Derick Thomson: Poet and champion of the Gaelic language

 

Professor Derick S. Thomson (Ruaraidh MacThòmais) was a poet, publisher and editor whose impact on the Gaelic language has been immense.

Through his writing, publishing and teaching activities he has ensured that the history of Gaelic is well documented, that its present is thriving and that its future is assured.

Thomson was born in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, in 1921 and grew up in the nearby village of Bayble. Following graduation at Aberdeen University and wartime service with the RAF, he studied at Cambridge and Bangor University. In 1948 he was appointed Assistant of Celtic at Edinburgh University.

It was whilst at Bangor that he learnt of efforts to preserve and promote the Welsh language in writing and speech. Professor Peredur Lynch of Bangor University said: "Derick Thomson would have been struck by the strength and vibrant nature of the Welsh at a community level in north-west Wales, especially in the large quarrying villages of Caernarfonshire... He would have encountered a strong cohort of native-speaking students in the Welsh Department, whose tuition would have been through the medium of Welsh."

So, inspired by this visit, in 1952 Thomson established Gairm ("Call"), as both a Gaelic language quarterly journal and, soon after, a publishing house. The journal ran to 200 issues over the next half century and was the leading forum for new writing in the language.

In his roles as publisher and editor he was involved with the production of around 150 works by Gaelic authors, through Gairm Publications. Just a year before establishing Gairm, he had already brought out the collection An Dealbh Briste: Gaelic Poems (1951), but it would be almost 20 years before he would publish his own anthology.

Thomson became Professor of Celtic at Glasgow University for the period from 1963 until his retirement in 1991. During his time there he published widely and began the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic project, working together with Kenneth MacDonald. That project continues as the Dictionary of the Scottish Gaelic Language. Thomson's own lexicographic venture, A New English-Gaelic Dictionary, was published in 1981.

The first anthology of Thomson's own poetry, Far Road, emerged in 1970 and was followed by six other volumes. His earlier poetry dealt with his memories of Lewis and used the traditional, rhythmical forms of Gaelic "sung" verse. For example, "The Herring Girls" describes the young women of Lewis who travelled to the mainland for work in the fisheries:

Their laughter like a sprinkling of salt

showered from their lips,

brine and pickle on their tongues,

and the stubby short fingers

that could handle fish,

or lift a child gently, neatly

safely, wholesomely,

unerringly,

and the eyes that were

as deep as a calm

Around the time of his move to Glasgow, he turned towards free verse, signalling perhaps his own increased freedom. This change may also have been influenced by the poetry of the First World War soldier John Munro, whom Thomson described in Companion to Gaelic Scotland (1983) as "the first strong voice of the new Gaelic verse of the 20th century". Thomson's more recent poems include subjects as diverse as religion, love and life in Glasgow.

The book Taking You Home: Poems and Conversations (2006) records a visit made to the Isle of Lewis by Thomson with BBC producer Julian May and fellow poets Iain Crichton Smith and Andrew Mitchell. The visit resulted in the programme How Many Miles From Bayble, broadcast on Radio 4 in 1995.

During 1997 Thomson's poems came to the notice of a wider public when striking similarities were found between his work and at least three poems by the Cornish poet Alan Kent. Noting differences of only a few words – the names of places and people – in Kent's poems, Thomson said at the time, "You would expect a plagiarist to play about with things a bit more." Kent's book was withdrawn.

The Scottish Poetry Library last year published Derick Thomson at 90: A Celebration, in honour of the poet, who was an honorary president of the library. The anthology contained a selection of his poems chosen by Gaelic language poets.

Ronald Black, former senior lecturer in Celtic at Edinburgh University, said in tribute: "It's impossible to imagine the world of the Gaelic language without Derick Thomson."

Derick S. Thomson, poet and publisher: born Stornoway, Isle of Lewis 5 August 1921; married Carol Galbraith 1952 (6 children, 1 deceased); died Glasgow 21 March 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
wimbledonScot will face Ivo Karlovic next
Sport
football
News
Hillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test