The initial sessions were informal as musicians began to gather regularly in the cradle of Scottish traditional music, Sandy Bell’s in Edinburgh in the mid-1970s. There was no set line-up and as many as fifteen players could be involved but out of this loosely organised crew grew a band, Jock Tamson’s Bairns that has become revered for producing one of the definitive sounds in Scottish music.
By the time they came to record their first album in 1980, the Bairns, as they’d become familiarly known, had streamlined into a formidable first team.
In Tony Cuffe and Rod Paterson they had two of Scottish folk music’s most influential singer-guitarists whose smooth, rich voices were balanced by the earthy, rustic qualities of John Croall’s singing. Adam Jack and Ian Hardie, who would become one of the most prolific tunesmiths in Scotland, played fiddle and Norman Chalmers and Jack Evans contributed half a dozen instruments between them.
If their first album, Jock Tamson’s Bairns, captured a still-percolating fusion of the song tradition that Paterson had encountered in hearing the great ballad singer Jeannie Robertson at Keith Folk Festival with a Scottish take on the vibrancy of Irish bands Planxty and the Bothy Band, their second recording, The Lasses Fashion produced the fully formed Bairns sound and helped to spread their fame.
Singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, who had enjoyed his own triumphs in bringing traditional music into the modern arena with Fairport Convention, chose The Lasses Fashion as the only folk album in his Top Ten All-Time Favourites in Q magazine, in a selection that included Elvis Presley, the Byrds and the Smiths.
These first two albums became source material for and an inspiration to emerging musicians as the Bairns themselves filtered into other groups. Tony Cuffe joined Ossian. Rod Paterson, Jack Evans and Norman Chalmers formed another highly regarded unit, The Easy Club and later combined in the Cauld Blast Orchestra, and Ian Hardie kept his fiddle handy for a tune in the office where he worked as a lawyer between gigs with Highland Connection.
Then, in 1995, spurred on by broadcaster Billy Kay, who had worked with various Bairns on projects including the Fergusson’s Auld Reikie celebration of poet and Robert Burns contemporary Robert Fergusson, Jock Tamson’s Bairns reconvened and gave a triumphant performance at Edinburgh Folk Festival.
As Rod Paterson remarked at the time, the band felt that they hadn’t really left a mark – although they assuredly had – and decided to play on and keep alive their style of letting songs and music breathe with graceful energy.
Two further albums followed, May You Never Lack a Scone and Rare, as the line-up of Ian Hardie and Derek Hoy on fiddles, Rod Paterson on voice and guitar, John Croall on voice, whistle and bodhran and Norman Chalmers on concertina, mouth organ, whistle and bodhran continued to bring the Bairns’ sure touch to traditional ballads, Burns songs, Highland jigs and retreat marches.
Then, with the passing of Ian Hardie and Derek Hoy within weeks of each other in 2012, the Bairns lost momentum. Their music endures – and never dates – on their albums, however, and the praise of admirers including ballad master Jock Duncan and Michael Marra, as well as Richard Thompson continues to resonate through their legacy.