Tom Bonnar

Tom set up and ran a folk club in Stow in the late 1980s. He worked as an art teacher in an Edinburgh secondary school.


I remember my uncle in Miner's Row in Hill of Beath, in Fife. He didn't have any electricity and only one cold tap in the sink in the kitchen and the teapot was always on the hob. He had a gramophone cabinet and piles of 78s, things like Jimmy Shand. I remember my Uncle Frank had Bill Munro and the Blue Grass Boys when I was about five or six, singing Kentucky Waltz. I still sing it today with Nick Flavin on the melodeon.

My Gran had a big gramophone in the fifties, by which time 45s and LPs came about. My Dad bought bits of a gramophone which he built into a cabinet himself, and he bought all this stuff from Muir's Music shop in Dunfermline and I had the bill for that until recently. It's now in the National library, that bill, along with a whole lot of other stuff to do with my dad. My Dad had a couple of records, again Jimmy Shand and also Robert Wilson, Bill Wilson, Mary O'Hara. It was 78s in those days. Then in 1961 my Mum and Dad, at that time they would be 38, went to a thing called The Howff in Dunfermline. It was a folk club, I think the second folk club in Scotland, run by a guy called John Watt. In 1963, when I was thirteen, I went to the Howff for the first time too. I was hooked.

The first guy I saw was an American called Rick Alman and he played a twelve-string guitar. He had a big wooden case which I think he'd made himself and he had that on the floor and he hit it with his foot when he played. It was like a big coffin. The guy was fantastic. So I went to that folk club in Dunfermline from then on right through until I was a student and left home. When I was fifteen the folk club moved from Dunfermline to Rosyth hotel. They had a couple of film shows and one of them was The Singing Street. It's a film that was made in Edinburgh in probably the early 60s about kid's schemes. I

There was no traditional music at school. In high school I was involved in Gilbert and Sullivan. It was just a laugh. They staged it in the Carnegie Hall in Dunfermline. I eventually went to Murray House. The man who made Singing Streets was one of the lecturers there. It was made in a school called Norton Park and eventually I taught in Norton Park and that's where I met my wife Lynne. The school later amalgamated with Leith Academy to become a comprehensive.

My uncle had a guitar and so did a cousin of mine. On one side of the family my cousin Jim played the accordion and so did another cousin on the other side of the family. When I was about 15 my Dad went to London to work. He was a railway man and an executive of the NUR. He stayed in digs in Highbury corner and his office was in Euston Rd. He used to go between these two places and there were a whole string of pubs there. Three of the pubs had music. In fact, they were very close to each other. There was The Kings Head in Islington and The Angel which subsequently became a theatre pub, a kind of art pub, but before that it was an Irish pub where they played Irish music. Across from there was The Fox which had a great folk club on a Thursday night run by a man called Bob Davenport. He ran it with a resident band. There were a couple of melodeons and maybe three or four fiddlers, flute player, piano player and Bob Davenport was the MC. It wasn't really like a folk club. He just kept it going. It was a moment between things. But the resident band I just loved.

Then there was The Hare and Hounds run by a guy called Joe Heal who ran it like a music hall from behind the bar. Joe wore a porter and he had a roving mike to pass round. It was fabulous! I would go up to London and the kids at school would say. “Why are you going up to London? He's going to London!!” I got free rail tickets. There were six free rail tickets a year. After that I got privileged tickets which meant you paid a third. I went down there a lot.

When I was about 16, I set about starting my own band. One of my dad's pal's, Johnny Boyz, played the fiddle and Jim my cousin had an accordion. He was a good accordion player, but he didn't play any more.... so, I collared Jim and we pulled his accordion out from underneath the bed. It was all wheezy, but he was a good player. So, we had Jim on accordian, Johnny Boyz on fiddle and I vamped on banjo and we became the Howff band, by which time I had started running The Howff in Dunfermline. I tried to start with a resident band to keep the thing going. We became quite well known. We did bookings in Folk clubs and things up and down the country.

That stopped when I was seventeen because I went to art college. Later I actually got it going again and John Waugh became a member. I knew performers were coming up from the South and from abroad so was able to bring them to the Howff. After that interlude of running the place I used just to play in the house and I knew people who played in sessions but that was all. I certainly didn't do anything in Folk Clubs or anything like that for a long time in the 70s and 80s.

I came to Stow when I was about 40. There were a few musicians here. I met Nick Flavin in Iona's house when we moved here. He said he played the melodeon and of course my eyes lit up. We had a wee session and we got on really well. Then we discovered that Lesley played the flute and Lizzie Watson played the fiddle. She moved into the village a little later. I knew performers were coming up from the south and doing little tours and coming across from the States, so I wanted to get people in and run things here. I'd been in Stow about three years when I started up the folk club here.

The first night was down at the Royal in the room at the end which was later knocked down. I saw this room and asked the Royal if we could use it. They looked at me as if I was mad. It was a wee bit like the Howff in Dunfermline. It was the same size and a bit ramshackle which I quite liked and they said that we could buy beer in the hotel and take it through there if we took the glasses back, so that was perfect.

The first folk club in Edinburgh was called The Howff. It was opposite St Giles, on the first floor of number 369 The High Street. It later became the 369 Art Gallery in the late 70s. In the early 60s it was run by Roy Guest. Then John Watt from Dunfermline got the idea and decided to run a folk club in a cellar in Dunfermline. Archie Fisher tells me the one in Dunfermline was running before the one in Edinburgh, but I'm not sure that's correct. Anyway, they were both very early. I think there was a folk club in Glasgow and these other two in Scotland.

The first guest we had here in Stow on Friday 25th January 1992 was Rab Noakes. It was packed out. We couldn't squeeze another person into the room. There were people who came from Oxton who I knew who were a bit late but with all the will in the world we couldn't get them in the door. It was jam packed. I think about 20 people went away disappointed. There were 91 paying guests in all. On that first night we were on a high. We knew it was going to be a success. That was exciting. Everybody had to pay except the guest artist and maybe their partner/driver etc. We charged £3.00, then students, UB40, OAP were half price. By 15th November that room had closed, and we moved the club to the Manor Head. We had Andy Irvine from Planxty while we were there. We followed up with Iron Horse. Rab Noakes came back as well. I've a list of everybody who sang and played that night. We moved to the Town Hall when the Manor Head closed. We had the Mike Erran band there. The floor singers/players that night were Tom Bonnar, Lesley McLaren, James and Mairi Louise Flavin, Rab Noakes, Elsie.Lemet, June Ellis. Charly Gorman, Bill Muir and Sally Wilkinson.

In the town hall I remember a great night with the Old Rope String Band. We got them back to Lauder in fact. They were multi instrumentalists and real showmen even bringing acrobatics into their performance. Nick commented on the fact that they had to push their car to get it going afterwards. So much talent, and yet they couldn't afford a decent car between them all. Folk music has its own rewards, but wealth isn't one of them! We had Strammash from Glasgow with Alan McNaughton that year too which was great.

In the town hall the acoustics are terrible, and we did it without PA most of the time. Lynne and I would need to go away and buy drink from the Cash and Carry. Billy Williamson helped us out there. We had to set up a bar. One night Sandy Bruce was helping behind the bar in the town hall. He came up to me incensed and said someone had asked what drinks they had. He had said, “We have beer, lager, red wine and white wine.”
The guy said, “What, no Guinness! This is ridiculous!” Sandy blew a gasket. People expected so much. Moving to the Lauderdale in Lauder was easier as the bar facilities were all there.

In Lauder we had The Gaugers from Aberdeen. They didn't usually do bookings down here, but in the end, they gave in and came down. They stayed the night with us. They were really great. The folk club was on every two weeks. We thought every week would be too much and then every month would not be enough. There was an agency in Edinburgh run by Frank Bechofer. I got guests from him. There was one woman called Maggie Holland who I really liked. She plays great banjo as well as guitar and writes a lot of contemporary and political stuff. She was in London and I wrote to her asking if she would like to come up and do a gig. She wrote back and said this was really strange because she'd never played in Scotland before, but she'd recently taken up with a guy who she was going to move in with in Edinburgh, and so we got her on her way up. She was great. She's still in Edinburgh twenty years on and the guy she took up with is actually from Dunfermline.

We had big crowds, and so we had a bit of money in the bank. I've got a letter here from Oxfam saying thank you for the donation of £100. I booked Rab Noakes to sing again at the Lauderdale and I got the offer of a guy from London, Rory MacLeod the same night, so I thought we'll just put them both on. We lost a wee bit of money, but we had money to lose. In the end the audiences started going down a bit and I was throwing money away. The folk club ran for about three years. We had at least two barn dances during this time in the barn at Stage hall farm. Nigel Miller gave us the barn just after the cattle had gone out for the Summer. They cleaned it out and then we had dances in the barn. For the first one we got the Foundry Bar Band from Arbroath who were a great band at the time.

After a while the crowds started to dwindle in the Lauderdale, so we were losing money. It wasn't such a good atmosphere in there either. I'd also booked everybody who I really wanted to get like Martin McCarthy and people like that. Dick Gaughan came because I met him somewhere and he said, “I hear you've got a great folk club in the Borders..... You never booked me!?”
I said to him, “You know why I haven't booked you …. because I asked your bloody agent and he wanted £300!”
He said, “Look, I'll do it for the gate. Give me 80% of the gate.” When he arrived he said, “I've got a sore throat Tommy, but I'll try.” He sang for two hours. He ended up doing a big interview for it afterwards for Radio Borders. It was just at the time when Margaret Thatcher had got in for the second time and he was sort of fed up anyway. Later on, I began to get phone calls from his manager saying, “I hear you booked Dick.” He said, “How much did you pay him?” I said,
“That's between him and me. You ask Dick.”
He said, “No, no you've got to come through me.”
I said, “Look I'm not interested in this conversation. You have to speak to Dick.” He tried to get money out of me. I couldn't be doing with that. It was a private arrangement. He said,
“Oh, he can't do private arrangements...I'm his manager.”
“Well that is between you and him. Don't get on to me.” I think he phoned me a couple of times.

Davy Herd ran the folk club after I stopped. He ran it in the Royal, in the room that we didn't want because it was L shaped and had a pillar in the middle, so it was kind of awkward. Following on from the folk club I played with Pete Sheppard and Neil Patterson. Pete plays melodeon and Neil plays Scottish small pipes. Davy Herd actually booked us when he took over the running of the folk club. We also played down South because I knew the guy who ran the folk club down in Lewes. We played in London in the Music Traditionalists Club and we played at the National Folk festival in Loughborough too at the main concert on the Saturday night. They ran it not with big stars. They tried to reverse it. At that time, I was in my early forties. It was my last throw really. I just feel now I don't want to sing anywhere like that because I feel I'm too old.

When I first started playing and when I was first involved in all this it was the early sixties. Folk music was vibrant. It was a very much younger crowd. Mum and Dad, when they were in their late thirties, were the ancient ones. Archie Fisher would come to the house in Dunfermline and at that time he would be in his twenties and he was the older school. I was at Archie's 25th birthday party in 1964. I was 15 at the time. I fell away from folk clubs in the 70s and when I came back into it in the 90s and played with Pete Sheppard and Neil Patterson, the folk club audience was much older. It was sort of my age. I think now it is different, certainly in England, maybe up here. There's a much younger crowd, but in the nineties, it was all oldies. I get invited to the Fife Sing and reunion things in Fife, but I don't go because I think for me it is in the past. I don't want to try to revive it. I still play in France with French musicians. We play in clubs and bars.

We came here to Stow in 1988 and in 99 we went into the post office which was run by Davy Herkes and asked for tickets for the old-time dancing. But he said it was all stopping. His wife had had a stroke and he said he couldn't do it anymore. He said he had bands booked as well. I said I would take it over. We ran it for a year or more. We got great bands along, like Jim Johnson and Bill Black. They were three/four piece bands. People came from outside the village as well. They were coming from Perthshire and places like that. It was the old crowd. It's still going, run by Tam the cattleman. It was old style dancing … once a month. It wasn't Scottish country dancing. They have the same kind of dances but one of the differences is they never put their hands above the shoulders. If they do a Gay Gordons, they don't twirl the partner, they do a pas de bas, away and back. There was a crowd in Newton Grange who used to run an accordion and fiddle club and they ran old time dancing lessons too. Lynne and I went a few times. There was an accordion and fiddle club that ran in the Clovenfords hotel. It's probably still running. I remember on old guy timing a dance called The Lancers. “It was seven minutes the nicht... Last time it was six and half!”