‘Derick Thomson and the Gaelic Revival’, by Petra Johana Poncarová

The renowned ethnologist and cultural historian John MacInnes once observed that Derick Thomson ‘has done more for Gaelic than any other individual in the entire history of our people’. As a writer, academic, journal editor and cultural activist, Thomson’s contribution to the modern Gaelic movement was immense. Although there has been a reasonably substantial body of criticism addressing his poetic work, little scholarly attention has been given to other aspects of Thomson’s career, as scholar, editor, journalist and public intellectual. 

Petra Johana Poncarová’s probing but accessible new study of Thomson’s role in the modern Gaelic revival makes an important addition not only to our understanding of Thomson’s personal contribution but also to the surprisingly understudied field of modern Gaelic cultural history more generally. A lecturer at Charles University in Prague, Poncarová has already published extensively on Thomson’s work, including a Scotnotes guide to his poetry (2020). 

Thomson was born in Lewis in 1921, attended Aberdeen and Cambridge Universities and served as Professor of Celtic at the University of Glasgow from 1964 to 1991. A prolific poet, he published seven collections between 1952 and 2008. He died in 2012.

Thomson maintained a kind of dual identity as a writer, always using the Gaelic form of his name, Ruaraidh MacThòmais, for his poetry and other writings in Gaelic. Somewhat surprisingly given his deep commitment to Gaelic, his extensive body of academic work was almost all in English, although this was typical of Gaelic scholars before the 1990s. 

Several of Thomson’s main achievements in Gaelic scholarship and publishing have not been matched since. His commanding An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry (1974) remains the only overarching study of the topic, and his authoritative edited encyclopedia The Companion to Gaelic Scotland (1983) has never been superseded. Above all, Thomson served as the the principal or sole editor of the journal Gairm from 1952 to 2002, unquestionably the most important periodical ever published in Gaelic, which has not been followed by any journals of comparable regularity or impact. Gairm was particularly significant as a forum for literary innovation in Gaelic, especially the development of the short story.

Thomson was a pioneer in many respects, spurring the modernisation of Gaelic in literature and public life. His career spanned almost sixty years, arguably reaching its peak in the three decades from the 1950s to the 1970s. This peak came before the critical period for modern Gaelic development in the 1980s and early 1990s, but Thomson was instrumental in drawing up the blueprints.

Following the Introduction (Chapter 1), which includes a biographical overview, Chapter 2 assesses ‘Thomson’s Thought and Work in Context‘, presenting an overview of the history of Gaelic and Scottish nationalism and Thomson’s relationship to these. Poncarová gives close attention here to Thomson’s landmark 1966 lecture ‘The Role of the Writer in a Minority Culture’. Although important, this manifesto-like lecture is relatively brief and limited in scope; unfortunately, as Poncarova notes, Thomson never wrote any definitive treatise on his vision of the Gaelic revival.

Chapter 3 considers Thomson’s central role in the journal Gairm, which changed its focus somewhat over time, from a more popular approach at first to a more literary and arguably elitist emphasis in later years. Each of the 200 issues included a short editorial, almost all of them written by Thomson, which Poncarová evaluates systematically. These focused on public or political issues but they were short, typically a single page, and thus inherently limited in terms of detail and analytical depth.

Chapter 4 addresses Thomson‘s ‘Scholarship, Activism and Translations‘. Thomson was a prolific literary scholar, with a particular interest in older Gaelic literature, especially the classical poetry of the late medieval period, the early song tradition, and poetry of the eighteenth century. Poncarová focuses on two strands in particular, his work on Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald) and the Ossianic controversy, both of which have important nationalist and political ramifications.

Chapter 5, ‘Gaelic Revitalisation in Thomson’s Poetry and Short Stories‘, considers the strand of Thomson’s (i.e. MacThòmais’s) literary work that deals with Gaelic language and culture. Poncarová highlights a range of issues addressed in the poetry, including the Anglicising role of the education system, notably in ‘Cisteachan-laighe’ (Coffins). Also noted are the seven short stories that Thomson published in the 1950s, which have received little attention to date, but which will soon appear together in an edition by Poncarová. Given the richness of the source material, the analysis of the poems and stories is more detailed and nuanced than the discussion of Thomson’s Gairm editorials dealing with public issues.

The concluding chapter assesses ‘Thomson’s Legacy‘, showing how more recent developments in Gaelic promotion and publishing have built upon Thomson’s groundwork. Poncarová also notes the desirability of a full biography of Thomson. Relatively little of Thomson’s personality come through in the current study, and there is little detail concerning personal relationships or the important issue of religion.

Derick Thomson and the Gaelic Revival is a valuable and original contribution to our understanding of Gaelic history in the twentieth century and how Thomson combined political commitment, organisational energy and artistic integrity to defend and promote his language and culture.

Derick Thomson and the Gaelic Revival is published by Edinburgh University Press

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Wilson McLeod

Wilson McLeod is Emeritus Professor of Gaelic at the University of Edinburgh.

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