Search site

 

Secretariat

Obituary: Robert Thomson

Sadly, Mr Robert (Bob) Thomson, distinguished Celtic scholar and former Reader in Celtic in the School of English, died on 13 October 2006.

Bob Thomson was born in 1924 and attended Roundhay School. He entered the University as an undergraduate in 1942 but had to suspend his studies the following year for war service with the Royal Signals. Returning to Leeds in 1947, he graduated in 1949 with a First in Latin and English. He was then awarded a Lady Elizabeth Hastings Scholarship by the University, which enabled him to read for the Diploma in Comparative Philology, in Celtic and Germanic Languages, at Oxford. Not only did Oxford confirm his predilection and aptitude for Celtic languages, it also brought him his first experience of appearing in print. Written in virtually flawless Welsh, an essay on Manx literature so impressed his supervisor that he encouraged its author to send it to the leading Welsh scholar, Sir Ifor Williams, who promptly made arrangements for its publication. Bob Thomson moved from Oxford to Glasgow, where, as the holder of one of only four scholarships for advanced studies in the Arts, he prepared a BLitt thesis on what was to become the cornerstone of his scholarly endeavours: the history and development of Manx Gaelic. A cheerful readiness to help others was to be one of the distinguishing characteristics of Bob Thomsons career, and, in parallel with his own research at Glasgow, he volunteered his services in lecturing on the early history of English and helping set up a course in Old Norse.

Leeds reclaimed Bob Thomson in 1953, with his appointment as Assistant Lecturer in what was then the Department of English Language and Medieval English Literature. Promoted to Lecturer in 1955 and awarded an MA in 1958, he was made Senior Lecturer in 1964. In 1971, the title of Reader in Celtic was conferred upon him. Over this period, he secured his place as a leading Celtic scholar. Complementing his publications on Manx Gaelic, on which he became an undisputed authority, were equally well-received publications on medieval Welsh, early modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic his edition of Calvins Geneva Catechism being regarded as outstanding and Cornish. His writings included articles on linguistic and textual analysis, and the preparation of scholarly editions of medieval texts. Indicative of his standing with his peers were the invitations he received to give the ODonnell Lectures at Edinburgh in 1962 and at Oxford in 1974, and the Sir John Rhys Memorial Lecture at the British Academy in 1969.

Bob Thomsons presence in the School of English at Leeds enabled the department to become the only one in the country at the time to offer a postgraduate Diploma and MA in Celtic Studies, and an undergraduate course in Medieval Welsh. In recognition of his work in this area, he was given the additional title of Supervisor of Celtic Studies by the University in 1962. Not that his teaching was confined to the Celtic languages. He lectured with equal facility and breadth of knowledge on English and comparative philology, and on the history of English. In 1977, he and two Leeds colleagues, Joyce Hill and Arnold Taylor, co-edited a selection of materials for those coming to the study of Old English for the first time.

Bob Thomson also engaged fully in life outside the School, serving at various times as a wise and friendly Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies; as chairman of the Medieval Group; as Supervisor of University Examinations; and as a member of the University Court. Outside the University, his commitments included external examinerships in Celtic at Edinburgh and Glasgow, and in English language at Manchester. He was Secretary of the Yorkshire Society for Celtic Studies from 1953 to 1959, and President from 1963 to 1965.

Writing in the University Review at the time of Bob Thomsons retirement from the University in 1983 more than forty years after his arrival as a student his friend and colleague, Peter Meredith, commented that in losing him we lose one of the outstanding scholars in the University, someone who was not simply able but was always willing to help; whether it was tracking down the Latin scribblings of an irate sixteenth-century bookseller of York, or checking a lengthy piece of translation.

Bob Thomson retired to the Isle of Man, where he continued to pursue a number of scholarly projects. These included not only his work on a comprehensive Manx historical grammar but also the preparation of an annotated edition of Ystorya Gereint vab Erbin (Gereint Son of Erbin), one of three Arthurian romances which form part of what is traditionally called in English The Mabinogion. This edition appeared in 1997 as part of the Medieval and Modern Welsh Series published by the School of Celtic Studies at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies; the inaugural volume in the series, an edition of another part of The Mabinogion, had also appeared under his hand, in 1957.

The funeral service is to take place at 1.30 pm on Friday, 27 October, at St Andrews United Reformed Church, Douglas, Isle of Man, where Bob Thomson himself served as a minister for a decade, having been ordained after his retirement from the University.

In Bob Thomsons memory, the flag on the Parkinson Building will be flown at half-mast on the day of his funeral.

Published: 27 October 2006