“I don’t think you can really have any idea, whether it’s a tune, a song, or an idea for something like this,” observes Simon Thoumire, concertina virtuoso and irrepressibly industrious promoter of Scottish traditional music. “You do it, you don’t really think about year two, then you just keep going.”
The “something like this” in question is the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards, also known as Na Trads, which Thoumire and fellow like-minded traditional music activists established in 2003. For the awards’ 20th anniversary, their annual gala concert returns to Dundee’s Caird Hall on 4 December, promising a flamboyant affair when the folk scene gets uncharacteristically glitzy. The event, presented by Mary Ann Kennedy and Alistair Heather, will be broadcast on BBC Alba and available online in partnership with its main sponsor, the Gaelic media service MG Alba.
The first such ceremony was held in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall in September 2003, with headline acts including the bands Deaf Shepherd and Back of the Moon, as well as two vital figures – both, sadly, longer with us – Gaelic singer Ishbel McAskill and piper-composer Gordon Duncan.
Twenty years on, artists taking the Caird Hall stage include indie-folk outfit the Elephant Sessions, Fara from Orkney, Trip and the Gordon Shand Scottish Dance Band. Also billed are this year’s BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician Award winner, fiddler Eryn Rae, Americana group the Auldeners, the St Roch’s Irish Minstrels and Tayside Young Fiddlers, while a tribute to the much loved Fochabers fiddle teacher James Alexander, who died earlier this year, features former pupils.
Back in 2003, Thoumire, now 52, had already formed the organisation Hands Up for Trad with his wife, Clare McLaughlin, and Elspeth Cowie, establishing the aforementioned Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician Award in 2000. But he wanted to showcase the wider scene – “all the professionals who were working so hard to do their best for the music.” The awards would “celebrate Scotland’s rich musical heritage and in doing so, create a high profile annual event to bring traditional music centre stage.”
“I felt that Scottish traditional music didn’t have a positive enough image,” Thoumire adds. “People were still talking about Arran jumpers, beards and so forth. We wanted to take our brilliant product, and make the public understand it. I remember for that first event trying to make everybody dress up and show off what we’ve got to our best.”
He remembers also a meeting with Maggie Cunningham, then head of programmes at BBC Scotland, during which she declared that for her, folk music meant dance bands, “and I thought she was absolutely right. If this was going to work it would have to feature everyone – dance bands, pipers, Scots song, Gaelic... an umbrella for all the different things going on.”
Consequently today there are 22 award categories, thanks to numerous sponsors, with the public generating hundreds of thousands of votes each year for the nominees, via the awards website.
A major milestone was in 2006 when the ceremony made its first move furth of Edinburgh, to Fort William’s Nevis Centre, since then travelling to Inverness, Perth, Dumfries and elsewhere. Today, having weathered the past two pandemic-stricken years with purely televised or limited-audience events, the “folk Oscars” seem in vigorous health. “In difficult times,” says Thoumire, “bands are getting back out on the road and filling venues across the world, and it’s great to be back to celebrate this."
And as he prepares to don his famously sparkly shoes for this 20th anniversary bash, Thoumire thinks back to the trepidation of that first awards gala in 2003: “The Queen’s Hall holds about 800 people... On the night about 400 people came and I was just so happy that they did. “The year after that, we sold out.”
The Scots Trad Awards are on BBC iPlayer from 9pm on the night in the UK, or internationally at www.bbc.co.uk/bbcalba