Scotsman Obituaries: Norman Chalmers, folk musician who championed concertina in Scottish traditional music

Norman Chalmers was a keen sailor who would play his music on boats (Picture: Glen's Pals)Norman Chalmers was a keen sailor who would play his music on boats (Picture: Glen's Pals)
Norman Chalmers was a keen sailor who would play his music on boats (Picture: Glen's Pals)
Norman Chalmers, musician, photographer, teacher and writer. Born: 5 June, 1948, in South Lanarkshire. Died: 23 March, 2024, in Edinburgh, aged 75

Norman Chalmers, musician, photographer, writer and sailor, was a leading and influential champion of the English concertina within the Scottish folk revival. He developed his playing of the instrument to suit Scottish repertoire as a founder member of three innovative bands – Jock Tamson’s Bairns, The Easy Club and the Cauld Blast Orchestra – in the Eighties, Nineties and into the new millennium.

Norman strove to develop an English concertina style that would suit the Highland pipe repertoire and other Scots tunes and took the interpretation of traditional music very seriously, stressing the importance of pace and rhythm. Players, he believed, should fully appreciate the essence of a tune before they started embellishing it.

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As a player and a tutor in music workshops, he was an influence on younger musicians, such as Simon Thoumire, director of the promotional organisation Hands Up for Trad, who said: “As a young concertina player, Norman was a major influence on me, teaching techniques that I still use today. Also, his all-round musicality showed anything was possible.”

Apart from his roles as a performer and participant in musical theatre and broadcasting projects, he was a photographer, working for various publications, at one point photographing the Scots literary revival figurehead Hugh MacDiarmid at Brownsbank Cottage. As a writer, he helped start The List magazine in 1985, working as its folk music editor until 2001, and was also a folk correspondent for Scotland on Sunday for several years.

An experienced sailor, Norman became a weel-kent musical crew member on the Western Isles cruises of the restored 19th-century sailing trawler Lorne Leader – plying waters that had particular significance for him, as he could boast St Kildan ancestry. His grandmother, Christina McQueen, left St Kilda before the beleaguered island’s final evacuation in 1930 and settled in Clydebank, where in 1912 she married Robert Chalmers, a shipwright and joiner, and moved to Stonehouse, south Lanarkshire.

Their son, Bob, Normans’ father, also became a joiner, and a technical teacher at Larkhall Academy. His mother, Helen, was a social worker and Labour councillor.

Norman was one of three children, with a brother, Robert, and sister, Jennifer. After attending Stonehouse primary School then Larkhall Academy, he trained in photography at Glasgow College of Building and Printing.

Music, however, was finding its way to him through the generations. His grandfather, Robert Chalmers, was a founder member and conductor of the longstanding Stonehouse Male Voice Choir and member of the renowned Stonehouse Silver Band with his brother James, who led it and became a British Empire Champion Trombonist, as well as teaching famed trombonist George Chisholm.

As his interest in the developing Scottish folk revival grew, he bought his first concertina in a Glasgow second-hand shop and experimented on a few before settling on the “English” rather than on the “Anglo” concertina system which was becoming particularly popular for Irish music.

He started playing in sessions in Glasgow’s famous Scotia bar and formed his first group, The Full Shillin’, in the early Seventies with fellow enthusiasts Stevie Miller, Stan Reeves and Tom Sage. He further honed his skills with the group Chorda Cleich, later known simply as Chorda, then, with Chorda singer John Croall, teaming up with fellow session players in the trad crucible that was Edinburgh’s Sandy Bell’s Bar to form the legendary Jock Tamson’s Bairns, his concertina, in particular, blending distinctively with the band’s twin fiddles over snappy guitar work.

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After recording two acclaimed albums in the early Eighties, the Bairns dispersed to pursue individual musical paths, occasionally reassembling in various combinations before a celebrated Noughties reunion produced two more albums.

Norman also played the tromb, or Jew’s harp, and was an accomplished whistle player – as exemplified in his stirring introduction to the retreat march MacGregor of Ruara on the Bairns’ album, May You Never Lack a Scone. There was humour, too, in his performance, not least in the springy capers of Wee Donald, the dancing doll he animated with his foot while playing.

As a commentator, Norman could cast a sometimes questioning eye on the folk scene, expressing concerns at the dangers of stylistic homogenisation amid the burgeoning popularity of traditional music, while enthusing over the emergence of keen young players. The seriousness of his approach, however, didn’t make him a purist. The early Eighties saw him join former Bairns members Rod Paterson and Jack Evans, along with Jim Sutherland, in an early incarnation of the acclaimed “Scots swing” outfit the Easy Club.

Then, in 1989, he became a perhaps unlikely member of the genre-defying Cauld Blast Orchestra, initially assembled by composer Karen Wimhurst to play her music for Communicado Theatre’s “surreal bacchanale”, also titled Jack Tamson’s Bairns, which opened the newly converted Tramway during Glasgow’s 1990 Year of Culture. The reedy tones of concertina joined saxophone, clarinet, cello, accordion, drums and much else. Fusion may now be the order of the day: back then, no other Scottish band had ever sounded like this – and, frankly, nobody has since.

Further theatre work included playing in Billy Kay’s Fergusson’s Auld Reekie celebration of the Edinburgh poet, and also in some of Mike Maran’s musical theatre shows such as The Atom of Delight.

Norman died on 23 March after a period of ill health, and is survived by his sister Jennifer, daughter Sorcha, and two grandchildren. His memory and legacy was celebrated by an exuberant wake at St John’s Episcopal Church Hall in Edinburgh, attended by a legion of friends and fellow musicians. Some of his ashes were interred beside his late brother, Robert, while the rest will be placed by his sister in the one-time home of his grandmother on St Kilda.


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