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Derick Thomson: Poet and Scholar.

Derick Smith Thomson was born in Stornoway in August 1921 and died at his home in Clarkston in March 2012, aged ninety. His widow Carol died in November 2017. They had five sons and one daughter, of whom three sons and the daughter survive.

It might seem odd to begin a discussion of someone's achievements with conclusions, but the conclusions are those of others. In his article on Derick Thomson in A Companion to Scottish Culture, edited by David Daiches and published in 1981, the poet George Campbell Hay described Thomson as 'the man who has done more for Scottish Gaelic than any other man living' (Daiches 1981, 376). Some thirty years later, in 2011, Scotsoun issued a cassette and CD of him reading his poetry which was introduced by John Machines with these words:

Derick Thomson, poet and scholar, is the dominating presence in Gaelic Scotland throughout the second half of the twentieth century and up to the present. In addition to that, it can be claimed that he has done more for Gaelic than any other individual in the entire history of our people. A large claim: but one that can be made confidently and without exaggeration. (Scotsoun 2002)

To provide a full justification of those assessments in a single article is impossible, of course, and what follows will give only an indication. In the end, the scholar must yield primacy to the poet: most scholarship, however brilliant, will ultimately be superseded, but the best poetry is unlikely to be superseded. That said, though, let me begin with a brief account of the scholarship.

Scholarship these days, in Britain at least, is most associated with educational institutions like universities, and many scholars have to earn the time for scholarship by teaching. This was very much the case with Derick Thomson, who held university appointments for more than forty years--at Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and again Glasgow, where he was Professor of Celtic from 1963 to 1991. And it should be noted here that among his qualities was an extraordinary ability as a teacher. As anyone will know who heard him lecture, he was not flamboyant; he was quiet, balanced, authoritative--and always interesting.

Some idea of Thomson's ability as a teacher can be gathered from his writings. He is celebrated as a Gaelic poet, but more of his critical and scholarly work was done in English, and he wrote English superbly well. One of the tasks he set himself was the dissemination of knowledge of the Gaelic language and its associated culture to those outwith Gaeldom, hence titles like An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry and The New Verse in Scottish Gaelic: a structural analysis (both 1974); The Companion to Gaelic Scotland (1983), which he edited; and the Saltire Society booklet Why Gaelic Matters (1984). But, of course, these works had a role to play among Gaels as well. Even when he was in London in the 1990s delivering a lecture on Gaelic poetry to the British Academy, I know there was at least one Gaelic-speaking Lewisman in the audience--and there may have been more--though Derick would probably have been harder pushed to find a native Gael in Turku in Finland when he went there in 1984 to give a lecture on publishing in Scottish Gaelic! He was extraordinarily assiduous as a scholar and educator. And, of course, his occasional articles in the all-Gaelic magazine Gairm, which he co-founded in 1952, were addressed to the Gaelic community.

His range of articles in Gairm was wide--apart from his editorials, in which he commented freely on current affairs, and his book reviews, he would also write biographical pieces, accounts of places where he had been, and so on. As editor and publisher, sometimes with help, but to a considerable extent alone, he kept Gairm going for fifty years. (1) No twentieth-century Scottish literary magazine has such a record, and its two hundred issues of rich and varied writing could yield many an anthology, although to date, surprisingly, there has been only one, Criochan Ura (meaning 'New Frontiers'), which was published by Gairm Publications as early as 1958. But I hope there will be others. This was Thomson wearing his editorial and language support hat, but even within Gairm there was a goodly amount of his scholarship, as well as that of others for whom it was a perfect outlet--quite an achievement. He also edited Scottish Gaelic Studies, the scholarly journal published by Aberdeen University, from 1961 to 1976, and contributed articles and reviews to it.

Professor Donald E. Meek, one of Derick Thomson's most distinguished students, has written that 'His academic hallmark lay pre-eminently in placing Gaelic literature, rather than the minutiae of the language itself, at the centre of his curriculum' (West Highland Free Press 2012), and it is undoubtedly true that, in the final analysis, Derick Thomson was a 'lit' man rather than a 'lang' man. But he was really a scholar of all-round abilities: after Glasgow University established a lectureship in Welsh in 1949, he was appointed to the post--he had been working as an Assistant in Celtic at Edinburgh University--and spent some seven months in 1950 studying at Bangor in North Wales and preparing a Welsh course for Glasgow. Later, after he had returned to Aberdeen University as Reader in Celtic in 1956, he made available an edition of one of the stories in the Welsh classic, Y Mabinogi, which he himself justly described as 'one of the most famous productions of Medieval Wales'. This was Branwen Uerch Lyr, 'Branwen the Daughter of Llyr', which was published in 1961 by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and is still very much in use.

By session 1963-64 Thomson had returned to Glasgow, this time as Professor, and the Glasgow years saw his greatest achievements. We might note what John Bannerman described as Thomson's 'seminal' paper to the International Congress of Celtic Studies in Edinburgh in 1967, 'Gaelic Learned Orders and Literati in Medieval Scotland', a tour-de-force published in the journal Scottish Studies the following year (Scottish Studies 12, 1968, 57). He had been an early analyst of James Macpherson and his milieu, Oliver and Boyd having published his The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's 'Ossian' in 1952, and he continued to be asked to lecture and write on Macpherson throughout his career. He had the advantage of knowing Gaelic, without which a judgement on the status of Macpherson's 'translations' is rather difficult.

He also made very significant advances in his study of the MacMhuirich bardic family, whose history he outlined in several articles. The MacMhuirich lineage is thought to have been founded by an Irishman who fled to Scotland early in the thirteenth century and became known as Muireadhach Albanach --'Muireadhach the Scot'--but the lineage finished rather ingloriously in South Uist when a Lachlann MacMhuirich, who claimed to be a descendant, stated in 1800 that he was unable to write. (2) The name MacMhuirich survives in other forms in various places, and especially as Currie.

It is well known that there were families with hereditary roles and skills in Gael dom--such as the Beaton medical kindred, about which John Bannerman wrote the book in which he made the assessment of Thomson's talk on the Gaelic learned orders and literati quoted above--and the MacMhuirich family is a classic example (Bannerman 1986, v). A good example of Thomson's inspiration and influence can be seen in the fact that two of his former students, Ronald I. Black and Donald E. Meek, have written further on topics he treated, Black on the MacMhuirich line and Meek on James Macpherson and 'Ossian'. Gaelic poetry, in general, may be regarded as Thomson's main field of interest, and he was tireless in investigating its history and assessing its merits. There had been nineteenth-and early twentieth-century general works on Gaelic literature--such as Nigel Macneill's The Literature of the Highlanders (1892 and 1929) and Magnus MacLean's The Literature of the Highlands (1904 and 1925)--but Thomson's An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry, published in 1974 and updated and republished since then, provided a modern and authoritative guide which is unlikely to be superseded for some time. It was not published in Scotland but in London, by Gollancz, and perhaps that suggests that interest in the Gaelic tradition was increasing beyond Scotland, not least because of Thomson's own efforts. Happily, the recent editions of the book have come from Edinburgh University Press.

Nearly a decade later, in 1983, another book arrived from an English publisher, Basil Blackwell of Cambridge. This time, at the invitation of Blackwell's, Thomson had planned and edited The Companion to Gaelic Scotland, as well as writing many of the articles, long and short. Again, the book was updated and reprinted more than once, and latterly by Thomson's own Gairm Publications in Glasgow. It continues to be an indispensable reference book for those who can lay hands on it, and another reprint is urgently required. He himself was regularly asked to contribute learned articles to other works of reference, and he wrote at some length for the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Dictionary of National Biography and The Penguin Companion to Literature among others.

Mention of Gairm Publications brings us to his other publishing activities, which included titles issued from the Department of Celtic in Aberdeen in the 1960s and later from the Glasgow Department, with over twenty titles appearing. He also launched a smaller imprint when he went to live to Aberfeldy in 1977--the Thomsons spent seven years there--and called it Clo Chailleann (which translates as 'Caledonian Press') and issued several titles from there. But the main publishing was done from the Gairm Publications offices in various locations in Glasgow. From these he issued a wide variety of titles in poetry and prose, by women and by men--well over a hundred in all, with many of them being edited and seen through the press by himself despite all the other demands on his time. That is another outstanding achievement.

As well as heading the best-resourced Department of Celtic in the country at the time in Glasgow, with four other lecturers, and himself carrying a full teaching load, and frequently acting as an external examiner at other universities, from Aberdeen to Oxbridge, he also set up two projects which have had a considerable influence: the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic in 1966 and the Gaelic Books Council in 1968, both for years attached to the Department of Celtic. The Books Council (Comhairle nan Leabhraichean) might be said to have prospered from the outset, supported by Scottish Education Department and Scottish Arts Council funding, funding now replaced by support from Creative Scotland and Bord na Gaidhlig. The Dictionary project made a good start but faltered for a while, partly from lack of funding, much to Thomson's regret, but in recent years it has been re-energised and given a much more ambitious agenda. It is now administered from Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Skye and has adequate funding and staffing, (3) while the Books Council left the University in 1996 and became a free-standing charitable body. It celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2018 and has contributed a great deal by way of financial and other support to Gaelic publishing.

Both initiatives were Thomson's brainchild, but, as he himself once wrote, 'The involvements in academic work, family activities, committees and so on were fairly demanding, but lifelong interest in writing poetry kept on resurfacing' (Thomson 2005, 64). And his greatest legacy will be the body of poetry that he has left. This is considerable, though not enormous by some standards: some four hundred individual pieces, with several of these consisting of sequences on a particular theme. Altogether, he published seven individual collections between 1951 and 2007, plus a Collected Poems in 1982 which also had over twenty poems not collected elsewhere.

Here is the first verse in his first book of poems, published in 1951 when he was thirty, An Dealbh Briste ('The Broken Picture' or 'The Picture Broken'). It is very beautiful:
   Chuala mi raoir seann oran bhith ga sheinn,
   's bha taisealachd do bhilean anns a' cheol,
   's og dhruchd na h-oidhche 's gealach air a' bheinn.

In my translation:
   Last night I heard an old song being sung,
   and the music had the softness of your lips,
   and the fresh dew of night, and a moon over the hill.

(The translations that follow are all the poet's own.)

There have been poets who loved and did not lose, but Thomson was not one of them., and some of that first book takes his loss as a theme. In that first poem he speaks of what he thought was his destiny, a fulfilled love, 'before the storm'. But even in this early book, with its influence from the Gaelic song tradition, and a book in which Thomson displays his mastery of traditional rhyme and rhythm, he is also a modernist. In a well-known poem, "Da La', or 'Changed Days', he consciously highlights this.
   Chum Uilleam Wordsworth 'na chuimhne
   mar shamhla air dorainn a chlaoidh e
   preas lom seact' air chul garraidh
   's a' ghaoth ga riasladh's ga mhabadh.

   Is ghleidh e, mar chomharradh eibhneis,
   samhla na gealaich 's i 'g eirigh
   'na lainnir airgid air faire
   nuair chothaich e mullach nan ard-bheann.

   Ceud gu leth bliadhna 'na dheidh sin
   fhuair mise samhla air leireadh,
   's ged dh'fhaodadh nach tuig thu mo chas-sa,
   'se th' ann kiosk air ceann straide.

   'S mur b'e gum bheil aogas na breig air
   bheirinn dhut samhla air eibhneas gach
   neon tha 'n taighean nam fionnsgeul
   air leth-taobh Straide a' Phrionnsa.

   William Wordsworth remembered,
   a symbol of grief that distressed him,
   a bare withered bush by a dyke,
   with the wind tearing and desolating it.

   And he kept, as a token of joy,
   the symbol of the moon rising
   in a silver sheen on the horizon
   when he struggled to the mountain peak.

   A hundred and fifty years later
   I found a symbol for grieving,
   and though you may not understand my trouble
   it is a kiosk at a street end.

   And but for the fact that it looks false
   I would give you a symbol for joy the
   neon lights on the cinemas
   along one side of Princes Street.

Elsewhere, though, he is traditional enough, as in the poem 'Mur B'e 'n Saoghal is M' Eagal' ('But for the World and My Fear'), with its references to Naoise and Deirdre. Others are more anguished, but in the poem 'Da Sheomar' ('Two Chambers') the poet records that he has survived. And in a poem not collected until 1977, 'Thaine Tu Thugam Ogail' ('I Saw a Vision of You Young'), we have an account of subsequent happiness.

But another crucial theme of Thomson's poetry, his relationship with his native island and its people and its culture, is also present in this first book--and in all his books; in fact, a section in his last book in 2007 is entitled 'Leodhas Arithist' ('Lewis Again'). This was a rich vein that he mined constantly, and one of his books, An Rathad Cian ('The Far Road'), has this as its main theme. But the first book already has the classic 'An Tobar' ('The Well'). The poet learns about the well from an old woman, and a description of her is followed by her memory of the well:
   "Cha teid duine an diugh don tobar tha sin,"
   thuirt a' chailleach, "mar a chaidh sinne
   nuair a bha sinn og,
   ged tha 'm burn ann cho breagh 's cho geai."
   'S nuair sheall mi troimhn raineach 'na suilean
   chunnaic mi lainnir a' bhuirn ud
   a ni slan gach ciurradh
   gu ruig ciurradh cridhe.

   "Nobody goes to that well now,"
   said the old woman, "as we once went,
   when we were young,
   though its water is lovely and white."
   And when I looked in her eyes through the bracken
   I saw the sparkle of that water
   that makes whole every hurt
   till the hurt of the heart.

The well has been taken as a symbol of traditional ways, culture, even the Gaelic language itself, and the poem embodies the paradox of being life-affirming as a work of art at the same time as it is an account of loss. It closes with a sense of loss:
   oir nuair chaidh mi an diugh ga shireadh
   cha d'fhuair mi ach raineach is luachair,
   's tha suilean na caillich dUinte
   's tha li air tighinn air an luathghair.

   for today when I went to seek it [the well]
   I found only bracken and rushes,
   and the old woman's eyes are closed
   and a film has come over their merriment.

With its variations on the theme of unsuccessful love, and despite some stirring pieces exhorting Scotland to be truer to itself, that first book does give an impression of decline and loss. At the time, Thomson's native Lewis was still recovering from having endured very high casualties in both World Wars and from losing many of its young people to emigration, and it was not easy to make a living. In Thomson's own case, his chosen career made it inevitable that he would live away from the island, and this was the subject of poems such as 'Sgothan' ('Clouds') from his second book, Eadar Samhradh is Foghar ('Between Summer and Autumn'), where he says:
   Brat ciartha air mo shuil,
   air chor 's nach fhaic mi bhuam
   do chaochladh, eilein chiar,
   is m' iargain ort cho buan [...]

   Beinn Phabail an seo ri m' thaobh,
   is Hol 'na chruban gu tuath ach
   chaidh mise bhuap' air taod
   cho fada 's a theid gaol bho fhuath.

   Waxed bandage on my eye, so that I do not see how you have changed,
   dark island, long missed [...]

   Bayble Hill beside me here, and Hol crouching to the north--but I
   went away from them, on a tether, as far as love goes from hate.

There was a tether, and that was lifelong, but the poetry is by no means confined to self-castigation or longing; there is also much celebration, as in the wonderfully detailed and tender 124-line piece 'Mu Chriochan Hoil' ('In the Vicinity of Hol'), also collected in Eadar Samhradh is Foghar. A note tells us that 'Hol is the name of a small hill just behind the Bayble Schoolhouse, Lewis'; Thomson's father James was the headmaster of Bayble School. Thomson goes on to describe the life of the community through the changing seasons, from spring to winter, in loving detail in a stately, mostly free verse, of which he was already a master.

This second book was rich, measured and mature, with an extension of subject-matter and with the poems having a harder political edge than previously. There are poems on Prince Charles Edward Stuart and on the Clearances, with some lines bitterly ironical, as in 'Srath Nabhair' ('Strathnaver'):
   Agus siud a' bhliadhna cuideachd
   a shlaod iad a' chailleach don t-sitig,
   a shealltainn cho eolach 's a bha iad air an Fhirinn,
   oir bha nid aig eunlaith an adhair
   (agus crothan aig na caoraich)
   ged nach robh ait aice-se anns an cuireadh i a ceann foidhpe.

   And that too was the year
   they hauled the old woman out on to the dung-heap,
   to demonstrate how knowledgeable they were in Scripture,
   for the birds of the air had nests
   (and the sheep had folds)
   though she had no place in which to lay down her head.

These are from a section entitled 'Gaidhealtachd na h-Albann' ('The Highlands of Scotland'), but the longest section is the one he has called 'Eilean an Fhraoich' ('Heather Isle [Lewis]'). Here we find what is probably his best-known poem, 'Clann-Nighean an Sgadain' ('The Herring Girls '). In the Gaelic the initial image, translated as Their laughter like a sprinkling of salt/showered from their lips', appeals both to the ear and the eye: 'An gaire mar chraiteachan salainn/ga fhroiseadh bho'm beul', and after a description of the life they led, the sprinkling image is taken up again at the end:
   Ach bha craiteachan uaille air an cridhe,
   ga chumail fallain,
   is bheireadh cutag an teanga
   slisinn a fanaid nan Gall
   agus bha obair rompa fhathast
   nuair gheibheadh iad dhachaigh,
   ged nach biodh maoin ac':
   air oidhche robach gheamhraidh,
   ma bha siud an dan dhaibh,
   dheanadh iad daoine.

   But there was a sprinkling of pride on their hearts,
   keeping them sound,
   and their tongues' gutting-knife
   would tear a strip from the Low landers' mockery--
   and there was work awaiting them
   when they got home,
   though they had no wealth:
   on a wild winter's night,
   if that were their lot,
   they would make men.

That is how the last line is translated by the author, but daoine here means 'people' as much as 'men'.

Another section in the book is headed 'Air Faire' ('On the Horizon') and has poems entitled 'Dun nan Gall' ('Donegal') and 'Budapest' (referring to the 1956 Rising) and 'Straid ann an Glaschu' ('A Street in Glasgow'), the first of many poems about his adopted city; he is again extending his subject-matter. This second book contains some of his very best work, but there had been such a gap--from 1951 to 1967--between the first book and this that it could be assumed that another could not be expected for quite a while.

But not a bit of it--the next book, An Rathad Cian ('The Far Road'), followed in 1970, which was a little startling. Not only that: the poet had to some extent reinvented himself. The leisurely, reflective and mostly regularly metrical style of the second book had been replaced by a much freer one, with most of the poems in free verse, short and vivid, sometimes ironical and mischievous. This time he was focusing very closely on Lewis, on Lewis and himself, on its people and on its religion. The work cries out for quotation, but I will restrict myself to one poem: 'Am Bodach-Rocais' ('Scarecrow'):
   An oidhch' ud
   thainig am bodach-rocais dhan taigh-cheilidh:
   fear caol ard dubh
   is aodach dubh air.
   Shuidh e air an t-seis
   is thuit na cairtean as ar lamhan.
   Bha fear a siud
   ag innse sgeulachd air Conall Gulban
   is reodh na facian air a bhilean.
   Bha boireannach 'na suidh' air stol
   ag oran, 's thug e 'n toradh as a" cheol.
   Ach cha do dh'fhag e falamh sinn:
   thug e oran nuadh dhuinn,
   is sgeulachdan na h-aird an Ear,
   is spruilleach de dh'fheallsanachd Geneva,
   is sguab e 'n teine a meadhon an lair
   's chuir e 'n turlach loisgeach nar broillichean.

   That night
   the scarecrow came into the ceilidh-house:
   a tall, thin black-haired man
   wearing black clothes.
   He sat on the bench
   and the cards fell from our hands.
   One man
   was telling a folktale about Conall Gulban
   and the words froze on his lips.
   A woman was sitting on a stool,
   singing songs, and he took the goodness out of the music.
   But he did not leave us empty-handed:
   he gave us a new song,
   and tales from the Middle East,
   and fragments of the philosophy of Geneva,
   and he swept the fire from the centre of the floor
   and set a searing bonfire in our breasts.

Guess who the citizen of Geneva was ... It's only one point of view, but it seems to me a masterly and classic statement of it. And there are subtle touches, such as the use of the word toradh, here translated as 'goodness' but also the word used for what was lost when, for example, the milk of a cow was thought to have been affected by witchcraft. The use of nuadh for 'new' rather than the everyday ur (which also means 'fresh') follows Bible usage, and there is irony in the reference to "a new song', a phrase from the Psalms in which 'song' refers to something very different from the songs referred to a few lines previously. Then, too, spruilleach is arguably more satirical than its translation of 'fragments'.

This style was one that was increasingly important for him from now on, and it enabled him to produce poems that were written in response to political events in the country in the 1970s and that could be readily assimilated by the increasing audiences now available for poetry readings. As it happened, Thomson was an excellent reader of his own poetry, and he became a prominent performer on the circuit, at home and abroad. In his next book, Saorsa agus an Iolaire ('Freedom and the Eagle'), published in 1977, there are several poems with the word Alba ('Scotland') or its derivatives in their title, and, in general, Scotland became his focus rather than Lewis.

Thomson never made any secret of his Nationalist convictions--although, as he wrote later, 'Nationalist leanings were not much of a credential at Glasgow University'. But he also added: 'but that did not make me change my mind.' Nor was his Scottish Nationalism merely of the armchair kind: in the same article he says, 'I remember climbing lamp-posts in Pollokshields with Malcolm Slessorto place posters, and canvassing for Margo MacDonald in Govan' (Thomson 2005,62-63). I never witnessed any of this, of course, but I do remember our being on our way to a meeting in the main building of Glasgow University and seeing the Professor of Celtic attaching a sticker that said it's Scotland's Oil' to the letter-box on University Avenue!

Saorsa agus an Iolaire was followed in 1982 by Creachadh na Clarsaich ('Plundering the Harp'), a Collected Poems published by his friend Callum Macdonald of Macdonald Publishers in Loanhead. This gathered up nearly all of his work to date, and it contains many of the poems for which he will be remembered. But that was by no means the end of the matter, as there were to be three more collections of new work--in 1991 (Smeur an Dochais/Bramble of Hope, from Canongate); in 1995 (Meall Garbh/ The Rugged Mountain, from his own Gairm Publications); and in 2007, when he was 86, Suil air Faire/Surveying the Horizon, from Acair in Stornoway. He might have retired, but he had not stopped writing poetry or doing academic work, one of his productions being the anthology Gaelic Poetry in the Eighteenth Century which he edited for the ASLS and which appeared in 1993.

The 1991 book, Smeur an Dochais, opens with a long sequence set in Glasgow, and he often wrote about Glasgow now, with 'A' Bhan-Phrionnsa Diana' ('Princess Diana'), his poem about a Glasgow-accented Princess in a queue in Central Station, proving very popular at readings. Meall Garbh in 1995 takes its title from the Perthshire mountain of that name, and the title-poem of eighteen sections and over three hundred lines is a description of a climb made in his youth mixed in with a leisurely meditation on history and folklore. Also in this book is the fascinating piece "An t-Anam-Fais', whose title he translated as 'The Vegetative Soul". For the last book, Suil air Faire/Surveying the Horizon, Acair arranged a launch in the Grosvenor Hotel in Glasgow, and Thomson attended and read very well. This book has more Glasgow pieces, musings on history and poems on a wide range of other topics which include tributes to 'champions', among whom is Uisdean MacDhiarmaid, or Hugh MacDiarmid.

MacDiarmid is probably still the first person we think of when we hear the phrase 'Scottish Renaissance', and it is clear that Derick Thomson thought highly of him--I remember his attending the funeral--although he did not have the kind of relationship with him that Donald Sinclair had. But MacDiarmid was a close friend of Sorley MacLean's, despite a difference of almost twenty years in age, and greatly influenced and inspired MacLean. Thomson was ten years younger than MacLean but, in his turn, said in the preface to his first book, 'I wish to acknowledge the encouragement I received fairly early from the writings of Sorley Maclean, the most notable poet writing in Gaelic to-day'. The two men knew each other in Edinburgh in the late 1940s and were friends, though there was an estrangement in later years. And so we we might see a kind of succession there from MacDiarmid, through MacLean, if we wished. But it is also beyond doubt that Thomson was well aware of MacDiarmid's ideas and influence in both the cultural and political spheres, and sympathetic to them. Some of this may also have been mediated through Thomson's longstanding friendship with the poet Alexander Scott, a disciple of MacDiarmid's who had been a fellow-student of Thomson's at Aberdeen and was a colleague at Glasgow University for many years, although Scott himself provides an interesting sidelight on the matter in his autobiographical piece in the book As I Remember, edited by Maurice Lindsay and published in 1979:
   I found myself back at university in October, one of only two male
   students in the Junior Honours class of English Language and
   Literature. The other was Derick Thomson [...] and he and I were
   often in animated argument over the relative merits of Scottish
   nationalism and international socialism. At the time, the
   international socialist--as I held myself to be--was quite
   convinced that he had emerged victorious from all the arguments,
   but the fact that it was then and only then that I bought Hugh
   MacDiarmid's anthology The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry,
   introducing me for the first time to both the medieval and the
   modern makars, shows the persuasiveness which Derick's friendly
   advocacy possessed. (Scott 1979, 104) (4)

Later on, Thomson also knew Douglas Young in Aberdeen--he had mentioned Young's being in jail in the poem 'Faoisgneadh' ('Unhusking ') in his first book of poems--and Young would also have had an influence.

If we consider that the Scottish Renaissance has continued rather than come to an end, we might reflect on what part Gaelic has played in it. MacDiarmid certainly thought it was a vital element. And Derick Thomson, in some ways a one-man Renaissance in himself, undoubtedly thought Gaelic had an important part to play in Scottish life and literature.

Like Douglas Young and Alexander Scott, Thomson was a scholar-poet. He made it one of his tasks to elucidate and teach the Gaelic literature of his country, and its rich canon of poetry in particular, producing authoritative guides and editions. He was flexible and practical as a man of business, and behind many successful initiatives to support the language. As a young man based at Glasgow University, he collected folklore before the School of Scottish Studies was set up in Edinburgh, but in the poem 'Earail air Luchd-adhraidh a' Bheoil-aithris' ('A Warning for Folklore Worshippers') he also warned against an excessive devotion to folklore and the past. He was versatile, being a literature specialist who also produced a short Gaelic learners' handbook, compiled an influential new Gaelic dictionary and translated a biology textbook (all listed in the bibliography at the end of this article). Above all, as a poet he made his own highly distinguished and highly varied contribution to the canon, for which he will be long remembered.

Independent Scholar

Works by Derick S. Thomson (first editions only listed)


An Dealbh Briste ('The Broken Picture'), Serif Books, 1951

Eadar Samhradh is Foghar ('Between Summer and Autumn'), Gairm Publications, 1967

An Rathad Cian ('The Far Road'), Gairm Publications, 1970

Saorsa agus an Iolaire ('Freedom and the Eagle'), Gairm Publications, 1977

Creachadh na Clarsaich/Plundering the Harp: Collected Poems, Macdonald Publishers, 1982

Smew an Dochais/Bramble of Hope, Canongate, 1991

Meali Garbh/The Rugged Mountain, Gairm Publications, 1995

Suil air Faire/Surveying the Horizon, Acair, 2007


The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's 'Ossian ', Oliver and Boyd, 1952

Branwen Verch Lyr (editor), Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1958

EdwardLhuyd in the Scottish Highlands (with J. L. Campbell), OUP, 1963

The Future of the Highlands (co-editor with Ian Grimble), Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968

Gaelic Learners 'Handbook, Gairm Publications, 1973

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(1) He had assistance with editing the magazine, first from Finlay J. Macdonald (the co-founder with him) and later from Donald John MacLeod, a colleague in the Department of Celtic, but in the last years he worked on his own as editor.

(2) See, for example, 'The MacMhuirich Bardic Family' in Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness (TGSI), Vol. XLIII, p. 276; 'The Poetry of Niall MacMhuirich', TGSI, Vol. XLVI, p. 281; 'Niall Mor MacMhuirich', TGSI, Vol. XLIX, p. 9

(3) The Scotsman of 24 April 2018 carried the news that 'Education secretary John Swinney will today announce that a further 2.5 million [pounds sterling] is being put towards the project, on top of the 2m [pounds sterling] already given five years ago'.

(4) Thomson has an essay in this book entitled 'A Man Reared in Lewis'.
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Author:Macdonald, Ian
Publication:Scottish Language
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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