Tom Anderson (fiddler)

Last updated

Tom Anderson
Born(1910-08-29)29 August 1910
Eshaness, Shetland Islands, Scotland
Died20 September 1991(1991-09-20) (aged 81)
Lerwick, Shetland Islands, Scotland
Genres Folk music
Music teacher,
Instrument(s) Fiddle
Years active- 1991

Tom (Tammy) Anderson MBE (19101991) was a Scottish fiddler, teacher, composer and collector of traditional tunes. He has been described as "...the most prominent personality in the entire history of Shetland fiddling." [1]


Early life

Born on 29 August 1910 on the "Moorfield" croft at Eshaness, Shetland Islands, Scotland. Anderson was the oldest child of James Anderson (born 26 September 1879, Hamnavoe, Eshaness) and his wife Harriet Margaret Johnson (born 24 April 1882, Avensgarth, Eshaness). Brought up in a musical home, he learnt to play the fiddle from his grandfather; as a teenager he played in local bands for weddings and dances in the Northmavine area. [2]


On leaving school he had various jobs in the area: fishing, helping to build Eshaness Lighthouse, labouring on a whaling station. Keen on radio, he assembled and sold radio sets locally [3] and ran a battery charging service. He married Barbara Morrison (born 17 October 1901, Garderhouse, Sandsting), a teacher in Esha Ness, on 10 December 1929 at the Ollaberry United Free Church. They had one child, James John Laurence, who died at the age of five weeks. [4]

In 1933 he became a local collector for the Pearl Assurance Company in Northmavine, then in 1936 moved to live in Lerwick. By this time he was a talented fiddle player with a wide repertoire of Scottish and Shetland tunes. He soon made his mark in Lerwick musical circles, playing with the amateur Lerwick Orchestra and in dance bands. When war broke out in 1939 Tammy's interest in radio took him into the RAF, ultimately as a radar mechanic, and he was posted to India. [5] Here he encountered the many forms of Indian traditional music, and was inspired to begin a personal crusade to save what remained of Shetland's traditional fiddle music, after his demob and return home in 1945.

The Shetland Folk Society was formed in 1945 to preserve Shetland's heritage and traditions, and he became one of its principal music collectors and leader of its Traditional Band. In 1948 he started the Islesburgh Dance Band and by 1960 he was still the leader (it disbanded in 1968) and playing tuba in Lerwick Brass Band. [5] It was the first Shetland Hamefarin in 1960, when over a hundred Shetland emigrants returned home in a group to an organised welcome and holiday, that really brought him into the public eye. As part of the exiles' entertainment, a huge variety concert was planned in Lerwick, and traditional fiddle music was called for. The concert was opened by selections by forty ‘massed fiddlers fae aa ower’, whom Tom had collected together over the preceding winter, rehearsed and led. No other musician in Shetland had such breadth of knowledge and experience so he was the natural organiser for the massed Hamefarin Fiddlers. [5] They captured the imagination of local audiences and found themselves in huge demand at local concerts.

The result was that on 29 June 1960, in Islesburgh House, Lerwick, the Shetland Fiddlers' Society [6] was formed and one of their first engagements was to play for Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in August that year. They were dubbed the Forty Fiddlers by reporter Magnus Magnusson during that Royal visit. Since that summer they've met almost every Wednesday night to practise their repertoire of traditional and contemporary Shetland tunes.

Tom led the Fiddlers' Society for twenty years until 1980. By that time he was a very busy man indeed. He'd collected music intensively for twenty five years, and had edited a musical collection for Shetland Folk Society. [7]

From 1970 Anderson campaigned to have the fiddle taught in Shetland schools as part of the curriculum and, when successful. he became to first official fiddle teacher in the Shetland school system. [1]

Aly Bain was the first of his many pupils. Anderson had retired from the Pearl Assurance company in 1971, but in 1972 he was appointed the first fiddle tutor in Shetland schools – a hugely significant event. Through the 1970s he built up a huge following of young fiddlers, particularly in the Northern Isles.


His passion for his work in traditional music made him well known in Scottish traditional musical circles and was recognised by the award in 1977 of an MBE. He also taught outside Shetland; his first summer school class in traditional fiddling in Stirling University was held in 1978. In 1981 he became Doctor Tom – an honorary award from the university in recognition of his services to traditional music. [8]

A group of his pupils from Lerwick and nearby were dubbed 'Tammy's Peerie Angels' when they performed at local concerts in Shetland around 1980 – soon they got the more appropriate title of Shetland's Young Heritage. Now they are Shetland's Heritage Fiddlers. [9] During those years, they have played, to quote Tammy himself, ‘all around the world and at many other places!’


From an early age Tammy was composing fiddle tunes, and throughout his life produced over 300 melodies, the earliest in 1936, the last dated July 1988. Perhaps his best-known tune is the slow air Da Slockit Light inspired by the depopulation of his Eshaness birthplace.

"I was coming out of Eshaness in late January, 1969, the time was after 11 pm and as I looked back at the top of the hill leading out of the district, I saw so few lights compared to what I remembered when I was young. As I watched, the lights started going out one by one. That, coupled with the recent death of my wife, made me think of the old word ‘Slockit’ meaning, a light that has gone out, and I think that is what inspired the tune" – from a taped interview with Tammy by a student in 1970. During his lifetime many of his tunes were published in three books; Haand me doon da Fiddle, Gie's an A' and 'Ringing Strings.

Death and legacy

Shetland schoolchildren fiddlers, Unst, 2004 Shetland schoolchildren fiddlers age 9-13; 2004.jpg
Shetland schoolchildren fiddlers, Unst, 2004

Anderson died on 20 September 1991, in Montfield Hospital, Lerwick, five weeks after his 81st birthday. In his lifetime he taught hundreds of pupils. Today the sons and daughters of his pupils are coming to the fore in schools music in Shetland, while Aly Bain and many others have achieved fame world-wide. Pupils who remember him recall that he could be cantankerous and excitable at times but also kind, funny, patient, tolerant – an absolute inspiration.

In wider Shetland musical circles, he was a driving force in the organisation of Shetland's first Folk Festival in 1981, and it's arguable that others took inspiration, and gave Shetland its accordion and fiddle festival, blues festival, guitar festival, its Fiddle Frenzy fiddle school and others, while fiddle tuition in schools led to guitar, woodwind, brass, percussion, and accordion tuition. His royalties fund the Shetland Musical Heritage Trust, whose object is to further Tom's ambitions in preserving and enhancing Shetland's musical tradition and culture. The Trust, which holds his copyrights, engaged the Hardie Press to publish over 200 of Tom's tunes that had not been published at the time of his death. They were published in three volumes, each entitled The Tom Anderson Collection. [10] [11] [12]

In 2010 Anderson was posthumously inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame. [1]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Donegal fiddle tradition</span> Traditional fiddle-playing method from County Donegal, Ireland

The Donegal fiddle tradition is the way of playing the fiddle that is traditional in County Donegal, Ireland. It is one of the distinct fiddle traditions within Irish traditional music.

A trow is a malignant or mischievous fairy or spirit in the folkloric traditions of the Orkney and Shetland islands. Trows may be regarded as monstrous giants at times, or quite the opposite, short-statured fairies dressed in grey.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Niel Gow</span> British musician

Niel Gow was the most famous Scottish fiddler of the eighteenth century.

The Boys of the Lough is a Scottish-Irish Celtic music band active since the 1970s.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aly Bain</span> Scottish fiddler

Aly Bain MBE is a Scottish fiddler who learned his instrument from the old-time master Tom Anderson. The former First Minister of Scotland Jack McConnell called Bain a "Scottish icon."

Here Northumbria is defined as Northumberland, the northernmost county of England, and County Durham. According to 'World Music: The Rough Guide', "nowhere is the English living tradition more in evidence than the border lands of Northumbria, the one part of England to rival the counties of the west of Ireland for a rich unbroken tradition. The region is particularly noted for its tradition of border ballads, the Northumbrian smallpipes and also a strong fiddle tradition in the region that was already well established in the 1690s. Northumbrian music is characterised by considerable influence from other regions, particularly southern Scotland and other parts of the north of England, as well as Irish immigrants.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Appalachian music</span> Traditional music of the American Appalachian Mountains region

Appalachian music is the music of the region of Appalachia in the Eastern United States. Traditional Appalachian music is derived from various influences, including the ballads, hymns and fiddle music of the British Isles, the African music and blues of early African Americans, and to a lesser extent the music of Continental Europe.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Irish fiddle</span>

The Celtic fiddle is one of the most important instruments in the traditional repertoire of Celtic music. The fiddle itself is identical to the violin, however it is played differently in widely varying regional styles. In the era of sound recording some regional styles have been transmitted more widely while others have become more uncommon.

Scottish fiddling may be distinguished from other folk fiddling styles by its particular precision of execution and energy in the delivery, for example, the rendering of the dotted-quaver/semi-quaver rhythmic patterns, commonly used in the Strathspey. Christine Martin, in her Traditional Scottish Fiddling players guide, discusses the techniques of "hack bowing", "the Scottish Snap", and "snap bowing". These techniques contrast quite sharply with the most common bowing patterns of Irish fiddling. The style has a very large repertoire consisting of a great variation of rhythms and key signatures. There is also a strong link to the playing of traditional Scottish bagpipes which is better known throughout the world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Anderson High School, Lerwick</span> School in Lerwick, Shetland, Scotland

The Anderson High School (AHS) is a comprehensive secondary school in Lerwick, Shetland, Scotland. The AHS is the largest school in Shetland with around 67 staff and about 800-900 pupils from age 12 to 18.

"Peerie" Willie Johnson was a Scottish folk guitarist and bassist. He was respected as an influential and innovative musician in the Shetland folk scene. Since 2005 there has been a "Peerie" Willie Guitar Festival" each year on the islands.

The Shetland Fiddlers' Society is a group of fiddlers from Shetland that play regularly for Shetland Folk Dance and perform at events such as Shetland's Folk Festival and Accordion and Fiddle Festival.

Heritage Fiddlers is a group of Shetland fiddle players, originally formed in 1981 under the guidance of the late Dr Tom Anderson MBE, who put the group together from the young pupils that he tutored. The group was originally called Tammy's Peerie Angels, then Shetland's Young Heritage. The group is now called Heritage Fiddlers as the members felt they "couldna git awa wi da young bit onymare so wir noo kent as Shetland's Heritage Fiddlers."

Bongshang are a Scottish band from Shetland, who fuse traditional Shetland and folk styles with rock, funk, electronica and contemporary production techniques. They have been likened to Celtic fusion artists such as Shooglenifty and Martyn Bennet.

Catriona Macdonald is a musician and teacher from Shetland and is considered to be one of the world's leading traditional fiddle players.

Fiddlers' Bid are a Shetland based instrumental group known for playing contemporary arrangements of traditional Shetland fiddle tunes. The seven piece line-up consists of four fiddles, acoustic guitar, bass guitar and piano/Clàrsach.

Hugh Alexander “Sandy” MacIntyre was one of the most respected artists in the tradition of Cape Breton fiddle music.

Arthur Scott Robertson was a fiddle player from Shetland. He was recognized as "Scotland's Champion Fiddler".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jenna Reid</span> Musical artist

Jenna Reid is a Scottish fiddle player who has been described as "...the finest fiddler in Scotland of her generation." She was born and brought up in the village of Quarff, in the Shetland Islands of Scotland and found a fiddle in her grandmother's attic when she was nine years old and started to play it. She was taught by Tom Anderson and Willie Hunter and also studied the classical piano. She Graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dance, Glasgow with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Scottish traditional music where she also sang and played the piano accordion and the piano.

Cathal McConnell is a musician and singer best known as the mainstay of traditional band The Boys of the Lough, of which he was a founder member. His main instruments are the Irish flute and the tin whistle.


  1. 1 2 3 "Dr.Tom Anderson MBE". Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame. November 2012. Retrieved 26 May 2016.
  2. Williamson, Rachel Anne. "Dr Tom Anderson MBE". Folk fae da past. HEARD Hillswick Eshaness Area Regeneration and Development Association. Retrieved 26 May 2016.
  3. Innes, Robert, ed. (1981). Haand me doon da fiddle - Tom Anderson and Pam Swing (PDF). Tillicoultry, UK: University of Stirling. p. 71. ISBN   0-901636-25-8.
  4. Gott, Tony, ed. (16 December 2018). "Thomas James ANDERSON b. 29 Aug 1910 Moorfield, Eshaness, Northmavine, SHI, SCT d. 20 Sep 1991 Montfield Hospital, Lerwick, SHI, SCT: Shetland Family History". North Isles Family History ( I106574. Retrieved 10 November 2019.
  5. 1 2 3 "Dr Tom Anderson MBE". Box and Fiddle Archive. 1 November 1991. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  6. "Shetland Fiddlers Society". Shetland Folk Festival. Shetland Folk Festivals. 1–4 May 2014. Retrieved 26 May 2016.
  7. Neil, J.Murray (2005). "Tom Anderson". The Scots Fiddle: Tunes, Tales and Traditions of the Western Highlands, Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland (Volume 3). UK: Neil Wilson Publishing. p. 202. ISBN   978-1903238684.
  8. Cooke, Peter R. (1987). The Fiddle Tradition of the Shetland Isles (Cambridge Studies in Ethnomusicology). Cambridge,UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 24–28. ISBN   978-0521268554.
  9. "Shetland's Heritage Fiddlers". Shetland Folk Festival 34th Festival Archive. 1 May 2014. Retrieved 30 May 2016.
  10. Anderson, Tom (2009). Shetland Musical Heritage Trust (ed.). The Tom Anderson Collection, Volume 1. The Hardie Press. ISBN   9780946868186.
  11. Anderson, Tom (2004). Shetland Musical Heritage Trust (ed.). The Tom Anderson Collection, Volume 2. The Hardie Press. ISBN   978-0946868285.
  12. Anderson, Tom (2013). Shetland Musical Heritage Trust (ed.). The Tom Anderson Collection, Volume 3. The Hardie Press. ISBN   978-0946868384.


In 2009 Soldier's Joy from The Silver Bow with Aly Bain was included in Topic Records 70 year anniversary boxed set Three Score and Ten as track seven on the fourth CD.