Crofter and pioneer of Eigg land reform

Born: December 11, 1930;

Died: August 30, 2018

THOMAS Speed Fisher Forsyth of Scoraig, who has died aged 87, was a crofter and, as the founder of the original Isle of Eigg Trust, the community organisation that bought the island in 1997, was a pioneer of modern Scottish land reform.

In 2010, he was invited to a festival that involved a 12-hour journey down south. What with age and a tight train connection, he only just made it in time. Speaking from the podium, he held up a pocket watch. “It seems,” he said, “that here you live by deadlines. Where I come from, we live by lifelines.” That captures his life.

He was born in Dunfermline. His Heriot-Watt educated Fife father managed coal mines in the Black Country, but always ones on the periphery where the family could live close to nature.

Leaving school at 16, he completed national service in 1951 in the Royal Navy, where he was in the Chatham field gun crew. His love of nature later led to a diploma in horticulture from the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

On a visit to Iona in the 1950s, he met George MacLeod, who had rebuilt the abbey. MacLeod appointed Tom as youth secretary for the Iona Community, in charge of running camps for Borstal boys at Camus on Mull.

Tom’s God, however, resided more in nature than in doctrines. His signal failure to get either the miscreant lads, or himself, regularly along to church led to a starchy ultimatum.

“Either you join the Church,” said MacLeod, “or that’s it.”

“That’s it,” came the reply.

But MacLeod was one move ahead. He shoehorned Tom into a new position with Jane Blaffer Owen at New Harmony, Indiana. Here, the industrialist Robert Owen of New Lanark had earlier built a utopian “community of equality”.

When MacLeod later visited New Harmony, he said: “How about you, with your Quaker tendencies, as Warden of Iona Abbey?”

An astonished Mr Forsyth drew up a 24-page “manifesto” for a “whole community” there. Vegetable gardens, baking bread and fishing would interlace with the teachings of Thoreau, Merton and the Desert Fathers.

It was all too much for some of the dog-collared clergy. Instead, Mr Forsyth adopted ten abandoned crofts at Ruigh’riabhach on the Scoraig peninsula, south of Ullapool. There, with his first wife Ray Soper, he raised Fergus, Morag, Fiona, Aaron, and David. With no road or mains electricity, their “back to the land” way helped to open up fresh vision for crofting and renewable energy.

This was not to forget the big world outside. Rather, as he later wrote, it was “to become more fully human”. But, “little did I dream of what sort of break up/down/through I was to go through to become fit for that vision.”

In short, he fell “madly” in love with a neighbour’s wife and, in the course of purging the remnant drag of hard-line religion from his psyche, set fire to Scoraig’s abandoned Free Presbyterian church.

After a night in Dingwall jail, he was referred to Craig Dunain hospital’s legendary psychiatrist, Martin Whittett. “You’re not mad,” said Whittett, in a cheery conversation. “I’ll put you down as … religious mania.”

Once back on Scoraig, the Dundonnell kirk minister walked in, and offered him the laying on of hands. Palpably helped, Mr Forsyth saw that he’d “wrestled with the angel, been to hell and back.”

He had been purged of his old self, his false self, that had led MacLeod and others to view him as a “blue-eyed, whitened sepulchre and too-good-to-be-true neurotic do-gooder.” He felt now “at the commencement of life proper.”

Around 1974, he parted ways with Ray (who remained a lifelong friend), and set up with his second wife-to-be, Alice Buchan. After a period as red-robed sanyassins of Rajneesh at Poona, India, they rebuilt a croft house on the Scoraig peninsula, and ran “Samadhan” as an acclaimed retreat centre.

One day, while sipping champagne at Lennoxlove, the baronial hall of the Duchess of Hamilton, he found himself talking to Lady Ursula Burton. “Eigg is for sale”, he told her, “the jewel in the heart of the Hebrides.”

“Well,” said this deeply spiritual woman. “Why don’t we form a trust and buy it out?”

Mr Forsyth would often say: “That was the moment of conception of the Isle of Eigg Trust. At a baronial banquet!”

Eigg was a community in decline by the time it returned to the market in 1991. Together with some accomplices, funded by his dry stone dyking work, Tom Forsyth registered the trust.

A Mark II version of his 1950s Iona manifesto called for a revitalised culture of Gaelic arts, spirituality and ecology. “When a shoot is grafted on to an established root, the green of the root must meet the green of the stalk. The green, or cambium, is the only living and dynamic part of the plant. In the cultivation of human beings the same natural law must apply.”

The manifesto envisioned the laird’s Italianate lodge becoming a Life Centre, where “bank managers would enrol to learn dry-stone dyking, admen would shear sheep, and lawyers muck out the byre.”

With a gadfly panache, the penniless land trust was launched from Edinburgh’s plush Balmoral Hotel. The journalists could scarcely contain their amusement. One newspaper ran a cartoon of financiers forking out the byre. Another spluttered that the dastardly trustees “admit they would like to see the law on land ownership changed and the concept of landlords abolished.”

They laughed, but over the next six years the islanders stepped into the breach. They raised £1.6 million, bought Eigg at a price suitably composted down with market spoiling, set up the more fit-for-purpose Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, and have gone on to surpass all of the original manifesto’s hopes.

What role did Tom play? One example will suffice. Shortly before the birth of Ise Maeve, his sixth child with his third wife, the artist Djini van Slyke, the couple went to rebuild the Well of the Holy Women on Eigg. Their action seemed to symbolise the cleansing of a wellspring; one too long blocked in Scottish history.

Tom loved to quote the verse from Proverbs: “Without vision, the people perish.”

His influence was largely one-to-one, thorough “sharings” of the fully human.

Sharings, that refuted deadlines. Sharings, that threw out lifelines.