No Gaelic poet has had more influence on the generation that followed him than Derick Thomson. As poet, publisher, and editor of the literary quarterly Gairm, Thomson shaped the development of Gaelic writing in the post-war period.
His poetry marked a definitive break away from the sung verse which had dominated vernacular poetry in Scottish Gaelic and which influenced the rhyming, metrical poetry of George Campbell Hay and Sorley Maclean. It took Gaelic poetry from its traditional heartlands in the Highlands and Islands to Scotland's Lowland cities, Glasgow in particular. As well as being the dominant voice of Gaelic poetry in the second half of the twentieth century, Thomson was also a crucial voice in post-war Glasgow writing, whose work is central to our understanding of life in Scotland's largest city.
Derick Thomson was born in Stornoway in 1921. He was educated at Aberdeen, Cambridge and Bangor, though his studies were interrupted by war service with the RAF from 1942 to 1945. He went on to lecture in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen before becoming Professor of Celtic at Glasgow in 1963, a post he held until his retirement in 1991, receiving an honorary degree from the University in 2007. The world of Gaelic studies benefited greatly from Thomson’s work in the second half of the 20th century; he wrote or edited several indispensable textbooks and directories, and founded the Gaelic Books Council in 1968. Derick Thomson was an Honorary President of the Scottish Poetry Library.
Thomson’s early poetry draws heavily upon his upbringing in Lewis. One of his most famous poems, 'Clann-Nighean an Sgadain' ('The Herring Girls') describes the women from the island who used to travel to the mainland to make a living in the fishing industry:
An gàire mar chraiteachan salainn
ga fhroiseadh bho ’m beul
an sàl 's am picil air an teanga,
's na miaran cruinne, goirid a dheanadh giullachd,
no a thogadh leanabh gu socair, cuimir,
's na sùilean cho domhainn ri fèath.
(‘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’, trans. Derick Thomson)
Thomson's crucial formal contribution to the development of Scottish Gaelic poetry consists in his being the first poet to develop free verse as a serious medium for poetry in the language. Before Thomson, free verse was all but unknown in Gaelic; after Thomson, it became almost ubiquitous. In this way, Thomson's poetry, along with that of his contemporary, Donald MacAulay, brought Gaelic poetry into touch with developments in modern verse elsewhere in Europe and America, English poetry in particular.
Few poets in the generation that followed Thomson have matched the chiselled exactness of his Gaelic free verse, where no word seems unnecessary or out of place. In the absence of rhyme or regular metre, Thomson's verse relies upon other devices to give his poetry structure. In 'Cisteachan-laighe' ('Coffins'), the smell coming from a joiner's shop in Glasgow transports the speaker, in Proustian fashion, to his childhood on Lewis where his grandfather worked as a joiner making coffins:
Duin' àrd, tana
's fiasag bheag air,
's locair 'na làimh:
gach uair theid mi seachad
air bùth-shaoirsneachd sa' bhaile,
's a thig gu mo chuimhne cuimhne an àit ud,
le na cisteachan-laighe,
na h-ùird 's na tairgean,
na sàibh 's na sgeilbean,
is mo sheanair crom,
is sliseag bho shliseag ga locradh
bhon bhòrd thana lom.
('A tall thin man / with a short beard, / and a plane in his hand: / whenever I pass / a joiner's shop in the city, / and the scent of sawdust comes to my nostrils, / memories return of that place, / with the coffins, / the hammers and nails, / saws and chisels, / and my grandfather, bent, / planing shavings / from a thin, bare plank', trans. Derick Thomson)
In Thomson's hands this becomes the occasion for a meditation on the decline of Gaelic, something which was happening while the poet was a child, but which he was unaware of at the time. Here, as elsewhere, Thomson’s verbal economy leaves no room for nostalgia, or for any easy consolation in the face of the realities he describes.
The move early in Thomson's poetry away from rhyme and regular metre towards free verse mirrors a move from Lewis to Glasgow, his base for the majority of his writing life and the centre of his activity as a teacher and publisher. For centuries the destination of emigrants from Gaelic Scotland and Ireland, in the twentieth century Glasgow became the place in mainland Scotland with more Gaelic speakers than anywhere else. In his sequence, 'Air Stràidean Ghlaschu' ('On Glasgow Streets'), Thomson celebrates the multicultural city of which Gaelic Glasgow is part:
Cainnt bhlàth Eadailteach gam shuaineadh
faisg air cridhe a' bhaile mhòir seo,
tè dhe na h-Eadailtean Nuadha
is opera beò innt' fhathast;
chan eil mi 'g ràdh
nach eil Caruso ac' ann an Taverna air choreigin;
's ma tha Dante fhathast ann
chan eil fad aige ri dhol
gus a lorg e Inferno:
ach tha mo Pharadiso-sa caillte
am badeigin an Glaschu
('Warm Italian talk surrounding me / close to the heart of this city, / Barolo vowels, / Valpolicella consonants: / one of the New Italies / where opera still lives; / I daresay / there's a Caruso in some Taverna or other / and if a Dante survives / he doesn't have far to go / to find an Inferno; / but my Paradiso is lost / somewhere in Glasgow', trans. Derick Thomson)
Thomson echoes Alasdair Gray, another Glasgow writer who sees the city as a place where both Heaven and Hell can be found. Like Gray and his contemporary Edwin Morgan, Thomson has been a major contributor to the re-imagining of Glasgow in the post-war period. But unlike those writers, Thomson’s status as in incomer gives his work a particular resonance in Scotland’s largest city, a place where to a far greater degree to anywhere else in the country, everyone comes from somewhere else.
Derick Thomson also radically changed Gaelic poetry in the course of a career that has spanned more than half a century. While never a poet of facile optimism, Thomson in his later poetry was remarkably open as he looked ahead to a world he would not see. Derick Thomson's place in the history of Gaelic verse is assured. The breadth and depth of his output over many years hold treasures for readers who have yet to encounter his work.
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