Tribute to Trustee Anne Neilson


The Dewar Trustees have lost a friend and colleague with the untimely death of Anne Neilson.

Anne joined the Dewar board almost exactly 7 years ago and brought to our deliberations not just her expansive knowledge of traditional song, but compassion, commitment, and, above all, generous common sense.

Her opinions were valued for all those qualities and her company was never less than  warm and amiable.  Although we knew she had endured some ill health, we had no inkling that this was life threatening and her death has been a shock to us all.

The Dewar Trustees are unpaid, but give of their time and experience because of a shared commitment to nurture exceptional young talents, most especially where there is financial hardship.

We have been fortunate over the years to have had access to the knowledge of many fine people, in Anne’s own field her predecessor was the wonderful Sheena Wellington.

It is fitting therefore to include in our tribute an obituary from another star in the Scottish traditional firmament which was acquired for us by trustee Jean Sangster, whose role at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland made her well aware of the esteem in which Anne Neilson was held by all who had enjoyed her tutelage and her friendship. 

Our thanks to them all, and our gratitude for having had Anne’s company and wisdom over what were to be the last years of her rich life.

- Ruth Wishart (Chair)


Anne Neilson:  A tribute and some reflections

Anne  would probably owe her passion for traditional song to one teacher at Rutherglen Academy, Norman Buchan. Best known as a politician, and as the husband of Janey, Norman ran a ballad club and soon gathered around him several keen singers, many of whom went on to influence the Scottish folk scene – Gordeanna McCulloch, for a start. Norman introduced them to the legendary Hamish Henderson, and he shared field recordings of the likes of Jeannie Robertson, as well as The Weavers and Ronnie Gilbert, all of whom influenced Anne’s repertoire and singing style.

Through Hamish at the School of Scottish Studies they had access to the recordings he made with Alan Lomax, and soon were burrowing in collections at the Mitchell Library. 

Anne studied at Glasgow University (English) then became a teacher, soon promoted to a ‘house-mother’ role at Duncanrig School in East Kilbride. 

I met Anne in 1964 at Jordanhill College of Education – I was in my first year, a mere school-leaver, and she was a learned post-grad.  Through Anne I met Adam McNaughtan, who by that time was teaching at Anne’s former school, Rutherglen Academy. We all went to events there, and to folk clubs such as the Jordanhill Folk Club and the Glasgow Folk Song and Ballad Club (in the old Grand Hotel at Charing Cross). I mention this, because although I grew up with traditional songs, it was a revelation to me to realise that this profound interest in the ballad and all aspects of traditional song was so vibrant. I remember Anne lending me her precious copy of Lomax's Collection of American Folk Songs – which may sound trite, but that was the beginning of my own scholarship in traditional song (and, 30 years later, work on the Lomax Collection).

There was a big folk club scene in the Sixties, and 1966 saw the foundation of the Traditional Music and Song Association (TMSA). Increasing numbers of folk festivals sprang up all over  Scotland, most held during the summer, giving folk a chance to get away for a weekend, meet up with friends, gather together to sing, share songs, recharge the batteries, and at the same time keep tradition alive.

In the late Sixties, Anne joined the Ian Davidson Folk Group and became very well-known on the ‘scene’ – listen, for example, to that feisty version of Jeannie’s song, ‘An Auld Man Cam’ a Coortin me’ (released on a 45 r.p.m. record, Side B).  Anne had a very special way with songs and could hold an audience in the palm of her hand, not just because she had a very good voice but also because of her deep understanding of what she sang.  

Later, Anne was a member of Stramash,  singing with Adam McNaughtan, John Eaglesham, Bob Blair, Kevin Mitchell and Tom Speirs – a row of ‘giants’ in the folk scene, and all with ‘proper jobs’. They could have been full time singers had life allowed that.

When Anne retired as a full-time teacher, she joined the part-time staff of the RSAMD (now RCS). As a tutor in traditional Scots song, she gave one-to-one lessons and occasional master-classes. Several of her students now enjoy careers as singers, many of them also being prize-winners, recording artists and much travelled the world over. Among them are trad music award-winners Fiona Hunter, Robyn Stapleton, Claire Hastings, and Siobhan Miller. 

Anne was also a solo singer, and was chosen for the strong line-up of Scottish Women at Celtic Connections Festival. Last January, she was at the forefront of the TMSA concert to celebrate the re-release of classic song books that had been produced by Norman Buchan.  What a fitting tribute to her own great mentor.  She herself was mentor to countless singers and aspiring singers. Her life was one of total commitment – we never ceased to be amazed at her willingness to serve on committees ­­– ‘serve’  being the operative word.  She was so generous with her time and willingness to help young singers.  She ‘made things happen’, such as the Glasgow Ballad workshop which drew in folk from a’ the airts.  Anne will be sorely missed, not the least because she was such a warm-hearted, good-humoured, generous, caring and wonderful person.

We will remember her with gratitude and much love.

- Margaret Bennett




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