Obituary: Norrie Tomter

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The Independent Online
The Scottish Peat and Land Development Association (Spalda) has long been in the vanguard of promoting the enlightened use of rural resources, and indeed of the environmental movement. It was founded in the 1950s by Norrie Tomter and her second husband, Anders, a Norwegian peat specialist who edited and wrote much of Scottish Peat Surveys, a four-volume treatise published by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland (Dafs) between 1964 and 1966.

The Tomters were true environmentalists, two decades before environmental issues became fashionable. Moreover, they were practical in their ideas, and won the support of Jack Maclay (later Viscount Muirshiel) and Michael Noble, successive Conservative Secretaries of State for Scotland, who enthusiastically endorsed the advice of civil servants in Dafs, who commissioned the study.

With the coming of the Labour government in 1964, the new Secretary of State, William Ross, continued the initiative begun under his Conservative predecessors, which eventually resulted in a number of peat-based projects such as Easter Inch Moss near Blackburn, West Lothian. Conservation and rationalisation of peat extraction enhanced an area despoiled by bings from the shale-oil industry, which had become defunct in 1962. As the local MP I saw at first hand the excellent result of implementing the Tomters' academic work and the improvement it brought to the environment of many of my constituents who worked at the British Motor Corporation (BMC), Bathgate.

The Tomters organised Spalda visits to Ireland, Norway and Denmark which did much to promote awareness of the fact that we lagged behind smaller countries in recognising the potential of peat and what could be done to sustain the resource in the United Kingdom. That peat is now the subject of annual conferences through the International Peat Association owes much to the Tom-ters' imagination and energy.

Norrie Tomter was the daughter of a Scottish mother from Broughty Ferry on the Tay and a Swedish ship captain trading largely in Baltic and Memel pine and pit props for the mining industry. When the family moved south from the Tay to the Forth Tomter atten-ded Leith Academy and won a good honours degree in English at Edinburgh University.

In 1930 she married Donald Fraser, a schoolteacher, and moved to London for some years, returning after his death and her second marriage to Anders Tomter. In her fifties, as her husband's health declined, she took a job at Bo'ness Academy on the Forth where she had the classroom next to mine; she was an imaginative and much-liked - indeed, inspirational - if not much obeyed, teacher of literature.

Literature was her first love. With the support of Hugh MacDiarmid and J.D. Fergusson, she edited the New Scotland and the New Scot magazines in the 1950s; her contributors embraced the whole range of Edinburgh literati of the day. She also edited Sir Edward McCall: a maker of modern Scotland (1956), which set out the achievements of McCall and Tom Johnston, Winston Churchill's wartime Labour Secretary of State, in founding the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board. It is a fascinating story.

Politically she was deeply interested, and espoused any party that was likely to listen to her ideas of the moment. With her first husband, Donald Fraser, she lived in London and was a joint-founder with Tom Burns of the London Scots Self-Government Committee which, presided over by Tom Johnston, revived Keir Hardie's interest in Scottish self-government. Years later, in March 1979, Tomter was sad and disappointed at the result of the referendum on devolution, and beside herself with anger at the Labour Vote No Campaign in general and me at its epicentre in particular.

One of her great causes - she was never without a cause or two, most of them worthwhile - was the construction of a peat-fired fire station on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. This would have come to fruition had it not been for rapid strides in the technology of undersea electric cable. Another cause was the cleaning-up of the Union Canal between Glasgow and Edinburgh for boating and recreational purposes. This is now coming about. Tomter was before her time.

Norrie Tomter was a leading light in the West Lothian History and Amenity Society. Her last cause was for the phased re-roofing of Linlithgow Palace, birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. To her joy, this was coming to fruition before she died.

Tam Dalyell

Norrie Jane Boberg, editor, environmentalist, teacher: born Island of Gottland, Sweden 28 May 1906; married 1930 Donald Fraser (deceased), secondly Anders Tomter (deceased); died Edinburgh 7 March 1996.