Obituary: Tommy Hill, musician

Born: 23 February, 1945, in Dublin. Died: 8 December, 2014, Edinburgh, aged 69

Throughout the 70s and 80s many singers, musicians, poets and scholars visited the Forrest Hill Bar, also known as Sandy Bell’s, the renowned folk music pub in Edinburgh. Few would have passed the notice of Tommy Hill, a weel-kent figure standing in his favourite space at the far end of the bar.

Thomas Hill was born near Dolphin’s Barn on the south side of Dublin in 1945, one of six children. Tommy was diminutive in stature and for a while thought of becoming a jockey. However, he trained as a French polisher, a profession he was to pursue later at Georgian Antiques in Edinburgh. He developed an interest in folk songs and carefully recorded the words and tunes of songs in his notebooks. His tastes, however, were wide-ranging and songs by Simon and Garfunkel or The Beatles stood side by side with classic ballads and rebel songs.

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For a time he performed with the Spalpeens Ballad Group (from the Irish “spailpin”, meaning either a rogue or a potato picker) and he is pictured in a surviving poster playing what seems to be an enormous guitar.

He met Paulette Taylor, who was to become his wife, in Limerick, and the pair moved first to Aberdeen, where Paulette studied librarianship, then to Edinburgh, in 1975. The couple stayed at a flat on Forrest Road, only a few yards from Sandy Bell’s. Sometimes known as “the madhouse”, the large flat was a temporary home to many a folkie and, in the years when licensing hours were not so liberal, sessions would sometimes continue there after the pub had shut its doors.

There they occupied a room vacated by Freddie Thomson, the fiddler who orchestrated many of the sessions in Sandy Bell’s. At that time, Bell’s was the centre of the comparatively small folk-song movement and commonly featured a range of talented musicians: Cathal McConnell, Rod Patterson, Dennis Cairns, Aly Bain, Tony Cuffe or “Peerie” Willie Johnson, the Shetland folk guitarist.

Sandy Bell’s Broadsheet was published from the pub and served as a conduit for the folk tradition throughout Scotland. Tommy loved the Scottish and Irish traditional music in Bell’s and the craic. There were often visitors from his home town of Dublin – The Dubliners or Finbar and Eddie Furey – and Tommy would be there to welcome them.

Tommy’s family were staunch Republicans, but Tommy depised bigotry and sectarianism. He loved songs about justice, peace, freedom and workers’ rights, and admired singers such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez – whom he had met during a sojourn in London, and at Fleadh Cheoils in Ireland – and of course, Woody Guthrie. Tommy had a remarkable memory and served as an unofficial archive of all the comings and goings in Bell’s – often called upon to put a name to a face or to recall an event.

In later years, ill health prevented him getting to the pub as often as previously, but he could still be found in his favourite spot every Sunday when he would have a few glasses of red wine then get a taxi home. On one occasion, when he was at a family social gathering far away from Edinburgh, in Bristol, someone came into the premises and called out “Taxi for Tommy”. Tommy rose to his feet, thinking it must be for him.

Tommy Hill was a little man with a big heart and a tremendous capacity for friendship.

He was devoted to Paulette, who survives him, and he will be remembered fondly by many friends in Edinburgh and beyond.

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