Obituary for Norman Thomson (1933-2013)

Norman Thomson was one of the founding fathers of SAGT. From SAGT’s initiation at Kindrogan in 1969 through his work as editor and senior editor and beyond, Norman played a very significant role in the Association’s successful growth. His valuable contributions, not only to SAGT but to geographical education in Scotland as school teacher, college lecturer, examiner and textbook author, were part and parcel of a very full life and career which mirror the many changes in the teaching of the subject.
Norman – the Geography Student and Army Instructor
Norman Raeburn Thomson was born in Edinburgh in 1933 and brought up, as he tellingly recounted in his Childhood Memories in Wartime Edinburgh (2007), on the top floor of a sandstone tenement at 24 Meadowbank Terrace, near the entrance to the King’s Park. He attended Parson’s Green Primary School, where he may have been stimulated to pursue geography by the No Lumber textbooks; alternatively it may have stemmed from a short spell as an evacuee at Blackhope Byres farm near Innerleithen; more likely it was the proximity of a diverse local area overshadowed by Arthur’s Seat  coupled with family visits and holidays in and around the Greater Edinburgh area. 

Having won a bursary, Norman’s secondary schooling was at the Royal High School from 1945-51. Rugby and cricket (even of the unorthodox type in the geography room) were keen pursuits; academically, he particularly remembered Messrs MacIver (English), Cunningham (History) and Kennedy (Geography). It was Mr Kennedy, later Headteacher at Darroch Secondary, who suggested that university rather than banking was really for him.

The early 1950s marked a transition period in the Edinburgh University Geography  Department. Professor A. G. Ogilvie died in 1954, half way through Norman’s four year course but the arrival (return) of Wreford Watson, fresh from Canada, ensured that regional geography continued to the fore. Block diagrams were built up on the board, landscapes were stressed through topographic map labs, and there were still tests in reading geographic literature in a foreign language. Norman was a member of the first foreign field trip organised by the Watsons and Dr. Charlie Robertson. Dr Arthur (son of Patrick) Geddes introduced students to urban fieldwork in the Grassmarket. If Norman, throughout his career, was a forceful advocate of regional geography and fieldwork, then his university years were formative. And, not just for him. Among his contemporaries who went on to teach geography and rise, in some instances to higher things, were: the Mackenzies (Hugh and Joyce), the MacIntyres (Rhona and Donald), Bob Meikle, Bill Shepherd, Douglas Wilson and Morton Fraser. 

Moray House beckoned after graduation. Not all teachers-in-training are enamoured of their College year but Norman saw it as a useful experience
and looked back gratefully to Mr. J. Y. Erskine whose methods classes were
down-to-earth, jargon-free, humorous and lacking any affectation whatsoever;
comments equally apposite to Norman‘s own methods classes some thirty years later. 

Two years of National Service followed, from 1956-58; Norman, just missing the Suez campaign, although a Cyprus posting was always a possibility. His teaching career commenced, initiating Her Majesty’s raw recruits to a varied diet of map reading, current affairs, English, rugby and cricket. Life, as he remembered, was not without its more dramatic moments, notably guard duty with empty rifles (please apply to the Camp Commander for bullets) against possible IRA attacks.

Norman – the School teacher
Now a qualified teacher – Chapter 5 Geography, Article 39 History – Norman taught in three Edinburgh schools from 1958-75.  He always spoke appreciatively of the help and guidance of his departmental heads: first, Bert Mackintosh at Ainslie Park (1958-1960), a four year school where he taught History and English as well as Geography; then Ian Stone at George Heriot’s (1960-1967)- where I first came across Norman (dubbed ‘The Skull’). Heriot’s offered a wider range of geography teaching experience- including presenting candidates for Higher Commercial Geography (of which he later claimed to remember nothing), and a chance, along with Mr. Stone and Miss Arneil, to influence many seniors to continue geography at University. It also afforded an opportunity to coach cricket and rugby; in the case of the latter allowing himself to remember that he dropped from a junior team, for which he was responsible, a young Andy Irvine; perhaps a character-forming experience for one of Scotland’s finest full backs.

On a personal note, my first classroom experience of Norman was when Miss Arneil was absent for a few weeks and he took us on several occasions. Three things struck me: first, given his size and presence in class, one quickly realised that he was not someone with whom you would dare take any liberties!; secondly, apart from making the subject come alive, he introduced us to his undoubted skill at drawing diagrams, especially block diagrams to sum up each topic- arguably, it was his form of a geographical mind-map; and, thirdly, he was the first teacher, as I remember, to address class members by our first names.

It was to Broughton Secondary (now Broughton High School), that Norman was promoted in 1967 as Principal Teacher. Over the next eight years, Norman built up a popular department at a time of transition as the school went comprehensive. Whether teaching was easier then is a moot point but, assuredly, there was less paperwork. I remember the whole Broughton geography syllabus covering a mere 5 sides of foolscap. Curricular flexibility was the order of the day as Norman encouraged the
teaching of new topics in response to a changing world and new sources of
information, and willingly responded to suggestions for new topics from his raw assistants, like myself, who were given every help and encouragement. In those days of selective education, unlike many departmental heads, Norman generously shared the whole range of classes, never retaining top streams exclusively for himself.

Something of his geographical and educational credo was revealed in a very early contribution to SAGT’s first ever journal- a study of Brunette Downs, an Australian cattle station- summed up his teaching approaches. Atlas work and frames from the appropriate Common Ground filmstrip were used to set the scene. The worksheet information included location maps, sketches, maps drawn from Australian topographic sheets, text and descriptive passages- culled in this case from Mary Durrack’s ‘Kings in Grass Castles’  –  its rich prose conveying the seasonality of life in the outback. Nor were statistics eschewed: using climatic data, line graphs were to be drawn by pupils to convey the variability and unreliability of the precipitation. What was not shown in the article were the summary board diagrams built up from pupils’ answers and which synthesised the landscape under discussion, thereby encouraging a geography that was as visual as possible. Lesser mortals, myself and Lorna Davidson, often would copy these diagrams once Norman had gone home and do our best to replicate them.

Norman- at Moray House College of Education
In 1977, Norman moved to Moray House College of  Education. Compared to school teaching, arguably his spell there from 1975 to 1994 was marked by an even greater pace of change. Apart from a heavy teaching load and visiting students for crit lessons (involving a longer day than his colleagues because he never learned to drive), there was the phasing out of the College T
hree-Year Primary Diploma; the introduction of the primary B.Ed degree; and coping with a new administration and a switch to a managerial and accountancy-driven educational philosophy. Norman, like myself, was very fortunate in having Tom Masterton as Head of Department. As a result, Departmental staff were spared many administrative excesses, a practice which Norman adopted once Tom retired. Re-organisation meant that by the time Norman was Senior Lecturer and acting Head of Department, he had responsibility not just for Social Subjects but also Religious Education and Business Studies. The many tributes paid to Norman by his colleagues and former students on the occasion of his retiral
were eloquent testimony to not only his hard work but his breadth of interests and undoubted diplomatic talents, especially given the understandable propensity of teachers/ lecturers to jealously guard their curricular territory.

Although I was only  at College for a short period, Norman and I shared College Diploma students whom we took in groups to study local urban geography. On more than one occasion we found our numbers increased when joined by a local worthy- often resident in one of the Grassmarket Hostels and more than slightly inebriated. As the junior (and smaller) team leader, I was glad to follow Norman’s lead and allow the gentleman to join the somewhat amused students; it was a great success, he asked appropriate questions and gave all of us useful local information. Also, on several especially rainy days, Norman occasionally would disappear – thankfully reappearing with large bags of buns from local bakers (long since vanished): a welcome way of boosting morale in such wet conditions.

Norman – the Examiner
Similar diplomatic talents were necessary for Norman in his work for the SEB. He was remarkably painstaking – even when correcting Higher or other papers, that would never be returned to candidates, he would correct spelling and punctuation !The many inroads on Norman’s time became more extensive when he joined the SEB examining team from 1970-1977, acting as Principal Examiner from 1975-1977. ‘O’ Grade papers had his imprimatur with more resource material introduced to enhance the quality of questions. In the 1980s, he joined the Geography Panel and, in later years, proved an excellent ambassador for the subject as Secretary and Development Officer to not just one, but two, working parties – Contemporary Social Studies and European Studies.

Norman  and the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers
It was only appropriate that the TES article on the initiation of SAGT at Kindrogan in 1969 carried a photograph of Norman and his co-founders drawing a field sketch. Norman played a very important role in the Association’s successful growth. It was from his base in Holyrood Road that Norman was to have his greatest impact on SAGT. This is not to gainsay his positive contribution to committee discussions but, arguably, his main impact on the Association was most effectively seen in its publications. As Editor, and then Senior Editor, Norman assumed the role of ‘Godfather’: making Scottish geography teachers offers of his time and talent that few refused.

In terms of time, past copies of the SAGT Bulletin contained an innumerable  number of book reviews- always fair and appreciative of the difficulties faced by authors; extracts from The Guardian or The Independent or recently published travel books, were turned into mini-resource packages with related statistics and maps; tables of data derived from the 1981 census, were constructed, invariably augmented by his own distinctive related maps, were forthcoming allowing thereby fresh updates on Scottish geography, long before ‘official’ material appeared in print.  While he would dispute it and argue that he was given a half-day at Moray House to carry out such work, Norman put in far more time, above and beyond the call of duty. Indeed, it is not unfair to compare his work with that of Dr. Henk Meir of the IDG, an organisation now sadly gone, and his equally excellent work on the geography of the Netherlands. 

Norman’ talents also ensured that the Bulletin and other publications were of a very high visual quality. Maps and diagrams were both innovative and original, setting a very high standard to which both teacher and senior pupil could aspire. It would be impossible to quantify, but one suspects that such quality material was often fed directly into many school reprographic systems and delivered to thousands of pupils over the years. 

Additionally, he did his utmost to be a scrupulously fair editor. Editorial work was never easy: overseeing the production of the Bulletin from beginning to end; dealing with authors, including not a few prima-donnas; ironing out stylistic infelicities; and toning down non-diplomatic or over-trenchant comments from certain contributors.

Norman- the Textbook Author
Finally, permeating Norman’s variegated geography careers was textbook authorship. It was at Ainslie Park, that Norman the author first emerged. Encouraged by his co-author, Bert Mackintosh, the first two books in the Living Geography series (Holmes McDougall) were started. Over the years, other books were to follow, for example:  Problems of our Planet, World Environmental Problems, Landscapes and People of Western Europe, Scotland’s Changing Landscapes, Higher Geography.  

Arguably Living Geography Book 2, written with Bert Mackintosh was one of his best; a text, free from the constraints of external examinations, that drew on case studies of real, live places such as Puerto de la Selva in north-east Spain.  In this instance, information was obtained during a shared family holiday with Joyce and Hugh Mackenzie. Never one to lie around, Norman surveyed the  area around this fishing village: walking, taking photographs, and pacing out the size of the polycultural  patches of fruit trees and vegetables in the huertas around the village; climbing into the surrounding terraced-hill slopes to sketch the site and setting of the village; noting the changes impacting on Puerto and its surrounds as a result of growing numbers of foreign tourists; and purchasing numerous postcards and tourist maps.   

As a co-author, I was lucky enough to learn from, and share in, Norman’s experience and breadth of reading, experiences for which I remain most grateful. Not that there weren’t occasional issues; I soon learned that certain grammatical errors were anathema to him. When he returned my early chapter drafts for our textbooks, it was invariably a somewhat angst-inducing occasion, as I was made aware that I had missed out shoals of hyphens, split too many infinitives, and learned that my rambling style (rightly) needed cutting down to size. Norman, ever polite and always apologetic, was most diplomatic, blaming any such criticisms on the rigorous training in Latin at the Royal High School.

Norman- At home
Just thinking ab
out all Norman’s innumerable contributions to geography is exhausting enough, never mind the effort involved for Norman putting them into practice. But in spite of all his work, he still found a good life-work balance, finding time for outside interests and his family: visits to art exhibitions with Morag; cricket and golf with Neil; and while I’m not sure whether or not he was ever persuaded on to the tennis courts with Alice, there were many family walks, often recorded in a family notebook, invariably in the form of simple diagrams and sketch maps, an exemplar of which is given. 

Additionally there was cricket: Norman continued playing after leaving school, playing for Royal High FP’s in the late fifties and early sixties, captaining the third eleven for a time. He was also a scorer:  the same neatness and accuracy that characterised his cartography was matched equally by his abilities at recording scores. It was said that Norman was ahead of his time in recording additional detail in scorebooks; and such were his skills that he was appointed Scotland scorer for the Irish match in 1956. His proficiency continued to be put to use from the mid- 1980s when he and Neil joined Mitre Cricket Club, now Edinburgh South. His appointment as Honorary Vice-President of the club in 2006 was a tribute not just to his scoring duties but to years as club secretary with duties ranging from boiling the tea urn, collecting match fees to producing the club newsletter. 

If this has been a long tribute, it deserves to be. Norman was a key  figure in Scottish geography teaching; a most generous person who gave of his time and talents; a man  sorely missed; a teacher remembered not just for his countless contributions to education, but for his patience, his tact and his droll sense of humour experienced by a wide range of pupils, students and colleagues in whom he took great personal interest. For all of this, we are forever indebted.

Norman is survived by Alice, a former maths teacher and colleague at Ainslie Park School, his son Neil, his daughter Morag and son-in-law Ken, and grand-daughter Alice.

Written by Kenny Maclean, formerly Principal Teacher of Geography, Perth Academy