The first Blairgowrie Folk Festival, held in the Perthshire town in August 1966, proved to be a momentous occasion for the Scottish folk scene. Featuring a cast of genuine tradition-bearers including the redoubtable bothy ballad singer Jimmy MacBeath, Border shepherd and singer Willie Scott, the locally based travelling family, the Stewarts, and Aberdeen ballad singer Jeannie Robertson, the event made a similar impression to the Edinburgh Peoples Festival Ceilidh fifteen years earlier.
Back then, the sounds of authentic but in a sense exotic Scots, doric and Gaelic voices had sent pleasant shock waves through Central Belt society. The consensus following Blairgowrie was that such a celebration of Scotland’s indigenous culture should become an annual fixture and that an organisation should be formed to manage it. Thus the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland was born and, in 1967, the second instalment brought a young Aly Bain down from Shetland and another fiddling legend, Aonghas Grant from Lochaber to play to great acclaim.
As well as overseeing the Blairgowrie festival, the TMSA was entrusted with promoting, presenting and preserving the traditional music and song heritage of Scotland in its entirety and fifty years on, this remains its aim. It does so through competitions, which were instituted to give singers and musicians a platform and feedback on talents that include diddling and whistling, through giving input into education projects, and through a PR role that includes publishing an annual events guide and organising, recording and marketing the Young Trad Tour of winners and finalists from the Young Traditional Musician of the Year competition.
The inspiration for the first Blairgowrie festival had come through people such as Hamish Henderson, Maurice Fleming and TMSA stalwart, singer, song collector, musician and record company proprietor Pete Shepheard meeting the Stewart family and a visit he and others from the St Andrews Folk Club made to Ireland to see the work being done by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in preserving its tradition. The festival continued in Blairgowrie until 1971, when the town council withdrew permission to use the town hall. It then moved on to Kinross, where it remained for eleven years, and then on to its present home in Kirriemuir.
The 1970s were a fertile period for the association. A West of Scotland festival was initiated in Cumbernauld and other festivals, which have proved enduring, popular and valuable, sprang up in Newcastleton and Keith. This trend continued into the 1980s with the arrival of the Auchtermuchty festival, which ran in the Fife hometown of Jimmy Shand for many years from 1981 before moving to Falkland, and a branch structure was consolidated with Aberdeen, Angus, Keith, Edinburgh & Lothians, Perth, Glasgow and Bute continuing to thrive today. The list of people who have contributed to the success of the TMSA is too long to list here, many notable performers as well as those working in the background to make things happen.
Each branch has special events and projects in its calendar – Edinburgh & Lothians promotes the Northern Streams celebration of and collaboration between the Scottish and Scandinavian traditions and Perth fosters the Perthshire Songwriters group – and nationally the organisation continues to act as an advocate for the tradition, publicising events in particular and the music in general to the world at large by channels including the Visit Scotland events schedule.
In its fiftieth year the organisation was especially proud to work with publishers Collins on the reproduction of The Wee Red Book, an invaluable song resource whose launch was marked with a concert at Celtic Connections in Glasgow. Through encouraging people to use the songs that are available, as well as to collect any that remain undocumented, the TMSA plays a valued part in keeping the tradition alive for current and future generations.