When Paddy Bort died in mid-February, I wrote in my initial tribute that a hole the size of Arthur’s Seat had appeared in the Edinburgh folk scene. Reflecting in the weeks since, as the tributes have been gathered in, it is clear that Paddy’s loss will force something of a shift in the tectonic plates of the folk scene in the city and further afield.
Paddy did so much, seemingly effortlessly, for small-scale gigs vital to the tour rosters of so many folk performers, alongside important ‘big city’ opportunities for young musicians starting out. He was a long-time stalwart and sometime Chair of Edinburgh Folk Club, the Wee Folk Club and the concert series and summer festival at the Phoenix Irish Pub, Lauffen, Germany.
I’ve known Paddy since I was 18 years old. We came to Edinburgh within a year of each other in the mid-1990s, Paddy in 1995 to join the Institute of Governance and myself in 1996 to start my course at the School of Scottish Studies. As such, he was very much part of my own personal landscape musically and socially at that time, and since. His sudden death (from an enlarged heart at the age of 62) was a huge shock personally, as I quickly realised the influence he had had in my early days as a young musician, starting up the ladder and beginning to travel across Europe. Without him, my path - and my band Malinky’s - would have been very different.
Paddy was in a sense the archetypal ‘welcome kind stranger’ who came to Scotland from his native Germany to shine a bright light on our cultural riches that we have often been backwards in coming forwards about. A confirmed Hibernophile and Scotophile, hundreds of us in the folk scene have had floor spots and gigs at all stages of our careers from Paddy, benefitting from his drive and enthusiasm. The helping hand he gave for so many musicians has since been writ large in the various tributes that have been paid on social media.
Paddy gave Malinky our first floor spots, including one at Edinburgh Folk Club which essentially got us our record deal with Ian Green of Greentrax, and took a chance on us with our first ever big city gig in February 1999. He spent hours with me discussing the topic of my undergraduate dissertation on the phenomenon of Scottish and Irish traditional music’s popularity in German-speaking areas. He himself was very much bitten by the bug, and took Malinky and countless others to play on his home turf, the Phoenix in Lauffen am Neckar, in southwest Germany, which he had helped to found in the 1990s.
Flitting between his office at High School Yards, the Royal Oak, Sandy Bell’s and his flat in Nicolson St, Paddy never stopped. By day, he was a renowned academic at the University of Edinburgh, bringing hundreds of international students to Scotland to study the path of devolution, and organising a major student internship programme for MSPs. The true extent of his academic and political involvement probably came as a surprise to many who only knew Paddy from the folk scene. In the days after his death, two separate motions recognising his contribution to Scottish life and politics were lodged in the Scottish Parliament, supported by around 50 MSPs, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recorded her condolences in a letter on behalf of the Scottish Government.
Working with Nordic Horizons, the Jimmy Reid Foundation and the Scottish Fabians amongst others, Paddy championed the cause of local democracy, inspired by the democratic traditions of his home area in Baden-Württemberg. He had been a town councillor in Ilsfeld for 15 years for the socialist SPD prior to coming to Scotland, and with this experience, he noted in his writings the disconnect between local government structures and the people, with Scotland featuring near the bottom of the league in terms of numbers of elected representatives relative to population size.
He authored and edited numerous volumes on Scottish and European politics and was widely respected in his field; some of the earliest books of his that I have were from the late 90s on Borders and Borderlands in Europe and the intricacies of the Schengen agreement. His final book is a co-edit with Nordic Horizons colleague, the broadcaster and journalist Lesley Riddoch, Mcsmörgåsbord: How Scotland Can Thrive After Brexit. It is particularly tragic at this point in European history that we lose someone of his expertise. He was, in essence, the ultimate European, not least as a child of post-war Germany, a country for whom the European Union is much more than trade markets and common regulations, but one of friendship, co-operation and peace.
Over the past 15 years or so, Paddy was hugely instrumental in securing the legacy of Hamish Henderson, whom he greatly admired, through setting up The Carrying Stream Festival, and as a founding trustee of the Hamish Henderson Archive Trust. He edited several volumes on Hamish with Gonzalo Mazzei and Grace Note Publications, which to my mind are indispensable in informing a modern view of Henderson on so many fronts. Paddy was kind enough to be, in the context of one of those volumes, my first publisher, so to speak. I know his loss is keenly felt by the Henderson family.
Some of my happiest memories are the days of the Royal Oak Players back when I had time enough to spend as a regular in that real howff that was the Oak in the late 90s, where Paddy’s love of Irish drama came to the fore – not least the works of Flann O’Brien. I particularly enjoyed times with him in the Phoenix in Lauffen where he was on great form, relaxed and very much “daheim”. For the record, when cajoled, he did a hilarious version of Pat Cooksey’s The Sick Note (Why Paddy’s Not At Work Today).
There's plenty I've missed out; Paddy’s academic career is covered in finer detail in obituaries by others such as his mentor at the University of Tübingen, Prof. Christopher Harvie, and in Scottish Affairs from academic and folk club colleague Prof. Frank Bechhofer, as well as the main Scottish broadsheets.
The final thing I want to put on record is the largely-unnoticed community role Paddy also played within his immediate environs. Edinburgh Folk Club and the Wee Folk Club have had many longstanding members over the years who considered the clubs part of their regular social diary, particularly in retirement and old age. In recent times many of them have fallen ill or sadly passed on. Paddy not only kept up with them all and their wellbeing, but he ensured that public tribute was paid to these ordinary folk for their support of the clubs, recognising their loss as being every bit as significant as that of a folk scene ‘name’. I think that is testament to the man and his way of being.
Paddy has done so much for so many of us, for Scotland, the wider UK and Irish folk scene, and for Europe. The saddest part is not having been able to tell him just how grateful we are. Auf Wiedersehen, und herzlichen Dank, mein Freund.
Steve Byrne, Malinky