Obituary for Tom Forsyth

Crofter, spiritual thinker and pioneer of land reform

Crofter, spiritual thinker and pioneer of land reform

Born: December 11, 1930

Died: August 30, 2018

This is a slightly extended version of a statement that CHE graduate (1994-95) Tara O’Leary read out at Tom’s funeral. It was written by former CHE director Alastair McIntosh, whose other obituary for Tom can be read in The Herald.

Tom Forsyth irrupted into the life of the Centre for Human Ecology, then within the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Edinburgh University, in 1991. The leader of the Iona Community had sent him to see me about setting up the Isle of Eigg Trust for land reform. In my close friendship with him down all those years, a friendship during which never an unpleasant word was exchanged, his greatest gifts were not those of a politician or a scholar, but of a prophet and a suitably unconventional spiritual teacher.

Many’s the time that our students at the CHE would be inspired by his impromptu appearances at our lectures and his insights on field trips to Eigg or Scoraig. In class, he’d place a handful of winkle shells on to the overhead projector and talk about life’s cosmic spiral. He’d share about the way that human ecology connects all things – the soil as relationship with the earth, the soul as relationship with the divine, and society as relationship with one another.

Our dear friend Tom led our students in a two year-long project of building a magnificent oval elmwood table for our gatherings or, as he encouraged us to call them, our “sharings”. At its heart lies the Celtic triptych, the Centre’s logo inlaid in black bog oak of some five thousand years in age that he had found somewhere near Faslane. Its swirling energy, in such a contrast with the nuclear holocaust that the Faslane submarine base today evokes, suggests that symphony of soil, soul and society. Also, the H2O of the water molecule, the hazel nut cluster, the Holy Trinity, or the Goddess in her triple phases as the maiden, mother and the venerated crone. There is a deliberate break in how we crafted that symbol; a portion not inlaid, as if left incomplete. It represents the truth that not all is conscious, fully born or perfected in its fleeting sojourn in this world. Not even Tom! As he often quoted from the Psalms during our demanding work for modern Scottish land reform, “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.”

Down the past quarter century many thinkers, activists and seekers have gathered round that table and run their fingers with delight along its waney edges and its undulating contours. We called him fondly “The Professor”. Professor of what? With a twinkle in the eye, but catching his interests when he first came to the CHE, “Professor of Ancient Philosophy, Crofting and the Mid-life Crisis”.

But why, professor? Because Tom loved to tell how Socrates “professed” a maieutic vocation.

Maieutics [mai-you-tics] as the midwife’s art of leading others out. Maieutic education as mutually assisted self-realisation, which is the opposite of mutually assured destruction. Maieutics as the process of becoming ever more real to reality, in the exercising fullness of life-giving community. The table in the library of the Centre for Human Ecology, now situated in Govan, reminds that Tom, in all his waney ways and contours of complexity, was an artist, an ecologist and a lover of life’s implicate and explicate order. That, in all its underling holy mystery – with which he walked so faithfully.