Tom Gourdie

Tom Gourdie MBE Calligrapher, teacher and author.

Born: 18 May, 1913, in Cowdenbeath.

Died: 6 January, 2005, in Kirkcaldy, aged 91.

TOM Gourdie was the doyen of handwriting in Scotland. To the end - and despite his age and infirmity - he was endeavouring to improve the nation’s handwriting: and not only that of children. In the week of his death, Gourdie was giving instructions from his sick bed to his nurses and carers on how to hold a pen. He lectured and visited schools for many years instructing children (and their teachers) "to write in a simple, practical, calligraphic style". Gourdie wrote several classic books on calligraphy and was an acknowledged expert throughout Britain. Children in Fife are taught a script based on a 1998 design but only last year Gourdie admitted in an interview that he was "a wee bit disappointed that it had not been adopted throughout Scotland". Gourdie was also a well-known art master in Fife and painted some superbly evocative water colours of the area around Kirkcaldy.

Gourdie’s father was a miner in the Fife coalfields and he attended Cowdenbeath High School. He left in his early teens to work locally but went back to school and gained a scholarship to Edinburgh College of Art. In his second year (1937), he won a scholarship of 50 to travel in Germany. Gourdie and a friend travelled widely and while in Nuremberg they were strolling around the city in their kilts when some uniformed soldiers approached them and informed them their leader would like to meet these two tartaned lads. Gourdie and his friend were taken to a caf and were introduced to Adolph Hitler. Gourdie must surely have been the only kilted Scot that ever met the Fuhrer.

Gourdie returned to the art college but started taking instruction in calligraphy from the renowned lecturer Irene Wellington. Gourdie was immediately fascinated by writing, its history and its various styles. He studied the many different alphabets and was intrigued to study the ancient scripts.

During the war he worked devising camouflage material and gained a reputation for his intricate three-dimensional maps that proved invaluable to the troops when they landed in Sicily and north France.

After the war he took his teaching diploma and taught at Banff before he moved to Kirkcaldy High School where he taught art for the rest of his career.

While Gourdie greatly enjoyed teaching - and he is remembered as a patent and gifted instructor - he also painted the surrounding Fife countryside: in particular the coalfields in Fife (many of which are now closed). His fine intricate paintings were much admired locally and captured the atmosphere of the time and location with a telling exactness. The National Coal Board heard of these paintings and bought them all.

He proved a prodigious artist and much enjoyed capturing everyday life in a Kirkcaldy street with his accustomed eye for period detail. "There are many such paintings in his house to this day," recalls a friend of many years, Duncan Gilfillan. "They evoke a Kirkcaldy of a very different era. The pictures are full of atmosphere and period charm. He depicted the towns and countryside of Fife with a realistic affection."

Gourdie gradually also built up an enviable reputation as a calligrapher. He maintained that the 20th century with its vast technological advances did not replace handwriting altogether. He wrote extensively and introduced to schools in Britain and throughout Europe the italic script. It was basically a scheme for children aged five to 11 who were taught the elements of handwriting as an introduction to the "simple modern hand" with the emphasis on grammar. "He always wanted the script to flow," remembers Mr Gilfillan. "Tom worked closely with the distinguished calligrapher Kay Dick, of Glasgow, on many handwriting projects."

In the Seventies, Gourdie became a prolific author and his Italic Handwriting was popular with experts and amateurs alike. His books explained the different styles of italic handwriting and instructed how to form letters and set exercises to improve the reader’s penmanship. Other books (including Calligraphy for Beginners, Handwriting Made Easy, Guide to Better Handwriting) all followed and confirmed Gourdie as a leading authority in the field.

He took early retirement from Kirkcaldy High School and it allowed him to devote more time to his writing and painting. He toured widely - especially lecturing in the US, Sweden and South Africa - and was given many awards by his peers. The Society of Handwriters made him a life member - the scroll being presented by their president, Humphrey Lyttleton. He was made an MBE in 1959.

"Tom was a wonderfully entertaining man," Mr Gilfillan remembers. "He could be exacting but he had a generous nature and a flamboyant sense of humour. He played both the trombone and the French horn and often on your birthday he would play Happy Birthday on the trombone down the phone."

Gourdie also loved music and had a large collection of LPs ranging from the classics to brass bands.

He was a passionate believer in well-crafted handwriting and devoted his life to improving the understanding of calligraphy. "I would like," he said only last year, "Scottish schools to take writing more seriously. Children should be taught to hold the pen properly, for instance."

Tom Gourdie was a well-known and respected man throughout Fife and his enthusiasm for calligraphy and sheer joy in teaching generations of children to appreciate art is a fitting tribute to a man of much energy, wit and gracious charm.

Gourdie’s wife, Lilias, predeceased him and he is survived by their son and daughter.