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
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before