Violin on bench

Simon Thoumire: 'Scottish trad music is not just about being a professional.'

With the Scots Trad Music Awards celebrating its 20th anniversary, M Magazine speaks to founder Simon Thoumire about the robust traditional music scene in Scotland today.

Liam Konemann
  • By Liam Konemann
  • 2 Dec 2022
  • min read

Founded by Simon Thoumire in 2003, the Scots Trad Music Awards celebrate the best in traditional Scottish music. Marking its twentieth anniversary this year, the awards began as a way to promote the musicians playing professionally on the traditional circuit, and to recognise the talent of artists ageing out of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician Award. Since 2008, they have also been televised by media partner MG Alba, bringing the music to a wider audience.

The awards’ scope is not limited to honouring artists and releases, but rather spans 22 categories recognising the entirety of the traditional music scene in Scotland. The categories cover composition and performance, Gaelic and Scots-language work, folk bands, pipe bands, as well as community projects, influential tutors, and event spaces. 

‘Scottish trad music is not just about being a professional, it’s about everyone being able to take part,’ says Simon. ‘In terms of music in the community, we have lots of great organisations in Scotland. Teaching music to people in the community who may not be professional but still have the opportunity to love it and learn it is really important, because these are also the people who go to the gigs, and they buy the music and they’ll stream the music.’

The categories recognising music tuition and education reflect the value in passing on traditional music and keeping the community alive. ‘There’ll be no next generation of anything without teachers,’ says Simon.  

This year’s Scots Trad Music Awards reflect the scene’s return to vitality post-lockdown. Simon points to the live category in particular, noting that some of the nominated acts have not stopped touring since the moment restrictions lifted and they could get back on the road. In another indicator of good health, the awards are also expanding, with this year’s edition featuring more categories than ever before. 

The traditional music industry has weathered the storm of the pandemic. But Simon is well aware that there are fresh troubles ahead. ‘I think the scene is very robust,’ he says. ‘However, it’s been difficult times and there’s more difficult times coming up, with the cost-of-living, energy costs and all these things – it’s not getting easier.’

‘One of the things that’s interesting about traditional music, and those jam sessions in bars, is it’s all about community.'

The challenges affecting trad music are much the same as those affecting the entire sector at the moment, says Simon. Energy price hikes and the associated strain on finances means that venue’s are at risk of closure, while the ongoing effects of Brexit are still being felt.

‘It’s difficult for bands just to go on tour and try and get their merch transported into different countries,’ he says. ‘There’s not a lot of clarity around Brexit and how to tour. So there’s that, and the concerns around venues – if the venues are not there, it’s going to be very difficult for the musicians to earn any money.’

The effect of venue closures on Scottish traditional music would be more than just financial. As a whole, the scene is built around jam sessions and coming together to play music. Without the spaces to do that, the community loses out. 

‘One of the things that’s interesting about traditional music, and those jam sessions in bars, is it’s all about community. It’s not about virtuosity. It’s about listening, and feeding off someone that’s sitting beside you. It’s really one of the most amazing things,’ says Simon. 

The scene is also growing. Musicians continue to be drawn to traditional genres, and the numbers of young musicians in particular is in stark contrast to the size of the community when Simon started out professionally. 

‘When I went down to do the first Radio 2 Young Trad Award in 1988, there was hardly any of us,’ he says. ‘The way I remember it, in 1988 the competition was for twelve people and we could only find eleven.’

These days, the number of people applying for the Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician Award is ‘at least double that’, Simon says. 

'Making music is one of the best lives you could ever lead. Being a creative person, you’re always going to be happy.’

The new generation of traditional musicians are supported by a growing infrastructure of educational opportunities. Plockton Music School, on Scotland’s west coast, offers an in-depth education in the genre, while the Royal Conservatory of Scotland and other universities offer degree specialisms. The investment in talent development, along with the existing strength of the community, means that the future is bright for traditional Scottish music. 

‘It’s looking really good,’ says Simon. ‘There’s always been hurdles for musicians. Most of the time, you don’t become a musician to be a millionaire. You become a musician because you’re a creative person. Making music is one of the best lives you could ever lead. Being a creative person, you’re always going to be happy.’