Tom Hughes was the greatest keeper of his generation of the distinctive Borders style of fiddle playing. A self-taught master who, like his father and grandfather before him, spent his entire working life as a ploughman on farms in the countryside around Jedburgh, in his time away from the plough Tom dedicated himself to the fiddle, playing for dances and in sessions and preserving tunes learned from family tradition for generations to follow.
Tom was born on a farm near St Boswells on 10th October 1907. His father, Thomas, played the fiddle, pipes, melodeon and tin whistle and his grandfather, Henry Hughes, played the fiddle. Two uncles, Bob and Henry, also played the fiddle and occasionally tambourine. Tom’s grandfather, who could fashion anything ranging from a wheelbarrow to a fishing rod from whatever wood came to hand, made tambourines and fiddles and Tom remembered, as a seven year old, watching his grandfather making a fiddle in his workshop that turned out to be Tom’s Christmas present that year.
Listening to his father and grandfather playing tunes together at home, Tom tried to copy what they were doing and gradually, by lifting his fingers off the strings when he didn’t need them, he learned to play his first tune, The High Road to Linton. It was through his DIY approach that Tom learned to double stop – or play two notes at once – which is a characteristic of the Borders fiddle tradition and became an integral feature of Tom’s signature style.
By the time he left school, aged fourteen, in 1921, Tom was playing fiddle with his father at rural events. They cycled to village halls, weddings, kirns (or harvest celebrations) and hiring fair dances in the local area and after moving, in 1925, to a farm near Lilliesleaf, between Selkirk and Melrose, they joined Adam Irvine’s band. At one time, with the steward on the farm where they worked near Morebattle, Jim Kerse and another local musician, Tom and his father formed a band that consisted of three fiddles and piano but the standard line up in those days was two or three fiddles and tambourine.
After Tom married he moved to Chatto and formed his own band, the Kalewater Band, and later, while working as farm steward at Ruletownhead after the war, he led the Rulewater Band. Tom continued to play locally through the 1950s and 1960s and when folk festivals such as Newcastleton began to spring up in the early 1970s he could be found in sessions, sharing tunes with fellow fiddlers.
When the folklorist, song collector and founding member of the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland, Pete Shepheard heard Tom playing tunes such as Kelso Hiring Fair, which Tom picked up from an old street fiddler in Kelso in 1928, and a Scottish Borders version of The Morepeth Rant at Newcastleton in 1978, he immediately decided to capture the by now seventy years old Tom’s playing for posterity.
An LP, Tom Hughes and His Border Fiddle, was released on Shepheard’s Springthyme label, giving an insight into a traditional, fiddle style stretching back deep into the 1800s. A tune book subsequently added to Tom’s legacy and after Tom died in 1986 his music was carried on by his grandson, Jimmy Nagle. In 2015 the annual Scots Fiddle Festival in Edinburgh honoured Tom with an illustrated talk on Tom’s music and through the players who have progressed through the Borders Young Fiddlers group, Tom’s music is being passed on to succeeding generations.