NSA Origins and Roots
by Dr Sally LK Garden **
The Norwegian Scottish Association, although some 40 years in existence, owes its origins to a much older friendly society, one rooted in the shared experience of Norwegians and Scots during the Second World War. Founded in Dumfries in 1941, the Scottish Norwegian Society brought Scots and Norwegians together in difficult times. Having escaped the German occupation of their homeland in 1940, around a thousand Norwegians had come to be stationed at various times in Dumfries, and it was not long before the idea of a formal society was begun. From this original ‘Dumfries branch’, which continued until 1967, came the current Scottish Norwegian Society (Glasgow) and by remarkable thread of human continuity and lasting friendship, the NSA itself.
That thread of continuity and friendship came with NSA Founder Member, and former Aide-de-camp at Dumfries, Mr Anders Tomter. Mr Tomter, a Norwegian peat and land reclamation specialist who was already resident in Dumfriesshire before the War, had fought for his native land as part of the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force landing at Åndalsnes in 1940. Settling after the War to work with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland, and marrying Norrie Boberg, a Scottish-Swedish lady of no little distinction in her own right, he became firmly assimilated into the cultural and commercial life of post-War Scotland. A granite memorial stands testimony to his work at Easter Inch Moss, West Lothian.
But whilst Mr Tomter, who came to reside near Edinburgh, provided a living link with the ‘Dumfries branch’, he was not by any means the only NSA Founder Member to bring with him the special spirit and friendships of those wartime years. The Association’s first Honorary President, Lady Mar and Kellie, was daughter of General Sir Andrew Thorne KCB CB CMG DSO, whose role in securing the liberation of Norway saw him awarded the King Håkon VII Freedom Medal (Norway), and appointed a Grand Cross of the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav. Others brought wartime experience too. Mr Sverre Bjønness, the Association’s first Chairman, had suffered wounds during his part in the North Atlantic Convoys. Mr William (Bill) McIlwraith, the Association’s first Vice-Chairman, had served in the RAF, as had his fellow Committee Member and Science Master at Leith Academy, Mr William Brotherston Mackenzie. Amongst the remaining NSA Founding Members, not all of whose biographies can be written with any certainty today, Mr Helge L Weibye – on whose initiative the NSA was founded – also saw active service.
It was from these wartime origins and roots the NSA grew and established itself as a fresh presence in the social and intellectual life of the capital city. Warm and well-established Norwegian-Scottish relations were its inheritance, and it carried this inheritance from its founding in the mid-1960s forwards to a new generation – a generation of Norwegians and Scots with new ideas, new talents and new opportunities. Norwegian students were coming to Scotland to study, and some to settle to professional life in ‘Auld Reekie’ itself. Amongst these, were NSA Founder Members: Mrs Jorid McQuillan, Dental Surgeon, originally from Trondheim; Mr Kaare Gunstensen, Medical Graduate of the University of Edinburgh, also from Trondheim; Mr Gunnar Henni, Engineer, graduate of Heriot-Watt College and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland; and NSA Secretary, Mr Carl Christian Gulliksen, also a graduate of Heriot-Watt.
Amongst the Scots of this new generation were several who married Norwegians: Mr William (Bill) McIlwraith, Advocate and QC; Mr Murdoch Thom, Dental Surgeon; and Dr William (Bill) Sircus, Physician. Other Scots too, gave time and energy to the Association’s founding: Mr DM Slater, Engineer(?); Dr James(?) Innes, Medical Practitioner; Mr G Edward (Eddie) Foote, Architect; and first NSA Treasurer, Mr Halstead all feature in the Association’s minutebooks. But two Scots, by virtue of their professional careers, brought particular distinction to the Association in its early years. Strong cultural links were brought by Professor William Beattie, Librarian at the National Library of Scotland, who was noted for his editions of Robert Burns and the Border Ballads, and who was awarded the Medal of St Olav during his Presidency of the Scottish Society for Northern Studies. Strong community links were brought by Professor Hugh Bryan Nisbet, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University (formerly Heriot-Watt College) who, for his work in supporting Norwegian students, had been appointed a Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav.
But perhaps the Founder Member who best symbolised the meeting of past and future, and the melding of old friendships and new, was first NSA Chairman, Mr Sverre Bjønness. A Larvik-born merchant seaman and employee of Christian Salvesen Ltd in Edinburgh, Mr Bjønness served for many years as Honorary Vice-Consul of Norway. A man of ‘unassuming kindness’ and ‘gentleness’, gifted with a ‘readiness to listen’, Mr Bjønness – who was also a respected leader of the Norwegian Seaman’s Church in Leith – was appointed ‘Ridder’ or Knight of the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav for his work in leading the Norwegian community in Edinburgh. With his wartime experiences – which included surviving 10 hours in the sea after torpedo attack – and his connections with the iconic, now century old ‘Norwegian-Scottish’ Salvesen enterprise, ‘Visekonsul Sverre Bjønness’ was exactly the man to carry Norwegian-Scottish relations forward to new and wider horizons. In her appreciation of the life of Sverre Bjønness, dedicated member and former NSA Secretary, Tordis Small wrote: ‘no-one could have done more to promote understanding between the two countries… Generations of Norwegians coming to Scotland have cause to be grateful to him’.
The work and vision of the NSA Founder Members was, however, only the beginning, and it fell to a great many more – men, and increasingly, talented, independent women – to help fulfill the aims and aspirations of the newly established Norwegian Scottish Association.
NSA – Founder Members (1966)
The Founding Meeting of the Association, chaired by Mr Helge Weibye, was held 7th December 1966 at Norway House, Edinburgh. Together, the 18 Founder Members brought honours, distinctions, experience of active wartime service, as well as a gift for friendship to the Association:
Pansy C Erskine, Lady Mar and Kellie (Honorary President)
Mr Sverre Bjønness (Chairman) – Honorary Vice-Consul of Norway
Mr William (Bill) McIlwraith (Vice-Chairman) – Advocate and QC
Mr Carl Christian Gulliksen (Secretary) – Graduate of Heriot-Watt College
Mr Halstead (Treasurer) – Treasurer until 1967, when moved from Edinburgh
Professor William Beattie – Librarian, National Library of Scotland
Mr G Edward (Eddie) Foote – Architect
Mr Kaare Gunstensen – Physician, graduate of the University of Edinburgh
Mr Gunnar Henni – Engineer, graduate of Heriot-Watt College
Dr Innes – Medical Practitioner
Mr William Brotherston McKenzie – Science Master, Leith Academy
Mrs Jorid McQuillan – Dental Surgeon, graduate of the University of Glasgow
Professor Hugh Bryan Nisbet – University Principal
Dr William (Bill) Sircus – Physician
Mr DM Slater – Engineer(?)
Mr Murdoch Thom – Dental Surgeon
Mr Anders Tomter – Forestry, Peat, and Land Reclamation expert
Mr Helge L Weibye – Businessman, owner of Norway House retail business, Edinburgh
**Article text © Dr Sally LK Garden, Scotland 2011