Dr Tom Anderson is the most prominent personality in the entire history of Shetland fiddling, a musician, composer and teacher whose work has inspired thousands of fiddle players across the world and whose championing of Shetland’s traditions led to the music of this small island community attaining international renown.
Born on a croft in Eshaness on August 29, 1910, Tom took up the fiddle as a youngster and was taught initially by his grandfather before a meeting with George Stark, a blind fiddler from Dundee who visited Shetland every summer, led to him broadening his repertoire and becoming an accomplished player in pre-war dance bands in Lerwick.
By his early teens Tom was composing his own tunes and his knowledge of Shetland fiddle tunes was enhanced when he became an insurance salesman. Given a car to get round his far-flung clients, he kept his fiddle in the boot and quickly got to know the fiddlers on his rounds. Once the premiums were collected and the business completed, he’d get his fiddle from the car and have a tune with his musical customers.
The riches he found and learned through these visits made him determined to preserve Shetland’s tradition and from 1945 he dedicated himself to recording as many tunes as possible direct from the source, leading to him becoming, in 1960, one of the chief instigators in the formation of Shetland Fiddle Society which brought together a group of fiddlers to entertain a party of Shetland exiles visiting from the colonies. Affectionately referred to as Da Forty Fiddlers, under Tom’s direction this orchestra grew in number – although it always remained known as Da Forty Fiddlers – and went on to record a popular album for the London-based folk label Leader Records.
With the formation of the Shetland Fiddle Society Tom also became a fiddle teacher, his earliest pupils including a young Aly Bain and subsequent protégés including Catriona Macdonald and Jenna Reid. From 1970 onwards Tom campaigned to have traditional fiddle music taught in Shetland’s schools and he became the first teacher when his campaign finally proved successful. In 1980 he formed his young pupils into a concert party, Shetland’s Young Heritage, and began a summer school in Shetland fiddling at Stirling University. The following year he helped to create Shetland Folk Festival and in 1982 he launched Shetland’s Young Fiddler of the Year competition.
All this time Tom had continued composing. His tunes – numbering over 500 and including the internationally popular slow airs Da Restin Chair and Da Slokkit Light – were collected in three volumes during Tom’s lifetime and a further three following his death in 1991.
During his lifetime Tom’s contribution to Shetland fiddling in particular and traditional music in general was recognised with the award of an MBE in 1977 and an honorary doctorate from Stirling University in 1981. But his legacy lives on in the continued fostering of young fiddling talent in Shetland schools, in the flood of young players from Shetland who have brought their music into Scotland’s folk scene and in the many musicians from Shetland who tour the world as ambassadors for the tradition that Tom Anderson – or Tammie – dedicated his life to preserving, nourishing and celebrating.