Historian of Orkney

Born: May 9, 1933;

Died: July 6, 2016

WILLIAM "Willie" Thomson, who has died aged 83, was an Ayrshire-born teacher, school rector, historian and author who fell in love with the Orkney and Shetland islands and chronicled their history.

He was most famous for his books on the history of Orkney, notably The New History of Orkney, first published in 1987 and once described as "the book of the century so far as Orkney is concerned." Reprinted ever since by popular demand, it is considered the definitive history of Orkney. He also wrote Orkney Land and People (2008) and Lord Henry Sinclair's 1492 Rental of Orkney (1996). His latest book was Orkney Crofters in Crisis (2013).

The son and grandson of Ayrshire Church of Scotland ministers, Mr Thomson was an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Nordic Studies, Orkney College, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). He also held an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Aberdeen and was a former Labour Party councillor in the Shetlands. In his spare time, he was a passionate mountaineer and all his life, his family said, he was an avid reader of the Glasgow Herald and later The Herald.

William Paterson Loudoun Thomson was born in Newmilns, Ayrshire, on May 9, 1933, his third Christian name coming from the Old Loudon Parish church in Newmilns where his father John Gardner Macleod Thomson was minister. When his father moved to Dundee as Director of Religious Education at Dundee Training College, Willie went to school in the city north of the Tay before studying geography and history at the University of St Andrews. At the university, he was best-known for his tendency to climb the university buildings, bringing cheers from his fellow students and wry, envious reprimands from his teachers.

During his teacher's training in Aberdeen, he was given the nickname "Steepie," apparently because of his pronunciation of the Russian Steppes during a geography talk he gave. His first job, in 1958, was at the Anderson Educational Institute (now the Anderson High School) in Lerwick, where he set up its first department of geography and went on to become assistant head teacher. Having married Elizabeth Watson, a native of Kincardine, in 1960, their children were born in Lerwick.

A staunch Labourite, he became vice-chairman of the Shetland Labour Party and served as a councillor from 1968-71. According to his close friend, UHI colleague and archivist Brian Smith: "Sometimes the (council) work was less inspiring than he had hoped, including the time the council spent an hour discussing the purchase of a floor polisher for the town hall. He told me that was especially trying."

Inspired by Mr Smith's own research, Mr Thomson became fascinated by the Highland and Island land tenure known as Runrig (no, not our beloved band but the source of their name) and published his first academic article in the Scottish Geographical Magazine.

In November 1971, Mr Thomson and his family moved to Orkney when he was appointed rector of Kirkwall Grammar School and he drifted away from politics to focus on academia and historical research. "He told me that he found Orcadians less argumentative than Shetlanders and he preferred that," Mr Smith said.

The Thomson family first settled in Papdale House, Kirkwall, where he began writing the wonderfully-readable The Little General and the Rousay Crofters (1981). Later came Kelp-making in Orkney (1983), illustrated by the late Anne Leith, and afterwards, in 1987, his first edition of History of Orkney, with its tales of Picts, Viking raiders and traders, its strategic location in two World Wars and the sudden recognition of the oil and gas potential off its shores.

After retiring in 1991, Mr Thomson settled in Burray, Orkney, where he lived in the South Manse and continued to write as well as growing and tending a beautiful walled garden. After his death, his friend Brian Smith wrote in the Shetland Times: "Over the years, I spent countless hours in discussion with Willie, 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 with nothing but delight at the acute observations, the flashes of insight, sometimes spiced by wit, of my teacher and friend during 50 years."

William PL Thomson was an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquarians of Scotland (FSA Scot).

He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Elizabeth, by their children Helen, John, Margaret and Catherine and by six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.