacity, took over the Trust the island was bought by its inhabitants and became a news story that circled the world and inspired dozens to attempt the seemingly impossible.

Tom also advised the buy out on the island of Gigha and could often be found at conferences on land reform though it was more mostly just his quiet presence and witness that was celebrated.

His personal life was so complicated that it was sometimes referred to affectionately as the Forsyth sagas, but he was much loved and loved much in return. He had three marriages to fine women. Firstly to Ray Soper, then to Alice Buchan and finally to Djini Van Slyke, and they produced six fine children, the last when he was 66.

Although he largely lived a quiet life far out in the wilderness and away from conventional society Tom Forsyth made a positive difference to many lives. A stone to his cairn, and let that stone to this ecologically-aware master dry stane dyker be carefully chosen, intelligently laid, and so without the need for any of what Tom would probably have derided as the wicked cement that costs so much energy to produce.

Maxwell MacLeod