A Grand Tour of Scottish Fiddling, Part 1: Aonghas Grant of the West Highlands
Last summer my wife, Connie, and I made a “grand tour” of Scotland, a nearly thousand mile road trip that took us weaving through the Scottish Highlands, far west to the windswept Isle of Lewis, north to the megalith-strewn Orkney islands, and back south to the rollicking Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Our plan was to trace family roots on the Isle of Skye, explore Scotland’s vast prehistoric landscape, and, of course, sample the region’s fine fiddling. I am happy to say that –– in spite of a few mishaps and one of Scotland’s wettest summers in recent memory –– we were amply rewarded on all counts. In this series, we’ll introduce you to some of the fiddlers we met along the way.
Our first musical destination was the home of Aonghas Grant, the renowned left-handed fiddler living in the western Highlands in the shadow of Britain’s highest peak. Aonghas would soon be celebrating his eightieth birthday and had recently released a first volume of his extensive repertoire in Mel Bay’s The Glengarry Collection.
Having not quite mastered the art of driving on the left side of the road, our car struck a curb just as we pulled into Fort William and we arrived at the Grants’ Bed and Breakfast as deflated as our front tire. Hearing of our predicament, the soon-to-be octogenarian Aonghas immediately sprang into action, fetching a lug wrench and capably supervising the changing of the tire. The crisis averted, Connie set off to find some fish and chips while Aonghas and I retired to his patio to turn our attention to the main purpose of our visit.
Growing up in the West Highlands in the 1930s, Aonghas had experienced a way of life that has largely disappeared in the 21st century. Throughout our conversation, he often noted the contrasts between then and now, musical and otherwise. Over the last thirty years, his increasing involvement in education has helped to pass along the musical heritage of the Glengarry region, a fiddle style that reflects the piping and Gaelic song traditions long popular in the area.
Aonghas: On my father’s side of the family, they were very musical. There were pipes and fiddles and Gaelic songs, singers. I never had a lesson in my life, really. I got a fiddle from my uncle when I was about twelve or thirteen. I was at the pipes before that and within half an hour I could play two or three tunes I’d already played on the pipes. My uncle showed me how to hold it and tuned it up for me. And my son (Angus), some forty years later, is the same. He got a little fiddle from my brother. He just started and never actually got any lessons and then just played tunes. That was it, you know. All the old-timers had a tremendous repertoire of tunes. Hundreds and hundreds of tunes! And I’ve never ever seen a sheet of music between any of them. My uncle was born about 1875 and my father was born in 1880. And they probably learned from their father in just the same way, you know? Just picked it up and played. No formal lessons at all.
A lot of the older fiddlers took a great interest in me because I was the only one of my generation to play the fiddle. There were quite a few pipes and the accordion was starting to come in after the war. But I was on the fiddle and I used to watch just what they were doing, watched the bowing and the fingers. I never read a sheet of music till way in my fifties. I went down to a fiddle competition and played and the famous Tom Anderson of Shetland, he was down judging. I won the competition and some months later he phoned me and said he planned on doing a summer school at Stirling University and wanted me to come down and teach. I said I never taught anybody at all, but he said, “Oh, you’ll come down. I like your style of playing.” And I ended up teaching there for twenty-seven years. A lot from America, Norway, Japan, all over. And then some years at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. They started doing a BA degree course in Scottish fiddle and I was a part-time tutor there for about ten years.
Music has been in your family for how many generations?
My grandfather, he was born about 1835, he played. And my great grandfather, he played the pipes. He was born in the 1790s. Mostly in the Highlands area, music followed families. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a musical gene but if you just grow up hearing music and if you’re inclined to be musical, you’ll play something. Our three children all play. My oldest daughter is a good piper. My son is a very famous fiddler, and my youngest daughter is an equally good fiddler. They all just picked it up and played, you know.
Was it in a professional role that your grandfather played or was it a hobby?
Oh, just a hobby. I mean, if my father was alive now, he would be amazed to think that you actually got paid for playing the fiddle. And to think that his grandson was full-time earning a living playing the fiddle! Even when I was young, to play all night at a dance, we would get the equivalent of a dollar. Right into the ’80s, you’d play from 9 till 1 in the morning. And you’d get about a pound fifty in today’s money. Thirty bob.
So your family always played for the love of the music, then.
Most of the old fiddlers I knew in my day, they all worked as shepherds, deer stalkers, farmers, fishermen. You, know, they had a full-time job. In those days, to think that you could support the family playing the fiddle was just a joke, you know! Nobody would dream that you could earn a living playing the fiddle! Our only outlet for playing was dances, particularly in the wintertime when things were slack and there’d be lots of dances to play. You’d see four to six fiddlers and a side drum –– that was a band. And an odd piper would play a few tunes. The fiddlers go away for a dram and the piper would play for a few sets. And there wasn’t an accordion in sight, or an amplifier or a mic at all.
… I wouldn’t say it was a hobby; it was a way of life with you. You know, when I started my working life, I left school at fourteen and all my father’s people were hill shepherds and deer hunters and I just followed that line. A long day in the hills, and then you’d come back at night and pick up the fiddle and you moved into a different world. From the hard work you’re doing out in the hills –– wild weather and good weather –– and then you picked up the fiddle, you changed places altogether. It was a great comfort to you, playing the fiddle. It was a sweetener. Things have changed so much now. The best thing that happened up in the Highlands was the Feis [music festival] and the Gael movement when they started up in Barra [in 1981]. Things were starting to die out and the local priest and a few musicians, they got together and started things off. And it mushroomed. Every area has a week’s tuition with the kids and they also have ongoing classes that keep it going. I teach twice a month at a school forty-five miles away and a lot of good fiddlers turned up at that. And I also teach at home. When I was young, there was nobody teaching at all.
You were hearing it from family and friends, but nobody actually gave lessons?
No. No. None at all.
You learned the pipes first. Someone must have shown you how to hold it?
No, you just grew up knowing how to play the pipes. All the Highlanders, it’s automatic. You have to learn the fingering and the grips and throws [embellishments]. You start off with the chanter and then the goose [bagpipes without drones], the chanter with a bag, and then on to the pipes. A lot of Highland fiddlers play the pipes and fiddle equally well. It’s quite a normal thing in the Highlands. Even going back fifty, seventy, eighty years, there were a lot of good pipers who were also excellent fiddlers. A lot of the pipers had a bit more knowledge about music because they had been in the army and probably learned music when they were in the army in the pipe band. There was no such a thing as a pipe band until England was in so many wars and there were all these wild Highland men doing nothing and they drafted them into the British army. A lot of chiefs’ sons went with them and they took their personal piper with them. So there’d be a dozen or more pipers and they got together and the army thought this would be quite a good idea to get a band going. The pipe bands were quite a thing. All the Scottish regiments had pipe bands.
What did a dance consist of in those days?
It was square dances. The odd waltz. Quadrilles and lancers. Square dance sets.
Was there a caller or did everyone know the dances?
Oh, we always laugh. Anytime I’m in the States, I’m amazed. And somebody says the caller gets more money than the fiddler! Why is it? Why do you need a bloody caller? We grew up; we all knew the dances and the sets. You start young and you know it. Some parts in the south, I think they’ve started having callers.
So in the old days, you’d just name the kind of set?
Yes, there used to be a guy who started announcing the dances –– “Take your partner for such and such a dance.” And that was it. Other times, the band leader would just say, “We’re going to play for quadrilles, or ‘Strip the Willow’ or ‘Highland Schottische’,” and that was it. Everybody knew what they were doing.
How old were you when you started going to these dances?
Well, dances and ceilidhs, when you were young you’d be going there just to see and listen to the music and the songs.
Your parents would be dancing and you’d just be coming along.
Yes, that sort of thing. I always think nowadays the kids are still in high school at eighteen. You know, they spend a third of their life getting educated. By the time I was eighteen I was capable of buying and selling sheep and cattle. I’m taken aback by the young ones nowadays; they don’t know how to harness a horse or saddle a horse! Nobody’s doing that. They know all about laptops and computers and phones, but when we all grew up, we knew all these things: working sheep dogs, training sheep dogs, saddling horses, deer ponies, out shooting deer, fresh salmon. You grew up with it. That was a way of life with you. And then, as I was saying, after a hard day’s work, it was nice to pick up the fiddle and play some tunes.
[For the full text of this lengthy interview, subscribe to Fiddler Magazine or purchase the Winter 2011/12 issue.]