David Cleghorn Thomson

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David Cleghorn Thomson
Photographed for Radio Pictorial in 1935
Born (1900-10-09)9 October 1900
14 Coates Crescent, Edinburgh
Died 23 April 1980(1980-04-23) (aged 79)
Western General Hospital, Edinburgh
Cause of death
Bronchopneumonia, immobilisation, recurrent sigmoid volvulus and dementia
Nationality Scottish
Education Edinburgh Academy
Alma mater
  • Edinburgh University
  • Balliol College, Oxford University
  • BBC publicity assistant
  • BBC Scottish Regional Director
Predecessor David Millar Craig
Successor Melville Dinwiddie
Spouse(s) Virginia Fain (married ??)
  • Dr John Thomson
  • Isobel Macphail

David Cleghorn Thomson (9 October 1900—23 April 1980) was director of the BBC's Scottish Region from October 1926 to April 1933, when he was dismissed due to 'policy differences' with head office.

Early life

David Cleghorn Thomson was born in 14 Coates Crescent, Edinburgh, the son of John and Isobel Thomson (nee. Macphail). His father was a doctor of medicine and a noted and skilled specialist in children's diseases in Edinburgh. He was the grandson of Rev Dr Macphail, one time minister of Benbecula following upon his ministry in Skye.[1]

He was privately educated at the Edinburgh Academy, where he won prizes for drawing, music and essay writing. He was also secretary of the debating society.

He graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA. During his time there he had served on the Students' Representative Council and was on the editorial committee of the student newspaper, The Student.

At Oxford University's Balliol College he was awarded a second class BA (Hons) in history and was the Senior Domus Exhibitioner in history. While at Oxford Thomson had been a pupil of the composer Dr Ernest Walker.

After graduating, Thomson moved to London and received a legal training at the Inner Temple.

Instead of proceeding to the Bar, he entered journalism and worked as a trainee on the Oxford Chronicle and the English Review as well as gaining extensive freelance experience with the Sunday Times, London Mercury, Daily Express and Daily Record.


Thomson stood for the Liberal Party in two successive general elections, but was unsuccessful on both occasions. At the age of 23, he was the youngest candidate in the General Election of December 1923, standing for the Greater London constituency of West Willesden. The following year, he stood in South Edinburgh as the Liberal Party's youngest candidate in Scotland, but was beaten nearly 2:1 by his Unionist opponent.[2]

At a public meeting ahead of the 1924 election, Thomson reportedly told the audience that 'he believed Scotland should have a Parliament of some sort in which to discuss matters purely concerning herself, but he was not in favour of repeal of the Union'.[3]

Thomson was the first secretary of the Liberal and Radical Candidates' Association, a grouping of candidates in the 1923 and 1924 elections who supported Asquith and sought to block David Lloyd George's election.[4]

Thomson remained the Liberal Pary's prospective candidate for South Edinburgh throughout his first 18 months working for the BBC, but resigned his candidature upon being promoted to Northern Area Director in October 1926.[5]


Of all his artistic endeavours, poetry was Cleghorn Thomson's strongest. His early works appeared in a number of publications associated with Oxford University, including the student newspaper, The Cherwell, The Oxford Magazine, The Oxford Chronicle, The Oxford Outlook, and Oxford Poetry, the latter of which he was editor in 1922/3. Some poems were also published in the literary magazines The London Mercury and The Fugitive. Many of them were collected together in an anthology, Far and Few, published in Oxford by Basil Blackwell in 1923.

In 1930, while working as the BBC's Scottish Regional Director, he put together a new anthology, Doges in the Ice-box: and other poems grave and gay. It was published by Edinburgh-based Porpoise Press, which had been founded as an outlet for contemporary Scottish writing.

Doges in the Ice-box was one of many poems that featured in his 1960 anthology, I Would Be Acolyte, which collected together the best of his earlier works.

The Arts

Thomson published a number of one-act plays, two volumes of verse and several orchestral compositions and song settings. His best-known play was probably War Memorial, a satire of parochial life which has been acted several times at drama festivals. He adjudicated at drama and verse-speaking festivals in England, Ireland and Scotland. He wrote a number of books and edited a scrutiny into Scottish questions under the title of Scotland in Quest of Her Youth, to which a number of well-known Scotsmen contributed.[6]

BBC career

Thomson joined the BBC's publicity department as an assistant on 6 April 1925, working mainly in the literary section where he wrote special articles for the Radio Times, earning a salary of £300 per annum.[7] He worked under the Director of Publicity, W. E. Gladstone Murray, and Assistant Director, Major C.F. Atkinson. After his three-month probationary period he became one of the magazine's two sub-editors, earning him a pay rise to £350 per annum.[8] When the BBC seized full editorial control of the Radio Times in February 1926, Thomson became the magazine's assistant editor and musical editor.

In March, however, Thomson was transferred to Glasgow as Scottish Liaison Officer on a salary of £600 per annum. His brief was to do all in his power to 'assist in the development of the scope and influence of broadcasting in Scotland and Ulster'.[9] From October of that year he was promoted to the new position of Northern Area Director, in charge of Scotland and Ulster and thereby re-establishing a senior post in Scotland.

From 28 February 1927, he took on the additional role of interim Glasgow station director, following George Marshall’s transfer to Newcastle.[10] He relinquished the extra responsibility on 5 July 1927 when his deputy, Henry Fitch, became permanent station director.[11]

Immediately prior to the start of the new Scottish Regional Programme in November 1928, his title changed again to Scottish Regional Director. From April 1929 he was paid £900 per annum.[12]

Thomson showed himself 'an ardent advocate of Scottish interests, of the employment of Scottish talent and of the formation of a national sentiment'. He instituted a number of popular Scottish programmes under series titles such as Frae a' the Airts, What's Intil't? and What's Wrong with Scotland?. Under his direction, Scotland was the first part of the BBC to transition to a 'Region' and gradually Thomson gathered round him a hand-picked administrative staff, every member of which was appointed by himself. Thomson was responsible for the whole policy of broadcasting in Scotland, including the move of the BBC's Scottish headquarters from Glasgow to Edinburgh in 1930 and the conversion of premises at 5 Queen Street into what would become Scottish Broadcasting House, Edinburgh.[13] Thomson moved his permanent office to the new Edinburgh headquarters from 14 July 1930.[14] By this point he still had not reached his 30th birthday and was the youngest regional director in the BBC.[15]


Cleghorn Thomson resigned from the BBC, after exactly eight years with the Corporation, on 7 April 1933, owing to what he described as "disagreement between myself and my chiefs on matters of policy in Scotland". The resignation, albeit more of a dismissal, was duly accepted. His official leaving date was 30 April, allowing Moray McLaren to succeed him on a temporary basis from 1 May. Thomson continued to be paid until 7 July 1933 during his three-month notice period. He was succeeded by Melville Dinwiddie who became Scottish Regional Director in the autumn of 1933.

Nationalist writers, such as George McKechnie, have suggested that Thomson was a Nationalist himself.[16]

Public role outside broadcasting

Thomson took on a number of roles outside the BBC in a bid to help advance the Scottish renaissance.

  • Scottish National Theatre Society: elected to the executive committee in 1927, he was convener of the publicity & propaganda committee; when it became a limited company in February 1928 he became, in turn, a member of the first board of directors.[17] He was re-elected in October 1929 but resigned from his position in 1930.
  • Scottish Community Drama Festivals: adjudicator.
  • Scots Vernacular Association.
  • Scottish Association for the Speaking of Verse.
  • Scottish Council of Music Festivals Association: part-founder.
  • Fellow, Royal Society of Edinburgh, elected 2 March 1931.[18]
  • Scottish Philharmonic Orchestra: part-founder.
  • Scottish Committee of the British Institute of Adult Education: executive member (as a private individual).
  • Scottish Travel Association: Thomson was one of its founders and was involved in creating the organisation and its procedures. He was subsequently invited to be its Honorary Secretary, but BBC head office objected on the basis that they regarded his role as Scottish Regional Director a full-time one.

Thomson kept in touch with the National Theatre, the project for a Little Theatre and the efforts to establish a National Orchestra and an annual exhibition of modernist art.

Attempts at a political career

Following the decline of the Liberal Party, Thomson became a Socialist. Around 1939 he was selected for Western Renfrew, where he was to stand against his Balliol contemporary, Henry Scrymgeour-Wedderburn, 11th Earl of Dundee, who had been MP for that seat since 1931.

Life after the BBC

After leaving the BBC in April 1933, Thomson went to work in London.

Six months later he resigned and returned to Scotland to work at the Pearce Institute in Govan, Glasgow, working under the Rev George F. Macleod in the study of unemployment problems. The Institute's activities were carried out as part of the work of Govan Parish Church. At that time the Institute was used for boys' and girls' clubs, and various vocational and recreational activities.[19]

  • 1933–34: Labour councillor of the City of Edinburgh.
  • 1933–35: Director, 'Scottish Contacts', an editorial publicity business in Edinburgh. Handled editorial publicity for the Royal Scottish Academy, the Society of Scottish Artists, and a number for firms and societies.
  • 1933–34: Contibuted a daily column to the Daily Record.
  • 1938: Appointed General Secretary to the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (the Academic Assistance Council).[20]
  • 1940–42: Staff Manager and Assistant General Manager (administration), Lewis & Company department stores, Manchester and Birmingham.
  • 1942: Assistant Director of Personnel to the John Lewis Partnership (17 stores) (7 months)
  • 1942–44: Chairman of the Hanley Manpower Board; Chairman (Midland Region) of the Selection Board for Engineering Cadetships and State Bursaries.
  • March 1944–September 1946: Adviser on training and recruitment, Production Facilities (Films) Ltd. (J. Arthur Rank Central Organization).
  • September 1946–July 49: Chief Education Officer, Richard Thomas and Baldwins Ltd. (Steel). Reporting on training and education in the group of companies, setting up an education and training department of 11, establishing a comprehensive policy for training and apprenticeship for 30,000 employees. Member of the Recruitment and Training Committee of the British Iron and Steel Federation and selected to describe and explain the committee's basic training scheme to employers in South Wales and the Midlands.
  • July 1949–?: Part-time Research Officer for The Association for Education in Citizenship, London.

During this time, on Boxing Day 1942, he made his first broadcast on the BBC since being dismissed as Scottish Director. The talk on 'Ceilidhs in the Western Isles' was broadcast from the Edinburgh studio and was part of the Home Service series Well-Remembered Places. According to the Evening Sentinel newspaper: "It was fascinatingly picturesque, descriptive and cultured, and exuded the atmosphere of those wild but beautiful islands."[21] The Oban Times meanwhile said the talk was "phrased in the graceful language of a poet".[22]

Evidence to the Ullswater Committee

Thomson was invited to submit evidence to the Broadcasting Committee chaired by Lord Ullswater, which was established to consider the future of the BBC. His written submission, made on 9 June 1935, criticised staff policy and conditions in the Corporation, including: the practice of head office officials telling the regions how to run their affairs; the division of radio officials and departments into 'creative' and 'administrative' categories; and the emphasis on administration to the detriment of programme ideas. He accused Reith of interference and favouritism, and claimed a 'check telephone system' was instituted for a time "whereby the conversations of specified members of the staff were taped".[23]

Later, in a newspaper article, Thomson expressed his disappointment that the Committee was sitting 'in camera' (in private), thus keeping the public "in the dark as to the evidence". He wrote that Britain had a wireless service better than in any other country and that "it will be a pity if we cannot help it to become even better".[24]

Family relations

Thomson was engaged to marry Virginia Fain, eldest daughter of Mr Henry Fain (Jun 1888–Aug 1975), of Greenwich, Connecticut, USA.[25]

His brother, Mr John S. M. Thomson, was the education secretary for the YMCA in Scotland.[26]

Later life

Cleghorn Thomson sometimes appeared on the panel of A Matter of Opinion circa 1952.


David Cleghorn Thomson retired to the Greenlea Old People's Home at 1 Glenlockhart Road, Edinburgh. He died on 23 April 1980 in the city's Western General Hospital, aged 79. His death certificate records the causes of death as bronchopneumonia, immobilisation, recurrent sigmoid volvulus and dementia.



  • Towards Industrial Peace: an address (Edinburgh & London: Oliver and Boyd, 1924)
  • Scotland in Quest of Her Youth: a scrutiny (Edinburgh; London: Oliver and Boyd, 1932)
  • Radio is Changing Us: a survey of radio development and its problems in our changing world (London: Watts & Co, 1937)
  • Training Worker Citizens: an exposition by experts of some modern educational methods designed to equip youth for the service of industry and the state (London: Macdonald & Evans, 1949)
  • Management, Labour, and Community (London: Pitman, 1957)
  • I Would Be Acolyte (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1960)


  • Far and Few: a series of young poets unknown to fame (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1923)
  • Oxford Poetry: 1923, edited by David Cleghorn Thomson and F.W. Bateson (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1924)
  • Doges in the ice-box, and other poems grave and gay (Edinburgh: Porpoise Press, 1928)
  • The hidden path, poems 1922-1942 (Glasgow, W. Maclellan, 1943)


  • Two Victorian lyrics (Glasgow: Paterson's Publications, 1927)
  • No Room at the Inn: or, The calling of bride: a Christmas morality in one act (Edinburgh: W. Hodge, 1928)
  • The Cateran's Heir : a Highland melodrama in one act (1929)
  • War Memorial: a parochial satire in one act (Glasgow: Walter Wilson & Co, 1930) — probably his best-known play.
  • Five One-Act Plays: for a Scots Theatre, with a foreword by Compton Mackenzie (Edinburgh & London: Oliver and Boyd, 1930). The five plays were No Room at the Inn, The Kipper, The Mainlander, War Memorial, and The Cateran’s Heir.
  • Our Father: a Scots play in one act (London: H.F.W. Deane, 1931)
  • The Cateran's heir: a highland melodrama in one act (Glasgow: Brown, Son & Ferguson, 1932)
  • The Lad o' Pairts. A comedy in one act (Galashiels, ca. 1950)



  1. Oban Times, 2 January 1943.
  2. 'Wikipedia: Edinburgh South (UK Parliament constituency)'
  3. 'The Liberal Faith', Scotsman, 23 September 1924, 8.
  4. C.V., BBC WAC L1/421/4.
  5. 'Political Farewell', Scotsman, 12 November 1926, 12.
  6. 'Insuperable obstacles', Scotsman, 11 April 1933, 9.
  7. Secretary to David Cleghorn Thomson, 9 April 1925, BBC WAC L1/421/1.
  8. Secretary to David Cleghorn Thomson, 26 June 1925, BBC WAC L1/421/1.
  9. Secretary to David Cleghorn Thomson, 8 March 1926, BBC WAC L1/421/1.
  10. Assistant Controller to Station Director, 'Staff changes', 26 February 1927, BBC WAC R13/369/1.
  11. Assistant Controller to Station Directors, 'Northern Area', 4 July 1927, BBC WAC R13/369/1.
  12. Unidentified letter, 25 March 1929, BBC WAC L1/421/1.
  13. 'Insuperable obstacles', Scotsman, 11 April 1933, 9.
  14. 'Scottish Headquarters', memo from Assistant Controller, 16 June 1930, BBC WAC R13/369/2.
  15. Popular Wireless, 11 July 1931.
  16. George McKechnie, 'Nationalism and the BBC', Scottish Review of Books, Volume 9 Issue 3, 27 March 2013.
  17. Scottish National Theatre Society Limited, prospectus, 21 February 1928, BBC WAC L1/421/1.
  18. List of former RSE fellows, 1783–2002 (PDF)
  19. Scotsman, 13 October 1933, 8.
  20. 'Refugee Problem: Mr Cleghorn Thomson's Appointment', Scotsman, 9 July 1938, 15.
  21. 'Cultured broadcast', Evening Sentinel, 2 January 1943.
  22. 'Ceilidhs in Western Isles', Oban Times, 2 January 1943.
  23. David Cleghorn Thomson, 'Memorandum of evidence with regard to Staff Policy and Conditions in the Broadcasting Service in Great Britain', 9 June 1935, BBC WAC R4/77/7.
  24. 'The future of broadcasting in Scotland', Radio Number, 7 September 1935.
  25. 'Popular adjudicator to marry', Courier, 1 December 1928, 10.
  26. Evening Telegraph, 10 May 1928, 4.
Media offices
Preceded by
David Millar Craig
Scottish Director
Succeeded by
Melville Dinwiddie