Obituary: Neil Thomson, stalwart of the Edinburgh folk music scene

Neil Thomson was a highly regarded folk singer and songwriter on the Edinburgh session circuit, with a career spanning several decades.

Neil Thomson will be best remembered for his tenures at the Royal Oak and Captain’s Bar​​​​​​
Neil Thomson will be best remembered for his tenures at the Royal Oak and Captain’s Bar​​​​​​

Neil Thomson was a highly regarded folk singer and songwriter on the Edinburgh session circuit, with a career spanning several decades.

An Edinburgh man to the core, Neil talked of the city as though it were a living, breathing entity – something more than just a home, but a part of him. The lyrics in one of his songs spoke in awe of those ordinary scenes every Edinburgher knows, but takes for granted: “the winter buskers in Rose Street”, “a Southside dawn skyline” or “a sunburst over Arthur’s Seat”.

Neil’s relationship to Edinburgh had purpose and a sense of place; he talked about the city – its communities, its people – rescuing him during some of the darker periods in his life, and was certain there was nowhere else he’d rather spend his final days.

At the turn of the 1960s, as an underage drinker, he found himself at one of the flashpoints in Scotland’s folk music revival, but Neil said of that era “like youth being wasted on the young, I think I didn’t appreciate at the time just what I was hearing”. A golden age – not just in Scotland, but across the UK – and one of the most influential periods for folk music in modern history, with Edinburgh alone nurturing talents like Dick Gaughan, Bert Jansch and The Corries.

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Neil said he’d later come to fully appreciate the impact that era had on him – albeit retrospectively – experiencing first hand so many iconic performances as “new music”, something which would help mould him into the musician he became.

His decades as a folk singer and session musician will be best remembered for his tenures at the Royal Oak and Captain’s Bar, less than a minute’s walk from one to the other, and emblematic of Edinburgh’s Southside – a place Neil took great pride in – where working-class communities rub alongside an ever-shifting student population, and the throng of the festival every August.

There are, however, few scenes from the city’s Southside quite so iconic as the harried figure of Neil Thomson, emerging from a South Bridge haar, guitar case in hand, running half an hour late for a session. In fact, Neil was so consistently, and reliably behind schedule, that it earned him the longstanding nickname “the late Neil Thomson”, something he’d have undoubtedly found all the more funny now.

Neil struggled due to problems with his hearing, which at times threatened to stop him singing altogether. But he wouldn’t be defeated, and often talked of how music and performing were so much a part of who he was that he couldn’t ever imagine hanging up his guitar.

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Motivated by a passionate belief in people, and in humanity, Neil was a socialist to his core, seeing music as an important expression of his politics. Even on the thousandth performance of the likes of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land or Jarama Valley, he still felt every word just as he would have the first time he’d heard them. Those songs from the American dust bowl and the Spanish Civil War formed Neil’s foundations as a socialist performer. Born at the height of the Second World War, to a working-class family, he drew from the music and songs of the universal class struggle; Scotland’s cultural reaction to Thatcherism in the 1980s, and its internationalism and solidarity with the likes of Chile under Pinochet, home to another of Neil’s musical influences, the late Victor Jara.

Genuine emotion ran through every performance Neil gave, from joy and camaraderie to sadness and even anger. He said “you have to sing political songs, I think entertainment is about saying what you believe and instructing, as well as writing songs that are just for fun. It’s a great thing to sing songs that are just for fun, but I think political songs are necessary”.

Neil was one of the last of a formidable generation of musicians who defined so much of Edinburgh’s folk scene, as it bridged the last century to this one, and who nurtured the performers who must now take their place.

A patience and enthusiasm for young performers taking their first tentative steps into a – sometimes unforgiving – scene, means he leaves an understated, but profound impact on so many young – and not so young now – performers, a number of whom have gone on to considerable acclaim themselves.

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The end of an era, certainly. But Neil’s mark on what comes next is unmistakable – and every time the words of Bandierra Rossa echo down South College Street, take comfort, because someone will quietly be raising a glass, in memory of the late Neil Thomson.

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