Derick Thomson: Poet and champion of the Gaelic language


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The Independent Online

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,


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.