William P. L. Thomson passes away

Obituary for William P. L. Thomson by Brian Smith

The Centre for Nordic Studies' Honorary Research Fellow, the historian William P. L. Thomson, sadly passed away this summer.

Obituary by Brian Smith

William P.L. Thomson, 1933-2016

Many Shetlanders, my age and older, have fond memories of Willie Thomson. He taught geography and history for 13 years at the Anderson Institute, invariably referred to as “Steepie” by his pupils.

He got the sobriquet at teachers’ training college, after giving a practice talk about the geography of Russia. His examiner complimented him. “Excellent work,” he said. “But it is worth remarking that we speak about the steppes of that country, not the steepies.”

William Paterson Loudoun Thomson was born in Newmilns in Ayrshire in 1933, the son and grandson of parish ministers. He seems to have received his third Christian name from the parish church there, where his father, John Gardner Macleod Thomson, preached for twelve years.

In 1939 Thomson senior was appointed as director of religious education at Dundee Training College. Willie went to the High School there, and later studied geography and history at the University of St Andrews.

After teacher’s training his first charge was in Lerwick, in 1958. He set up the department of geography at the Institute from scratch, and a few years later became the principal teacher. When his friend John Graham left to become headmaster at the Central School, Willie was appointed assistant head.

He married Elizabeth Watson, a native of Kincardine, in 1960, and their children were born in Lerwick.

The election of a Labour government in 1964, re-elected two years later, and the formation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, inspired many. Willie became a committee member of the Shetland Council of Social Service, encouraged by enthusiasts like John Graham. Soon he was vice-chair of Shetland Labour Party.

He stood as a Labour candidate for the Town Council in May 1968, was elected and served until 1971.

Sometimes the work was less inspiring than he had hoped. He told me that the evening when the Council devoted an hour to discussing the purchase of a polisher for the Town Hall was especially trying.

As well as teaching and debating, he was doing research. In 1969 I unearthed an extraordinary plan in Lerwick Sheriff Court, dated 1822, which portrayed and named every little rig - hundreds of them - in the township of Funzie in Fetlar.

Willie came to see it, and was entranced. It inspired his first academic article, about Shetland runrig, published the following year in the Scottish Geographical Magazine.

He left Shetland to become rector of Kirkwall Grammar School in November 1971. There was plenty to do: the new school at Papdale was being built, and was not fully occupied until 1975.

As he settled down in Orkney he didn’t take up his political interests again. He told me that he found Orcadians less argumentative than Shetlanders, and that he preferred that. Instead he devoted more and more time to historical research. His colleague Ray Fereday, teacher of history at the Grammar School, abetted him.

“The half-hour before the beginning of the school-day”, Willie wrote later, “is usually a busy time, requiring all sorts of last-minute arrangements.

“But if, as often was the case, Ray had been in the archives on the previous evening, all thoughts of immediate problems were put out of our minds. … I do not think that our priorities were wrong.”

Willie got interested in General Burroughs, an unpleasant Rousay landlord of the late nineteenth century. Burroughs’ factor had stayed in Papdale House, where Willie now lived. He studied Burroughs’ accounts and his economic stratagems in his predecessor’s study.

The result was The Little General and the Rousay Crofters, crisis and conflict on an Orkney estate, published in 1981, a smashing piece of work.

From then on books and articles flowed steadily from Papdale. Kelp-making in Orkney (1983) is a fine monograph, beautifully illustrated by the late Anne Leith.

Then came the first edition of his great History of Orkney, in 1987, commissioned by the bookseller Thin’s in Edinburgh. There is no history of a Scottish county to match it.

Dealing with whole epochs, from Pictish times until Thatcherism, he deployed old and new sources to tell the story of the small archipelago. He kept up his Shetland interests: there are many references to what was happening, and what was different, in the northern group of islands.

Willie retired in 1991, and he and Elizabeth moved to Burray. He devoted the next quarter of a century to writing articles and gardening. The main characteristic of his work in that period has been revision and rethinking.

I can only give a few examples, from his huge repertoire of publications. A new edition and a revised edition of History of Orkney appeared in 2001 and 2008. Willie didn’t just correct the errors inevitable in such a large work; in many cases he recast his arguments entirely.

He didn’t give up thinking about runrig, a subject which has taxed the ingenuity of many scholars. In 1998 he published a new account of the situation in Shetland, based on a study of what had happened at Funzie again, at Norwick in Unst and at Laxobigging in Delting. He looked at the landscape as well as documents: I recall that his visit to Laxobigging resulted in a soaking and a bad cold.

By examining the effect of the 18th century population increase on Shetland society, and on the form of agricultural settlements, Willie explained for the first time the dynamic quality of runrig here. His work on the subject is only rivalled by that of Desmond McCourt on rundale in Ireland.

In 1995, meanwhile, he had been examining theories proposed by Hugh Marwick, his predecessor as rector of Kirkwall, about Orkney’s oldest farm-names and their chronology. Marwick’s ideas had long been regarded as holy writ. Willie concluded that Marwick had misconceived the problem: the key concept involved, he said, wasn’t chronology but hierarchy. Willie’s “Orkney farm-names” is an exceptionally important piece of work.

He didn’t just concentrate, as Marwick tended to do, on Orkney’s oldest and most “important” names. In an article of 1985 he had written, entertainingly, about the names and activity generated in what he called Orkney’s “pioneer fringe” in the nineteenth century, when “improvement” was in full swing. Twenty years later he produced a more detailed and nuanced account of that subject.

I mention one more article: an account of “The latter days of the earldom estate”, where he discussed how that venerable domain splintered into fragments after the First World War.

All these papers, and others, sometimes rewritten, are collected in his Orkney Land and People, published in 2008.

When the Orkney historian J. Storer Clouston died, in 1944. Hugh Marwick said that he felt as if he had been left alone by himself in an empty room. Over the years I spent countless hours in discussion with Willie Thomson, about runrig, taxation and rent, the archaic fiscal units of Orkney and Shetland, and much else.

His ill health in recent years disrupted our conversations. But I look back tonight with nothing but delight at the acute observations, the flashes of insight, sometimes spiced by wit, of my teacher and friend during fifty years.

Brian Smith