The Making of The Glengarry Collection: The Highland Fiddle Music of Aonghas Grant
[Ed. Note: This is an article we didn’t have room for in the magazine, but we felt would be of great interest to fans of Scottish fiddler Aonghas Grant and Scottish fiddling in general, as well as to anyone who has wondered about the work that goes into a major tune collection. Enjoy!]
Scottish Highland fiddler Aonghas Grant was born in 1931 and grew up in Glengarry region of the West Highlands. He started on the bagpipes at age 7 or 8 and picked up the fiddle at age 13, encouraged in both instances by his uncle Archie. Aonghas remembers, “He was showing me how to finger and bow the notes, and within half an hour I could play ‘Dornoch Links,’ and within a couple of days I could play practically everything I could play on the chanter… Instinctively you knew where to put your fingers.” (Aonghas, like his uncle Archie, plays left-handed, with the violin in his right hand, the bow in his left, and the strings reversed.)
Fiddler Laura Risk transcribed over 300 tunes for Aonghas’ book, The Glengarry Collection
(published by Mel Bay in two volumes), which she co-authored with fiddler Barbara McOwen, ethnomusicologist Peggy Duesenberry. and Grant himself. In this article Laura takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour for one tune, the pipe march “Dornoch Links.”
I’m chatting about Scottish grace notes with Barbara McOwen, a fiddler and fiddle teacher in Arlington, Massachusetts, when she tells me about her current project: a tunebook for the great West Highland fiddler Aonghas Grant. She’s looking for someone to help out with the transcriptions, especially the grace notes—am I interested?
I’ve been a fan of Aonghas’ playing for years and have already learned most of his legendary Highland Fiddle
album by ear, so spending hours trying to figure out every flick of his fingers and bowing nuance sounds like a fantastic opportunity. A few months later, I’m in Barbara’s music room with Aonghas himself as he plays through dozens of possible tunes for the collection and points out his idiomatic bowings, grace notes and melodic variations. Barbara videotapes everything, sends me copies… and we’re off!
Eleven years later, we have finally finished the second (and last) volume of The Glengarry Collection: The Highland Fiddle Music of Aonghas Grant.
Together, the two volumes have over 350 tunes: Gaelic slow airs, pipe marches of all varieties, strathspeys, reels, jigs, puirt-à-beul (Gaelic mouth music) tunes set for the fiddle, and many of Aonghas’ own compositions. Let’s take a closer look at one tune from Volume 2, the 2/4 pipe march “Dornoch Links.” This march is the first tune Aonghas learned on the fiddle.
When making a transcription, I often started from an existing written setting. Aonghas teaches many young fiddle students and for “Dornoch Links” he had written out a straightforward version, complete with fingerings and the A major scale, for his beginners (Figure 1).
Barbara also gathered settings of each tune from other printed collections. Many of the tunes in The Glengarry Collection
are hard to find elsewhere, but not “Dornoch Links”; it has been published in Kerr’s
and in many piping books. These printed sources were useful reference points, although we always gave priority to Aonghas’ own settings (handwritten and played).
Barbara visited Aonghas regularly to record him playing and speaking about the tunes, and she videotaped nearly all of these meetings. Eventually she had nearly 100 hours of video; these were my primary sources for the transcriptions. (We later selected the “best of” these videos for the companion DVDs to The Glengarry Collection
volumes.) Aonghas played many of the tunes for Barbara on multiple occasions, meaning that for some tunes we had four or five different video performances spanning a decade. I usually picked one performance as the basis for each transcription, but sometimes took melodic variants from the other performances.
Aonghas played “Dornoch Links” twice on the tapes. I decided to use his August 2003 performance: two gutsy rounds full of grace notes, followed by a discussion and demonstration of his lightening-quick third-finger flicks. Although he had played the tune AABB AABB on the tape, with slight differences in each A and B, the book would only include one setting of each part. Aonghas’ playing had an extra energy and drive in the second round so I decided to transcribe the last A and the second-to-last B (AABB AABB); I usually chose consecutive parts in order to keep the feel of a single performance and, more practically, so that the bowings would align.
Most of Aonghas’ grace notes for this performance of “Dornoch Links” were quick percussive flicks with the third (occasionally fourth) finger or single-note ornaments preceding the melody note. At the beginning of the B part, however, he added a quick F# after the first long A in the melody. This sounds something like a dotted-eighth-note A plus a sixteenth-note F#, except that the F# is extremely short.
In the fourth bar, Aonghas used an ornament that I’ve come to think of as a hallmark of his playing: the simultaneous playing of a flick with his fingering hand and a snap with his bow arm. The resulting effect can sound similar to a birl. I’ve taken to calling this a “flick plus snap” (Aonghas himself doesn’t have a name for it) and I notate it like this (Figure 2):
For the final transcription, I put all of these grace notes together and added in Aonghas’ bowings and open-string double-stops.
In our visits with Aonghas, Barbara and I loved discovering the many connections between his music and the local geography and history of the West Highlands. Barbara transcribed many of Aonghas’ stories and commentary on the tunes and included those in the collection. For “Dornoch Links,” we have Aonghas’ memories of learning the tune from his uncle and his thoughts on playing pipe tunes on the fiddle.
In May 2013, Barbara and I flew to Scotland to look over a near-final draft of Volume 2 with Aonghas. He offered a few corrections to the transcriptions and the texts and by the fall we had a final product (Figure 3).
Not all of the transcriptions were this straightforward. The slower tunes could be especially difficult: on the Gaelic airs, for instance, Aonghas often lengthens some notes and shortens others to follows the shape of the melody, but he usually preferred that we write the tunes in a regular meter (i.e., 3/4 throughout, rather than a mix of 3/4 and 2/4 bars). Like so many great fiddlers, Aonghas rarely plays a tune exactly the same twice and we had many conversations about what was the melody and what was a variant.
In the end, most of the transcriptions reflect not just one videotaped performance, but rather a combination of sources: our video and audio recordings, Aonghas’ two commercial recordings (Highland Fiddle
and The Hills of Glengarry
), his handwritten settings of the tune, other printed settings (for instance, in piping books), and most importantly, our ongoing conversations with him. We hope you enjoy the result!